With the line-up now complete, the countdown is now most assuredly on for the 15th iteration of Dunk! Festival, occurring between Thursday 30th May- Saturday 1st June, in the splendid rolling fields of East Flanders, in Belgium. I’m glad it’s a bit later in the year this time around- those early May mornings were a tad chilly when camping out, for an old campaigner like me.
Temperature grumbles aside, having been fortunate enough to attend the last 2 editions of the festival, I can say without hesitation that on both occasions it has been by far and away the greatest festival experience of my lifetime. I cannot honestly see how I will be able to cope with the prospect of not going in any year between now and either its demise, or mine.
As you would expect from someone writing reviews about post rock records, the willingness and ability of Dunk! to attract and book the biggest names in the genre had seen me looking on from the UK with increasingly envious eyes and ears (resisting joke about Brexit) until, in 2017, enough was enough, and I travelled to Zottegem for the first time.
I was absolutely floored. The warmth of the welcome from the organisers and helpers, the home-cooked food, the legions of like-minded, passionate post rockers from all over the world, the spotlessly clean toilets and showers. I have never been to a festival where I was ready for another day, another week, another month, but that is how Dunk! made me feel. Ecstatic. And I’ve not even mentioned the stage set-up yet.
For a festival of relatively intimate size, the main stage, housed in an all-encompassing circus-style tent, is, quite frankly, awesome. It is like stepping into your favourite 800-1000 capacity indoor venue, with a hugely impressive sound system and lighting rig, befitting an event 50 times larger. And you can get served at the bar, instantly, all the time.
One of the first bands I saw play in there were Parisians Lost In Kiev. Normally, because there is no musical justice, bands like these would often be playing in front of 30-40 people in the back room of a pub. And yet, here they were, finally in an environment and on a stage their majestic music has always demanded, and they were truly mesmerising.
And then there is the other relative newcomer that is the Forest Stage. Dunk! had dabbled with a few events out in the forest over the years of the festival, with Kokomo playing an impromptu set amongst the trees in 2016, for example. But it was only last year that it became the fully-fledged location for the second stage. And, my word, what a location. I Am Wolves, Astodan, Jo Quail, Telepathy and aswekeepsearching, amongst many others, all played spellbinding sets, either in hazy, dappled sunlight, or, perfectly in Telepathy’s case, in the pitch black.
The headliners for this year’s event have prompted much debate. While Blackgaze legends Alcest will undoubtedly bring proceedings to a spectacular main stage conclusion on Saturday night, the other two picks are much less obvious. Italian doomers Ufomammut have played the festival before, in 2014, and will be celebrating their 20th anniversary in some style by being kings for the day at Dunk! Efrim Manuel Menuck will need no introduction to the clear majority of festival attendees, as the founder of both Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Silver Mt. Zion. And this reverential status has propelled his new Drone venture with Growing multi-instrumentalist Kevin Doria to the top of the Dunk! schedule.
It is this lack of a huge ‘scene’ band headlining (it was always going to be difficult to top Caspian, The Ocean and Russian Circles from last year) that has fuelled abundant discussion. For me, there is so much quality throughout the rest of the line-up that it is largely irrelevant. Of the artists I am familiar with, I shall not be sacrificing for food any of the following; Kokomo, A Swarm Of The Sun, This Patch Of Sky, Bossk, Her Name Is Calla, Celestial Wolves, Wang Wen, Zhaoze, Malammar, Pillars, Coastlands… fuck it, I’m packing sandwiches and doing the lot!
The Sun Burns Bright- Longing For A Place, Yet To Be Seen (Released 24/1/19 via Bandcamp)
If you had a burning desire to make epic, cinematic instrumental rock music, I would argue that Vancouver, Washington State, would be a better place to do it than Birmingham, United Kingdom. Whether this was what motivated Chris Garr to swap the West Midlands for North West America I do not know, but for making this genre of music it would certainly make sense to swap land-locked industrial heartland for the Columbia river and the Oregon Coast mountain range. But based on the title of his latest release, maybe he still hasn’t found what he’s looking for?
Garr’s work as The Sun Burns Bright has seen him release 2 full albums in just less than 12 months, with Longing For A Place, Yet To Be Seen following last January’s Through Dusk, Came The Light. As with his debut, Garr again enlisted the help of local band Coastlands in terms of both accompaniment and production, while also this time around calling on members of Long Hallways for bass and cello duties.
The result is an unashamedly elegant and entirely pleasant-sounding post rock record. It is certainly not breaking any new ground, with an ambient ‘Prelude’ being proceeded by seven quite similar pieces. ‘Arms Unfurled, Embrace the Change’ and ‘Healing In The Trees’ are the highlights- the former swelling gradually, breaking down expertly and then hitting overdrive sweetly, while the introduction of a second, pedal-ravaged guitar in the latter makes such a difference in the track’s, um, ability to climax. And the cello work in tracks such as ‘Beauty Moves Mountains’ provides baleful impact.
But there is a distinct lack of variety on the record, especially in the pedals used, and most of the crescendos arrive suddenly, almost entirely without build and that vital sense of anticipation. It is undeniably lovely and will find much favour with fans of recent works by Old Solar and Lights And Motion, but those transitions into sonic revelry often seem like they are there because they are expected to be, rather than as a natural culmination of all that has gone before.
Somn- The All-Devouring (Released 27/1/19 via Elusive Sound)
Anyone familiar with the work of St Petersburg bands Show Me A Dinosaur and Trna will know what to expect from an act featuring members of both. Somn specialise in ferocious, blackened post metal, with a debut album named The All-Devouring providing the uninitiated a helpful clue as to what may be contained therein.
The four-track album carries a concept of sorts, briefly summarised as the potential horror we are capable of ‘acting out’ in our dreams. Opener ‘Sightless’ has a stunning, foreboding two-minute introduction, which sets the scene brilliantly for what is to follow. That is an intense, visceral onslaught, with furious blast beats, shredded guitars and manically screamed, anguished vocals.
The tracks are segued into one another, unsurprisingly, which maintains the dark, unrelenting atmosphere very effectively, and keeps you locked into the record’s labyrinth of late-night illusions.
The crushing, at times overwhelming pace and fire importantly relents on occasion, and here Somn show an altogether different side to them, with gorgeous minor chord progressions plucked from the depths, and providing moments of genuine, stop-you-in-your-tracks sonic reverie that black metal is known and loved for. This towering beauty versus colossal beast contrast is hugely compelling and gives The All-Devouring a similar expansive scope to Trna’s astonishing Earthcult from last year.
Long Hallways- Close Your Eyes To Travel (Released 29/1/19 via Bandcamp)
January was a busy release month for Joseph Chamberlain and Myles Eberlein of Portland, Oregon’s Long Hallways. Not content with seeing The Sun Burns Bright record they had guested on (upright bass and cello, respectively) appear five days earlier, their permanent band’s 3rd album Close Your Eyes To Travel also hit Bandcamp for general consumption.
Although Long Hallways’ sound is rooted in traditional post rock stylings, they also veer very far from here, with certain tracks and elements having much more in common with jazz, progressive and experimental rock. Although you wouldn’t necessarily predict that after the swirling majesty of opener ‘The Only Way Out Is Through’, which, in much the same way as Whale Fall or Overhead, The Albatross, achieves elevated sonic splendour with strings and brass, rather than the usual guitar maelstrom. While ‘After The Fall’ has glistening chords and a gathering riff before breaking into more unusual areas, with wandering violins and keys.
Found elsewhere is a veritable cornucopia of ideas and styles, ranging from the progressive jazz of ‘January’, to the whispering electronics and gloomy idiosyncrasies of ‘Under A Dark Planet’ (which calls to mind Bauhaus at their freakish, skeletal best), to the glam rock twinkle of ‘On Other Shores’, which sounds like the theme tune to a 1970s tv game show!
Long Hallways return to first base somewhat with the strident, bygone keys of ‘The Tightrope’, which wouldn’t have sounded out of place on the Atomic soundtrack by Mogwai, and the closing, relatively becalmed ‘Swimming Uphill’.
The only contemporary band I can think of who can throw this many ingredients together and make it tasty is Toronto collective Do Make Say Think. It is a hugely ambitious and original work, and its title couldn’t be more telling as to its scope, and the need to give it time and space to take you.
JUSEPH- Oreida (Released 2/2/19 via Wooaargh)
Hailing from the Portuguese town of Vale de Combra, which looks about an hour’s drive South East from Porto, JUSEPH, a five-piece progressive post metal band, have followed up their debut album from 2013 with Oreida.
Name-dropping the likes of ISIS, Pelican and Russian Circles in their biography provides a certain indication of their sound, but JUSEPH have a sludgy, more playfully progressive side to them than any of these bands.
This is no more ably evidenced than in the opening ‘Heavy Sea’. It positively explodes out of the speakers, with a deep, crystal clear low end to swim around in, and some properly filthy riffs over the top. As the track progresses, however, the band display a playfulness in rhythm and experimentation in style not too dissimilar to long-standing fellow Portuguese Toundra.
‘Laki’ is one of the highlights, as it tantalises with clever, weaving interplay between the guitars, and a significant, doom-laden accompaniment. I found myself willing for it to explode into top gear, but JUSEPH again do not play the obvious card, and are far more interesting as a result. While the under four minute ‘Renewal’ does the opposite, with a sheer wall of reverberating, sparkling guitars and dense atmosphere from the outset.
Certainly a record full of promise and a band in JUSEPH willing to explore a musical landscape beyond the sum of their relatively obvious influences.
AUTISM- Have You Found Peace? (Released 4/2/19 via St. Ripper Records)
I have an obvious problem with the name of this band, who hail from the Lithuanian capital Vilnius, and as such I contemplated not including the record in this round-up. But having not asked the band directly why they have chosen such a questionable moniker, and not been able to find any related back story that might reveal its relevance, I am going to give them the benefit of the doubt, for now.
Have You Found Peace? is another post metal concept album (they seem all the rage currently), which tells the disturbing tale of a serious car accident, and the lifelong impact on the two teenage boys involved.
This is the fourth record by this artist, and following an instrumental debut album, they introduced the story-telling element to their music on 2013’s The Crawling Chaos. This time around, in addition to a whole host of guest musicians, the four-piece band also enlisted the help of ROSK frontman Krzysztof Traczyk, who communicates the unfolding horror through spoken-word passages and occasional clean and growled vocals.
Musically, amid much ambient droning and eerie, unsettling passages, AUTISM possess a similar gothic evocation in their arrangements to Amenra, with colossal, desolate riffs dragging you helplessly into the depths of despair, as you fall awestruck by the devastating chaotic beauty of it all.
Opening double salvo ‘No Word’ and ‘Tremorous Luminance’ are particularly effective in this regard, with both tracks’ climactic points truly thunderous, and benefited hugely by Traczyk’s vocalised scene-setting. Oh, and a very good pair of headphones.
Seeress- The Dream Passes (Released 8/2/19 via Post. Recordings/A Thousand Arms)
Seeress emerged out of Cleveland, Ohio with a debut EP in 2015, and followed it with a couple of additional extended play records since, including the previous and much praised Great Void from a couple of years ago. The Dream Passes is only four tracks again, but at 39 minutes run-time I am going to commit to describing this as the five piece’s debut album!
As you would expect from a work mixed by Kurt Ballou of Converge and mastered by Magnus Lindberg of Cult Of Luna, Seeress’ sound is heavy, expansive and dynamic. After a slow build introduction, the thirteen-minute ‘Death Will Come And It Will Have Your Eyes’ erupts in glorious fashion, and, following a mid-section breakdown, continues to enthrall with a many-headed, multi-layered, joyous screaming climax. One of the best of the year so far, and one that would undoubtedly have me blubbing into my Dunk! beer cup (if only they were playing- maybe next year?).
Elsewhere, Seeress display a captivating ability to veer seamlessly from introspective, melancholic post rock, to raging, passionate instrumental metal, whilst at the same time excelling at both. And the arrival of blissed-out vocals courtesy of fellow Cleveland inhabitant Jenna Fournier of indie rock band NIIGHTS in the closing title track is as delightful as it is surprising, and gives Seeress yet another dimension to their impressive, imposing music.