Saturday, 7 September 2013

Arc the herald angels don't usually sing. Arc Tan Gent Festival Live Review

Arc Tan Gent Festival *****
Fernhill Farm Somewhere in the bowels of Somerset 29-31st August

So it's finally here. A festival for all the weirdies. All the unclassifiable ones. All the ones who can clap in time. The ones with beards. And plaid. 

Joking aside, since it was announced by the good people behind the mighty 2000 Trees, Arc Tan Gent has been one of the most fiercely anticipated and important festivals in years.  

It's a collection of off-beat, alternative (in the true sense of the word) diverse, challenging, brilliant, quirky and outré acts (mainly from our sceptred isles) that forms the perfect antidote to the banal and predictable gruel served up at most of the myriad of carbon copy corporate calamities crammed to the gills with Clapham-dwelling, Bulmers drinking, flowery wellie-wearing, Kings Of Leon-listening, Superdry-sporting, faceless, tasteless ISA investing, BMW-driving dicks. And it's here. Thank the fucking lord.

In keeping with the slightly off-beat theme, things kick off a day early with a limited line up culminating in a fan-voted set from Leicester's post rock dahlinks, Maybeshewill. And the crowds have poured in for the warm up day, filling the verdant Fernhill fields from the word go.

Before we tumble into the music on offer, it's worth pointing out just how brilliantly this festival is set up. It's quite small but doesn't feel pokey. The vibe is fantastic. Über-friendly in and laid back in the extreme (aided by THC no doubt). Everyone is here for the music. Not a right of passage, a gap year gas or bucket list box ticking exercise.

The layout is well thought through (with the possible exception that the impressive main stage may have been slightly better placed in the bowl of the natural amphitheatre rather than perched atop its side - probably drainage issues to be fair). But the food concessions, merch, other stores and stages are perfectly appointed. Could have done with a few more bogs though.

Right, music. Given the daunting task of opening the whole junket are local trio Memory Of Elephants ***** and they do a sterling job. A tremolo-infused post noise rocky din switching between two guitars and a bass and guitar and serving up the already packed tent a great aperitif.

Obviously, even with the best intent in the world, it's impossible to catch every act, but from the snippets I catch, ensuing (and from what I can glean, also local) acts Flights and Falling Stacks seemed to continue the vibe to an equally packed tent before Alright The Captain ***1/2** (replacing POHL) take to the boards. And they deliver a jazzy/mathy/proggy/post rocky/jagged and boisterous fusillade with wit, energy and spice. Tasty.

Next up are Hereford tribe Talons***1/2** violin and all. Which affords the band a bit of space between itself and some of the other post-rock acts around. And mercifully is used differently enough from tune to tune; not just as a pad or stringy fill. Stabby staccato and pizzicato, frenzied, almost Paganini-like cadenzas and melodic ersatz-vocal work sit happily above the intricate soundscapes provided by the more traditional instruments. A heady and interesting mix.

Talking of traditional, next up are the stoner, spacey, proggy, monged Amplifier *****. Dressed like something from a 70's Saturday night end of the pier spectacular or golf club dinner dance - resplendent in black shirts with snazzy matching amulets and serious faces, they (eventually, after starting 10 minutes or so late - TCH? Surely not) kick off into a set with the bong water infused with everything from Into The Void era Sabbath, Intronaut, A Perfect Circle, Uriah Heep and even touches of The Buggles if they were backing Tool. 

Occasional big-arsed half time riffs and repetitive, head bobbing inducing chuggy bombs rear their alien heads from forgotten decades and Sel Balamir's spacey lyrics provide a sprinkle of even more mind-altering weirdness to proceedings. An often bizarre and somewhat uncomfortable, but not wholly unpleasant, trip. Man.

So, next up and now in front of a fully rammed and overspilling tent it's the turn of the delicious Maybeshewill****1/2* The fan-voted set throws up few surprises and every riff, passage and melody is fervently sung back by a baying, salivating crowd. The spine-tingling Red Paper Lanterns and melodic hook overloaded I'm In Awe Amadeus are personal high spots, but the set is jammed with beauty, depth, goosebump-inducing progressions all  delivered with wonderful craft and genuine enjoyment. 

The love in the tent is just huge and serves as a great big good night snog and a hug for all the happy campers (despite not quite reaching the vinegar stroke of the last number due to the over-running of the bong-water drinking Amplifier). Awesome stuff indeed. And so to bed. Well, after a bit of a party.

So, thanks mainly to Cotswold Cider and Montepulciano, Friday shuffles into focus shrouded in a hazy fug and the impressive main stage crackles into life for the first time. To be honest the delicious locally smoked bacon roll and coffee accounted for missing most of the openers The Naturals, but they seem to draw in a reasonable crowd from the rapidly swelling day one proper numbers. 

But it's Baby Godzilla***** who really shake off the collective post-party torpor with a fantastic, aggressive, mayhem-strewn kick in the face set of punky, hardcore-hued anthemic, grizzly and uplifting noise. This lot look like the band that a family in Shameless would have been. You know, the noisy bastard neighbours with overgrown front garden strewn with rusty car parts, old bikes, piles of pizza boxes and beer cans who spend the day just shouting at each other.

The two feral front men spend more of their time off the stage than on it taking instruments and mics into the throng. Climbing gantries, using crowd members as mic stands, throwing guitars around, even - and quite brilliantly - giving a guitar to a member of the crowd to play through one song. And - remarkably - it hangs together. A shell shocked early congregation enters fully into the spirit and they really have set the bar high for the day. 

And by the time the last guitar makes its way back onto stage, shorn of strings and looking like most people's hungover heads, the fug has truly been lifted and smiles have replaced any dehydrated downturned mouths. Brilliant stuff.

Right, hangover confined to history, time to properly ease into what's going to be a long day. Over to the second stage for Leeds-based stoner psychedelic progmeisters Humanfly*****
A reasonable early crowd has gathered by the time the interstellar overdrive button is pressed and our trippy journey begins. 

What follows is an eye-closing, mind expanding, head bobbing voyage of wonder. So many influences could be cited from Floyd to Greenslade, Caravan to Return To Forever. But, the bizarre thing is, that despite the rock, jazz, fusion, prog and stoner lineage, it still feels kind of fresh. Even original. 

John Sutcliffe's light and ethereal vocals struggle a tiny bit this early but the band are tight, sharp and totally loving it. There's a comfort and warmth; almost a nostalgia in the air as they power through lengthy, multi-layered and faceted spacey flight. And I can't get the grin off my face. Can't wait to see them in a dingy late night sweaty room with a proper lightshow, Just what the Doctor Seuss ordered. 

So, feeling as metaphorically stoned thanks to the Humanfly big fat human one, it's time to return to some mathy, post-rock. And who better to ease the come down than East Midland scene stalwarts You Slut!*****

Their poppy, dancy undercurrent is supported by choppy, techy, intricate time signature noodling and syncopated polyrhythms but the overall effect is far from inaccesible; in fact the opposite. Despite the counting and the oft complex constructs, this is good time fuck yeah fuel. And the tent knows it. A packed Bixler tent laps it up greedily and the affable quartet seem humbled by it. But the adoration is fully deserved with early afternoon perspiration and dopamine levels soaring off the chart. Bloody marvellous.

Following on from You Slut! on the Bixler stage are Brighton-based trio Physics House Band ***** A beautiful and stealthy start with a duel between keys and bass, refereed by an inquisitive drummer suddenly blossoms into a set of true majesty. 

Adam Hutchison's mesmerising bass playing is the glue that holds the amazing tour-de-force together. I have seldom seen such brilliance from one so young. It's impossible to cast aside comparisons with a young Stanley Clarke: this guy is the nuts. However, in fairness it's not all about him. He's abetted by the multi instrumentalist  and wonderfully monikered Sam Organ on guitar and various keys and noise making rigs and the sharp drumming of Dave Morgan provides a remarkable trellis for the music to climb all over.

This is top drawer music. In any category. Flying wildly between genres, taking in jazz fusion, funk, prog, mathcore and general neo-classical modernism, it's quite simply astonishing. 

shoe gazing. man.

Back to the main stage for a much needed post-Physics House Band coital chill at the hands of kentish soundscapers Yndi Halda***** I love this lot, but (my fault) they've dropped off my radar a little recently, so I don't know what they've been up to since the last time I saw them supporting the mighty and much missed Oceansize. 

Their magnificent album Enjoy Eternal Bliss is right up there on my most played list and thankfully they soothe us with works culled  from it this fine afternoon. But, dammit,  there's a load of new stuff on show that I'm unaware of. And it mainly includes vocals. Not that that's a bad thing by any means. It's just caught me off guard. But the vibe is, as always beautiful and mellow without being soporific. A perfect late afternoon balm. Eternal Bliss indeed.

Complete change of pace needed. Prescription: 
Sheffield's mighty noise canons Rolo Tomassi ****1/2* 

I'm beginning to fall deeply in love with this festival. While, on the face of it, there appear to be a lot of very similar bands on the bill, it's dawning on me that there's such staggering diversity and startling cleverness in the curation that any initial apprehension or preconceptions were as specious as they were misplaced. Proof, if needed is delivered in spades by the Spence siblings and their noisenik crew. 

A brisk and wonderful set shows off the delicious Eva Spence's baffling Jekyll and Hyde Schizophrenia: on one hand delightful, seductive, ethereal chanteuse - on the other: a rusty box of napalm stuffed with tacks, shards of glass and fuck-off thorns and thistles with a sonic output like a Superbike with a knackered silencer.

But, as always, it works. A good range of old favourites and the newer, slightly more sophisticated work from the stunning Astraea spellbind the crowd. And the band look as though they're thoroughly enjoying themselves too; bopping, writhing, jumping, looning and grinning their way through their jazzy, alt, mathy, poppy melange. 

Because of bill congestion and slight overlaps, it all gets a bit frantic for a bit, but I do manage to grab a solid earful of the ever-brilliant Brontide***** on a rammed Bixler stage complete with Nathan Fairweather making the same dash from Rolo Tomassi's main stage triumph to take up the four strings for the post-rock kings. They truly are leaders of a very talented pack and tonight they cement themselves into that position with the adoring masses.

Back on the main stage (or was it before - all getting a bit much thanks to Jager, Cider, the last of the Montepulciano and 'Humanfly'), it's time for Maybeshewill ***** again. 

This time a slightly different set, but delivered with the same passion and pleasure to a much bigger crowd than last night's intimate kick off.

The neck hairs are up again. The collective goosebumped flesh makes the crowd look like a Bernard Matthews plucking shed and the thousands of doe-eyed faces must hurt from smiling. This is just wonderful. And as the sun is setting in the heart of Somerset, there isn't a dry eye in the field as the monumental shimmering beauty of some of the world's finest melodic post-rock enraptures and mesmerises. It truly doesn't get much better than this.

So, still bathing in the total beauty of Maybeshewill, it's time for yet anther change of stage and mood. Quirky Londoners Public Service Broadcasting***1/2** are headlining the Bixler stage with their kooky audio visual, post Kraftwerk, automaton triggered, Orwellian/Kafkaesque prole-tertainment smorgasbord. And the gathered citizens and denizens tuck in greedily. There's a dry humour thoroughout with even the 'banter' between tunes synthesized. But the overall effect is one of energization and this is as near as Arc Tan Gent has got to a rave yet with lots of lost souls losing their collective shit; albeit in a slightly controlled and middle-England kind of way. One imagines the smartly turned out band members would approve of the restraint and decorum. 

I'll be honest, Much as I love 65DaysofStatic***** I only manage to stay upright for a portion of their stunning set before needing a late evening safety nap. But the light show and huge crowd do their best to keep me together enough to get stuck in to the vibe for long enough to crack my face from smiling yet again. I'd be lying like a cheap korean watch if I could remember exactly what they play. But it is, as always splendid. I think. Oh fuck it. Time for another Jager bomb and  the silent disco.

The Silent Disco*****
if you weren't there, I'm not going to even begin to explain. Just, fuck.

Oh god.

No, really. Oh God.

Right, got to man up. There's heads to nod. Beards to stroke. Shoes to gaze at. Coffee to be drunk. Bacon to be gobbled. Hmmmm, bacon.

So, after, what can only be described as a 'sketchy' night, it's time to start all over again. And what better way to ease away the toxins than with a saunter down to the sun-soaked main stage for some soothing tunes. 

Things kick off with a space psych noodling and pleasant enough wake up at the hands of ANTA***** who draw a surprisingly healthy (in numbers not physical condition, clearly) early crowd who bob along to their mashed up time signature other-worldly din.

Hot on the space winged heels of ANTA are Delta Sleep*****
And this eclectric crew move things up (and pace wise, down) a notch or two. A sophisticated cocktail of post-rock vibes with towering repetitive, hummable passages that would grace an early Radiohead long player set to an, at times almost jazzy rhythmic backdrop with inevitable alt influences swimming to the surface. 

Think Colours or Tubelord (without the hysteria) mixed with moments of Reuben but with a Brontide-like modular construction. God, that sounded pretentious. Sorry. Anyway, heady and fabulous stuff. And the perfect companion to more yet more Cotswold cider. 

Continuing with the laconic, spiritual and glorious sunny morning vibe, next up are the cello-driven Pirate Ship Quintet***1/2** And they continue the group seduction with a chilled, multi-layered and textured blanket of loveliness. Hmmm.

Vessels***** do their Vessels-like thing next and manage to hold on to what's becoming a nomadic crowd while entertaining them with a splendid tapestry of big harmonic and melodic huggery.

But it's TTNG***** who really get Saturday smiling. And, indeed, probably the whole weekend. A totally spellbinding and magical smirkfest beguiles and stupefies the huge crowd. They are in their own perfect bubble. Not rushed, phased, worried or seemingly aware of what's around them. But not in a distant or an aloof way. In fact, completely the opposite. They are charming, engaging, enthralling and delightful. Tim Collis's legendary and peerles tapping, sliding, intricate and totally effortless brilliance on the guitar provides the canvas on which his brother Chris's sublime drumming and Henry Tremain's delicious vocals and equally majestic fretwork paint masterpiece after masterpiece.

Breaths are genuinely taken away and a hazy mass delirium settles on the bucolic Saturday afternoon pastoral scene. An absolute privilege to be here and one of the most genuinely memorable and beautiful experiences imaginable. Genius. Just genius.

Now this is the only major clash bummer of the weekend. Who, in their right mind wouldn't want to see the incredible and other worldly majesty of Nordic Giants? Who? Well, no one. But a major gaff on the line up meant that I only catch the merest whiff of the moving brilliance which is a real sickener.

So, sad, but undaunted, I reach for one of the best possible cures: the ever-brilliant Arcane Roots****1/2* Now, the clash gods have also been unkind to Kingston's world class trio and the Bixler tent is not as full as they rightly deserve. 

Unbothered, Mssrs Groves, Burton and Atkins climb into a fizzing and aggressive set which gets the pits opening up and arms and legs flailing like a speed dictation exercise at a sign language conference. All hell breaks loose and the huge-bollocked riffology of Resolve, the visceral madness of Second Breath, the sing-a-long glory of You Are and the utter arrhythmia-inducing set closer Million Dollar Que$tion are among the highlights of the whole weekend. Amazing stuff, amazing band. Slightly out of water among the post rock math fish in this particular lake, but a fabulous and engaging performance. As always.

Another traipse back to the main stage, this time to be wowed by the ever-sensational Three Trapped Tigers*****

It's always tempting to put  fantasy supergroups together when you see so many brilliant bands in such close proximity. But, despite there being such an embarrassing wealth of amazing drummers on show (however expected that might be at such a tech/prog/math event) Adam Betts will always be first on the team sheet. He is, to put it mildly, one of the most incredible dummers on the planet. 

It's as disingenuous as it is unfair to label TTT as Bett's band, but he is the prima ballerina. The controlling genius midfielder. The general. The showy-offy, better than everybody else, goody two shoes, creepy bum-lick bastard. And what a show he and his two buddies Tom Rogerson and Matt Calvert put on.

Putting the noise into noise-rock, they assault every organ. Overload every sense. Hyper-excite every nerve ending. Huge sub bass growls, brown-notes, spiralling arpeggios and thudding, teeth-rattling riffs completely captivate and seduce the bewildered but beguiled crowd. It's not the stuff you put on the hi-fi at a standard semi-detached house party, but man, it rocks and given the adoration and adulation it engenders this evening its certainly a party starter in this part of town. Er, country.

A quick mention again about the festival in general, but mainly the food. As already mentioned, the organisation and layout is bang on, but I just want to run the rule over the spectacular food: Dorset Smokery ***** amazing bacon Pie Minister***** pies don't come much pie-ier. Delicious. The Fernhill Farm Outlet ***** Honestly, the tastiest shoulder of lamb I've ever tasted. Sublime. Glastonbury Wood Fired Pizza Van Thing ***** Pizza From a wood burning oven. Say no more. Apart from Pepperoni. Hmmm. Cotswold Cider ***** Hic.

On the home straight now. And what better way to start winding things up than with Ulster's triumphant instrumental legends ASIWYFA*****?

Right from the off, there's a super-special vibe in the absolutely crammed main stage. Barriers are broken down (and lovingly restored by the terribly well-behaved but seriously rowdy crowd) as the human remains in this Somerset field collectively lose their shit.

The band look as though they've never been happier as they stride through a masterful set jammed as full as a bull's bum with explosiveness, joy, vim, power, passion, energy and bucketloads of fun. As atmosphere goes, this is the one this weekend. There is a telepathy between the crowd and the band. It's like the masses of gyrating, thrashing and whirling bodies are sync-linked to the sound output. It's truly awesome to be part of. Pits, moshing, dancing, gay abandon. Heavenly oneness. A true musically and heart-driven shared experience never to be forgotten. World class.

Well, that's me done. Try to get into a rammed tent for the always excellent Tall Ships***** but have to settle for watching them from afar (see what I did there?). They're bloody good to be fair. Have a look at Bo Ningen***** Nah. Not happening. Go to see Fuck Buttons***** Not my kind of thang. Too many computers. Not enough real. But impressive light show. But, after ASIWYFA, nothing is going to work. Even a Zeppelin reunion. So to the Shisha tent. Hmmm. Humanfly.

Crashed. Burned. Staggered. Astonished. Spellbound. Fucked. What a totally amazing weekend stuffed with some of the very best music one could ever hope to be exposed to. 

A total triumph of curation, organisation and delivery. Need to recover before next year. Can't wait.

Bring it on.

More tunes soon. Bwoooar!

Pictures and shit: Because my phone ran out of charge earlier than expected, I've had to 'liberate' some of the pics used in this post from other sources including screen grabs and stills. I hope you don't mind. Would have been even duller without them. Don't send me to jail. I don't want to shower with Mr Big. Or play mummies and daddies.


  1. Humanfly have split :( Glad you wrote so well about them though. They ROCKED :D

  2. Felt exactly the same about ASIWYFA - highlight of the weekend? Fuck yeah!