Photo by Teddie Taylor

When Metal Festivals Get Political, It Feels Like Utopia

This year's edition of beloved Dutch metal fest Roadburn was about something bigger than music, which only added to its magic.

|
May 22 2018, 3:01pm

Photo by Teddie Taylor

Every year since 1999, Roadburn Festival has taken over the sleepy Dutch city of Tilburg and packed their meticulously maintained streets with thousands of metalheads, stoner rockers, noiseniks, acid casualties, amplifier worshippers, tone freaks, crusties, hippies, and assorted heshers. It sounds like a recipe for disaster, but for those of us who make the pilgrimage over there every year, it’s pure magic.

For one weekend in April, Tilburg is the happiest place on earth—a freewheeling, welcoming bubble of heavy tunes, sweet riffs, chill vibes, legal weed, street drinking, and genuine smiles. It’s always felt like an escape—a window into a kinder, gentler world, a utopian vision of what heavy metal and its subsects could be if given the chance to grow and evolve in a rainbow Petri dish.

Fostering a strong multinational community isn’t the festival’s primary raison d'être, but it’s certainly a significant part of how and why it is run the way that it’s run. From what I can tell, friendship, fandom, and (for those of us on the industry side of things) schmoozing are as important to Roadburn’s continuing success as the quality of its lineups or its formidable backline. It’s why those of us who travel long distances to attend keep coming back, and why nearly any review or write-up you’ll encounter inevitably talks up the festival’s “atmosphere,” a music writer’s favorite verbal stand-in for vaguely gesticulating at a group of people who seem to be having a nice time.

Yes, the weed smoke, flowing beards, splashes of psychedelic color, and genial crusties lolling about the front of the venue all play their part in creating that overall Roadburn vibe, but really, it comes down to attitude. Everyone present (barring hangovers or fights with significant others) is happy to be there. Everyone playing knows that they’ll be well taken care of by a professional staff, be welcomed by a roomful of fans, and leave with a spring in their step. Everyone working there seems to be moving with pleasant purpose. Everything is pretty chill. It’s relaxed. It’s cozy.

The term “safe space” has been mangled and masticated by too many idiotic right-wing jaws to properly hold its original shape anymore, but the most basic sentiment behind it applies wholeheartedly to Roadburn’s ethos: aggressive, gatekeeping assholes aren’t welcome here. It’s the same mindset cultivated by more niche European festivals like Eistnaflug in Iceland (whose motto is “No bullshit will be tolerated!”) and thoughtfully curated American efforts like Migration Fest, Shadow Woods, and the regional Terror Fest series—festivals that, perhaps significantly, operate on a more DIY level than their counterparts in Wacken or Clisson.

Bigger, more mainstream metal festivals have their merits as well, but there’s inevitably more of a Wild West vibe at play; it’s hard to curate a particular experience when the equivalent population of a small city has descended upon your venue of choice, and inevitably, there are going to be some jagoffs mixed in with the merrymakers. Roadburn doesn’t feel like that. Sure, there may be a few scattered dickwads roaming the grounds, but the likelihood that you’ll encounter one in the wild is quite low.

I don’t mean that in a strictly political sense, either, though the chances of running into a neo-Nazi or far-right chucklefuck at Roadburn is basically zero. The festival itself is avowedly apolitical, but the very fact that it is so welcoming and diverse aligns it on the left side of the political spectrum. Even the most unbiased, straight read of a standard right-wing conservative political viewpoint ultimately leaves someone out, whether that be due to their economic background or immigration status (to say nothing of race, gender, or sexuality). That’s why right-wing mentalities could never thrive in an environment like Roadburn—that, and its penchant for booking left-wing artists, a proclivity that was especially apparent in this year’s lineup.

I saw a lot of wonderful bands that weekend, but save for Hell's crushing church service and the primal fury of Vánagandr’s mesmerizing Sól án varma performance, the ones I really watched—i.e. carved out the time, got there early, and elbowed my way to the front for—were all overtly political in a way that’s not unheard of for Roadburn (I still remember that time Mike from YOB stagedived during Doom’s “Police Bastard” at Het Patronaat), but is certainly a bit rare. Musically speaking, Dawn Ray’d, Panopticon, Sangre de Muerdago, Thou, and Moor Mother are all wildly different artists, but when it comes down to message, they share a common goal: liberation.

Dawn Ray'd / Photo by Teddie Taylor

In Roadburn’s vast landscape of brilliant artists, Dawn Ray’d stood bathed in a bituminous glow, their resolve burning bright as a signal flare, their black flags hoisted and axes at the ready. There have always been anarchists at Roadburn, but we’ve never captured the spotlight the way this loudly, proudly anti-fascist Liverpool trio did that night; the queue to get in to see their set stretched to a worrying length well before they took the stage, and once security finally allowed us in, the flood of punters streaming inward overwhelmed the Hall of Fame’s modest main room. Once inside, we were greeted by black banners and three bodies—one of which, drummer Matt Broadley’s, was healing from an array of serious injuries sustained earlier that week.

They’d brought along a fill-in drummer, Corrupt Moral Altar's Tom Dring, just in case, but his services ended up unrendered; with broken ribs, a punctured lung, and a broken shoulder, Broadley played on, flanked by his comrades. Vocalist and violinist Simon Barr exhorted the crowd between songs, dedicating one of their final songs “to all the anarchists” fighting against a brutal system to build a better world; guitarist Fabian Devlin backed him up, mouthing their incendiary calls to arms as he shredded through tracks from the trio’s much-ballyhooed debut, The Unlawful Assembly. The overall vibe of their performance was of controlled chaos, spiraling noise, and purposeful danger; if you’ve ever been caught in the midst of a riot, watching Dawn Ray’d felt a little like that.

I ended up spending a lot of time hanging out with the Dawn Ray’d guys that weekend; sipping cocktails on the strip, dicking around outside their van, squatting on the cobblestones outside the 013. At one point, I ended up in conversation with Fabian and Panopticon’s Austin Lunn—who’d been stood right next to me up front during their set—discussing the ideas of Proudhon, Emma Goldman, and propaganda of the deed. It was a perfect moment of solidarity and understanding; bearing witness to the kind of conversation I’m more used to encountering in radical spaces and in the streets unfolding against a backdrop of sated heshers with blastbeats echoing in the distance felt like a revelation.

Panopticon / Photo by Teddie Taylor

When his turn came to play, Lunn picked up the torch that Dawn Ray’d had tossed from the ramparts and held it aloft. With a red bandana tied around his wrist in solidarity with striking West Virginia teachers and Appalachian “rednecks” greater legacy of radical dissent (and backed by a handful of old friends serving as his live band) a confident Lunn filled Het Patronaat with songs of love, rage, wilderness, and revolt; he repeated the performance the next day on the 013 main stage, but for my money, the church show was stronger.

The sun glinting off stained glass, the bowed rafters, the hushed crowd, and the sight of Lunn holding up his young son to take in the sight all helped to conjure up a truly reverent, almost familial atmosphere, and the set itself vacillated between songs from his then-unreleased new double album, The Scars of Man on the Once Nameless Wilderness (I and II), and a few older tunes from his sprawling catalogue (his Saturday set was more consciously career-spanning). You felt it in your bones, especially when he turned down the distortion and channeled the old folk and bluegrass songs that have always been a core part of his musical vocabulary.

Even outside his own anarchist beliefs, Lunn’s work has always been deeply political insofar as it is deeply personal, and he more than many metal musicians understands the intrinsic link between the two. As he’s gotten older, his lyrics have become less confrontational, more meditative; he wants the fascist scum eradicated, too, but his approach differs from Dawn Ray’d’s scorched earth NSBM-smashing tactics. He told me after the show, “I know there's a lot of folks who don't want politics in metal, and that's fine. They don't have to hear it. But for me, I'm always going to write about what’s in my head and in my heart... and a lot of the time, what’s in my head and heart is this desire to burn down the destructive forces in this world and try to build something better in the place where that once stood.”

Thou / Photo by Teddie Taylor

Thou operates in a similar sphere. Vocalist Bryan Funck’s stage banter is mostly limited to that—banter, predominantly aimed at the audience, or himself, or various pop culture ephemera; whatever pops into his head at the moment tends to come out in his sardonic drawl. Their collaborative Roadburn set with The Body was no exception, though Funck seemed more focused on doing his part to erect the walls of sound he and his compatriots were building on the huge, red-lit stage than trolling fans.

If you wandered into a Thou set halfway through a set and smack into one of their colossal, juddering riffs, you’d have no idea how the people wielding those instruments feel about Nazis or imperialism or wage slavery. Luckily, they let their song titles and shirt designs (which promote feminism and gender fluidity, honor anti-Nazi activist and White Roses leader Sophie Scholl, and sport images of bloody cops) do a lot of the talking, make clear their long-held DIY ethics to hammer the point home, and post all of their lyrics on their website to end the discussion.

As one of their most beloved songs, “The Work Ethic Myth,” goes, “We have paved the roads that have led to our own oppression. Fear of the unknown, of rejection, has put brutes and villains in power….We have established a system of education that celebrates sacrifice and creates generations of slaves….We are the accomplice class: footstools for our masters, spineless bastards all.”

I have to note here that I’ve been friends with the band for a long time, too, so know quite a lot about how they view the world—and knowing that they, and bands like them, are out there gives me so much hope for metal’s future. Listening to Thou lacerate the filthy legacy of European imperialism over big dirty sludge riffs brings me so much peace; they and the others like them swimming against a tide of boneheaded reactionaries and apolitical-’cause-it’s-easier, money-grubbing corporate indie labels are the ones truly keeping metal’s rebellious, working class, anti-establishment ethos alive. Dismantling systems of oppression via words and song is metal as fuck.

The other two artists who spoke loudest to me aren’t part of any particular metal tradition, and really, despite their intensity, aren’t metal at all. Moor Mother and Sangre de Muerdago couldn’t come from more disparate ends of the sonic spectrum. Sangre de Muerdago use soft colors, dreamy soundscapes, and gentle acoustic strings to recall the magic of the autonomous Spanish region they call home, while Philadelphia’s visionary Afrofuturist lyricist, rapper, and experimental musician Camae Ayewa opts to explore and manufacture harsh, confrontational sounds in pursuit of catharsis and growth. Both artists are united by their respective concern with issues of identity, history, and place, and both inspire the same sort of dropped-jaw reaction from those who encounter their performances.

You could’ve heard a pin drop between songs when Sangre de Muerdago played Het Patronaat. The dark folk ensemble recently released a gorgeous new album, Noite (which we streamed here), and drew upon the album’s themes of mortality and perseverance for its effortless-sounding acoustic set, as well as traditional lore and their region’s own radical history of struggle. Bandleader and multi-instrumentalist Pablo C. Ursusson (who moved to Germany several years ago, but carries on his homeland’s autonomous tradition by squatting in Leipzig) also plays in the excellent German black metal band Antlers, so he knows a bit about darkness. Ursusson was joined onstage by German multi-instrumentalists Georg Börner and Erik Heimansberg, as well as American musician Asia Kindred Moore, who also plays in the dark folk outfit Will O' The Wisp, who together wove an impeccably rich tapestry, and made us all stand frozen in place.

It’s difficult to describe how beautiful Sangre de Muerdago‘s set was, especially once the vocal harmonies took flight and the flute joined in and the harp’s silver strings washed over it all like seafoam… they radiated joy, and at that moment, as I closed my eyes and listened to them sing beneath the church rafters, it sounded like freedom.

The last set I really saw at Roadburn was Zonal, Moor Mother’s collaboration with Justin Broadrick and The Bug. With the latter duo ensconced in a makeshift tower dispensing pulsating drones, paranoid synth, and mechanized percussion, Ayewa floated through the choking fog onstage, her dreadlocks a Medusa snarl, her voice low and commanding, her loose white shirt a living shroud. There was so much smoke that she was only visible when she moved close enough to touch the outstretched hands up front, and even then she seemed more shadow than human; that disconnect hammered home the abrasive viscerality of her delivery, which felt loose, improvised, and godlike, her words written in blood on cracked onyx and handed down from the Temple Mount.

Moor Mother / Photo by Teddie Taylor

Even though Roadburn has diversified its lineups beyond anything that attendees of its first few incarnations could have ever imagined and branched out into every possible strain of heavy or extreme music, hip-hop is still an pronounced outlier—which made Moor Mother’s presence there this year feel even more important. She preaches the same kind of anti-capitalist message that propels Dawn Ray’d, and shares Thou’s anti-oppressive rhetoric; she’s as firmly rooted in the soil of Black America as Sangre de Muerdago are in their mountainous home, and has as strong a sense of history and injustice as Panopticon. She fitted in perfectly, but stood out completely, incomparably, on the strength of her own power.

The sheer dominance radiating out from that stage as Zonal played on was palpable and intimidating in the best possible way. The crowd gathered seemed a little shocked, and utterly absorbed—and that it was all coming from a fiercely political, unapologetically radical queer Black woman at a noticeably white festival in a very white country locked in a dire flirtation with its own far-right elements felt like a revolution.

Everything is political, even our most sacred metal spaces. Even Roadburn. If you can’t hear that, you’re not listening.

Kim Kelly is an editor at Noisey (follow her on Twitter here). She'll see you in Tilburg next year.