Groningen, a sprightly two hours north by train from Amsterdam, is an inviting city. The traditional Dutch architecture is vertiginous, improbably narrow houses teetering over and reflected in slow moving canals. At night its bridges burn with festive lights, the Netherlandish predisposition for enormous windows adding to the refracted colours of this wintery carnival. It’s an industrial fairy-tale, beauty and brawn elegantly co-existing.
It’s entirely appropriate that this should be the location for an industry showcase festival, the machinations of the business side visible amidst the clamour and rush of a multitude of venues and regular gig-goers. Like SXSW or CMJ, it provides an arena in which emerging, or in several cases established talent play across multiple venues, bestowing those who need to know with their predictions for success over the coming year.
This year the focus country is Iceland, presented by partner Iceland Music Export. In addition to a reception, panel discussions and a pop-up store, there are 19 incredible Icelandic acts on the festival bill – all of who performed at Iceland Airwaves in November. We wanted to follow some of the bands we’d met there on their journey over to mainland Europe.
After checking in at the Oosterport, an imposing multi-arts venue and our base for the weekend, we emerge amidst fat flakes of fast-falling snow and a bitter wind. A refreshing wander along the canal side has us looking for our lodgings, which incongruously, are the sleek portholes and svelte cabins of a ship; walking up an icy gangplank is the biggest challenge of the day so far.
Early in the evening we attend the European Border Breakers awards Awards, hosted by Jools Holland, which take place in The City Theatre. Of the few winning performances we catch, Mø is the clear standout, in a vibrant and visceral stage crawling performance. It’s the perfect appetiser before a walk downtown to The News Café (with its ‘interesting’ porn paintings adorning the walls) to see a fellow Dane, Asbjørn.
The platinum-haired boy, currently based in Berlin, is an ethereally androgynous Robyn lookalike wearing low-crotch pants and a kimono. He presents a high-energy set from his debut ‘Sunken Ships’, dancing like his life depends on it. With jutting shoulders and expansive hands, he darts like a flyweight fighter around the stage. His voice, dipping and rising over Knife-like beats, is captivating. It’s intricate, joyful, contemporary pop music, as fresh as a Fox’s Glacier Mint.
Icelandic band Vök (above) follow him. They got together in a maddeningly casual fashion in order to enter a battle of the bands, the prestigious Músíktilraunir contest, which they had no songs for. A love for trip-hop and a lot of hard work galvanised their sound quickly. Their driven set is emotional and heady, creating pulsing cinematic landscapes and uncertain atmospheres in the tiny space. Saxophone adds a sultry, nocturnal edge and lead singer Margrét’s emphatic yet low-key vocals add a slippery, soulful feel to the end of the evening.
Inspired and rested we spend Thursday in a flurry of interviews, speaking with several of the focus bands and attending a panel, then it’s off to the elegant surroundings of the Stadsschouwburg for the Icelandic Export’s entertaining drinks reception followed by a serene performance by Samaris (pictured, main). A delicious mix of woodwind, downtempo dub, reverb-heavy guitars and a gossamer voice infiltrate the grand space and make it feel as intimate as a living room.
It’s time to stray away from all that is Nordic with a set from Cristobal And The Sea. The Portuguese, Spanish and Corsican natives (but London based) bring a welcome dash of hot sauce to the cold night. Their bohemian psych sound is weaved around arresting vocal harmonies, a sprinkling of bossa nova, and Arthur Lee and Os Mutantes influences. But it’s not the most forgiving venue, too sterile for a band playing structured but wild and messy barefoot music, especially when there’s flute involved.
We were lucky enough to catch Júníus Meyvant’s now infamous second-ever show with his band at Kex hostel in Reykjavík. He’s come to the music scene later than most (he’s in his early 30s) and the maturity shows. Regularly playing with 10 members or more, tonight his band has been reduced to five but it has no discernible effect on their depth and sincerity. The raspy voiced Unnar Gísli Sigurmundsson had his first huge hit in Iceland with the uplifting ‘Colour Decay’, which ends this set, like a latter-day Nilsson, in a surge of restrained strings and brass.
Fortified by a suspect croquette from FEBO, the hot fast food machines endemic to Holland, we’re ready to embrace the darkness of Sólstafir, who veer from hard rock to traditional metal and back via post-rock drone indulgence. Amidst all the sweat and noise, ribbons of dense narcotic melody create a sense of expansiveness, which energises the venue. You can tell they’ve been on the go for 20 years. They’re tight, polished and gloriously gloomy.
Friday is information heavy, with another round of feverish interviews, panels and a too-leisurely three-course dinner which makes us a little late for Fufanu, as we only catch the encore. Their bristling button-down-shirt, Bauhaus-esque muscularity isn’t quite there yet. They look too well fed and scrubbed clean to fully convince us of their angst-ridden angularity. But give them a couple of months in Berlin or London with no money and they’ll certainly get there.
We then head over to Usva, the cultural facility of the University of Groningen, ending Eurosonic in the same way we did Airwaves: with a visit to watch the spellbinding DJ Flugvél og Geimskip. This tiny girl (above) commands and entrances the audience like an interstellar Morgan le Fay. The stage swirls with light-emitting orbs and primary colours pulsing from her fingers as she weaves an improbably thrilling narrative between songs.
Heady orientalism, evident in the startling meowing vocal runs, scattered across heavy drum ‘n’ bass beats with additional 8-bit noodling straight out of a Japanese Pachinko parlour shouldn’t work, but it does. We’re observed by evil cats, body swerve a Faustian pact with the devil and a dangerous escape to sea. By the time she’s been cloned and finds “many duplicates of myself” as facilitated by experimenting aliens, at least 50% of the audience are in love. It’s a truly fascinating and fearless performance with which to end an energetic and thoroughly engaging Eurosonic 2015.
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Words: Anna Wilson
Photography: Florian Trykowski