No sleep till Roadburn. This wasn’t just a four day gig (which it kind of was), it was a road movie…that was never filmed. An epic drive courtesy of your ever grafting editor in one damn fine Transit camper van. All I did was navigate, badly. Shaman reviewer Paul ‘Robbo’ Robertson was an ever present force in the back; as we discovered a genuine physiological curiosity with his sinister iron bladder. So we embarked around 8pm from the Manchester area and drove like Roy Orbison through the night to make the Dover ferry at 4am. The ferry was basically the cheap set of a post-apocalyptic zombie-virus flick, awash with snoozing itinerants, dark and silent like a mobile mortuary. Dunkerque proved an unexpected source of confusion; the way out of the terminal and onto the road to Belgium about as clear as a letter from the inland revenue. After mucho wrong turns we hit the highway out of France and into the immaculate football pitch-like fields that constitute the Belgian landscape. Eventually, some six hours later (and still Paul hadn’t pissed), we were following signs for the Beekse Bergen campsite. The Sleeping Shaman had arrived – and we were tired and wanted a lie-down and a warm drink. Alas, rock ‘n’ roll waits for no man, so after erecting our equipment, we farted our shuffling corpse-like forms onto the shuttle bus and hit the O13 venue like the crazy metal muthafuckers that we are.
I managed to wedge myself in like a flesh barnacle at the entrance of the rather claustrophobic Green Room in time to see the superbly hellish Saturnalia Temple lurch and lollop through an entrancing set of what I like to call magic mushroom doom. Indeed this band are positively drenched in lysergic acid – it covers their hirsute Swedish craniums like ectoplasm and oozes out of every slow dark shimmering chord. Imagine my utter thrill as they started up proceedings with the shuddering and jarring doom masterpiece that is ‘Aion of Drakon’ and continued to plough through fertile doom territory with such impressive aplomb as to cast doubt upon ‘Dopethrone’-era Wizard as the true historical standard bearers of tritonal trippery. Delicious slow stuff for a room full of heads eager to suckle at the swollen teat of sonic misery. ST’s otherworldly quality on record transposed perfectly to the live stage and I was left hoping that this misanthropic trio would visit Albion at some point in the near future.
The main stage hall started to pack out in anticipation of the noble Om, who strode on to the days first real whoops of excitement. Al Cisneros was to become one of the prominent figures of the festival, a wonderfully moping fridge-sized troll who wielded his Rickenbacker bass like he was given it to pluck since birth. Om effortlessly looped and weaved along fluid Semitic bass lines and snaking percussion, pleasing the many with their trademark meditations upon biblical mythology and the spiritual qualities of hashish intoxication. How could one resist this heady potpourri of stoned and mystic indolence? Al’s insidiously humming bass would at points transform into a huge riff, activated with one push of his slothful foot onto the pedal. The simplicity and repetition of his seductive bass lines, whether clean or distorted, forms the core of Om’s strength and draws those who want to listen in like acolytes to the high priest of a long dead creed. Such is the power of Om – a musical and lyrical concept devised by this titan of four string strategy; a concept that distils the essence of the mighty Sleep and pours it through a filter of desert baked quasi-minimalism. Needless to say I gawped like a bug-eyed zomboid, wide-eyed and wide-eared, through the whole damn tasty set.
Nachtmystium, just like Wolves In The Throne Room, imagine America to be Norway, and the great forests there to be their Scandinavian realm of supernatural nourishment. This is not a criticism, as I found their performance of their 2006 album ‘Instinct: Decay’ to be more than moderately enjoyable. Thundering drums and atmospheric meanderings of keyboard and guitars all meshed together in one black metallised take on progressive rock that slightly diminished my attention as the performance wore on. A good show, but maybe one precisely reserved for the Nachtmystium disciple, whose numbers I certainly did not figure amongst.
Making myself as comfortable as I possibly could in the physiological sandwich filling that is deemed to be Stage 01, I braced myself for a super-heavy trio that have seen the kind of bewildering upward trajectory in the last couple of years that even rivals the good old ‘pop charts’ for out-of-nowhere success. Not that this is any way a ‘flash in the pan’, oh no Sir, for Jon Davis and his bludgeoning rhythm section, aka Conan, have grafted hard like sweating Dockers in the pubs and clubs of Blighty, labouring over their craft solidly and with the steely determination that one might attribute to the horned warrior who features in their fantastic art. The band were in obviously ebullient form, stoked at playing this legendary festival and also being asked to join Sleep in Oslo, as selections from the new and monstrous ‘Monnos’ were intermingled with the huge and bulldozing force of classics like ‘Krull’ and ‘Older Than Earth’. Jon’s instantly likeable faraway vocals have never sounded more realised to these ears, and the audience were massively appreciative of Conan’s true wallop as the Stonehenge of amps that framed the band belched out universe-sized slices of ultra low-end hostility. A special mention too for Paul O’Neil’s expert drumming which represents the kind of versatility and intelligence that one would not usually expect with this most primal of genres, truly adding colour to the palette. By the end of the set I had cunningly worked my way into the centre of the room and believe me I was not regretful of the deoxygenated crush of Stage 01 – Conan had finally arrived on the international stage like the great wrecking ball that they have always been and I needed to be there to witness their special Roadburn moment. I toast thee lads – you are truly monolithic.
How buzzing was I as I leant against the metal railings of the middle deck of the main stage awaiting Mike Scheidt and his magic guitar. With the added crackle of some dope and beer I imagined how the first bars of ‘Quantum Mystic’ might sound unleashed upon the ravenous hordes now gathered before the big stage slavering in anticipation. Within minutes those imaginings were made real and magnified a thousand fold – ask anyone who went – Yob were the fucking emperors of the weekend. ‘The Unreal Never Lived’ played in its magnificent entirety by one of the greatest contemporary heavy bands on the face of the planet was the kind of experience that living was made for. Yob were righteous in their splendid art – a trio of such sonic magnitude and perfectly realised progression that they shone out like a swollen sun, bathing the Roadburn congregation in the dazzling light of ultimate superdoomprog. You know the sequence – ‘Quantum Mystic’; ‘Grasping Air’; ‘Kosmos’ and ‘The Mental Tyrant’. Plus a new number that filled the 10 minute vacuum at the end of the set and reassured us all that when the new album arrives it will be as special as ever. Mike Scheidt played like this was the last gig on earth before absolute destruction by an evil insect race from Proxima Centauri – his fingers slid and gripped with dexterous dazzle up and down his fretboard whilst the drummer whacked the fuck out of his kit like he had a grudge against eardrums. Yob manage to sound like no other band. Many millennia after they are dead their recordings will be found amongst the ruins and new cults will resurrect Easter Island sized statues of Mike Scheidt facing out to sea. An indispensable performance to crown an indispensable festival.
After the delectably excellent psychoactive rhythms of the vastly improved Gnod, the oldies and the newies and the just plain curious assembled to hear mighty soap-dodgers Doom decimate the festival vibe with a hefty punk wedge of 1980s vitriol. I didn’t quite feel the urgent compulsion to attend, having seen Doom many times as a teenager growing up in the midlands. I’m glad I did though. The brooding introduction – the remarkably hypnotic ‘Reality Asylum’ by Crass – succeeding in setting the scene for those of us familiar with our most valuable cultural history. Then Doom were on amidst roars of glee and ripping into one of my favourites off the hallowed ‘War Crimes’ album – ‘Fear of the Future’. What a merry melee this was as the four crusty troubadours charged through a blistering selection of classics mainly culled from the aforementioned mega-album. Incidentally, like many folk at Roadburn, that album changed my life in some not-so-small way. By taking the ominous power of Black Sabbath’s tritone shift and melding this with what Discharge and then Anti-Cimex were doing with the punk rock blueprint, Doom kind of invented a whole genre of music that combined the best qualities of both heavy metal and punk rock. Fitting indeed that they now appeared before a deeply appreciative international post-metal crowd, bizarrely in the old church annex surroundings of the lovely Het Patronaat venue. I’d almost forgotten too that Doom covered ‘Symptom of the Universe’ (a move that cemented the punk-to-metal Birmingham connection) for John Peel as they launched into it’s memorable uber-riff with the urgency and anger of a band spawned in the clamorous anarcho scene of Thatcher’s grim and grey Britain. Lee made the wise move of not chancing any photos down the front – it’s a telling sign of Doom’s impact to indicate that his camera could well have been wrapped around his head in the raging punk scrum that had whipped up in front of the stage. This was a band who were spawned in the dying days of the old punk wars and yet could still blow our brains out 25 years later. Righteous crust fury.
Afternoon on the main stage and infamous Japanese heavy rock supremos Church of Misery blasted into their trademark serial killer blues like rampaging pig-dogs on heat. Within minutes of tearing through ‘El Padrino’ ace bassist Tatsu Mikami (the Japanese Geezer Butler) experienced a complete loss of sound from his amp. The problem was not-so-quickly rectified, yet mere minutes later the second amp cut out and the jittery sound men came scuttling back whilst the rest of the band jammed on. This micro-farce undoubtedly stole some power away from the performance, and having seen these devilish fuckers a few times before, I’m afraid this hugely important show didn’t figure amongst their best. They were good and tight and rocked hard, particularly on the tub-thumping shock ‘n’ roll mayhem of ‘Born To Raise Hell’, but for me that edge of manic brilliance that often characterises Church of Misery’s sound was mostly absent. Maybe the new vocalist just didn’t quite cut it like the last scary-faced maniac did. However, Tom ‘Satan’ Sutton just about managed to steal the show with his searing white-hot fret runs – a real fucking axe hero for all the headbangers down the front.
Pelican were predictably underwhelming. I hadn’t spoken to anyone over the weekend who was actually looking forward to their carefully constructed and subtly cerebral instrumental post-rock. In their own right Pelican are a very significant band, particularly within the aforementioned post-rock genre, but in the context of Roadburn they struggled to make a lasting impression. The mighty Bongripper would later show how instrumental rock can have a very different effect than the rather lame plop of the four Pelicans that were going through the motions at this particular point.
Similar to Pelican, The Obsessed, who played on the main stage afterwards, also struggled to really have an impact that was in any way comparable to a ‘great gig’, and similar to Pelican, also delivered an ambiguous and uninspired performance that was more than a little shadowed by jaded self-doubt. Many will disagree with me there, but they have no objectivity as they are rabid Wino fans anyway.
If there was one act appearing this Roadburn that could be defined as top of the bill then Sleep were it. After splitting up in the late nineties and heading off into Om and High On Fire, these legendary legends of the heavy scene have begun to play again sporadically in the last few years, albeit with Jason Roeder of Neurosis on drums instead of original drummer Chris Hakius. Once correctly described by someone as “the ultimate stoner rock band” (although Sleep were always more punk rock than any other so-called stoner outfit), Sleep’s performance was greeted by an 013 main stage packed out on all three levels by a gathered brethren baying for the sweet green sound of the ‘Dopesmoker’ riff. And we got it – in spades.
A heavily pregnant Matt Pike unleashed the first few bars of the fabled riff that is now universally recognised as a benchmark of stoner genius. You can hear it now in your head can’t you? Well I heard it from its creator on Saturday 14th April 2012 and it was better than nearly anything you can imagine. ‘Dopesmoker’ rose up and up like it was emerging from the deep; almost endlessly coiling on itself just as it does on the mythic recording; layered carefully by all three members; masses of huge and roaring evil guitar blanketing fabulous distorted bass underpinned by the dense cement base of thudding thumping drums. Was this a dream? It felt too real to be reality itself, too perfect to be happening before my very red eyes. 20-odd mind-bursting minutes of ‘Dopesmoker’ crushed synapses and ruined neurones, obviously followed by a thrilling ‘Dragonaut’ (two thousand amassed heads nodding in synchronised unison), the unrecorded but hopefully recorded soon ‘Antarcticans Thawed’ (with icy footage massively back projected), ‘From Beyond’, ‘Sonic Titan’ and finally ‘Holy Mountain’ segueing back into a massive mutant ‘Dopesmoker’ for a final rush of THC fuelled nostalgia. This new reformed band also bring with them the very finely honed skills and artistry of a Cisneros and Pike who have continued to develop as master musicians in their own respective post-Sleep projects. I’m sure a few seasoned posers out there like to grumble that Sleep reforming represents a kind of vulgar stoner rock populism that they’re too cool to be part of but these people are just fucking wrong. Sleep were absolutely the best thing ever. I pray to Crom that Burning World release this live.
I thought Electric Orange would be pretty good and they were. Brandishing the flag of real living Krautrock, this studied little psychedelic Euro-band proceeded to entertain a weary and hungover crowd in the seemingly tiny Green Room for what seemed like lovely aeons. Looping bass lines of humming dub, effects drenched guitar and crisp clean drumming ensured that we felt temporarily revitalised and uplifted for the last day of riffs and spliffs and later camping in the freezing cold of a wonderfully mellow and inexplicably bizarre safari park (complete with some goats – presumably retired ex-Bathory models) on the wooded outskirts of Tilburg.
On the main stage, Bongripper performing all of the beautiful ‘Satan Worshipping Doom’ album proved to be a revelation for most at the festival. Massively framed by the enormous and intricate cover art, the four silent Chicagoans seemed to teach us all a lesson in how to deliver the heaviest and most atmospheric of music using just stringed instruments, drums and electricity. No head was left un-nodded in the 013 building as they blew away most of the competition with such furiously focussed cyclopean riffing that a crack nearly appeared in the Dutch sea walls 60 miles to the west. One hour of faultless instrumental rock. I felt hugely privileged. To quote any young American – ‘fucking awesome’.
Mike Scheidt strutted on to a Roadburn stage for his third and final time to perform the entirety of ‘Catharsis’ for all the lucky Afterburners. Yob were again an astounding triumph – they indeed represent all that is great about this music that we listen to. The heaviest and most brutal of rock dynamism spliced with a knowing post-hardcore suss and shaped into 10 – 20 minute songs that are quite unlike anything else out there. This is the unique sound of his increasingly loved and appreciated band and it is the sound that I think most Roadburners would vote for as the most successful act of the festival. If such a thing exists, then in the last couple of years Yob have come to represent the living breathing spirit of this special festival – their unbelievably precise yet expansive music embodies both the most crushing power of heavy metal at it’s sheer heaviest with the most psychedelic of compositional subtlety. ‘Catharsis’ was of course sublime, timeless in its power and effect, like all of Yob’s music.
It transpired that Black Cobra were an exceedingly astute choice for a closing band. The two black wrapped imps that comprise the world’s most entertaining heavy band represent a physical force that merits scientific investigation. Drawing on a set mainly based on their newish album ‘Invernal’, BC pummelled the knackered audience like an evil maladjusted boxer. They were simply…fucking breathtaking. A double whirling dervish assault of attention deficit riffing and the kind of drumming that would be illegal in any Christian theocracy for fear of demonic invocation, BC spread opened the muscular thighs of rock power and showered the faithful with white hot gobs of sonic love juice. Dizzying time changes and deep-down mean-man vocals entwined with laser precise octopoid percussion from another dimension – this is the Cobra sound that wins hands down in any live situation time after time after time. A bassist wouldn’t just simply disrupt the dynamic chemistry concocted by Rafael and Jason – I don’t think he or she would be able to even catch them up. I tell thee, what a superb way to finish off. Heavy as the earth and as satisfying as a crafty wank in an empty dentist’s waiting room – Black Cobra simply made sense as the band that played out the world’s greatest music festival.
So there you go. It really is the greatest show on earth. Unless you don’t like loud heavy mind-expanding music. Incidentally, if you don’t, why the fuck are you reading this? Go away. Anyway, to rightfully echo many bands over the weekend, thanks to Jurgen and Walter. These men are awe-inspiring. The immensity of this whole logistical operation is brain-boggling. Surely it must be easier to plan and carry out a war. Why is RB so special? Well, obviously the music reaches orgasmic proportions of artistic excellence. That tends to help. The venue is great. Tilburg is…’nice’. Also the vibe. That ‘Dutch vibe’. That vibe that comes in the form of the social and cultural acceptance of green buds dropped into funnels of paper and then burned and inhaled. It all adds up, fries and mayonnaise included, to the kind of experience that involves you getting lost in the freezing dark of the campsite for well over a hour, ambling around in a disorientated haze, following other gibbering idiots who are just as confused as you. Experiences like that are priceless.
Scribed by: Adam Stone
Photos by: Lee Edwards