However hip and alternative your favourite UK festival appears, chances are it won't hold a candle to Holland's Incubate. Why? It's not easy to pin it on a single factor alone. Maybe it's the friendliness of the locals – and the comparative lack of international visitors – with just about zero bad attitude anywhere to be seen as you zip between a capillary criss-cross of city centre venues and bars. Maybe it's because it doesn't rely on hookups with pish beer companies, although you won't go short of a hops-based headache in Holland. Maybe it's because, with home base Tilburg's population of just over 200,000, it's small enough to navigate entirely on foot. More likely, it's thanks to a complete lack of pretension or over-studied ethos, from the avant-garde to ancient punks/festival closers the Buzzcocks. Indeed, there's something about Tilburg that makes you wonder how the city manages during the other 350-odd days a year, given Incubate appears to represent its very calling.
Running for an entire calendar week, things only truly kick off in full-day festival style on Friday, which is when we roll into town, just in time for a by equal parts punishing/tuneful set from Chris & Cosey. The two former Throbbing Gristle founders are infinitely less provocative than their most (in)famous vehicle, but no less sternum-poundingly abrasive thanks to the sort of bass detonations that accompany Lancaster bomber missions. It's almost educational, harking back to a last century era when primitive British electronic music was effectively techno before anybody even coined the term.
It seems logical, then, to fast forward once the chest-thumping impact begins to hurt. Busdriver is having technical fun over at Cul De Sac – a small bar with something of a weekend-at-Harvester's feel – but once the LA emcee gets underway, we're treated to something beyond the average rap show. Attacking two samplers and assorted pedals in a similar DIY lineage to fellow west coast hip hop experimentalists Themselves, he rips through one of his, shall we say, kookiest past numbers, 'Casting Agents And Cowgirls', and we decide it's time to go exploring once more. This time to Paradox.
Inside a hushed main room, one of the highlights of the weekend is already underway: old time folkster Frank Fairfield. The x + y = z lazy journo comparison would undoubtedly be Bonnie 'Prince' Billy if he actually believed he was an 1800s prospector rather than simply penning ditties that suggested as such. There's also a touch of the Neil Hamburgers about endearingly heartfelt but mumbling/rambling between-song explanations. While we keep half-expecting Fairfield to clear his throat with barbarian voracity before cracking a gag about the Red Hot Chili Peppers and unspeakable fluids, the reality couldn't be any farther removed. There's an achingly naked fragility about the flamboyantly mustachio-rocking fellow, switching instruments as often as he stomps on the stage floor for percussion. Though much younger than his appearance screams, if he's in character, he never once looks likely to break the illusion.
By now the night is calling, and it's back to Kleine Zaal, which has transmogrified into a heaving dancefloor for a Mac crash-afflicted Andy Stott. When computers are his friend, the resulting hammering house twists hit home splendidly. US indie-rockers-turned-DJ twosome Mi Ami, meanwhile, veer from Daniel Martin-McCormic's unlistenably histrionic vocals to pumpingly hip-moving, sometimes within a solitary song. Between those two, Johannes Heil is, appropriately, creating merry techno hell in the Dommelsch Zaal room, during which time we temporarily befriend a heroically inebriated Bosnian. Bedtime. Alone, that is.
Saturday is, on paper, all about a Scandinavian invasion. Iceage will take to 013's Stage01 later, but those critical darlings aside, VÅR might well be the most likely to succeed from the rest of the Danes and co on show today. That's despite striding onstage at an hour when many Incubate goers are still contemplating a late breakfast in one of Tilburg's many open-air cafe/bars. They miss an icy blast from two of the nascent Copenhagen scene's most iconic young guns, Iceage main boy Elias Bender Rønnenfelt and partner in disconnected crime Loke Rahbek. We spy the pair kissing for the cameras post-show; during the musical segment, nobody would dare go within pecking distance, such are the thousand-yard stares. Anybody familiar with early Cold Cave will know the general deal, but VÅR could certainly be onto something. Girlseeker, post-punks Lower and synthpoppers Lust For Youth leave less impression, so we hotfoot it to splendidly named rock pub Little Devil for HARK, the new power trio from Jimbob Isaac of sadly departed South Wales metal heroes Taint. It's unlikely any followers of the latter act will be disappointed on evidence of the handful of songs we catch; Jimbob's soaring roar and fretwork combination leading HARK with intensity rarely found in a band only five gigs old.
There's a good deal of intensity back at Stage01, too, mind. Elias Bender Rønnenfelt is onstage again and Iceage are about to begin. “Ecstasy!” he yells by way of introduction for a brand new song, although it could equally be interpreted as a clarion call for the evening, judging by some members of the band's demeanours a few hours later. His brattish good looks are accompanied by an attitude to match, though, and when he jumps offstage to confront/clatter one slightly rambunctious fan near the front, we're not sure whether to take a scared step back or put a fatherly arm around him. Either way, Iceage are nothing if not compelling viewing over barely half an hour of controlled chaos.
For real grown-up menace, however, witness Consumer Electronics. Menace in the same way a mac-clad man standing outside a schoolyard staring really hard at a bustling playground might conjure. Philip Best, once half of liberal-button-pushing noise protagonists Whitehouse, is an evil uncle of a man, unbuttoning his shirt to twist his own nipples as black-clad girlfriend Sarah Froelich aids a cacophony underpinning the duo's total war dissection of society. The first words uttered are “You all forget Rudolf Hess...” and things don't get any more pleasant from there on. The entire spectacle is grotesque, uncomfortable and, we're pleased to relay, our total highlight of the weekend.
All of which blunts ordinarily brutal British battle metal riff warriors Conan in Kleine Zaal, so we try Stage01 for size, and find electronica weirdos Pink Sock (for the love of God, don't Google that name, non-prolapse fans) handing out foodstuffs from a full picnic onstage. As you do.
If we thought a picnic was the height of sedateness, we're soon proved wrong at Dommelsch Zaal soon after by Mogwai. Stuart Braithwaite and pals were, circa the arse-end of Britrock, possibly Europe's most vital live band. Tonight, even monoliths like 'Mogwai Fear Satan' require a tempo boost. We ponder how they've almost become the Oasis of post-rock nowadays, releasing albums that almost religiously stick to a formula (the introspective sung one, the eight-minute rolling distortion monster) where once they defied categorisation. And then we look around us. It's worse than that. We're surrounded: Mogwai have become a band for couples, the festival set where bearded boys can safely smooch with their nondescript girlfriends. What has the world come to?
It's almost as if Incubate's kindly organisers predicted most festival-goers would attempt to drink Tilburg dry on Saturday night, given virtually zero bands begin before 3pm on Sunday. Shame we did the majority of our drinking on Friday. Until today, that is. A brace of disappointing cult oldies (Silver Apples and UV Pop) later and we find ourselves balcony bound for the spiralling soul-kissed boogie riffs of Howlin Rain. Led by likeable Warren Ellis-a-like human beard Ethan Miller, the former Comets On Fire dude livens up an otherwise workmanlike performance with chirpy ruminations on life and love, with off-the-wall audience banter thrown in for good measure. A shame Glaswegian post-grunge revivalists Paws at Cul De Sac have neither the charisma or tunes to make good on their respective promise. Throw in a frontman with a bad blond dye job and cardigan; you'll be thinking Kurt Cobain. Listen a bit closer and there are a few Smashing Pumpkins-isms; we're plumping for nearer to early Feeder. Hmm.
Perhaps all the poise and potency in the lowlands was sucked up by Carla Bozulich's Evangelista, who positively owns the main room of De Nwe Vorst, a sprawling arts centre a short wander across town. A modest crowd are enraptured by her intensely enveloping epics, at once claustrophobic and grandiose. She returns to the same stage an hour later to join former Can veteran Damo Suzuki's ever-mutating band – his third set of the weekend – alongside so many other unpaid hired hands that our now La Chouffe-addled brain struggles to keep tabs on what is unfolding at any one moment. The resulting improv is sufficiently bewitching that we subsequently entirely miss one of our pre-festival picks, Japandroids. But that's Incubate in a nutshell: with so much to discover, spending time watching bands you've seen several times before or know what to expect from seems at best lazy and at worst gross negligence.
photo by Gary Wolstenholme