Events, Reviews

RAMfest 2014: Rock and Metal

RAMfest 2014, like so many other South African festivals, represents a serious reviewers’ dilemma. On the…

RAMfest 2014, like so many other South African festivals, represents a serious reviewers’ dilemma. On the one hand, it was a highly enjoyable weekend that achieved lots of what it clearly set out to do. On the other hand, it was riddled with obvious problems. Some of them were mitigated by the myriad things the festival managed to do right and were thus relatively easy to get past; some of them weren’t. Where do you draw the line and refrain from being critical? When do you just kick back and enjoy?

What this year’s iteration of RAMfest managed far better than most other festivals was a true grasp of self-identity. The RAM has always had dual-meaning – its acronymous ‘Real Alternative Music’, and the synecdochical male-goat that stands for heavy metal music. When the festival was birthed, ‘alternative music’ was accepted shorthand for ‘alternative rock’, a catch-all phrase for guitar-and-drums-based music that might not easily have found its way onto pop radio. But that term’s usefulness as a signifier for music of quality (or for anything tangible, really) has fallen away recently, if it was ever even there. Genre lines blur more every day, and the musical avant-garde (by natural extension, the ‘alternative’) has fully and finally embraced a multiplicity of musical sounds and stylings. Rock music no longer has sole, or even primary, custody over the ‘alternative’ label.

Through booking overseas acts like Pendulum, Netsky and Awolnation to headline the main stage in the past, there was always a semblance of genre balance. This year, they one-upped the country’s other big-tent festivals by booking six foreign acts. Five of those were rock bands, all of whom played on the main Red Heart Rum stage (apart from Vuvuvultures, who were meant to play there but ended up on the smallest Stellenbrau Carnival Stage). With the exception of the electro displayed on the Olmecca stage, every act was strictly rock, or an updated offshoot thereof. If RAMfest is going to be an acronym for anything anymore, it would be Rock And Metal fest.

By embracing its identity as such, it was able to provide a line-up that fully catered to the tastes of its sizeable audience. The presence of Killswitch Engage and Trivium, two heavyweight metal bands who’ve been plying their trade for over a decade, was a major coup, and both bands delivered with phenomenal performances to crazy, rapturous crowds on the Friday night. Equally massive was the prospect of Foals, and indeed there was a significant portion of festival-goers there solely for the sake of seeing them. They, too, delivered with an unbelievable performance, pulling the crowd to cathartic highs and not letting up. For most in attendance, though, the real highlight was to be Scottish-rockers Biffy Clyro. “Mon the Biff” was all the talk for the course of the weekend, and they delivered with a career-spanning show that displayed just why they’ve been around for so long and why RAMfest worked so hard to get them out.

The local line-up was a mixed bag. The electronic line-up was clearly curated to satisfy pallets craving heavier electronic music to match the metal. In that sense, the line-up was solid, even if mostly indistinguishable from Synergy’s electro line-up from last year. A lot of the country’s biggest bands were on display, with many of them delivering tight, well-constructed performances. The most confusing omission from the line-up was Wildernessking. As a black metal band garnering hype and attention from overseas and creating some of the progressive music in the country, they should have been a shoo-in. Whether there was booking trouble or not, it still seems like every effort should have been given to get a band like this on the bill. Still, there was some impressive heavy music on display, Dead Lucky in particular providing a high-octane show. 

Gangs of Ballet, opening for Foals, were really tight and performed the impressive task of opening for one of the biggest bands in the world in Foals with aplomb. Iso, before them, were the weekend’s biggest disappointment, performing a bubblegum set so far removed from their prog-rock origins that they were barely recognisable. What was odd about giving such prominent placement to a band like this is that it seems RAMfest can almost guarantee ticket sales based on the strength of the foreign acts booked (particularly the metal acts) and the corresponding loyalty that fans have for those acts. So why spend a heft price for a signed 5FM-plugging outfit such as Iso, who do more to annoy the anti-pop sensibilities of most metalheads? Would it not be more appropriate (not to mention cheaper) to book more left-field acts closer to the ‘Alternative’ moniker and who might perhaps win one or two fans from a crowd they might not normally be able to reach? This isn’t to say that all the bands disappointed; at most times, enjoyable music could be found at one of the stages. The Dollfins ripped hard and fast on Thursday night. Fuzigish’s reunion had their multitude of old fans skanking and moshing and causing havoc, and was one of the most beautiful moments of the whole festival. Al Bairre’s drummer, Tom Kotze, missed their show and they had to play with someone who’d never drummed for the band before, though the fact that many in attendance didn’t notice was to their credit.

The technical aspects of the production, so often a large point of concern at major festivals, was for the most part stellar. The sound was crisp and clear, meaning that those watching from the back had no less an immersive experience as those who dared to brave the flailing elbows of the front. Not to say it was entirely without hitches. During Foals’ performance of Red Socks Pugie, guitarist Jimmy Smith’s amp blew out to his frustration, throwing his guitar to the floor. There were also problems with sound checking the main stage, depriving the audience of the full Vuvuvultures experience. Seeing lead singer Harmony Boucher on that platform would have been incredible, but she still completely owned the space she was given nonetheless.

Lastly, the racial demography of the festival has to be mentioned. Cries of ‘I definitely saw a few black people!’ would not ring false, but the fact they have to be made at all does much to hammer the problem home. The truth is that there simply were hardly any people of colour at the festival. Even more pointedly – there were hardly any people of colour performing. Again, there would be those pointing at (of all places) the singer of Killswitch Engage as antithesis, but for the most part, the cast, crew and audience of this whole shindig was noticeably Caucasian. Is that purely a result of the festival’s chosen genre(s)? Could the festival have done more? Would booking a few more bands with non-white members in them have changed the racial make-up of the event? The presence of (mostly Western-influenced) electronic music as the festival’s only other featured genre might be easily explained by that music’s long and documented link with outdoor festivals (thus making it an easily-marketable drawcard), but is the fact that its predominant market is similarly light-skinned not at least notable? RAMfest is certainly not the only festival to face these problems, and most of the sociological issues behind them extend far beyond what a festival organiser can control, but  the matter was nonetheless fragrantly obvious to anyone even slightly inclined to notice. There are endless columns to be written about rock and metal as the nation’s musical ‘last bastions’, their ‘realness’ and ‘authenticity’ eviscerated to mask deeper-lying prejudices, but that would be mostly conjecture and not the place for an article like this.

This year’s Cape Town instalment of RAMfest had much to be proud of. And, as a festival, it’s hard not to root for it, especially when it fulfils the desperate hopes and wishes of so many by managing to book the foreign acts they do. It is also by now something of an establishment, a yearly tradition for many. By subtly positioning itself as the premier rock n’ roll festival, it has guaranteed itself the annual presence (and joyful extolling) of one of the largest and willing-to-spend niches in the country. The absence of any real experiential aspects other than what was going on at the four stages merely served to drive home its focus. And RAMfest could continue this way for years and would always remain successful. But if really wants to improve and elevate itself to real world-class standards (as of course it should), then it still has some way to go.

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