Nobody could have imagined – or hoped – that almost two years on from the start of the pandemic, the world would still be in the virus’ grip and live music would still be retreating online. Making the best of an unfortunate situation and keen to build on the success of last year’s impressive virtual debut, the team behind ESNS (Eurosonic Noorderslag) again adapted quickly. Especially as, up until December and the threat of omicron, the 36th edition of the Netherlands’ annual new music showcase had been planned to take place physically in Groningen, with thousands of fans resuming the quest to catch Europe’s brightest musical stars.
We had hoped to catch NME 100 alumni like Wet Leg, Enola Gay and Finn Askew in a sweaty venue, but thanks to the power of technology, we were instead immersed in the worlds of countless artists from the comfort of our own homes with this year’s four-night new music extravaganza. These are the weekend’s five biggest takeaways…
ESNS (Eurosonic Noorderslag) is setting the standard for live-streamed festivals
Programming performances – ranging from studio recordings to full on live shows and cinema-worthy short-films – from hundreds of acts who are spread across the globe is no easy task. But the team in charge have made channel-hopping seamless, with four streams available to flick through at the click of a button. It’s possible to see all your favourite new bands and not have to miss out on anything – as you likely would have legging it between venues. There’s no danger of arriving and being stuck at the back of the room, and all the performances are uploaded online the next day, meaning set time clashes aren’t an issue; you can relive those new discovery moments again and again.
Pandemic experimentation pays dividends
Experimenting freely and creating without restrictions is being celebrated more than ever, and that’s certainly reflected by the mixture of genre-defying artists showcased this year. Worthing trio NOISY combine ravey beats and gnarly guitar riffs from their separate homes; French newcomer Coucou Chloe’s industrial noise slithers under the skin; Leipzig-based producer Zouj’s futuristic, surreal and synthetic post-hyperpop is made even more surreal by the local supermarket setting.
Another musical chameleon is Franco-Algerian Sabrina Bellaouel whose effortless fusion of electronic, trap and avant-garde sounds is translated enchantingly in front of a blank white backdrop. Performing tracks from last year’s stunning ‘Libra’ EP, she commands attention without needing any flashy production, instead letting her music and transfixing presence do the talking.
Contrastingly, queer, London-based Latvian rapper Eliza Legzdina’s sex-positive bangers – performed in an Art Deco warehouse living room – mark her out as a thrilling name to watch. Making full use of the set, ‘Backflip’ sees her twerk in front of a gallery’s worth of snazzy paintings, and during ‘Composure’, she’s on a plush velvet sofa flirtily encouraging camera close-ups.
Mellow introspection suits the post-lockdown mood
Looking inwards and reflecting on life over the last few years has led many artists into a contemplative state of mind. New creators like Norwegian pop queen Hanne Mjøen, British TikTok breakthrough Mimi Webb, Irish songwriter Smoothboi Ezra, and London’s Kai Kwasi all share personal heartbreak and pain in intricate, soul-bearing sets.
This year’s festival is ravier than ever
From Parisian electro to tough techno and ‘90s nostalgia, many of the artists on this year’s bill scratch the clubbing itch through the laptop screen. Utrecht duo Tinlicker’s “computerised soul” EDM comes to life with neon strobes and tension-building filming, while the funky basslines and wobbly synths of French producer Myd’s live show (a recording of an IRL gig in Paris) are full of energy, turning party anthems like ‘Sun’ into living-room groovers.
Then there’s the hypnotic techno of French producer Irene Dresel who, wearing a white wedding dress and a beaming smile across her face, has an elaborate stage design with flowers adorning her electronic hardware, while petals hang from the ceiling and change colour in time to the pulsating beats. Meanwhile, producer duo Ultraflex go on a joyride through a disco theme park, their shimmering synths glistening through the prism of a VHS-style home video.
NME’s most bonkers discovery of the festival, though, is gabber-classical duo Ascendant Vierge: fusing a near-operatic vocal with banging drum’n’bass and rolling breakbeats, the Belgian-French pair look as if they’ve been beamed in from a spaceship and landed in the ‘90s – complete with sunglasses indoors, garish outfits and a sweaty warehouse crowd. Their heady trance-techno fusion is ridiculously fun, and it’s impossible to not sing along to ‘Discotecha’. The flamboyant hardstyle gabber of ‘Influencer’ is somehow even more wild.
Berwyn is one of the UK’s brightest prospects
Stripping everything back to its bare bones, Berwyn’s spellbinding set is striking in its minimalism and honesty. He doesn’t need lavish production; instead, the Mercury Prize-nominee lets his soulful vocal and effortless storytelling do the talking. Staring down the camera, the Trinidad-born, London-based rapper, producer, and songwriter’s raw honesty hits a real nerve, especially as he verges on tears by the end of ‘017 Freestyle’. Packed with emotion, ‘Trap Phone’ sees him sat down playing the piano over a haunting synth soundscape; listening to his pained struggles, it’s impossible to not be enveloped in his life story. The ambitious, heart-stirring ‘Glory’, meanwhile, finds him rapping one moment before singing the next, covering racism, mental health and more, all in one song; an outstanding talent.