Seemingly every public space in Aarhus was transformed last weekend - Daniel Dylan Wray spent the weekend watching the likes of Sigrid, Alma and Lydmor
With hair the colour of toxic waste and clothes that look like they’ve been picked up from a Doncaster market, Alma may cut the appearance of a couple of outcast teenagers you’d find smoking behind a school bike shed in 1999, bonding over Slipknot, but in reality the young Finnish singer – on stage with her twin sister – is a pop powerhouse that oozes conviction, intensity, a pure sense of youthful abandon and, well, not really giving much of a fuck.
The two are bouncing around on stage in Aarhus, Denmark for Spot festival, weaving in and out of each other, pacing back and forth with a tropical house backdrop that at times sounds like a turbo charged and EDM-tinged The XX. A few years back Alma was on Finland’s version of Pop Idol but is now signed to Universal and – as demonstrated on the unshakable ‘Dye My Hair’ – her natural touch for melody combined with a voice that resembles a clubland Adele is one of the many pop highlights of a weekend showcasing some of the best and emerging talent from Scandinavia and the surrounding areas.
Aarhus is the second largest city in Denmark after Copenhagen and is currently the European Capital of Culture for 2017. Running since the mid 1990s, Spot festival is a place constructed to promote the best local artists and groups to not only local music fans but to numerous travelling international delegates with groups such as The Raveonettes and Junior Senior ostensibly being picked up or “made” here. So whilst it has the showcase intentions of something akin to early days SXSW, it thankfully still manages to feel more festival-like, with its agenda planted more in genuine fun and celebration than stuffy industry event.
The first day begins with Norway’s Sløtface, who are a pop-punk group with flashes and stripes of emo present but rather than it being all soaring choruses and three-chord guitar blasts, there’s also touches of more reserved and crafted tracks, such as ‘Bright Lights’ which recalls the more pop-rock end of somewhat forgotten bands such as Metric. On record the Denmark duo First Hate evoke an ‘80s-indebted amalgamation of whirring synthpop, emotive crooning and a touch of Euro pop but on stage they are a much louder, brasher force that stripped of any production or considered pace feel a bit hollow and trapped by their own limitations and endless repetitions of wailing vocals over template beats.
The Roots & Hybrid festival stage is essentially the “world music” tent at the festival, which aside from bringing in acts from places such as Slovakia and Syria also celebrates the role Turkish music and culture has in Denmark, given their sizeable population in the country. One of the country’s’ finest psych acts Baba Zula close the first evening and take an audience who begin the show seated into something closer resembling a rave by the end of it. Lead vocalist and most righteous dude, Murat Ertel, plays electric bağlama saz with a style that constantly goes back and forth between eastern and western traditions, a style that – whilst being deeply traditional in many senses – the group embody as a whole.
An iPad triggers electronic samples which fires out dub-tinged beats and or rocketing rhythms, as an electric oud or hand drum flurries atop of it, creating enchanting and enthralling grooves that whilst lock deep and envelop also expand, evolve and intensify throughout. When a giant drum is brought out as a prominent force in the set the group almost take on a tone of industrial psychedelia, touching upon avant-garde explorations as often as the do world fusion. Such a broad reaching style and sense of experimentation across such genres no doubt explaining why artists such as Einstürzende Neubauten’s Alexander Hacke have collaborated with the group. As their set draws to a close and Ertel brings the crowd together for one last dance and he says, in plain, slightly broken, English, “We don’t like borders. We don’t like wars,” and as he explains the fear the he and his group live under and this may be the last time they come and play here, he goes on to hit home a message of unity, love and solidarity that feels all too sadly an applicable statement back home in England, too.
Such a festival intent on showcasing a genuine breadth of music dictates that the line-up is incredibly varied. Whilst this means a joyous ride of genre-hopping eclecticism it can also mean pretty wild inconsistency too. Thankfully, the thoughtful set-up and layout of the festival makes jumping from band-to-band easy and having to escape some pretty dodgy hip-hop usually only means a few minutes walk to another stage to try something else.
Marching Church, the once side-project of Iceage’s Elias Rønnenfelt and now very much their own full other band, are most certainly a group worth sticking around for. Playing a mid-afternoon slot whilst the sun swelters those outside under its rays, Rønnenfelt and co. brew up a crepuscular force in the nightly-black room.
Rønnenfelt, looking ever more Nick Cave-like by the day, howls his way through the set in his characteristic tone that is half-slurred drunken lullaby and half enraged bitterness. It’s a combination that’s both affective and alluring, even more so when backed with his band that run flush tight, moving between slow, smoky grooves with malevolent and brooding basslines to discordant and out of step guitars and thundering drums that all unite to create a hypnotically jarring assault that crashes in and out like furious waves against a sea wall. Ellis May’s piano-led soundscapes recall the melancholic joy of Portishead and whilst her voice, backed by sparse and delicate shimmers of electric guitar, can be a restrained and breathy exploration of texture, she also has the ability to let it soar as it rises above the foggy atmospheres, revealing a powerful and piercing vocal to create an engulfing presence.
Thankfully the constant venue-hopping means you take in plenty of the city, which is genuinely beautiful and a pleasure to be in. The festival itself is scattered across an enormous amount of venues – that most major UK cities would struggle to match in terms of number and quality – and often dotted between these are pop-up bars that line the street and food stalls with some areas becoming a self-contained mini get together in their own right.
Such as the Godsbanen area, which is a series of old industrial buildings, shipping containers built on top of some wastelands around a former railway freight yard, turned it into a bustling cultural focal point filled with small businesses, markets, concerts and street food that feels like wandering through an American trailer park but is instead filled with fancy coffee places and glowing shirtless Danes playing volleyball on the sand court. One stage is even constructed over a canal, with groups playing out into the streets as a mixture of young kids with street beers and people sat in the many various cafes and restaurants look on. It’s an excellent use of space in a city that feels full of them.
The rest of the festival is pretty much owned by pop music. There’s a clear Bjork influence to Lydmor but with the force of a band with her the room-busting crowd is shown a back and forth between emotive balladry, straight-up pop and harsh eruptions of electronics that sputter and spark wildly. Sigrid, who’s excellent ‘Don’t Kill My Vibe’ EP has just been released, already feels destined for true pop stardom.
The 20-year-old may look several years younger than she is but she bounces around on the stage with utter assuredness and conviction. She performs with an almost manic intensity at times, eyes locking into the crowd like an opponent psyching themselves up for a big fight yet as soon as the song ends she is awash with smiles, humility and sincere gratitude for the audience’s presence. It’s a dichotomy that is not only present in her performance but in her voice too: she can seamlessly move from pristine eloquence to a raspy, snaring bite in the switch of a beat and she frequently does with glee. ‘Fake Friends’, ‘Plot Twist’ and ‘Don’t Kill My Vibe’ are glorious, rousing knockout tracks and are as infectious as they are innovative as they are fun. There’s just enough time to catch a glimpse of the excellent Omar Souleyman bringing his Syrian rave to a close before the weekend ends.
To suggest that Spot festival is a serious competitor to any of the other many, many major European festivals that exist would be a lie but what it truly is, is an alternative. Especially during a time in which festival line-ups are becoming increasingly uniform to the point of being indistinguishable. What Spot manages to do is create something truly different to explore and experience that many other festivals aren’t, which is a glimpse of what potential future headliners from Scandinavia may look like. Which is almost certainly going to be in the form of excellent young women making gloriously wonky but composed pop music.
Spot Festival, Aarhus, Denmark, 4-7 May 2017
Photos by: Allan Høgholm Photography and Naomi Bowman
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