Fernhill Farm, Compton Martin
Friday 19th & Saturday 20th August 2022
Returning after a three year absence, and for its eighth incarnation, the ArcTanGent festival has marked itself out as a kind of Glastonbury for the math-, post- and noise-rock community, held as it is in the same neck of the woods, not far from Bristol. But it’s so much more varied than the genre tags might suggest.
Over the course of its four days, more than 70 bands played its five tented stages, a varied line-up with something on show to appeal to most discerning audients. Due to work (damn you!), I was only able to make it to the final day-and-a-half, Friday evening and Saturday – but what a day-and-a-half it was, and I’ll definitely be hoping to get to more of it next year.
ArcTanGent has become an important feature of the summer calendar, beloved by fans and bands alike, and it has been drawing me ever closer for the last several years, (nearly) culminating in a planned visit to the 2020 event, aborted due to the ravages of the Covid lockdown. 2021 also took a dive, but here we are in 2022; festivals are back and the punters are ready.
There’s a lot to cram in with two or three stages running at any one time, and as there is only one of me it wasn’t possible to catch everything, particularly as there were several that I really wanted to see in full. As a result, this is something of a whistle-stop romp through what I saw, and obviously missing out what I didn’t, with apologies to all the other artists involved who by all accounts put on an astonishing feast of very varied music.
Some of the artists were not to my taste – you can’t like everything – but that doesn’t diminish their quality as every one of them received an eager audience and went down very well. The ‘meh’ was more than outweighed by the number of times my boat was well and truly floated, the quality on show just astonishing given the variety and the frequent complexity.
And so… eyes down…
The M5 in August. You gotta love it. And the M4 (particularly the bit around Newport, which is a car-park at some point on most days). As a result, I got to Fernhill Farm later than intended, via a circuitous route that took in many of the lesser travelled byways of Somerset. Nice though that was, it was a frustrating start to the day. But never fear! Upon arrival the process of getting in, parking up, sorting out the press accreditation and pitching the tent was easy-peasy, and with thunderous sounds emanating from the distant tents, I headed off to see what was going on.
Acclimatising myself with the various stages, the first thing I encountered was the cinematic sound of Caspian, from Boston, and bloody impressive they were; the first of many bands new to me that I now need to explore further. It’s BIG and confidently presented post-rock, and it ticks a lot of boxes. I only caught a few tracks but I could easily take a whole set of this and will look out for them if they get to these shores again.
Årabrot were the first band I really wanted to see, but I stumbled into their funky and groovesome show about half way through. The darkness of the music belies the white outfits, with husband and wife duo of Kjetil Nernes and Karin Park resplendent in unfeasible hat and whirling plait respectively. With a great drum sound, the strident guitar and cavorting Chamberlin made for a compelling and entertaining show.
Jamie Lenman was up next, formerly of alternative trio Reuben, here he was in another trio format but playing his solo material. The songs are punchy and engaging, a punky edge underlining the pop sensibilities. It’s a very enjoyable performance and Mr Lenman is in possession of a good line in stage patter.
Rivers of Nihil took things in a much heavier direction, the harsh vocals vying with more atmospheric sections to provide a crowd-pleasing experience in their tech-death sound that clearly went down well with the punters. I didn’t catch a lot of their set, and it wasn’t something that immediately caught my ear, but they clearly know what they’re about.
Next up on the main stage was one of the finds of the festival for me, Japan’s Mono. Theirs is an immense building and ebbing back to nothing post-rock sound built on ‘wind-tunnel’ guitars and a fine understanding of dynamics. I fell in love with the quartet as they played through a fascinating set, the seated guitarists hunched over their instruments and array of pedals, feverishly concentrating, between them bassist Tamaki Kunishi a striking focal point, tempos sliding this way and that. Just incredible.
A trip in a very different direction with Scalping, bringing an electronics and techno edge to their noise rock. Trippy and bouncy, there’s a very visual appeal to their show which gives it a cinematic air. It’s a fantastic sound for a festival and sounded great from outside the tent, I’ll be giving these guys a listen via their recently released debut album, and as they’re from Bristol I might get a chance to see more of them.
Zeal & Ardor hit the stage running with their heady mix of quirky avant metal, ranging from pristine harmonies through blues and soul to full-on heaviosity when needed. It’s an interesting blend and I listened to much of their set whilst having a needed sit against the fence outside. I missed the sight of the Swiss band doing their thing, but it all sounded great, with a nice mix of vocal styles and intensity, including some harsh vocals that worked well.
Friday’s headliners were Tesseract – and they proved worthy of their place, knocking it out if the park with élan. Heavy as a sock with a brick in it, and as complex as a psychopath with a slide rule, the intense sound was given a velvety sheen via the amazing pipes of Daniel Tompkins, which easily took in the growled styles too. Very impressive and entertaining throughout, the sustained movement, tricksy rhythms and incredible light show made for a fascinating set, which featured selections going right back to the band’s debut release. Very well done.
Ah, camping. The thrill of lying in a field in the dark, nominally on the ground, with only a thin sheet of canvas to protect you from the Things of the Night. It’s really not me, but for the first time in about 20 years I gave it a go, and the results were… somewhat satisfactory. On the plus side, it didn’t rain and I’d pitched up in a pretty quiet corner of the site so it could be worse.
I had been recommended by TPA’s Nick Hudson to catch SEIMS, so I made sure to be down at the main stage for their 11am start time. It’s unusual seeing a band at what could pass for breakfast time on a Saturday, but after a thorough soundcheck the quartet launched into a rousing set which draw in more bleary-eyed listeners as it went along. The enthusiasm and energy they exuded made for a compelling start to the day, and after reminding us that they’d travelled 36 hours from Australia to play this half-hour daybreak slot, confirmed that they were stoked to be there. Their vigorous and thoroughly entertaining set was lifted by violin, and the unexpected high-energy cover of Blur’s Song 2 was spot-on in choice and delivery. Another band to give a solid listen to.
A scamper over to the second stage led me to the highly anticipated Thumpermonkey. One of the proggier bands on the bill, they delved deep into their catalogue to pull out some of the heavier material to fit the setting. I’ve seen them a number of times and this was a great performance, including one new and as yet unnamed song, the band looking very comfortable on a bigger stage than they’re used to and clearly drawing in an audience that didn’t know what to expect, resulting in a well-attended show. And this is something that continues to puzzle me: there are plenty of edgier prog bands (not those that could be described with a big ‘P’) that could be included and fit in well on a bill this eclectic, but the two universes seldom interact, which makes it nice for bands like Thumpermonkey to be invited, even if it is for brunch, ending their performance with a fab take on Wheezyboy.
Back to the main stage for the inimitable Jo Quail. Seemingly a perennially unexpected fixture at events such as this (having seen her at two Portals Festivals in the last year), Jo always goes down a storm – and it always seems to be a surprise to her, which adds to the charm. Playing at a festival with more death metal bands than you can wave an upside-down five-pointed stick at, it must be a daunting experience to pitch up with you’re electric cello and wide range of effects pedals and wonder how you’re going to be received. Well the rammed and receptive audience stood rapped, swathed in a crazy array of fearful shirts, and Jo was as amazing as ever. After the first number she quipped that she’d “fucked it up”, but nobody noticed, and upon announcing a contemporary piece of ‘serious’ music she noted that she had considered a full set of such pieces, just to see how it went down with the audience. Easy: they’d have lapped it up like pussycats, rather than the rabid dogs they strive to be.
The next couple of bands were heard but not seen: Vogons set at the smaller Elephant in the Bar Room stage sounded like great fun from the queue to get a coffee outside; upbeat mathy post-rock, keeping the joint bouncing.
TOTS‘ (or ‘Trans-migration Of The Soul’, as their mum’s probably know them) brand of atmospheric instrumental post-rock also sounded good from outside the tent as I sat to enjoy my late-start to the day. I’ve since found out that they’re from Argentina so I should have made more of an effort, as it’s unlikely that they’ll be heading back this way too often… Another to investigate further.
Heriot‘s strangled high pitch shouty gargling was not really my thing, but the music was ok, in a pummelling kind of way, and it’s always nice to see a female singer in a band like this.
Endearing themselves to the crowd with an opening comment of “Oh no, it’s the Germans again!”, The Hirsch Effekt played a stunning set with lots of energy. The trio were as tight as a drum and the mix of harsh and clean vocals worked very well within the context of the songs. They worked hard and it was an excellent show which I could easily have watched more of.
Conjurer were very tight and incredibly intense, going down a storm with the crowd, but unlike The Hirsch Effekt, the vocals didn’t work for me…
Likewise the much more atmospheric My Own Private Alaska, from France; too much shouting as the mid-afternoon bludgeoning continued. Hearing both of the last two bands playing at the same time was actually kind of surreal!
After popping back to the tent for a chill, I returned to the second stage in time for Emma Ruth Rundle. Other than hearing her being bigged up by Jo Quail earlier in the day, I didn’t know what to expect, and as the stage was being set up I didn’t realise that the lady with the strange make-up soundchecking at the piano was actually the star of this particularly stripped back show – just her voice, self-accompanied by piano or acoustic guitar, with Jo Quail adding her sublime cello to one track. Rundle is an anomaly, a perfect ripple in the fabric of ArcTanGent’s musical sweep (like Natalie Evans – and no doubt others – who cropped up throughout the event). The gossamer framework held the large audience in its spell as Emma beautifully delivered her Engine of Hell album in full, and dripping with emotion. There are oblique references to the likes of Tori Amos at her most stark, in the vocals and piano particularly, and the set was enthralling and captivating, music to uncover imperfections as Emma noted. She went on to explain how she had attended ArcTanGent previously as a member of the audience and got very wet, gesturing to her head and shoulders to indicate where, before archly noting “but not the exciting parts…” It was all hauntingly beautiful and I was converted. Disappointingly, the last song was slightly drowned out by the band on the adjacent stage starting their set, but it didn’t spoil a remarkable performance.
Mass of the Fermenting Dregs were the band that kicked in before the end of Emma Ruth Rundle’s set. I had decided that they weren’t going to be for me, from the name alone, and headed past to check out the main stage. That said, I noted that they were surprisingly tuneful and didn’t sound as I’d expected. Oh well, off to check out The Armed (more on them in a mo), but after a while I wandered back. Yep the Fermenting Dregs were still doing really interesting upbeat and toe-tapping stuff. The tent was packed so I decided to sit against the fence outside to listen, and the more I heard, the more I liked it. This was a classic case of not judging a book by its cover, and a little research beforehand (which I try not to do for these events these days, letting it all wash over me with little expectation) would have told me that this female-fronted trio from Japan were one to watch. Very good stuff, driving pop, toe-tapping, upbeat and funky. I couldn’t see them from my seated spot, but they sounded great and kicked up a storm. When I finally decided that I needed to see what they were doing, they finished! I’ll definitely be listening out for this lot the next time they get over here, but this was a great opportunity missed.
Meanwhile, back to The Armed; the main tent rocked with their vigorous energy and male/female part-screamed vocals. Accessible punky rock meets death metal? I listened to a couple of songs but found it a bit disparate so wandered back to the Dregs.
Now to the second stage for Lightning Bolt – thunderous drums and bass noise-rock duo madness from Rhode Island, performed by a pair of Brians, the drum Brian singing from behind a mask and headphones. It was intense but bloody good stuff. These guys clearly have an appreciation for the likes of Ruins and Battles, I would warrant, and I expect that they lost a few pounds during their performance too – bonus! Self-described as ‘Upbeat, rather than Evil metal’, that works for me, and after nearly 30 years, they clearly know what they’re doing.
I managed to catch the end of Pallbearer‘s slot – specifically their last number – whilst enjoying a very tasty Indonesian nasi goreng with spicy seitan from one of the on-site vendors. I liked what I heard, slow and atmospheric doom with twin guitars cycling around each other, capped off with sweet vocals. Nice.
Wheel are a prog-metal band with a nice stalking quality, heavy but not at the expense of everything else with bubbling basslines and twin guitars. I enjoyed what I was hearing but I’d taken the decision to try and get a good spot for Leprous (as I know I like them and I’d not seen them before), so mid-way through the set I reluctantly bailed. Well worth a listen though.
The plan worked and I got a space at the front on the barrier stage right for Leprous, who were an astonishing blur of shapes and energy from the start – Einar Solberg isn’t a small bloke and he certainly throws himself around. And he’s funny too, noting (with tongue firmly in cheek) of the fan collaboration in writing the track Nighttime Disguise (from latest album Aphelion) “we won’t do anything fucking stupid like that again!” They’ve evolved to the point where their music is metal almost without being metal, and the Norwegians are at the top of their game, playing a crowd-pleasing set that brought the house down. Captivating and note perfect with theatre and dynamics.
I caught a snippet of Godflesh on my way back to the main stage for Opeth, and it was as intense as you’d expect! A shame, I’d like to have seen more of them.
And so to the Saturday night headliners. Opeth have matured like a fine wine, Mikael Åkerfeldt reclaiming the band’s oeuvre and now able to scatter the set with the Hammond driven warmth of pieces from the reimagining Heritage album and their most recent release, the gorgeous In Cauda Venenum, which sit easily beside the growling of some of their older classic works such as The Drapery Falls, from Blackwater Park, and tracks from Ghost Reveries, Damnation and Deliverance. The growling used throughout the set suits the vibe, Demon of the Fall from 1998’s Your Arms, My Hearse an unexpected inclusion but a case in point, and the set was a blast from start to finish, punctuated by Mikael’s dry asides to the crowd, initiating the conversation by remarking about the size of the balls on a pig he’d seen upon arriving at ArcTanGent, and his jealousy in that regard (I saw this self-same pig and can confirm that its balls were ginormous!), playing the diva by asking if we were actually in Bristol, and then confirming that he didn’t really care anyway, and pointing out that the only thing wrong with Leprous is that they’re Norwegian. A more than worthy headliner and a set of extraordinary music pulled off with ease by a band comfortable in their collective abilities. Magnificent.
And that was that. But wait! As I arrived back at my tent I realised that another band was still playing. It turns out that this was Her Name is Calla, and as I sat in my tent in the dark it seemed like their atmospheric post-rock was the perfect way to end what had been a lovely weekend and such a fantastic event. I wish I’d stayed on the festival field to watch them, but the day had been long and my uncomfortable sleeping bag beckoned…
After such a fragmented build-up, this year’s ArcTanGent felt all the more enjoyable, a relief that it was actually happening. I’m so glad I got to it at least and hopefully I’ll be there again next year. The vibe is great and I was impressed by the organisation and facilities; every one of the staff I encountered was helpful and friendly. Each and every one of the bands, no matter what their particular musical stripe, played a blinder. The fact that the weather remained clement was an important contributory factor – it would no doubt be a somewhat different feel in the pelting rain of a regular English summer. The sound for every band I witnessed was fantastic, so hats well and truly doffed to the technical teams who put the whole thing together and made it sound so wonderful – in tents, in a field! The inclusion of some of the wares from the Purity Brewing Co kept things well oiled, the cashless payment system worked well for me and there were plenty of toilets with cleaning crews in evidence. The only thing I’d change is that next time I’ll remember to bring my camping chair – elderly bones and sitting on the floor do not marry up, so grabbing the odd five in a mobile chair is a good plan.
Thanks to all concerned, see you next year!
[With many thanks to all those at ArcTanGent involved in the organisation and delivery, and to Matt, Hayley and everyone at Good As Gold for their assistance.
And don’t forget, ArcTanGent will return for 2023 between the 16th and 20th August. You can get tickets HERE.]
Derek Bremner – ArcTanGent sign, Heriot, Zeal & Ardor
Jonathan Dadds – Rivers Of Nihil, SEIMS
Jez Pennington – Conjurer, Her Name Is Calla, Mass Of The Fermenting Dregs, Mono, Pallbearer, Jo Quail, Tesseract
Jez Rowden – Årabrot, The Hirsch Effekt, Thumpermonkey
Joe Singh – Jamie Lenman, Leprous, Lightning Bolt, Opeth