ArcTanGent has continued to expand for its 7th year, adding a 5th stage in a larger central bar tent, while still having the pairs of alternating stages in its 2-part arena set-up, with every stage open over the full weekend. An early explore confirmed a greater spread of bars and food, with an extra route between the two sections to spread the crowd better.
As a small festival though, there isn’t that much to find, with the exception of music, so we headed to see our first act of the weekend. Music videos and cinematic backdrops are a common thing nowadays, but they’re a core aspect of a Nordic Giants set, their own short films dominating attention behind the elaborate costumes and intense ambient music. It all felt perfectly integrated, with the duo’s atmospheric post-rock played over a variety of instruments soundtracking the emotionally charged videos that were being broadcast.
As a fairly niche festival, a lot of acts on the line-up sounded a little samey, but while we only saw a few acts on the opening day, they were all fairly distinctive: Zeal & Ardor brought their uniquely soul-infused black-metal here, Polyphia impressed with their funky prog-metal, and Carpenter Brut overwhelmed the stage with rock-stylised synthwave. Guitarist Adrien Grousset pulling all sorts of ridiculous glam-rock poses out against a backdrop of exaggerated film effects, before concluding with a cover of Maniac to massive appreciation from the crowd.
Deciding that was a perfectly enjoyable end to the day, we skipped out on the remaining acts including headliner Coheed & Cambria due to limited interest in the more mainstream metal acts. Judging by how packed the campsite was during an evening chill, we weren’t the only ones, the festival largely seeming split between the fans of its more traditional post/math genres, and punters attracted for the first time by the bigger bands that didn’t quite fit.
Friday was forecast to be a day of “drizzle with light showers”, but unfortunately that only started accurate. Heading into the arena amidst steady rain for some early stage hopping to check out the first wave of bands produced mixed results; local act Hexcut opened the PX3 stage, and offered a delightful piano-led variant of math-rock, crafting elegant and evolving melodies with precision. We Never Learned to Live put on a good show in the Yohkai tent, but their post-hardcore songs felt slightly lacking in imagination. The guitarist having sound problems couldn’t have helped, but at least unlike other acts, while fixing these the frontman did at least engage the audience with conversation and anecdotes.
Sometimes, an act isn’t to your taste, other times they’re just bad. Good Game were both, bringing a truly atrocious set that let down not just the festival but the entire genre they attempted. Math-rock relies on high levels of technical skill, and good math-rock adds invention to that. All Good Game provided was mediocre guitarwork, out of tune with the bass, combined with awful whiny emo-esque singing. This was a performance that not only drove people out of the tent, but also into the day’s awful weather. A horrendous mass of rain blew sideways as the gale force winds pierced all but the sturdiest of waterproofs, and yet it was still better being subjected to that than the display on the arc stage.
After a break hiding from the storm, it became clear it wouldn’t relent, and some acts are just unmissable. 65daysofstatic were this year’s Friday afternoon “too big for the slot” act, and they didn’t disappoint. The glitch sounds amplifying the effect of noisy guitarwork in crafting a display that justified their much lauded live reputation.
While there were engaging alternative acts on in the interim, notably Black Peaks, Soeur, and TTNG, the horrendous weather and relief at finding a dry spot near the front left us lazily deciding to linger at the main stage amidst this great run of acts. The returning acts provided a guarantee of quality, but it can be a little hard to get excited about seeing the same bands as last year. Russian Circles were also playing again after a set two years prior, but their performance this time was much improved, waves of noisy post-rock building a dramatic intensity. Unfortunately, this was spoiled by a 5 minute break while they fixed a smoke machine. While it’s understandable that acts want to provide their full live experience, this was much more disruptive to the atmosphere they’d been successfully building than a reduced amount of stage effects would have been. They still managed to recapture most of the magic, yet without such problems, this set could have been something truly special.
The day’s headliner, Battles, were one of the most exciting bookings of the festival, but they didn’t manage to live up to it. A set comprised predominantly of new songs is always a risky proposition, but when 8 of the 11 are off a still unreleased album (due October), it makes it even tougher to pull off, and they didn’t manage it. The new songs lacked the groove of their classics off Mirrored, and while John Starnier’s drumming remained immense, the loss of other members has really hurt the fullness and complexity of their sound. Even their premier hit Atlas felt slightly lacking. Hopefully they’ll find new members, at least for touring, so they can reclaim the vibrancy of earlier performances.
Getting up on the Saturday to a nearly blue sky was a nice change after Friday’s weather. Contrastingly, it was frustrating that the festival did very little to manage the state of the ground. When there’s a downpour for nearly 24 hours, with thousands of people walking around, mud is obviously going to form, but there were only a very few places where they put straw down, or did anything to manage choke-points and borderline dangerous footing. Even after a few hours of sun, there were areas of effective swampland underfoot, with the rest a deep, sticky mess of layered mud amidst a few rare patches of grass where few people had ventured.
The first act of the day we saw was Curse These Metal Hands, the new collaborative project by post-metal acts Pijn and Conjurer, both staples of ATG lineups. They provided a serious wall of noise, melding intricate guitar work, and intense asymmetric drumming with the only bassline sludgier than the ground that day. Unfortunately, the volume was just too much, even wearing ear protection, and the return of the sun felt a little more appealing than damaged hearing.
The Physics House Band provided everything that Battles lacked in their set. The four piece upstaged the previous night’s headliners with an energetic and imaginative display of jazz-infused mathy prog-rock. Each song built on the last to offer something different and add to the interest and provide a masterful performance. The first act we managed to see on the new Bar Stage was Howard James Kenny, the sun finally being out meaning the crowds in the tent were a bit more dispersed. A fairly pleasant singer-songwriter with some effective use of a repeater to create a fuller sound, but lacking energy, ultimately producing the sort of mildly dull post-rock that has created understandable comparisons to Sigur Ros, it’d be incredibly easy to fall asleep to. Three Trapped Tigers were much livelier, their complex electronica filling the main stage and oozing out across the fields delightfully.
Many festivals announce “special guests” in place of a slot to keep people guessing, but it often just ends up being a mediocre act that really isn’t that special. Not so here, ATG brought back last year’s headliners And So I Watch You From Afar to perform their self-titled first album in full to celebrate it’s ten year anniversary. It was printed in the lanyard programs available from Wednesday, so most punters were aware by the time their set came round, but this was a huge coup nonetheless. The band were on form as well, a seamless display of power and skill dominating the stage, thankfully uninterrupted by the technical programs that had plagued many other bands over the weekend.
a-tota-so were on the Bar stage next, and they had a fairly unique sound, one of the few math-rock bands that were simultaneously a little dirtier stylistically, without shifting too far into a metal variant. Contrastingly, Cult of Luna started with some of the heaviest, filthiest metal of the weekend, complete with death-esque screaming before diverting to a more atmospheric post-metal style, with songs such as Ghost Trail more akin to the slightly mellow output of acts like Isis than the deathcore of their opening song The Silent Man.
Sometimes, it’s hard to be interested in a headliner. Meshuggah may have the complex song structures and downtuned 8-string guitars that fit with a lot of the math-metal style of ArcTanGent, but the result still largely sounds like just generic metal music rather than anything more unique. They’re a better choice to close the festival than Shellac last year, but we just couldn’t bring ourselves to care about their set, and decided we’d conclude our weekend with Caspian over on the Yohkai stage. No regrets either, their soundscaping was gorgeously constructed and building in power and volume throughout the set. A show of magnificent musicianship that impressively crafted an immersive aura, with the crescendo of Castles High, Marble Bright providing a more than fitting end to the festival.
We left ArcTanGent in good spirits, and talking positively about returning next year, but while diversity of acts is definitely a good thing, the bookings that weren’t the festival’s core of post-rock and math-metal felt like they were of slightly too generic bands. That loss of the more experimental and unique feel possibly hurt the festival more than the weather, but it’s still a wonderfully intimate size and manages to get a really impressive calibre of acts for its audience, albeit with a slight excess of repeat bookings. Roll on next year.
latest on this festival
ArcTanGent 2019 review
line-ups & rumours
festival home page