It is my second day at the Incubate festival in Tilburg, Holland, and all I can smell is blood. That would be because of all the blood in the room. I look down. I am standing in a small pool of it. I look ahead. A naked woman strapped to a crucifix is having semi-coagulated pig gore dripped down her throat. A buzzing noise erupts. I look up. A mob of musicians are wielding clackers, noisily, conducted from below by the stout figure of performance art godfather Herman Nitsch, guest of honour at Incubate. The whole thing is compelling, but neither shocking, nor particularly moving - is was meant to happen in the local church, but got moved after some protest. Now we just have Herman Nitsch doing a Herman Nitsch-like thing in some sort of anonymous gallery space, the notional main event of the festival. Wiping the blood off my foot and wandering over to the somewhat incongruous buffet to grab a glass of what appears to be Nitsch brand white wine, I try to work out if I recognise any of the faces in here from the many gigs that have been taking place in this serene-bordering-on-comatose festival.
Known until this year as ZXZW (apparently SXSW finally had a polite word) Incubate is a curious affair, a celebration of independent culture with a determined anarchic streak, yet one that takes place in what is quite possibly the most well-ordered small town I’ve ever been to. The streets are clean, quiet and plied mostly by bikes; everyone is calm, pretty and speaks immaculate English; there’s an Amsterdam-style ‘cafe’ a couple of blocks down from our gently disintegrating hotel, but there’s something about it redolent of the look and feel of a travel agents’ chain.
There’s a whole week of gigs leading up to the festival ‘proper’; we miss all this, but arrive in time for the festival swinging into gear on the Friday, when it takes over a swathe of the town’s gig and bar venues in calm imitation of SXSX and its ilk. We kick off with the perky dissonance of tUnE-yArDs; the half-empty bar Merrill Garbus plays has a faintly mournful air, but she seems unphased, and people come up and thank her afterwards - Dutch crowds would seem not be rowdy crowds. A sterner challenge for the polite punters comes in the form Dananananaykroyd; notionally one of the wussier acts here, their infamous Wall of Cuddles gets some smiles and light participation, which is achievement indeed; they could probably get away with this shtick in Mordor. Perhaps the better to counter this, I promptly wander off to ‘see’ (or rather sit in a darkened room with) V/vm's more relaxed alias The Caretaker. It’s beautiful and eerie, like a dream of church bells, crackly devotionals filling the space, a snug ambient drift that embraces the (mostly lying down) crowd like a comfort blanket. The set rings very true to this town and festival.
The same could be said about the next night’s notional main event, Gorgoroth side-project Wardruna. An ambient folk affair (for ambient read: really quite loud), they only play gigs in environments they deem suitable for their pagan song-cycles. Previous shows have take place in chapels and on a Viking ship; here they play in an outdoor amphitheatre in a forest out of town. Inevitably it’s a bit D&D, but, er, when you’re sat in a candle-lit church glade that’s pretty spot on – as the music gathers pulsing mass and moves on toward what is presumably Ragnarok, it feels like Incubate has yielded something truly special.
The only ‘normal’ performer to match is Anja Plaschg, aka Soap&Skin. On record – this year’s Lovetune for Vacuum there’s a sense that the youngster hasn’t quite nurtured her Regina Spector-goes-Warp stylings to their full potential. No such problem here, where the corpse-pale performer sucks all light out of the room with her wracked intensity. A final ten minutes where she contorts herself violently as pitchshifted chaos rains down makes Fever Ray look cosy as Paul McCartney.
Inbetween the festival progresses with calm weirdness, throwing up the odd astounding moment. Justice Yeldham does his thing (i.e. good naturedly ripping his face to shreds with a pane of amplified glass); Belgian instrumental trio K-Branding provide the discovery of the weekend: a three piece featuring sax as lead instrument, they’re inevitably going to hoover up all manner of Zu comparisons, but the music is far more rhythmic, building up to its thundering jazzy squalls through a sinister curtain of ambience. Like all Asthmatic Kitty bands, Fol Chen look and sound a bit like a Christian cult gone a bit wrong, but they offer up a pleasingly incongruous moment when blasting though a freakishly accurate cover of the Beasties’ ‘Sabotage’. Bristol’s Bronnt Industries Kapital is excellent, symphonies and spy themes buried underneath a snowy Kraut veil.
For the most part Incubate seems to work best in cramped spaces, after dark (maybe another reason why totemic artist Nitsch seems incongruous – it feels like a daytime event in an art gallery), though Benin’s veteran Orchestre Poly-Rhyh-Mo De Cotonou deserve a mention for their set on Sunday afternoon’s slightly optimistic outdoor stage. Their sunny aplomb isn’t daunted one bit by the small crowds of distantly-sitting picnickers, who smile pleasantly as jaunty fluidity builds to thunderous pound.
It's fair to say that Incubate’s modesty is a little disconcerting if you’re used to music festivals being exuberant-bordering-on-rowdy affairs. But then again, I’m not sure that’s what the organisers were really after. Tilburg is so small that in a subtle way Incubate effects a wholesale change upon it; noise bands in pubs, blood on the floorboards, hymnals in the dark, magic in the forests. It’s not so much Fun Zone as Twilight Zone, and there’s a lot to be said for that.