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Roadburn 2011 ended a little over three weeks ago, yet I am just now getting around to being able to write about it. Had I done so immediately following, the review would consisted of little more than all-caps and mindless babble. The enormity and awesomeness of the festival shocked me, and took a while to sink in. Now, looking back, I believe I can express how it made me feel, and it changed my perception on how a good metal gathering should be constructed.

— Tommy Young

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Setting the stage

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I had very little idea what to expect prior to arriving in Tilburg, other than Godflesh was going to be playing Streetcleaner in its entirety the first night (a drunken night randomly trying to discover new music led me to stumbling upon the fest).

My exposure to metal festivals had been limited to outdoor amphitheatres or parking lots: a scattering of metal fans, with a lot of people who just like an excuse for drinking all day long. Fair enough, but that's a very different experience from a relatively small gathering of 1500 or so people who have traveled from all over the world to see fairly specific sub-genres of music.

I knew some of the bands involved, but knew very little about the majority of them. While normally I would meticulously study the bands and map out my schedule for seeing them, for whatever reason I did the exact opposite and did no studying.

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And then there was Roadburn

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Our traveling party consisted of me and my good friend John. We spent some time in Amsterdam prior to traveling to Tilburg, mentally preparing for the onslaught, and took a train in Thursday morning, the first day of the festival. Scattered among the cars were several groups of people in obvious metal garb. We felt safe.

There was a connection just outside Tilburg. On the platform, a group of folks with camping bags approached us. "Excuse me, mates (they were from New Zealand, it turned out), but you look like you're going to Roadburn. I assume we're on the right track?" They were, indeed, and it felt good to be helping shepherd the throngs of metal fans to their Mecca.

We got to the venue early to pick up our wristbands. Cafes overflowed with joyous metalheads. We were in the right place.

The festival was split across two venues, the 013 and Midi Theater (only a block or so apart), as well as a separate building with a merch room and screening room. The 013 was split into 3 venues: the "main room", the Green Room, and the appropriately titled Bat Cave.

An indoor metal festival? Sure, I'd been to several indoor day-fests before, but I had my suspicions about how this would work out. It would work out beautifully.

I cannot describe the experience any more vividly than as “surreal”. The daily routine went something like this:

  • Enter venue, let eyes adjust to the darkness, settle in
  • Hear the faint buzz of guitars, start following your ears to its source
  • Listen to incredible music. Faintly hear another set of instruments as people pass in and out, seek it out
  • Take a break and spill back out into the day, wondering, "What time is it? Where am I? Who cares!"
  • Repeat

The 013 was a labyrinth. There were odd passageways and what felt like secret rooms to ferry you back and forth between the various stages. One minute I would be nodding my head and pumping my fist to some blazing stoner rock in the Main Room, only to stumble into the Bat Cave and be smacked in the face with smoke and a bunch of guys in shrouds, wondering if I had just died and gone to hell. That happened half a dozen times at least.

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A Winter(fylleth) Wonderland

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The atmosphere in town was electric. The congregation in Tilburg was fascinating and inspiring. Watching a quaint and rustic European town become washed over with unreadable black t-shirts, spikes, and patch-covered jackets was an incredible experience.

Since the festival has been going on for a few years now, the town knows what to expect. And they embrace the strange visitors as family. Whether it was the "Roadburn Burger" specials at every cafe or the concocted "Black Death" cocktails, you knew the town was celebrating along with its temporary invaders. The rallying cry of metal was resonant.

All day long, streams of black moved between the buildings of the venue, spilling into the streets with beers held high, enjoying coffee in cafes, sharing stories of the bands they'd seen, and getting excited for the next round. It was an unforgettable three days of celebration and camaraderie for a common cause, losing yourself in the creativity and surrounding people.

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The Music

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The bands were all different, all amazing, and all fit in and made sense. Roadburn was a totality of all those involved, not focused on a particular band or even genre. It was broad and far-reaching and a sum of its parts. I now have a much fuller iPod. There were, however, some very memorable performances for me.

Godflesh was the main reason I attended this festival. The temptation of seeing the legendary Justin Broadrick and G.C. Green playing was too much to turn down. The thunderous and clanky bass that is so awesomely Godflesh rang throughout the venue. Broadrick's guttural vocals were apocalyptic. Drum purists may have scoffed at the drum machine being used, but I didn't notice or care. It was epic.

After their set, we basked in the glory of what we just experienced. We had seen one of the greatest live shows in our lives, so everything from here on out could be considered bonus. Bonus #1 was a closing set by Soilent Green, who were simply heavy as can be - incredible talents sharing a stage.

Day 2 of the fest had the most interesting change of pace, in the form of grindcore band Trap Them, one of my favorite bands. What was intriguing was that they were the "fastest", most purely metal band playing the show. While one could expect the crowd to be relatively well-behaved for the majority of bands, the one you could expect the opposite from was Trap Them.

We debated whether the festival's first real pit would break out during their set. It finally did, about three quarters of the way through it. European crowds have a reputation for not moshing, and I don't know if it was a bunch of Americans inciting it, but who cares? It was a fun pit. Trap Them brought a fun energy to the crowd and injected some unexpected pep. A lot of people who didn't know them were blown away. I was much pleased.

My top surprise of the festival was Hooded Menance, currently my favorite band. I had been told not to miss them on Saturday, and I might have, had I not gotten freaked out by Sunn O)))'s set (not surprising). The Finnish death metallers were imposing in appearance (yes, they wore hoods) and were the perfect way to finish up the night. No-frills, doomy death metal with horror movie-inspired lyrics are a winning combination. If you asked me to come up with the perfect amalgam of death metal and doom metal, it would be this band. Please listen to them if you haven't already.

I can't cover all my discoveries, but Year of No Light, Acid King, Grave Miasma, White Hills, and Blood Farmers are in heavy rotation at the moment, among others.

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In Summary

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My takeaways from my time at Roadburn:

  • Metal is a beautiful thing in whatever form it takes.
  • At the end of the day, music is the soundtrack for life.
  • Don't miss out on opportunities to see good live music. I regret not knowing about Roadburn until this year, and I'm sure there are more diamonds in the rough like this that aren't cookie-cutter metal fests. Keep your eyes peeled.

Long live music as celebration for days on end!

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