What a difference a year makes. 12 months ago, the music industry was making its annual pilgrimage to Groningen, The Netherlands, for Eurosonic, the four-day jamboree that sets much of the tone for the musical year ahead. Labels, bookers, and agents hunt for hidden gems and the next breakthrough act; artists jostle for column inches and festival slots, trying to impress. Some bands arrive on a wave of hype. Others end up playing to six people, but everyone dreams big.
Some of those dreams would have no doubt come true, but little did anyone know that Eurosonic 2020 was to be one of the last, major music events to take place anywhere before Covid-19 shut down, well, pretty much everything. Music – and culture is general – has been hit particularly hard; for artists, touring and live performance was one of the few, reliable sources of income left. So much of 2020 was spent scrambling; re-scheduling album releases, writing pandemic-inspired songs, and trying to wring any cash possible from streaming and virtual concerts.
Yet “going digital”, for all the promise of a brave new world, often amounts to nothing more than a band playing in front of a camera – a situation in which it’s tricky to catch an artist’s vital spark or energy. Yet here we are, locked down with only screens for company, endlessly clicking our days away. The show must go on. And so it does – Eurosonic’s first “digital edition” featured pre-recorded 15-minute sets streamed across four online channels, all completely free, starting from 8pm each night.
Very few artists attempt to break the fourth wall, or acknowledge the strangeness of the situation. But some have no choice. “I’m really excited to be playing some songs for you,” says Holly Humberstone direct to camera, sitting in what looks like her living room. “I hope you like them.” Three stripped down tracks – just guitar or piano – follow, in a performance that’s charming and heartfelt. The setting suits her honest, raw pop perfectly.
Other bands have grander ideas. Norwegian trio Orions Belte deliver their psych-lounge vibes atop one of their country’s famous fjords, wearing vintage 80s sports shorts and hi-tops, while Denise Chaila opts for old school grandeur, performing in Dublin’s opulent Irish National Opera house. The Zambian-Irish artist, a rising star who’s currently gracing many Ones To Watch lists, effortlessly switches between fiery rap (‘Anseo’ – ‘here’ in Irish) and smooth neo-soul (‘All That’), her rich, elegant flow perfectly complementing the surroundings.
Chaila is at the vanguard of a new wave of exciting artists emerging from Ireland’s music scene; Alex Gough is another. The drummer, rapper, and producer can do serious and sweet, recounting tales of frustrated youth over laidback, jazz-inflected soul. It’s a curious mix, especially when he’s behind the kit – he drums left-handed too, adding to the spectacle – but it works. Gough, much like Chaila, is more poet than rapper, all razor-sharp social commentary and clever wordplay; rhymes with big ideas.
Recent years have seen an explosion in bedroom pop practitioners, stylish youths in beanie hats and wire-rimmed glasses matching existential angst to lo-fi synths, melancholic minimalism, and fuzzy drum machine beats. In part, this makes sense in the modern music business – it’s cheap and easy to record at home, not to mention tour – but it also leads to certain sameness; the style doesn’t readily lend itself to innovation. But looking at the lineup, it’s encouraging to see just how many new bands are trying to exist, to wrench exciting things from guitar, drums and bass.
Bands like The Netherlands’ Global Charming. They’re listed as being post-punk, but their charm is based as much on raw rock and shambling, retro indie. Parquet Courts are an obvious touch stone, but Global Charming lean less on frenzied intensity or skittish affectations. Several songs have a distinctly slacker vibe, as if everything is refracted through a lazy, late-afternoon haze. Less fizz and angst, more slow-burn energy.
Greek quartet Deaf Radio operate at the heavier end of the spectrum, all roiling riffs and bone-dry desert rock. Frontman Panos Gklinos has a voice as big as his band’s tunes, and they occasionally fold in a few, interesting flourishes – ‘Animals’ begins with big, dirty synth blasts that nod to Nine Inch Nails, while ‘Model Society’ has an interlude that’s pure Foals. But they’re at their best when pushing against the edges of their songs, when the twin guitars of Gklinos and Dimitris Sakellariou whip up a hurricane and dare the rhythm section to keep up.
Loudness is a virtue again it seems, for there are no end of shouty bands and filthy punk rock. Welsh quartet Buzzard Buzzard Buzzard arrive much hyped. They’re loud, brash, and full of rock’n’roll swagger – imagine a cross between The Darkness and Status Quo. ‘30,000 Megabucks’ is a fun-time stomp, while ‘Crescent Man vs Demolition Dan’ has far more melody and nuance than you’d expect from a band so enthralled with double denim.
Joe & The Shitboys take things up a notch. The self-styled “shit-punkers”, hailing from that hotbed of political, scatty, tongue-in-cheek punk The Faroe Islands – no, really – rush through an electric, mesmerizing set, absolutely no fucks given. “We’re bisexual vegans!” shouts singer Fríði; “Shitboys gonna fuck you up / Shitboys gonna suck you off” runs the chorus of opener ‘Shitboys Theme’. They’re also possibly the only band here for whom 15 minutes is a normal set time – we get no less than 14 songs, including fan favourites ‘Drugs R’4 Kidz’, ‘Life Is Great You Suck’, and ‘If You Believe In Eating Meat Start With Your Dog’.
They’re rivalled in the hardcore stakes by UK group Chubby and the Gang, who deliver a no-nonsense, pulverizing suite of punk that lands like a punch in the face. “Punk´s most vital new band!” declared the Guardian late last year, a tag they more than live up to. ‘The Mutt’s Nutts’ is a thrilling, visceral demonstration of their power, and they keep their foot down throughout, pausing only for the sweetly melodic ‘Trouble (You Were Always On My Mind)’.
But there are plenty of great bands operating at the softer end of the spectrum, and Austrian supergroup My Ugly Clementine are the best of them all. The brainchild of songwriter and producer Sophie Lindinger (of Leyya fame), she enlisted musicians she’d always wanted to work with – Mira Lu Kovacs, Kathrin Kolleritsch, and Barbera Jungreithmeier. The result is wonderous. Opener ‘Who’ is the prettiest slice of indie pop you’ll ever hear, and it just gets better from there. The bass has an easy groove, the guitar licks are joyful, and there’s a lightness to everything, as if the songs were floating on soft summer clouds.
‘Acid’, by London duo Jockstrap, pushes this idea even further, a vintage pop ballad underpinned by string samples and electronic wizardry. Signed to acclaimed label Warp, this colliding of worlds makes sense – Georgia Ellery is a classically-trained jazz violinist, while Taylor Skye studies electronic music and production. Such contrasts fuel their music; sweeping ballads injected with distorted production, gentle minimalism often barged aside by laser sounds or synth blasts. At one point, Skye employs what sounds like a church organ playing a funeral.
And yet it works, gloriously so. In many ways, this is precisely what Eurosonic is great at – giving raw but bright talent a platform, championing those operating around the fringes and allowing those enjoying that initial rush of hype to bloom. Jockstrap deserve to be successful; all of the above do. The only shame is that no-one could be present in person to watch these acts take such exciting, bold, nascent steps, to properly experience it all.
“Exceeds ambitious expectations” states a press release after the event. And it’s true to an extent – the festival did exceptionally well to make the best of a bad situation. Sitting watching a screen reminds you how vital live music is, how much magic can be lost through transmission across the digital ether. All the artists worked hard to make the most of their 15 minutes, and there was plenty of potential – and talent – on show. We can only hope that things will soon return to something approaching normality, so we can once more cram down the front, dance, and watch bands seize their moment. To say, simply, “we were there”.