The continent's Next Big Things
Charlotte Marston
16:39 26th January 2022

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It’s Saturday night and phosphorescent strobes are cutting through the dimly lit room. Lukewarm pints are slopping out of plastic cups, swaying hands are thrust high in the air and heads are bobbing in time to ‘90s rave-infused beats. Rickety floorboards are shaking under tapping feet, and bodies are crashing into one another as a long-haired guitarist chews through a particularly ravenous riff. It might sound like a rowdy affair at a big-time venue, or a hotly-tipped gig in a way-too-small pub, but really this was the scene in my scanty South East London living room as myself and a few close compatriots crowded round a cracked laptop screen for the final day of Eurosonic Noorderslag (ESNS)’s 2022 edition.

Despite being forced online for the second year on the trot — the festival usually sees a host of bands plucked from across Europe descend on Groningen, as music fans and festival bookers hop around each of the Dutch city’s illustrious venues —  this year’s instalment refused to waver on its promise to promote the finest batch of fresh continental talent.

The UK was fairly well represented over the festival’s four day expanse, with sets from now-cult British artists like the wry and whimsical Wet Leg and Mercury Prize-nominated BERWYN sprinkled in amongst some more understated, up-and-coming names. Highlights came in the form of Glaswegian duo MEMES — who blasted their way through ten-minutes of jagged garage rock with punchy, rhyming lyrics about ‘heavy nights’ and ‘feeling alright’ — and Manchester’s Secret Night Gang, whose apt assembly of disco rhythms, gospel harmonies and a strong wind section was reminiscent of a late night in a heady jazz club, or a warped and static-y ‘70s style gameshow.

Worthing-based NOISY were another stand-out: joining the festivities from their makeshift home-studio, the three-piece blended soaring electronic hooks with riffy and raging rock sensibilities to create a stadium-sized sound that established the band as worthy future-headliners — but more than likely pissed off a few neighbours in the process.

The rest of the continent delivered too, and the festival’s line-up was so expansive — with 214 acts hand-picked from 24 different countries — it was easy to feel like even the most scheduling-savvy viewer would be missing out on catching at least one of the weekend’s soon-to-be-big names. 

Belgian psych-pop group The Haunted Youth have previously been compared to the likes of The Cure and Slowdive, and their mesmerising brand of shoegaze-infused ethereal rock paired with their bleached hair, light-wash denim and knit cardigan-clad look read like something straight out of a ‘90s teen rom-com. Lithuanian newcomers shishi also paid homage to artists of old with their riot-grrrl-inspired take on twangy psych-rock. Offering up a swirling and subtly menacing blend of clamouring percussion, melodic guitar lines and urgent vocal harmonies touching on the environmental crisis, the band crafted a modern take on surf music, for the surf-rockers who want you to stop chucking your plastic bottles in the ocean. 

Belfast-based Enola Gay served up an equally urgent set of cacophonic noise-punk — with whirring synthesisers pitted against a steady rhythm section and venomous vocals — before Italian krautrock four-piece a/lpaca burst through a fast-paced psych-tinged drone of menacing basslines, frantic guitar arrangements and distorted, lo-fi vocals. Changing tact slightly, Austrian fivesome Sharktank meandered through a meticulous few minutes of wonky trip-hop, with stretches of generic pop-tinged vocals and plodding indie guitar lines infused with melodic and melancholic rap sections and buoyant blasts of percussion. 

And, as well as circumnavigating the continent in a brief four-days, ESNS did a stellar job of boasting some of The Netherlands’ homegrown talent too. With the entirety of Saturday dedicated to Dutch acts — a tradition that dates back to the festival's beginnings as a Netherlands-based battle of the bands contest in the late 1980s — the final day of the event showcased the breadth of its home country’s thriving music scene. Dressed up in flouncy dresses, larger-than-life sleeves and 70s-style blow-outs, post-rave trio Baby’s Beserk delivered an eccentric and arty amalgam of computerised beats, buzzy bass grooves and club-ready rhythms reminiscent of the distant lull of a late-night rave, while feel-good fuzz-rock band POM powered through a sun-tinged set and Rotterdam’s Tramhaus ramped things up with their incisive and prowling post-punk rhythms. 

Saturday’s climax, though, came in the shape of Son Mieux, a group of theatrical and funk-tinged multi-instrumentalists hailing from The Hague. Headed up by ringleader Camiel Meiresonne — think Harry Styles’ slick, sequin-clad sensibilities meets Brandon Flowers’ flamboyant and forceful delivery — the 7-piece danced and gyrated their way through a sprawling and soulful set of grooving disco beats and clattering, funk-flecked percussion. 

And, as the weekend progressed, the deftness with which the festival’s organisers were able to transition the event online became apparent. While the virtual-only format does inevitably have its pitfalls — needless to say outings from the UK’s own bizarre and biting politico-punks Yard Act or Norway-via-Iceland disco-funk duo Ultraflex might have been better received in front of an IRL audience — the Netflix-for-new-music feel of ESNS’s multi-channel live-stream platform meant room for more experimentation for some of the festival’s more eccentric artists. 

Jangling Icelandic duo BSÍ were one of many acts who experimented with creative direction as their set — filmed in Reykjavík, at the ‘best and smallest venue in the world’ — opened with a scene of children laughing and scribbling the band’s name with marker on pieces of paper. Likewise, art-pop experimentalist Sylvie Kreusch — dressed head-to-toe in a shiny silver suit and flinging herself about like a 1970s rockstar — took a more visually-led approach to her performance, as Denmark-based soft-synth duo GENTS too opted for a more unconventional set-up as they laid on an unmade bed complete with mood lighting, a Himalayan salt lamp and a vase of flowers. 

ESNS’s charm, then, comes in its immutable ability to get ahead of the curve: tapping into the continent’s cultural trends just as easily as it does its new waves of artists. If TikTok is ablaze with playlist-ready Gen-Z pop, then ESNS draft in nineteen-year old singer-songwriter Finn Askew to embody the mood. If VICE are saying the indie-sleaze revival is in full-swing, the festival ropes in twee-rockers Qlowksi to send us reaching straight for the ballet flats and Zooey Deschanel bangs. And when we’re all feeling a little bit screen-fatigued after two years strapped to the sofa, ESNS find a fresh approach to virtual music events that feel visceral and well-thought-out amidst a climate of frustration and dread.

So while virtual-only festivals are far from a long-term solution — we won’t be trading in lager-slinging, crowd-surfing nights under the stars for another year stuck in front of our screens just yet — ESNS’s thirty-sixth year has proved not only that raucous and realistic online offerings are possible, but that when pulled off well they can hold the key to uniting an exhausted and overlooked industry. 

ESNS takes place every January in Groningen, Netherlands. 

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Photo: Grote Zaal