The quest for the best new music unveils some exciting finds both on and off the beaten track
Cai Trefor
10:41 28th January 2018

“Just eat Eierbal, mate”. It’s advice that echoes in my head the whole weekend. I find myself yet again faced with one of these sought after “curried scotch eggs”. Beginning to worry about the health impact, I confess my habit to the shopkeeper, who reassure me that it’s good enough sustenance for the weekend. I like his optimism. Perhaps my eierbal-recommending friend isn’t trying to kill me after all.

Much like the grub, the clientele at this pit-stop in Eurosonic host city, Groningen, aren’t the most precious. They’re pissed enough to miss the bin with their wrappers, concede their failure with a hapless look, and carry on.

Many are industry sorts brandishing lanyards with their name framed in a cheap plastic pouch, serenading future business partners on the town in social meetings that may benefit the music industry. “Another drink!” rage the men hovering around the till. The chatter of people is something that permeates these streets with no degree of let up over the course of the next few days.

The city of Groningen lends itself very well as a location: the average age of people living here is 36, and you add 40,000 festival goers to the mix and you’ve got a lot of people free of heavy family responsibilities and out for a good time.

A small fraction of people have opted to kick start their festival with a trip to see The Homesick at the Vrijdag venue. The city's narrow streets, pretty enough to be counted an open air museum in places, take some navigating but once there (and like many of the best gigs here) a queue soon forms outside and capacity is tiny.

Ruthlessly, I ghost in to the venue through the bouncers like a ball through Simon Mignolet’s hands and end up on the dancefloor, competing with TV cameras - who are swarming around the three-piece - for moshpit space. Hailing from the provincial city of Dokkum in the Netherlands, they're a blistering live force. Their sonics seem derived from an unstoppable purge of pent up energy, combining many compartments of the leftfield rock spectrum. The hypnotic groove of Krautrock, the brutality of heavy metal, the jagged edges of post punk and the acid-tinged eccentricity of neo-psychedelia all appear to have worked their way into their musical DNA one way or another, made all the more compelling by the conviction with which 5their lyrics are delivered. Vocals switch from clear diction to angry screams down the reverb-drenched microphones. Their words tread on unusual themes, such as the folklore of Friesland ('St. Boniface'), and a disillusion with the doctrine of religion (‘The Best Part of Being Young Is falling In Love with Jesus'). The guitarist/singer shares frontman duties with his equally adept bassist, who’s gone for the Paul McCartney look while managing to combine the pummelling nature of garage rock with more dextrous runs. It’s impressively natural. But, nothing here would sound this big if it wasn’t for the drummer - a machine who packs a stadium sized wallop and drills in unorthodox fills. He likes things bold and brash, but keeps a remarkably danceable groove too, far from the rigidity of classic rock.

I’m content to call it a day after finding the best band on the first night, but succumb to peer pressure and go and see Ice Age at Vera. Ice Age are a dark post-punk band famed for lead singer Elias Bender Rønnenfelt’s stage antics.

Convinced it’s going to be a predictable display of Iggy Pop-esque bravado and loud guitars, I head to the bar and look sullenly at the floor. “They’re incredible, trust me on this one,” says a Scottish friend next to me. Ok. Chin up.

And sure enough, anyone who’s orchestrated what’s going on this stage right now deserves to exhibit cocky frontman stage antics. The more ordinary and easily frameable guitar band sound is thrown out for arresting passages of the kind of music you’d expect to hear from a neo-classical orchestra. Intriguingly, it’s played out with the rowdy rushes of rebellious feedback, ensuring any overly clever bits were opaque in the mix. It feels mystical and endears me to repeat listens to hear what’s within the swirling sounds. For the first time – at least to my knowledge - saxophone and violin are part of the band which also adds another dimension to their appeal as a live act. Against the odds, then, Ice Age are developing into one of Europe’s most exciting bands.

Thursday begins in earnest when I go to meet London-based band Husky Loops. The Italian-born three-piece, who’ve recently supported Placebo on tour are sat at a banquet table and are having a bonding moment when I disturb them. They’re drinking Heineken with Husky Loops written on the bottle and are chuffed to bits. Socially easy going, they are most animated speaking about the bigger picture: the world, philosophy, consumption and armageddon, as opposed to their own art, the meaning of which even they themselves admit they struggle to define. Chatting is a change from zoning around from gig-to-gig and after some ping pong I catch a ride in their splitter van from The Artist Village to town. The historic centre has barely any room for cars so everyone parks 2km out and hangs around this giant warehouse.

A huge crowd is forming outside Poolcentrum to see this new band who make, in the words of their singer, “pissed off pop music”. It’s a definition which seems apt yet deductive, considering the nuanced spectacle they put on.

The appeal for me is in the darkly affected wall of sound: visceral bass riffs, idiosyncratic live drums intertwining with hip-hop style samples, arena-ready guitars and rock vocals of the highest order. On stage they’re caught in a frenetic storm of strobes that emphasise the violent undertones within their massive tunes coming from their first two EPs.

Post-show and the buzz follows them on to the streets as bookers hover around them, eager to put on shows. They’re going places this lot, but right now I’m going to the pub – a local pub off the festival map recommended to me by a Eurosonic veteran.

Named O’Ceallaighs, it’s a local place that’s played host to bands all night - who I’ve missed. Nevertheless, it proves good value as a friendly local hang out to make new friends, and get chatting to new people. My acquaintance has a Viking build and takes a gulp of his quadruple whiskey and proceeds to tell me about his history as a busker on these streets over 17 years. The openness and enthusiasm that locals have towards outsiders warms my heart, but I make my excuses and leave to makeshift venue Kult where there are still bands playing.

So it's a two minute walk down a dingy alleyway and a left turn past a sparsely stocked off-licence, and into a space that seems well geared for live music, if not for the claustrophobes. Submitting to the sweat filled pit of people eagerly necking anything alcoholic it’s the kind of place that doesn’t adhere too closely to the rules: it's only officially full when you literally can’t physically fit any more people in, which is a nice change from the measured numbers of the 'proper' venues.

A couple to the left of me are heavily making out, another woman leans over as if she’s asking for change then mutters something bitter and angry to herself – it’s not for the faint hearted. I’m hoping my mates come soon. For the bands playing here this environment is inextricable from the actual music – the appeal lies in the intensity of watching people nearly fall face first into the mixing desk or spill a beer over the guitar pedals.

The first band I get to see on this stage are garage/psych sorts Korfbal. They employ Parquet Courts-y hooks, wared Ty Segall-ish vocals, and play fuzzed-up Pink Floyd covers at lightning tempo. It’s a rowdy party of the best kind and they look the part, too. How a label in the UK hasn’t snapped them up yet is beyond me. I see The Homesick’s sound engineer on the way out. “It doesn’t get any better than this,” he says. Quite so – especially as an outsider stepping into a tight knit punk scene that in a bigger city may be cliquey but in this town feels inclusive and burgeoning.

Vera – the Cavern Club of Groningen, but without the tacky tourism – is the next port of call.

There’s a night going on which boasts having had Mr. Scruff play previously, but I don’t make it past the first distraction: Vera’s more dingy basement bar called Kelderbar: its black walls and great soundtrack are homely for a grunge/metal fan. There’s a smoking area where people choke on fat spliffs and there’s a queue to get in as people avoid the cold outside. The Brits are having ‘bants’ by playing a very dramatic game of foosball. After a few glugs of the ubiquitous Heineken, I leave the building, hoping to check out this night we’ve come for but instead find myself upstairs in a youth hostel-esque floor of Vera, which is where all the bands stay. On the next floor is a screen print studio. Bands who play get a place to sleep, make food, incredible art work to promote their night, and a bar to get high in downstairs. London venues start to seem much less cool by comparison with these brioche bun burger merchant/rock clubs. This is the kind of place that’s stuck to its guns. Make posters, host bands for the night, put on some of the best gigs in Europe. That’s sustainable business without compromise.

Friday kicks off with another trip to Artist Village watching zombied roadies and bands – some of whom have peeled their faces off their van seat after ten hour journeys to get here - take a first shot of coffee. Once brain activity is resumed, artists either sit doing interviews, play table tennis, or gather around the warm furnace. It’s a stupidly big warehouse with the atmosphere of a good upper middle restaurant, with chefs creating healthy food served at long banquet tables. I could spend the day here – but wrap up my interviews and divert back to town and cycle around with some friends. It’s not the best idea – it’s January and it's hailing. Much better is going up the bell tower on a private tour, up 365 treacherous step to the best panorama in town – it’s illegal to build anything taller than it. Must be an ego thing. Back at ground level, French band Cannibale do their best to make us feel sky high. The vintage production of their album out on excellent French label Born Bad Records has been on repeat in the Gigwise office in recent weeks. The group are from a semi-rural part of Normandy, and what’s extraordinary is how they have picked influences that stretch far beyond the oyster-rich confines of their northern French towns. The 60s swagger of underrated band The Seeds with elements of baroque pop make for a jaw dropping, hip shaking combination. It’s no wonder they were hand-picked by Eursonic to play and didn’t even apply.

Their ear for melody is of enviable quality: there are four backing vocalists and any could be a frontman. Everyone’s instruments are plugged into vintage gear to create a sub-heavy groove that gets everyone dancing with wild abandon. Tonight I consider merely an introduction and their next album they’re putting out draws on Angolan rhythms. It’ll be exciting to hear an even more dynamic set than they’ve already got in the coming months.

It’s punk night again at Kult and this time it’s oi/hardcore nutcases The Fake O’s gracing the stage at the venue, which is in characteristically messy form. The band are plugged into their boxy amps under a galaxy of red and green dots that coat the blackened room. Budget production but good production.

The band – raucous reprobates soaked in beer, sweat and blood – are as fiercely punk as the come. I’m actually cowering as the singer carves out space as the ferocity of his vocals makes him seem huge. It’s like being in an Alsatian’s cage. The guy who’s brought his own Jaeger in doesn’t seem to mind getting rammed into, and gets easily embroiled in the mosh. But his lack of restraint is in good nature: “The worst I’ve ever done is chip someone’s tooth, but that’s about it,” says the singer, who I chat to in the off license next door after the show. The blood’s dried on his face slightly from the show and he's such a sweet guy that you'd barely recognise him once off the stage.

He tells me he’s from Groningen and has cut a few demos and only played one show out of Holland. It’s impossible to see them remaining so under the radar with shows as wild as this, though, and they’re very young, with time on their side to grow a following.

The next venue is a pub named Kroeg Van Klaas. It’s a good ten minute walk through sodden rain, and it’s a personal invite from a band manager that brings me here, a place I definitely didn’t expect to find and one that even Eursonic regulars rarely heard of. More stunningly decorated than any Irish pub outside of Ireland I’ve ever seen, the long bar is attended by just one staff member – with a hundred Grolsh guzzlers pining for another patient. The other bartender has become an impromptu doorman, trying to keep out more people who are letching at the entrance like zombies. I was one of the last to get in. Apparently it doesn’t close until 6am; we’re one of the lucky ones.

The first of two bands billed are Pip Blom, the opening act. They take to the stage at 1.30am to a packed room of fans who are here especially to see this rising talent nail those ear worm post-grunge/jangle pop singles. It’s a gig that was kept somewhat under the radar but words evidently spread. It’s pretty difficult to get through the door, but in there it’s a slightly more civilised crowd and less dungeon-like that Kult where Korfbal and Fake O’s were playing.

On stage Pip appears confident, taking command of a late show in the way you’d hope a band in their early 20s and late teens with the world at their feet would. It’s a relief from the industry heavy crowd of her earlier gig and she’s clearly less pensive, egging on the band and the crowd which gets a great reaction. To see this and replicate this atmosphere on a world stage will be a monumental achievement.

Pavement-endorsed Canshaker Pi, meanwhile, pack a louder, heavier punch than Pip Blom and are playing to a gang of mates in the crowd. It’s shambolic but seemingly more accomplished musically than ever before. A year ago the brash energy and distortion almost outweighed their hooks and melodies, but they seem to have tipped the balance now – single ‘Indie Academy’ portrays this most clearly.

Sat in the corner of the room as foot space has complete run out, I peer over and see the band’s devout following hang on to their every word and chord change as if it’s the last gig they’ll ever see in their lives. Raw passion of this sort is such an invigorating thing to be around – and they’ve got every chance of becoming a big band in the UK in 2018. With a support slot with The Cribs fresh under their belt, they’ve had a taste of the big time and very much seem poised to become a headline act in their own right.

Saturday on Groningen on Eurosonic weekend means one thing: Noorderslag, the best showcase of Dutch bands run by staunchly passionate people. With ten venues within the modern complex on the edge of a canal, once you’re in, you really don’t need to be anywhere else.

I walk there with the head honcho of Eurosonic, Ruud, and he leads me and a group of other delegates who’ve lasted the four days to a private backstage bar. It proves a great place to start drinking and taste some classic Dutch beer snacks. No eierbal, though. Some of the delegates have gone harder than others over the past few days so the opportunity to relax for a few hours is lapped up. Pivoting all out energy towards the late night slots, hours passed like minutes as the conversation flows.

This measured approach to going out pays off, so by the time I head out for Altin Gun, I’m well in the mood.

The group’s bio on the internet in English says nothing but the fact they’re into Turkish psychedelia and hooked up with trendy musicians from Jungle By Night and Jacco Gardner. We don’t know much more but the light in people’s eyes from those who’ve seen them play in town or at the secret record shop gig earlier makes you want to go.

I head down, not expecting the world but I'm greeted with undeniably intoxitiang grooves that lean on disparate influences from Western rock and Turkish music. The most dominating person on stage is singer Merve Sasdemir, who has a voice tailor made to launch this band onto the biggest festival stages in Europe, with dance moves, and retro fashion to boot.

The dizzying impact of the more archaic notation gives way to heavy repetition momentarily and the band start headbanging to an alternative dancefloor groove. This clever excursion delights the audience who by this point are up for something hard hitting.

The next group, Kuena I Tambu are less cunning in their intertwining of musical styles, and are a brash mash up of Western electronica and Carribean Curacao. The beatmaster lays the foundations from which the infectious rattle of acoustic percussion intertwines with the commanding, jovial, front two MCs who grind each other occasionally, drawing Cheshire cat smiles from the audience who can’t get enough of their over confidence. The music, a reflection of boozy club culture and carnival parties, is magnetic to be around. Their show would easily work on the biggest outdoor stages, as the fact it’s behind two very hard to find closed doors in this oosterport venue is great for sound, but anyone who didn’t know them by name would always want to throw their heads in the mix at a show like this.

Colin Benders is playing in one of the smaller rooms in the complex, but it does contain the colossal sound beaming out of his towering modular synth brilliantly. The console he’s using to create this exhilarating heavy techno dwarfs his body. His hippie looks, which portray a life spent dedicated to carving out the ultimate club sound by sourcing outdated machines with unique tones is a strong one. Back turned to the audience, he’s less concered with hyping the audience than dillignelty ensuring everything is being triggered in time and that he’s feeling the beat. If he’s feeling it then so will we.

Within seconds of unleashing the first rib-rattling rhythms, people push forward with the enthusiasm they would give an arena rockstar. Benders’ following is comparatively small but highly respectable. I heard about him after he came recommended as the best act to see at Lowlands by a record shop owner in Amsterdam. I tend to trust record shop owners, especially independently owned ones, as tastemakers. Having missed him there, it’s long overdue and worth the wait. Never taking his foot off the gas, it's an exhilarating ride which people are transfixed by, content, alieviated from all the chaos in the world – and largely managing this without gurning faces. The transformative impact Colin Benders has on its listener could change someone from the most stubborn of moods into an all night raver, no question.

Apparently, this modular synth thing is getting bigger and Benders is going to be jamming out with some more guys in coming months. It’s popular here in Holland, and with the world of low quality bit rates, it’s about time the audiophiles reigned for a bit and introduced a strong performance element to dance music that’s much more engaging than conventional, commercial techno sets that so often compensate for the lack of stage activity with a stupidly big light and lazer show that mostly look good only if you’re high. Benders could be played at midday with your corn flakes and you’d be like, ’yep, ah, this is good'. It’s genuinely unfathomable to think people can’t see the significance of Colin Benders.

He’s the last act I see here, apart from a brief snippet of Charlie and The Lesbians, who are as much part of the mosh as their fans. The oi punk band have to substantiate the reliance of Fake O’s and they hint at a strong underground scene in Groningen that may pop its head above the Dijk line very soon.

Leaving Groningen isn’t that easy. It’s been emotional. It’s an amazing location with bands from all over that have done incredible things. It leaves me with tonnes of new music to listen to, some that I’ve seen here and stacks more that I should have seen but didn't. The whole festival's line-up remains a valuable resource from which to pluck future greats. Eurosonic is truly the best way to start the year for any music fan, and there’s little you could do to improve the offerings, not to mention very practical food solutions to keep you going throughout. Groningen is winter festival utopia. End of.

Photo: Bart Heemskerk