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Live Review: Roadburn 2016, Day 1

Converge in concert
All photos by Tim Bugbee

I try not to put too much stock in house music. It’s usually pretty arbitrary, decided at the whims of the sound engineer and sourced from their iPhone. Still, I couldn’t help but interpret the first song I heard inside of Roadburn’s 013 main stage as an omen, or an overture. As an animated funeral procession marched across the stage’s backdrop, David Bowie’s “Blackstar” echoed through the room. The animation, illustrated by Becky Cloonan whose work adorns much of the festival grounds, shows a group of knights carrying a deceased king. While Bowie would be a poor fit among Roadburn’s lineup (although who knows) it was uncanny to hear his own self-eulogizing in this context. Even now it is difficult to listen to a man who knows he is dying and is still pushing his creative voice into brave new directions. It was an apt opening to the festival with equal parts reverence for the past and an ear for startling new sounds in the genre.

Cult Of Luna in concert
Cult of Luna

Cult of Luna Performing Somewhere Along the Highway
You wouldn’t guess it from their heady concepts and air of detachment, but Cult Of Luna really care about putting on a show. From the start of their set they made it clear that “a bunch of dudes on a stage” was not going to cut it. The entire performance was matched with well choreographed lighting and the band even had some very simplistic blocking which helped them keep the visuals fresh. As the band moved through the record they changed the color palette to match the album’s progression, starting with sparse bars of light and ending with a roaring sea of red at the climax of “Dark Man Dark City.” The lighting even kept some of the duller moments, like the long, long, loooooooong build up in “Dim,” from getting stale. But even the best light show in the world wouldn’t have mattered if the music didn’t warrant it. Cult Of Luna’s decision to play Somewhere Along the Highway from front to back wasn’t just a matter of celebrating its anniversary, it also allowed them to play seven of their best songs straight through. Some tracks, like “ThirtyFour,” worked even better in a live context, boosted by the urgency of the room and adrenaline. Others, like “Finland” and “Dark Man Dark City,” the band still plays with the gusto you’d expect from a world premier, with guitars raised above their heads, submerged in dream-like colors.

Der Blutharsch and the infinite church of the leading hand in concert
Der Blutharsch and the infinite church of the leading hand

Der Blutharsch & The Infinite Church Of The Leading Hand
The Het Patronaat is the crown jewel of Roadburn. Although the bigger names play across the street at 013, this renovated church hall captures the gleeful sacrilege and occult spookiness that hangs over the entire festival. Booking Der Blutharsch here and matching their hypnotic, mostly instrumental, jams to the stained glass lining the walls was a stroke of genius. Sadly the band’s performance was undercut by a simple matter of physics. In the wooden halls their low end density rattled more than rumbled, although the band’s ritualistic group singing remained just as potent regardless of their imposed limitations.

New Keepers Of The Water Tower
After a lengthy delay due to a malfunctioning microphone, New Keepers Of The Water Tower had an uphill battle to climb in order to win the audience back. If they sensed a disadvantage they sure didn’t show it, and were better for it. Despite constant assurances between songs that they were going to hurry up, New Keepers still took their sweet time building tension and gradually moving from one motif to another. By the time the band dedicated a lurching new tune with a throbbing synth bass line to the Swedes in the crowd, the audience had been fully absorbed into the band’s mix of Camel-like majesty and delirious krautrock, swaying in sweaty unison while crammed into Cul de Sac’s close quarters.

Hexvessel in concert
Hexvessel in concert

Hexvessel
I walked in right as a man in a bowler hat was teaching the reluctant crowd how to wolf howl. No thanks.

Oranssi Pazuzu in concert
Oranssi Pazuzu

Oranssi Pazazu
Look I tried, I really fucking tried. I love Värähtelijä and was psyched to catch as much of this set as I could before Converge’s Jane Doe performance. The line leading into Het Patronaat was outrageously long. Like “Black Rose Immortal” long, Books Of Souls long, longer than the dude from Shadow’s Fall’s dreads. It wasn’t worth the risk of missing a single note of Converge’s set. “Besides” I rationalized, “if Der Blutharsch sounded bad in that room, psychedelic black metal was probably going to sound even worse right?” More on that later.

Converge in concert
Converge performing ‘Jane Doe’

Converge performing Jane Doe
Jane Doe is 15 years old, and I was 15 when I first heard Jane Doe. Point being, you really shouldn’t expect anything close to a objective and balanced review here. If unprompted, I will call Converge the best hardcore band of all time, if provoked I will call them the best metal band of all time, and after three beers I will go on record as saying that Converge are the best rock and roll band ever, no competition, fuck The Beatles and fuck you too. Luckily we won’t have to get into that.

Jane Doe has been the band’s calling card since its release in 2001. Its album cover is iconic, and it showed up all over the festival on t-shirts, hoods, tattoos, posters, and finally, the glorious video backdrop for the band’s performance. Jacob Bannon, the band’s singer and the designer responsible for that famous mug, made a point of mentioning that the band had never performed an album in its entirety before. The ceremonious nature of the set bled into the band’s performance. Bannon emulated his no hand’s mic spin from the “Fault And Fracture” video, and performed for the nosebleeds rather than the front row, something he rarely has to do on the band’s standard tours.

If you’ve seen Converge before, you’ve probably caught a fair amount of these songs before. “Concubine” and “The Broken Vow” are near guarantees on any Converge setlist, and even weirder tunes like “Thaw” or “Heaven In Her Arms” will make their way in from time to time. What made this set special, besides its “one time only billing” was that it gave fans a chance to see “Phoenix In Flight” and “Phoenix In Flames” in the flesh. The former is a breather on an otherwise breathless album. The slow pacing and shoegaze-informed sense of texture didn’t quite translate live, although old pal/collaborator Stephen Brodsky (Cave In, Mutoid Man) did a fine job with the song’s lead guitar. But if “Phoenix In Flight” is a breather, than “Phoenix In Flames” is the sound of all of the air being pushed out of your lungs at once. It’s half drum solo, half experimental noise piece, 100% Jacob Bannon screaming his lungs out. On the record it’s an oddity, but live it felt like a purging tantrum before the final one-two punch of the album’s closing tracks. When Converge did reach the conclusion of the album’s epic 12-minute title track they transformed that tantrum into something more pure, more deeply cathartic than simply anger or frustration. They milked the moment for everything it was worth, inserting a new lull just before bringing the song to its peak again and cutting it off entirely. The lights went black. And just like that it was over.

Misþyrming in concert
Misþyrming

Misþyrming
In a post-Jane Doe daze, I stumbled back into Het Patronaat to catch the tail end of Misþyrming’s set. Turns out that my prediction about the church’s sound was way off base. Misþyrming sounded incredible. Where Der Blutarsch’s low end had gotten muddy and strangled, Misþyrming’s vicious high end soared. It helps that their new material, which they played exclusively at this set, dipped into indistinct chaos by design. These new songs were a swirl of near dissonance, levied by “blink and you’ll miss it” melodies that grounded the listener just long enough to kick the floor out from under them again. It was more head spinning than head banging. At one point a choir could be heard wailing above the din. It wasn’t hard to imagine those voices coming from the walls of the church itself, the building screaming in pain from the horror being committed within its hall. I entered the room wondering if Misþyrming’s hype was deserved, if they were the real deal. I left the room wondering if any of what I had seen was real at all, or nightmarish vision of black metal’s future.

Paradise Lost in concert
Paradise Lost performing ‘Gothic’

Paradise Lost performing Gothic
By any objective measure, Paradise Lost’s performance of Gothic was a complete success. The band matched the record note for note, piping in the haunting operatic vocals and orchestral interludes to match the album’s camp horror vibes. They even nailed the awkward lapses in tempo from the original recording! If you’re sensing some sarcasm in my praise, I apologize. I’m not in love with Gothic, although I get why fans of the band have such a fondness for it. Eventually this disconnect, between me and the band, as well as the one between me and the rest of the crowd, made it feel like I was crashing someone else’s party. This is the lingering problem with the “classic album” performance model. It’s wonderful for those who are already converted as it gives them a chance to relive a moment in time with the artist. But for those outside of the inner circle, it grants fewer points of entry than a set drawing from multiple eras. At worst, this practice could be read as a masturbatory victory lap, alienating to anyone unconvinced of the work’s genius. I should mention that this doesn’t just apply to Paradise Lost, a Converge neophyte would likely walk away from the Jane Doe performance overwhelmed but unengaged. But at its best, hearing one of your favorite albums live can be a transcendent experience, as the woman who screamed with delight at the start of each song would likely attest.

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