Roadburn Festival 2011 – Day 1

Tilburg, The Netherlands 14/04/2011

So here I am….I finally made it to Roadburn! Flying into Amsterdam the day before it all kicked off, the sense of excitement was palpable. Who would I get to see? Who would surprise me? Who would be a let-down? Well, read on….

I decided to head to the Midi Theatre, just around the corner from the main venue – the 013 – after having picked up my guest/press wristband, in order to see The Kilimanjaro Darkjazz Ensemble, whom I recently reviewed for this very website.

Since the weather outside was so pleasant and sunny, the band had opted to play with very subdued lighting, in order to help conjure up some moody late-night ambience to match their music. It worked a treat. Dark, mean and sultry, the band slithered out deep shuddering slabs of bass, splintered, almost atonal, piano and Chet Baker-esque sobbing trumpet lines, accompanied by a back projected movie with a definite hazy urban-noir quality. A disembodied female vocalist spilled out booze-soaked blues atop the audio collage, chilling the hearts of all present, making us all forget that outside all was sunny and bright.

An inspired choice for an opening act, as the laid-back doom and gloom purveyed by TKDE was exactly what was needed to ease us into the spirit of the festival.

Roadburn Festival 2011

Cutting the set short, I headed back to the 013 in hopes of catching some of Quest For Fire. Sadly, I was denied due to the band playing in the ‘Bat cave’, a tiny room right at the top of the 013 that holds a very small amount of people. The room was RAMMED, with a good many people standing outside too. A shame, as I’d been really enjoying their latest album, but there were plenty more fish in the sea, so to speak!

I managed to catch the tail-end of Year Of No Light’s set on my way back over to see the wonderful, and highly divisive, Ghost and mighty fine sounding it was! They do the majestic Neurosis-inspired epic post-sludge thing very well indeed, and I heard a great many good things about their live ‘Vampyr’ soundtrack accompaniment the following afternoon too. Another casualty of timing clashes I’m afraid.

Ghost were simply sublime – effortlessly theatrical, musically rock-solid and just a little bit camp, basically everything you could want from a band such as this. The five mysterious musicians in the band were attired in leather-trimmed inquisitorial robes with blacked-out faces, and the equally mysterious front-ghoul was bedecked in sparkling bishop’s robes and mitre adorned with the Ghost logo, containing as it does an inverted cross, his by now traditional skull-face mask and swinging an incense-emitting thurible to and fro. It was quite a sight to behold.

Swapping grand theatrical gestures for traditional intros and between-songs talk, the front-ghoul was an entrancing presence, swaying and sashaying around the stage, interacting with the frontline of the band and generally filling the room with sheer PRESENCE. Musically, we were treated to near-flawless renditions of the entire ‘Opus Eponymous’ album, with ‘Elizabeth’, ‘Ritual’ and the closing guitar harmonies of ‘Genesis’ being personal highlights, although mass headbanging ensued when ‘Prime Mover’ kicked in too.

I really do think that people who are dismissive of Ghost as being nothing more than gimmickry owe it to themselves to see them live, as their ‘Blue-Oyster-Cult-plays-Mercyful-Fate’ sound really cuts through in the live environment and when welded to the theatrical aspect makes for one hell of a good show!

A hop, a skip and a jump back to the 013 and I briefly managed to catch the last 15 minutes of Winterfylleth’s set, which sounded blistering despite their worries, later revealed to me, that their drum-trigger unit had been forgotten. It mattered not, they sounded as fierce as ever.

Next up were Wovenhand, a band high on my ‘must-see’ list.

The musical and spiritual vehicle of David Eugene Edwards, late of alt-country band 16 Horsepower, Wovenhand are a thoroughly entrancing and riveting proposition. Currently a trio of drums, keyboards/percussion, and Edwards on guitar and vocals, it soon becomes apparent that once seen, the eyes never leave Edwards.

His divergent family backgrounds of Native American Cherokee and serious fire ‘n’ brimstone Nazarene Christianity have found full flower in Edwards as his between-song banter is almost exclusively in Cherokee, and his bravado is that of a fully fledged Cherokee brave – performing mocking displays of masculinity, offering to take the entire crowd on and posturing with his big ol’ Gretsch geetar – but his burning passion and intensity seem to come from one possessed by religious fervour. He still favours the denim of the alt-country outlaw, but there are feathers in his hair and a Native American choker at his throat. This conflict spills out of him into his music and into his stage persona – violently attacking his double microphone stand and then dismissing it with a shrug and affected wave of the hand – he seethes and from out of him pours this wonderful, wonderful music.

Part Eastern, part western and wholly individual, Wovenhand are seriously HEAVY. Not heavy in that ‘molten ball of lead’ way, but HEAVY, like Swans or Diamanda Galas – emotionally and spiritually HEAVY. A definite highlight for me, and for many others it would seem.

Now, I’m gonna be controversial here. Next up I had the choice between watching Pentagram, Today Is The Day, Cough and Earth, so I chose…….Today Is The Day.

Apologies to all you true doomsters out there, but I have NEVER been comfortable with modern-era Pentagram, I find their lyrics toe-curlingly embarrassing, the music a little too trad for my liking, and have never really bought into the cult of Bobby Liebling. As for Cough and Earth, I recently saw Earth, and had planned on catching Cough on their own tour, soooooo Today Is The Day it was!

It’s been a while since I saw Steve Austin and the boys – both of whom are members of excellent NYC noiserock-metallers Wetnurse – and I managed to miss ’em on their own recent UK tour due to their playing locally the night before I was due to fly out, so I was pretty keen to catch up with ’em.

They didn’t disappoint. As full-on and intense as ever, a bug-eyed and shrieking Austin smashed his way through the first three tracks from ‘In The Eyes Of God’ in rapid succession, ably abetted by current drummer Curran Reynolds and bassist Ryan Jones – proud wielder of the most berserk-looking bass guitar I have clapped eyes on in quite some time, a salmon pink (?), tiger-striped BC Rich Warlock, sporting luminous yellow strings. They played a set of killers spanning all eras of the band and threw in a brand-new track that just SLAYED. Standing next to me in the tightly-packed crowd – it was a small room – were the ever-splendid Jamie Grimes of Drainland and his lovely missus Una, and when TITD ploughed into the frankly obscene guitarless ‘Pinnacle’, Mr Grimes leaned in and told me that THIS was ‘their’ song. That says it all really. A blinding set of full-blown aural perversion.

Following that, on the main stage, was the long-awaited, by some, Godflesh set in which they played ‘Streetcleaner’ in its entirety, in track order and including the ‘Tiny Tears’ EP. Having seen Godflesh a number of times over the years, and having actually seen ’em on the ‘Streetcleaner’ tour, playing with Loop and World Domination Enterprises, I was more than a little apprehensive as they were always a very hit and miss live band. Tonight was no exception, landing squarely in the ‘miss’ section.

An inappropriate cod-classical intro, fluffed opening lines to half the songs and the fact that Broadrick had taken the frankly puzzling route of processing EVERYTHING through his laptop meant that the entire set came across as shoddy and half-assed. Occasional rises above the mire, such as grinding versions of ‘Christbait Rising’ and ‘Pulp’, did nothing to salvage the set as a whole.

Dispensing with the vocal harmonizer that makes the vocals on ‘Streetcleaner’ so inhuman and overpowering for most of the set meant that Broadrick’s erratic voice wasn’t quite up to par, samples were missing from ‘Devestator/Mighty Trust Krusher’ and ‘Locust Furnace’, and the vocal doubling effect running on the laptop was too loud and out of synch. The biggest disappointment to me was that in processing the guitars, and possibly the bass too, via the laptop, the sound coming out was horribly flat and completely lacking in midrange. All the vital feedback was processed-sounding and utterly lacking in dynamic response. I know he uses a floor-based POD unit for Jesu, but for Godflesh, the rough edge is VITAL, so such a device is totally unsuitable. Back in the day, Broadrick simply plugged a strat into a Marshall stack and added a touch of delay, I advise he goes back to that if he attempts this again.

I made it through as far as ‘Locust Furnace’ but couldn’t face the ‘Tiny Tears’ material. Being told later how fantastic Wardruna had been across in the Midi theatre at the same time did nothing to cheer me up either. Ah well, c’est la vie!

A few wee drinks later and I headed back to the smaller Green Room of the 013 to see Count Raven. Sadly, so did every other bugger and I had to make do with watching their excellent set from in the doorway, craning over the heads of people much taller than I. From my vantage point, their majestic doom sounded just splendid, although the vocals were a little weak in a live setting.

Just across the hallway, Soilent Green were playing on the main stage, so I ducked in to catch the rest of their set. Having never seen Soilent Green live before, and being a fan of their earlier recordings, I wondered how they would come across in a live environment. Amazingly underwhelming, as it turned out. Only vocalist Ben Falgoust really connected with the crowd, seeing as how the other band members were left more or less rooted to the spot navigating the shifting rhythms of their music.

Falgoust’s engaging metalhead presence, furious headbanging and air-guitaring may have been entertaining to watch, but frankly that was the ONLY entertainment onstage during SG’s set. I have no idea why this band is so popular, outside of the Eyehategod connection, or why they were closing the night on the main stage instead of the, in my opinion, far more suitable Count Raven, tucked away in a jam-packed smaller room across the way.

Soilent Green’s music is incredibly one-dimensional, considering how much complexity and rhythmic shifting there is in it. It comes across as one completely flat expanse of tricksy riffage with no peaks or troughs or attempt at dynamics whatsoever. As I said, Falgoust is an engaging enough frontman, but vocally he’s a little too close to Phil Anselmo territory for my liking these days.

So, there you have it, a slightly flat ending to my first day at my first Roadburn, BUT, there are still two and a half more days to go yet, with PLENTY to look forward to…

Scribed by: Paul Robertson