Day one...actually day zero. To properly prep for the four day marathon of Roadburn, I flew in early and spent an extra day in Amsterdam to fight jet lag and spent some time at Excalibur and The Cave with a local metal fan originally from Poland. At a late night falafel stand I ran into two people just back from a Daniel Johnston show at a local church and the drummer from the Meat Puppets just off from some shows in Italy. I found out too late (ie, the next day) that Wino and Conny Ochs played a free show at a squat downtown. I knew Roadburn was to be an overload but didn't realize I'd be starting right away. More than eighty bands over four days and four stages looked to be a daunting challenge of stamina, but I was up for that challenge.
"Play something heavy!" That was the mockingly jesting cat call from the upper balcony as Yob concluded their crushingly massive Catharsis set. In a weekend filled with heavy, dark tones and themes carried along via unflinching volume, this set stood out. Saturday's headlining set from Sleep was the only one that stood toe to toe with the cataclysmic force of the Portland trio's statement without blinking.
As a first time visitor to Tilburg's best-known and well-loved festival (this year's edition had all the tickets sell out in about seven minutes), I was mightily impressed by the depth and breadth of the lineup, and by the first class sound and light production across all four stages. Think of it like an ATP curated for the metal set. And as with ATP, juggling conflicts is part of the game. Here, the spacious main room was at odds with the smaller Green Room and even smaller Stage01 (formerly the Bat Cave), and if you didn't make it a point of getting in either of those rooms between set changes, there was a high probability that you'd be outside in the hallway, straining your neck to catch a glimpse of what may be going on stage. Hell, it took me a good ten minutes just to leave the Green Room during Saturnalia Temple's set! The fourth venue for this year was a new one (Het Patronaat replacing the now-closed Midi Theatre), just a 45 second walk from the main 013 venue, past another building that housed the merch tables, an on-site record store hosted by Burning World, and the cinema offerings. Het Patronaat could fit six hundred or so, and was a beautifully rendered space with a balcony that offered additional viewing options.
Just down the road, Away (aka Michel Langevin, drummer for Voivod) had a showing of his artwork hosted at a local gallery. In case one wanted to escape the sound and crush for a bit, a nearby pedestrian area was a mere block away and offered plenty of outside cafes to order food or drink. In terms of logistics, Roadburn had it fully dialed in.
It'd be pointless to ramble on about the countless awesome moments that Roadburn yielded during the proper three days and somewhat-attenuated Sunday known as Afterburner, so instead I'll try to distill the very best moments as some sort of loose diary.
Sleep - Despite Voivod's curation of Friday, playing Dimension Hatröss in it's entirety as well as a full set on the opening night, the big draw of the weekend for most of the people I talked with was Sleep. The main room was jammed (even the photo pit was full to capacity; luckily I was shooting for the band so I had the freedom to shoot the entire show from wherever I could squeeze myself to), and they did not disappoint, bringing the full Iommic crunch to bear with a primal, beautifully thunderous howl. Visuals by Josh Graham and sound by Dave Clark completed the full team approach, and afterwards bass player Al Cisneros proclaimed that it was his favorite Sleep gig ever.
Barn Owl - The duo of Evan Caminiti and Jon Porras keep getting better and better, and the hulking sound scapes and lonely parched lands they conjure from just two guitars is fairly incredible to experience. For fans of Earth who want a bit less plod to the processions, seek this out.
Yob - Incredibly strong doom trio that played yeoman duties over the Roadburn days. Not only did they play two full sets featuring two complete LPs (The Unreal Never Lived; Catharsis), but Mike Scheidt played a last-minute solo acoustic set to kick off Saturday. Due to the Barn Owl conundrum, I missed most of the Unreal set, but made plans to not leave the room for Catharsis, which as a record title, lives up to its name quite nicely. The whipping hair mass of Scheidt and bass player Aaron Reiseberg was like a many-headed hydra, repeatedly rearing its head and spitting out monstrous, venomous riffs.
Black Cobra - Whoever plays the last gig of a four day festival has a thankless task, but the riff/crunch duo of Jason Landrian and Rafael Martinez proved more than up to the task. Relentlessly pummeling the crowd (including Scheidt, who was on the rail with an ear to ear grin) and filling the room with pure sound, it struck me that they had no problem commanding a room of 2000 people, and yet I saw them a few months ago in Boston in a room of about 100.
Ulver - Though I can't say it was a highpoint of the weekend, Ulver's set of 60's cover songs was a brave move. Definitely notable for moving from their black metal roots, this Norwegian ensemble played a swinging set that had most of the black t shirt and denim crowd confounded.
The Obsessed - Roadburn's got a knack for pulling out all the stops in order to get a coveted band to play here, and this year's installment was Wino's pre-St Vitus band The Obsessed. The lineup was the latter one, with Guy Pinhas (bass) and Greg Rogers (drums) who also formed the rhythm section of Goatsnake and Scott Reeder was nowhere to be seen, but the songs ranged from all of their second phase. If there's one figure who's been deeply woven into history of doom, it's Wino, and seeing this performance was a rare treat.
Oranssi Pazuzu - Not many metal bands make the Fender Telecaster their guitar weapon of choice, but this Finnish collective has been busy trampling over the norms and boundaries of black metal, bringing in samples, keyboards, and dark psychedelia and staying away from blast beats. Their set was dark and dramatic, the sound and lighting drawing one in until the noose was tight and there was no escape. I don't speak any Finnish, but it seemed to be pretty clear that when the singer was manically screaming the title of "Komeetta" the overall gist had to be "look out, that hideous monster behind you is about to tear into your spinal cavity if you don't move!"
I feel a bit neglectful of not spending any time mentioning the new Om material, the three separate shows that Justin Broadrick did as part of his residency, the epic prog/metal blend of Ancestors, a particularly steamrolling set of Bongripper's Satan Worshipping Doom, Chelsea Wolfe's eerie blend of Marissa Nadler and PJ Harvey, or the smothering heaviness of serial killer/stoner jams that Church of Misery doled out (and successfully survived the momentum killers of not one but two different bass rig failures) and for all of those wondrous moments, there's scores of other people frothing at the mouth about life-changing sets I missed. That's the beauty of Roadburn; it goes against the American credo of "You Can Have It All," and shows that you don't need to.