“This is what happens when you play Satanic music in church.”
That was it, that was the moment I fell in love with Roadburn festival. When Zeal & Ardor’s sound blew out for the second time as they played in a crammed church, that’s when I knew there was more to this fest than a piss-up near some bands. As the air filled with 700+ voices singing Devil Is Fine a cappella, it was clear that this was a community, a collective of artists and fans alike who spend every waking hour dedicated to this scene. They are connected through spirit, and they will fight tooth and nail to protect their way of life. The sound was eventually sorted and the chaingang black metallers finished their powerful performance, but nobody left the venue during the outage and the queue was still snaking down the road. All this for a band with one album, and while Baroness are headlining the main stage. That’s not something you get at every festival.
Over the past decade or so I’ve partied at festivals across the world, in both hemispheres, but there’s something special about the spring weekend in Tilburg, Netherlands. Making the pilgrimage for the first time this year, I’d heard about the magic of the place for years – mainly from Metal Hammer writers. There’s something in the air here that really tugs at the heartstrings of why you fell in love with heavy music in the first place (and it’s not the weed smoke). I use the term ‘heavy music’ because this isn’t a metal festival; there’s prog, hip-hop, extreme metal, industrial, noise, psychedelia and more. But it all fits. It all works within the confines of what Roadburn is – a celebration of transgressive music, straying away from the mainstream and finding life in the deepest nooks and crannies of the underground, waiting to be discovered by ravenous music fans.
Curated this year by Baroness’ John Baizley, he told me that he wanted to “find a good balance of the familiar, the unfamiliar, and the stuff that I knew would work 100% versus something that might require a little leap of faith from the audience,” and this resulted in one of the most diverse and engaging line-ups on offer this year. Oathbreaker, Deafheaven, Pertubator, Gnod, Wolves In The Throne Room, Wear Your Wounds, Mysticum, Pallbearer, My Dying Bride, Chelsea Wolfe… just some of the names that drew thousands of music fans to the sleepy Dutch town. And while we were all there for different bands, we united under the banner of heavy. There was no pretension, no ego, no dickheadedness, it was a celebration of the esoteric and the imagination. And it was great.
And that’s what really got me. Sure, there are bigger festivals with bigger bands playing bigger songs, but it doesn’t always feel special. Going to Glastonbury has become as counter-culture as going to Wimbledon, but it’s in the smaller domains, the niche corners of our world that community and creativity thrives. The street adjacent to the festival is peppered with cafes, full of denim and leather for one week only, with punters drinking super-strength continental beer (not some piss-weak flat lager) and having conversations about everything from Satanic black metal to ‘60s psych. Fans from across the world converging on one spot, their spiritual home, the Mecca for fringe music.
The dates for next year have been announced and you can bet that hotels are already selling out. In its almost 20-year lifespan, Roadburn has grown into a tradition, an annual celebration, like Halloween but genuinely fucking evil. While fans and industry alike will moan and argue about the next generation of headliners, it’s these ‘boutique’ smaller festivals are refusing to see it as an issue. Each band on the top two stages will play for around an hour (whether you’re on at 3pm or 11pm), leaving artists and fans satisfied with the result, and while Metallica will never play here, the impact of Mysticum’s set to 2000+ bewildered onlookers is just as intense an experience (and one that I still haven’t recovered from). But I’ll still be back next year, standing alongside thousands more strangers who all share the same love – a love for music. A love for the obscure. A love for Roadburn.
See you there.
All photos by Jostijn Ligtvoet and Paul Verhagen.