For a moment, Anathema looked like they would close out the 2015 Roadburn Festival on a completely flat note. Then they pulled off a comeback for the ages.
I have never seen a concert go from utter shit to spectacular like Anathema’s performance at the Roadburn Festival in Tilburg, the Netherlands, on Sunday, 12 April.
It was such a strange way to cap off the 20th edition of the renowned music fest, but going in the potential was there for something special to happen. With their recent albums equal parts progressive rock and Coldplay-style stadium rock, Anathema was a bit of a left-field choice as the headliner for Sunday’s “Afterburner” lineup, but considering the band’s roots as a doom metal band in the early-'90s, it was an idea that could work, especially when you took into consideration what the UK band had in store. It was Roadburn’s suggestion that Anathema explore their early output in a special set, and that inspired brothers Vince and Danny Cavanagh to organize a special set that would start with Anathema circa 2015 and gradually work its way back towards the band’s extreme metal beginnings. Better yet, the brothers had reconnected with former vocalist Darren White and former bassist/songwriter Duncan Patterson, and both would be joining the band onstage, with White singing on the last handful of songs from their pre-1996 era.
The addition of Anathema was a real coup for the festival, another example of how Roadburn is steadily expanding its musical breadth beyond the doom and stoner metal that used to be its primary focus to include music that is adventurous, experimental, and progressive in its own unique way. The key difference here, compared to past bold bookings like Loop and Magma, is that Anathema is not a cult curiosity, but a formidable draw on its own. Individual Sunday tickets sold out quickly, and the crowd of more than 2,000 packed into the 013 venue was the most diverse I personally had seen in four years of attending. You had the usual bearded/black-hoodied Roadburners, obvious progressive rock nerds, and interestingly enough, plenty of fashionably dressed couples who were big fans of the band’s post-2005 incarnation. Looking around before the show started, it felt as if Anathema’s addition had increased the number of women at Roadburn by 50 percent, which was remarkable.
Considering the strength of Anathema’s past three albums -- 2012’s Weather Systems remains a latter-day masterpiece -- and the excitement about the return to the band’s early material, the excitement was justified, not to mention palpable as the lights dimmed and the crowd roared. But what they got at first didn’t feel right at all. It might have been thematically fitting to start the big “Resonance” performance with the autobiographical “Anathema”, but its flitty piano arrangement and Danny Cavanagh’s preening performance fell flat. Most troubling, though, was how muted it all felt. Present-day Anathema, on record at least, achieves a spellbinding mix of emotion and bombast, but the bombast was totally missing from the climax of that first song, and even worse, the otherwise brilliant “Untouchable, Part One”.
One of the best tracks of this decade so far, the album version of “Untouchable” gloriously raises its skinny fists towards heaven, but with the guitars turned down so low -- utter heresy considering this festival, which boasts the richest-sounding guitar back line you will ever hear -- it felt so tepid, so neutered, so adult contemporary. It was nauseating to hear this band’s music stripped of all punch, not to mention devastating for someone like yours truly, who had admired this band for so long yet had never seen them perform in person. It didn’t help that the trendy couple next to me started making out furiously during the lifeless “A Simple Mistake”. When they guy, whose tongue was well down his woman’s throat, started to rub up against me, that was it. I’d had enough. Fuck this band, fuck this fucking awful mix, fuck that un-rock ‘n’ roll plexiglass cage around the drum kit, and fuck this passive-aggressive attempt at a Euro threesome. I fought my way out of the theatre, walked in a huff out the lobby, onto the quiet Veemarktstraat, and proceeded to vent my frustration on Twitter.
I’m as patient a concertgoer you will ever meet, so for a band I genuinely like to compel me to walk out of their performance speaks volumes about how much they actually sucked, and the suckage of Anathema’s set was impossible to bear. I wouldn’t have returned were it not for good pal and fellow writer Rob McAuslan, who suggested we venture back to see if things had improved. A half hour had gone by.
“Where are they now, you think?”
“Let’s head back in.”
Indeed, the band, now joined by Patterson, was working its way through the Alternative 4 era, “Empty” and “Lost Control” exploring Anathema’s gothic metal period. It was a modest improvement over the early portion of the set, but things truly started to pick up when all three parts of Patterson’s “Eternity” suite, from the 1996 album of the same name, were played. The guitars started to sound meatier, the overall performance more insistent, the milquetoast feel of the opening half hour a distant memory. The setlist then moved into the band’s classic doom period, and the most incredible thing happened: the riffs were back, the heaviness was back in full, and most importantly, the Roadburn sound was back completely. Right on cue, as soon as the glorious doom riffs of “Sunset of Age” and “A Dying Wish” kicked in, more and more bearded, hoodied skids started drifting into the theater like Pavlovian dogs.
The band’s momentum was building at an intense rate when erstwhile singer Darren White was brought onstage to perform the big finale. Looking trim and healthy, the short-haired White seemed a little nervous and tentative, clutching the microphone stand during “Kingdom”, but the more the set went on the more comfortable he became, and it wasn’t long before he was commanding the stage like neither Cavanagh brother had done. It was now a complete, 180-degree turn from the beginning of the show. The reunited band tore through selections from 1994’s Pentecost III EP and 1993’s Serenades. By the time the band was capping off the two and a half hour set with “Sleepless”, White had stolen the show, and was given an ovation only a returning hero would get. It had to have been an extraordinary moment of redemption for him, and for the rest of us it was a complete pleasure, not to mention a thrill to see Anathema so vividly transformed. What began as a disaster, an embarrassment, had slowly turned into one of the most memorable, rewarding concert experiences I’ve ever witnessed.
Note to the Cavanagh brothers: this is far, far too good a thing to be only temporary. Milk it for all it’s worth.
It’s amazing how some music writers still consider Roadburn a “doom” and “stoner” festival, and carry on how it’s “dark”, “heavy”, and “mean”. To think that is to completely lose touch with what the festival has become: a rich, diverse, experimental, and above all else positive and welcoming music experience. Doom remains Roadburn’s bedrock, but its stylistic breadth has expanded dazzlingly in recent years. Nowhere else can you experience doom metal, black metal, psychedelic rock ‘n’ roll, goth, space rock, jazz fusion, no-wave, krautrock, electronic, progressive rock, sludge, garage rock, and kosmische music all within meters of each other. The richness of Roadburn is unparalleled, it is the standard-bearer for all music festivals, and once again it delivered on all fronts in 2015. Listicles always seem lazy, but to recap all the good I witnessed, it’d take a few thousand words. So in its stead, here are the ten best bands I saw at Roadburn 2015.
1. SubRosa: The Salt Lake City quintet’s highly anticipated Roadburn debut was transformative. Doom riffs and violin melodies sent the beautiful and sunny Het Patronaat venue skyward.
2. Fields of the Nephilim: The British goth legends exceeded expectations with two intense performances, with Ian McCoy in incredible vocal form and the band sounding heavier than most metal bands that weekend.
Fields of the Nephilim (photo by William van der Voort)
3. Wovenhand: David Eugene Edwards returned to Roadburn sounding as intense as expected. The set was surprisingly heavy and rocking, with the dustbowl yawp of his gothic Americana echoing that of the Nephilim, only with a more decidedly spiritual bent.
4. Goblin: Seeing Claudio Simonetti and his band perform his classic scores of two seminal horror films, Dawn of the Dead and Suspiria, while the movies played on the gigantic screen above was a thrill beyond words.
5. Focus: Backed by a taut band featuring former Threnody guitarist Menno Goodjes, Thijs van Leer transformed the sweltering Green Room into a prog rock party (imagine that!) with a raucous, joyous set that climaxed, of course, with an epic rendition of “Hocus Pocus”.
6. Zombi: The duo of Steve Moore and Anthony Paterra is back making music together, and better yet, performing. Their searing, loud blend of John Carpenter, Moroder, and motorik had the Main Stage venue rattling.
7. The Heads: Nobody does psychedelic rock quite like the Heads, and their Main Stage set, which I hear could very well be their last for quite a while, was loaded with the catchiest, fuzzed-out jams heard all weekend.
8. Lucifer: A year after the Oath suddenly broke up, singer Johanna Sadonis returned with a new band featuring guitarist Gaz Jennings (Cathedral, Death Penalty), a killer new album, and an outstanding performance of occult-themed doom and heavy rock.
9. Bongripper: Only at Roadburn could Bongripper draw a crowd of well over 2,000 to see a set of instrumental doom. The Chicago band didn’t disappoint, following up their now-legendary 2012 Patronaat set with a Main Stage performance that sounded even bigger.
10. Anathema with Darren White: As explained above, Anathema’s reunion with their old lead singer was something special, a performance for the ages.