ArcTanGent Festival, Fernhill Farm, Bristol – 17th to 19th August 2023


Just a few minutes on the hallowed turf of Fernhill Farm is enough to tell you why the ArcTanGent festival has won a multitude of awards. Fun, and most importantly, stacked with a multitude of great bands, it is a feast for the ears. The compact site keeps stage clashes to a minimum, while the low capacity gives it a friendly, family feel.

Thursday 17th:

After a few rainy weeks it seems as if the gods are smiling down upon ArcTanGent, and glorious sunshine bathes Fernhill Farm as Barrens open up the main stage on this Thursday morning. They’re a three-piece band who sound far bigger than their constituent parts and make for a haunting and ethereal start to the day. Their brand of post-rock reminds me of Yndi Halda; building huge soundscapes they become vast and all-encompassing. It’s hard for an instrumental band to engage with a crowd on a personal level, but this bunch could make more of an effort because they do a great job sonically.

Over on the Bixler Stage Din Of Celestial Birds show how to get a crowd moving, and soon have the whole tent clapping and grooving. This is despite a sound that offers a frightening glimpse of a dark, dystopian future. It is slightly discombobulating and employs tonality to great effect with the synths resonating on some primordial level and drums hitting with machine gun rapidity. With the stage bathed in marine blue and rustic green light, there’s something earthy and organic about this crew and they make for an engaging (and enjoyable) experience.

Featuring bright and shiny guitars juxtaposed with thundering drums Mountain Caller make for an intriguing proposition. They are one of several bands this weekend who are currently tapping into the whole intergalactic aesthetic, yet its rarely been delivered with the same oomph as these guys possess. Stomping all over the main stage like an elephant with a sore head, Mountain Caller deliver an abject lesson in heaviness, and their set isa definite Thursday highlight.

All the way from Portland, Oregon, Burial Clouds bring a doomy sound which drags itself along like a wounded giant. With red raw vocals (as if his throat has been sandpapered), this mob create a monolithic noise from which there’s no escape. However, the band make good use of light and shade, with each serving as a foil to highlight the other. Hard-as-hell and tough-as-nails, Burial Clouds have come to steal your heart, whether you like it or not.

Black metal beekeepers from space? Hell yeah! That’s exactly what Wallowing look like as they appear on stage attired all in black, and hidden behind veils. With the stage bathed in demonic green light, this Brighton-based bunch make for an intense experience, both visually and sonically. Wallowing are another band rocking the spacious vibe, and they provide a multimedia experience that incorporates comic books, action figures, and of course, some of the very best blackened thrash, just remember…in deep space no one can hear you scream! 

Like a thunderbolt splitting a Nordic sky, Wiegedood arrive with little fanfare, and they’re all the more powerful for it. Despite their unrivalled heaviness, this crew place a strong emphasis on song structure which means that they soon get the whole tent bobbing in unison. There are no mindless stage rants between songs, the band preferring to go straight in for the kill with furious blastbeats and uncompromising riffage. To a backdrop of crimson light, it does indeed look as if the stage is raining blood (and sounds like it too) as the band attach themselves like an anchor to a drowning man and drag us do to delirious depths.

Svalbard are something of festival veterans, having performed at Download, 2000 Trees and Portals, but it seems as if ArcTanGent is their spiritual home, and they look genuinely honoured to be back. In fact, they’re welcomed like returning heroes and their set is rewarded with plenty of moshing and headbanging, and why not? it’s that type of music. The Yohkai stage is bursting at the seams as the masses gather to witness a band who are very much on the upswing. Yet they are certainly not resting upon their laurels and track debuted from the promised new album (‘The Safety Net’) bodes well for the future.

Playing like their very lives depend on it, Birds In A Row dish out a full-throttle attack that offers little in the way of redemption (but good music never should). It is as if someone has let a genie out of a bottle and magic and excitement crackles the air, and Birds In A Row soon have the crowd eating from their collective hands. The beats they deliver are totally addictive, and the set becomes a collaborative affair, one of those rare magical moments where crowd and band become one.

In the late evening sunshine the aptly-tiled Brutus arrive to rock our world. Welcomed with a huge cheer, the band hit us right between the eyes, and with a sound that shakes the earth beneath our feet. The vocalist sings his words like a kind of primal scream, and all those present feel the therapeutic benefit. The cheer which greets the set’s conclusion is positively deafening, and thoroughly deserved too.

Russian Circles certainly know how to make a dramatic entrance, and they build an exorbitant amount of tension before suddenly bursting onto stage, and you can almost feel the palpable sense of relief now they’ve finally arrived. With the drums beating a warlike, military tattoo, Russian Circles are akin to an invading army, and they operate as such. There’s hardly any banter between songs, rather the music does the talking and it shouts in caps rage. With some of the heftiest riffs known to man the band pummel us into submission, but in the best possible way, of course.

Headlining the Bixler Stage are the impossibly-titled Yourcodenameis:milo. Right from the get go they deliver an energetic performance, and with a bouncy sound, it is difficult not to get swept up in their sheer effervescence as they barrel through a solid set that includes fan favourites and deep cuts. With plenty of self-effacing humour, the band don’t take themselves too seriously, but you should because musically, they’re all business. They are bang on the money and bring down the Bixler curtain in fine style.

We have seen some amazing bands today, but tonight’s headliners Converge prove themselves a major step up in class. There’s no time wasted on fancy introduction or unnecessary preliminaries, rather the band hit the stage like a force of nature, and they are all the more powerful for it. They’re a raging tornado that pulls souls in from all corners of the site. Vocalist Jacob Bannon is all over the stage like a rash, but the whole band are on fire and the sound they create, constantly teetering on the edge of a precipice, is held in place impeccably. Despite a long and distinguished career, Converge aren’t heading off into the sunset of heritage status, and tonight they play with the same vivaciousness they displayed when they first burst onto the scene. This is one of those nights where everything clicks into place; the light, the crowd, the band all conspire to create a magical evening, and you get the feeling that your whole life has been leading up to this moment. Seasoned warriors who’ve slayed all before, this set proves why Converge were, and remain, leaders in their field.

Friday 18th:

As is typical of the microclimate that exists in the Mendip Hills, the bright sunshine that greeted us yesterday has been replaced by something far more autumnal, yet it can hardly dampen our spirits, especially with Wess Meets West opening up the Arc Stage. Hailing from New York, they’ve certainly made the trip worthwhile and have won more than a few hearts with a sound that insidiously ingratiates itself into your psyche. With the drummer and guitarist painting concentric circles, this band deliver an intricate, instrumental sound, and one that speaks volumes.

A glorious wall of feedback and an ominously tolling bell heralds the arrival of WitchSorrow, and with the band appearing bathed in blood red and ice white light, much goodness is promised, and that’s exactly what is served up. Channelling the likes of Angel Witch and Wythcfynde, WitchSorrow are a musical steamroller that’s come to crush all in their path. They’re an unstoppable bunch who sound surprisingly good at 11:30 on a Friday morning. ‘To The Shadows’ is a definite highlight, and the Arc Stage is surely their next destination.

With their foot pressed firmly to the metal, and a take-no-prisoners ethos Silverburn go straight in for the kill. Drawing inspiration from the golden age of metalcore, this crew are a power trio in its purest definition, creating a huge sound that tumbles forth like a landslide. Riding on the back of their excellent debut album (Self Induced Transcendental Annihilation), you’d never guess that this is only the band’s second ever gig because they’re bang on the money and play with a tightness that suggest they’ve been together for eternity. Forthcoming dates with Mutoid Man the future looks assured…so watch this space.

Spurv are a sextet who create a warm, lush sound, and that’s thanks in no small part to the sublime trombone which permeates their set. Judging by the big crowd they pull, there should really be more brass in rock music, and it adds another layer to an already rich tapestry. Spurv have an earthy, organic sound and you feel it could grow in any direction, and therein lies their magic.

As their moniker suggests, Caligula’s Horse are a battering ram come to demolish the Arc Stage. They’re not quite a Trojan Horse, they are far more subtle than that, yet they have heavier passages to knock down the wall of your cranium. However, they also have lithe sections, which mean that when the rhythm section kicks in, it kicks in hard. All the way from Australia, today’s show is the final date on their European jaunt, and there’s a celebratory feel to their performance that makes them a joy to watch. A set compiled from all points of their career makes this show perfect for both the hardcore and casual fan alike.

When combined properly, there’s something so very raw and visceral about drums and electronica, and that’s precisely what PETBRICK dish up. Drummer is like Animal (from The Muppets) and lays down some of the sickest beats known to man. The electronic maestro is like a mad scientist pulling strange beats from the ether, and the two combined make for an intense experience. With their apocalyptic soundscapes, PETBRICK are kind of like Godflesh, only updated for Generation Next, and hopefully they’ll be demolishing a town near you soon.

Hailing from Belfast, And So I Watch You From Afar make a welcome return, and their musical magnetism pulls a huge crowd towards the Arc Stage. The band marry unusual polyrhythms to intricate guitar work, and it is an approach that has been adopted by countless bands, it has never sounded so good as when performed by this collective. Heavy passages are accentuated by the quiet, and the result is akin to being stretched on a rack; it pulls you in two directions simultaneously, and heralds in the rest of the evening in fine style.

Like playing a Black Sabbath LP at 16 rpm, Bell Witch are crushingly heavy, and imposingly so. Imagine the biggest piece of brutalist architecture, the weight of the ocean bearing down upon a shipwreck, a nowhere ending sky, and you’d have something approaching the enormity of Bell Witch. If you want to know just how heavy a combo can get, then the answer is right here.

The word ‘legendary’ is nowadays thrown around with reckless abandon, but in the case of Swans it is perfectly apt. Band mainstay Michael Gira is like a mad conductor, and he leads his sextet through a dark and discombobulating that unsettles the crowd in strange ways. Despite their limited allocated time (70 minutes) the band are in no rush, preferring to take their time and build soundscapes that take the listener on a long journey. Like a case of mass hypnosis, Swans hold the crowd’s rapt attention, and every pair of eyes are drawn towards the blood red light in which the stage in lit. This is music that demands your full attention, and that’s exactly what Swans get.

Using a montage from A Clockwork Orange as their introduction tape sets just the right tone, and it proves to be quite prophetic as Enslaved arrive and deliver a sound that is the very epitome of ultra-violence. Direct from hell, it seems someone has detonated a bomb inside the tent and things get pretty hectic, pretty quick with circle pits, moshing and crowd surfing. Taking the less-than-hardy souls by surprise, the Enslaved experience is not for the faint hearted and the crowd becomes a unified, seething throng that pulsates along with the music. There’s an air of danger permeating, but it is all the right spirit, and in terms of heaviness, Enslaved have taken things to a whole new level.

A huge curtain featuring the Heilung logo hides the stage, and creates a fair amount of tension as people try to imagine what lies behind, and spikes a fair amount of curiosity. The answer is provided as the curtain raises and we are greeted with a scene that resembles something from The Wicker Man. It certainly creates the right spectacle, yet the chanted voices of twenty people dressed in folky attire don’t really transfer well to the cavernous space inside the Arc tent, and only the first few rows get an inclination of what incantation is being spoken. However, this aside Heilung appear and there’s little doubt to what they’re playing, as their sound rings out strong and true and reverberates around the Mendip Hills. The band’s brand of neofolk is very enticing, and it has pulled a fair-sized crowd to witness their unique ritual, and a ritual it is and you can almost feel the conjured spirits floating around us as the band blast out their industrial/ethnic/folk hybrid. The use of instruments that were available during the Iron Age transfer us magically back through time while the insertion of poetry and spoken world monologues add a touch of serenity in a performance that can often be turbulent. In fact, as Storm Betty starts to wreak havoc, Heilung provide the perfect soundtrack…and I wonder if it was they who instigated it?

Saturday 19th:

The storm which has passed over the festival grounds has left a mud bath in its wake, yet it hasn’t dampened our spirits at all, and The Most raise a few smiles whilst opening the Arc Stage. The first few rows become quite excitable as the band plug in play, and it is easy to see why; I like their math-rock polyrhythms, and also the loose saxophone, and the two combined make for a good mix. It is a soothing sound, and one you wish would continue into perpetuity. Of the new tracks debuted, ‘In Touch’ goes down particularly well and promises good things.

If there are any hangovers present, then they are blown away by Copse. Both nosebleed and heart attack inducing, the drums are totally killer and relentless in their pummelling. Vocalist reminds me of Barney (from Napalm Death) amped up to the max, and when coupled with a sandblasted sound, you have a volatile combination. Even when they slow down and ease off the pedal, Copse remain as heavy as hell and their sound should really be bottled and sold as a medicinal compound.

Providing an impenetrable wall of sound, Psychonaut are a techy band who tie the listener up in all sorts of knots. They are at once fleet of foot and heavy as hell, and the two make a winning combination. They are the musical equivalent of UFC fighter Natan Levy; ripped, lean and packing some serious clout, and they floor more than a few unsuspecting souls today. After last year’s cancellation, Psychonaut are here to make amends, and all is forgiven as they blast through a solid set.

Hailing from Spain, Bones Of Minerva have an intriguing sound which constantly evolves as the vocals flit between clean and harsh, the riffs bounce and the drums switching rhythms and tempos, and with reckless abandon. In fact, the whole band move with a savage grace, like a tiger undercover of night they stalk and leap with little warning. The band show great maturity in the fusion of psychedelic and progressive elements, and with their strong songwriting style, it is obvious they’re going to be around for quite awhile.

Beginning their set in typically understated fashion, VOLA soon grow mightily from this small acorn and, like a storm gathering on the horizon, promises all sorts of chaos. VOLA are a force of nature, and you can almost feel the waves of energy and emotion pulsating from the stage. The band don’t rely on fancy gimmicks or suchlike, they prefer to bring the songs to the fore, and when the songs are this good, that’s exactly where they should be. You can hear elements of Pink Floyd, Rammstein and Meshuggah in the band’s sound, but it is to their credit that they sound like no one but VOLA.

Like much in the way of cutting-edge heavy music, Domkraft hail from Stockholm, Sweden, and roll in as if a tank division. There’s something very motorik about the beats employed that reminds me of Kraftwerk, the repeat ad infinitum to batter down the wall of your cranium. Marching with military muster, singer and bassist Martin Wegeland leads his troops of a fuzzed-up journey, while those hypnotic beats swing like a wrecking ball, and every riff cycle is another brick placed in the band’s sky high wall.

I first saw Rolo Tomassi supporting Canadian punks Fucked Up way back when (2009, I believe), and their sound seemed so fresh and exciting, and it still feels that way in 2023. Their sound reminds me of a Bergman film, Wild Strawberries or The Seventh Seal insofar as it is a musical quandary, a riddle within an enigma that’s awfully hard to decode. However, you don’t have to enjoy the band’s sound to appreciate their live performance, which is a high-octane lesson in controlled chaos. While all around her is crumbling, vocalist Eva Korman moves like a gracious swan, but it is to the band’s credit that they keep their music precariously poised on the edge of the precipice. From opener ‘Drip’ to closer ‘Cloaked’ (both from latest album Where Myth Becomes Memory) the band are a blur of energy, and it is a set that’s rewarded with rapt (and well deserved) applause.

Winning my prize for the weekend’s most energetic performance are mathcore menaces The Callous Daoboys. They intersperse their set with light-hearted interludes (such as Neil Diamond’s ‘Sweet Caroline’) but when it is time to deliver the goods, they are all business with original tunes ‘Star Baby’ and ‘Violent Astrology’ making the perfect one-two punch. They are all over the stage like a rash, the word “hyperactive” doesn’t do them justice, and if Glassjaw were weaned on a diet of Seinfeld, I imagine they’d sound a lot like this bunch. With the set list compiled almost equally from their two long players, no one can be disappointed with the song selection, and likewise, no one could be saddened by the amount of energy The Callous Daoboys have expended.

On what promises to be a very special set, Deafheaven make an appearance on the Arc Stage to perform their Sunbather album in full. That album is now celebrating its tenth anniversary, it was hailed as a classic when released, garnering universal acclaim, and it still holds up well ten years later. While presenting this show, Deafheaven treat the album with the respect it deserves; there’s no half-hearted renditions or members slacking, just the songs, now presented with live vim and vigour. Sunbather was a very atmospheric album, and it was also richly textured, and the band manage to authentically recreate these dynamics on stage. The songs are performed with such conviction that it seems the album was only released a week ago, vocalist George Clark is particularly animated and grabs at the air like an insane conductor, meaning that this performance will live long in the memory (just as Sunbather does).

Perhaps the biggest delight at ArcTanGent is stumbling upon an unknown gem, and my first visit to the Elephant in the Bar Room Stage unearths Brighton & Hove punks Every Hell. Hailing from the south coast they may, but I’m picking up a definite American hardcore vibe in their modus operandi, and it is most notable in the strong song sensibility that underpins much of their work. There’s also a modern post-punk vibe in the mix that recalls Shellac and their ilk. Tonight’s set is a very light hearted affair, and while the band don’t take themselves too seriously, you definitely should.

From his early forays into the music business as vocalist for Steve Vai, to his current incarnation as experimental rocker, Devin Townsend’s career has been marked by a constant change. It is in his current guise as solo artist that he appears tonight, and his promised appearance has created a buzz these past three days, and the Arc Stage is fit to burst as people crowd in, hoping to catch a glimpse of the man himself. It is a quasi-religious experience with people coming to worship at his alter, and things get off to an explosive start with ‘Lightworker’, the title-track from his latest return-to-roots opus, Lightwork. It’s greeted with a huge cheer, and now that the man has arrived, you get the feeling that people have relaxed and can now enjoy the show. The song selection incorporates all points of his career; having released a total of 22 albums across various projects, it is a mammoth task even compiling a set list, but tonight does a pretty good job. Obviously, the new album gets a decent look in, while we even revisit Strapping Young Lad for two cuts including encore ‘Love?’.

As ‘Love?’ fades into the ether, and the sun sets on another successful ArcTanGent, everyone is sent home happy by Townsend’s set, and I’m sure many of those are already buying their tickets for 2024.