I flew, took the wrong trains several times, rocked, ate, drank, slept, rocked some more, got lost some more, and had a great time at the 2016 Roadburn Festival in Tilburg, Netherlands.
It’s been a long road to Roadburn. I’d had my eye on the festival, which had humble beginnings in 1999, after it’s first truly impressive lineup in 2006, which included Hawkwind, Colour Haze, Witchcraft, Ufomammut, Solace, Leafhound, The Heads, The Bevis Frond, Toner Low and Brant Bjork. A fairly diverse group of stoner and space rock, metal and doom, all linked by psychedelia. This was my tribe. Since then they’ve had Blue Cheer, Causa Sui, Guru Guru, Pharaoh Overlord, Circle, Siena Root, The Hidden Hand, The Devil’s Blood, Diagonal, SerpentCult, Baby Woodrose, Acid Mothers Guru, My Sleeping Karma, Graveyard, Motorpsycho, Dead Man, Amon Düül II, Zu, Rose Kemp, Saint Vitus, The Young Gods, Earth, US Christmas, Sons Of Otis, Ancestors, Troubled Horse, Samsara Blues Experiment, Comus, Pagan Altar, Los Natas, Astra, Horisont, Godflesh, Wovenhand, Blood Farmers, Naam, Swans, Candlemass, Wolf People, Ancestors, Spiders, Anekdoten, The Obsessed, 40 Watt Sun, Purson, Blues Pills, The Pretty Things, Kadavar, Goat, Witch Mountain, Elder, Wo Fat, The Cosmic Dead, Jess and the Ancient Ones, Golden Void, Bong, Beastmilk, Papir, Elephant9, Loop, Avatarium, SubRosa, Spidergawd, Death Penalty and Argus.
In the meantime, the Oakland-dwelling metal yang to my Chicago psychedelic yin, my sister from another mister Tomiiko and I tried to schedule trips for Duna Jam in Sardinia a couple times, but life events interfered. I tried to buy tickets for the 2014 Roadburn and I ran into problem after problem and decided it was a sign. But when they announced that Lee Dorrian as the curator (naming his theme “Rituals For The Blind Dead”), I went ahead and bought the tickets. A founding member of Napalm Death and Cathedral, where he combined his obsessions with psych, prog and doom, pretty much every band on his Rise Above label roster are winners. I posted on Facebook why I was excited that he was curating, based partly on his November 2009 guest article for the “150 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die” issue of Classic Rock Magazine, called “Prog Psych: The Great Lost Albums of British Rock, 1968-72.” He wrote about 20 albums that inhabited what was special about the transition from 60s psychedelic rock to 70s progressive. Given Roadburn’s great tradition for getting Kosmische and psych prog legends like Guru Guru, Amon Düül II, Leafhound, Hawkwind and Comus for reunion shows, I had high hopes that he could get someone along the lines of High Tide, Gun, Night Sun, Blackwater Park, T2 or Flower Travellin’ Band to play. Current bands on top of my wishlist also seem to align well with his tastes, including Spirits Of The Dead, Motorpsycho, Mansion, Jess and the Ancient Ones, Syd Arthur, Wolf People, Anekdoten, Dead Skeletons, Lola Colt, Messenger, Avatarium, Blues Pills, Goatess, Spiders and The Janitors.
None of these bands were booked this year, nor any of the others on my wishlist. Unlike previous Roadburns, a lot more bands that tour the U.S. regularly were there, including Neurosis, Mondo Drag, The Skull and Pentagram. I had some other disappointments — despite knowing lots of people who are Roadburn regulars, no one mentioned that hotels in Tilburg sell out long before the tickets are on sale. They just announced today the dates for next year, April 20-23, 2017, so book your hotel now if you’re sure you’re going! A friend who had a rough time with paying for cabs to a hotel in Gilze last year found a nice hotel in s’ Hertogenbosch, a 20 minute train ride away. Cool, I thought, there happens to be a 500 year anniversary of Hieronymous Bosch in that town. The artist’s nightmarish paintings were a huge influence on metal art. It was meant to be. Or was it? When we tried to buy tickets for the exhibits months ahead of time, they were already completely sold out! Now I was pissed. I was tempted to bag the whole trip. But Roadburn is such a cool, unique event, I knew I wouldn’t regret going.
The first day was a bit of a hassle. Jetlagged from our long flights, Tomiiko and I took trains in the wrong direction, twice! After an hour and a half tour of Amsterdam’s suburbs by plane, we met up with Chicago metal bud Laura at a bar near Central Station. Some walking through town and an hour train ride to s’ Hertogenbosch, we didn’t get to the hotel until nearly 5, and had to crash out and miss the first shows of the festival. I also had to miss Black Mountain because otherwise I’d miss the last train back. I’d say the experience is still worth the hassle, but it would have been awesome to have a room right near the fest where we could come and go and rest when needed. Those who do stay in nearby towns, definitely make sure there’s a train between there and Tilburg. Buses are excruciatingly slow, and cabs are insanely expensive (14 to 24 Euro for just 3 KM). And I wish my travel agent could have told me this, just buy a chipcard at the Airport and put at least 80 Euro on it so you don’t have to worry about it the rest of the time (though if you register it you can track how much you have on it at www.ov-chipkaart.nl). It works for all trains and buses. We missed a couple trains because the card dipped below 20 and had to put more money on them. You can refund the remaining amount for the fee of just 1 Euro when you leave town.
So for this fest, Lee Dorrian decided to go eclectic. I never would have predicted his choices for long-unheard legends, but they were certainly unique. G.I.S.M. are an ’80s Japanese hardcore punk band who mixed in some early thrash and grindcore, who haven’t played outside of Japan in 30 years. I listened to the compilation that came out last year and it’s cool stuff, though not what I would listen to often. The band seemed well-rehearsed and tight, and suitably energetic. Diamanda Galás is a big deal, emerging in late 70s New York avant garde scene, rubbing shoulders with the No Wave post-punk scene but not part of it. The Litanies Of Satan (1982) is an excruciating, shrieking document of unfettered pain, rage and evil that was hugely influential on experimental blues, cabaret, goth, black metal among others. Again, I rarely listen to her music, but was glad to have the chance to see her. It was mostly her at a piano, but her performance was riveting. Bang are an early 70s proto-metal band influenced by Black Sabbath. I just saw them recently in Chicago, so I skipped their set, which I’m sure was solid. Their entire catalog was just reissued. Repulsion formed in 1986 in Flint, Michigan and their lone album, Horrified (1989) was influential in the grindcore metal scene, and early death metal. With song titles like “Splattered Cadavars” and “Festering Boils,” they managed to convey the almost innocent exhuberance of their former teenage selves. I had this album a long time, so I even knew the songs! Blind Idiot God are an indie rock band originally from St. Louis who were pretty ahead of the curve, with their self-titled SST debut in 1987 doling out noise and math rock, but also dub and an early precursor of post-rock that Slint would master in following years. It was cool to hear, though to be honest I kind of OD’d on that stuff in the 90s, and I didn’t stay for the whole show. It did make me think that an SST anniversary fest would be a great idea, and include other lesser knowns like Slovenly and Angst. How ’bout Firehose doing a set of Minutemen songs and a Husker Du reunion? Touch And Go did something like that for their 25th, it could happen!
While the venues are all indoors, there was plenty going on in the alleys in between with beer and food stands (our favorite was the Asian Street Food stand), and records, art and other merch for sale. At a psych metal carnival, of course people watching is also nearly as entertaining as the music. A truly global audience with a heavy dose of Dutch, Germans and Scandinavians, there was a good, friendly vibe everywhere, a panoply of wild-haired freakster bros and gals. I saw a lot more couples at this event than I normally see at metal shows in the states, and a lot of them were pretty damn adorable. The age range seemed about early 20s through 50s with some outliers, including some babies. Babies? At a metal show without noise-blocking muffs?
Others have covered the entire fest more ably and completely, including the Weirdo Canyon Dispatch, edited by none other than J.J. Koczan of the superior blog The Obelisk (Thur | Fri | Sat | Sun). But for what it’s worth, here’s my favorites!
1. Blood Ceremony
I saw them nearly five years ago opening for Ghost, and they were solid but not yet transcendent. A key band in my Kaleidoscopes & Grimoires: Psych Noir piece, Blood Ceremony released their fourth album, Lord Of Misrule, just over a week ago, which makes this a timely album release show, and a coming of age of one of the original architects of psych noir into a dominant force alongside Jess and the Ancient Ones, Uncle Acid and Purson (who have a big album release coming soon too). On their latest, they shift their focus from proto-metal and doom to more expansive psych with of course a touch of prog courtesy of Alia O’Brien and her black magic flute. O’Brien, who is working on an Ethnomusicology Ph.D., has enriched their sound with subtle influences of folk and other elements, creating a more colorful, melodic, gorgeous sound than on previous albums. Live they still bring the heavy, but with now with the well-earned commanding presence of a hard touring headliner.
2. Green Carnation
This was a nice surprise. I didn’t know much about Green Carnation, a Norwegian prog metal band who played their second album, the single track, 63 minute long Light Of Day, Day Of Darkness (2001) in its entirety. I listened to it on my mix while I was packing for my trip and liked it, but was blown away by the performance. The band has been around since 1990, but haven’t been heard from in about a decade. There’s symphonic elements like vocal choirs, but even more evocative were the magnificently moody psychedelic folk passages in between the more explosive crescendoes. They even rocked a sitar! While there are a lot of Scandinavian bands that have explored this territory, Green Carnation are a nearly forgotten gem that I was glad to have witnessed.
3. Ecstatic Vision
This Philadelphia band opened for Uncle Acid & the Deadbeats last year, but I missed most of the set, and was kicking myself because everyone said it was glorious. Their energetic Hawkwind inspired space rock with flute and sax was definitely right up my alley. While some bands with long, instrumental passages and guitar freakouts can get boring, Ecstatic Visions kept me engaged with a killer dynamic performance.
4. With The Dead
Curator Lee Dorrian’s new band was made up of a couple ex-Electric Wizard members (Greening left after recording the album) and delves in similar territory of misanthropic doom, but there were a couple moments when Dorrian totally clicked with the band and his hate just resonated through your bones, and surpassed the Wiz’s last performance I saw in 2015. Their first performance outside of the UK, this was a treat. A nice, thick low-end sound, and last but not least, co-starring former Cathedral mate Leo Smee’s huge, floppy hat.
Yep, I came all the way to Tilburg to see yet another American band from Pennsylvania, this one from Pittsburgh. Since I kept missing their U.S. tours, I’m glad I got to see them, as they are one of my favorite bands that are inspired by Thin Lizzy but manage to create their own particular signature, with soulful songs and gorgeous twin lead guitar solos. Yes, there’s lots of higher profile bands at the fest, with more atmospheric black metal than ever, but this is my jam.
I’ve discussed a few times my waning enthusiasm for my hometown festivals such as Pitchfork, Lollapalooza and Riot Fest. All of them had great moments back in the day, and all of them have sacrificed the quality of experience for the sake of drawing bigger crowds with bigger names. So far, Roadburn has avoided that pitfall, though with it’s gradually increasing popularity, there are growing pains showing up in the long lines for the smaller venues to the point where some people couldn’t even get in to see bands that some crossed oceans to see. At least for the near future, I think they can keep growing the venue options to accommodate everyone. And it’s a good sign in general for heavy music, that more festivals will pop up along the lines of the additional Desert Fest locations (though they really ought to have one in the original location in California), and Psycho CA. While we’re at it, I’d love to see one with more post-punk and garage noir!
The rest of the best:
Admiral Sir Cloudsley Shovell
Amenra (both acoustic and electric)
Blind Idiot God
Mirrors For Psychic Warfare
Missed due to conflicts, train schedule, jetlag: Cult Of Luna, Mondo Drag, The Skull, Bang, Converge, Behold! The Monolith, Black Mountain, Dark Buddha Rising, Pentagram, Peter Pan Speedrock, Zone Six, Brothers Of The Sonic Cloth, Galley Beggar, Tau Cross, Beastmaker, Gentlemans Pistols, Buried At Sea, Death Alley.