For 20 years now, Tilburg’s Roadburn has been a heartbeat for underground music. This year’s Roadburn, unfortunately, starts for me on Friday night (I massively missed out on Cult of Luna with Julie Christmas and Ex Eye who played on Thu). Being late for this magical celebration of underground music does not make my experience any less vivid or powerful. Roadburn is a festival that is loyal to metal, yet adventurous enough to please my eclectic taste. My highlights of the festival are artists that cannot be pigeonholed.
I swim through the crowd to see Birmingham’s industrial metal band Godflesh. Together with G.C. Green, Justin K. Broadrick (JK Flesh) has been pioneering the genre of industrial metal since 1988. Tonight, however, the duo sounds Jesu-esque - relentless drum machine is overshadowed by eerie melodies and clean singing by Justin.
Next are Igorrr, a truly unique ‘death metal meets opera’ band from France. Laure Le Prunenec’s operatic singing and guttural screaming is interspersed with the elements of breakcore. It’s my first time seeing the band live, and I have to admit there are moments I am left confused. Igorrr do not follow the rules. They combine incredible electronic works with baroque and a million other things. Igorrr music is phenomenal as it stands, you like it or not.
Saturday brings some slow-cooking riffs of Bell Witch. In 2016 the band was confronted with a tragedy as the drummer-vocalist Adrian Guerra passed away. The band’s newest album ‘Mirror Reaper’ is a living tribute to Guerra. Bell Witch told to Noisey that the album ‘is about something that is in the grey area between death and life. Its body is dying, but it is still conscious.’ Soaked in grief, haunting and morbid, Bell Witch is an aching beauty.
Hugsjá from Norway deliver Nordic poetry. I immediately think of Solstafir, for that gorgeous lifting melodies and catchy grooves breathe the atmosphere of the Nordic countries. The Norse word ‘hugsjá’ is translated as ‘to remember’, or ‘to see in the mind’. The project of Ivar Bjørnson (Enslaved) and Einar Selvik (Wardruna) sonically depicts Norwegian coastal culture and Norse history. Einar Selvik finds time to tell us stories behind the songs that eloquently incorporate pagan instruments with sophisticated synthesisers.
Boris join forces with Stephen O’Malley. It’s not the first Sunn O))) team-up with Boris. In 2006 both bands released Altar LP. In 2013 Stephen O’Malley met with Michio Kurihara and Atsuo for Ensemble Pearl. The first 15 minutes slowly move from one chord to another. A perpetual drift, heavily amplified and resonating through our chests. Few sinister solos float the space gracefully.
Playing for 24 years now, Godspeed You! Black Emperor from Quebec have secured their place as one of the most influential and extraordinary post-rock/experimental rock bands. Likened to Swans and Mogwai, GY!BE invite Mette Rasmussen on stage. The Danish saxophonist has been opening for the band in 2017 and early 2018 and now deservedly makes her appearance alongside the legendary rock outfit. The flickering screen projects a word that stays with me for the rest of the night, - ‘hope’. Indeed, GY!BE bring back hope and belief in human talent and creativity.
Saturday night closes for me with The Body x Thou. The Body is one of the most productive American experimental metal bands. With 7 studio albums, 4 collaborative albums, numerous EPs and splits, The Body is turning metal on its head. I am fascinated with the live performance of the vocalist Bryan Funck (Thou). Funck’s vocals functions more than just another sonic element adding to Chip King’s high pitched squeals. Funck is as persuasive and confident as J. Bannon (Converge), the curator of Roadburn 2018.
Lazy Sunday offers Wrekmeister Harmonies for breakfast. Soothing acoustic passages hold a hint of blues. Piano passages and meditative violin present new angles of doom metal. By wondering in the realms of folk and gothic churn, Wrekmeister Harmonies make the obscure accessible. Song constructions feel so complete; they reach into soulfulness and emotional density.
Next I go to see Zonal with Moor Mother, one of my favourite collabs of the 2018 edition. The British producers Kevin Martin (aka The Bug) and Justin Broadrick (JK FLESH) felt there was some unfinished business with Techno Animal and returned as Zonal. Zonal feels immensely fresh though. Having Moor Mother on stage adds the anger of punk. Ayewa Camae tells stories that cannot be forgotten. Her powerful words take control over the audience that is already drowning in The Bug’s merciless bass tunes. Visceral!
Roadburn is a brilliant festival for many reasons. One of them is that some bands are selected to play twice. Godspeed You! Black Emperor return on stage to perform their older records. If Saturday’s performance was hopeful, tonight is dramatic. The visual imagery of civil disobedience reminds us about their anarchist origins. The intensity is built up from string arrangements, so immediately possessive. My heart wrenches listening to Easter Hastings… How can music touch so deeply?
An antidote to melancholy is GosT. GosT is hiding his identity under a mask but guessing from his perfect death metal growls GosT has extensive experience within metal. Genre-wise GosT is hard to pigeonhole. The 70s, 80s synths, synthwave with metal guitars and growling… Sounds bizarre?! Well, let me assure you, GosT is very danceable and entertaining! A metal aesthetic is enhanced by an extra person on stage, whose role is to hold a skull in stillness throughout the performance... While the crowd is raving to dark pounding synths at full volume!
All in all, tears pouring down metalheads’ faces during GY!BE and feet jumping to GosT electronic beats show me the very reason we gather to experience underground music. We come back with new favourite bands in our heads and hearts. See you next year!