The shuttle bus to ArcTanGent weaved through dramatic cliffs and dense woodland just outside Bristol, a metaphor for the math and post-rock to come across the weekend. The site was tiny, with just four stages, and the bands programmed so that there’s never someone playing at the same time as someone on the stage next to them. Only ever having two bands playing at once can be a shortcoming, but it’s a real strength as well. When combined with the small capacity, there was a genuine sense of community. You could walk around the entire site in five minutes but the lineup showed a lifetime’s commitment, featuring big, if niche, names like Godspeed You! Black Emperor, American Football and Meet Me in St Louis’ playing their only UK festival gigs of the year. That sense of community also came from the bands. Various side projects were on display from some of the bigger bands of the weekend. There was a definite feeling that people were there for the music. It was less muscle vests and Native American headdresses, more band t-shirts and bobble hats.
Three Trapped Tigers’ glitchy electronic prog punk can’t be caged. The fact they were happy to throw away ‘Cramm’ early on showed confidence in a set heavy with tracks from this year’s Silent Earthling album. Chunky basslines got pulses racing and IDM drums made feet move as they went from sci-fi noise to psych rock in the flick of a tail. Before leaving they noted that ArcTanGent was the only festival where they get a singalong. It was a sign of things to come in a weekend of predominantly instrumental music.
Axes’ staccato party riffs were the perfect warm up for Mono‘s pummelling post rock. It’s all very dramatic and impressive but whether it was fun is a different question. When their meandering set was goo, it was gripping but at times they were ponderous. The first side project came from Three Trapped Tigers’ drummer Adam Betts. He triggered video game drum machines and synths with live drumming, like his main band covering Crystal Castles, taking elements from electro and even grime in places. Tiny Fingers played to a sparse crowd but their psyched-out space rock made up for it in intensity. Swirling psychedelic synths and super-tight drums left their guitarist to riff Hendrix-style over the top.
Eugene Quell, the new(ish) band from Meet Me In St Louis frontman Toby Hayes, were a breath of fresh air, if only because they were the first band with actual songs. The juxtaposition of the swooning, waltz-time ‘London Pollen’ and the scuffed up grunge of ‘That One Song’ showed what a versatile and underrated songwriter Hayes is. The bassist apologised to anyone he met the night before, before clambering into the crowd to play the last song while crowdsurfing.
Earlier in the day, someone offered me a swig of iced tea. When I declined, they said it was actually rum, and that I should definitely go and see Heck. She had come all the way from Austria for their messy hardcore punk and it proved to be a treat, all clambering over speaker stacks, crowdsurfing and lots of yelling. Travelling long distances was something of a theme; Exxasens came from Barcelona and described ArcTanGent as “the most important festival in Europe for this type of music.” I also met a reggae DJ from France who said he came with friends but was amazed by how everyone seemed to genuinely be there for the music.
A hell of a crowd gathered for Cleft’s final ever show. They really hit on a formula with their “turbo-prog,” which is basically math riffs done and dusted in four minutes. Tracks like ‘Hostage’ are the reason they’ve played every ArcTanGent and why the tent was packed. They ended, as is tradition, with friends on stage doing a medley of covers by David Bowie and Motorhead.
It’s difficult to know what to say about Godspeed You! Black Emperor that hasn’t already been said. Live, they play their most recent record as a rule and they had a colossal set, though it was more a series of crescendos than anything else. Each climax was more dramatic than the previous, a series of ever higher peaks. They began by all sitting in a circle, facing each other amidst stacks of amps. They ended by exiting the stage one by one, leaving behind a huge wall of noise.
Alma soothed tired hangovers with their looped plaintive vocals, spellbinding plucked guitar and washes of sound. At this point the heavens opened. Fortunately all the stages are covered, to a greater or lesser extent. However, the PX3 stage only has a small capacity, so half of Kusanagi‘s crowd sheltered in the bar next door. The main Arc stage had a high, arched canvas, so although the rain came horizontally through the sides it was nice to watch the main bands without getting soaked. It meant that the crowd was packed in closer to the front too, making it a better experience for the bands. Not that we find out if Errors think so, as they canceled 20 minutes after they were due onstage. Space Blood made a solid alternative, with only bass, drums and silly masks giving them a Lightning Bolt feel. A party atmosphere developed with ‘Unintentional Manscaping’s jagged shards of white noise and a confetti cannon. The drummer echoed what seems to be a widely held feeling about the festival: “the weather’s shit but this is the most warm, inviting and accepting places I’ve ever been.”
A huge reception greeted American Football frontman Mike Kinsella’s solo set as Owen but you could hear a pin drop for his first song. A cheer went up for the distinctly jangly guitar patterns of ‘The Sad Waltzes of Pieto Crespi.’ He was in high spirits, wisecracking about his particular brand of emo, asking “does anyone have a lot of feelings?” and drinking beers passed to him from the crowd. He introduced ‘The Desperate Act’ from this year’s The King of Whys album simply with “does anyone have any jokes? This song’s pretty funny.”
It’s a testament to how far And So I Watch You From Afar have taken their party rock riffage that they seem born for a second headline slot. They played an unnamed new song which shows their determination not to lose their sense of fun. ’BEAUTIFULUNIVERSEMASTERCHAMPION’‘s thunderous klaxon of a riff was dedicated to the freaks and weirdos. Ten years ago, Meet Me in St Louis released the incendiary Variations on Swing and promptly split up. They reunited for just four dates recently and their set at ArcTanGent was the final one; it was their first and last festival appearance. They played their songs with such passion, not to mention volume. ‘Right This Way, You Maverick Renegade’ was explosive, the time signatures twisting like Hayes’ dad-dancing. As the intro of “the tiny blond hairs on your arms keep me up at night” from ‘I Am Champagne, You Are Shit’ was bellowed back at him, it was as if they’d been playing the song for years. They ended with hugs and sincere thanks, but no mention of the fact that this is it, leaving the tantalising glimpse of hope that maybe, just maybe, it isn’t.
Similarly, there was no suggestion that American Football have any further plans after this ongoing reunion tour, making Monday’s announcement of new LP doubly surprising. Beyond extended instrumental passages, there was no real hint of new material but with songs as wonderful as ‘Honestly’s cascading riffs, no-one here minds. The well-earned encore of ‘The Summer Ends’ and ‘Never Meant’ were greeted like the classics they should be. 17 years ago this band made an album as teenagers and then went their separate ways without giving it a second thought, but they mean so much to a small but not insignificant group of people. Their set felt like recognition of what ArcTanGent has achieved in just five short years. It’s one of the most distinctive festivals in the country and the dedication that’s gone into putting the lineup together is reflected by the people who attended.
Images of Cleft and ArTanGent Sign copyright Snaprockandpop https://www.facebook.com/snaprockandpop
Images of American Football and Heck copyright Johnathan Dadds https://www.facebook.com/jonathandaddsphotography