Hard to imagine a utopia that sells hot cheese and ham croquettes from street vending machines, but the Dutch town of Tilburg is, at least for the week of the strange and brilliant Incubate festival, a small slice of paradise. Cars and litter seem to have been replaced by fleets of gorgeous young people on bikes. Helpful signposts point the way to the Tilburg equivalent of Clwb Ifor Bach. There is an AC/DC pinball machine inside one venue. From the locals comes an almost unnerving warmth and inclusivity; indeed, one of the first things we see after arriving late on Thursday night is three festival organisers fighting through the packed crowd for Ben Butler & Mousepad to start an onstage freaky dancing session. The sheer range of stuff that takes over the town threatens to overwhelm – do you watch a doom metal band or an artwork being demolished and fed to pigs? Wander through a warehouse of student sculpture and endurance karaoke performance art or see Tipper Irie? There are short films about zombies and 2 Live Crew, panel discussions that mention the best avant-garde music to work out to, Damo Suzuki playing with 15 different people each night and Simon Reynolds’s curmudgeonly face everywhere. ‘Weird and fun’ is the dominant ethos, and on fine Belgian beer too. I want everyone to go next year.
After being asked to vote in a poll on the effects of capitalism before watching a crap Mojo hack try and interview Mr Suzuki, it’s a rare outing from UK noise creeps Nurse With Wound that cracks open the live music. Within the main hall of the lovely 013 venue (think the Arnolfini with a couple more music spaces Russian Doll-ed inside), what begins with low, scraped drones eventually morphs into throbbing, pounding voodoo sounds, a jazz singer scat wailing over tribal drumscapes. It’s great, but this is a festival so it’s interspersed with five songs from a ’round-the-corner Virals, Shaun Hencher’s post-Lovvers band flexing their bubblegum pop-punk muscles with cartoon brilliance. Black Dice‘s nasty dance thump precedes Netherlands Discovery #1: Cactus Truck play free jazz skronk just as it should be – sexy, inhuman noise with puce-faced intensity. Even pared to just sax and drums (their guitarist “has diarrhoea”), in a 10% full gentleman’s club, it’s a brainfucking, veinbusting delight.
Past middle-aged goths lining up for middle-aged goth band Fields Of The Nephilim, Gnod are playing at Extase (think the Cooler with the walls closing in). Heroically damaged space rock ensues. Skipping out on Chris & Cosey‘s set of distorted cornet and techno abuse to see Busdriver feels kinda weird, but his tongue-mangling backpack hip-hop gets even better once he starts rambling about Obamacare and the British sense of sarcasm (audience member: “But they are boring!”). Wandering aimlessly brings local indie in tiny rooms, Bollywood-esque trip-hop, and finally a decidedly non-local set from shellac champ Frank Fairfield. Songs that are one or two hundred years old get sung by a quiet man with a moustache who plays fiddle, stomps the floor and looks like Will Ferrell method acting a new comedy role. Folk/blues relics brought back to life and a crowd collectively shushing everyone else. Magical.
Change the ‘s’ to a ‘t’ and you have a puerile weekend joke, but Fanny Alofs’ lunchtime, er, slot is another gold star on Incubate’s wide open marksheet. A soprano singer and actress, in a semi-deserted out of town hall she addresses the spartan audience (in Dutch) then gently lets rip her vocals over a little looped laptop murmur. Goosebumps, and the fact it immediately precedes the icy post-punk of VÅR (back at 013’s smallest space) warms the ventricles further. VÅR are brilliant: part of the fertile Danish grumpscene that most notably produced Iceage, this lot are high on seismic bass gloom, dry ice and extreme moodiness (they finish one song with 30 seconds of fade out, each member standing still, arms crossed, not touching any instrument). They look like young fascists and singer Elias Bender Rønnenfelt (also of Iceage) is possibly the most beautiful person in the world. No wonder he looks so mardy.
After a cold shower, some tranquil acoustic breathiness from Twinsistermoon (one half of terrific droners Natural Snow Buildings; this time less good alas), some further Danish snarling (Lower; better on record), some rhapsodic piano tinkling we can’t fucking get into (Greg Haines; sounds good from outside), then NL Discovery #2. Die Jungen is, essentially, a small shaggy-haired child mumbling and playing guitar over a laptop tuned to YouTube hits of the ’60s, but in the small Cafe De Plaats pub, with a landlord’s dog meandering around the crowd’s legs, it’s an uber-endearing treat. More innocent and sun-dappled than Animal Collective, shyer than Best Coast, Klaus Von Barrel’s schoolboy dreaming is happy brain balm, so lovely the dog actually, literally wanders onstage and drops his ball at the singer’s feet post-set.
Back at the Pauluskerk church (think a church), Dead Rat Orchestra crank it up a notch over ‘spellbinding’ with their wyrd folk acapella hollering, while Cul De Sac (Mothers Ruin but downstairs not up) sees Charles Hayward of bloody This Heat offer some sterling Trans Am drumming, before Iceage strop it out some more at 013. Matt Elliott has more dignity in his weathered Spanish guitar and loop pedal whirlwind than a million Gurkhas. But Maria And The Mirrors… ‘Slight’ technical problems (one member eventually ends up crying onstage) give a rubbernecking thrill to proceedings, but it’s still like touching a live wire: tape squall, dual drumming, banshee screams, no contest. A great band. Ditching Yann Tiersen‘s chocolate box beauty when it gets (only a tad) Coldplay-ish, upstairs has Pink Sock (their programme entry is a treat: after a long definition of the derivation of their (NSFW) band name it simply says “Yeah, it’s a noise band”) and a table of food and drink set up in the crowd. The Dutch two-piece eventually play basic bleepy thunkcore, but the 20 minutes where they offer the bunched-round audience wine, dates and pickled herring are the weekend’s most fun.
Thread Pulls, with their spartan drums-and-trumpet post-punk awkwardness, make a case for being Ireland’s Gindrinker. Maybe every country has one. There’s still time for further bleak and invigorating blasts of jazz (Evans/Fernandez/Gustafsson; off the map) and noise (Con-Dom; very angry and bald) before it’s Mogwai time, and the long-standing post-rock band’s current incarnation as the kind of dependable festival headliner they never looked like becoming. For all their incremental layers of polish though, Mogwai can still amble into nicely unexpected ear-bashing territory, and walking in to the opening riff of ‘2 Rights Make 1 Wrong’ is an undeniable spine tingle.
No fatigue, ever. To the Tilburg equivalent of Rise Records, via a fuel pitstop and the unique charms of ‘Warm Dutch Food Selection’, for an instore by Heinz Karlhausen & The Diatonics, more fizzing jazz strangeness that shows the Dutch rule the skronkwaves if not the culinary ones. Keep an eye open: a 2013 KH&D UK tour is planned with unbelievably loud Portuguese psych hounds Sunflare. Silver Apples are a black polo neck-clad lesson in how to remain spangly cool at 70-odd; Simeon Coxe’s gently propulsive, homemade space noodling all the better being issued from what looks like a tinfoil baddie’s lair. Run quickly and you can also catch Black To Comm‘s live soundtrack to Ho Tzu Nyen’s spooked out film Earth, a near perfect marriage of sound and vision, all slow pans, weird hums and unnerving close-ups. I’m with the people lying on the floor, grinning.
No stand up comedy this year, though Mark Sultan gives it a go sitting down. The ex-King Khan & BBQ Show one man band wrings belly laughs and dance moves from a seeming nervous condition that sees six or seven Jay Reatard-via-Little Richard songs get played with no pause, other than to ask for more drugs. Hot! Amen Dunes are about 75% more ponderous live than on record so fate’s gammy finger ends up pointing to the last 10 minutes of Gul Night Out‘s set, and NL Discovery, I dunno, #12. A six foot goblin wanders into the crowd, waving a sheet over his head. A pretty audience member puts it over her head and dances like a ghost. The music is like that made by Bill and Ted and the princesses at the end of Excellent Adventure. As the one-chord plink plonk shambles ends, yer sheet-less man starts monotonously shouting “Pretty Woman! Pretty Woman! Pretty Woman! Pretty Woman!” as the worried band attempt a rudimentary version of the Roy Orbison classic. What was the rest of their set like?
Quicker, towards the end. Reigning Sound‘s Wilco-style boogie is notable only for featuring a guitarist who will later walk into the Buzzcocks set, give band and crowd a look of utter bewilderment and disgust, then leave. Watching the Kumbia Queers‘ set of radical queer cumbia party punk, topped with a version of Black Sabbath’s ‘Iron Man’, makes me want to empty my bank account and give it to the festival organisers. The Men‘s thrashy garage hurricane is weighty and fun, even in the concentrated BO section of the crowd. The bared teeth and pregnant meaning of Evangelista and their pain rock eventually repays the effort required but more enjoyable is crashing the Telescopes‘ party, all whirling spotlights and feedback-edged guitar crash.
What kind of festival lets you mention Laibach, Japandroids and Expo’70 only in passing? Incubate’s closing one-two knocks the ball far out of the stadium. Dead Neanderthals‘ looped baritone sax drone feels like an ocean liner ploughing through your brain, only with massive halogen lights in your face and a drummer maniacally thrashing his kit. These are good things! But not as good as Buzzcocks, who couldn’t make the crowd happier if they sprayed fifty Euro notes at them. If you don’t like Buzzcocks, you have a shrunken effigy of Michael Gove for a heart. After 35 years they still don’t have enough killer material to fill an hour’s set but when the singles come, they push the grinning mosh pit into some frenzied singularity of happiness, all stray limbs, pint pots and random Kumbia Queers members sneaking joints. As ‘Orgasm Addict’ boils over, you could make some tenuous case for the whole festival, every avant noise headfuck band, reaching its concentrated essence in a podgy Mancunian shouting “You’re always at it!”. Or you could just stand there, smiling. This is the best festival ever. Thanks Incubate. Hope you’re always at it.