ArcTanGent 2022 – A Triumphant Return

ArcTanGent signSome festivals you look at the lineup and decide whether to go. Others, you go because you love them regardless and you watch the lineup announcements excitedly after getting your tickets. My partner Jem, who was already a regular, took me to ArcTanGent for the first time in 2016. It’s been in the second category ever since. As it targets the math/post-rock/metal niche, there’s always some good bands on. And as the best festival in the world for those specific genres, it draws some surprisingly big names for a small event. You’ll regularly see bands out in the audience for other shows. Beyond the music, it just has a really nice vibe. The people are friendly, the food is good, the toilets tolerable, and the rain worth it.

After two years of pandemic cancellations, we were overjoyed to be back. This year, it was also a pleasure to be joined by ATG newbie Carcharodon and his friend Little Brittain.

– Sentynel

“I don’t even know where we are. Is this Bristol?” deadpanned Mikael Åkerfeldt during Opeth‘s headline set at ArcTanGent 2022. I’m almost certain he was joking but, for me, there was no doubt about where I was. The road to my first ATG was a long one, beginning in late 2019, when I bought my ticket for August 2020. ATG had been on my ‘must go’ list for a long time. A relatively small festival, focused on progressive, math and post metal, ATG is very much my bag. Until this edition, the festival’s 8th, however, I had never been able to get to it. Now, in August 2020, I’d be heading there and happily forked out the extra £50 for VIP tickets, meaning dedicated campsite and parking, showers, a VIP bar, some swag and more.1 Headlined by personal favorites Cult of Luna and Opeth, this was going to be a chance to spend three days listening to awesome music, drinking too many beers and catching up with one of my oldest and best friends, whom we’ll refer to as Little Brittain. In further good news, I knew Sentynel and Jem would be there too, as they’ve not missed an edition of ATG for years.

But, of course, it was not to be, as everyone’s favorite virus saw first 2020 and then 2021 canceled. Finally, in 2022, however, nearly three years after buying the tickets, I pitched up in the beautiful Mendip Hills in the South West of England and found a sunny spot in the VIP area to set up camp beneath some trees (pointedly advised to be at my own risk). And so began my time at one of the best festivals I have been to.

– Carcharodon

Maybeshewill

Photos in this article by Sentynel, Carcharodon and Jem. Cameraphone photos heroically rescued in editing by Jem.


Sentynel

Between a redesigned layout and a three-year gap since the last ATG, arriving brought a sense of dreamlike near-but-not-quite familiarity. Fortunately, the welcome sight of returning regular food vendors like the pad Thai place, the crêpe place and the stonebaked pizza place helped settle us in. By the time we’d pitched our tent and seen our first set, it felt just like home again. For a festival notorious for its rain—it has rained heavily to torrentially all weekend every previous year we’ve been—the weather was suspiciously good. Thursday evening rained a bit, but the stages are covered so it’s a mild inconvenience. Otherwise, it was warm and sunny, but not the 40C heatwave afflicting earlier festivals.

One of the best things about ATG is highlighting some really interesting tiny bands via a small stage for little-known artists. As with the rest of the lineups, band booker James Scarlett does a great job. In past years, I’ve discovered enduring favorites like Jo Quail (more on her later), Hexcut, Midas Fall, and Sithu Aye through their shows on the little PX3. As ATG has grown and the stages with it, the PX3 can’t really be described as “small” anymore. So this year, a fifth “Elephant in the Bar Room” stage was introduced for these shows, itself larger than the PX3 in my first year. My indie highlight of the year goes to Coldbones. Their upbeat God Is an Astronaut-esque post-rock deservedly packed the room, and they were clearly having a blast. Also fun were the inexplicably named bouncy math-rock duo Let’s Swim, Get Swimming, complete with mid-set party popper interlude. I also need to mention Axiom here. I didn’t personally see them (due to a regrettable decision to see Emma Ruth Rundle in the same slot—see Carcharodon‘s thoughts on that), but Jem did and reports they were brilliant. Playing Thank You Scientist (an unfortunate last minute cancellation themselves) type dancy prog rock, I like their recorded work a lot and need to seek out a live show.

Stake climbing the stagingI’m one of those people who prepares for a festival by listening to every band on the lineup and then optimizing my schedule on a carefully annotated clashfinder. As such, beyond the indie acts mentioned above, quite a few others were more or less new to me. I’d read Carcharodon‘s review of Five the Hierophant and moved on, but I was curious enough to see them live, and that was a different matter. They opened Friday’s main stage lineup with a half-hour set, which kept the material tight and interesting, with groovy riffs and strong stage presence. Later that day, post-metal band Stake played a set that started off as the sludgy post I expected. But they spent the entire set cranking up the intensity to some sort of speed-sludge in one of the highest energy shows I attended. This culminated in the questionably dressed singer/bassist climbing the staging while a wall of death broke out below.

Saturday brought a run of new-to-me successes, starting with Aussie violin math-rock band Seims on the main stage. Argentinian jazz-infused math-rock band TOTS followed with great music, despite an awkward stage presence. Both brought fun twists to the basic formula. Breaking the math streak, I was unexpectedly impressed by Sergeant Thunderhoof. Noodly stoner/psych rock can easily go off the rails, but their set was loud, tight, and loads of fun—perfect festival music. Finally, while post-hardcore isn’t my personal favorite bit of ATG, Japan’s Mass of the Fermenting Dregs killed it with their high-energy, poppy take on the genre.

No festival can be all success all the time, of course. My personal lowlight was a dull set from Pertubator, where the only interesting element was the lighting rig. Opeth finished half an hour early in the big headline slot for no obvious reason and scarpered without a word. A confused crowd were left yelling “encore” at the techs dismantling their kit. This put a weird energy on the finale, despite an otherwise on-point set, saved only by the VIP bar afterwards. Also lame were a couple of regrettable cancellations, a coach ride which was startled by how many travelers they’d booked and then hilariously attempted to enter the site via the wrong entrance (much to the dismay of the unfortunate stewards managing parking), and not being able to find any sweet potato fries all weekend. Look, it’s a great festival, there’s hardly anything to complain about.

Now we come to the hits from bands I already knew. First up, those I enjoy but rarely actually sit down and listen to. Palm Reader fall somewhere in the Svalbard-led niche at the melodic end of post-hardcore I enjoy. They put on an awesome show on Friday night and I had a lot more fun than expected (and certainly more than I would have had with TesseracT‘s headline set in the same slot). Zeal & Ardor, annoyingly hit-and-miss recorded, were phenomenal live as ever (they also played 2019). A singalong crowd packed out the second stage for a truly intense performance. And reformed ATG staple Maybeshewill brought back their gorgeous post-rock, seven years since they last played here.  It’s great to see them playing again, and I was really impressed by their new material—I definitely need to correct my failure to listen to them recorded.

Alcest atop their carpetThis leaves the big favorite bands. Dvne‘s prog sludge par excellence was the first show we saw, and set the mood perfectly. Regulars Cult of Luna nailed Thursday night’s headline slot. With the musicians lost in swirling, backlit fog, the focus was firmly on their crushing riffs. A couple of songs from their great new album The Long Road North made welcome appearances. And Alcest delivered a note-perfect set from atop their carefully selected carpets2.

Finally, my two personal picks for the best performances. First, Jo Quail‘s main stage set was truly mesmerizing. Quite an upgrade in scale from her aforementioned 2018 appearance, she cut a lonely figure with only her cello and a loop pedal to fill such a large space, and seemed (understandably!) nervous. But from the moment she started playing, the audience was enthralled, as I was the first time I saw her. Some clever lighting design helped fill the stage. Carefully composed and meticulously layered, watching her live is as technically impressive as the music is beautiful. “I played this in the hotel last night and it was shit,” she quipped at one point, before demonstrating she has a wildly miscalibrated definition of “shit.”  Second, twinkly math-rock stars Covet played an exuberant set. Both they and the audience were clearly having a great time, and they make their complex, uplifting melodies seem utterly effortless. They also win the award for best stage banter, with their introduction “Hello, we’re Black Sabbath! No, wait, we’re Blur. No, we’re just a Covet band.”

There were more bands, more food stands, and more going on than I have words to mention here. After two years with the world stopped, and some hairy moments as ATG crowdfunded to remain in business, returning brought both joy and relief, and reminded me of everything I love about it. I have my 2023 tickets, and all I can do now is wait for announcements to start again.

Axiom

Carcharodon

Arriving at ATG felt strange. Between a ruptured Achilles, a minor global pandemic and a persistent shark pup infestation that I’m struggling to get under control, it’s been a while since I pitched up at a mass gathering like this. After the initial pressure of being the first one there and having to select a camping spot for myself, the Sentynels and Little Brittain, I set off to explore my home for the next three days and change. ATG is fairly small festival, with perhaps 10,000 people there. Having forked out for VIP camping, it was a mere three-minute stroll through a spinney of trees and sunny fields, past the inviting VIP bar and into the arena proper. Crammed with delicious food stalls—the stonebaked pizzas, a particular highlight—and a healthy number of bars, which never seemed to have a queue, it was the perfect space to drift around between bands I wanted to see.

The first such band for me was GardensTale favorite Dvne. I have never really ‘got’ these progressive sludge dealers before, with their last two efforts being held back by, for me, sub-par vocals. Live, however, Dvne is a very different beast. Despite playing fairly low down the bill on a sunny Thursday lunchtime, the Scots commanded ATG’s main stage, weaving spellbinding riffs and leads, set to percussive assaults from drummer Dudley Tait, and even the vocals worked. Clearly enjoying themselves, songs like “Sì-XIV” sounded huge and kicked off a feast of techy, progressive, post-metal that kept me going until the epic Sunday morning hangover.

With a slightly older demographic than many a festival I’ve been to—I’d put the average ATGer’s age in the early to mid-30s3—ATG has an amazingly chilled and friendly vibe. I had a lot of good chats with complete strangers while waiting for made-to-order pizzas or perusing tees and vinyl in the merch tent. And so it was that, with pizza crumbs littering my beard and the words of a lovely (and very drunk) woman from Plymouth ringing in my ears, I set off to see the “too fucking miserable” A. A. Williams. Now, it’s true, no one could accuse this gloomy songstress of being uplifting but she delivered a lush, gorgeous set, with tracks like “Melt” filling the tent with swirling melodies, as Williams‘ rich voice soared.

Jo Quail

I almost used the word ‘spellbinding’ to describe A. A. Williams but stopped myself because I have to reserve that word for Jo Quail‘s incredible one-person set. Cellist Quail absolutely blew me away. Her amazing, self-deprecating stage presence, as she looped numerous elements of her performance to construct huge, mesmerizing soundscapes, was truly amazing. Little Brittain is not really a metal fan but had come to ATG at my invitation and Quail was one of his standout moments. She held the mainstage captive for every moment of her one-woman set, with the only shame being that she had a mere 30 minutes to play with. Not nearly enough time for someone who deals in the epic, carefully constructed pieces she does.

Sadly, even a guest appearance from Quail couldn’t save the car crash of a set delivered by Emma Ruth Rundle.4 This was my biggest disappointment of ATG. Having discovered Rundle on the beautiful On Dark Horses, hers was one of the sets I was most excited for. And so, the portentous statement from Jem that they wouldn’t be joining as they didn’t “get the hype about ERR – she’s just nothing special” ringing in my ears, off we went. “I just hope,” I said to Sentynel, as we waited for the set to start, “that it’s not all Engine of Hell stuff,” as that last record didn’t quite do it for me. Rundle wandered onto stage and, after faffing about for a while, announced she’d be playing Engine of Hell in full. Fuck. It went downhill from there. I can honestly say it was one of the most boring live sets I have ever seen, feeling lackluster and with some suspect piano playing, which saw numerous missed notes. This was paired with a pompous and off-hand stage manner from Rundle, including several complaints that she wasn’t sure her guitar was properly tuned, which I disliked intensely. Little Brittain declared himself ‘out’ halfway through and left, with Sentynel and me not far behind.

Imperial TriumphantThe only other real disappointment of ATG for me was Imperial Triumphant. More an inquisitive observer than an actual fan, I trundled off to see the golden-masked, sax-wielding, black metal triumvirate on the basis that so many people have told me how awesome they are live. Unfortunately, despite having now seen them, I honestly can’t comment. For all the band’s energy and endeavor, and the aura created by the Nazgûl-like robes and those masks, the band was plagued by such awful sound that I left mid-set. Flat and indistinct, the live production sucked all nuance and energy out of the band, leaving only a crushed wall of noise, with pre-recorded sax floating over the top.

I don’t know what happened with IT because the engineering was one of the highlights of ATG for me, with nearly every band sounding fantastic. Helped, I expect, by the acoustics of the big top tents erected over each stage, the sound was on point for everyone from avant-garde French black metallers Alcest—who played a blinding set filled with classics and a brilliantly charismatic Gallic stage presence—through instrumental post-rockers Outlander to post-metal jazz droners Five the Hierophant. Indeed, much like Dvne, I was won over by Five the Hierophant. The London trio rather disappointed me when I reviewed their sophomore album but live, they killed it, as did Finnish psychedelic black metallers Oranssi Pazuzu. In fact, Oranssi Pazuzu killed it in two respects, playing a spellbinding half hour or so of bonkers key- and synth-infused black metal, before absolutely murdering the last song of their set, during which their drummer simply left halfway through and the rest of the band seemed determined to outdo each other in trying to turn it up to 11. Indeed, so chaotic was it, that a good portion of the crowd (me and LB included) drifted away while they were still going.

Barnstorming sets from the likes of Danish post-black shoegaze outfit MØL and UK sludge quartet Conjurer—seemingly sponsored by the undrinkable monstrosity that is Fireball cinnamon whisky liqueur—turned up the intensity, as both chose to play the heaviest of sets drawn from their respective discogs. ‘Intensity’ is the only word you can really use to describe the heart-crushing masterclass delivered by Belgian doom metal legends Amenra, with a stunning rendition of “A Solitary Reign” a particular highlight. While with UK stoner sludge act Tuskar there is no choosing between a heavy and less heavy set; heavy is all these guys do, steamrolling all before them with walls of feedback-laden guitars. Not a band I was really familiar with, I went to see Tuskar mainly for my spongy ListMate TheKenWord, who recently discovered the band and fell in love with them. Well Kenneth, I can confirm that they put on a helluva show.

I have somewhat free-wheeled through this write-up, showing no respect whatsoever to the order of the line-up, nor even the days on which different bands played. Perhaps that was already patently obvious. But at this point, I’m left with only three bands that I want to say something about: Cult of Luna, who headlined the Thursday; Zeal & Ardor, who should have headlined the Friday (though that honor went to TesseracT, in keeping with ATG’s djenty origins) and Opeth, who closed the festival on Saturday.

Zeal & ArdorBy this point, I am aware that Cult of Luna is a Marmite band but, as anyone who read my gushing praise for latest album The Long Road North knows, I’m very much a lover, not a hater. Always a great live show, the Swedish post-metal titans were in outstanding form, even by their high standards. Opening with the blaring, percussive “Cold Burn” and closing on a monstrous version of “The Silent Man,” Johannes Persson and co. demanded rapt attention from all. Wreathed in dry ice and picked out in swirling pools of light, Cult of Luna was in command. For me, however, no one quite matched the presence of Zeal & Ardor mainman Manuel Gagneux. Flanked by backing singers Denis Wagner and Marc Obrist, Gagneux ripped through the likes of “Götterdämmerung,” “Death to the Holy” and “Row Row” like a raging demon before dropping down to a more contemplative mien on “Devil is Fine.” For all his intensity, Gagneux seemed genuinely touched as the crowd roared every word back at him. He also seemed to be having the time of his life, projecting an infectious energy into the sweaty tent.

For Opeth, I didn’t know what to expect. I am diehard fan of everything the band did up to and including Ghost Reveries. Thereafter, I rather lose interest and so it was that I hoped we’d be getting more Oldpeth, less newpeth. I was not to be disappointed, as Åkerfeldt and accomplices belted out the likes of “Ghost of Perdition,” “Demon of the Fall” and “Drapery Falls,” closing on an incredible “Deliverance.” Åkerfeldt himself was in sparkling form, and not only on guitar and vocals. His dry wit kept the crowd baying for more, as he tossed out self-deprecating quips, coupled with a few wry comments, including a dig at Machine Head‘s Robb Flynn5 Despite a stellar performance and great setlist, Opeth did manage to piss off everyone mightily by walking off stage half an hour earlier than billed and, therefore, finishing the whole festival early. The crowd gamely waited, screaming for an encore that was not to come, before drifting away muttering darkly, slightly deflated.

It was a flat note to finish an otherwise incredible festival on but the Sentynels, Little Brittain and I did our best to make up for it, first in the VIP bar and then back at our tents with a bottle of Islay scotch.6 And so it was that I rose blearily on Sunday morning to take down the tent and start the five-hour drive home, certain that I will be back for future editions of this outstanding ‘little’ festival.

An atmospheric shot of lighting on the main stage

Show 6 footnotes

  1. This is known as “glamping” in the fancy person industry. – Steel
  2. I assume without evidence that this is also how they traveled back to France.
  3. Still younger than me *sobs*.
  4. They are apparently on the road together at the moment.
  5. “This is the part of the set where we are going to a drop D tuning, a technique actually invented by Robb Flynn. It makes your shitty songs sound heavier and good. And it works surprisingly well.”
  6. Bunnahabhain, if you’re wondering.
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