Eurosonic Noorderslag review: virtual showcase where discovering new music has never been easier

The Dutch festival provided an energetic blueprint for new music showcases for years to come

Eurosonic Noorderslag is the Dutch equivalent of The Great Escape, the UK’s seaside springtime new music knees-up which sets the tone for following months’ festival season. Eurosonic typically takes place annually across four days in early January with every bar, theatre space, venue and fetish club in the city of Groningen, Netherlands turned into a stage as breaking artists from all over Europe set out to impress festival bookers and make a name for themselves.

However, with international travel banned and a global pandemic not really lending itself to the art of squeezing yourself into a packed room, this year’s Eurosonic is a virtual-only affair, of course. For four evenings last week (Jan 13-16), four channels broadcast live performances recorded by the would-be lineup, while a fifth celebrates the best of what’s come before. It’s a very different sort of showcase to the intense venue-hopping that this event usually demands but in terms of giving new music a platform, it works incredibly well. Here are the big takeaway from 2021’s first showcase festival…

Are live-streamed festivals the future of showcasing new music?

The pros are obvious. For punters, there’s no queueing outside of venues already at capacity in the hope of getting in, as these livestreams guarantee you an unspoiled front row view, and pack no horrible clashes. Despite the four channels broadcasting every evening, you can watch back any performance on demand for the rest of January so it’s possible to see every single act on the bill. Well, it’s not like you’ve got anything else to do.

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The ease of channel-hopping and the short-but-sweet 15-minute set time makes the act of discovery so devastatingly, simple that this setup really could lay the foundations for the future of showcase festivals like The Great Escape or SXSW whose entire existence is based around the idea of giving new artists a platform.

With most livestreams, though, the downsides are crippling. It’s been the norm for almost a year now but still, watching a band on a laptop screen is not remotely the same as experiencing them in real life. The joy of these new music festivals is seeing a fledgling band win over a tentative audience or pack out a venue that’d normally be far beyond them as buzz builds and queues snake across the city. This year, they’re all playing to empty rooms and without any sort of interaction beyond a button that sprays heart emojis all over your screen, it’s an isolated affair.

In normal circumstances, the distance between venues means a band has to be pretty dire to force you back onto the streets in search of something better but with a change of virtual scene available at the click of a button, this year the acts really do have to be excellent to hold your attention. This digital showcase makes it really easy to find a great new artist but almost impossible to fall head over heels for them.

Hopefully next year we’ll be stumbling around Groningen again, safe in the knowledge that if the queue for Vera is too long, we can stream what we missed instead. An on-demand library of these breaking bands is a fantastic tool for discovery, but without an audience, Eurosonic loses some of its unique character. Perhaps a hybrid event with real-life performances to the usual rowdy crowds broadcast globally is the new normal we should all be aiming for.

COVID can’t kill the band

Following a year where hanging out with your mates was literally a criminal offence in many places, it’s little surprise that many of the recent breakout artists have trended towards solo artists. Genres ripe for isolation – such as self-sufficient bedroom-pop, less-so bedroom-metal – have exploded in popularity, as DIY livestreams have forced indie bands to rework their festival-ready anthems into acoustic ballads (or avoid playing live entirely) with varying degrees of success. And without the thrill and financial benefits of touring, many groups have simply avoided putting out any new music.

In spite of that, loud guitars and community spirit is alive and well at Eurosonic. Delivering conversational indie anthems full of personality, energy and excitement, it’s easy to see why Sports Team have signed Personal Trainer to their Holm Front label. ‘Politics’ is a relaxed, funk-driven moment of wonky calm before the closing ‘Fiddlefunk’ ignites megaphone-fronted chaos.

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Amsterdam’s Global Charming create fizzing indie-punk that sounds like The B-52’s meets early Foals, while Cardiff’s Buzzard Buzzard Buzzard have a touch of The Darkness about their rock and roll swagger. Sparkling supergroup My Ugly Clementine use their years in various other bands to deliver a rough and ready set of sparkling indie-pop gems.

Taking over Warp Studios, London duo Jockstrap deliver their warped take on pop with menacing glee. The aching synths in opener ‘Acid’ give the track a swaying melancholy, the doomy ‘Charlotte’ is a sci-fi nightmare that toys with the volume knob while the theatrical ‘City’ travels via a chaotic strobe-lit rave to tell a weird fairytale about a beaver that’s bonkers but also brilliant.

Global Charmin
Credit: Jorrit van de Kolk

Have we reached post-punk saturation? Not quite…

After making their leaps into the mainstream under the guise of “post-punk”, the likes of Fontaines D.C., Idles and Shame have all started to move beyond fuzzy guitars and yelped lyrics and into new territory – but the genre remains alive, well and, crucially, interesting. Belfast mob Enola Gay have only released one song since forming at the tail end of 2019 and this virtual performance is their seventh ever gig, but the baby band are already showing snarling promise. Opener ‘Salt’ is an urgent, turbulent number while ‘Figures’ is proof that this is no retread – their songs are powering them into vicious new places.

At the opposite end of things, Rotterdam’s Rats on Rafts inject a bit of flair to their brooding punk thrash, proving that you can be menacing and also have a giggle, while London’s Chubby and The Gang blast through a fast and furious six-song set. It’s a performance that would flourish with a live audience to push against but alone in their garage, their scrappy punk rebellion has to make do with being solely entertaining rather than life-affirming just for now.

Ireland remains a hotbed of creativity

Despite being ground zero for the recent wave of post-punk, Ireland has always been much bigger than a single genre. At times Alex Gough’s dizzying blend of rap, hop-hop and jazz sounds like James Blake or Twenty One Pilots but his modern take on emo never feels derivative and his arena ambition is already pushing things forward.

Also performing at the iconic Dublin venue Whelan’s, Limerick’s PowPig band together to create haunting indie brilliance. ‘Pretty Woman’ is driven by a clenched-fist rage and the swaying ‘Rolling Along’ provides a tropical escape but it’s the flickering opener of ‘It Smells’ that sees the group at their confident best; taking influence from Wolf Alice and Hayley Williams’ solo work, the track jumps between lush daydreams and carefree chaos.

Taking to an empty National Opera House, Denise Chaila fearlessly delivered her emo hip-hop down the barrel of the camera lens. A born performer, her confidence is arresting and her music is soulful. The rich ‘Anseo’ is a fierce hunk of joyful pop, ‘All That’ soars with an empowering belief while the giddy ‘Chaila’ is a much better version of The Ting Tings’ ‘That’s Not My Name’. Covering a lot of ground with her 15-minute slot Denise Chaila uses her short time to make a lasting impression.

Pop is weirder than ever

Following the record-breaking global success of Billie Eilish, labels have been scrambling to replicate that off-kilter edge. But most importantly, listeners have never been more accepting of pop from the experimental edges and that’s celebrated across Eurosonic. Dutch singer Bente delivers a weepy but powerful set of trembling, heartfelt slow-jams, the cinematic pop of France’s Silly Boy Blue soars with the backing of a full band while Lava La Rue’s delicate sound is just a little bit of everything. Opening with the driving ‘Angel’ before changing gears for the empowering heart of ‘Lift You Up’ and the deliberate magic of ‘Magpie’, La Rue is in total control of her genre-shifting soul-pop.

Holly Humberstone’s lo-fi set is a stark contrast to the sleek performances that most other artists deliver over the course of the festival but intimate and fuzzy around the edges, it suits her music perfectly. The reaching ‘Falling Asleep At The Wheel’ is a three minute burst of piano-driven heartbreak and self-doubt, ‘Overkill’ is a scrappy anthem that teeters on the edge of love while the closing ‘Vanilla’ is proof that superstars don’t need anything but an acoustic guitar and some killer songs to take over the world.

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