Not many festival showcase venues come with their own MC, but Groningen’s Vera does. “The next band sound like The Modern Lovers fronted by Mark E. Smith dressed as Ian Curtis!” he announces to whoops and hollers.
That’s quite the introduction, but Fontaines D.C. – the Dublin five-piece hotly tipped for stardom by just about everyone – simply stroll nonchalantly on stage and launch into blistering punk-rock tales of disillusionment and frustration. And it’s true, to an extent; singer Grian Chatten looks like a man possessed, constantly ruffling his own hair and fidgeting back and forth across the stage.
He barks into the microphone as his bandmates create swirls of noise, all stabs of guitar and driving rhythms. “Is it too real for ya?” he spits during recent single ‘Too Real’. The answer is “no”.
Eurosonic Nooderslaag is replete with bands like this, surfing in on a wave of hype hoping to impress labels, agents, bookers, and press. Some live up to it, some don’t, but everyone’s jockeying for column inches and festival slots, hoping to turn dreams into reality (and perhaps some longevity). Navigating the 42 venues and 342 bands is therefore quite the task, something that’s not helped by the modest size of most locales and gargantuan queues.
If you succeeded in gaining entry to Black Midi’s glorious racket, then you’ll know they very much deserve the plaudits they’ve been showered with. Weird jazzy riffs, atonal guitars, and a surprising amount of groove all add up to one of the most exciting guitar aspirants in a number of years. Post-Devo you might say, and everything is in place – impeccable credentials, enigmatic, awkward frontman, powerhouse drummer – for them to be critical darlings for some time.
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Of course, there’s way more to these four days than artists who’ve got the industry all hot under the collar, and dipping in and out of sets leads to some hidden gems. In the stark, austere Doopsgezinde church, Pieter de Graaf constructs intricate, post-classical piano soundscapes full of subtle loops and gentle effects. His music is endlessly beautiful, and a wondrous example of how subtle variations on tradition can yield rich rewards.
In the same venue, Pitou’s haunting, pastoral folk-pop does something similar on the opening night. Italy’s Adele Nigro, aka Any Other, also veers to the softer side, even though she now has a band in tow. The best moments of her set arrive when they depart, leaving Nigro and her guitar to explore tales of heartbreak and abusive relationships; at one point her voice is so cracked with emotion she seems on the verge of tears. Shame then that the rumble of half-cut chitchat from the back of the room threatens to shatter the tension.
The value of Eurosonic also lies in exploring the musical output of the continent’s outward fringe, the sort of stuff routinely ignored by anyone important. Iceland has a big presence this year, and provides two of this year’s most outré acts. Reykjavíkurdætur, a feminist rap crew, run through powerful numbers about male privilege, rape culture, and inequality, all very hands-in-the-air in an empowering way – a bit like the Spice Girls crossed with Cardi B.
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Hatari though almost defy description, their industrial bondage steampunk aesthetic almost seeming tame in comparison to the aggressive sonic madness blasting from the PA.
At the other end of the scale is Estonia duo Maarja Nut & Ruum, who deliver another radiant, hymnal set in a church. Nut’s looped vocals and violin is weaved delicately with electronic effects, adding a warmth to the digital soundscapes emanating from Ruum’s black boxes. The resulting ambient wash gently reverberates around the bare stone walls of Der AA-Kerk, the perfect setting for such musical textures.
The rise of solo Brit stars continues, and eager crowds flock to both Flohio and Octavian who play back to back on Friday (albeit in different venues). Flohio wins the battle, her punchy, dexterous flow and trap beats a more fiery experience than the nu R&B/dancehall stylings of the BBC Sound Of 2019 winner. That makes sense; the former has cut all the fat from her music and message – some tracks barely last two minutes – while Octavian’s more laid back jams wander a little, even though he’s on good form (he spends much time atop the speak stack asking everyone to “big themselves up”).
Unsurprisingly, the Dutch are well represented, with the burgeoning underground producing many noteworthy talents, some of whom have ventured north. EUT, all bouncy indiepop and grunge-lite, are the easiest on the ears, closely followed by Pip Blom’s fuzzy, studied indie.
Yet it’s two of the bands that form part of Saturday’s Nooderslaag event – a night dedicated to homegrown talent – that really dazzle and steal our hearts. The Visual – the project of singer songwriter Anna van Rij – craft slow-burn, sensual pop that swells on the same waves of longing and tenderness that carried Jeff Buckley to greatness. Their songs come steeped in a melancholic lushness and sense of drama, tales you let your guard down for even though you know they’re gonna be crushing.
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And then there’s Lewsberg, a band whose two and three chord chugs invite comparisons to The Velvet Underground and Talking Heads, sardonic wit and weirdness channeled into something compelling. World weary, big city cynicism is their crutch – consider the lyrics of ‘Non Fiction Writer’ – which is just so very now, isn’t it? They’d be perfect soundtracking Netflix’s You.
Will they reach the (wide) audience they so richly deserve? Will any of the above. It’s a tragedy that they probably won’t. The Next Big Thing™ is the Holy Grail for an industry that boozes and schmoozes its way around Eurosonic, and yet it’s never been harder for an artist to cut through all the noise. The Paradox of Choice is real, and maybe all some can hope for is a few saying: “We were there. We get it.”
Maybe, for one cold week in January, that’s start enough.
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Words: Derek Robertson
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