Using an enforced three year break to make significant site improvements and bigger stages, ArcTanGent festival taking place at the beautiful Fernhill Farm near Bristol, England, returned better than ever with a ravenous crowd, scintillating performances, and even the sun showing its face!
For anyone who was ever a fan of Black Peaks (which should be everyone), vocalist Will Gardner’s new band Skin Failure are a different beast musically, but no less engaging in a live setting. Four years since Will has played a show, and you can see how much it means to him to be back on stage and the band take no time at all to get the fans earliest into the arena warmed up for the weekend ahead. Considering the band only have one song released, the crowd is rabid and meets every demand asked of them – the wall of death is possibly the biggest of the whole weekend, and it’s only 1pm. The band employ tennis ballboys to feed them beer whilst they’re playing, and two more to shoot the crowd with beer pistols. They clearly have their live set figured out, and for the first of the day, it could end up being one of the sets of the weekend.
Up next is Blodet, drone-cum-post-rockers from Skellefteå, Sweden, and they provide a much helpful change of pace, allowing the audience to chill out for a while and bask in their reserved nature, but with a beautiful vocal performance from frontwoman Hilda Heller. The pounding drum and the warmth of the bass throughout provides a fitting counterpart to the beaming sun, and an at-first curious crowd is captivated, and by the end, converted. Lovely.
Continuing the theme of a slower, more chilled set, but bringing the atmosphere to a much darker place, A.A. Williams over on the main stage provides a haunting yet mesmeric 45 minutes, the packed tent remaining pretty much silent through the entire duration through respect, barring at the end of each song to let out a rapturous applause. The band themselves are incredibly tight and the aesthetic full of class, and with only one full-length under her belt thus far, there’s an air of a future star on display here, and you could really see A.A. Williams headlining this festival in the not too distant future.
A beautiful thing about ArcTanGent is that you can go from watching a set of elegance, walking a minute over to the next tent and being met with sheer horror and chaos. Imperial Triumphant‘s tent is full from the off – they’re a name that people will have heard bandied about and have clearly wanted to check them out based off the hype. Obviously, with their discordant atonality and mesh of metal and jazz, this band aren’t for everyone, shown by a fair few people walking out during the first couple minutes. However, there are an equal number of passers-by, if not more, who hear the band and are drawn into the tent. It’s a creepy and unnerving 45 minutes, but technically the band are superb, playing a good mix of songs across their three albums and the new material sounding better live than on record. There’s a New York noir feel across the set which complements their aesthetic well, but their music is the real star and whilst it may take a while to wrap your head around, the payoff will be immense.
Heading into the evening and France’s Alcest bring an air of majesty with their post-black-metal tendencies and ambient passages allowing the crowd to get completely swept up by the music; the dual vocal approach works beautifully to create texture and the crowded tent’s fans know every word and shout them back with raw emotion. Considering they’ve been going over two decades at this point and changed their sound considerably in that time, Alcest still feel as relevant and revered as ever and you can see them being a stepping-stone band for people getting into the harsher end of the genre too. They show that they’re very humbled to be here and have one of the most affecting sets of the entire weekend.
Subheadlining the main stage is Belgium’s finest post-metal troupe, Amenra. Recruiting Oathbreaker’s Caro Tanghe for the show, the vocal interplay between herself and frontman Colin H. van Eeckhout is horrifying in the best way, both of them sounding demented and pained, with Colin’s back to the audience for most of the set making this an even more anguished and stirring set. The band seem to have massively stripped back their visuals to let the sole focus be on the music, and it does allow to see just how solid the band are musically. To watch a band at the top of their game play one of the best sets of the weekend, and to come out afterwards feeling completely drained, is a real honor.
Headlining the first night of a spectacular day of music, Cult of Luna are the perfect follow-up to Amenra to keep up the punishing theme of the night, and waste no time in encapturing everyone here, starting with the slow and unbelievably tense build of the first track off their latest album The Long Road North, ‘Cold Burn’. From there, there is no let up through the entire 90 minutes; frontman Johannes Persson’s ability to maintain his terrifyingly harsh vocal whilst making it sound effortless is to be marvelled at, as is the entire band’s machine-like tightness and how much thought they’ve put into their light show – abrasive in a way that only lets the audience get glimpses of what is happening on the stage, exactly as they want. Seven songs in an hour and a half but each feels like it’s gone so quick, and yet coming out of the tent to leave the arena for the day, it feels like we’ve just been thrown around by a band that know exactly how to pummel you, and it’s definitely time for a lie down.
Starting the second day as it means to go on, Hippotraktor demand the early risers’s hangovers clear with their continuation of the scorching nature of the night before in their melding of different facets of the heavier end of metal, complete with the frontman’s excellent and seldom-seen use of shakers and wood blocks. This is the Belgians first ever show in the UK and they are thrilled to be here and the energy is so clearly reciprocated by the crowd. A fantastic set and way to start the day, and definitely ones to keep an eye on if you’re into anything remotely close to post-metal.
Very much not post-metal is Blanket, next up on the PX3 stage, but what they are is a barrage of emotion, with their melancholic brand of ethereal shoegaze-esque alt metal. It’s a small crowd but on of the most dedicated of the entire festival, and the mix of the impassioned vocal along with the cinematic keys and the shimmery, post-rock tinged tremolo guitars make it clear to see why. For fans of Deftones and Loathe, this lot are destined for bigger things in the near future, and if the drummer’s scintillating performance giving it everything he has is anything to go by, he knows it too.
A wild shift next, as in the Elephant stage is Zetra, the London duo signed to Church Road Records (who have a great presence at this festival), and probably the only goths on display all weekend. Them seeming a little out of place and the lineup makes no difference to the ardor they put into their set and the punters inside the tent are fans by the end of the first song. The 80s atmosphere and the fuzz on the guitar, the pretty keys, the cleverly-tracked drums and the dual vocal harmonies in the higher register make this an all-encompassing performance and that of a band on a quick rise to the bigger leagues. You can see how much it means to the guys to be playing the music that they love, and the fact their songs this early into their career have such big hooks and memorable choruses shows they’re a real talent.
Rivers of Nihil, playing over on the Bixler stage, have a fairly sparse crowd to begin with but by a few songs in, you can barely move around the tent. That’s always a good sign, and it’s easy to see that by-passers have wandered in because of the sheer intensity and power they would have heard from outside, lead vocalist Jake Dieffenbach sounding way more aggressive and guttural than on record (something which shouldn’t really be possible), and the mechanically tight nature of the musicians on full show. Focussing on their last two albums, the band clearly know what material will resonate the best here, and it does – Dieffenbach demanding a wall of death which is swiftly answered is proof – Rivers of Nihil have absolutely nailed this one.
Closing out the second day of proceedings on the Yohkai stage is Swiss-American avant-garde black metallers Zeal & Ardor, who play a relentless 55 minutes of pure emotion and power, hitting 15 songs spanning all their releases thus far, and creating an energy in the tent that only such a soulful yet pained performance can. It’s the set of the weekend thus far, lead vocalist Manuel Gagneux’s expressive delivery and stage presence matched by the longing backing chants and translating to every single person in the room. The mix of genres on the studio output of Zeal & Ardor has always been impressive, but here in a live setting it’s wonderful – everything feels perfectly in tandem, including the swift segues between songs, and it’s apparent how much it means to Manuel that his music is genuinely connecting with people. We’re witnessing one of the best bands in the world right now and seeing how devoted the audience are, and how much this sort of thing could translate into the mainstream, it’s a very exciting time to be a fan of heavy music.
Tesseract are closing up the main stage for the day, and they do so in some style. Tesseract have a flawless ability to appear so unassuming and gentle, and before you know it they’re tearing your face off with gargantuan riffs, soaring vocals and intense technicality. For all the weird and wonderful time signature changes and shifts in pace, their music is actually very hooky and easy to get your teeth into. Vocalist Dan Tompkins’ scream seems to come from nowhere and proceeds to reverberate around the entire tent and paired with his majestic cleans, is one of the best singers in the game. Tesseract have had a lot to live up to after a day filled with incredible performance but they match those just fine – they’ve been in incredible live form recently and this is no different, their passionate fans helping make this a perfect way to end day two.
Anyone that’s been paying attention to bands on the up will have been taken by the incredible rise of one of the most exciting bands on Earth right now, Heriot. Seeming to play at every festival ever this Summer, the four-piece are one of the best live bands in the world already and prove it yet again here. Each time they play, they get better, draw a bigger crowd, and somehow are more aggressive musically, which really is saying something. Lead vocalist Debbie Gough sounds more maniacal here than on record and it’s incredible to see it genuinely unsettling some of the crowd. For most, though, they know they’re witness to a truly special band, and if Heriot carry on with this trajectory, it’s so exciting to ponder how huge they could be.
Conjurer take the harrowing atmosphere to a much more doomy habitat, with their hulking and crushing riffs matched by the crowd losing their minds and all inhibitions to see them back doing what they do best, with new material – translating brilliantly live – in tow. The multi-vocal approach comes across like the band are having their own contest as to who can make the crowd feel more uncomfortable and it’s really working, casual fans here wondering quite what the fuck is going on but enjoying themselves nonetheless. A very solid set here – really tight, really heavy, and just what you need sometimes.
Completing the hat-trick of bands that make you question just how far music can be pushed without it literally breaking, Frontierer go the furthest to find out. How guitarist Pedram Valiani used his pedals and effects live to create some of the weirdest sounds you’ll have heard in music is genuinely confusing, but no less brilliant. The band play for 35 minutes and there is a humongous, out of control pit for the entire duration. This is not a drill. Vocalist Chad Kapper spends most of his time in with the fans, both guitarists go on a crowd-surfing adventure and one of them spends a decent portion climbed high on the rig above the stage. It’s a visual and auditory experience like no other this weekend, and the songs assault everyone here in the absolute best way.
Devil Sold His Soul are next up on main, and their mix of ambient post-rock with the way heavier end of their sound is still made to sound way more chill after the last couple hours, and it’s needed. They’re one of the best live bands going, the pairing of frontmen Ed Gibbs and Paul Green working excellently since they decided to join forces, and the band’s expertise in creating massive soundscapes, textures, and absolute euphoria is pretty much unrivalled. Devil Sold His Soul always look like they’re having the best time on stage at the best of times, but when they bring out Djamila Azzouz from Ithaca and Chad from Frontierer to provide guest vocals on ‘The Narcissist’, it’s the most joyous moment of the whole weekend.
The set of the weekend, however, was also probably the most stripped back, in the form of Emma Ruth Rundle. The melancholic folk singer-songwriter walks onto stage and announces she’ll be playing her latest album Engine of Hell in full, and there are tears in the tent before she’s even played a note, such is the heart-wrenching nature of the LP. Emma is so unassuming yet eccentric, her speeches between songs being a hilarious example, yet the power and poignance she can provoke with just her voice and a piano or guitar is breathtaking. The crowd remains silent in captivation for the whole set, and it’s unclear if everyone in the tent knew Emma Ruth Rundle before the show, but every single person fell in love during it.
Closing out the Yohkai stage for the weekend, Norwegian prog masters Leprous only have 50 minutes, and given their songs average about eight, they cleverly spend no time messing around, rather get straight into a set of ‘hits’ (if there can be such thing for a prog band). Vocalist Einar Solberg is one of the best live vocalists going, his utterly mind-blowing range on full display here without a single bum note in sight, and seeing him and the rest of the band lose themselves in the heaviness of songs like ‘Slave’ and ‘Nighttime Disguise’ and the crowd bathe in the bliss of the ‘Out of Here’ and ‘Below’, is a fantastic sight to behold. There are possibly more Leprous shirts in the crowd over the weekend than any other band and its reflected in how ravenous everyone is inside the tent. Those that are more unfamiliar with the band are in awe of their commanding presence and confused by their idiosyncratic rhythms, but ultimately admiring their songs.
Rounding up what has been a completely incredible weekend full of great people, good weather, fantastic performances and a really rather wonderful pizza stall, the masters of death metal-turned-prog, Opeth, play a two hour set in which they show off their unbelievable catalogue of work from the past 32 years and treat the crowd to a rollercoaster of emotions, culminating in sheer adoration when they wrap with the title track from their 2002 masterpiece, Deliverance. The musicians insane competence fully on show, frontman Mikael Åkerfeldt’s vocals beautiful and chilling all at once and his humor on point as always, you couldn’t really think of a better way to end ArcTanGent 2022. Whatever and whoever their 2023 edition has in store, you already know it’s going to be an utterly fantastic time.