Field Studies | Arctangent
2019: 15th–17th August
It took the industry five years to recognise what we’d known all along: Arctangent is the UK’s best small music festival.
Now, a year on from receiving that accolade, organisers Simon Maltas, Goc O’Callaghan and James Scarlett aren’t resting on their laurels. They were on site weeks before a note was played, setting up the stages themselves. They remapped the entire layout to ease access and to cater for a new campsite. They introduced a reusable plastic cup policy which, save for the mud dunes, successfully resulted in the site looking pristine by the Sunday. Oh, and they booked Meshuggah for their only UK date in 2019. Some ten thousand attendees came to Fernhill Farm in Compton Martin as a result, almost double the usual pull.
I’ve been coming here since 2013 – this was my sixth year of the seven – and I have seen it grow in ambition and scale over the course. I have incredible memories of this place, too, like the year Cleft wrapped up on a Rage Against The Machine medley, or the time they put too much iodine in the water, and the year that absolute hero murdered the Jurassic Park theme with a trumpet at 2am… And the rain. Always the rain. Arctangent is perfection manifest, and this year was true to form.
True to my own form, I arrived late on the Thursday, and missed Big Lad, Floral and Pigs, Pigs, Pigs, Pigs, Pigs, Pigs, Pigs as a result, which is a sin and for which I apologise. I also missed The Beft, a tribute to Dan Wild-Beesley, who we lost on the 10th October 2018. The affinity for this man mountain is remarkable – last year Arctangent raised £5,500 to help him fight his cancer – and those who were at this set told me it was a fitting salute. I asked Mike Vennart, one of close to twenty guitarists who played it (simultaneously), for his reflections:
“Cleft were a fucking force of nature. An absolute maelstrom of ideas centered around one cosmic goal – the RIFF. Dan had riffs for days, and performing as part of The Beft only served to underline his talent for composing medical grade riffs.
“I was delighted to be invited to perform with Alpha Male Tea Party and John Simm for this special tribute to Dan. We started at the end – we agreed that a moment of silence wasn’t Dan’s style, and what we should do instead is a moment of noise. A solid, glorious wall of D major, performed by as many of Dan’s friends as could fit on the stage. Working backwards from that, I composed a piece with the AMTP lads, especially for the occasion, which I’m very proud of.
“We also played Cleft’s Trap Door and a ten-minute medley of Dan’s riffs. This was one of the most challenging things I’ve ever had to do, but so, so rewarding and an absolute dream to perform. The climax of the show, the Golden D, had the entire audience in bits, which in turn made us play louder and with even more love. It felt like a bomb going off. But a very lovely one.
“I’ll forever be grateful for the opportunity to pay tribute to Dan, and just for the fact that our paths even crossed. He was an inspiring and inspired player and only now am I realising how good we could’ve worked together. The Beft show was one of my all-time favourite shows at a very special festival. Hail Dan, and hail ATG for making it happen.”
I’m pretty sure, had I been there, I wouldn’t have come close to topping those words.
So the first band I did manage to catch was Covet, who are masters of their game. Guitarist Yvette Young plied her trade on YouTube and as a member of Polyphia, and her noodles were frankly mesmerising today – a real treat. So too Theo, who has kept it real for over a decade and who was well deserving of his spot on the newly founded stage (‘The Elephant in the Bar Room’, a nod to Cleft) adjacent to the merch tent. It was an intimate environment which elevated his craft – there’s something remarkably candid about the way he works, inviting the audience into the writing process as he patiently builds layers of guitar which, alone, stand naked, before he climbs behind the kit and lays down the missing beats. The story unfolds and concludes triumphant before our eyes and it brings down the house every time.
Daughters were also a shrewd booking this year, given the brutality of You Won’t Get What You Want last Autumn. The set leant heavily on it, at once feverish, alluring and braying. It served as a pure antonym to the melodic power rock of Coheed & Cambria who followed on the main stage. This slot was about nostalgia first and foremost, a sea of 30-somethings 15 again in an instant. And man, that hair.
With Friday came the rain. Regular attendees know that a brutal downpour is one of two certainties at Arctangent (the other being that the Mars Volta will always be there for you on the green channel), but this year we were treated to a month’s worth of rainfall in a single day, aside winds reaching 35mph. While this was pretty much par for course, it required something special to motivate the morning crowd, and fortunately Cattle were just that. Thrashing through choice cuts from 2016’s Nature’s Champion, betwixt a generous sample of new material, Chris Jacob’s rasping cries over two drum kits and a booming bass set fire to the cobwebs we’d awoken with.
Italy’s DAGS! were performing midway through a European tour with a drummer (Giuseppe Molinari) who had had a month to learn the tracks. He slayed it, and the music sounded crisper for it. If Brexit makes it harder for these guys to come visit, I’m fuming. 65daysofstatic, playing here for the fourth or fifth time, by my count, also brought the politics, reminding us that we’re lucky to have this festival when the NHS is collapsing and food banks abound, and that a standard tent is the equivalent of 80,000 plastic straws. These thoughts were sobering, even when bookended by Fall of Math favourites Retreat Retreat and I Swallowed Hard, Like I Understood.
Zu was a name that immediately stood out from this year’s line up, so I made the most of the chance to see them live and Jesus were they filthy. This is what Arctangent has always been good at, pairing fans with rare opportunities to see bands they’d seldom otherwise (American Football, Giraffes? Giraffes!, Animals As Leaders, The Fall of Troy immediately spring to mind), and frankly it’s worth the price of admission alone. Zu was no exception and theirs was a half hour I’ll savour forever.
I’d also never miss the chance to see Colossal Squid (née Adam Betts) at Arctangent, or anywhere, really, and today was another treat. He plays like a ravenous bear, hammering the kit with what always appear to be hand fans, so quick is the movement of the sticks to meet the beat. The new material in the set is enough to salivate over, but the tracks from 2016’s debut were frenetic when played at double speed. This was the first of three performances under three unique guises from Betts this weekend, and it was a clear highlight for me for sure.
Then, to something completely different – a TTNG love-in on the Bixler stage. Tonight was the culmination of a special tour which saw the band reunited with original vocalist Stuart Smith, and even included a cameo from original bass hands Dan “Dan, Dan, Dan, Dan, Dan” Adams. Playing through their seminal (sorry) album Animals in full, along with a few other classics, it was a truly majestic set which was enough even to stop the rain outside. Here’s a bootleg of Chinchilla which may or may not become the subject of a takedown request:
Battles, a different beast today than they were when Mirrored dropped 12 years ago (yes, I feel old too), closed Friday in a kaleidoscope of pitch shifts and patch leads. This is the closest – and yet the furthest – anyone can get to seeing Don Caballero or Helmet nowadays, but they’re proven titans in their own right and that sure as hell rang true tonight. This despite the bold decision to lend most of their set to unreleased material and underscore a full rebirth in turn.
Food of choice for the day: Paella.
Saturday 17th August 2019 goes down in Copperplate Gothic Gold, font 72, as the greatest day of live music I’ve experienced in my 30 years. Everything was on point, starting with Matt Calvert who, along with Three Trapped Tigers’ band mates Adam Betts and Tom Rogerson (and an assortment of stings and woodwind), eased everyone into the day calm and refreshing as the softest breeze. This was only the third time they’d played Typewritten live, they say, before thanking everyone for witnessing them doing so at a festival which holds a special place in their hearts. I’d like to thank them in return for wedging in an Evil Ex track, which holds a special place in my own.
Seeing Physics House Band on the main stage, five years after their delectable set on the Bixler, then propelled the day’s momentum. They are an incredibly accomplished trio of musicians; what I’ve always loved is how in control they are, in every grove, every stab, every sustained string. You get the impression that they’ve worked each track to its logical conclusion, understanding the interplay like the back of their hands, before systematically dismantling and rebuilding anew, upside down. That’s what we heard on this summer’s Death Sequence, and again today with intoxicating vigour. If you’re reading this and cringing, spare a thought for guitarist Sam Organ who, politely, endured a similar gush from me that evening (albeit one slurred to the point of incoherence).
Three Trapped Tigers followed, and soared my heart to new heights on revealing that they’d soon be working on a new record. Ableton issues couldn’t stymie a glistening set spanning three of their previous, which included a rare performance of 6 from the EP they released a decade ago. This also concluded a trio of superb sets from Adam Betts this weekend, so well done that man.
I then left the main stage (at that point a sanctuary) to catch Car Bomb, but found I’d been beaten to the punch by the maybe two thousand others who had packed then overflowed the tent before me. But the set still sounded huge from afar (thank you, sound guy), and from what I could see tip-toed it was ruthlessly delivered. A perfect set up, too, for what was to come: Employed To Serve, for whom the hype is justified. They annihilated the same stage, relentless and unrepentant – a bruising encounter which I’m looking forward to reliving on the UK leg of their European tour in December.
And then the centerpiece. I could spend the next few paragraphs fumbling around for the right way to convey their precision, their ferocity, the meshugaas of their sound but, fortunately (for you and me both), Arctangent’s photographer Joe Singh managed to capture the exact moment I shared my feelings during Meshuggah’s set:
Cheers man, I owe you a couple of pairs of pints. And that’s an offer that extends to the sound guy who was playing 80s power pop before this set, and to everyone I spoke to that weekend, every band I enjoyed, every one I missed, and, of course, the organisers.
It’s the community that makes this festival whole, yes, but it is Simon, Goc, and James who pour all of themselves into these weekends and leave us tingling for it. Arctangent is a secret we all share, and it is simply the Beft.
2014: : 28th–30th August
And you find yourself sprinting haphazardly across a sodden field after a five hour drive to see a band in a packed out tent; and you smile, breathless, on arrival, because you know you have finally arrived home. And as the ache drains from your muscles, and the first shivers transcend the length of your neck, you also affirm that the anticipation which laced your hajj was just.
There’s probably some poetic justice in the fact that the early arrivers this year were treated to some of the sounds that sparked their allure for Arctangent last, enough so to book tickets well in advance of today and initiate a countdown that would test the patience of even the Samaritans on site. A joyous symmetry at least, echoed in the harmonics of This Town Needs Guns, who last year as this were spellbinding, and Three Trapped Tigers, who were thunderous in decapitating their inaugural benchmark.
No disco to close, no Partridge quotes wafting the campsite, but there was time yet.
I awake to the payload of ‘Beow’ being checked at a variety of tones until the right one is settled upon. As an alarm, it transcends perfection. James tells me later how rare it was to be given the breathing room to find the sweet spot on his telecaster before a set, but the care taken here was well placed, because Suffer Like G Did‘s first public outing in time (excluding the warm up in Guildford two nights before) was a peach. A new drummer and a new method, it seems, as debutants such as ‘Toska’ and at least one other were more free-flowing than the rigidity of the mutes and stabs which punctuate their early work. Neither style was better or worse; both are unique and disciplined, and a treat in the morning air. So too their humility when confessing this is their largest show to-date, and humbly requesting the picture below to commemorate.
I hug the tent for Olympians soon after, again disarming in their delivery and endearingly so. Even when sharing gin with Dan in a barn many hours later, a parody of myself garbling anecdotes about this very website, his good nature is unblemished. ‘This song is called shut up and play the fucking song’ he quips, spontaneously, unable to hide both his delight to be on stage and his earnest need to bare soul. Another great band that we’re fortunate to have, so reciprocate that love please.
Ditto Physics House Band: one of the best jam bands active currently, if you needed an excuse to see them, but a given if you already have. Please don’t skip the video below, because as a moment it sore-thumbs itself not only from this weekend, but from my collective festival experiences combined.
Enemies put their new drummer through his paces on the same stage, though he didn’t come close missing a beat. Without comparing to their former set up, they’re solid today and this bodes well for the future, which is warranted, because their brand of math-pop is pure smart.
Another personal highlight this time last year were Cleft, and they didn’t come close to disappointing today either. The duo’s synchronicity is, at times, terrifying; the closest our isles have come to spawning a pneu. And the audacity… What I would give to have been a fly on the wall during the discussion which concluded, ‘how do you want to end the set then? Rage medley? Rage medley.’ Class.
El Ten Eleven show us how it’s done in LA, and, well, simply how it’s done. Their masterclass of math is printer-perfect, and I’ve begrudged picking up my guitar since.
Then, ah then. The synergy of the silent disco, synonymous and fabled in its own right: the sway of glowing headphones like fireflies from afar, we share stories, form new bonds and cherish the old magnificently. Just please don’t play S Club 7 next time.
Saturday is bittersweet, conceding that this will be the last of it for another year, yet safe in the knowledge that I’m spoiled for choice ahead. I jump at the rare opportunity to see Alarmist in the UK, a magnetic pull most definitely. Live they resound fearlessly as on record, minds racing at warp speed, grooves to facilitate our moves and melodies terrifically bright. Come back soon, for the love of God.
A first venture to the Arc stage follows on the back of necessity too, capitalising on the chance to witness Luxembourg’s Mutiny on The Bounty as well I might. They request, and deserve, the Kodak moment from the crowd, one of half a dozen of the weekend by my count, and no, it didn’t tire.
Sticking around for Jamie Lenman was another no-brainer (mercifully so at this stage in my mental being), half to hear some Reuben tracks, half to witness a guy at the top of his game. I get both. I also get to catch Mylets‘ tail end, and it’s impossible not to fall in love. Henry’s the bedroom guitarist in all of us, but he’s gone out there and made it happen. More power to him.
Reaching the business end, there were behemoths to be had yet.
Tall Ships are one of the brightest prospect we have for the mainstream, and the plaudits are merited on this and countless other performances. Comfortable, almost innately, on a larger stage, (for the most… Matt’s nosedive was out of kilter/wincingly-painful) they’re a pull factor on any bill and this will be true for many years hence.
Lite are also astounding on this, the first time I’ve been able to see them live, although it’s more a glimmer given the swell inside the tent. They live up to any pedestales I dare to build beforehand, and I’m left grinning like a goon at the thought afterwards.
There’s a true ace up the sleeve to close as well, this time from the tent dutifully manned by the fine folk at 7bitarcade. Their bill was watertight over the course of the weekend, as it happens, and I take no great pride in confessing that many of the excellent bands I did manage to see were at the expense of the excellence on the PX3.
That said, Shiver had been circled on my battered timetable well in advance of this hour, firm as I am in the belief that Chris Sharkey is one of the greatest guitarists of a generation. Tonight he (and his trio) is effortless and invigorating in perfectly equalled measures, the soundscapes he creates for the most seemingly impossible. It’s a wonderful celebration of all that is right with our music scene at the moment, the essence of the weekend perfectly distilled in everlasting notes: a salute to the people. Echoes of Truck.
It’s taken me almost two months to get over the blues and write this account, but what to say? I could/should wax lyrical about what Arctangent has created in two short years, a formula laced with primes: visionary music, unique and indelible moments, the farmer who would rather sell his produce to attendees than acquiesce to Tesco (his own words), the complete lack of ego from anyone, anywhere, the togetherness, the sustainability (the first we were told on arrival was ‘your car is full, you park for free’), the distortion, the disco, the lambs in the adjacent field, the mud, the merch, the drive in… but I won’t.
I’ll simply share a smile when I see you next year.