Downstairs in steamy, sweaty, sleazy Kult, Apneu's goofy singer is wearing high heels and he's winking at people.
(Pic courtesy of Hedwig Plomp)
Normally I start my ESNS reviews in one of the pubs. I don't normally go to the main festival; because normally I don't need to. There's enough on in the side programme to keep me occupied. ESNS is a Nieuwjaarsborrel with my fave Dutch bands in some of my favourite pubs, a wallet-crippling (but essential) visit to Elpee (their weirdo/psych/rockabilly rack is an ever-giving thing of beauty) and the odd surprise show. Simple. I make no excuses over this and there'll be more of that in this review. This year, though, it's slightly different, as I'm on a panel on the Saturday about music journalism (yes, little old "buitenbeentje" me) and have therefore gained ingress to the throbbing, perma-smiling seat of power; Eno's Nervenet. Shelob's lair. First impressions of the Oosterpoort are worrying. I have an issue with spaces like this. Years ago, I attended a hell of a lot of trade fairs in big concrete and glass faux/post-brutalist eighties public buildings; and gained a healthy dislike for them. The Oosterpoort is essentially a building of that breed. A big centre where things get sliced and diced for the coming festival season; a Tin Pan Alley and Schiphol airport roled into one. Fine. I creep around like a hobbit in Mordor. Luckily I see sympathetic faces who lead me to a place of respite in a small basement room. Here, Terrie Hessels, he of The Ex and one of the true greats of doing what the fuck you want as both a musician and a human being, is giving a talk on his experiences on the road. Lots of questions (from managers, bookers, press) revolve around the idea of "you're still doing it Terrie, so how can we?" to which Terrie just shrugs. Quite rightly, and through his bemusement Hessels points out that there is no one way; and it's essentially down to whether you have the guts and patience to put your work first; for no guaranteed reward; year after year. If you want to guarantee money as a musician, go into banking and play in a covers band when you can. His daughter sings a very cool ballad and we sip beer. This young Hesseels has probably got more pop nous than her dad who cranks out his rasping noise as a send off.
Off to The Crown where the Wolf Atlas loons are hosting their showcase. Wolf Atlas have some mighty cool things going down, not least their twin-headed storm troop groups (provincial brigade) of Yuko Yuko and The Homesick. The latter are on, and making a fucking righteous racket, coming on like a mix of Orange Juice (bassist Jaap IS Edwyn Collins, thank you I will take my crisp twenty pound note for that observation) and a sort of unholy car crash of Swell Maps, Beck and (whisper it and get a semi on) early Can. As in Can making Mother Cannot Yell, or Mary... into a Postcard song. Zoinks! The last track is blistering; the mix of gauche pop-boy-next-door posing and backwoods shrieking being the icing on this extremely listenable cake. Lyrics are along the lines of "the best part of being young is falling in love (with Jesus)"... it's a very Postcard thing to do, curse them... The room is shaken up but there's more to come. From Wolvon.
Now a word of praise for the Wolvons. Not just a great band. These Hairies do nearly fucking everything in Groningen; putting on gigs, shifting gear, winning prizes and being all round decent human beings and generous with their rounds. Even if they do go crazy in your house at 3am. Over this long weekend they will move three times your bodyweight in gear, every day, to diverse locations and set up said gear for other bands to play on, for nothing. Bear that in mind, artholes! Anyway; they are on next and promise to play a load of new things, some of which make the hair stand on end. To get Wolvon is to allow an immersion in the physical or sensual elements of loud sound. After the shock, the heatblast, you can start to flex and stretch your senses to good effect. Currently, Wolvon's visceral attack is the aural equivalent of that sambal selling dude in Rotterdam who goes round the pubs, flogging home made hotness in jars. Try it one time and experience immediate colonic detox. And aural, headshaking detox was on the cards with Wolvon's new songs, which are razor sharp; more stripped down that the old ones, certainly in terms of placing the gradients of sound and texture. The way Ike plays is different, it's more brutal, deliberate, precise, like a diamond cutting through glass. Bram and Ruben's grumbling rhythm section also knows when to hold off or add the undercurrents. They've swapped a lot of their Gonzo, Banana Splits charm for getting to the fucking point and in doing so they stand on the verge of being a rock band in the grand 88-91 tradition; that's to say mixing original and boundary pushing noise with star-cruising attitude. Fucking fabulous.
We take a break for food and come back for Yuko Yuko, whose bedroom pop charm is laid on in spades. It's not the best I've seen them as they're a bit too quiet and perfunctory here, and at times it feels like they're going through the motions; plus Jaap seems a bit knacked after his squawking in The Homesick. But hey, they are multidimensional provincial space beings with some killer tracks; most notably Borderline and their set-closer burn out (the name of which always escapes me). Apart from the terrible twins of Jaap and Elias, the band have a rocking rhythm section and burning soul in Marrit. Marrit isn't some addition, anyone who thinks she's there to make up the numbers as "obligatory background girl" is (IMHO M'Lud) SADLY mistaken. Frankly she is the soul of the band and without her they'd be an enjoyable-but-only-good proposition. Like Bez, or Rowetta or Eamon in BSP (or Bobby in Boney M for that matter) her positive vibe kicks the atmosphere to somewhere else entirely. Plus she's wearing a fucking cool oversize shirt that makes her look like she's been time travelling to 1989. All good.
Thence, O Ceallaigh's, to the Subroutine Verschwende Deine Jugend Showcase (named in honour of the late great Corno Zwetsloot, a sonic pilot who is impossible to replace) and into the madcap arms of owner Peter, whose maniacal vibe and best Guinness outside of the Free State make you feel 10 years younger. Instantly. In fact so euphoric is this happy interlude, I can't remember anything about it. Phase out. It matters not. What is great is that I'm here waiting for the night. Now I want to make one thing clear at this juncture. Before any short sighted oppervlakkig Cnut starts to accuse me of favouritism to one particular label, I have to point out that, just like every year, the two growlers who run Subroutine put on loads of bands who ain't on their label, and won't be anytime soon. It's called being altruistic, a completely useless way of operating in a shark eyed world and a way I dig and respect.
Anyway... First up are Kin, who have a bunch of new songs that have an expansive, fizzing vibe to them. Kin's records are intimate, precise capsules of Kim Foster's worldview. They also demand all your brain juice, and listening in can be ennervating, inspiring and often very very tense. Live, it's a totally different matter as you get more of her warm and engaging personality, which irrigates her expansive (and actually very poppy) music. Her band of Heads is bloody inspiring too; and seems to give Kin the opportunity to guide the spirits that drive her music. In fact there is something very ghostly about this whole gig; it sounds like I'm listening to a shade of a brilliant actor being brought back from across the great divide. Spine tingling stuff.
Upstairs to catch The Avonden (MISTER Marc van der Holst, and Jan-Pieter van Weel) run through their charming/worrying set; a set of hobo Nederlandstalig rambles with Marc's razor sharp wit shining through at all times. Quiet as churchmice, using silence as a sonic weapon (the room's background noise is, in effect, an essential part of the show) de Avonden create this enjoyably uncomfortable space; whilst knocking out bedtime stories for weirdos. Imagine Tim Burton hanging out with Gerard Reve in a park. Fun but unsettling. Down we go to see Sweet Release of Death turn up the temperature. FINALLY, these fuckers let their shamanic side through. They are so much looser these days; gone are the poses and nervous art gallery shapes, now there's more feel and interaction and space. Space is key to them; and they could be on the cusp of finding their thump. There's a bit where Alicia starts growling and rasping at the audience over this slow burn out. It's mesmerising; akin to Siouxsie Sioux doing a take on Battle Hymn of the Republic. More of THIS!
Then it's time to embrace our inner cement mixer with Dead Neanderthals; who are joined by sonic co-pilot, Colin Webster. A dual sax attack! Probably not seen since the flared-trouser fuckers at Top of the Pops got rid of the inhouse orchestra back in the 70s. But these mothers don't come on all squelchy, they chart a course through deserted scrap plants and long destroyed railway stations and zinc factories. Being at a Dead Neanderthals gig is like being in some mad computer game about the Industrial revolution in 1840s Germany. There ain't no way out unless you hold onto your space vehicle and avoid the iron ore flying about. Understandably it's not everyone's cuppa, and the upstairs room at O Ceallaigh's is like some "I can stay in this sauna longer than you" challenge, but you have to dive in there and get sucked under and everything makes sense. We dig, most heavily.
Thence downstairswards to get BRUTALISED by Die Nerven, whose steady, stripped down two-cylinder beat tramples everything in its path. Why I like hearing German sung is beyond me. In fact, angry sounding Germans yelling incomprehensible things over a dry, steady beat (helped along by dry guitars or dry synths) has been a major part of my life for thirty years now, maybe longer. It NEVER fails. Even if they are singing about doing the ironing. Here, the room explodes, dudes throw each other about and the band look totally unconcerned; like some posh waiters who spot and ignore a chav customer in their poncey cafe. Demands for encores are ignored and we clear off to Kult for more merriment, courtesy of Apneu and Zentralheizung of Death.
Downstairs in steamy, sweaty, sleazy Kult, Apneu's goofy singer is wearing high heels and he's winking at people. There is a bit of a frisson as some plaid shirt dudes just try to block this out. But this kind of femininity is needed in a town obsessed by deep fried egg snacks. Standing next to me, the GREAT Dutch Head journalist Peter Bruyn makes the very perceptive remark that Apneu are just like the more celebrated (nom du jour) Afterpartees; especially in that cheeky, choppy manner of presenting their music. I see his point. Whilst I can't help but love Afterpartees' live shows and charismatic singer Niek Nellen, maybe Apneu have more sarcastic bite, which gives them a really interesting edge. And regardless I really like their daft, deadpan pop which has enough barbs and snarks to cut anyone if they aren't careful. This laid back pop also manages to get itchy under your skin in a live setting; as we get to see the clash of the strong personalities on stage. They are an interesting bunch of wreckers, cross dressers and intellectual dossers and somehow they gel. Their inate intelligence means that Apneu care, and don't care, and are able to argue successfully on both fronts through their music, and this is what gives them their steely advantage in the long run.
Dutch joie de vivre versus more Teutonic bulldozing? 'Fraid so. Zentralheizung of Death ensure that any residual irony is buried deep under a layer of reinforced concrete. This is some fucking gig; crackling energy, full of screaming and a whole load of lunatic-at-the-controls, sehr ko(s)misch* driving. The sort of Idiot Noize I love; dry, raw, to the point and no egos this side of Uranus. I decide to get involved in this crazy scene. Stupidly I allow myself to join Gilded Youth's most vainglorious sport; crowd surfing. My ungainly 98 kilo frame (big bones, see) gets hoisted aloft and below me I hear the snap of wristbones as the audience sag underneath my weight. Zentralheizung carry on as if it's another day at the office. They demand beer. Afterwards I feel like I've been kicked by a horse. What a night. Partying carries on with a whole set of Groningen Heads and assorted crazies from Slovenia and beyond. Time to switch off the mainframe and go to bed, it's past 3...
*Dig my sly Harmonia reference.