Even in the face of an almighty flight-stopping storm, icy minus temperatures and a torchlit protest against gas excavations, the 32nd edition of Eurosonic Noorderslag somehow overcomes all the obstacles in its way while showcasing an exciting snapshot of the music year to come. Spread across the rainy city of Groningen, Netherlands, the mid-January four-dayer offers performances from hundreds of bands and artists from the worlds of rock, indie, pop, electronic and everything in between: it’s a European version of The Great Escape Festival, essentially. While the main action takes place at venues dotted around the city from the early evening, there are conferences, workshops, talks and intimate cafe/record store performances in the daytime. The overall aim of the festival, though, is to champion Europe’s hotbed of musical talent.
If there’s one thing that’s immediately obvious from this year’s ESNS, it’s that the Danes are smashing it right now. Phlake deliver cinematic, sensual “rhythm and balls” R&B-pop, Velvet Volume bring angsty punk-with-pop, Scarlet Pleasure’s infectious synth-y hits are not dissimilar to Years & Years, School of X’s atmospheric soundscapes are made for movies and elusive producer Vera’s futuristic yet sophisticated take on dance music – swapping big drops for saxophones and acoustic guitars – is unlike any other artist playing this weekend.
As the focus country of this year’s festival, Denmark is putting itself on the musical map; and there’s one band that embodies that energy with their rave-inducing live show. Off Bloom’s takeover of the Grand Theatre – a high-ceilinged industrial space with exposed brickwork – is full of energy and quickly turns into a wild party by the time the ravey synths of ‘Golden Dreams’ hit. Acoustically, ‘Falcon Eye’ and ‘Love To Hate It’come alive in the large room – though they can still pull off ballads, like on the emotive ‘Sorry Not Sorry’. Having supported Dua Lipa on tour already, the party-loving trio are destined to have a massive year.
Denmark isn’t the only Scandinavian country worth mentioning, though; Finland’s ascending green-haired queen of pop, Alma, packs an indoor tented stage with her catchy chart hits ‘Chasing Highs’ and ‘Phases’, while Norwegian ‘club boyband’ Rytemekluben bring PC Music-style hyper-pop to a midnight party and Sweden’s Skott delivers a hauntingly powerful rendition of ‘Glitter and Gloss’.
Performing at DOT – a giant, illuminated dome on the outskirts of the city where a cinema-style room with comfy sofas and spacey 360 degree visuals sits at the top of spiralling staircases – rising Danish artist Goss, who supported Mura Masa on his European tour, takes advantage of the unconventional setting, at times climbing on the chairs to perform his futuristic synth-pop slow jams. Barely visible through a cloud of smoke and neon strobes with fellow Danes and collaborators Off Bloom watching and supporting from the front row, his tracks ‘Time’ and ‘Sooo Bad’ are strong enough to crossover into the charts.
Belgian artist WWWater packs the immersive, visually astounding seated space, too, showing she can reach any musical note with a vocal as strong as Solange’s across a set that veers between genres and sounds from song to song: no two sound the same. Ending with ‘Screen’ – about iPhone addiction – she’s staked her claim as one of Europe’s most exciting new artists.
The UK is well represented, too. Fenne Lily’s enchanting yet unpolished voice and IDER’s perfectly-timed vocal harmonies silence attentive crowds in a packed, grand church thanks to their authentic, honest performances. At the heavier end of the scale, YUNGBLUD causes a roadblock for his performance at Huize Mass, but there’s just enough room to squeeze in to see Brighton’s Yonaka pack Groningen’s rock institution Vera with their hook-laden rock riffs and frontwoman Theresa Jarvis’ pop-friendly vocal and effortless onstage charisma. Somehow, ‘Bubblegum’ sounds even better live than on record.
Another British band who sound just as powerful onstage as on record are Dork cover stars Pale Waves. Playing a tented outdoor stage, they are effortlessly cool, with infectious hooks and choruses aplenty and full of personality. Both acts are made for stages as big as this; especially the latter’s enigmatic frontwoman Heather Baron-Gracie – dressed in a leather jacket and tartan trousers – who looks like she was born to lead a band. Though indie anthems don’t come much bigger than ‘New Year’s Day’ and ‘Television Romance’, the Mancunians prove they still have plenty of bangers to come; new songs ‘Kiss’ and ‘We Aren’t Lovers Anymore’ sound like future hits, too. There really is no stopping them.
Meanwhile, soulful London vocalist and Mura Masa collaborator Tom Tripp lights up the intimate basement of Simplon, performing live for only the second time (though you wouldn’t know it). His vocal on funky Nao-collab ‘Stand’ could challenge The Weeknd’s while on “personal love song” ‘Pamela’ he channels early Michael Jackson. Representing London and Manchester respectively, afro-beat/grime MC Yxng Bane and “urban soul” artist IAMDDB (both feature on the BBC Sound of 2018 longlist) pack Platformtheatre, but it’s London-based transatlantic collective Superorganism who seem to have the most hype buzzing around them.
Arguably, it’s the one show across the entire weekend that everyone wants to get into. Expectedly, queues stretch around the corner of Machinefabriek and it soon becomes a one-in one-out situation for the buzzy performance. It’s completely worth the wait, though, as psychedelic/retro visuals including a gif of a prawn are teamed with glitter-faced vocalists performing cheesy synchronised dance routines and waving tastle-covered tambourines while lead singer Orono Noguchi wears 3D cinema glasses and sing talks in a Californian drawl. They’re anything but boring to watch. Yes, it’s gimmicky and could easily be an art project that’s gone too far, but whatever you think of the aesthetic, its hard to deny their knack for crafting earworm hooks and choruses, especially on breakout oddity ‘Something For Your M.I.N.D.’ and newest single ‘Everybody Wants To Be Famous’.
Photos: Sam Nahirny