A Roadburner’s Dialogue, Part 3 : What is Roadburn ?

Alex : Elia and myself tend to talk a lot and, as you might have noticed, it doesn’t get any shorter on paper. When we started this little writing / talking experiment we went on for days about visible, tangible differentiating aspects of Roadburn : fostering community for attendees, provide space for the underground artists to mature, commission exclusive sets and supergroups.

While all these are crucial to why Roadburn works, we eluded one important part of the story so far. Many aspects we touched on before can be observed from the outside – or your annoying Roadburner friend could have told you about them already.

We now need to tell you what one cannot derive from these observables : what does Roadburn mean to us ? What do we find in there personally that makes it stand apart from all the other festivals we’ve been ?

Roadburn as Moments

My answer lies in the many extra-musical dimensions of memories I have from the Under the Surface and White Boy Scream jam. Or from David Eugene Edward’s magic on the mainstage for instance. Vibing off to the great man himself was a joy on its own for me but how, where, and most importantly with whom I got to enjoy his performance sealed more than “just the music” for me.

This kind of moment is what Roadburn is all about for me. I didn’t experience Roadburn as the roller-coaster of hype, the cliché of “bucket list concerts” and “dreams come true” gibberish that poorly aligned observers imagine it is ; for me, in a more concrete and simpler way, Roadburn is Moments.

Moments provoked or received, at the intersection of gigs, places, and the people you connect with. A collection of time capsules made of surprises, excitement, promises fulfilled, new encounters or feeling safe with old friends. Moments where you can just be who you are and express yourself openly. And all of it flows naturally so at the end, you feel like you’ve experienced three full weeks in just four days.

The alchemy of Roadburn, off the stages. Picture by Peter Troest

Maybe it’s because Roadburn is distributed across a midsized city center, less homogeneous than a bigass country field festival, allowing for more natural and varied atmospheres.

Maybe it’s due to the high number of degrees of freedom to move around, tag along or stumble across different friends at different times of the day, or maybe it’s a consequence of the curious and sharing nature of seemingly everyone in this community. Maybe a bit of all that. The alchemy of Roadburn !

Damn, here I am being culty and sentimental again.

Roadburn as Contrasts

Elia: For me, contrast is what lies at the core of what makes Roadburn such an unique experience. The tight schedule and vast range of sounds put you in the position to observe such different acts in close proximity: one minute you’ll be in a small room nodding to dirgeful Doom Metal, the next you’ll find yourself immersed in the neon lights of some strange synthwave/hardcore hybrid. In this way, the shows feed into each other, the feeling of one will carry into another and modify your perception of both.

I have a story which I’ve told many times because it fully exemplifies what I mean: back in 2018, I went to see Godflesh at the Main Stage. They played Selfless in full: 90 minutes of sheer punishment, the sound of cybernetic crawlers grinding an infinite amount of human skulls under the cover of thick smoke and blue lights. It was a purely dehumanizing experience. Right after that, I sprinted out to go catch Igorrr at Koepelhal but, having a few minutes to spare, I decided to pop my head into the ever-missed Patronaat venue. This once was the beating heart of Roadburn, a magical place – formerly a prayer room – which hosted so many transcendent performances over the years, until your usual corporate bullshit took it away from us after the 2019 edition.

What I found there was Sangre de Muérdago. In a room made of wood and stone, they were playing this gorgeous galician folk, embraced by comforting orange lights. In just five minutes I had gone from a Ludovico Technique vision of an antihuman future, to the warmth of a campfire. What I had just seen gave new meaning to what I was seeing now, and this made for a genuinely ecstatic moment.

Sangre de Muerdago @ Roadburn 2023. Photo by Guus van der Aa

This game of contrasts is exactly what makes Roadburn the ultimate music experience for me. I like my Metal fests dearly – the Gods know how happy I was last year at Cosmic Void, a veritable 48 hours orgy of nonstop Black Metal – but this is what my mind actually sounds like: a glitter-and-vomit swamp in which Duran Duran and Archgoat hop hand in hand.

Roadburn : the TRVE face of Metal ?

E: I would like to stress at this point that yes, Roadburn is still a Metal festival. Or, at least, it’s a multi-faceted event in which you can very easily make your own all-riffs & brass knuckles adventure. Any word to the contrary one might have heard is misleading at least. Do you agree? Or am I holding on to a reality which might be slipping away?

A: No, you’re right, Roadburn is still very much a Metal festival in at least two ways : first, most of the bands on the bill are Metal, or owe a visible part of their identity to Metal (thinking about BACKxWASH, Soul Glo or Duma) and it’s totally possible to go for a full Metal run and headbang your way across – almost – the whole event. My tired old fart’s neck could not handle it any more, but I know of some zoomer allegedly blasting it off for 4 days straight in front of Spirit Possession, Wayfarer, Ad Nauseam, Imperial Triumphant, and so on.

Second, Roadburn is known and talked about within the overall spheres of Metal festivals, and even with all the yearning for new and offroad stuff and the diversity (and inventing twelve new genders a day of course), Roadburn mostly attracts a crowd of Metalheads.

At the very least, that’s how I like to think of it because it means that Metal as a community – whatever that means – can evolve beyond the boys club dynamic somehow. As whether this reality is slipping away or not… Obviously I am not one of the two people on this Earth who could give a definitive answer 😉

I can, however, go for an educated guess ; Roadburn was originally a Stoner and Heavy Psych festival. It’s obviously much more varied now and this has not been a brutal transition but a steady evolution process. And yet a big part of the lineup still has to do with some form of heavy psychedelia ; not a Stoner festival any more, but still very much about explorations of the mind through music, in a broader and more modern sense.

Walter and Becky made it very clear that they would go on with pushing the boundaries and programming acts beyond the spectrum in the upcoming years. So, will strictly Metal acts become one day a minority in a Roadburn lineup ? Possible. Will the artistic core of the Roadburn experience ever cease to owe anything to Metallic resonances ? I don’t think so.

E: Much has been made of the festival’s new ethos, “Redefining Heaviness”, which entails an incorporation of electronic or folk acts into the lineup, alongside singer-songwriters, rappers and what you could call World Music entities such as Jerusalem In My Heart. This could be seen as a dilution of the Metal essence, but haven’t these kinds of artists always resonated with metalheads? How many heshers have Joy Division in their collection? Or Talking Heads, Kraftwerk, Bjork, Nick Drake, or perhaps Wu-Tang Clan and Boards of Canada? I’ll wager a guess: loads of them. There is a darkness at the heart of so much great music, indeed a heaviness, that naturally tickles the imagination of any disciple of the riff. And so, if we can listen to Townes Van Zandt at home, why shouldn’t we also invoke him onstage, between all the sturm und drang?

All of this simply leads to a fuller understanding of Metal, which is not just a kind of music, but also a prism through which everything can be observed, an aesthetic. Hieronymous Bosch is Metal, rhinoceroses are Metal, Castlevania is Metal and so is all music that creeps up from the seas of negativity. Roadburn puts on stage the logic that lead Ulver to turn into an acoustic folk band and then into Depeche Mode, that made Enslaved’s sound start dripping with Pink Floyd, that melted Beherit into an ambient nightmare. Heavy Metal was created to annihilate conventions, not to enforce them – it’s evolutional by design, conservativism being the one true perversion of its nature.

Case in point ; Hieronymous Bosch is pretty fucking metal.

In much the same way, the crowds at Roadburn display a fuller representation of Metal listeners than what you’d see at most similar events. This leads me back to the matter of inclusivity, which might not even be the right word for it. As I’ve said before, Metal is quintessential outsider music, a natural haven for the non-conforming in which artists and fans have played with societal, political and gender norms since the very beginning. And yet, Roadburn is the only event at which I’ve seen such an open, visible queer presence within the standard black jeans/black shirt hordes, and that feels like the most natural thing in the world to me. Without wanting to give in to stereotypes, isn’t it logical that there would be such a presence within our world of daring imaginations, arcane art and grandeur?

I truly feel that what we see in Tilburg is the true, full face of the Metal scene (with one obvious caveat, of course: you won’t find nazis there), which is why I think of this not as a matter of inclusivity, but rather visibility.

A: I love how we went on such lengths on the artistic and social openness, the organic diversity and representation of Roadburn to circle down to this conclusion : precisely because of all these, Roadburn is the TRVEST of all Metal festivals. Most Metalheads just don’t see it yet 😎

E: To be fair, this might be me showing my provincial ass: I’m a small town boy, even though my usual haunts for Metal shows are Milan and Turin, but even there or in cities like Copenhagen I’ve always found the crowds wanting on that front.

A: Well, as a metropolis dweller, I have the same feeling. Visibility of queer, neurodivergent, or any kind of “non-conforming” metalheads is, I feel, still undermined in common Metal spaces. The bigger metalhead bars in Paris are still largely occupied by the most typical people (able-bodied etc) and while I go see heavy music gigs in places where visibly queer people seem at home more often than not, the openly LGBTQi+-driven Metal events are held in the smallest venues and I am always struck to witness how many people attend these, that I never encounter in more mainstream spaces.

But of course my outlook is one of a white cishet dude in his mid-30s. I do share your intuition that Roadburn presents a more realistic face of today’s Metal audiences, but I cannot claim to have an accurate vision of minoritized people’s visibility in Metal spaces.

So I’ll defer to the words of Ashanti Mutinta (BACKxWASH) ; she not only delivered two of the most crushing and impressive gigs of the 2023 edition – seriously, that was SO FUCKING DOPE – but she also had a very heartfelt and simple take at the Queer Visibility discussion panel on day 2 : “At Roadburn you just walk around and you can notice that hey, there’s queer people like me, in the open and it’s the most natural thing to anyone here. Roadburn is a safe space.”

(nb : maybe not her exact words, I took that from memory. And of course that’s not to say Ashanti holds the only LGTBQi+ experience at Roadburn, but at least her perspective is far more relevant than my own)

BACKxWASH at Roadburn 2023 – picture by Peter Troest

E: There’s a recurring joke about how Metalheads all look the same. Well, Roadburn raises the question that… Maybe we don’t? Heavy Metal is a fantastically diverse ecosystem which saw Mötley Crüe and Portal sprout from the same root: it stands to reason that its humanoid inhabitants would be just as varied.

This festival is a dream planet where everybody can fully be themselves in the haze of pulverising distortion. So, there it is: the music is weird, diverse but always impossibly heavy. The people come in every imaginable shape and colour, and all bring the best vibes. There’s blastbeats aplenty, and you’ll hear more ÖUGHs than you could ever dream. What more could you possibly want out of a festival?

A few nights in Tilburg that we always hope will never end. Photo by Peter Troest


We’d like to give a special warm thanks to Peter Troest for kindly providing us with HQ versions of his sublime photos. Peter is one of Roadburn’s recurring official photographers, and is behind some of the most striking shots of this year’s edition, like the stunning BACKxWASH portrait used as the banner image for this third post. His generosity is yet another proof of the bond that exists between members of the Roadburn community. Go check out his stunning works here.

A huge thanks to Becky Laverty for allowing us to use the official Roadburn 2023 visuals. For any non-Roadburner who read us so far, Becky is the second half of the beating heart of Roadburn – along with Roadburn’s creator Walter Hoeijmakers. Becky is in charge of all PR and communication for Roadburn, community management, side-programme, and as part of the booking team, has brought to life some of the most memorable moments of recent editions, like Litvrgy, Lingua Ignota, Elizabeth Colour Wheel, or emma Ruth Rundle performing Engine of Hell at Roadburn 2022. If at this point you’re still wondering why Roadburners can grow such a personal relationship to the festival, subscribe to Becky’s Substack to get an idea of the kind of personality behind Roadburn’s artistic and practical choices.

The official Roadburn 2023 visual used for the banner of post 1 of this retrospective is the work of William Lacalmontie. William is a photographer and visual artist whose works include fantastic sets of portraits of artists who perform at Roadburn. Discover these portraits here.
William Lacalmontie is also an amazing musician with projects as varied as Throane (Black Metal FFO Blut Aus Nord), Ovtrenoir (Post-Metal), and recently Serpent-Peste (Dark Ambient).

All photos used for these 3 posts are the works of Roadburn official photographers. All credits due under each photo, huge thanks to Niels Vinck, Paul Verhagen and Guus van der Aa for creating these superb pictures and giving the Roadburn community its visual memory.

Read more :

A Roadburner’s dialogue, Part 1 : the sense of Community

Six months after the latest Roadburn edition, Elia and Alex take on a reflection about why this festival stands out among all others.

A Roadburner’s dialogue, Part 2 : What are you seeing today ?

« So… What’s your plan for today ? »