A little over two years ago, the idea of a post/math-rock festival in the middle of the English country-side meant precisely that: a line-up carefully curated to fit the delimitations of those genres. Three years along the road and death, electronica, stoner and mathcore have begun to pepper the posters. Though some purists might still prefer the narrower scope, this newly-acquired range did nothing to dilute what is fast becoming the Mecca of progressive rock, not only in the UK, but perhaps even in Europe.
Thursday August 20th
Having witnessed the exhilarating greatness of Alpha Male Tea Party (4/5) and Cleft (4/5) combined, it was crucial that I arrived early enough on the Thursday, so as to catch the inevitable magic of having those two bands segue their sets into each other. Though both sets were emphatic successes in their own right, the former unleashing their versatile anthemic math-rock before the latter’s distinctive brand of hyper-rhythmic riff bursts, something special happens every time both parties share the same stage. Last edition, the audience were treated to a tremendous Rage Against The Machine medley which, as far as I was concerned, turned out to be the festival’s highlight. On this occasion, the two bands broadened their scope and delivered something of a History of Rock through Riffs .
Though AK/DK (3.5/5) had done very little for me last time out, their off-kilter, half-improvised power-synth set perhaps a little too lavish in its craziness, I can happily confirm I “got it” this time: unruly, spontaneous, uninhibited, and all the other synonyms that have to do with not toeing conventional lines. They were followed by Mylets (3/5) who has succeeded in turn the “music nerd jamming with his guitar and pedals in his room” into something you’re not actively going to avoid at a festival. You might rue the lack of punch afforded by a full-blown band, but then he’ll crack out ’Arizona and rue you shall no more.
The day then took on an international turn as both the continental Mutiny On The Bounty (3/5) and Japan’s LITE (3.5/5) took to the stage in quick succession. Both bands should need no introduction, having built solid reputations in the math-rock community. Yet as a thick fog submerged the festival, I discovered them anew. The ghostly atmosphere and a couple of drinks helping, I discovered the inherent danceability of these two acts. Accompanied by a handful of cheerful french people (donning Moroccan headwear and kilts), we indulged in an unlikely rave to the bands’ outlandish rhythms.
With these newly-acquired companions, we headed to 65daysofstatic (3.5/5), knowing our improvised dance moves would find a home there. 65dos are one of those bands who can bathe you with their sound, like a warm blanket wrapped the audience. There’s an experiment I like to do at festivals, I’ll close my eyes and try to imagine I’m alone in the middle of this field with whatever band is playing. Sometime it works, and it’s a chilling experience I treasure. Here, my little experience failed, but only because I could feel the warmth of the people around me, shuffling their bodies in something like tired contemplation. Sleeping on a thin mattress with no cushion never felt easier after that, and I was ready for an eclectic Saturday.
Friday August 21st
Some like proggy post-metal to wake up on a Friday, I prefer oddly-shaped, mathy pop songs with a twist of emo, which is why I preferred Juffage (3/5) to Tacoma Narrows Bridge Disaster. I have to hand it to the guy, that set was one of the more unusual ways to enjoy my breakfast. Unwieldy at times, his music nevertheless has a mesmerizing quality, which brought to mind the sinuous-quality of Hop Along. I lumbered tiredly towards the Bixler stage, in the hope of finding something a little on the safer side. I was surprised to find Cousin (2.5/5), a band whose latest EP I’d forgotten I’d reviewed prior. Their brand of post-rock is solid, but there’s a timidity to their live set that struggles to do them any justice.
At this point, I disappeared for a couple of interviews only to come back to the news that: “Trojan Horse were insane, in the clinical sense” and that “Body Hound made me rethink my life”. Business as usual for ArcTanGent then.
I did however manage to catch the end of Valerian Swing’s (3/5) energetic set of anthemic math-rock, made all the better at their visibly overjoyed faces (confirmed by a sweet story about the time when Dillinger Escape Plan played their small town in northern Italy). A swift turn by way of the PX3 stage brought me to the quirky indie-math of Quadrilles (3.5/5) , whom I felt I’d known forever, and yet was surprised at how few of the songs I knew. A shame in fact, as their set was something of a mini delight.
The stormy folk of Her Name Is Calla (3.5/5) proved a small breath of fresh air, their sweet harmonies and heart-wrenching strings the closest thing I got to tears since Mono last time out. Nothing, though, could have prepared me for this year’s best surprise (a title I awarded Cleft a year ago). Though I was aware of the strength of their recent LP, I didn’t expect Delta Sleep (4.5/5) to conduct quite such a masterclass on stage. The crowd reaction to foursome (fawesome?) was perhaps one of the best at the fest, thanks to a set of incredibly tight musicianship, fraught with angles, twist and turns, but also a genuine emotional punch. In its most glorious moments, the audience shaked their awed torpor to wreck their throats yelling the band’s lyrics straight back at them.
The festival was home to a second very special occasion straight after the set when Maybeshewill (4/5) took to the stage alongside a number of additional musicians playing a selection of strings and horns. Though they’d played with one or the other on previous occasions, never had they assembled the whole set on stage before. As a result, songs off their most recent album ’Fair Youth’ featured heavily on the setlist, which shouldn’t come as a surprise since the focus of that record shifted from guitars to something a little more orchestral. Though this meant that some of the fan-favourites went amiss, the augmented outfit brought an elegant weight to the whole affair, and made for a truly unique experience on the night.
The night then went very much as expected. CHON (3.5/5) blew every mind on the field with the sheer technical intensity of their music, before Fall Of Troy (2.5/5) tugged at everybody’s nostalgia strings but little else. Vennart’s (3/5) modus operandi was strikingly similar, with the exception that his new tracks did elicit a reaction from the crowd (most notably during single Operate, which kicked-off a fairly impressive sing-along).
As much as I enjoyed these few sets, the thought of catching Dillinger Escape Plan (4/5) later couldn’t help but overshadow everything else. Truly, one should not underestimate the powerhouse DEP are. The atmosphere crackled with passionate ferocity, riffs rapidly seguing into one another in a deafening wall of sound. A lot of fun was had at the expense of people trying to headbang to the band’s signature labyrinthine style, as they stopped mid-swing to try and decipher the new rhythm. Certainly I’ve rarely enjoyed myself as much being confused. Surely that’s worth something.
Saturday August 22nd
Saturday was an odd day. I undoubtedly felt the toll of the previous night’s late silent disco (the closing ’A Thousand Miles certainly the reason for my voice’s absence in the morning), and the schedule had mysteriously changed overnight, which thankfully led to some unexpected surprises.
I lumbered out of my tent and walked up to the Bixler tent, ready to lie down in the sunlight and gorge in some mathy goodness. Polymath (3.5/5) would not allow me to nap, but they did ensure I caught every twist and turn of their really rather fantastic set. Half-extinguished, assuming I was about to catch Black Peaks, I headed to the Main Stage, unaware of said schedule change. Again, I was kept awake by 100 Onces (4/5), a band I had not planned on seeing, which is a mistake I’m not likely to make again. The raucous duo truly got everybody pumped-up for the rest of the day thanks to their brand of charged-up minimalist math-rock.
Having been deprived not once, but twice, of a lovely outdoor nap, my body finally threw in the towel and left me to snore through both Black Peaks and Flood of Red, which it turned out had pulled out anyway. No one was going to catch me asleep during Axes (3.5/5) however, and those delightful pop-proggers ensured I wouldn’t come to regret that decision. Every catchy riff, every twinkly lick, and every beat hit home, as is ever the case with the quintet.
The main stage was again graced with one of UK’s better post-rock acts when Talons (4/5) took to the stage and delivered the highly-textured atmospherics of their most recent album just as well as the string-laden riffage of their first. Their new sound involves considerably thicker tones, seemingly alive with a myriad noises, infecting the air like an ungodly swarm. Needless to say, it works magic on the live stage.
The day went gently went ahead. Young Legionnaire (2/5) and pg.lost (2.5/5) came and went, Tangled Hair (3/5) made up for their pulling-out of last year with a cracking set of twiddly math goodness. Then along came Deerhoof (3.5/5), whose set I largely spent gawping at the genuine genius of their drummer. Sure enough, they’re an eminently entertaining band, from angular guitars to the almost cringe-worthy high-pitch of the vocalist, they played to the crowd with utmost precision, but I could not, for the life of me, focus on anything other than that insane drumming. None of it had struck me when I’d listened to their albums, but it really comes into relief when they play live. If you have the chance–especially if you’re in any way enthusiastic about drums–it would be a crime not to catch them at some point.
I met up with my oddball group of French fellows who had decided to bring their infectious brand of festival-going to The Algorithm’s (3/5) set. Their hybrid style of mathy trance-core proved fertile ground for going batshit crazy in the crowd. On its own, the music feels like little more than a gimmick. Played live however, it possesses the kind of live energy that’ll transform the most lethargic audience into a pulsating maelström, which, in my book, is a good enough reason to have them play at a festival like this one.
My electronic voyage into ArcTanGent resumed as I made my way to Vessels (3.5/5) at the first sign of night. Sitting in the grass, I swayed to the soothing, chilled-out pulse of the beats. Coolness infiltrating the air, the show started to feel like calm before the storm, the band’s danceable tranquility a deceptive prelude to the violent tempest that is Deafheaven (4/5). Brutal, expansive, emotional, epic, sweeping, crushing, whatever you want to call them, the American post-death (?) band brought the festival to a cracking end, their morose soundscapes a perfect note on which to end ArcTanGent, a festival you miss a soon as it ends.
Words by James Berclaz-Lewis (@bearclawlewis)