The Cambridgeshire Fens are certainly an interesting choice of venue for a festival. It’s not going to disturb the neighbours because there aren’t any, but it’s also nigh on impossible to get to other than by bike or car. This terminally flat countryside is captured best by the mighty band Fen whose name and music are influenced by the surroundings as they “draw the listener into a windswept landscape, bereft of hope”. And then there’s the brutal death grindcore scene in nearby Wisbech, epitomized by the delightful Beef Conspiracy whose seminal album “Hung, Drawn and Quarterpoundered” is the stuff of inspiration. But there are none of these esoteric offerings here this weekend. This is the place for progressive metal, metalcore and generally music with a technical and djenty slant, so if you thought that TechFest was some geek’s convention about computers, it’s probably best that you go back to your laptop and die prosaically.
With the boiling hot weather and the main and second stage situated next to each other for the purposes of continuity – as one set ended, another started in the tent next door – it all meant no respite for the spectators but endless metal on tap. This was typical of the excellent organization by promoter Simon, who rightly received accolades throughout the day from spectators and band members for the quality of organization and attention to detail at this friendly festival.
The first band to be hot and sweaty was Colours To Shame. The Glaswegians worked their way through unfamiliar climactic conditions and dished up the expected diet of technical prog djent. Constantly transforming, the changeovers were deliberately irregular but the control in the sections themselves was tight. The set ended well with “In Search of Sasquatch” which featured plenty of drama and passion to match all the technicality. The first victim of the weather was the drummer who blacked out for two minutes during the set, so credit to the band for getting through it. From what I heard here, Colours To Shame are a band worth investigating further. (AD)
I had looked forward to seeing Kartikeya from Russia as a fan of fellow Vedic metal band Rudra, with whom I learnt afterwards they have collaborated in the past. The look wasn’t Vedic metal – a distinctly Russian-looking drummer with a spoof McDo t-shirt, a hard case tom-tom player who had the air of a punk tattoo artist and a more conventional square-faced vocalist / guitar player. It transpired that there was no bass player, the vocalist was a stand-in, the tom-toms were inaudible and much reliance was placed on samples which, short of engaging an army of people, were necessary to generate the Eastern elements.
Kartikeya threw away all the obstacles and to the sounds of Indian restaurants and a mantra, the full forces of darkness were presented to us with “Sarva Mangalam”. An exotic energy flowed through the music. Deep and growly vocals and hypnotic drum runs led us into a series of exciting and dangerous patterns. Indian passages were never far away but, even with the carefully-controlled prog sections, the dominating factors were acrid power and crushing movement. I was as if we spectators had to be put in our place. The only bizarre aspect was the exaggerated gestures of the tom-tom player who reminded me of one of those backing artists who draw disproportionate attention to themselves in the Eurovision song contest. “Horrors of Home” was delivered with deliberate intent, each layer adding a further substructure and new sounds and imaginary smells. The clean vocal sections weren’t so convincing but when the vocalist screamed, he sounded like an angry god. The set ended with “Neverborn”. Finally the tom-toms became audible. The instrumental passages as ever were magical. Although there were too many vocal variations for me, Kartikeya’s performance was compelling and no-one was left in any doubt that they had brought war and dark atmospheres into our miserable lives. (AD)
One short hop next door took me from the world of Vedic warfare to the altogether cleaner progressive melodies of Shattered Skies from Ireland. It was evidently “no bassist” day today as Sean and his colleagues launched into “The End and the Rebirth” without one. Sean himself was looking more well-scrubbed than I remember – due perhaps to on-stage alcohol deprivation – but, superficial considerations apart, something wasn’t working. I wondered if it was the effect of going from the thundersome dark clouds of Kartikeya to this decidedly more commercial sound. The prog vocals didn’t harmonise with the steady rock-metal beat. Sean explained it: “I apologise for sounding completely flat”.
All was ok after that but what I witnessed overall was a softer and more polished performance than the 110% livewire energy I had seen before from the band. The ante was upped with “15 Minutes”; always an audience-friendly song mixing prog emotion and rhythmic punchiness. The crowd moved, and continued to do so when the band played a rocking version of the Pendulum track “Propane Nightmares” (thanks to Sean for identifying it to me afterwards). The rumbling and rolling flavour continued with “Saviours”. Again very commercial, it sounded a little tinny and lacked emotional depth, but did feature a splendid guitar solo. Sean’s cheeky smile at the end captured the audience-friendliness of this band. An overly long intro to “As The Sea Divides” created a mixed expectation of suspense and the concern that the set was going to finish with a whimper. In the end, it was both as the heavy framework built up the intensity while Sean struggled to pull at our heartstrings. Today it was a case of heatstrings. As always, this was an interesting performance from this talented prog metal band. (AD)
As the quartet of Red Seas Fire rolled onto the stage, the dry ice was pumped up another notch drowning the guitarist. The fact that he sported a beard as vast as something out of Norse mythology and a high-strapped guitar meant there was little left of him to spot. They quickly settled into a cajoling rhythm of Safety Fire-esque jack-hammering bass threaded with feisty chugs. On top of this backline, there was plenty of screams with some occasional quiet patches and cleans to allow for the builds back into more screaming. They did struggle to serve it all up with any real venom or intensity, but the stifling heat can’t have helped matters. Vocalist Robin Adams deep, scarred roars were excellent, but his singing was often a little over-emotional. Still, he had the frontman patter down a treat and was constantly pepping up his audience, all of which elicited a decent reaction from those pogoing in the centre. (JS)
I was drawn into the room like a magnetic attraction. A set had just started. Unbeknown to me until afterwards, Neosis had pulled out and had been replaced by Aeolist from Norwich on the second stage. This was a revelation. What I heard was utterly heavy but tightly controlled, riff-driven prog metal. 5 young men were in front of me. There were two guitarists, a bassist, drummer and a vocalist who showed the capability to rip our throats out. Their progress was smooth but the band was clearly not averse to going into multi-coloured technical passages. This was compelling and fun too. The bassist looked like he was practicing for a gurning competition. Such was the technicality that I too felt my mouth and eyebrows move. There was no widdling or wastage here. Mountainous passages swept through the room. The vocals were utterly hardcore and harsh amongst this progressive finery. But my goodness, it held together in perfect fusion.
“Raise your hands!” proposed hardcore man before he threw himself around the stage, whipping up anger and hysteria. This was just musical magnificence. A post-metal element emerged. A carefully executed dark, heavy and chunky musical display was being laid out before us. A little guitar-driven jazzy number introduced a fresh aspect. The drum beat featured funky mosaic-like patterns. The vocalist had his back to the audience, looking like he was throwing up in front of the drummer. The build-up of this un-named track was like the dawn rising. The sun came out – a dark one, mind – in all its glory. Hardcore man was now post-metal man. Instead of launching himself at us, he channeled his anguish and anger at us in an entirely emotional, gripping and powerful way. “Bang your fucking head”, he exhorted. This colourful explosion made me think of another UK band – Heights. Aeolist exhibited perfect musical and vocal harmony. The musicianship was exquisite in a progressive, post-metal and hardcore way. Sections could be moving, and even a little jazzy. The music came from the ether but also suggested a story of life and its realities. The drums tapped like the sound of impending battle. The set ended with one final progressive hardcore blast. There was such subtlety. I had witnessed a performance packed with intelligence and creativity. Aeolist came, conquered and disappeared into the night. I’m glad they came and would very much like to see them again. (AD)
A portly, geeky-looking type from the USA appeared on stage. It was time for Drewsif Stalin. After a bit of banter about poo and “glam flow”, Mr Stalin, as we shall call him, started and stopped. “Look at the person next to you. Would you be prepared to go to war with that person?” The person next to me was my eldest son. I’m not sure what the point of the question was as Mr Stalin fired off a monster riff … and stopped. “This one’s dedicated to those who say “that’s not metal””, he announced. “Deadly Serious” was a large, meaty chunk of irregular, hard and screwed-up metal. Great chorus: “de-de-de-de-de-de-de-de-de-de”. Taking the mickey maybe, but it was a laugh and the crowd loved it. Actually, what followed was some serious, deep and intensive heavy metal. Heads swung. The set went downhill when the lead vocalist from Red Seas Fire joined in for a couple of tracks. It wasn’t that fantastic to begin with but it had entertainment value. Now it got more progressive and serious. It also became anonymous. There was an attempt to restore the energy. The drummer told some jokes which no-one got. Mr Stalin’s wild eyes and his gestures outdid the music which was as heavy as hell but not overwhelming. Even then he didn’t win my unofficial “Facial Contortions” contest, which went to the bassist from Aeolist. At least Mr Stalin and friends didn’t play their One Direction cover song. (AD)
It looked like it was fancy dress time but no-one told us. The guitarist of Serbian pop-metallers Destiny Potato, who had swapped days to be here today, was wearing a crumpled old-fashioned Victorian-style top hat. Why? Do they have Dr Who in Serbia? Still more enigmatically, he stuck a potato in his mouth. I suppose the music had a ghostly flavour to it. I liked the music which had a progressive djent slant of course but interestingly it had Eastern rhythms running through it and even featured techno-pop. The petite female vocalist, Aleksandra Djelmas, looked about 15 but, more importantly, had a great, effortless voice which was well supported by the instrumental department. There was a good balance. Passages were smooth. The songs, especially in the vocals, had a child-like and eccentric quality but always returned to prog metal and solid ground. The singer seemed a little nervous spending her time apparently looking down at the lyrics in front of her. All of this belied her commanding performance. The range was good. Sometimes there was emotion, sometimes the singer belted out her words, sometimes it was very pop-orientated and then in the middle of it she would demonstrate an impressive set of lungs with awesome screams.
The band played nicely with all this and the music moved and grooved as their rock delivery, mixed with occasional rapping, expanded into heaviness and catchy choruses. But although this band didn’t smile very much, there was a fun element about it. I could liken this to In This Moment or Tristania even, but the mix here was special. Amid the depth of Meshuggah, Aleksandre moved across the stage mysteriously, reflecting the Eastern side of it. Thunderous progressions and big screams were countered by hypnotic and impressive rhythms. I know that Destiny Potato were not everyone’s cup of tea and were a bit pop-orientated for some, but I thought they were very interesting and I enjoyed what I heard and saw. (AD)
Disperse plunged straight into their set without ado. Their style of deep and chunky progressive metal recalled their fellow Polish progsters Riverside. Unfortunately the ambience wasn’t as intensive or mesmerising as that of Riverside. The keyboards were under-utilised and the vocalist struggled in the higher ranges. Was this an expression of vulnerability or just a case of a vocalist operating outside of his limits? This spoiled the “ambidjent” feel which accompanied the traditional prog fare which was on offer. Instrumentally it was another matter. The guitarist saved the day time after time with his dexterity and imagination. It was all a bit self-indulgent as Disperse just seemed to be going through a set of motions. The last song “Message From Atlantis” proved to be one last chance for the guitarist, who was the star of this performance, to thrill us with another spectacular solo. (AD)
As the second stage closed shop for the night, it really felt like we’d reached a turning point. As the fans had travelled from across Europe and, no doubt, beyond to be stood in this small field near Peterborough, these next three bands had journeyed hundreds of miles to play to them. The crowd swelled and excitement began to peak. – they were all in now. First up, from France, Matthieu Romarin and his five chums from Uneven Structure. The setlist comprised the whole of the recently released EP “8” followed by a selection from their debut album, “Februus”. Displaying typical Gallic flair the band oozed enormity and breadth. “8”, as expected, proved darker and more complex with the bass sticking the bottom-end; defining the sound with a driven depth. With the three guitars interweaving over the top and the drummer pumping his legs it proved to be a truly powerful experience.
As emotion began to rule the performance, either raging or drifting, an electrifying sound began to ran through the background like a constant charge. It was “Februus”, a work defined by its backing soundtrack; the music contantly returning, often mid-song, to a singluar, specific tone. Here too was where much of the metalcore action lay, the parts where the charismatic Matthieu simply shined. The beats were flying as were the dreads of guitarist Aurélien Perreira. The music shifted and began to tell a developing story. As it did, so did Matthieu, moved seamlessly between plaintive cleans and fearsome growls; laying bare his impressive range. He became our guide, occasionally moving forward to touch the crowd while the operators of the giant switchgear continued their work behind him. As they hit their groove, the necksnapping crowd reaction was insane. One passage melted in the next. This was a gripping story. It was one not be missed. Impec, mes amis! (AD/JS)
Follow that Skyharbor. Having travelled all the way from India, and having spent £400+ solely on taxi fares, there was no chance that this lot weren’t going to hit the ground running. Their bass-driven angst and contrasting tones proved to be just the ticket on a sultry evening such as this. The whole project masterminded by guitarist/composer Keshav Dhar had been making waves ever since they brought ex-TesseracT UK vocalist Dan Tompkins on board and there were plenty of smiles in the crowd when that particular face stormed onto stage. He has proved to be the final piece Keshav needed to complete his wonderful puzzle and a UK show without him would have been exasperating. Sporting a dapper button-down waistcoat he set about blowing us away. The sound-desk finally got one right here as his vocal range vibrated when he hit his top-end, sending shivers down spines, and his deep booms hit you straight in the chest like a punch. His style of long notes coupled with his melodic tones, at times, were simply beautiful and, often, strangely effeminate. Alongside him, the stringwork of Keshav and Devesh Dayal covered both elegance and scathing power as they flicked between threaded, cascading riffs and tight, angry shreds. Nikhil Rufus, lightning strap and all, hit his funk button when he wasn’t thundering away, snapping his neck off with jerking thrusts.
With the moody backing track setting up the songs, we were soon being treated to the scathing “Catharsis”, then the floaty, super-emotional “Night”. Soon Dan was cautiously announcing the band’s tight time slot – “Time is so precious, so thankyou. Here’s Aurora”. Then, with a flourish and a run through the photo-pit for our frontman, we were onto the finishing straight with “Celestial” – their “song about freedom”. It hit to huge roars and featured an impressive fan singalong for each chorus. With the award-winning “Meava” to finish, during which Dan ended up wigging out, face-to-face with his fans, the band hit a euphoric peak even we didn’t think they could reach. Considering how little practice time together they must have had pre-show it had been an unqualified success. And the best news? The new album they’re working on is “insanely good” – and that’s from the mouth of the mastermind himself. (JS)
The massive hour-long wait for Chicago’s Veil Of Maya (huge in the US, about to be huge in the UK) was explained away once they hit the stage by the long-haired frontman Brandon Butler – “Our bassist nearly missed the show”. All eyes flicked right and there he stood, pretty-boy image, and my first thought was “too much time spent in the mirror?”. No matter. This quartet soon made up for lost time tossing out a series of battered, scathing vocals like they were going out of fashion. Their main selling point was immediately apparent – the unstoppable force of their unique, ceaseless, polyrhythmic underscore. Badda-bad-badda-badda, badda-bad-badda-ba-ba-bad-badda-badda…
Essentially, what they boiled down to was a ridiculously effective line in tight tech with strong death elements. Everything that had gone before was simply blown away by their lack of emotional complexity. This was just pure vitriol combined with devastating rhythmic intensity. The recorded underscore only popped up to briefly link between the songs. All our other senses were directed towards Brandon; focussing on his caged animal stage-pacing and his urgent demands for more crowd action. Eventually his audience conceded and the first circle-pit of the night opened up. Before long we were all slicked in sweat, the tent walls dripped and the air became unbearably clammy. Brandon became more yeti than man, as his hair began to stick to his face and body. He responded by sticking his tongue out and allowing a dastardly smirk to cross his lips – “I love you guys”. A bottle of whisky was passed around the band and then onwards backstage, presumably for the crew to begin the party. Quick as a flash, the cascading lead of “It’s Not Safe To Swim Today” indicated the final song and in response the pit doubled and the crowd went batshit crazy. Oh yes, Veil Of Maya proved to be the perfect band to finish the night. (JS)
We simply can’t remember having more fun in a field. Room for another 3-500 bodies maybe, but it did make for a roomier and more relaxing atmosphere. With security operating a hands-off approach and bands operating a hands-on approach (whole days spent intermingling with fans), it proved to be a set-up that could have withstood rain, hail, fire and brimstone and still gone ahead as planned. It all made for a large helping of excitement with lashes of freedom and plenty of cool beer on tap. I believe the word de rigueur is “epic”. Roll on TechFest 2014!
Words: Andrew Doherty & John Skibeat
Photos: John Skibeat