On the last day of Roadburn 2018, swaying under the nub of what once could pass as a brain, I queued to see Hell perform their self-titled album of extreme funeral doom in a deconsecrated church. It proved to be, like the album itself, an audio-visual evocation of the band’s namesake, a 50-minute journey through the gates and into the burning rivers, past death and into torment, forced by demons to the right of the terrible triptych, etc, etc, etc. As the hour struck and we heard the first muffled chords escape through stained glass windows, there was a sudden change in pressure; wind swept through the alley, dark clouds appeared above us and, for the first time in the weeklong heatwave, it started to rain. We stood in wait; a legion of damp denim, communally overjoyed by the unholy invocation: Hell had brought the rain!
Sharing the line-up with Hell, along with countless others, was fellow funeral doom band Bell Witch, performing in full their 83-minute, single track, impossibly dark opus, Mirror Reaper. Closing out Saturday night, on the stroke of midnight, was the hate-filled, pitch-black metal of Occvlta. Over on the main stage was Converge doing two sets of rage fuelled metalcore; the sonic violence of Waste Of Space Orchestra; the tortured drone-fest of Boris with Stephen O’Malley — countless hours of personally curated, soul crushing heaviness. Four thousand attendees had spent hundreds of pounds, taken time off work, and gone through the usual festival drudgery of tents and trains, all to wait in line for something so explicitly miserable. It’s entertainment, but for entertainment, it’s pretty fucking gloomy.
Mad dogs and metal heads, surely.
But just two days later, mentally detoxing an hour or so north in Amsterdam, I came across an altogether more macabre queue, this time consisting of no single demographic, and not a single battle jacket. Young families and old couples, gap year groups and lone middle-aged travellers lined up politely and waited their turn to take snaps with the front door of the Anne Frank house. It was the usual selfie routine: normal conversation; sudden smile or pout; drop the smile; check the picture; a comment; a giggle; a glance of agreement; on with the day, back on the bike, to the bar across the canal, to the coffeeshop down the road.
Taking happy selfies with Anne Frank’s front door could be a sign of many things: antisemitism; misanthropy; a total ignorance of world history; an ambivalence to suffering; the degradation of that monument to nothing more than a tourist spot, blinding holiday-(album)-makers of its true significance, making it to them what the 60103 is to trainspotters. But, while obviously in shockingly bad taste, I think there’s something more complex going on, something more repressed. The selfies are a nervous response to the sombre respect commanded by the suffering that lives in the wood and bricks of that house, by the darkness that they have all travelled, in some way, to connect with.
I’m not claiming that visiting the Anne Frank house — or misery tourism in general — is the same as attending Roadburn — or listening to heavy music in general — but I do think they share a consistent underlying drive; a drive to be close to darkness, to try and understand misery, to exercise and exorcise unwanted parts of ourselves. It’s a counterintuitive will to death that we hope will reinvigorate our will to live.
The difference is that, at Roadburn, this drive is made explicit and treated with reverence. When the lights went down for Bell Witch, the hundreds in attendance became still and silent for the duration of the monumental piece. There was no applause during the silent sections that could be mistaken for song breaks. Not one person called out until the end. Shuffling out of the venue felt like leaving church, the conversation slowly picking up from stunned mono-syllables to light hearted joking, and by the time the congregation had moved to the sunny outdoor bar, there was a palpable sensation of lifted spirits.
Perhaps generously, I believe the Anne-Frank-selfie-takers were looking, at least subconsciously, for a similar experience. But the desire was repressed. Unwilling to express sadness — why would we? we’re on holiday, let’s have fun — their empathetic energy gets twisted into the truly dark exercise of immortalising the moment they posed smiling in front of a symbol of the purest historic evil. Because the desire was repressed, it could never be satisfied, and what should have been profound became an empty, uncomfortable and disrespectful experience. Roadburn, and the lower-case dark arts at large, can go at least some way to alleviating this repression.
So my advice to tourists everywhere is to take a break from smiling and laugh later on; hail Satan for the weekend and be happy for the week; listen to Bell Witch and, for fuck’s sake, don’t take a selfie in front of the Anne Frank house.