After 2022’s stellar edition, ArcTanGent returned this year to Bristol’s Fernhill Farm to once again spotlight the very best of what the more experimental side of alt culture has to offer.
Fans were treated to an array of acts across four days spanning prog, math, hardcore and much more, with a mix of icons and newcomers playing, culminating in the event being a standout of the year and one that should be a staple to attend every festival season.
As the warm-up to the main event, the Wednesday of this year’s ArcTanGent featured a selection of acts who shone on 2022’s edition, and Skin Failure waste no time in getting the crowd amped with a rousing set full of highlights from their 2022 debut Radillac, plus new song ‘Surfer’s Eye’ which gets a great response. A wall of death this early into a festival is an accomplished feat but those in attendance are under frontman Will Gardner’s command right from the off. Band members getting haircuts whilst playing adds a niche humor to the set, and even with Will battling laryngitis, his voice still stands tall and the band deliver a set to match their triumph last year.
Conjurer are playing in one of the smaller tents here (it’s the only one open tonight) after last year’s main stage appearance, and thus have no problem filling out the Bixler stage even with most of the festival’s crowd not arriving until the next day. It’s because of this that the set reigns supreme over last year’s – seeing Conjurer in a more intimate space is arguably where they stand out best, their hulking riffs and emotionally taut vocals sounding ever-heavier in a spot where everything is more up close and personal. The eeriness of the light show solidifies an ambience to fit the dulling skies outside, and already a precedent is set for the rest of the weekend’s bands to follow.
Self-proclaimed “blackened misery” outfit Grief Ritual demolish any lingering hangovers on the morning of the first full day with their intense and fantastic brand of hardcore/death/grind, with frontperson Jamie Waggett standing out with their almost demented growl accompanied by the occasional pensive clean to demonstrate a fantastic vocal performance. Not to be outshone, Dave Marcovecchio pummels with arguably the most intense bass tone of the weekend, and the band dedicating their final song to queer and trans folk among a rise in hate crimes against those groups is a touching moment, and its reception from the crowd emphasises that this is one of the UK’s most perceptibly inclusive festivals.
Belgium’s Wiegedood are a terrifying band on record – in the best way – with their experimental black metal, and somehow they manage to step that unnerving nature up even more in a live environment. The band make an unbelievable amount of noise for a three-piece and each member’s superlative talent is on show exceptionally throughout their 40 minutes; their one-two punch to close out having the crowd in the palm of their hands, and a hypnotic edge lasts until the very last moment of the set to make a statement that Wiegedood could be back at this festival much further up the bill in the near future.
Over on the main stage, legends of the alt-rock/post-hardcore game Cave In spend most of their set focussed on 2022’s lauded effort Heavy Pendulum, launching straight away with its standout song ‘New Reality’ and whisking the devoted fans into a riot with the band’s storming riffs and three-pronged vocal attack of guitarists Stephen Brodsky and Adam McGrath along with bassist Nate Newton providing a neat mix of clean and harsh hooks. The sludgy element of Cave In’s sound is striking on tracks like ‘Blinded by a Blaze’, and a cover of ‘Cave-In’ by Codeine followed by ‘I’m So Afraid’ by Fleetwood Mac shows the band’s diversity and capability in putting their stamp on songs that they have no real right to.
Post-hardcore outfit Birds in Row hold nothing back in their 40 minutes at the PX3 stage, beginning with ‘Water Wings’, the first track from their astonishing 2022 LP Gris Klein and one that has every single person inside the tent in awe whether they’re already a fan or just happened to stumble in. Another three-piece with a sound so big that you could easily think they had double the members, they blend that with a screamo renaissance feel, a scene that they could soon be at the forefront of if this showing is anything to go by – the set is made up almost entirely of songs from last year’s album, seeing them on a very exciting trajectory. Guitar and vocal effects are used sparingly but to emphatic effect, and the crowd reception to the whole show is arguably the most unequivocally positive of the weekend thus far.
Prog stalwarts Elder are assertively powerful in sub-headlining the Bixler stage, with frontman Nick DiSalvo sounding better than ever accompanying the band’s tight yet jammy nature in their impressive mix of sludge and doom in addition to their base sound. The guitar harmonies between DiSalvo and Mike Risberg invoke classic NWOBHM feelings, and the warm green lights throughout are transportive to a place of bliss.
One of the highlights of the entire weekend, exciting Belgian prospects Brutus are charmingly humbled by the size of the crowd they have drawn at a packed Yohkai stage. The trio play a nice band of songs from all three of their albums, and every single one of them sounds epic and ethereal in a perfect mix where every sound shines, nothing moreso than vocalist/drummer Stefanie Mannaerts’ heartbreakingly fragile voice leaving a many in attendance with a quivering lip on songs like ‘Liar’ and ‘Sugar Dragon’. Managing to fit in an extra song than planned, the band and audience share a noticeable mutual adoration, and it’s seemingly inevitable that Brutus have a very special career ahead of them.
Sheffield-based blackened screamo troupe Hidden Mothers start off the second day of the festival with aplomb in a set that’s as bone-shakingly loud in places as it is delicate in others, a set so diverse yet cohesive and with such impressive songwriting on display before a debut album has even been released that it’s enough to suggest a very rapid growth in popularity is just around the corner. Tackling a pre-noon set at a festival is a notoriously difficult task but it seems that Hidden Mothers never got that memo, and they have one of the most rousing receptions of the weekend. It’s clear to see each of the five-piece’s individual talent, and the tri-vocal attack of Steffan Bennham’s exquisitely fragile scream, guitarist Luke Scrivens’ gorgeous cleans and bassist Liam Knowles’ devastating growls melds excellently, and with Bennham performing the closing song of the set in the crowd, this is clearly a band who loves performing to their audience above all else.
In what must be the weirdest set of the weekend, punk rock duo ’68 make an absolute racket throughout that delights a tent full of fans and those that want to see what the fuss is about alike. Frontman Josh Scogin (formerly of Norma Jean and The Chariot) wins everyone here over with his charm, even after a five minute delay 30 seconds into the set after he snaps a string, leading to drummer Nikko Yamada improvising perfectly and delighting the crowd with an exciting drum solo – quite a rare happening. The pair blend their rock ‘n’ roll leanings with its traditional sense of humor, Scogin urging the crowd to clap only once between songs so that they can play more, and proceeding to take away Yamada’s drum kit piece by piece at the end of the set. For a band that, as they state themselves, are much used to playing closer to the crowd, they really make their excellent uniqueness and flair shine on the big stage here.
Playing a grand total of one song, doom legends Bell Witch captivate with their talent and enchanting control over such a delicate genre to produce, not breaking stride once and making their craft look easy. To send vibrations that can be physically felt in one’s core is as attracting as it is terrifying, and no-one is leaving this tent in anything less than awe as the conversant duo somehow manage to make an hour-long funeral doom song fly by.
Church Road Records noisemakers Helpless play a devastating set of songs that each pack such a hard punch yet are discernible to create a diverse set; songs from last year’s Caged In Gold standing out and the promise of new studio material on the horizon very soon exciting everyone here. Their 35 minutes seem all too quick but the audience are spent by the end of it; this is one of the most energetic crowds across the whole festival. Another band with three vocalists each offering something unique, Helpless are an outfit that it wouldn’t be surprising to see break out of their relatively niche scene any time now.
Prog/math pioneers SikTh are up next headlining the Yohkai stage, and the tent is the busiest it’s ever been. Battling through some tech issues at the start with confidence, the band play a set mainly comprised of songs from their classic first two albums to the crowd’s delight, and anyone that has seen SikTh before knows just what a spectacle they put on in a live environment. The co-frontman approach of Mikee Goodman’s unhinged wailing and recently re-joined vocalist Justin Hill is stellar and the songs are played with such furore and skill that it’s somehow even more impressive than on record.
One of the most revered bands at this year’s incarnation of ArcTanGent is undoubtedly Norwegian experimental metallers Enslaved, and playing the festival for the first time, the band look like they’re having the time of their lives playing on a bill that doesn’t necessarily suit them on paper, yet the crowd are in admiration of every second of their set. Three choice cuts from latest album Heimdal go down a treat, yet it’s ‘Havenless’ that has the crowd practicing their best Norwegian in an alluring singalong, and having one of the best sound mixes of the weekend certainly helps in tandem with the band’s proficiency and charisma to make this the perfect way to close out a Friday night.
VOLA take to the main stage early on the final day in front of a packed crowd, which turns out to be one of the most devoted of the entire weekend. To say the band create a huge sound with their expansive vocal approach and harmonies, crushing riffs and stirring keys is an understatement, and to do so with only four members is an incredible demonstration of skill and technicality. It’s not just that though – VOLA manage to blend the complexity with writing huge hooks and choruses that whip up the crowd into a singalong frenzy, never more apparent than on final song ‘Straight Lines’. The group’s set is made up mostly of songs from 2021’s acclaimed Witness, with a couple choice picks from their first two albums which go down just as well, and altogether their set goes down as one of the best of the weekend
Rolo Tomassi are up next on main, and it’s gratifying to see a tent brimming with excitement for a band that have been grinding for years and yet are only now are gaining the attention they have deserved for so long. A much more refined troupe than their off the wall mathcore beginnings, Rolo play a set comprising songs from their last three albums that keep everyone here in wonder throughout their 50 minutes, with each member’s demanding stage presence impossible to take eyes off. The vocal interplay between frontwoman Eva Korman and her brother James Spence both offering a fantastic range of cleans and harshes is better than ever, and they’re joined by the audience in a touching performance of ‘A Flood of Light’. To start and end the set with two of the best songs Tomassi have written, ‘Drip’ and ‘Cloaked’ respectively, and to see their reception being this unwaveringly adoring is a real testament to how far this band have come, and so deservedly so.
Technical issued are every artist’s nightmare and sadly for Deafheaven, their set is full of them. Frontman George Clarke’s vocals are non-existent for half the set, as is the lead guitar, and the bass is incredibly overpowering for the first 15 minutes. That said, they combat all of this well enough to sate a ravenous crowd – their 2013 revered blackgaze classic Sunbather being played here in full to an audience that is by far the most devout of the weekend, emphasised by the fact that it seems half of them are wearing Deafheaven merch. When this set is good, it’s fantastic, and its second half proves just what an exciting band Deafheaven are and the influence that Sunbather continues to have on the scene today.
Instantly trying to outdo Deafheaven in terms of crowd admiration, The Fall of Troy take to the Yohkai stage in front of an audience that have seemingly never been as excited for anything in their lives, and within a minute of the band playing their first track it’s apparent why. At a festival full of incredible musicians, The Fall of Troy still manage to stand out, frontman Thomas Erak possibly not human in playing half of the set with only one hand on his guitar whilst still being completely virtuosic within it. For all the technicality and show, every single song feels complete and not just a collection of riffs, this echoed by everyone inside knowing each part of each song and screaming it at the top of their lungs. Coming late on the final day, The Fall of Troy may have just delivered the best set of the entire weekend.
Subheadlining the main stage on the final day is Igorrr, the brainchild project of French musician Gautier Serre. There are definitely those in attendance tonight with no idea what to expect from this set, yet within a song or two they are complete converts. Igorrr’s incomparable mix of black metal, baroque, dance and classical is as insane as it is brilliant, and vocalists Marthe Alexandre and JB Le Bail do a stunning job of lifting these songs to a level fit for such a huge and curious audience. As a precursor to the eccentrity of what’s to come, Igorrr are a perfect fit and leave the event with a lot more fans than they started with.
As a headliner to finish out what has been a truly wonderful few days of the expansive and unorthodox, there’s no-one better to bring everything together than Devin Townsend, icon of the game with too many projects under his belt to count, and tonight’s set exemplifies his diverse and distinct array of genres and worlds he manages to transport everyone here to.
Opening with ‘Lightworker’ from 2022 LP Lightwork is a bold statement of intent and it has a crowd already brimming with emotion burst into joy with its soaring chorus, and the precedent is set for the rest of the night. Devin’s self-deprecating humor is matched with his clear love for everything about music and his appreciation to get to play for people that love his own, and this just adds to the feeling that tonight is a special one for everyone here.
A set split into three parts – the opening run, the section that he jokes will turn off half the crowd, and the ‘heavy stuff’ – is paired with an otherworldly light show, and encoring with of one of his most brutal songs, the Strapping Young Lad fan favorite ‘Love?’, is an impeccable way to wrap ATG 2023. After ten years of brilliance and consistency in offering a festival unlike any other, the excitement for 2024’s event is already very real.