Festival season, it’s argued, is growing stale. Identikit line-ups stalk the European festival circuit, with American events slowly starting to follow suit – excellent though the ‘Tranquility Base…’ era may be, how many times have Arctic Monkeys popped up this summer? Someone give Alex some nap time. ArcTanGent festival is the clear exception. Based in a remote farm somewhere near Bristol, and comprising of a line-up of math-rock, post-rock, noise, esoteric metal and other such ‘fringe’ genres, it’s a weekend escape like no other on offer.
It’s hard to pin-point exactly what ArcTanGent’s niche is. On any one day – or rather, in any given hour – you could be listening to Scandinavian black metal one second, and fidgety pop-rock the next, with soaring, ambient post-rock just around the corner. It’s evidence of fringe music’s eclecticism, those seemingly disparate genre tags brought together by an underground support network of bands, fans and record labels alike – one that sees every band on the line-up playing to a packed-out tent, whether they hit the stage at 10am or 10pm.
Indeed, within minutes of NME’s arrival on-site, we’ve been blasted by Alpha Male Tea Party’s gnarly math-rock, Gulfer’s sugary, 90s-indebted emo, and Svalbard’s atmospheric metal – the latter of which takes the ambience of recent NME Big Read stars Deafheaven and roots it with more close-to-home lyricism, tackling everything from unpaid internships to rape culture.
Perhaps more-so than any other year to date (this is the fest’s sixth incarnation), ArcTanGent 2018 thrives off the heavier proceedings on its line-up. Post-hardcore pioneers Glassjaw headline its Friday night, the New York group’s swaggering, twisted sound delivered with a slightly jarring stoicism. Sonically, though, they’re as fiery as ever – the likes of ‘Shira’ and ‘New White Extremity’ from last year’s ‘Material Control’ LP easily sit alongside older, timeless tracks such as ‘Tip Your Bartender’, their 15-year gap between records a blip in the timeline.
Closing on ‘Siberian Kiss’, a debut album track that’s etched onto the minds of thousands in this field, the mosh-pit that’s been threatening to erupt finally lets loose. As it fades out, frontman Daryl Palumbo walks to the back of the stage to pick up his backpack and stroll off. His nonchalance isn’t shared by the crowd.
Elsewhere on the line-up, there’s plenty of heavier offerings on show. Conjurer continue to cement their status as metal’s most exciting young band, and 2018 debut album ‘Mire’s as one of the year’s best underground releases. During ‘Hollow’, frontman and guitarist Dan Nightingale takes to the barrier to scream the lyrics directly in the front-row’s faces, mic cast aside. As the song reaches its conclusion, bassist Conor Marshall spins on the spot, bass held outward like an axe. The entire show is a masterclass in brutality.
Not content with proving their worth as a standalone prospect, Conjurer also team up with their fellow Holy Roar Records brethren in Pijn for a brilliantly barmy set under the name ‘Curse These Metal Hands’ – a Peep Show reference, naturally. From the off, it’s a baffling prospect – members of each band are wearing the opposite band’s shirt, while Joe Clayton of Pijn invites clapalongs to a jovial post-rock opening, before it becomes a huge, doomy ambient metal song.
The pregnant pauses of math rock and the shredding solos of Iron Maiden all play a part. Is it a joke? The talent on show means the answer is far from obvious. Their last song melds math-rock, 2-step and, of course, cavernous metal together like they were the most obvious bedfellows in the world. In a way, this sums up ArcTanGent itself. Pijn drummer Nic Watmough walks out from behind his kit to shake hands with people in the front row, before they all don Elton John masks and giant sunglasses. A joke, then, but an irritatingly well-conceived one.
Saturday morning’s hangovers are blasted away by Wren, whose blackened doom metal and wormhole visuals make the approaching afternoon sun feel more like the flames of the underworld, licking at the necks of everyone in attendance. MØL are another weekend highlight, the Danish blackgazers’ tonal shifts and incredible frontman Kim Song Sternkopf leaving a lasting mark. Sternkopf is a presence like no other, holding his mic stand like a wizard’s mast as he prowls around the stage, screeching his dark-hearted creeds. By their second song, he’s on the barrier, screaming into the crowd, while ‘Ligament’ finds him passing the mic stand into the crowd and finishing the song in the middle of the tent, before he picks up a stage light and shines in into the eyes of front row, just in case they weren’t already dazzled enough.
A numbers game
Further British offerings across the weekend come from the likes of Black Peaks, who snatch the limelight back with their chaotic post-hardcore, debuting tracks from their incoming ‘All That Divides’ album amidst constant, quickly-granted commands for more mosh-pits. Rolo Tomassi, too, use their early Thursday to prove why their latest album ‘Time Will Die and Love Will Bury It’ is an all-time career-high.
It’s the bafflingly, brilliantly named Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs who steal the spotlight in the festival’s closing moments, though. A sludgy, wilfully silly take on psych- and stoner-metal, they prove there’s far more to them than a fucked-up name, their Sabbath-esque, 10-minute-plus wares pulling a tent full of headbangers. “I’d like to thank you all for being here, to witness this 30-to-40 minutes of nonsense,” grins frontman Matt Baty.
Metalheads aside, though, ArcTanGent’s bread-and-butter comes from the oft-ignored alternative scenes of math-rock and post-rock. The under0-representation of these niche genres provided inspiration for ArcTanGent’s first year, and 2018 is no different.
Delta Sleep, a Brighton band whose bright, time-shifting pop-rock have made them home country heroes of the British math-rock scene, draw an adoring crowd on the Thursday evening. The bolshy likes of ‘Jesus Bill!’ and ‘Strongthany’ inspire early-doors pogoing. “Big up the mosh pit gang. Let’s open it up – I wanna see this whole fucking place going for the next one,” laughs drummer Blake Mostyn.
The on-stage patter keeps rolling with the elusive Tangled Hair, whose penchant for cancelling shows and delaying releases has become as integral to their myth as their catchy math-tinged pop tunes. “We put out an album this year,” grins their impossibly talented drummer James Trood. “Hey – we even finally made it to ArcTanGent. Anything can happen!” As the bands surges through tracks from that knowingly-titled LP, ‘We Do What We Can’, even a brief hi-hat mishap during ‘Yeah… It Does Look Like A Spider’ can’t derail them this time around.
A similarly fun-first approach to math-rock shines through instrumental bruisers And So I Watch You From Afar’s late evening set that same night, which sees them close out the touring cycle for latest album ‘The Endless Shimmering’ by performing it in full before a sea of inflatables and beaming smiles. The awkwardly-named Giraffes? Giraffes! pull a similarly enamoured crowd, their European exclusive appearance combatting technical gremlins throughout. The duo battle valiantly onwards, their linear, riff-heavy math-rock eliciting cheers from a main-stage filling crowd who’ve waited years to see them.
By far the best new discovery to NME is LA Jungle, a Belgian duo of party-starters whose disco- and funk- infused post-punk calls to mind everything from LCD Soundsystem, to Glass Animals via Battles. Hop-skipping about the stage, and dancing like they’ve got live wires up their backsides, they clamber and scream about the place like their lives depend on it, the cacophonous set ending with a musak keyboard version of ‘Wake Me Up Before You Go Go’. Naturally.
A festival like no other
It’s that ‘anything could happen’ approach which truly marks ArcTanGent out as something special. While, on-paper, a niche-as-they-come offering, catering only to a small corner of music’s most cerebral obsessives, in reality ArcTanGent is far more diverse than most major league festivals. It might be left-of-centre, but dive in and there are countless variations on a wider-than-you’d-think theme – you’d be hard-pressed not to find a single thing on offer you’d enjoy.
A festival-closing headline slot from alt-rock heroes Shellac proves the worth of that approach. Fronted by Steve Albini – the iconic record producer responsible for iconic albums from Pixies, Nirvana and countless more – their angular, stripped-back take on rock is the perfect link between ArcTanGent’s underground roots and the big-hitters of the international scene. No light show whatsoever, no banner, no fancy stage set up, no techs or guitar changes – theirs is a deconstructionist approach, but it’s lapped up by those with an ear for the alternative, the likes of ‘Squirrel Song’ and ‘Scrappers’ greeted like number one hits.
The small amount of stage banter includes a dedication to the festival’s appeal from the notoriously surly Albini. “We spent a little time this afternoon wandering around the festival ground – we really enjoyed being here,” he says, without hint of a smile. “I enjoyed talking to you – I don’t know if nice is the right word, but I enjoyed talking to you. And often I don’t enjoy talking to people.”
As the wider festival season threatens to homogenise, then, it’s up to places like ArcTanGent to prove the future lies in the niches. For every crusty old dad bleating that there’s no innovation anymore, there’ll be another mind-bending offering at ArcTanGent to prove them wrong. To that end, niche though it may be, ArcTanGent is essential.
ArcTanGent 2019 takes place on 15 – 17 August. Meshuggah will headline. Tickets are on sale now.