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Live Review: Roadburn 2016 Day 2

The Skull All photos by Tim Bugbee
The Skull
All photos by Tim Bugbee

Its hard to imagine a better locale for people watching than a metal festival. Any single metal show is sure to packed full of weirdos, but festivals have the added benefit of bringing together a wide array of different types of weirdos. Every variety of metalhead that you can imagine is on display on Roadburn’s main avenue: Crust punks covered in patches, retro thrashers with high top Reeboks, old heads with comically long grey beards, goths in intricate lace dresses, recovering hardcore kids who dress like low budget hypebeasts (that’d be me), and short hairs in tight jeans that would fit right in at Chicago’s Empty Bottle if they weren’t speaking fluent Dutch. My personal favorite absurd fashion choice was the guy wearing a Game Of Thrones t-shirt with a leather trench coat draped over his shoulders like a cape. It’s easy to joke about how ridiculous we all look here, but beyond the minute differences in our sartorial choices, all came to Roadburn with the single intention of seeing challenging music in person and bonding with others who shared their interest in the extreme.

Tim Bugbee

Diamanda Galas

The strangest moment of Diamanda Galas’s set came in between two pieces of music. After thanking Lee Dorian, who curated the main stage of day two of the festival, she cleared her throat and took a sip of water. This was probably the only indication that her throat operates the same way as yours or mine. The rest of her set was an acrobatic display of the limits of the human voice. Galas is a tremendous performer, not just because of her melodic range, which is no joke, but for her timbral versatility.  Her skill at manipulating her voice, and the contorted shapes she moved between, made the one dimensional harsh vocals employed by most of the other bands at the festival seem childish by comparison. Still, Galas’s blues-derived music shared common roots with many of the bands that the audience vacated her set to watch instead. Extremity is more than just a matter of volume. It would be reductive to say that Galas sounded like a woman possessed. Rather, she is a woman in full possession of herself.

Tim Bugbee

Sinistro

Yet again, long lines in front of Het Patronaat deterred me from seeing one of my favorite performers, Neurosis’ Steve Von Till. Sinistro, holed away in the smaller Green Room, were a pleasant silver lining. The Portuguese band keep things dense, slow, and heavy, but their songwriting is focused and concise. Patricia Andrade sung in a mix of major and minor melodies that added color to the gunmetal grey of the rest of the band. It’s a testament to the strength of Roadburn’s booking that missing the festival’s bigger names will still lead you to compelling music. I was completely ignorant to Sinistro heading into Roadburn, but I will leave with my eyes on them.

WithTheDead-1

With The Dead

Lee Dorian could do this shit forever and it would still work. Doom is the one metal genre that feels impervious to aging. If anything, edging closer to death only makes the genre’s themes more relevant and pressing to its creators. It helps that technology keeps finding ways to make amps louder and better suited to absurd amounts of bass frequencies. With The Dead anchored Dorian’s curation, titled “Rituals For The Blind Dead,” and their set served as proof of his credentials. Everything that worked about their set was derived from the keen sense of minimalism. Songs were built on simple and memorable riffs, and Dorian evoked more cheers from the crowd by standing stock still, hair drooped over his face than most frontmen earn through persistent goading. If I could butcher a phrase from Game Of Thrones, which I’m sure our trenchcoat/caped friend from earlier would appreciate, “What Is Doom May Never Die.”

GISM-1

G.I.S.M.

I still can’t believe this happened. I would say that I can’t wait to rub this in my neighborhood crustie’s face, but I’ve got no interest in rubbing a crust punk, even for the purpose of feeling smug. Besides, it would be a shame to convert the pure joy I felt watching G.I.S.M. into something as cynical as bragging rights. If G.I.S.M. had any rust on them from their long absence it was imperceptible at Roadburn. Not to say that the band put on a spotless performance—a layer of grit and grime covered every note they played—but the band were as manic as you would hope. Their relatively simplistic d-beat and more d-beats approach seemed a bit out of place compared to the more nuanced styles that proceeded and followed them but the sheer energy of the performance, and of the rabid crowd, more than made up for any technical deficiencies. Equally as entertaining was the video portion of the band’s set, which combined cartoonish pornography with quickly cut images of a cornucopia shooting out baseballs, sacred geometry and thousands of other snippets too fast to catch.

Tim Bugbee
Tim Bugbee

Lychgate

For a minute there it seemed like Lychgate’s church organ was out of order, leading to a long pause before they began their set. While I’m glad the band’s fans got to hear the music they came for, I am a bit miffed that I lost such an apt metaphor for Lychgate’s music. They clearly put a lot of effort into crafting their music—they brought a fucking church organ for christ’s sake—but in all of that preparation they missed a key element that would make their music listenable: clarity. Every step of the way the band’s priorities seemed at odds with being compelling. They took plenty of fiddling to get the exact length of the delay on the vocals right, but left their guitars in an indistinct mush. All of this is ignoring the fact that even when their music does come through clearly, it’s ceiling is capped at Castlevania boss themes. All the eight string guitars in the world can’t save you from that.

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Dark Buddha Rising

It wouldn’t be a true festival experience if there weren’t acts that seemed entirely targeted towards illicit drug use. While knuckleheads in appropriated Native American headwear pop molly at Coachella, goofy Finns with makeshift dreadlocks congregated in Het Patronaat to get righteously blazed for Dark Buddha Rising. I saw at least four different blunts get lit in my immediate vicinity, and I would guess that the numerous vape pens weren’t filled with tobacco juice either. Dark Buddha Rising were much better than their name would suggest and clearly knew their audience. Their songs were long and structurally poreous, leaving plenty of room for sustained sub-bass frequencies that had more of a physical impact than audible one. Their set wore on maybe five minutes too long, but the stoners didn’t seem to mind, and even this sober observer was happy to wait until the repetition of their herky-jerky shuffle looped from boring back to brain melting.

Tim Bugbee
Tim Bugbee

Ulfsmessa

After being swept up by Mispyrming’s set the night before, I knew that I needed to catch their much ballyhooed ‘Ulfsmessa’ collaboration with Naora, Grafir, and Nylp. The idea of their already otherworldly sound being bolstered by a supergroup of Iceland’s surging black metal scene was too much to pass up, and I was hardly alone in my curiosity. The tense anticipation in the room prior to the start of the performance was more electric than the excitement preceding any other set of the festival (yes, even G.I.S.M.). The moon, half obscured by clouds, hung low of the spires of the church. You couldn’t have asked for a better setting.

You could have asked for a better set. Although the various members of Ulfsmessa were uniform in appearance, their faces covered by black executioner hoods, the level of talent on stage was far less balanced. The set was hampered by a problem that any hip-hop fan would recognize instantly; when you have a posse-cut there’s always going to be a disparity between the big names and the dudes who get a verse because they carry the weed. Even in groups as talented as The Wu-Tang Clan (who also made a point to hide their faces under masks on the cover of their first record) you know going in that for every Method Man or Ghostface verse, you’ll probably have to suffer through the occasional Cappadonna appearance[<em>I actually enjoy many of Cappadona’s verses. U-God though? Nah.</em> – Ed.].

Ulfsmessa’s biggest flaw was that it started with its Cappadonna. Naora’s plodding approach to black metal was instantly recognizable under their hoods. Frankly, the band sounded unrehearsed and ill-prepared for the hype surrounding the performance. It wasn’t until they were rotated out some 30 minutes into the set that things started to take off. The instrumentation expanded to include two drummers, several vocalists, a trumpet (!), and a guitar tone gnarled enough to signify that Mispyrming were about to right the ship. Once the lineup contracted again, it was clear that Roadburn’s Artists In Residence had taken control. From here out Ulfmessa improved significantly, but even as the melodies got more evocative and the tempos locked into a more exciting pace it was hard to shake the set’s rough start.

Atmosphere is a fragile thing. No matter how many costumes you bring, how many liters of smoke machine fluid you use, or how many organs you drag on stage with you, a single flaw can shatter the mystique by reminding everyone in the room that they are still at a rock concert. You cannot fabricate a moment. The highlights of Day Two, from Diamanda Galas’s confidence behind the piano to the reckless abandon of G.I.S.M., felt like products of instinct, not meticulous engineering.

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