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Wednesday 9 August 2023

A View From The Back Of The Room: Radar Festival Day 1 (Live Review By Matt Bladen & Tom Bladen)

Radar Festival Day 1, O2 Victoria Warehouse, Manchester

Radar Festival 2023 was much bigger and more impressive affair than it had ever been. Leaving their long term home of Guilford for the bright lights of Manchester. The O2 VIctoria Warehouse was not the initial venue but will now be their home going forward. It's a magnificent space, limited by the O2's choice of drinks and a few technical issues that were either addressed on the weekend or will be for next time. It's pretty much the ideal space to hold a three day festival. So after arriving in Manchester the night before, and having a hotel over the road from the venue. We made our way for Day 1 of Radar 2023.

Friday 28.07.23

Matt: Starting Friday on a bittersweet note, it was the first performance in a long time for Irish proggers Shattered Skies (8), after countless setbacks life threatening medical emergencies and many other issues it was amazing to finally see them back on stage, having seen them on their initial album tour in Bristol's The Gryphon. However this also their final performance ever so it was very emotional for those who had followed the band for a while. Playing to a big crowd in the second stage, which meant visibility was a little hard, they played it like it was an arena show before saying their goodbyes to an eager crowd.

Over to the gargantuan mainstage and it was Greek atmospheric prog band Playgrounded (8) who started the day, the first band to really utilise the immense lighting that was throughout the weekend, they took a more Anathema, Katatonia, moody, dark route than the djenty/techy bands on the bill. Casting cinematic melancholy over the crowd, driven by a rhythmic thump and flashes of heaviness. Anyone who knows what sort of music Greek people enjoy will know that Playgrounded are very much it and if you like your prog with a dark heart and a romantic soul then you'll love them

Tom: Forager (8) were up next combining great energy on stage with some great chat. I did find that the bass was a little too loud and that the guitar was a little too low (which seemed to happen a lot on the second stage). Forager are punky, with a aggro vocals mixed with harsh vocal fry, it was interesting to listen too and they got the crowd pitting hard at 2pm. Clearly lovers of movement (though walls of death were banned on the second stage for good reason) there was a huge circle pit on the 2nd to last song which was helped by the lead singer who got in the mist of it. Their songs contained lyrics such as: "Chat shit get banged" and "Catch these hands for free" so you can understand what their performance style is. Good pacing in the set, mainly sticking to fast and aggressive songs with their one slower song Converse mid set to give everyone a breather, Forager were the best way to enforce a break.

Matt: A break in proceedings some food and press bits meant we managed to come back in for Exploring Birdsong (9), their performance instantly mesmerising, as this piano led trio enraptured the main arena filling the huge space with beautiful music and one of the purest voices I've ever heard. Reminding me of Kate Bush, watching them perform is magical, the deft, way the piano, guitar and drums weave into each other meant that actually stood mouth open aghast at their performance. I've slept on this Liverpool band for too long, but now I'll be trying to catch them wherever I can and you should too.

After this though was the brutality of The Five Hundred (7), punishing breakdowns and hammering riffs, screaming vocals and lots of chugging, it was an interesting way to show the duality of this festival as moments of emotional ambience were soon followed by explosions of aggression, The Five Hundred, being a late addition to the bill but a heavy one. Back over to the mainstage and it was more dark, cinematics from A.A Williams (8), who deservedly moved up to the mainstage since 2022, draped in darkness, despite the brilliant light set up, it was brooding music for goths, I was half surprised to see the crowd in the middle of the room not shuffling off to the corners for a smoke. I kid of course as Williams is a noted songwriter and performer and again the festival is all about duality.

Tom: It was Floya (10) though who provided a fantastic breath of fresh air amongst a very heavy line up, ferociously fun and catchy whilst being still complex and technical it was obvious why they were on the bill. They owned the small stage, using the lighting brillaintly, their own logo switching on and off at intervals to accentuate their performance. The production value was really high, I'd love to see what they could create on a larger stage. They also have the music for it, despite their small back catalogue they were greeted as if they were multiple albums in to their career. Very well mixed, vocals clean and balanced, the electronics merging well with the expert guitar work for a 'full' sound. Paced brillaintly, the set flew by. They had the room full from early and deserved all the love they got, phones lighting up the whole room, as they used synchronized efficient German hand waving and plenty of jumping and dancing. I discovered them on the Radar playlist just before the festival and they have been on repeat in my playlists ever since. A wonderful UK debut for a very exciting and unique band.

Matt: With Floya having upped the mood, it was straight into Unprocessed (7) who I was intrigued to see after their most recent album. It was a stark contrast to their first but they have managed to 'heavy up' the songs from it so they fit with their early stuff. As a merely technical display they were amazing, but they add to that a great performance style too. The floaty technical playing merging with the djenty breaks keeping the excitement high. Leading into veterans of post-metal God Is An Astronaut (7), it was again a show of duality as the upbeat nature of Floya and Unprocessed, segued nicely into the often repetitive instrumental flow of GIAA, warpping up the crowd in layers of progressive, shoegazing heaviness, there's a reason for them being so successful as an instrumental band, they draw you in to their sound slowly, building each set up to a fabulous crescendo.

The penultimate band on the mainstage was Haken (9) who again made their return from the previous year. Having been billed as set dedicated to The Mountain, I was expecting a most of the set to come from that record and out of 8 songs four were from the album that broke them. Opening with Taurus from their latest then diving into Atlas Stone, In Memoriam, Cockroach King and Pareidolia, it celebrated the 10th anniversary of this album brilliantly with all the songs still sounding as vital as they did then. Invasion and Prosthetic brought the heaviness of Virus to the Radar mainstage causing some bouncing down the front while the set ended with Sempiternal Beings, a brilliant climax to a perfect return for the band.

Tom: The second stage headliners were my favourite band of the festival, the incredible djent/prog/metal of Monuments (10) came and gave 200% energy from start to finish, as is to be expected. The violence stirred up by the boys made being at the barrier at the 2nd stage for this set the most dangerous place in the festival even compared to the same experience at the front for Periphery on Sunday. It was just that electric and left me with physical brusies. It's not even worth talking about how tight they are anymore. John, Mike and Andy are all complete goats/wizards in their respective crafts. 

This was my first time seeing them live with Werner replacing Swanny, I can see the reasoning. His contemporary style and energy complements the band very well especially the consistent exchanges of flipping the bird with Mr Browne. Andy's involvement with the crowd is always second to none. Climbing the rafters like spiderman, balancing on the guard rail whilst yours truly did their very best to grip his legs and keep him level. Stage diving and more, the man is like the Energizer Bunny. The pace never slowed and the only pauses between songs were for the guys to show their love for the crowd, the scene and the culture around them. And that love was clearly and fully reciprocated by everyone in the room. Give these men a main stage slot, and watch the world burn.

Also after hanging out and chatting to all of the guys besides the illusive John Browne, they are downright wonderful humans and I look forward to seeing them again very soon (hopefully)

Matt: So to the Friday headliner, the reason why there was 90 minute queues at the food trucks, longer queues at the merch stands, and the reason why the Friday day tickets had all but sold out. The phenomenon that is Sleep Token (8) was about ready to preach their sermon to their cult-like fan base. As the dark descended the scream, and it was a scream, rose from the audience as Sleep Token do seem to appeal more to the female metal fan base than the male one, the members of the band taking to the stage as the masked, mysterious frontman Vessel began to preach their musical magic.

Now if I'm honest Sleep Token's music is probably a little light for me, though I liked their last album, they are a heavily pop influenced act, with flashes of heaviness ripe for Radio 1. I'd call them a gateway band, the kind of band that people first latch on to when discovering 'heavy' music. Now I actively encourage this and if they are the starting place for many metalheads to get their first taste of this music then good on them.

For me though behind the arena ready trappings (their OVO Arena show is already sold out), of a killer light show, the presence of a headliner, a presentation crafted to show off all of their assets, added to the masks and theatrically, Sleep Token do actually seem to just play one type of by the numbers songs. Now that song is very welcomed by the rabid fansbase but as an observer with no real attraction either way, it was just one song. Maybe I'm old...there's obviously something to them as they are selling out every show, but they are definitely headline ready, it's just some variation would be nice. (Though I guess AC/DC never needed it).

Friday finished and it was back to hotel for a good night sleep and prep for Day 2.

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