For a first-timer, Eurosonic Noorderslag’s format can feel a little overwhelming.
In addition to a five-day industry conference, the festival (known to most as ESNS) is also home to the European Festival Awards and the Music Moves Europe Talent Awards, as well as a dizzying array of live events looking to nourish the 40,000-plus visitors who descend on the picturesque city of Groningen each January.
The premise of ESNS is simple. Comprised of two festivals – Eurosonic, a vast showcase of artists from across Europe, and Noorderslag, which caters exclusively to Dutch talent – each runs as a non-profit with the laudable aim of platforming European music. As a university town, Groningen has an outsize number of established gig venues, including the historic VERA, which plays host to some of the most anticipated sets of the weekend.
The abundance of heavier music proves a welcome surprise throughout the weekend and fares no worse in some of ESNS’ less purpose-built venues (which all sound excellent, a credit to the festival’s production team). Italian shoegaze specialists Rev Rev Rev play an earth-shattering set in a snooker hall, and Scalping provide one of the weekend’s standout moments in Kokomo, a chintzy student club temporarily plunged into the void by the Bristol band’s lurid live visuals and barrelling techno-indebted punk.
However, ESNS’ bill is by no means limited to guitar music. Stylistically worlds away, but just as arresting, is breakout MC Alyona Alyona, who spits in her native Ukranian over chest-rattling 808 kicks. Perhaps the most singular performance of the weekend was the brilliant Mart Avi, whose otherworldly avant-pop evokes a timeless quality reminiscent of Bowie or Depeche Mode.
Many of ESNS’ most compelling live shows come from the home side. Ascendant pop soloist Naaz delivers a captivating acoustic set on Friday afternoon before delivering a show-stopping headline set at the Music Moves European Talent Awards. Saturday’s Noorderslag event revealed a concentrated snapshot of the Netherlands’ buzzing scene. Altin Gün’s Turkish psych jams mark them out as a must-see across this year’s festival season; Lo-Fi Le-Vi charmed with their cheery bedroom pop; and Pip Blom’s riotous performance spurred an army of thrashing bodies.
Eurosonic Noorderslag successfully avoids the pitfalls of other showcase-style events. Far from being a self-congratulatory industry trap, its focus is very much on propelling artists forwards and outwards, with a spirit of optimism and collaboration that feels, well, distinctly European.