Festival write-up: Arctangent 2015

Arctangent is a music festival for post-rock, math-rock and noisy stuff. I had a great time at the 2014 festival, attending for two days, so this year went for the whole shebang. It would neither be feasible nor interesting to review every band I saw, so I offer here some highlights and overall thoughts. It’s a bit long so I tried to make the section headers helpful.

Organisation

There is little to say about the festival organisation because it was done so well. Information was available, there were sufficient food and drink stalls at a fair price point, the toilets remained usable thoughout the festival. Silent disco lets people rock out until late while others retire to tents. My only criticism is that there was very little signage when driving to the festival site, and it could prove difficult to find in the absence of satellite navigation or a detailed map. Both the festival staff and the general atmosphere were relaxed and friendly.

The headliners

Day 1 was dedicated to previously-appearing bands, giving us LITE followed by 65daysofstatic on the main stage. Lite played loud, but often pretty, guitar-led music; they position themselves as a math rock band yet could easily be branded as post rock. Strong, but probably the least interesting headliner. 65daysofstatic were a little late due to technical problems (seemingly with their own equipment) but delivered a set of epic noisy post-rock. They’re capable of more high-tech and varied sets than the one they delivered, but it was well-judged for the festival audience and supported a good degree of mayhem at the front.

Naturally The Dillinger Escape Plan were not going to beaten when it came to energising the crowd; their set contained relatively few breaks from high-energy insanity. The festival’s organisers have commented that they hadn’t deliberately planned the headline acts to be so heavy, and were somewhat at the mercy of bands’ availability. In the end, however, the headliners all contrasted with each other, and closing each day with the most moshable band is no bad thing. While definitely “a heavy band”, sub-headliner The Fall of Troy‘s music was somewhat more intellectual than Dillinger’s while technically stunning. Frontman Thomas Erak’s guitar playing is incredible; an endless cascade of notes that form themselves into demanding yet satifying riffs.

Cult of Luna unfortunately had travel difficulties and had to play at the same time as headliner and tour-mates Deafheaven; this was probably for the benefit of the festival however as it bumped Deerhoof up to a sub-headliner slot that they clearly deserved. Deerhoof had it all; a whimsical positive energy that is somewhat lacking from the post/math/noise rock scene in general, while still able to swap instruments and bust out the most terrifying psychedelic jam of the festival. A number of people in the crowd were not familiar with Deerhoof, having come in from an interest in heavier music or at least less avante garde acts; the band’s charm and ability won them over quickly. Deafheaven‘s “blackgaze” experience was effective, and likely to win them some new fans. To paraphrase the friend I dragged to see them:

I hated the first twenty minutes or so, and then it clicked. I had earplugs in because they were loud, and listened to each of the instruments. I couldn’t follow the vocals because they were just screams, the guitars didn’t seem to be doing anything interesting,the bass didn’t seem to be doing anything interesting, and the drums weren’t providing much clue to what was going on either. Then I took the earplugs out, the high-end sizzle of the guitars built up, and after a few minutes I went “oh! It’s the way they sound together!”

Smaller acts

Iran Iran were given a criminally short set. One of the more technical and avante garde acts, they do seem to struggle to attract a crowd, which probably makes promoters wary, but I am convinced they were musically one of the most interesting and capable bands at the festival. Given a captive audience and shot of confidence they might
be able to achieve a lot more. Have a listen.

That Fucking Tank were disappointing; their lack of engagement with the audience while playing and usage of a backing track are forgiveable individually, but in combination led to a sense of self-indulgence. At another festival, the quality of their music would have been more of a redeeming factor, but there was no shortage of enjoyable math rock.

Maybeshewill pulled out all the stops for their epic post-rock set, bringing backing horns and strings to double the size of the band. Possibly angling for a headline slot? They threw themselves into their set and were embraced by the crowd, but there was little to find musically that was particularly dazzling. To some extent they brought the “old-school” post-rock vibe and “Not For Want of Trying” was a festival highlight. I would recommend seeing them if they’re nearby, but it’s hard to rate them as an essential listen over conspicuously absent giants like Mogwai or Explosions in the Sky.

On loopers, sequences and backing tracks

Loopers are getting tired. A lot of bands were using loop pedals, and the restrictions they place on composition should really be quite well-known by now: they tend to lead to songs with short, repeating chord progressions; build-ups are always long, regardless of whether that is musically desired; the volume and energy level is very difficult to decrease smoothly. There are solutions to these problems, but popular loop-based acts like Mylets are not making very much effort to avoid them, leading to very predictable sets. Mylets’ Henry Kohen showed himself to be a very capable and creative guitarist, and his set was marked by suspicion that he could be doing something a lot better by playing with other musicians. Then again, his ability to structure interesting compositions was left unproven… The best attempt at working around these issues probably came from AK DK, with a two-man-two-drumkit format offering more flexibility and a very enjoyable show. Nonetheless, their outros and build-downs lacked variety compared to guitar-based bands like Toundra.

We’re still figuring out the rules for when a backing track is acceptable and when it isn’t. That Fucking Tank’s backing track was a big turn-off, partly because it contained bass and guitar parts. Some people did walk out of The Algorithm looking grumpy, but the sizeable and enthusiastic remaining crowd clearly appreciated that having people play the rapid and chaotic synth arpeggios by hand was not a necessary requirement for the act to work. Nobody could object to Deafheaven’s moody guitar tracks playing in-between their songs while they re-tuned, but the volume level clearly signalled that these were recorded and separate from the performance.

On post-rock culture; a hypothesis

While outsiders might perceive math/post/noise rock as a pretentious scene related to progressive rock, there is actually a general sense that things have to be very “genuine”. There are few costumes; most bands dress in jeans and T-shirts. Bands brought no scenery beyond their instruments, rack gear and amplification; even then, the majority of bands made use of the (presumably sponsor-provided) Orange amp stacks available. Guitars and basses were almost exclusively from the top two brands, reminding me of a comment by Mogwai’s John Cummings: > “I suppose it’s not so much that Fender guitars look great as that everything else just looks terrible.” Is this the post-rock philosophy? Telecasters and precision basses are fairly priced, versatile, robust and proven. There’s nothing wrong with playing another guitar, but you are making a statement by doing so. Post-rock bands don’t like making statements where they aren’t needed, which is why vocals are used so sparingly. By avoiding making any statements about fashion, futurism or their ex-girlfriends, they avoid distracting their audience from the actual music. There is no such aversion to using the latest and greatest effects pedals, because they add a novel dimension to the music.

Top moments

  • Finding Iran Iran on the “clashfinder”, having assumed they would not be appearing.
  • The Dillinger Escape Plan’s Greg Puciato diving onto the crowd from the central scaffolding; exhilarating and not too contrived. Arguably this still wasn’t as cool as the kneeling crowdsurfing guitar breakdown.
  • Any time Deerhoof spoke to the crowd.

Best band

Deerhoof. Few acts contested them when it came to musicianship, and their showmanship was also world-class.

Some other bands I liked

  • Rolo Tomassi are great performers with an effective “one-and-a-half frontman” setup.
  • Tangled Hair are one to watch, making interesting music from an accessible basement rock pallette.
  • Valerian Swing were infectiously happy to be there, fun to dance to and active in the Dillinger mosh pit. Please invite them back!
  • Downard are the ones for those of use who like the idea of the “fuzzy riffs and drums” formula but find Royal Blood to be horribly overrated.
  • USA Nails – this high-energy post-punk band were not the most obvious choice for the festival but they definitely hit the quality barrier and provided a bit of variety while providing some clues as to where the noise rock scene has its origins.

Ranty post-script: “BBC Introducing”

The small PX3 tent was hosted by “BBC Introducing” for the first day of the festival. Their attempt to record some enthusiastic crowds for a radio show did not go very well. Some pointers for next time:

  1. Don’t insult your audience. “We’re not going to broadcast any of this excellent music, we’d rather broadcast some people chanting” is not a good message. If people are at ATG, they probably think the music there is better than the vast majority of what you broadcast. Don’t rub it in.
  2. Capture an audience. An audience who can hear another band starting up in the next tent is not a captive audience; it’s an audience who actively want to leave. This could have been avoided by discussing your plans further in advance with the bands, and having them work your segment into the set.
  3. Show your understanding of the music and don’t claim credit for other people’s jokes. We are not impressed that your favourite thing about Iran Iran is their track names; the track names are hilarious but the music is pretty good too. Math rock is riff-based, but the riffs are generally mangled, drifting in and out of phase, or rapidly developed and abandoned. Singing back catchy riffs is not a natural way to respond to this music.
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