Dutch and go: 20 things to take away from Eurosonic 2018

The dust has settled on this year’s Eurosonic – the annual showcase in the Dutch city of Groningen that’s a platform for breaking new bands, filling Europe’s festival line-ups and bookers, labels and industry heads fighting over the next big thing.

Over four days in the university city, 352 bands played in over 50 venues, to around 40,000 punters, including 500 journalists, over 400 festival bookers and 4,000 conference delegates.

The industry numbers are striking, but Eurosonic isn’t just a chin-stroking exercise for the bigwigs – it’s a full-on four-day frenzy of music that’s been running for over 30 years, with thousands milling around on a discovery buzz – unlike any other city festival I’ve been to.

Watch out for the fomo though — when you’re at a regular summer festival in a field you can cross out dozens of acts you already know are kinda shite, but at Eurosonic there’s a nagging heebie-jeebie feeling you might be missing something better at another venue. Unless you’ve studied 350 bands beforehand, you’ve often to make split decisions based on bios and a few YouTube clips.

My fomo was confirmed a few times at ESNS, with hyped reports of Agar Agar, IAMDBB, Canshaker Pi, Housewives and The Fake O’s, for starters. But at least I missed Superorganism – the most overhyped and reportedly most hideously contrived gig of the whole festival. GIMO (Glad I Missed Out).

Here’s a run-down of what went down in Groningen – in list form as it’s easier to digest than a 3am eierbal* (* see #20)

1. The Dutch will party through a code red storm

On the Thursday morning, the second day of ESNS, Dutch authorities release a code red warning as winds across the country hit 140 km/h and there’s an instant meme of a guy’s bike blowing out of his hand across a road. Some 260 flights are cancelled and all other public transport follows suit. We’re warned to stay indoors, so lucky the conference hub De Oosterpoort has plenty of daytime lectures and debates (and bars), and the gigs don’t start till 8pm.

Still, the weather over the four days is kinda nuts – hovering around the minus mark, with snow, hail and pissing rain as we slip on cobbles and duck into alleys to check Google Maps without our phones getting soaked.

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 2. Jafaris nearly misses his own gig

Dublin rapper Jafaris apologises for being out of breath – he and his crew travelled by road from Germany all day, after their flight to Amsterdam Schipol was cancelled. Or maybe he’s out of breath because he’s been bouncing around the stage at Platformtheater in puffa jacket, and he’s just pulled off a 20-second robotic MJ dance routine in between bars.

The young MC is an infectious blur of positive energy and on-point rhymes, leading into each cut with the inspiration behind his thought process.

He see-saws between brash, rugged rap and R&B slow jams, but it hits home way harder when he’s bringing the ruckus, especially when his drummer jumps up from behind his kit to join him for a pogo.

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3. Iceage somehow sneak onto the bill

Granted, Danish punks Iceage still look about 17, but they’ve been ‘ones to watch’ for years — I saw them at Primavera in 2012. The Iceage gig at Vera on the opening night is the first clue there’d be a queueing problem, with some venues seriously over-subscribed.

Lucky enough, loads of heads leave after a few songs and I race in — to find out they’re leaving because Iceage aren’t a punk band anymore. The violin and saxophone are the first giveaway, and at one point there’s some boogie-woogie piano that veers perilously close to Jools Holland.

They’ve might’ve lost the speed-freek adrenaline rush of their early records, but there’s still plenty of menace – through the dirge they’re channelling the Birthday Party or a skagged-out Roxy Music. Frontman Elias Bender Ronnefelt is lost in the middle distance, at one point walking into the crowd – not for any communal reason, he just looks like he’d be up for hitting somebody in the face.

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4. Zeal & Ardor is an extreme metal one-off

Zeal & Ardor were high up on many of the ESNS must-see lists, and this time the hype is justified. Zeal & Ardor is the latest project of Birdmask main man and multi-instrumentalist Manuel Gagneux – inspired by a racist on 4Chan when he asked for suggestions for two genres to mash up for a song challenge. When one troll answered “N***er music and black metal”, he flipped it back instead of retreating. The result is the album Devil Is Fine, a fiery combination of slave songs and spirituals with black metal left turns, glitchy electronics and gothic occultism.

Gagneux and his live band are a revelation at Vera – veering between swampy blues, chain gang chants, churning blast-beats and rattling handcuff samples. An instant convert, I even rip the setlist from the floor and take it home with me.

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5. Nordic folk music is perfect in a church

I’m at the Lutherese Kerk to see Danish one-woman black metal project Myrkur, but the stage set-up shows I haven’t done my homework. Amalie Bruun is debuting her new project Folkesanges (Folk Songs), which explains the two choral singers, a guy playing a medieval-looking stringed instrument and a grand piano draped in fur.

But Folkesanges is no less gripping than Myrkur’s own take on symphonic black metal. She plays haunting pagan folk songs from Sweden, Denmark and Scotland, and new arrangements of her other bracing metal compositions – including one she sweetly translates from the Danish as “The Little Girl’s Death”. Bruun glides between piano, an ancient wooden stringed instrument and beating an animal skin drum, like some sort of benign banshee.

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6. ROE isn’t as grumpy as she says she is

ROE calls herself “an 18-year-old grump from Derry” on her Breaking Tunes bio, and Roisin McDonald even mentions it to the hushed crowd at USVA. Turns out her “grumpy electro pop” isn’t so grumpy at all, and if anything her delicate pop songs are enhanced by her teen shyness. She’s got the quietest but most attentive crowd in the early part of Eurosonic – you can hear the hum of the amps over her between-song patter, with no one speaking over her.

It’s a pretty big stage but she doesn’t waste the spotlight, with clean guitar, loop pedals and electronic wisps sweetening everything.

She went straight from Eurosonic to Whelan’s Ones To Watch last weekend, and she’s been playlisted by 2fm, so things will be happening for her this year.

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7. Bruno Belissimo is the real DJ Seinfeld

Swedish lo-fi house producer DJ Seinfeld was one of the biggest buzz artists of last year, but what about italo and space disco with added Seinfeld slap basslines? Italian-Canadian producer Bruno Belissimo throws the biggest no bullshit party of the festival in the tiny basement of the News Cafe.

Taking his style cues from 70s Moroder or Danielle Baldelli’s Cosmic club, he spends half his time cueing up spacey synth-lines and the other half bass soloing and jumping into the crowd. Jean-Louis from French festival Trans Musicales is fist-bumping in the front row telling me it’s the gig of the whole festival, and he’s been booking acts since 1979.

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8. Mueveloreina are the Catalan Die Antwoord

Barcelona duo Mueveloreina play a sort of trashy rave/trap/rap hybrid – an electronic confection that revels in the lowbrow. They introduce a song about millennials called We Want It All, and DJ Joaco J Fox points the finger at himself, saying, “It’s like us, we just want to be in this fuckin stupid Die Antwoord thing”.

The set is a blur of 90s rave stabs, trap hi-hats and tropical/footwork mash-ups, with the pair trading dance moves and his partner Karma Karesa suggestively working the microphone, literally tongue in cheek. They finish with the hilarious autotune-fuelled Paradiso, about the shiteness of Benidorm.

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9. Tontario hits the same bullseye as Kiasmos

You might think Kiasmos have their own minimal composition/elegant techno corner locked off, but Finnish electronic producer Tontario hits similar peaks with his set at Simplon. Like Kiasmos, his productions are rooted in minimalism, with emotive piano, drones, airy kicks and intricate electronic tics.

The upstairs crowd are swaying in unison rather than jerky dancing — Tontario could hit the bullseye in either a club or a classical concert hall.

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10. Post-punk mixes with ballet better than you’d think

As a monochrome post-punk/avant-garde trip-hop act from Berlin, Hope are halfway there with a fickle Eurosonic crowd who often have to make split decisions. They also recorded their debut album in a vast abandoned sanitarium with producer Olaf Opal (The Notwist), just to double up on the kudos checklist.

But Hope are even better live than on paper, playing an early evening set at Heerenhuis, rooting the crowd to the spot with sheer brittle intensity. Barefoot singer Christine Börsch-Supan channels Portishead’s Beth Gibbons and Savages’ Jehnny Beth, with interpretive dancing that veers between foetal curls, crouching on the floor and actual ballet.

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11. HMLTD are style over substance — but what style!

There’s a whiff of PR and journo hysteria off London-based Happy Meal Ltd, recalling the time everyone lost the plot about Fischerspooner during the electroclash years.

HMLTD are a hyper mash-up project that flings everything at the wall, from straight-up glam and punk, to new wave synthpop and dubstep drops — and more of it sticks than you’d think.

At Vera, it’s like a sci-fi Adam & the Ants show, with frontman Henry Spychalski’s exaggerated goth croon and Jesus poses in the front row, the guitarists scratching out rudimentary riffs and the electronics guy looking like he’s in fancy dress as Anklepants on Boiler Room. Live, it’s a thrill-ride, but I suspect the bootleg CD wouldn’t be up to much. Still, they’re made for magazine covers – they even look cool standing outside Vera smoking cigs in ankle-length fur coats and eye-patches, looking like extras from Liquid Sky.

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12. You’ll be exhausted even just watching KillASon

Everything about French rapper KillASon is lightning fast. He’s on stage at Simplon firing out machine gun bars and beats that swing between half-time lurches and dubstep drops, to full-on mechanised EBM. But you need a USP at Eurosonic, and KillASon’s is his full body contortion dance moves, when he’s taking a break from his electronic rig. His body is in sync with even the most stuttery of breakbeats, along with limbo moves, graceful twirls and full-on spasmodic freakouts.

There’s some concession to US hip-hop as he raps in English – and even does the odd Migos-style ‘skrrrt’ – but he’s got enough of his own thing going on.

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13. A Yungblud gig is like an indie disco from 15 years ago

I didn’t do my homework on Yungblud, the 19-year-old Yorkshire lad who’s being hyped as NME’s next saviour of something. A Sleaford Mods reference jumps out at me from the online bio, but when I get to the Huiz Maas it’s the Arctic Monkeys tag that sticks instead – with zero Mods to declare.

Dominic Harrison really is channelling his hero Alex Turner, with the odd ska-punk detour and a nod to Liam Gallagher with his tambourine work. It all feels hopelessly derivative, but Huiz Maas is totally rammed to the back door and he’s just signed to Geffen Records, so what would I know.

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14. Bitch Falcon: Loudest band at Eurosonic

Even toe-to-toe with Zeal & Ardor’s black metal and chain gang rattle, Dublin trio Bitch Falcon should be the main offenders in the tinnitus class action lawsuit. The wooden floors in the shabby old theatre Huis de Beurs are nearly splintering with the vibrations. On record, Bitch Falcon knock out a full-on grunge/noise-rock racket, but live there’s an extra sludgy metal headbutt – more Tad or Melvins than Nirvana and Sonic Youth.

Frontwoman Lizzie Fitzpatrick has a touch of Annie Clark’s guitar heroism, but all that derails brilliantly every time she squares up to the mic side-on, hair matted to her face, for a more feral shriek amid the poppier hooks.

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 15. Blind Butcher are Suicide-meets ZZ Top (kinda)

Swiss duo Blind Butcher are a sort of dadaist proto-punk psychobilly act. I call them “Suicide meets ZZ Top” in the WhatsApp group chat, but I’ve sold them short already.

Everything hangs on a speed freak motorik beat, with drummer ‘Oklahoma Butcher’ also manically stamping all over his pedals, while ‘Blind Banjo’ plays frenzied post-punk and blues riffs, ranting in German, English and what seems to be a made up nonsense language.

The self-explanatory Basement is one of the smallest Eurosonic venues and it suits Blind Butcher, basically playing on the floor to a hypnotised front row, marvelling at the pair’s impeccable timing, glittery fringed suits and sense of pure abandon.

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16. The Homesick are leading the new upsurge in Dutch post-punk

Quick disclaimer: I’m no expert on the Dutch punk and post-punk scene, but pick up some pointers off guys from Drowned In Sound and Gigwise, raving about the likes of Canshaker Pi, Korfbal, Iguana Death Cult and The Fake O’s. I do manage to catch The Homesick though, three youngsters from a small northern town called Dokkum that has a Wikipedia ‘history’ that’s only six lines long and doesn’t have a train station.

They play the tiny basement club News Cafe, sounding like a band who’ve been at this for 30 years, with head-down shoegazey shimmers and low-slung bass twirls. They also have gear-heads salivating over their vintage equipment, especially the McCartney-style bass from the young player who looks like Cameron from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

The ‘otherness’ of being weirdos in their small town plays out in their songs, notably in their brilliant set-closer The Best Thing About Being Young Is Falling In Love With Jesus.

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17. Nu-metal grime is as bad as you’d think

Vera is Groningen’s most famous club for musos – the likes of Joy Division, Nick Cave, Nirvana, Slayer, The Cure, Soundgarden and even U2 played here on their way up. The venue also works as a sort of art collective, with a gig poster screen-printing studio upstairs, and the limited collector’s item posters hanging in the halls as a permanent exhibition.

There won’t be many people on the hunt for Astroid Boys posters though – the Welsh grime crossover crew who really aren’t worth the queue for a half hour in the snow at midnight on the Friday.

You can understand a couple of misfit MCs jumping on the grime bandwagon, but add bouncy nu-metal riffs and sample-pack bro-step drops and it gets seriously braindead. They’ve got a song called Minging about their bars being for the ladies, but this is music for numbskull lads. Eject.

18. The Dutch take over the final day

Over the first three days of Eurosonic, De Oosterpoort is a vast semi-serious hub of networking, conferences, lectures and debates. Every room, couch, table and random corner has some hook-up going on between delegates. On the Saturday, however, it’s transformed into an all-in-one mega festival venue for Noorderslag – an all-Dutch showcase.

There’s a huge open stage space, with gigs also kicking off in 10 conference halls where so many chins had been stroked and deals had been cracked in the previous few days.

Colin Benders is the de facto headliner, finishing off the festival with a modular sci-fi synth freak out, tangled up in dozens of wires and flashing diodes.

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 19. You’ll feel like you’ve run a marathon

Grongingen is foremost a student city – with over a quarter of the 200,000 population at college, and an average age of 35 for the whole city. That means shitloads of pubs, clubs and venues, and there’s no official closing time.

That also means a lot of hubs available for Eurosonic, and a lot of running across town in between gigs. Luckily most of the venues are within a kilometre of the Vismarkt (Fish Market) thoroughfare, but you’ll still have sore calves from brisk walking and the odd sprint in the rain. And if like me you’re a dunce for directions, you’ll be doing it all while looking at your phone like a Pokemon Go zombie.

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20. The eierbal is festival fuel of the gods

The Eirbal (eggball) is a famous Groningen post-pub snack that’s even mentioned on the city map I get on a guided tour. It’s basically a curried Scotch egg you get from a late night vending machine wall for €2. It sounds kinda rank, and I did resist the temptation for a while, ignoring the constant recommendations.

But after trying my first one after six hours of gig-hopping I was strung out – buying another one straight away then queueing up for a third. Next time I’m in Groningen I’ll be making a beeline for that magic hatch with a pocket full of €2 coins.

One pal took five eierbals home to England in a plastic bag which really is taking it too far, but still: Dutch egg > Scotch egg.

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