Le Guess Who? Festival Review

By on 18 December 2015
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Sunn O))) (Photo by Erik Luyten)

Last month, Terrorizer travelled to Utrecht for the sprawling musical experience that is Le Guess Who? festival, basking in Sunn O)))’s curated programme and taking in such luminaries as Om, Chelsea Wolfe, Gnaw Their Tongues, Goatsnake, Today Is The Day and even The Crazy World Of Arthur Brown. Kez Whelan and José Carlos Santos report back…

Kez Whelan

THURSDAY

Spread out throughout Utrecht, with a wide variety of venues housing all kinds of weird and wonderful artists, Le Guess Who? can feel a little daunting initially (just take a quick glance at Friday’s timetable, for example – where the hell do you even begin with such a disparate smorgasbord at your disposal?). It’s easy to get a bit lost to start with, and unfortunately this particular scribe’s lack of spatial awareness means that I arrive at the beautiful Janskerk a bit too late to catch Hildur Guðnadóttir, the first artist to be showcased in Sunn O)))’s lovingly curated program.

After a ten minute bike ride across town (and trust me, you’re going to want to rent a bike if you really want to get the most out of Le Guess Who? Whilst the bulk of the venues are situated close to each other in the city centre and the various rooms of the humongous Tivoli-Vredenburg host a lot of the action, there’s a wealth of other locations spanning the length and breadth of the city and you’re going to want to be able to get between them as efficiently as possible), the Sunn O))) program continues over in De Helling, a secluded and fairly intimate venue that acts as the perfect host for most of the metal Le Guess Who? has to offer. There’s a slightly surreal vibe as the crowd wanders in to find the room bathed in an eerie pink light and swamped in dry ice, which is only heightened as France’s Chaos Echœs play the first few minutes of their set behind the stage curtain. It’s fitting of course, as Chaos Echœs are a lot more surreal than your average death metal band, stretching out rotten Portal-esque murk and bestial tom drum punishment to the point that the four of them start to resemble an improv jazz ensemble rather than any of their cohorts on the Nuclear War Now! roster. Naturally, the improvisatory aspect can sometimes fall off the rails a bit, but it only serves to make their set all the more thrilling. The fact that Ilmar Uibo (Necrowretch, ex-Bloody Sign, Incantation etc.) is an absolute beast of a drummer helps too, as do all the genuinely fucking brilliant riffs hiding amidst all the madness.

Whilst Grumbling Fur continue the Sunn O))) program in De Helling, the first major clash in the timetable means I’m frantically cycling back to Tivoli-Vredenburg’s stately Grote Zaal before they even start to catch German legends Faust in full swing, as drummer Werner “Zappi” Diermaier pounds out a brutal, Laibach-esque industrial stomp so forcefully that you can feel your ribcage rattling along in unison. Jean-Hervé Péron leads the band in a typically robust manner, whilst a trio of women sit in quiet contemplation, knitting some kind of sweater, or something. Ebbing and flowing through pastoral, psychedelic passages and then on to more stark, noisy terrain, it’s an eclectic, eccentric and imminently satisfying performance.

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Faust (Photo by Erik Luyten)

Another bike ride later, and I’m back at De Helling just in time to grab a beer before Swiss duo Bölzer take to the stage, who sound incredible as always, helped by the excellent sound in this venue. Songs from the ‘Aura’ EP like ‘Entranced By The Wolfshook’ are treated like old favourites by the crowd, including some frantic headbangers down in the front row, and the newer songs they’ve been playing of late are currently sounding even better. That full-length can’t come soon enough…

Shifting gears from merciless to meditative, Om are reliably spectacular tonight. Watching them whilst knowing Sunn O))) handpicked them for tonight, it’s tempting to draw parallels between the two bands; just as Attila Csihar’s eerie shrieks and chants have gradually become an integral part of the Sunn experience over the years, so too have multi-instrumentalist Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe’s otherwordly vocals and evocative keys come to inform much of Om’s sound in the years that followed both ‘God Is Good’ and ‘Advaitic Songs’. He’s on fine form here, as is Emil Amos, making those dynamic fills and tight, fluid grooves look effortless. Al Cisneros’ vocals are sounding great too, and his soul shaking bass tone is a prime contender for the eighth wonder of the world. Continuing the theme of atmospheric, bass driven music but approaching it from an entirely different angle, the dark, pounding techno of Lancaster duo Demdike Stare is a fantastic way to end the night, shaking the walls of De Helling as they switch from deep, enveloping drones to more beat driven fair.

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Bölzer (Photo by Erik Luyten)

FRIDAY

Friday begins with a quick cycle along some of the picturesque canals in Utrecht’s centre to reach the cosy interior of Kargadoor. It’s perhaps a bit too cosy though, as US doom duo Insect Ark inform the crowd that the venue (and its neighbours) are not adequately prepared for their usual booming amplifier worship. But, in the spirit of Le Guess Who?, they try something different instead, delivering a one-off set of subtle, haunting and entirely improvised ambience. It may not have been the performance we came for, but as the last echoing swell comes to a close, there’s a feeling that we witnessed something really special anyway tonight.

Then, it’s time to saddle up that bike again and ride all the way out to dB’s Oefenstudios, a small but very welcoming venue out in Utrecht’s Zuilen neighbourhood. It’s a bit of a trek, but well worth it to sample Terzij De Horde’s curated programme, showcasing some of the finest contemporary black metal the Netherlands has to offer. Psychedelic trio Nefast kick things off with their very distinctive, very minimal take on the genre. Just as Chaos Echœs seemed to strip death metal down to its barest essentials and find interesting new directions at its core last night, Nefast do a similar thing right now, reducing black metal’s icy pace to a hollow, emotionless pulse and then riding that into weird new realms which recall Neu! as much as they do Burzum. Taking the stage clad in creepy white masks, local three piece Laster are fantastic. Sounding noticeably more aggressive live than they do on record, their melancholic sound is much more ferocious in the flesh, performed at blistering pace with both terrifying precision and hair-rising passion. If they keep delivering shows this good, these guys aren’t going to be Utrecht’s little secret for much longer.

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The Crazy World Of Arthur Brown (Photo by Juri Hiensch)

Way over on the other side of town, there’s a different kind of theatricality going down in De Helling as The Crazy World Of Arthur Brown treat an absolutely packed venue to some vintage psychedelic whimsy. Though most widely known for his hit ‘I Am The God Of Hellfire’, you can see the influence of Arthur Brown on everyone from King Diamond to Marilyn Manson to Ghost, and the man is a born entertainer, leaping about the stage with the energy of a million Papa Emeritus’ – not bad considering he’s in his 70’s now. With dancers and several costume changes, there’s an air of pantomime to the proceedings and it’s hard not to find yourself charmed by the sheer, wide eyed rambunctiousness of it all. Though his music may not have aged as graciously as he has, the current incarnation of the Crazy World aren’t short of gusto and guitarist Nina Gromniak’s soulful, bluesy licks melt into your ears like butter. And of course, when they finish on that song, the whole room goes mental. Good wholesome fun!

Perhaps the only feeling worse than the existential dread that Gnaw Their Tongues’ music is able to inflict upon you, is the sinking realisation that your miscalculation of how long it would take to cycle between De Helling and dB’s is responsible for you missing the entirety of the set – ouch. (Check out José‘s account below to see what they were like.) Nevertheless, that means I’ve got plenty of time before Chelsea Wolfe, who delivers what could be the most powerful, cathartic performance of the whole festival, her voice rich with emotion and completely captivating, especially during ‘Survive’. Aside from a few ‘Pain Is Beauty’ tracks, like ‘House Of Metal’ and a heart-wrenching rendition of ‘We Hit A Wall’, the set is composed pretty much entirely from new album ‘Abyss’, and that opening combo of ‘Carrion Flowers’, ‘Iron Moon’ and ‘Dragged Out’ sounds even better than it does on record tonight, the huge swathes of doom-laden guitar filling the room like a sinister black fog. The sound is impeccable too, making that sumptuous synth bend in ‘After The Wall’ even more intoxicating.

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Chelsea Wolfe (Photo by Erik Luyten)

After a quick jaunt back to Tivoli-Vredenburg to catch Blanck Mass forcing whopping great slabs of distorted electronica through a particularly hefty PA, it’s back to Die Helling for Norwegian avant-garde metallers Virus (lead by Czral of Aura Noir, and ex-Ved Buens Ende, Cadavar, Dødheimsgard etc). The trio seem tightly in tune with one another, and their bizarre, Voidvoid-esque riffery and curiously shifting rhythmic patterns are a joy to behold, taking the crowd on a fascinating and constantly surprising journey. In fact, though the venue is noticeably less populated than it was for the last two acts, the roar of approval that greets the band doesn’t seem to have diminished in volume from earlier at all. Sterling stuff!

In all honesty, that would have been a perfectly satisfactory end to the night, but Sunn O))) really are pulling out all the stops for this one, concluding today’s selection with Aluk Todolo. The French three-piece lead us on a dark, mind bending journey through the use of brutal repetition, jarring, discordant guitars, paranoid bass lunges and frenzied, tribal rhythms. Again, part of the joy of this curated bill is the thread that runs through it, and after viewing them one after the other, it’s easy to draw comparisons between Aluk Todolo and Virus; two trios, both radically restructuring metal’s basic blueprints through the use of one guitar, bass and drums. But whilst Virus’s approach feels more cerebral, Aluk Todolo’s is largely physical, locking the listener into a feeling of perpetual motion and refusing to let go until you’re a quivering heap on the floor – a fate which befalls a significant portion of the crowd tonight. Any sensible person would head straight to bed after such a shock to the senses, but seeing as Le Guess Who? is a festival that just keeps on giving, I make a brief stop at the Ekko to watch an enthusiastic but confused audience desperately trying to figure out how to dance to Lee Gamble‘s delirious, deconstructionist techno, and don’t regret a second of it.

SATURDAY

After so much hurried cycling back and forth over the past few days, it’s nice to spend a full day sampling the delights of Tivoli-Vredenburg’s various different rooms – and there’s a lot on offer. Magma still sound like no other band on Earth, and taking a seat in T-V’s spacious Ronda venue to bask in their elaborate, progressive vision is an awesome way to start the day. Afterwards, ascending to the heights of Tivoli-Vredenburg, watching Shabazz Palaces‘s hallucinogenic afro-futurist hip-hop way up in the Cloud Nine venue is a treat indeed.

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Sunn O))) (Photo by Tim van Veen)

The big draw today however, is Sunn O))) and the drone overlords do not disappoint tonight, performing a particularly dynamic set that begins in a sparse, surprisingly quiet manner. After a beautifully textured build-up, the familiar onslaught of volume eventually erupts, shaking the rafters and vibrating every last fibre in your body. After a while, the roar of the amps subsides a little to give centre stage to a plaintive, startlingly affecting trombone passage, before coming full circle and culminating an ear-splitting, feedback drenched finish. In a word, bliss.

It’s pretty much impossible for a band to follow Sunn O))) and not sound wafer thin by comparison, but catching the last few minutes of Japanese psych lunatics Bo Ningen directly after that set is like treating your brain to a nice, soothing massage and then taking a cheese grater directly to it. Hurling their instruments around with wild abandon and teetering on the edge of collapse, their grand finale feels electrifying even without having seen the beginning of their set for context. And speaking of electrifying, Lightning Bolt prove to be nothing less, despite playing on stage rather than on the floor like they used to. Not that that’s really a bad thing though – the crowd goes fully apeshit anyway, and now we can all gape at how ludicrously fast Brian Chippendale can drum, as opposed to just a select few at the front being pushed into his ride cymbal. Plus, Brian Gibson’s bass sounds better than it’s ever done, reaching skull-rattling levels of intensity and surely pushing the Pandora venue’s PA way up into the red. A glorious, sweat drenched ending to another great day.

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Lightning Bolt (Photo by Erik Luyten)

SUNDAY

Rising early enough to make it down to De Helling to catch the start of Sunday’s Southern Lord showcase after all of last night’s antics is a challenge, but one with a very worthwhile and totally unexpected reward. Due to the unfortunate cancellation of The Secret, Italian sludge quartet Grime open today’s proceedings at a moment’s notice, and despite a general air of bewilderment from those too hungover or stoned to realise this isn’t Big|Brave as originally scheduled, their thick, misanthropic filth is a gruesomely effective wake-up call, getting heads slowly nodding as they lay riff after riff after riff on top of us. Tracks from Big|Brave‘s ‘Au Du La’ album sound a bit looser live today, as the band toy with their own dynamics, stretching out some of the huge, voluminous crescendos and allowing the quieter sections ample room to breathe. Featuring some guest violin from Jessica Moss (of the Thee Silver Mt Zion Memorial Orchestra) towards the end, it’s a stirring display.

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Martyrdöd (Photo by Erik Luyten)

The crowd has thinned dramatically for Martyrdöd, and unfortunately it seems to throw the Swedes to begin with, with the band seemingly just going through the motions during the first half of their set. Things pick up a bit towards the end, but there’s still a mood of lethargy emanating from the audience – but, hey, we are nearing the end of a four day binge here, so go easy on us, OK? “A Sunday vibe, eh?” quips Greg Anderson as Goatsnake take to the stage, “that’s cool!” Finding the whole band in a relaxed mood, there’s a great atmosphere as they bust out classics like ‘Slippin’ The Stealth’ and ‘Flower Of Disease’ before playing pretty much all of ‘Black Age Blues’, which is just as well received. As they finish by jamming out the end of ‘A Killing Blues’, we can’t help but feel that this is how every Sunday evening should play out. Just as we’re starting to feel nice and laid back, however, Today Is The Day roar into view and harsh everyone’s buzz with one of the most abrasive, confrontational performances of the weekend. The new material sounds savage, but it’s during older tracks like ‘Mayari’ and ‘The Descent’ that sparks really fly, as Steve Austin howls his lungs out, veins bulging in his neck as he stares down everyone in the room. The band sound absolutely ferocious, and a quick bout of technical problems midway through does nothing to dilute the intensity and sheer vitriol of this performance.

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Goatsnake (Photo by Erik Luyten)

All of which brings the Southern Lord showcase to a close, although Sunn O)))’s programme continues over in Tivoli-Vredenburg’s Grote Zaal as saxophonist Bennie Maupin soothes our battered ears with his smooth, expressive jazz – the perfect thing to comfort us after the unbridled menace of Today Is The Day. It’s this kind of contrast that lies at the heart of what makes Le Guess Who? such a great festival, and over the course of the weekend, it’s been just as gratifying seeing the long haired dude in a Revenge t-shirt marvelling over the dexterity of Kamasi Washington’s dual drummers as it has been glancing the elderly jazz aficionado nodding along to Chaos Echœs. Encouraging you to step out of your comfort zone and unearth new discoveries at every turn, the sheer scope of Le Guess Who? is both daunting and exhilarating. Drawing upon the distinctive character of Utrecht itself and flooding it’s numerous different venues with some exceptionally well curated bills, there really is no other festival quite like it. We’ll be seeing you next year…

Juila Holter

Julia Holter (Photo by Jelmer de Haas)

José Carlos Santos

THURSDAY

First of all, Le Guess Who? is a bloody intimidating experience. Regardless of your genres of choice, it’s more likely than not that you won’t know half of the humongous and wildly varied bill, and the over ten venues (!), from churches to bar basements to proper awesome concert halls, are spread around the lovely city of Utrecht. All this, in the same weekend as one of the biggest and most amazing record fairs in the world is in town. So, if you do embark on this adventure, be prepared to walk, bike or abuse the bus/trains getting to the shows you want, and spend half of the trips wondering what awesome thing you’ve never heard of you might be missing. This is what it looks like in the first couple of hours, but once you settle into the groove of this most unique of festivals, your perspective changes. Firstly, you realise that not only are over half of the venues are within walking distance, but five of them are actually in the same fantastic building, the remodelled Tivoli-Vredenburg, which shall hold until further notice the title of most fucking unbelievably amazing venue we’ve ever seen. Secondly, Utrecht is a great place, a sort of anti-Amsterdam that you won’t mind wandering around in even without shows to catch. And finally, in a sort of Roadburn-like spirit, the stress of having to catch that band dissipates once you wander into a couple of shows you hadn’t planned to see and have just as much fun while discovering new favourites.

 

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Faust (Photo by Erik Luyten)

So, my nerves are already steadied when I sit down inside the beautiful (and packed!) Janskerk church, ready to be enraptured by Hildur Guðnadóttir‘s cello magic. So enveloping is the whole performance in this environment that the more anticipated Julia Holter show right after, also in the church, feels a little uneventful and empty by comparison. Off to the wonderful Tivoli then, where after a few non-Terrorizerable things (we have an open mind, okay?) krautrock legends Faust take to the main stage. Despite the strange visual focus on three knitting ladies around a teapot who took up the centre of the stage, the subtle yet kaleidoscopic craziness of the band’s wild experimentation remains intact to this day, and so it’s slightly disoriented that we stumble out of the Tivoli in search of De Helling, one of the crucial venues of the weekend for the heavier and darker stuff – basically, most of the Sunn O)))-curated bit of it. Despite this being the hundredth or so occasion to witness Bölzer live in the last year and a half, the gripping power of the songs remain immense, and this show in particular features a distinctly clear sound, very unusual for Bölzer, allowing us to actually hear the vocals properly, so it’s an entirely new and fresh perspective that we’re getting tonight for something we’ve seen and heard so many times recently. It puts us in a good mood for Om, who deliver their mantras of heaviness with the same burrowing strength as usual, despite the discomfort of an overly packed room at this point.

 

FRIDAY

A miscommunication between band and festival means that the Kargadoor venue (a basement underneath a bar, essentially) doesn’t allow Insect Ark to perform their usual screechy, loud show. After Dana Schlechter explains and apologises for the fact, she and drummer companion Ashley Spungen then take off on an one-off improvisational set which almost makes us thankful for the miscommunication. Still harsh, it had a cyclic, enveloping atmosphere that we wouldn’t expect from the doom noise duo – hopefully someone recorded it! I then make the painful decision to miss out on Nefast and Laster  to catch Protomartyr at the Tivoli, and no offence to both bands, but it’s the decision of the weekend. The Detroit band are unbelievably good – noisy, loud and abrasive like a punk band, but delivering their punches with a velvety glove of stripped down post punk, shoegaze and urban poetry. Everything converges, of course, on to the figure of singer Joe Casey, the ultimate anti-frontman, looking just like a cynical English teacher from an American movie, like Miles from Sideways or some such figure, delivering sardonic, bitter words of loss, love, anger and regret in between (many) sips of beer. If you’ve ever been into Nick Cave, Madrugada or just people with a razor-sharp intelligence and an unashamed fear to use it, this band is for you.

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Protomartyr (Photo by Juri Hiensch)

We finally then sprint to DB’s for the second half of the nasty black evening going on there, and Gnaw Their Tongues are launching into their horror show just as we step through the door. The sound is very balanced, so every instrument of torture is clearly audible, and as Mories alternates between inhuman screeches and potent roars we feel drawn into the terrible atmosphere of each song once more. Only a special act can follow this, and Terzij De Horde are one of those. Their atypical take on black metal has finally crystallised itself on a proper record, ‘Self’, and it seems that was the step the band needed to get to the next level. Here, at the eye of the storm, drinking their own craft beer (available just for tonight), feeling every jarred bit of dissonance and every magnificent crescendo, it seems nothing can touch this band. A Place To Bury Strangers is the chosen closer for the evening, and their noise rock is so dense as to almost force one to sit down when listening to it rather than move around, on a surprisingly bleak performance.

SATURDAY

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Magma (Photo by Tim van Veen)

Magma were one of the surprising Roadburn highlights in 2014, setting the main stage alight with a performance that will go down in history, and this Le Guess Who? just proves it wasn’t a fluke. Their rock/jazz/funk/whatever wild mix just amplifies to degrees that we don’t have words for when on stage, and even if it didn’t, just watching Christian Vander play (and sing/scat in his invented alien language, Kobaïan, of course) would be good enough to beat just about any other alternative anyway. It’s off to sample a bit of Keiji Haino‘s delightful lunacy right after, and the Japanese musician’s special percussive set is almost a clinic on sound manipulation – the Hertz room of the Tivoli has surreal acoustics and every hit of every shiny metal bit of whatever Keiji’s crazy custom-built instruments are called reverberates and is felt in a different way for everyone in the room. Remarkable stuff, and apt ear-training for the devastation of Sunn O))) that ensues. With five people on stage (including Hildur Guðnadóttir), it’s Sunn O))) at their most musical and diverse in years, complete with a haunting trombone part at one point, and for once it isn’t just about the experience, or the vibration, or the taking it all in – it is all those things, but it’s about picking up more than droning, half-hour riffs and enjoying it a bit more easily than usual. There’s only room for one more ear-piercing attack tonight and it’s up to Lightning Bolt to provide it. The duo show no discomfort for being up on stage instead of on the floor where they used to play all their shows, and their blistering, schizo tunes are all thrown at the rapturous audience with abandon and boundless energy.

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Sunn O))) (Photo by Erik Luyten)

 

SUNDAY

The last day packed a couple of the most brilliant Terrorizer-friendly highlights, despite The Secret disappointingly pulling out at the last second. Today Is The Day touring partners Grime step in and provide hateful sludge doom to make it all go away, and it works. There’s a bit of a lull as Big|Brave don’t really go anywhere with their bland sort of post rock and Martyrdöd plod through a samey set of undynamic, plodding and way too polished crust. Fortunately, the best one-two punch of the whole festival ensues, first with Goatsnake sounding for all the world like a band that isn’t, as Greg Anderson himself put it in these pages, merely “circumstantial” and occasional in its appearances. ‘Black Age Blues’ is one of the best albums of the year, and its songs prove it by being highlights equal to all the ‘Flower Of Disease’ classics aired. When you spend half a show deciding in your head which is the most amazing, Greg’s warm and boozy guitar tone or Pete Stahl’s lost-in-time bluesy wail, you know you’re watching something very, very special. Then, it’s up to Today Is The Day to eradicate any such questions from your head. The world becomes all about Steve Austin’s end-of-days buzzsaw riffs and his bone-chilling howls. Caught in the middle of an European tour, Today Is The Day are absolutely on fire, tight and powerful, and they seem untouchable by anyone or anything when unleashing their destruction up there, with the cuts off ‘Animal Mother’ still ringing as powerful as anything else they’ve ever recorded. The hauntingly minimalist fragments of melodies erected by Annette Peacock and her piano back at the main venue are the perfect sending off, never too comfortable but a balm for sore ears, ears that will hopefully return for another exploratory journey and more aural beatings next year.

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