Beyond the Redshift (and the future of festivals)

It’s a grand claim for a festival, especially one that is more like a constellation of similar artists than the usual fête-y feel of many UK events. But Beyond The Redshift lived up to it:

The cosmological redshift is caused by the expansion of space. The wavelength of light increases as it traverses the expanding universe. Unable to assume that we have a special place within this universe, the redshift suggests to us that everything is moving away from everything else…

We may not be able to go beyond the redshift, but we can certainly think beyond it. We are bringing together artists who expand within their space – artists who create something special within this space.

Beyond the Redshift was held in three venues around Kentish Town on Saturday, May 10. It began at lunchtime and ran till 11pm. It offered a neat rejoinder to death of the festival rhetoric, and a vindication of the heavily abstracted, tightly-defined version of the event-form.

BTR schedule

*****

I get there for Syndrome. (I miss pg.lost, Blueneck, Canaya, Atlantis.) This feels like a shame but was actually probably great: as an introduction to the festival and its uniting idea it’s perfect. Syndrome is Amenra’s guitarist Mathieu Vandekerckhove’s project, and his performance is shunted on to the front of his band’s set, so it serves as a kind of mini-support.

Syndrome is all looped guitars and slow-burn, slow-build post-rock, sparse on vocals; and projected onto the back are melancholy shots of broken industrial landscapes and dead natural ones. That video continues through Amenra’s set — and begins a theme of urban grey that will continue through most of the Forum-playing bands’ videos, all of which are projected on to the back and sides of the stage, and are the most practical and exciting realisation of the ‘audio-visual experience’ billing of the thing.

Then Amenra comes on stage and kicks off the profound loudness of the day. They’re an aggressive band, their singer slowly shedding clothing and the seething heaviness of their music joining with the religious imagery to give their performance a feel of something like ritual — but in an immanent, excited way, rather than the equally ritualistic but ancient feel of, say, much doom. (If there is any complaint it that’s they should have been on later; they set a high bar.)

Syndrome and Amenra function as a blood-quickening, shrieking statement of intent for the festival: at first quiet and pensive, then loud and enrapturing. It’s living up to its promise already.

*

I wait around. I could go and see Esben And The Witch but I’m not so bothered and so stick it out in the Forum. Jesu are up next. I’ve not seen Justin Broadrick in this guise, but I have seen him as Godflesh. The appeal is much the same, though the music is very different: loud, intricate guitar and bass over pounding, programmed drums. Jesu’s video-aesthetic is at first similar to Amenra’s: sweeping shots of abandoned housing estates, shot in black and white, and then the housing estates start to full down. That opened up into visions of the sky, of nostalgic but creepy black and white images of Christmas trees.

Broadrick has mastered the use of video — when Godflesh played the same room with Neurosis in 2012, horrifying religious images and iconography flicked past on video screens, amplifying the grinding apprehension of the music. This time the effect is much the same, though complimenting Jesu’s more sedate, concrete sound: housing rather than hell, industry rather than death, family instead of the Father. Jesu play through lots of the newer stuff, re-creating what feels like an un-recreatable sound, bigger than before.

Each individual performance so far has been mesmerising and blazing, but what’s starting to form into view is the bigger feel of the thing: there’s something disparate but cohesive about each of these bands and what they’re bringing to the festival. (Broadrick will return later.)

*

I head across to the other two venues: The Dome and the Boston Music Room, both of which are in the same building and are less than 10 minutes from the Forum. (The latter is hidden behind and beneath the former, which is slightly confusing, though gives it a nice feel when you do end up getting there.) The Dome is only slightly smaller than the Forum, a sort of ballroom space; the Boston Music Room is much smaller though still not tiny.

I get to The Dome first, for The Old Wind, who I’ve not heard before. They are fantastic — though the whistling wind-scapes that are played between tracks are maybe slightly cloying and tacky, their sound is pure and honest, highly-crafted and powerful post-rock. They’re probably my happiest find from the festival, though far from the only one. The tightly-defined nature of the festival means that finding things is easy: everything’s similar enough to trust that new things will be engaging, but different enough that there’s value in finding them. The point of all this becomes clear again: I’ve seen the people I expected to be good, hoisted up even further by the context of the festival, and now I’ve discovered things, too.

*

I head back to the Forum for God Is An Astronaut. Despite being excited for them I’m left quite cold. The peppiness of their sound means that they sound weak, surrounded by the impressive noise of everyone else. This is nothing against the band — who were more than competent, and I’m sure would be able to captivate in their own setting — but they suffer the flipside of what has made everything else so good. I’m tired and in my groove, by now, unable to suffer things that are less than before. They should probably have played earlier, before Amenra; if post-rock has taught us anything, it’s the value of the build-up.

*

Back to the Boston Music Room, for Dirk Serries, who I’ve seen before on Twitter is going to be joined by Justin Broadrick. I’m there and waiting for a while, there’s hustle and bustle onstage but nothing much seems to be progressing. Then, a little late and after quite a while of waiting, Serries announces that the backing track that he’s been trying to coax out of his laptop isn’t giving itself up; instead he’ll play an improv set with Broadrick. I don’t really know Serries stuff, so this isn’t a huge disappointment, and I’m very excited to see how this’ll go.

It was the purest, most vivid surprise of the day. After an initial awkwardness — confused exchanges about what’s going to happen, Broadrick telling Serries to kick it off —something amazing happens. If there were people in this scene with the means and motive to mythologise, this would be perfect; in this small room, half-empty now after people drifted off impatient with the technical difficulties, something fully magical happens. The two are in perfect sync, playing stuff that could easily have come off either of their records, those abstractions about the glory and excitement of improvisation — you’ll never hear this again, you can watch the processes, music directly responding to the place and space you’re in, and so on — finally coming true. The festival would have been entirely worth it for this; and I would never have known that it would happen.

*

I’m heading off back to the Forum, but on my way out catch the end of Bossk’s set. I wish painfully that I’d seen more of it; the brief part I did see was packed with promise. Worth checking out. These are my second big surprise find of the day but I didn’t really see enough to say very much about them. (Some words on Bossk – and other things – from somebody who did see more of them , here.)

*

God Seed

Anyway that nice surprise happened, as I was saying, on my way back to the Forum, where I was headed for God Seed. Among the stylish post-rock/post-metal of most of the rest of the day, as I headed over there they seemed like a slightly odd choice of band (excited though I was). But it all made sense, immediately. The setting brought out the soaring wonder of their stuff — highlighting the musicality, tightness and sound of a band that is usually written and thought about only in the context of Gaahl, King Ov Hell, that continuing story, the legacy of black metal, etc etc. I like this band a lot before I get there; after they’ve been on I have more reasons, more elaborated for myself, to do so.

*

There’s a big break, here. Lots of people head back off to Amplifier. I do, briefly, but don’t really stick around. I head back to the Forum and wait. (Eurovision is just kicking off at this point, as well as some other things; my phone battery’s running out; I browse the merch stands; and so on. I’m a little tired now — not hungry, though I’ve not partaken in the too-expensive but delicious-looking food that’s on offer — and I’m glad the day isn’t much longer, enjoy it though I have.)

*

All this is before the main event. Cult of Luna curated this day, and they will close it; in the weeks before their performance has been the subject of most of the publicity. Old members are returning, they will play for two hours, this will be their last gig before a hiatus that will last an uncertain amount of time. The backdrop is stripped and re-assembled, numerous microphones come on stage. They close it — festival, maybe career — off in fantastic fashion. I’m tired by now but that doesn’t matter. There is such energy in the room, the band contributing megawatt upon gigawatt of it, that it’s impossible not to be compelled.

Their performance is triumphant, it feels like an ending, by the end of it the band members seem to be left ecstatic and done, as Johannes triumphantly thanks everyone there, the organisers of the festival and the attendees, for coming and for making the day what it was. He throws the microphone on the floor, leaps the barrier, and sprints off to the merch stand, exulted. (That energy quickly dissipates and he collapses onto a chair behind the table.) The day is done; it could not have started, continued or finished in more whole, more rewarding fashion.

*****

There’s been a lot said about the future of festivals in recent years. Much of it is rubbish, middle-aged, child-carrying hacks complaining about other middle-aged child-carrying festivalgoers for ruining the experience. But I — not middle aged or carrying any children yet — have felt it, too, and I don’t think it’s just because I’m a bit older: festivals have much less of the pull they once had, for me. Most of them have either descended into post-GCSE playgrounds, places for people to relive their experiences at earlier versions of the festival, or weird collections of past-it acts. Even the fresher, newer ones are quickly past it — look at End Of The Road, which was once one of the most exciting new festivals but swiftly became like every other. (Sheffield’s free Tramlines Festival was another response to this problem, and succeeded at least in its early incarnations.) It probably has something to do with the first age of festival-goers now being too old. But nothing’s stepped in to fill that gap, or so it seems.

Festivals like Beyond The Redshift could be the answer. Day-long, music-focused, tightly-defined events like this one seem to give the best of festivals while avoiding their downfalls. Good music — new and old — and good food; without wailing children, tents, mud, or stink. It feels like what festivals were made for.

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