Every year, something special takes place in my hometown of Tilburg, The Netherlands: the festival of Roadburn. Roadburn isn’t like your average festival. There’s no marquees, no fields of green devolving into mud, and no crowds the size of small towns worshipping the biggest bands. Instead, thousands of people dressed in black gather from every corner of the continent, and some from other continents, to see over 100 doom, stoner and other kinds of acts whose success lies almost entirely in the underground. Many have cult followings but rarely any mainstream success even within the realm of metal. Better yet, some of the artists aren’t even metal at all. Everything heavy is welcome in the warm grasp of Roadburn, and boundary-pushing is encouraged no matter what the genre. It’s a four-day celebration of innovation and daring in music, and discovering something new is as much the attraction as seeing bands you’re already familiar with.

Roadburn takes place entirely in downtown Tilburg, spread over 5 venues. Podium 013, the pride of our city and main host of the event, has a main stage that seats 3000, and a smaller venue, the Green Room, that can contain 700 when people squeeze in a little. Two cafes also join in on the fun: the Extase, where up to 300 people can pack together, and the tiny watering hole called Cul de Sac where only 150 can cram into a sweaty mass. Last, but definitely not least, is Patronaat, a stage built into the top floor of an old church wing. The stained glass windows and wooden attic beams give the room a distinct look and feel, and it’s roomy enough to host almost 1000 people.

Because our home is within walking distance of the venues, a brilliant opportunity arose when a friend in the organization of 013 offered me and my girlfriend Samantha (Sam for short) tickets for the full festival in exchange for hosting a few visitors on business. The decision was easy to make, and on the 20th of April, we had the pleasure of welcoming Leif Jensen (Dew-Scented) and his partner into our home. Soon we were off to Day One of my first Roadburn festival head-on.

Thursday

Getting our guests settled had taken a little longer than expected, and the first round of bands had passed, but the violin-fueled dread of sludge-doom masters SubRosa had only just begun as we walked into the Main Stage. As we sipped our first beers, they laid down the entirety of their most recent album, For This We Fought the Battle of Ages, in a fantastic and groovy set. Heads were banged and violins were flecked with droplets of sweat. It was a great start.

After stuffing ourselves with pizza downtown we met up with Leif to catch the performance of Esben and the Witch in the Green Room. Rachel Davies has a fantastic voice and demonstrated her full capacity from the first to the last song. The rolling stoner rock of Esben has a slightly folk quality to it, an air of mystery that brings their songs to greater heights. It was an enticing performance, even if our view was limited from the back of the stuffed room.

Immediately after, it was time for a historical event. For the first time in almost three whole decades, legendary cult purveyors of psychedelic witchcraft Coven would peddle their magic to a live audience. Two robed assistants opened the lid of an upright coffin and Jinx Dawson stepped out onto the stage. It may have been half a lifetime for the band, but their classic brand of occult rock still sounded as new. Jinx’s voice has even improved, rather than diminished, with age, morphing from the mysterious herb-picking lady at the edge of town into an evil cackle. Influencing everything from Black Sabbath to Ghost, it was a treat seeing these icons in action and still as vital as the day they started.

But with so much to see and to do, we decided to split halfway through the set to catch an artist that had many Roadburn attendees scratching their heads: hip-hop artist dälek in the Patronaat venue. It’s famous in the scene: the old church building has a unique feel to it. Though we couldn’t see much from our couch potato position in the back of the balcony, there was plenty to listen to. Dälek truly does something different with hip-hop and heavy music: the beats are given massive weight with the introduction of doom metal and industrial drone, while vocoding effects make even the voice sound unearthly and mechanical.

On the main stage, Deafheaven was just starting, but since Sam nor I are big on black metal, we decided to take a gander at Scissorfight, a New Hampshire stoner punk band. However, after a day of fairly heady music, there is less attraction in what amounts to a dumber version of Rob Zombie (yes, even dumber!). Three drunk teens trying to build a pit in a completely disinterested room didn’t help the performance seem more attractive, either. Nonetheless, we waited out most of the performance, as the main stage would soon be overtaken by the bludgeoning marijuana-enthusiasts Bongzilla.

Clearly, the usual no-smoking rule was not enforced for the occasion, spliffs winking in and out of sight. Bongzilla didn’t waste time upon entering the stage, but launched straight into their patented earth-shattering sludge, as the screen behind them filled with scenes from “Reefer Madness,” the old anti-weed movie. Unfortunately, it was pretty clear the musicians themselves had taken part in their own botany a little too enthusiastically, as the performance was rather sloppy even considering the style, and songs seemed to meld together with little variation overall. After a couple of songs, we agreed that our energy was better spent on the host of bands due the next day.

Friday

Tired but eager to get back in the action, we left the apartment after a hearty brunch with our German guests to have our heads bashed in by desert stoners Atala at the alternative cafe Extase. With the addition of a couple of tv’s at the back of the room, we had a good position to lean against the wall, have our first beers of the day, and nod our heads to the tasty buzz. Atala is not a band who innovate, especially compared to the average Roadburn fare, but they rock hard and are a perfect band for waking up.

After we chowed down on a bucket of chicken, we headed to the main stage. Magma is one hell of a weird band, a bizarre alien rock opera in a constructed language, jumping between different shades of psychedelics and sporting a multi-vocal approach as well as a big variety of instruments. It was only after this that I learned about the genre of Zeuhl, attributed solely to Magma, and their extensive legacy in underground music. It’s a testament to their abilities that the band can still surprise and engage new fans so long after establishing themselves in musical history.

We sidled back to the Extase to catch some of Ruby and the Hatchet afterwards. The band had caught my ear during my pre-festival research, but I was not the only one: despite finding the same spot as we had at Atala, the crowd was clearly more densely packed and we had trouble settling into a comfortable place. Aside from that, the sound didn’t seem quite optimal as vocalist Jillian got buried under the instrumental avalanche, which hurt their performance a little. We decided not to stick around for too long.

Returning to the main stage of 013, we were greeted by a petrifying scream over pummeling music. It was the sound of Oathbreaker, and though we had not even planned on seeing their blackened post-sludge madness, we were drawn in straight away. The mixture of mournful melancholy and furious blasts was captivating. It surprised me how little attention their album Rheia received here last year, as it seems like it would be a shoe-in for Angry Metal Guy. At least I can rectify this now by wholeheartedly recommending them here.

It was more by reputation than personal experience that we decided to catch the full performance of Chelsea Wolfe from the main stage balcony, but I’m very glad we did. A pounding, bludgeoning experience overwhelmed me from the start, while Chelsea’s voice pierced with an echoing desperation. Her vocal chords were among the best at the festival. The pummeling drums were punctuated with a blinding light show, which made taking pictures impossible, but just sitting back and listening to the gorgeous heartstomping music was more than enough.

We quickly went to stuff our faces with a roll of doner and returned in time to see Amenra take the main stage. Their pounding doom/sludge turned out to be extremely headbangable, and looking down from the balcony the audience was soon a sea with rolling waves of heads. All in all, a great set, though with Chelsea Wolfe still fresh in our minds, it didn’t have quite as much effect.

Before the end of Amenra, we wanted to catch the tail-end of Whores., who were playing in the Green Room. It was impossible to get more than a glimpse: the room was packed once again, and even the balcony was filled to the brim. The couple of songs we caught sounded encouraging though: energetic noise-punk, brimming with attitude and fun. The harsh hardcore screams combine well with the feedback-laden riffs, and despite Amenra’s quality it made me wish we’d seen more of Whores. instead.

There were only a few bands I actually knew any full albums by, but headliner Baroness was chief among them. Frontman John Dyer Baizley curated part of the festival as well, so a number of bands were scheduled thanks to his input. There was only one caveat: Baroness’ set coincided with Zeal & Ardor in Patronaat, and I didn’t want to miss either. We decided to catch a few Baroness songs and head out to Patronaat after. But although the band played fairly well, they were missing an X-factor so many other bands seemed to have acquired during Roadburn. Whether it was older songs from Red Album and Blue Record, or new tracks from Purple, it lacked in energy and surprise.

Adding insult to injury, when we exited the 013 a couple of songs into the set and our eyes fell upon the line in front of Patronaat, our hearts sank. Zeal & Ardor has of course been quite a hype, but neither we nor the organization anticipated anything resembling this. The line stretched all the way from the entrance to the cafes around the corner, at least 80 yards. There was no way to get in. We turned back to finish the Baroness show before leaving for home, a lesson learned. If a hyped band performs at Roadburn, get there early.

Saturday

Saturday was upon us, and since two friends joined us for the day, our alcohol intake was increased significantly. First up was Cobalt, a harsh bulldozer of a sludge band. Though they were among the first bands of the day, the Green Room was packed, but the massive sound was a good wake-up call and we were starting to feel sufficiently oppressed by the end of it.

Roadburn is not averse to collaborations or supergroups, and Razors in the Night, featuring John Baizley, Pete Adams and Marek Sarba of Baroness and Scott Kelly of Neurosis, invaded the Patronaat venue to inject a healthy blast of energy into the weary-eyed crowd, playing a string of punk and hardcore classics that put a spring in our steps.

We didn’t stay too long, though, because we wanted to catch some of Hedonist as well. This show took place in the tiny bar Cul de Sac. When the power trio burst out of their holding pen, however, the size of the venue no longer mattered, because the Clutch-meets-High on Fire approach was perfect for some good old-fashioned beer and headbanging. It may not have been as innovative and transgressive as most Roadburn bands, but goddamn, that hit the spot. Rocking out and throwing horns, the small and cramped crowd seemed to love it as much as we did.

Depressive doom metal legends Warning had reformed for a few shows, playing their acclaimed album Watching From a Distance. The stark setting and simple lighting fit the deeply heartfelt music. Patrick Walker has a voice that is truly perfect for the heartbreaking material, centering around separation and loss. We watched the first half from the balcony, but the others took off on a lengthy errand halfway through, leaving me to get up close and let the desperation soak me to the bone.

I was on my own now, and my buzz was wearing off. I decided to wait for Memoriam to take the main stage. While Memoriam have only started relatively recently, they have the members’ past weighing heavily on their backs. I speak of Bolt Thrower, of course, and Memoriam seeks to continue that legacy of war-inspired death metal. But sadly, despite their best efforts, the performance failed to truly impress. It felt like just another death metal band, not anything special, and certainly not the sequel to one of the most lauded acts in genre history.

I went on back to the apartment for cheaper beer and to make sure there was a stack of pizzas (yep, again) when the others returned from their errand. It would be a while (and a few more beers) before we headed back to the venues, this time aiming for Disfear at Patronaat. I didn’t want to miss one of the founders of d-beat punk, especially since the lukewarm crowd at Memoriam had left me in a mood for a mosh. Alas, once again the line stretched from the entrance to the food stalls and getting in was highly unlikely.

Instead, we went inside to the Green Room and found ourselves a good spot to party things up with Carpenter Brut. Another good example of how Roadburn is about more than just metal, Brut is more akin to old-school techno, but mixes metal in with the electro for a highly danceable combination. You’ve never seen a room full of (drunk, admittedly) metalheads go crazy like this to EDM. The venue was shaking, bouncing and sweating for an hour as we flopped our intoxicated fleshbags around. On any normal festival, the day is always finished with some big concert, but I can’t argue against a big stupid dance party.

Sunday

I awoke around noon on Sunday with all the bleariness of someone who drank and partied a lot more than he’s used to. It took a few minutes for the night before to coalesce in my memory, consisting mostly of more beer, games and tv. Our friends were sprawled on our fold-out couch, but consciousness was returning to all four of us and we got ready to stuff some food into our slack jaws.

My big goal for the day was going to be Pallbearer, who played remarkably early, but first there was one-man band Author & Punisher in the Green Room, specially recommended to us by a friend. While not the cure for a hangover Atala had been, there was something strangely invigorating about the absolutely beastly weight his industrial-drone-doom installation carried. Surrounded by electronics, Author proceeded to produce bass hits so heavy it vibrated the marrow from my bones. If you thought one guy could not evoke the very definition of heaviness on his own, this man will prove you wrong.

But Pallbearer was about to enter the mainstage so we sat down on the stairs, beer in hand, to watch the Americans tear up the stage with their melancholic doom. I loved their latest album, Heartless, and hearing “I Saw the End” and “Dancing in Madness” played live was a hell of an experience. Though Brett Campbell’s voice could have been a nudge higher in the mix, they played spectacularly and the slow waves of emotion swept through the venue.

We had some time left so we went to chow down on some doner kabob (yes, again), then headed back and slumped down in the Green Room to get mechanically bludgeoned by Valborg. They played a fantastic set, an earthy stomp of doom-death with an almost industrial sound. There was one huge fan in the room, because from below we could hear the overenthusiastic mating cries of a hairy manbeast who had adrenaline leaking out of his ears between every two songs.

Ulver had taken the main stage in the mean time, but it was way too crowded, so we wandered around and bought some shirts before going back into the Green Room for Emma Ruth Rundle’s show. I would not have believed it possible for a pack of metalheads to be this quiet during a performance. With naught but a guitar and her voice, Emma became a squall of emotion. It was as heartfelt and simple as good singer-songwriter music can be, and before the last song she shyly thanked the audience, mentioning how lovely and terrifying it was to perform for everyone present.

It was truly a back and forth between the Green Room and the main stage that day, as we went back to the biggest venue once again to see Hypnopazuzu play. I had previously dismissed them as too weird and simply figured it a good way to kill some time. Instead, Youth of Killing Joke, David Tibet of Current 93 and a host of guests made it into one of the most memorable performances of the festival. The music was a strange, alien affair, warbling synths and unusual percussion, Tibet’s acerbic voice echoing bizarre lyrics over the madness, each track slowly building to a crescendo of desperation and madness. It was the musical equivalent of suicide by acid trip, and if you get the chance to see this, don’t miss it, because it is spectacular.

After we had picked our jaws off the floor, we hurried to join the short line waiting for the festival closer at Patronaat: Inter Arma. The wooden beams trembled and shuddered with the pounding sludge/doom, opening with “An Archer in the Emptiness” off last year’s lauded Paradise Gallows. They gave a great show, a worthy end to the Roadburn festival. The only downside was that I was so damn knackered I had to fight to stay awake, despite the pummeling of my eardrums.

Conclusion

We shuffled back home, tired but entirely satisfied. Roadburn had revealed itself to indeed be a very special festival. Where most summer festivals, such as Wacken or Graspop, are about partying it up with big and famous bands, Roadburn is different. It’s a celebration of transgressive music, a massive push against the envelopes of heaviness. We’ve seen metal, singer-songwriter music, hiphop, EDM, noise and whatever the fuck Hypnopazuzu is. Our horizons were broadened, our view upon the landscape of music forever changed. If you ever feel like the music you know is stagnating, all artists just copies of one another, come to Tilburg, the Netherlands in the spring. You will never be the same again.