What went down at Cate Le Bon’s and Shame’s edition of Sonic City festival

Inside the Belgium festival celebrating how fun experimental new music is right now

Viewed from my train window, Kortrijk, Belgium, doesn’t seem like a kind of place that would have much going on. However, just five minutes in this provincial town proves that this couldn’t be further than the truth. Even though its slightly smaller than Southend, this little city boasts a remarkable collection of tourist attractions, ranging from a UNESCO-listed belfry dating from the early 14th century to a frankly outstanding modern art gallery located by the picturesque bastions of its stunning medieval tower bridge.

A treasure trove of architecture and history is all great, but it still feels weird to be here for a showcase of experimental music. After all, St Albans can also claim a medieval town centre and even a gothic cathedral, but most people would find it odd if Meltdown Festival suddenly announced that it was abandoning the Southbank Centre for the Alban Arena. Yet, for the past 12 years, Sonic City has been doing just that – inviting the likes of Savages, Deerhoof and Liars to put together amazing weekends of experimental noise.

Sonic City by Amir Turayev
Sonic City by Amir Turayev

It takes around 15 minutes of walking Kortrijk’s bitterly cold November streets to find the festival. The venue, usually a skate park and arts centre in what feels like a shopping village on the outskirts of town, is only half-open. Ushered past a food court serving vegan bagels, I’ve just got time to grab a super-strength Belgian beer before the smoke machine starts belching steam and Lust for Youth ghost onto the stage. The Swedish duo is the first act of a four-band introduction to the festival, and their icy synth-pop is a thrilling contrast to the feel-good classic rock of Sheer Mag, the band that follows them.

As I was to find out, contrast is something that Sonic City is good at. The festival has undergone a bit of a facelift this year, and in response, the organisers have chosen to work with two curators rather than the usual one. On the face of it, a line-up that is half chosen by Cate Le Bon and half selected by Shame isn’t the most obvious pairing, but like Mars bars and chip-shop batter, turns out it’s actually inspired. A Venn diagram of the weekend would have one bubble filled with gentle folktronica, quirky indie pop and pastoral noise, while the other would contain brutal hardcore, discordant techno and cold industrial soundscapes. The only thing that connects these two diametrically opposed sets of sounds is a tiny slither of centre ground made up of post-punk and jazzy krautrock.

Although both artists have chosen bands to play on both days, Saturday feels more like the Cate Le Bon day of the festival, and not only because she appears on the main stage halfway through the afternoon. Even though the day kicks off with the emotionally raw punk of Mannequin Pussy, the line-up turns into a teacup ride through a range of more indie and folk-related genres. Standouts from this afternoon of weirdness include Erased Tapes’ Hatis Noit, who managed to present an incredible 45-minutes of choral electronica using nothing more than a loop-pedal and a microphone, and a searing set from Washington DC punks Priests.

Hatis Not by Alexis Tubaert
Priests by Kay Lacombe

Things come to a head with a pair of headline slots in the cavernous main hall. First on is the Thurston Moore Group, and the Sonic Youth veteran is quick to compliment the venue’s cold, unforgiving concrete walls with some equally monolithic-sounding noise. About an hour afterwards, Holly Herndon arrives on stage to close the bill. Dressed in white and joined by backing singers in traditional Bavarian costume, her set is an haunting combination of old and new – marrying grandiose orchestration, choir song and electronica composed using AI.

Sunday finds the mood all changed. Not only has Saturday’s rain squalls been replaced by glorious sunshine, the ethereal folk and whimsical pop have also given way to a distinctly South London feeling roster of punk, electronic music and noise. It truly begins with a set from PVA in the tiny upstairs venue. Their first outside of the UK, the live dance trio weave their way through a collection of songs that start with glittering pop and ends with caustic industrial noise. Next, I head downstairs to catch Squid, who continue to impress with their inspired mix of Talking Heads style avant-pop and hypnotic jazz-rock. They’re followed by The Murder Capital and their dramatic brand of Irish post-hardcore.

Scalping by Gregory Vlieghe

Midway through the afternoon, I arrive at what could be the perfect three-band combo. First on are Bristol noise-outfit Scalping. Silhouetted against a screen playing a lurid visual of dissolving figures, they blast out EDM and metal-inflected techno at a volume that leaves the whole crowd gasping. A quick turn-around later, and it’s the turn of New York coldwave duo Boy Harsher. Their gothic synth-pop is slightly friendlier than Scalping, but the aggressive strobe-lights and heavy smoke machine are just as disorientating. The last assault comes from Blanck Mass and manages to be even more abrasive yet bizarrely more beautiful than the other two bands combined. It adds up to a three-hour Nantucket Sleigh ride through the cutting-edge of electronic noise; wild, unpredictable and often scary. “Truly thrilling” is still a thing.

After regaining my bearings, I head back to the main room to watch the two headliners. First on is Deerhunter, who rattle through an accomplished if a little predictable collection of classics. Shame arrive next and are clearly in a party mood. As one of the curators of the festival, a lot of the band’s closest friends are on the bill resulting in a set that somehow feels more like a homecoming slot at the Windmill than a festival closer in Belgium. Worked up to a fever pitch, the crowd are clearly up for it and Charlie Steen, sporting a freshly bleached blonde mop and quickly stripping to the waist, laps it up. Standing with arms spread wide, he fires up the waves of stage divers and slam dancers who leap from the stage while his band fire off songs old and new, steadily ratcheting up the energy levels as they go. Eventually, like an engine pushed well beyond the redline, the set comes to its explosive conclusion and we’re left with squalling noise cascading from the speakers as stage diver after stage diver leap into the jubilant crowd.

Shame by Jelena Vojinovic

It’s a triumphant way to end to an almost flawless celebration of new music. Over two and half days, Sonic City shows just how healthy DIY music is right now. As 2019 winds down, it gives me a warm to glow to know that not only are we currently blessed with an exciting crop of bands determined to push the envelope; if this weekend was anything to go by, they also appear intent on making music fun again.

Top photo of Shame by Jelena Vojinovic