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It’s been said countless times before, but Roadburn is a special place. A place where you can witness life-changing performances by standout artists. Where stereotypical drunken festival outbursts aren’t the norm but the very rare exception. It’s an intersection of music legends, legends in the making, industry folks, and the type of heavy music fans who are generally very active in the music community – whether they’re nurturing an ever-growing vinyl collection, promoting local shows, writing for ‘zines, or just singing the praises of damn good bands.

As a performer myself, I went into this festival to explore the idea of aesthetics as they relate to sound. The music itself is one part of the live experience, albeit the most important – but the spectacle helps create the energy and drive home a lasting impact. With over 100 acts gracing five different stages in Tilburg across four packed days, Roadburn is an ideal place to experience a height of this combination. Light shows ranged from wholly consuming to beautifully stark, and video backdrops helped set the mood for all types of music, from post-metal to ‘80s synthwave.

Nevertheless, it’s the uninhibited nature of the performances at Roadburn that make it so exceptional. Bands are not afraid to allow a buildup during their set. Oftentimes the beginnings would be very different than the ends. This is possible because Roadburners don’t leave after one song if things aren’t full speed ahead. There’s no such thing as too slow at this festival, which was created around the beauty of the lumbering riff.

The one problem I faced? Roadburn is so well curated that there’s a constant fear of missing out. It’s a tough feat to see all the sets you want to, and even if you try, you’ll probably be achy from exhaustion by the third day. Late start times and comfy hotel rooms help, but I still had to walk out from certain sets just because I needed a breather. Relaxed as it may be, Roadburn is still a festival after all.

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Day 1 - Descent into madness

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The first day of Roadburn: Outside on the main pedestrian walkways, people trickled in from all over the world. Languages and accents buzzed around as music nerds embraced old friends and introduced themselves to new ones. The sun flickered through the clouds, changing the mood from festive to ominous and back again.

I immediately noticed how close all the venues are to each other and how much the area feels like a village meant just for Roadburn.

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Inside 013 Poppodium, the booming distortion of flying V’s and Laney amps revved up the Main Stage. The first band, Crippled Black Phoenix, rattled our bones and gave us a sense of new beginnings with their layered psychedelic prog rock. The band sounds studio-perfect live, in part due to the tandem magic of both a live pianist and synth player. Combining catchy vocal melodies with soaring guitar leads, Crippled Black Phoenix could easily headline a stadium show. However, given their uber-casual stage approach in hoodies with the hoods up, it seems like they have more fun retaining an underground spirit.

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That afternoon, Wolves in the Throne Room transformed the Main Stage into a Cascadian mountain haze – the five members’ shadowy profiles cut a sharp relief against the pink and blue hues at their backs as they blazed through a set heavy on material from Two Hunters. I quickly popped over to the Green Room after to catch the last song from Esben and the Witch, who captivated the room with chilling vocals and rhythmic riffing.

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The evening set in and so did anticipation for Coven. People exchanged thoughts about Jinx Dawson’s big return. Would it flop or be mind-blowing? Dawson emerged from an upright coffin and launched into a spot on vocal performance – albeit one that felt more quirky than anything else (at one point she brought out a skull and said, “you might have seen him on our Facebook pages…”). But the band successfully channeled an ominous vibe in their first European show ever and after almost three decades of being away from the stage.

I ventured over to Het Patronaat, where Dälek was already dosing the crowd with dark hip-hop. The New Jersey natives stood out on this year’s bill in genre alone, which made their nighttime set in the church even more enticing. The intensity of Dälek’s music comes from a perfect storm of elements – noise, shoegaze, and the varied vocal delivery of MC Dälek himself. Moments of harder beats mixed with mellow, looped passages emanated into a sea of nodding heads. This is the beauty of Roadburn. You can go from Coven, to Dälek, to...

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Deafheaven. The complaints I’ve heard over the years about Deafheaven run the gamut from too emo, too contrived, not true enough, etc. They are a polarizing band, but I’m entirely convinced this comes from attempts to peg them as something they aren’t. The shoegaze-y, effect-laden weight of Deafheaven’s sound can hardly be categorized as black metal alone. Tonight, vocalist George Clarke’s schizophrenic movements were the focal point, fluctuating more extremely than ever between manic orchestra conductor and serpent-like seductor. Stinging guitars and merciless drumming cut through the auditorium like a knife.

A palpable post-Deafheaven buzz continued into the wee hours. The night swirled into a maze of reunions with old friends, clinking glasses and excitement for the three days to come.

Choice set: Deafheaven

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All words by Julia Neuman.
Photos by Diana Lungu. View her portfolio here and follow her on Instagram at @winterfelled.

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