Review: RADAR Festival – O2 Victoria Warehouse, Manchester – Friday

Having won the Best New Festival Award at 2022’s UK Festival Awards, the modern contemporary and progressive RADAR Festival could now refer to itself as “the award-winning RADAR Festival” and with the 2023 event taking place for the first time in Manchester, chances are that they might just retain that trophy come awards season.

RADAR and Manchester are a perfect match. The gritty, urban setting of the O2 Victoria Warehouse (a spit away from Old Trafford) providing ideal surroundings for an indoor festival where ten hours of live music each day awaited those who followed the festival North from the last two years in Guildford. Three days, two stages, zero clashes. Stamina required by the bucketload. But not in the same way that stamina is needed at a more traditional festival like Download where treks to the second stage involve a hike up a hill. Ten hours of music – indoors – requires staying power, and thankfully the organisers of RADAR put together a bill that constantly rewarded the thousands of hardy souls that packed out the warehouse. The main stage (sponsored by Prog Magazine) is where most of the crowd is gathered, but the ease of both stages means that it is straightforward to move between the two, and the smaller, second stage (sponsored by the incredible Strandberg Guitars) witnesses some scenes of carnage over the weekend. The pauses between bands are minimal and choices are made on individual choice, but it is possible to catch something of every band performing over the weekend.

The job of opening RADAR 2023 fell to Hampshire-based progressive metal band Shattered Skies who were sadly making their final appearance as a band. A fact that makes their towering classic ‘The End and the Rebirth’ all the more poignant and those that got to the barrier early were treated to a thirty-minute set that highlighted just how much of a loss to the progressive scene Shattered Skies will be. Playgrounded opened the Prog Stage and proved why festivals such as RADAR are so important in offering up a smorgasbord of genres and styles. Alternative, with an electronic edge, the five-piece outfit out of The Netherlands, and Greece, are new to these ears, and thanks to dark, brooding moments like ‘A Road Out of the Flood’ (where the wall of red lights nuke the front few rows) and the hypnotic tones of ‘The Swan’, the entire catalogue of Playgrounded albums are downloaded once a full signal is normal once again. Staying at the Prog Stage, Exploring Birdsong are everything that this reviewer had hoped for. And more. The piano-driven progressive trio from Liverpool are magical. Utterly magical. Led by the fragile vocals of Lynsey Ward, Exploring Birdsong brings an ethereal touch to the early stages of the opening day, and the gorgeous live version of ‘The Downpour’ is truly something to behold. In complete contrast to the dreamy state of euphoria offered up by Exploring Birdsong, over at the second stage The Five Hundred pummel the crowd to pieces at the most un-metal time of 3pm on a Friday afternoon. ‘Walls of Jericho’ has always been a pit-inducing banger, but it is slightly surreal witnessing it in a dark, industrial-like room full of girders and pillars when some people are still deciding what to have for lunch. As brutal as always, the quartet delivers on so many fronts.

When the RADAR line-up poster was released, one of the first names to be underlined at DGM Towers was that of A.A. Williams. The slow-burning, melancholic, gothic-tinged musings of the London-born singer-songwriter and multi-talented musician ticks all the boxes. And although better suited to a smaller, more personal setting, such is her rapid rise; it makes perfect sense for A.A. Williams to perform on the larger main stage. Opening with the haunting beauty of ‘Evaporate’, the forty-minute set is one of the standouts from the entire weekend. Due to the nature of the music on offer, the dreaded chatterers can often be heard over the softer moments on the likes of ‘Murmurs’, but thankfully they don’t detract from the gorgeous, vulnerable vocals of William that can only be described as mesemerising. Irish post-rock outfit God Is An Astronaut pulls an almighty crowd over to the main stage and it is intriguing watching just how studious a GIAA audience actually is, and if ‘Adrift’ is not the most beguiling piece of music to come out of Ireland this decade, then what the hell beats it? The huge crowd doesn’t move once GIAA ends their set, for up next on the Prog Stage – and warm-up to the headliners – are RADAR Festival favourites Haken. Celebrating the tenth anniversary of their third studio album ‘The Mountain’, it’s only to be expected that the album will feature heavily throughout the hour-long set, and an early airing of ‘Atlas Stone’ hits the mark. Led by the incredible vocals of Ross Jennings, Haken are a joy to watch, and not just because of their matching Hawaiian shirts which seem to be a sly wink at the “seriousness” of progressive music.

The hard-working security team in the pit at the second stage put in one hell of a shift during the insanity of the headlining set by Monuments. The understatement of the year would be to say that the place was packed. The best comparison to make would be that it was like the third stage/tent at Download Festival when a surprise set from a major act features mid-afternoon. But only on a much smaller scale. The crowd was so packed that even if you didn’t want to bounce, you had no choice in the matter and simply had to go with the majority who were bouncing as one. Pits opened up and if anyone went down, there was always a helping hand to get them back on their feet. Crowd surfers are going over at speed, and the everlasting thought is of how delirious everyone looked. It was almost like one huge expelling of years and years of pent-up frustration. A special shout-out to the ingenious nutter who during the set grabbed onto one of the overhead rafters and swung like Spiderman’s more-fun older brother.

Booking Sleep Token – without any doubt, the biggest breakout rock act of 2023 – as Friday headliners was a major coup for RADAR Festival. One can only imagine the glee from the organisers when eight weeks or so before playing RADAR, Sleep Token announced a one-off date at Wembley Arena and promptly sold it out in ten minutes. For now, the cavernous and impersonal Wembley Artena can wait as there are a few thousand people here waiting patiently for the Manchester Ritual from Vessel and Company.

With the stage awash in harsh blue lighting, mixed with sudden blasts of white lights, Sleep Token takes to the stage, with the biggest cheer of course being for the mysterious vocalist only known as Vessel. Perched up on a riser in line with the drummer, are three cloaked, masked backing vocalists. The visual aspect of Sleep Token is stunning, and as the lights change to a wall of warm reds for ‘The Summoning’ it is difficult to look at the stage without straining your eyes. All the visuals in the world mean nothing unless the music on offer matches them, and thankfully Sleep Token impresses even more in the audio department; with the brooding set opener ‘Chokehold’ being an excellent example of how to build an intro without going for the traditional full-pelt opener, while drum-heavy ‘Hypnosis’ crushes with multiple changes in style and see’s Vessel’s demented dancing working in synch with the huge breakdowns. A towering version of ‘Nazareth’ is one of many set highlights and sounds as beautiful today as it first did way back in 2017. Other highlights would be the crowd singing back the words to the genre-mashing ‘Granite’, the spine-tingling ‘Higher’ which comes complete with some insane high kicks from the bassist,  and the glorious encore of ‘The Night Does Not Belong To God’, and ‘The Offering’.

Coming soon to an Enormodome near you: Sleep Token. Remember that time though when you caught them in a warehouse in Manchester?

Review – DGM review team

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