As one of the few festivals in the world to specialise in post and math-rock, ArcTanGent brings together a unique group of fans and musicians. Alt-rock aficionados pilgrimage to a small farm perched atop Somerset’s Mendip hills. It feels like the middle of nowhere, because it is. With a capacity of just 5,000, there can be no smaller festival that draws in fans from such distant parts of the globe. You’ll see no posters up nearby Bristol advertising it, and even the musically savvy won’t have heard of it, unless they’re involved in the UK’s burgeoning instrumental rock scene. The organisers’ aim is to produce a brilliant festival, comprising of the bands that they are passionate about; not to bring in masses of people or make a tidy profit.
2016 saw the fourth ATG and, after a slightly disappointing third instalment, the festival appeared to be back to its best with an absolutely stacked line-up, featuring almost all of the biggest bands in the genre. The fans at ATG are absolutely devoted to the music, even the smallest bands pack out the stages and it’s common to see herds of people running between tents to catch every last second of avant-garde instrumental magic.
Arriving on the campsite in good time (for a change), the outlook for ATG no.4 appeared promising. The festival’s guaranteed yearly returner – the rain – had not yet shown up, putting hopes in campers’ minds that this year might not be a washout. Whether it was the idea of some actual sun blissfully lighting up the Arc stage, or just the thought of all the bands they would headbang to over the weekend, 2016’s festivalgoers sure seemed pretty damn excited.
The first band to really feed off this excitement were Poly-Math, who had the whole of the PX3 tent squat down as they built up a monster technical riff, releasing a cry of ‘ARCTANGENT!’ To which the crowd lost their minds (& hats). Taking a completely different approach were Talons, the scruffy-looking synchronised 6-piece from Hereford, who serenaded even the scariest of metalheads with their uniquely slick strings-based post-rock. Their crescendos seemed to immerse the whole stage, with each violin shred conveying bags of emotion. If it were last year’s festival, Talons’ set would have been a sure-fire highlight, trumping anything else we’d heard. This year, however, there was plenty more to come.
TTNG certainly did not mess about on the Yohkai stage – the onstage sausage roll consumption of yesteryear was replaced with several extra tracks, played to an impressively tight standard. This newfound efficiency must have been in part due to the band, in their current line-up, having had time to record, rehearse and generally gel a bit better. Current vocalist Henry Tremain joined the band in 2011, but it has taken him some time to find his place in the group. He finally looks the part now, mastering more recent tracks like ‘Coconut Crab’ and giving classics like ’26 is Dancier than 4’ his own little kicks and twists.
After Three Trapped Tigers' typically tongue-in-cheek display, the first day was brought to a stunning close by Japanese post-rock gods MONO, whose set was brimming with tension, tremolo and crescendo. Hyper-critical ATG regulars might say that this did not quite live up to their flawless performance here two years ago, but when Everlasting Light reached its heavenly climax, no one could deny the sheer beauty of their music.
After a fabulous first day, the early part of Friday looked as though it could be the quiet before the storm still to come. But ATG is rarely quiet and Vasudeva's lunchtime set, full of twinkly math-rock riffs and youthful energy, was a case in point. Friday’s weather was far from ideal, but it didn’t stop the crowd from turning out in their droves for every single band. Nonetheless, it wasn’t until the weather cleared that we had our next outstanding performance. This was provided by Icelandic genre-defiers Agent Fresco, who provided a rarity at ATG: a lead vocalist. Not a guitarist who sings, but a member who is there purely to sing. It almost has a novelty factor at this festival, but his excellent, impassioned singing, which ranged from angelic soprano to terrifying guttural roars proved to be far more than that.
Subsequent to this, a chorus of crowd-sung riffs could be heard throughout the site, as the much-loved Cleft played their frenetic final ever gig, finishing with a surprise cover of Bowie’s Rebel Rebel. But it was Nordic Giants who were the most impressive on day two, their stunning visuals mesmerised the evening audience in the Yohkai tent. Every song was accompanied by a video of astonishingly high production value, which told a story and conveyed a message. These tales were dystopic but strangely uplifting, in keeping with the flickering sense of hope found throughout Nordic Giants’ music. Their message is that the world is a dark place, but we have the power to make it better.
With just 5 minutes to recover from Nordic Giants, Godspeed You! Black Emperor took centre stage. As you would expect from the most revered band in post-rock, GY!BE transfixed their audiences with the mysterious allure of their vast compositions and were well received by all. However, it must be pointed out that their set, which was advertised as being 2 hours, was almost 30 minutes short of that. This did not impress the crowd who were keen to hear more.
The line-up so far had been amazing, but Day 3 was on another level, so apologies to the commendable bands who don’t get a mention here. Alma provided one of the surprise sets of the weekend. Simple and soft, Pete Lambrou’s fragile vocals rose above a swell of celestial delay, creating an atmosphere of magnificent calm in the Bixler tent. Quite in contrast to this, Totorro were simply such fun; joyous bouncy math-rock riffs had the crowd lit up with smiles, even through some of the foulest weather of the weekend.
Then the weekend reached its frantic peak. Caspian, Yndi Halda and And so i watch you from Afar playing consecutively in the early evening. The former lost 10 minutes of their set to a power failure mid-way through their opener Darkfield, a track from their superb new(ish) album Dust and Disquiet, which was dedicated to their tragically recently deceased bassist Chris Friedrich, whose loss has clearly made an indelible mark on their music. This was perhaps most noticeable on the epic track Arcs of Command, which is not only the heaviest Caspian track to date, but very clearly the darkest. They closed (as always) with the euphoric Sycamore, which soared beautifully to their trademark climax, where all the band members swapped their instruments for drums for the climax of the song – a truly fantastic effect as the echoes from their looping pedals faded away.
Without a second to catch our breath, we legged it to the Yohkai to see the mystical Yndi Halda. Their 2007 album Enjoy Eternal Bliss was received as one of the greatest albums in post-rock, but it took until this year for them to release Under Summer, which they played in full at ATG. Some fans may have been dying to see some of their older material, but the album has such perfect flow that it would have been criminal to break it apart. Long soft passages full of caressing vocals and perfect pizzicato guided listeners between the ecstatic cacophonies at the height of their crescendos. Their music paints pictures of summer nights around campfires with beers in hand, but in ever such a beautiful way. Deep under the surface it is so warmly uplifting, though it doesn’t always sound it at first. Yndi Halda poured their souls out on stage, before the most remarkable conclusion, where a sole guitarist was left onstage, while the other band members appeared in the middle of the crowd, subtly shaking hand-bells until the guitar faded away. Everyone left the tent in eerie silence, in awe of what they had seen.
Nothing could follow that, but And So I Watch You From Afar did as well as anyone could have. A brilliant fusion of post-rock swells and hardcore heavy metal headbanging, the Irish four-piece delivered as they always do; driving a raucous crowd mental with riff after riff. Finally, the curiously popular headliners American Football closed the festival. We had our doubts beforehand, but the nineties semi-emo, semi-math outfit produced a uniquely hypnotic sense of calm and nostalgia. It was an oddly fitting way for the weekend to end, a calm after an almighty storm.
By securing Godspeed You! Black Emperor as headliners, ArcTanGent confirmed its place as the leading post and math-rock festival worldwide. People travel thousands of miles to come and see an incredible line-up. But what was most pleasing to see this year was that the organisers listened to their loyal patrons. Complaints were made last year that the line-up had too much metal and this was addressed. The line-up was well balanced this year, with a good proportion of softer music, which is much needed at a festival of such high intensity. Both Godspeed and American Football had been requested year in year out and again the organisers listened.
Hopefully the organisers will listen once again, to fix some of the more minor faults at this year’s ATG. The most obvious problem was that the PX3 stage is clearly too small. Which was very obvious on the Thursday when there was only one band playing at a time, making it almost impossible to find a space inside the tent. Many people also complain about the music early on in the day being far too heavy. As not many people want to hear Let's Talk Daggers at 11 in the morning, you just can’t appreciate it while you’re still hungover. Our final petty criticism: please don’t let two bands as good as Yndi Halda and Enemies clash again, it’s torture!
ArcTanGent proved this year that you can have a great festival even in the most atrocious weather. There was had such a feel-good factor this year, everyone was so excited about the line-up that nothing could spoil their mood. And it’s fantastic to see people taking the music so seriously, the patrons of ATG really know their stuff. But at the same time, everyone was there to have a good time too. Everyone was extremely friendly, certainly not so pretentious as one might fear, and the silent disco was as packed as the headline sets. The organisers have listened to their critics and got it spot on this time. It’s really exciting to see this festival evolving and few could complain about the direction it’s going in; next year seems sure to be even better. This year was a truly magical experience and almost certainly the best ArcTanGe-nt yet.
Ben Gilbart and Fliss Radomska