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.
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.