‘ArcTanGent. In Bristol. Same team as 2000trees.‘
‘Oh yeah, the chilled punk fest you keep talking about. Same vibe?’
‘Similar set-up, but different music.’
‘What kind of music?’
‘Heavier, more prog and math-rock’
If 2000trees is the UK festival worlds best kept secret, its sister festival ArcTanGent is a fleeting rumor, a prog and math-rock haven known only to insiders. While Trees has, despite its relative obscurity, bolstered something of a ‘little fest that could’ indie-reputation, and a whack of awards, ArcTanGent seems to only be known to those who go to ArcTanGent*.
Seven years in, and Goc O’Callaghan’s Bristol event has expertly carved out its niche, filling that gap between Download and Bloodstocks ‘big arena festival with a general-heavy vibe’ and Damnations ‘niche genre festival that’s too small to justify a full weekend’. With a cap just shy of 10,000, ATG (as she’s known to friends) enjoys a nice-sized crowd while retaining a relaxed ambience, mellower staff and the gratifying ability to manoeuvre the site, check a new stage or run to the car within a 10 minute window.
While it’s categorically a genre festival with no claim to offer ‘variety’ in the Glasto or Leeds sense, it would be remiss to call ATG one-note – there are plenty of flavors within the fairly flexible boundaries set here.
Those looking for ‘fuck my eardrums’ heavy get an atmospheric, highly visual set courtesy of the always-excellent Cult of Luna and tech-metal Scots Frontierer. Bossk are out offering the layered sludge, enigmatic Carpenter Brut does his synth-wizard thing, with Bostonian veterans Caspian providing the bass-laden post-rock. Further afield, affable Taiwanese trio Elephant Gym are a grand discovery. Matt Calvert makes two appearances this years event, once with Three Trapped Tigers, and again with an orchestral arrangement – only the third time he has performed in this style, and a thoroughly enjoyable change in tone. There’s more experimental and some brass with The Physics House Experiment. And The St Pierre Snake Invasion, swiftly becoming one of the most fun heavy festival staples, bring the hardcore, the cracking stage-irreverence (‘this is a song about being a sad Welsh twat’), and whatever the hell that keyboard-recorder is – if you’ve not seen a St Pierre set, get right with that. Friday night splits the crowd and pits the experimental (official headliner Battles) against the groove-metal (Brutus, packing out the tiny PS3 stage)
Opening night headliners Coheed and Cambria are probably the closest thing to a ‘mainstream’ act on this years bill – one of the few on a major label anyway – and considering they are an indie-prog band whose albums are accompanied by a series of existential graphic novels, that says a lot. Lets talk about that headline set though – their first this side of the Atlantic, and it was a journey – both a display of prog-smithery and a nostalgia bite for those of us who cut our teeth on ‘Good Apollo’. With swirls and eddies of melodic riffs backed by enticing yet unobtrusive visuals, Claudio ‘Cousin It’ Sanchez* and his merry prog-men prove an excellent choice, and a contender for the ongoing ‘next generation of metal headliners’ debate.
Setlist-wise, it’s a very ‘festival’ tracklist – aka, heavy on the 00’s ‘hits’* and the latest album. Not a bad thing – Dark Sentancer proves a powerful gig-opener, and we get ‘In Keeping Secrets of Silent Earth’, an unexpected ‘The Suffering’, and come the encore, an explosive cheer as the iconic acoustic intro of ‘Welcome Home’ ushers the first night to a close.
The event has been lumped with something of a ‘Friday curse’ – this year is no exception, as the second day was treated to 12 hours of relentless downpour, turning the entire site into a quagmire of Mr. Whippy-consistency. If there’s one negative to throw out about this years Arc, it’s the relative lack of effort from the team to counter-act this apparently recurring problem – the stalls quickly ran out of ponchos and there was enough straw for the main stage, but not for the mud-Baikal that blocked the entrance.
It’s a festival of treats, many sets feeling like rewards for the loyal punters here for the music. Northern Irish instrumental colossus And So I Watch You From Afar have garnered a well-earned reputation as one of the most exciting live acts in the genre, and their playthrough of their self titled debut to mark its tin anniversary is an experience – watching the pure intensity on their faces as they carve out an intricate wall of sound is a feeling of watching master craftsmen at work. Its not even the only album play-through, crowd favourites Black Peaks give their last record, ‘All That Divides’ a full run, with Jamie Lenman (‘I don’t have a saxophone and my moustache isn’t as good’ he cheekily warns the sodden crowd) featuring up front.
Speaking of treats, a rare set from elusive Swedish titans Meshugghah finishes the weekend – the crowd gathered before the Medusa columns segue beautifully between a 10k strong sing-a-long of ‘I Want to Know What Love Is’ into a war chant of ‘ME-SHU-GAH!’ as the grizzled quintet emerge on stage for a blistering, relentless hour-and-fifteen onslaught that is both technically complex and phenomenologically overpowering.
Its an unassuming festival with no need for bells and whistles – while there are a few fun side activities (axe throwing, a board game café) the crowd are unquestionably here for the music. Still, the team must be commended for the subtle touches – havens of quiet, some intricately designed merch. Food-wise, Arc shares Trees selection of small-time festival stalls with few of the big names from arena events – the Pad Thai stand bringing so many bangers it became a sixth stage. Shoutout to Piggie Smalls and a peanut-butter jelly hot-dog that was transcendental.
A selection of local ales, real West Country cider and White Russians grace the bar, while new for 2019 is the Bar Room stage – treated to a number of sets, the apogee of which comes courtesy of No Violets, whose frantic grungey vibe and captivating PJ Harvey-esque front-siren Ellie* mark them as one to keep a serious eye on.
The after-hours entertainment is a fun twist on the norm – ArcTanGent does the typical Silent Disco but with its own take on this festival staple – the Thursday night crowd are treated to a full-on silent gig, with Gost providing an entire set through the headphones. The Disco King revellers for Friday and Saturday get an astute blend of nu-metal classics and 80’s numbers….with the added option of an entire channel dedicated to Mars Volta*
ArcTanGent is a strange one to critique – of course its highly recommended for fans of the heavy and the intricate – but it seems a futile recommendation when pretty much anyone whose heart lies in this heady world is likely already an ATG convert. As for casuals looking to explore a new avenue…. Well if you like your riffs complex, your crowd in good spirits, and a place that’s somehow heavy-as-balls while retaining an easy-going atmosphere, well, ArcTanGent has you covered. As long as you can deal with a little mud.
*As a metal-fest aficionado but math-rock casual, I was only dimly aware of Arc before my flatmate Nathan, an ATG regular, piqued my curiosity enough to check it.
*There was something of a contest going on in the photo pit as to if anyone could get a shot of his face.
*I mean, Coheed don’t really have ‘hits’ as such, but the Apollo/Silent Earth tracks that were singles – Suffering and Home here. My wish for Ten Speed wasn’t met and Wake Up would have probably confused the crowd….
*6 seconds of Google did not turn up a last name so……sick vocals, Ellie.
*Speaking of bar…. the crowd managed to literally drink both remaining bars dry by the end of Sunday’s disco. I’ve literally never seen this at a festival before, and took weird pride in having the last can of cider at the event.
*I’d heard of this beforehand but genuinely wondered if Nathan was going for satire. Nope. Whole channel. Just plays Mars Volta for four hours.