Roadburn, now in its 20th year, is a fest I had promised I would start going to many, many years ago but for one reason or another never did. This year I went and although it is like other music fests in some ways, I can say that it is equally unlike other fests in many other ways. Many of my personal experiences will not be akin to a standard festival goer due to the nature of what I do obviously but if you bear with me here I can explain some things that the average person should expect when and if they decide to go is on their list of priorities. If you already know the drill or aren’t interested in this part please feel free to scroll on through.
So it’s not for everyone. If you are the kind of person that really has to see everything, well then you will be sorely disappointed. There is simply no way to do it. See, I am usually that person, at least professionally. I have done it a number of times at other fests, even walked literally over 24 miles a day to ensure I got to everything I could. Looking at the fest schedule it all seemed pretty straight forward for me but I threw that right out the window when I got there on day one and instead tried to get a feel of everything as best I could.
This year Roadburn was spread out across 5 actual music venues in three different buildings with an added “special” makeshift venue for surprise sets in a skatepark as well as a room in another building they used for talks and forums and the like. The larger venues, the Main Stage at Poppodium 013 and Koepelhal, a short 6-minute walk away, are pieces of cake to get in and out of even when they are at close to capacity so no worries there. The other ones, well, not so much. Hall of Fame and the soon to be no more Het Patronaat are both pretty small and lines form outside these venues every time a band plays with people being held up by security until the venue empties out enough for a few more people to enter. Ignition (The Green Room) is inside the Poppodium 013 building, but a tiny fraction of its size. Lines didn’t form there but more than once was I pushed in by security closing the doors on me with force and I was stuck with wall to wall people crammed in there, not able to see a single thing. Basically, If you didn’t get to the small venues well before a band began playing, 99% of the time you were probably not getting in or if you did you would be hard pressed to see a thing, though those lines of anticipatory fans continued to form.
There is so much going on during each day that you are going to wish you could split yourself in two or three multiple times in a day. Surprise sets being announced mere hours before they happen unless you get a heads up from someone “in the know,” four bands easily playing at the same time or close to it, talks about records, photography, art and music going on, an art gallery with demo’s along with basic human needs of food, drink and the need to relieve yourself make for a tight timeline in the best of worlds. At Roadburn you really have to pick your poisons well, keep a sharp eye on the schedule, the internet and then stick to your plan unless all you wanted to see were bands on the main stages.
Tilburg is a cute little city but I had little time to experience any of it other than my long walks to and from my Air BnB unfortunately. Luckily I actually had one of those though since the city is small and has little in the way of hotels at all. The ones they do have are typically booked out a year in advance anyway so if you didn’t get in early and pay through the ass for it (I didn’t) you either camp out, and fuck that (sorry that is just not for me in any way shape or form. I’m not remotely a hippie.), get lucky enough to snag a place on Air BnB that isn’t price gouging the hell out of you or stay outside the city and travel back and forth. Roadburn really does try and assist people in this area by having these campsites and even setting up shuttles back and forth from the fest. For that alone they should be commended as I am sure it’s no easy feat.
Money. Nope. You can’t use it. It’s like Dave and Busters (do they still exist?) or Disney. You trade in your money for little tokens and that’s what you use to pay for everything in the fest. It’s a bit odd on one hand but pretty damn smart on the other. Unless you remember the token conversion which I of course have no idea what it was, you kind of have no clue how much actual money you are spending. Most beer I saw was one token, for all I know that was $20 bucks a pop. Well, OK I know I’m off with that. Honestly I only had a grand total of 4 beers the entire fest and I know I didn’t trade in more than $100 of real money for the Monopoly money and still ate a bit of something every day and even gave away tokens so clearly $20 a beer isn’t real but you get my point. Somewhere between the conversions from USD to Euro to Monopoly I lost track. Smart marketing, also smart security wise because none of the vendors handled cash and I seriously can’t imagine anyone would hold you up for a bag of plastic discs.
Musically, what has set Roadburn apart are the curated days, commissioned music, special sets and complete mixing of genres of bands that play every day. Anything from Folk to Krautrock, Doom and Sludge to straight up metal, and this year was seemingly no different. There were so many special sets that it would take me forever to write this review if I went through every single one but there were definitely a number of standouts. Friday (also some of Saturday) was curated by Tomas Lindberg of At the Gates and filled with one of a kind, and likely never to be seen again, sets from a wide range of artists. Dubbed “The Burning Darkness” the day was just stacked and for me started with Triptykon performing ‘Requiem’ with accompanying orchestration by the Metropole Okest, which is a three-part piece whose second part was, until then, never completed or played. All you have to say to me is Tom G. Warrior and I’m pretty much in so this was a huge deal to me to witness as it was for the packed main venue. Among the other big sets for me on that day were Anna Von Hauusswolff, Loop, the surprise set from Morne at the skatepark playing a killer cover of the Amebix song ‘I.C.B.M’, Seven that Spells playing three sets back to back, the dark and foreboding black metal of Craft, and the special set from At the Gates. I have seen At the Gates so many times in the past few years it’s hard to pick one set out from another but this was totally different with special guests doing vocals and even a string quartet. Oh and by special guests doing some vocals I don’t mean just some person no one knows or cares about. Matt Pike of Sleep and High on Fire, Anna Von Hausswolff and (holy crap!) Rob Miller of Amebix/Tau Cross all came out at different points in the set to do some vocals. No complaints here.
Every day had it’s highlights and every day was something different. For fans of Sleep you got two nights, two sets, two different albums, two hours each night. Listen, if you are a big fan of Sleep (are there fans of this band that aren’t big fans?) and you didn’t get yourself in a state over these sets then I don’t know what would. You should be Sleeped out for at least another few months. But there was something for everyone. A bunch of folk-n-such was going on, especially Thursday with Myrkur, Hexvessel and Heilung who brought the organizer and head honcho of the fest, Walter Hoeijmakers, on stage for an opening prayer circle of sorts to start things off. One of my favorite sets that day though was Midnight. The last time I saw them the guitarist lit his guitar on fire and jumped into a pool. Nothing like that happened but still they are consistently great and always fun to see, or, uh, not see since they wear those black sheer mask/hood things.
If you wanted something a bit off the radar of the big headliners then hitting up bands like Agrimonia, Crowhurst, Ulcerate, Mor’D’Stigmata, Imperial Triumphant, Morne, Birds in a Row, Drab Majesty, or Deafkids might have been right up your alley and all of whom I thoroughly enjoyed. I’m not one to go through every damn band though individually review them, not because I don’t like bands but because I think I’m just as bored detailing every set ad nauseum as a reader would be reading it so I won’t go any further. There were a lot of bands. Most of them were really good and some I couldn’t get in to see.
Could a fest like Roadburn be put together in any other place? Well obviously it could but it hasn’t and maybe won’t. The amount of time and effort to put something like this together has got to be unreal and not many are willing or able to do something like this. Are all the other fests a waste of time compared to Roadburn? Well obviously not. Ninety percent of the fests I have been to and will go to are absolutely amazing and they stand out for their own reasons and will continue to draw me and thousands of others there every time without fail. Roadburn is simply a fest of a different color.
WORDS AND PHOTOS BY HILLARIE JASON