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Karl Smith , January 26th, 2015 17:15

Karl Smith reports from Groningen, on the "cephalopodic" Eurosonic festival. Featuring Kaleo, Low Roar, Júníus Meyvant and more

Photos by Florian Trykowski/Nordic Music Photography, courtesy of Iceland Music Export

Rattling across the Dutch countryside, travelling from Amsterdam to Groningen, mind beginning to vignette from the morning's early start, there are really only two coherent thoughts that stay with me for the full length of the two-hour journey. The first is that, visually, in terms of what's happening outside of the train at least, this could just as easily be a journey from London to Cambridge. The Dutch landscape has about as much in common with the English landscape as humans do with the chimpanzee – the only thing about it that could be deemed exotic or unfamiliar being its near-surreal flatness, which in the dank of mid-January carries more than a whiff of Sátántangó in its drizzle. The second thing, though considerably less evocative, is a heightened sense of embarrassment: back home I know the trains are shitty and I've struck a kind of numb accord with that inglorious clusterfuck – but this train is on time, very reasonably priced, has free wi-fi and despite being busy there is room for all of its passengers to sit comfortably across its two decks. The cheery demeanor of the ticket inspector and the young woman serving drinks and snacks only serves to further compound anger in to shame.

But, when we arrive in Groningen, it's shitting it down with palm-sized flakes of snow – the floating, pale appendages resulting from some mass meteorological industrial accident. We collect our wristbands and our press packs and welcome its strangeness as the only real evidence that we've travelled any distance at all.

Like most city festivals, Eurosonic has a cephalopodic quality – splayed limbs, ready to be massaged, over the course of several days, by thousands of feet in to the warmth of a glorious and luxurious death. It being early evening now the three of us sharing a flat, having taken the bus in to town and taken up our position as itamae for the duration and imbibed to stave off the cold, are more than ready to take in some music and – given that this is the year in which 'Iceland Erupts' over Eurosonic – that's where we start.

I'm not sure if there's an equivalent in Nordic mythology for the Greek hydra – chances are that one of those beefy Viking lads gave what for to a dragon with a few heads, though – but it's the most apt analogy I can conjure for Iceland's Kaleo. The body itself might belong to that particular brand of slightly-too-open-shirted radio-friendly rock, but the heads are numerous: one for out-and-out cock rock; one for New Orleans-flavoured blues; one for 'Four Kicks'-era Kings Of Leon; one solely for the purpose of emulating The Calling; one for the Mystery Jets; and one for Americana. All this is amusing not least of all because it would be so easy to dismiss the band under the pretense of being any one of those – but, somehow, coaxed in to working together this is a great watch, a proper 'show', and smacks, either in spite of or because of its myriad influences, of a palpable energy and authenticity. Against all odds, the sound of Reykjavik on the bayou somehow rings true. I learn later that there was some displeasure at their being on the bill, presumably not being on-brand Icelandic enough, and find my self immediately weary but totally unsurprised that as per usual people have missed the fucking point of a showcase festival.

It's only Wednesday and the town hasn't got 'mad busy' in the way one associates with festivals quite yet, but there are queues – queues for drinks, queues to get in to venues and queues for the quite incredible hot food vending machine in the wall. And there's a queue for Low Roar upstairs at the Grand Theatre – which, in reality, is more like 'the yeah it's alright theatre' – and I have to be 'that guy' and flash my glitzy press band for the chance to be a fire hazard and sit on the stairs.

It doesn't have the showmanship element of Kaleo's performance (though much – if not all – of that can probably be put down to this gig being seated) but the music itself is more interesting, more evocative and more texturally complex. I doubt I could have sat through Kaleo's show as part of a captive audience in the same way as Low Roar's set – and the collective, simultaneous exhale when their final note has finished ringing out is testament to the hold that they've maintained through music alone.

In many ways they're a more traditionally-Icelandic outfit (more noteworthy still considering the frontman is actually from San Francisco); the comingling of Ryan Karazija's vocals – a late-night footsteps on the parental staircase falsetto, laden with the tremors of quiet apprehension and the exuberant joy of the night just passed – and the acoustic guitar-driven post-folk ensemble (interwoven as it is with loops and keys of the sludgiest and most sprawling variety and a percussive element that moves between subtle and imminent) have an intonation, a timbre and an undeniable quality that sits somewhere between Takk-period Sigur Ros and the Sufjan Stevens of Michigan.

There is no fire and, so far as I could tell, everyone left that room with their lives in tact despite our blocking of the escape route – changed only for the better in some small way that will stay with them without their noticing, if not for the rest of their lives at least for the duration of night and its infinite possibilities. Like John Travolta in Phenomenon, before he realises those psychic powers are the symptom of a tumor.   

As it turns out, the bar next to the OK Theatre – where on the final night I will leave my hat on the sink, returning five minutes later only to find it piss-soaked on the floor and beyond the possibility of having any quality of life even if rescued – is measurably more grand than the theatre itself; Gatsby-esque in dark wood furnishings and a resplendent art deco ceiling. We spend the rest of the evening, and a good portion of its defunct conjoined twin the early morning basking in its glow until the only quality any of us possess is to be incandescently louche.

Iceland is hosting a reception: there's a buffet and a free bar — the room is full of Nordophiles and Icelanders, none of whom needed convincing on the subject of Icelandic hospitality but ecstatic to see it at work – a politician speaks and isn't a loathsome bellend (I've seen the Mayor of Reykjavík speak on a panel earlier, too, and he didn't seem to be a total shit either), of-the-moment golden boy, 'Icelandic Bon Iver' Júníus Meyvant, plays a few songs which are pleasant enough but, perhaps victim to their own hype, nothing extraordinary.

The reception has been going for multiple hours now and the free bar is still happening – skál and all that, yeah – when Samaris cap off this portion of the evening, the lo-fi elysian peculiarity of their wraith-like vocals, fey clarinet and downbeat electronics only enhanced by the setting of the Stadsschouwburg; grander and more theatrical than the Grand Theatre might ever hope to be.

All good things come to an end, of course – all states of being are transient and all that – and two cheese baguettes each better off, we move on in to the night.

Google Translate informs me – my Dutch not being what it ought to be in the face of ever-increasing globalisation – that Huis "De Beurs" is not House of Beers at all, but something more like the "Exhibition House." That revelation throwing all things in to uncertain territory, it's good to have a mental anchor – in this case, being that Huis "De Beurs," whether housing ales or art, is home to some of the steepest stairs I've ever had the displeasure of ascending in my entire life. Hinds (FKA Deers) are, unfortunately, not worth the burned calories as it turns out – the Spanish quartet's particular brand of guitar-pop, part Death Cab, part Built To Spill, part Warpaint being considerably less than the sum of it's parts. There's nothing offensive about it, and it's listenable enough but – despite the clear and present fact the band are enjoying themselves – there's an odd sterility in their live show that isn't present on record.

Much of this week has been spent in the company of my adopted German siblings – Katrin and Florian, with whom I'm sharing a flat and retain a great deal of warmth – on buses, in taxis, at gigs, bars and around the table with coffee or wine depending on the hour; but right now it seems like the rest of Germany has joined us – I am the only person at AnnenMayKantereit for whom English is a first language; my hand is covered in blood from a minor accident and, of all things, I've somehow ended up drinking Southern Comfort – these are all 'unusual things'. Unusual, too, the chance to hear a foreign band for the first time in a room filled with people to whom the band isn't foreign at all: it could easily be an alienating experience, as most things are. But it isn't.

Imagine, if you can – though I understand it's a stretch of the highest order – a George Ezra that wasn't quite so unfathomably shit. Okay? Okay: you've got the cornerstone of AMK's sound – a gravelly voice backed up by the kind of charge that comes hand in hand with sincerity – with the genuine. Sure, it's folksy, there's a harmonica among other things – but it's not 'folk' in a Mumford sort of way – it's folk in the truest sense of the word; it's intimate and familiar, inclusive – accessible even to me, though only on one of many levels, without even speaking the language. Southern Comfort is fucking terrible, though, and there's blood under my fingernails.

There's a lot to be said about Sólstafir, a lot of which is expressed a-vocally by the crowd, throwing horns and claws at the stage, a smog of perspiration hovering, almost visible, over the venue and dancing like rank popping candy on the tongue. In short, though: these guys throw down. Simultaneously doom-laden and chock full of agro, morose and antagonism; I feel connected to 'metal' – a genre I have neglected now, seeming no longer symbiotic to my own state of being – for the first time in a very long time. Yes, it's theatrical – a play on the expectations of an audience expecting a brim full-a-metal on the 45 – but it isn't excessive or cliché and doesn't have an air of parody about it: this is the real deal and I am grateful for the swollen feeling of anger and desperation with which I leave, because these are things that people feel all the time. Not forced, not planted or created, but something made available to be repurposed as and when the moment calls. Aðalbjörn Tryggvason and Sæþór Maríus Sæþórsson are making the kind of faces that call to mind that bit in v/h/s where you first get a shot of the girl's face ripping without mercy.

While Eurosonic is a festival by night, it's also a conference by day, and the majority of the panels are just some guy dishing out the same old business spiel, wrapped up in the guise of whatever's de rigeur this year; the latest techniques in sucking increasingly-smaller eggs. There are exceptions, however, and hearing Einar Örn Benediktsson (of The Sugarcubes fame) trying, finally, to get it in to people's heads that a quasi-naïve affinity with folklore – with "hidden people" and elves – and some nice mountains aren't solely responsible for the success of Icelandic music without decrying any of that tradition or dislocating Icelandic identity from the landscape is right up there. Other people on the panel struggle to get a word in, and some struggle to get a word out – suffering at the hands of crippling shyness and a language barrier that gives pause for thought as per "why" – but Einar has this covered for everyone, and it's more than good enough.

We try and leave dinner but turns out we've not yet made it a third of the way through – what's been delivered so far was actually only the starter and we needn't have gone to such great pains to check if everyone else was "going to eat that". The food is great – a Latin-Moroccan tapas of sorts – and plentiful, but has set itself as something of an impediment to the evening as a whole, having taken up a decent chunk of time and now occupying the full intersecting X and Y axes of satisfaction and discomfort.

It's a good primer for Fufanu, as it turns out, whose MO seems to be to sate and agitate in equal measure. They've a kind of ramshackle swag that calls to mind a glum, Icelandic Fat White Family meets early Interpol vibe with a touch of the contemporary-hip courtesy of glancing blows of Alt-J and Our Mountain: it's great fun to watch and there's a Sonic Youth-like intoxicant to the persistence of the low-end – which calls, beckons but never outright demands – that you can't help but feel in your shoulders. But, while to some degree the roughness of their sound is part of what makes Fufanu there is also a less-cultivated incompleteness to what they're doing that has tinged a few of the week's performances leaving us to wonder how it is that a band like Oyama, enjoying some measurable success internationally, didn't make the cut. I suppose you have to ask yourself what exactly a showcase festival is: is it for flaunting the talent that you've fostered or for giving the world a sense of the things you're still nurturing?

When it comes to homegrown, though, it doesn't get much more Icelandic than Skálmöld. You could drop a few grand in any number of Reykjavík's tourist shops – on horned hats, premium Lopapeysa and sheep's head – and you'd still be less than 0.05% as Viking as this band. 'Folk metal' as an idea didn't exactly get my blood up, but in practice it's more or less gushing out of my ears and any other orifice that will work even temporarily as an exit. The three-guitar riffage is extraordinary, somehow managing to be jaunty and punishing at the same time (calling to mind The Simpsons' family-friendly hat-tip to razing and pillaging "And if your idea of a first date is burning down her village, you just might be a Viking!") and the six-piece themselves are at once so metal (their Facebook page, in fact, listing them as 'Metal!') and so full of charm and visible delight to be playing that you can't do anything but surrender to the fist-pumping insanity of it all.

On the plane home I feel briefly troubled by the rallyish quality of it all – the room full of people shouting in unison, a lot of whom, myself included, had no real idea what it was we were aligning ourselves to. It passes though, when I realise that if those raised hands and chants were a salute to anything, it was to the idea of "the moment", to the pure joy of being temporarily part of something that didn't want to achieve anything other than exactly that.