As August comes around, there’s only one festival on the calendar which is worth our time. No, not Reading, you’re so 2010. It’s ArcTanGent of course, the supreme residence of the edgiest of the edgy tentacles of music. Encompassing electronica, cinematic, math-rock, prog-metal, experimental and, whisper it, Emo, this 3 day 5000 capacity gathering in the Somerset countryside attracts some of the world’s best leftfield bands and acts. We kick off on Thursday with the sun blazing and a full day of ear-bending music in front of us. Roll up your sleeves, get the ear-plugs ready and let’s get stuck in.
Floral get the kind of first-band-on audience you can only expect on the first day of a festival before hangovers and late nights start to cause will-power issues. This mathy two piece slip between the rhythmically improbably to the outright masturbatory. There’s a man in the crowd with a large calculator on a stick. He loves it.
Ithaca meanwhile have heavier things on their minds. The guitarist, seemingly fresh from a trainee kid’s face-painting tent, raises the ghost of Dimebag Darryl’s crunch pedal. What they lack in Floral’s technicality, they make up for in power, beards and shouting. In particular singer Djamilia Azzouz is a welcome associate of a much broader spectrum of female band members evident at the festival this year. Ithaca also produce presumably the first of many bass players who resemble a lither member of the Magic Numbers.
2019 sees the welcome introduction of a new stage in the shape of The Bar which, unsurprisingly, can be found in the bar area next to the Arc Stage and is designed to give a chance to the newer or more experimental bands on the line-up. First up are Cornish rockers Haunt the Woods, who fall foul of the time-honoured tradition of trying to sound too much like another band, in this case the mighty Cornish Muse. The thing is, they actually do a fair job at it. There’s no classical piano and bat-shit guitar solos here but the vocal timbre and frontman mannerisms are so close to the Bellamy canon that it takes away from what is a very talented band. Once Haunt the Woods get their own personal sound, there could be big things on the cards for them. Of course, the NME initially said that Muse were a Radiohead rip-off, and we all know how that turned out.
Noise mongers Cocaine Piss don’t sound like Muse at all. The bassist’s shorts and sequinned jacket alone would be enough to shame a 6 year old, and I mean that in a good way. If you can imagine Bo Ningen fronted by Atari Teenage Riot’s Hanin Elias on MDMA, you’ll be somewhere near the mark. One suggestion though, if you’re going to continually wander through the crowd, invest in some wireless microphones, won’t someone think of the poor security staff – they’re crowd control not snake charmers.
After a solid 90 minutes of noise, a welcome change of pace is delivered by guitarist Yvette Young, performing the first of her two sets today (the second coming as part of Covet). Her classical solo guitar is met by an incredibly quiet respectful crowd, not something that’s easy to achieve mid-day at a festival. She says she’s jet-lagged but that certainly doesn’t seem to affect her finger-picking or haunting vocals.
Bossk are a difficult one to pigeon-hole, and that’s no bad thing. One minute its Young Team–era Mogwai then the next My Bloody Valentine level of commotion, mixing in Bluesy Primal Scream riffs and the occasional Opeth vocals throughout. All this to a backdrop of what looks like Windows 95 screensavers. Slightly baffling at times but all this adds up to something really special.
Meanwhile in the Bar Stage, Pave struggle to hit the mark with their pre-pubescent Keane noodling from the parallel dimension where Tom Chaplin has a sudden interest in odd time signatures.
It’s been a pretty big year for Tyneside’s Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs (hereon in called PigX7). Several sold-out tours and a mass of radio play have led to some great festival appearances. The odd thing is that it’s sometimes difficult to see why. There is power here absolutely, but each song blurs too closely into the next so they end up sounding like a really angry Black Rebel Motorcycle Club at the back of a dodgy Wetherspoons in Chorley. The 2 or 3 minutes of feedback between each song doesn’t help either when dealing with a short festival time slot. Matt Baty is a great frontman though and the crowd lap it up as expected.
There are very few bands around who exemplify the word ‘cinematic’. Sigur Ros and Caspian are fine examples, but Nordic Giants are well up there with the best. It’s sometimes easy to overlook just how good they are; dressing up a pair of giant cockerels at a Motley Crue convention doesn’t help. Their detonating post-rock would suit any episode of the Blue Planet and the visuals at times are so incredible they would give Christopher Nolan and Studio Ghibli a run for their money. They even finish with the most unlikely cover of Bohemian Rhapsody you’re ever likely to hear. Great stuff.
Back in the Bar Stage, Kuro are entertaining the drinking masses with their two-piece experimentation using an electric double bass, violin and a set of effects units which all seem to be set to digeridoo. All interesting stuff but as with anything a little avant-garde, it soon wears thin. At least the bar isn’t far.
And now we welcome back calculator-on-a-stick guy as Covet pick up the math baton on the Yohkai stage. It’s the second set with Yvonne Young, who shreds like a caffeine-boosted Steve Vai. There is only so much math-rock a man can take however before each band start to meld into one another. There seems to be an over-reliance on the Math-Rock pedal™, a high frequency chorus effect which seems to be a standard across all these bands. I realise pedal proficiency is a tough ask when playing hybrid-fingered arpeggios in 23/7 but give it a go sometime guys.
Sometimes it’s only obvious what you’ve been sorely missing when it’s thrust in your face. And what we’ve all been sorely missing here today are big fat riffs. Raketkanon take care of that. Raketkanon means RocketCannon in their native Flemish and that just about sums them up. Arming themselves with amputated headstock-less axes and preaching from the book of Morello, they smash through a set which feels half its actual duration. Best band to mosh to so far.
Polyphia produce the most potty-mouthed slab of math-rock so far, but also the most inclusive, swapping overly complex staccato for free-flowing rhythms. It’s surprising that calculator-on-a-stick man isn’t here. Maybe he’s had an integer overflow and needed a lie down.
Pijn confused everyone last year by replacing their set with their post-rock super-group Curse These Metal hands, but this year we get the pure Pijn experience. This is something I mentioned last year but the message seems to have been lost; Pijn is pronounced Pine and not Pigeon. Please take note this year ladies and gentleman, it will be included on the exam. The PX3 stage goes from being deserted to heaving in the matter of two minutes as the Polyphia overflow migrate from next door. That’s the great thing about ArcTanGent – no passengers, everyone is here to see as much live music as they can fit in. Pijn float gracefully between strings guiding the guitars to produce beautiful cinematic post-rock, before crashing in heavy discordant portions of wickedness. Their sound is honed brilliantly and they do all this with smiles on their faces. Brilliant.
‘A whistle solo away from Scorpions’ is the overheard description of 80s power-rock synth maniacs Carpenter Brut, which sums things up nicely. A montage of 80s horror b-movies augment the whole experience, a six year old next to me particularly enjoying the clips of a fatal electrocution sex scene. They are very good at what they do, but honestly, that’s a bit like my gran saying I’m looking healthy; you need to read between the lines.
Electronica has been a bit thin on the ground today so it’s with a glad heart we head to Chemical Brothers influenced drummer duo AK/DK. It’s great to see people enjoying playing so much, and when they have nailed their sound so well, it’s even better. The only downside was a pretty meagre turnout, but their loss is our gain. AK/DK don’t stray too far from their signature piece but when it works so well, why should they?
Back to the bar to top up the ale gauge and see Sleep Beggar. Initially sounding like Cypress Hill if Sen-Dog was from Merthyr Tydfil, they quickly morph into Sleaford Mods before straying far too close to Mr Durst’s baseball cap toward the finale. A bit of misguided off-the-mic poetry (even Mark Eitzel wouldn’t try and talk over a room full of people trying to buy booze without a mic), but all in all a really enjoyable, if slightly confusing set.
Heading back over to the Yohkai stage, it’s suddenly obvious why AK/DK are playing to such a scant crowd; it’s because half of the known universe have piled in to see Daughters. It’s a shame in some ways as they don’t seem to having half as much fun as AK/DK. They look SERIOUS. Daughters are so much better when they take their foot on the gas and groove, which gives more room for instrumentation and feels much heavier than any 120bpm four to the floor can give you. It also allows singer Alexis S.F. Marshal more chance to morph his vocals into a Zak Tell or Heitham Al-Sayed style delivery. Slow down guys, you’re much better for it.
And so the end of a wonderful first day at one of the best festivals around. Industrial strength ear-plugs are taken out to block any bleed from the silent disco (if that makes no sense, I refer you to my piece from last year and the Bon Jovi screaming neighbours) and get ready for another batch of fabulous bands tomorrow. Tomorrow gives rain, and lots of it.