Utrecht’s Le Guess Who? Festival, taking place this year on November 9-12, miraculously keeps two very particular plates spinning: its status as one of the world’s most revered indoor music festivals, and its inclination to look beyond names that are oversaturated within your average lineup.
I mean, where else can you witness avant-pop legends Stereolab – one of this year’s curators – shoulder to shoulder with an artist like Rəhman Məmmədli (an individual who does justice to his moniker ‘The Man With The Singing Fingers’)? If anything, the more recognisable names on the Le Guess Who?-poster usually serve as the carrot-dangling-from-the-stick, goading you to plunge into sounds from all over the globe, from Azerbaijan all the way to Zambia.
Satellite events like COSMOS – basically a TV channel that presents a vibrant global scene report – and U? – a free program curated in conjunction with the city of Utrecht – fully tend to Le Guess Who? overarching mission to make music a communal experience as opposed to a high-threshold industry event. It’s the place where curious heads, enlightened crate diggers and sonic space cadets congregate, exchange, marvel and chase down the things that blindside them in some radiant way. Its program isn’t a bunch of names slapped together based on the bidding of slick booking agents, but based on a meticulous breadcrumb narrative where discovery is stimulated over the habitual.
These festival curators are here to light the beacon: the aforementioned Stereolab, Slauson Malone 1 (who had probably the most discombobulating performance of last year’s edition), Caribbean-Belgian composer Nala Sinephro, and probably one of the more notable names, ultra-prolific sound engineer Heba Kadry – whose name pops up on a weekly basis in each music journalist’s inbox.
Every year Le Guess Who? adds a fun new wrinkle to make things interesting. This year it’s The Anonymous Project, which has artists performing music in anonymity inside of a white cube (!). Which means for all we know it could be Björk in there making whale song soundscapes. Obviously, it tries to bring to light a bigger point – to experience music without the invasive agent of the listener’s frame of reference to the practitioner’s previous body of work. On a brief side note: my money says this idea was spawned from a Moon Duo performance in 2019 that involved a particularly large cubical entity.
Furthermore, Le Guess Who?’s pioneering spirit aligns in simpatico with the city of Utrecht and all its cushiony proximities. I’m from Rotterdam and I often give Utrecht a good natured ribbing for its cleanliness, but that part is definitely an asset when caught up in the enraptured thralls of Le Guess Who?. When you spend four days befuddled by the outer regions of sound and music, it’s nice to be at a place that’s this friendly, affluent, comfortable and close-knit. It’s a perfectly balanced tango that has worked well over the past two decades, and will likely continue to do so. Without further ado, here are 10 names to go and see.
Every year at Le Guess Who? we get to watch a solo instrumentalist who makes our brains explode in the manner of which they redefine the instrument in question. Last year it was hurdy-gurdy man Valentín Clastrier, and we also have seen the likes of Mario Batkovic, Colin Stetson and Oliver Coates do their thing. This year it’s bagpipe player Brìghde Chaimbeul, who already got her mainstream reps in by appearing on Caroline Polachek’s “Blood And Butter”. As we will soon find out in Utrecht, Chaimbeul’s playing utterly transcends the tactile limitations of the bagpipes, making it sometimes even resemble a choir of human voices. Seeing and hearing is believing.
One might be easily seduced into comparing Joanna Sternberg with the likes of Kimya Dawson or Daniel Johnston. Their lo-fi alt folk songs likewise have a creative way of rearranging simple language into novel, soul-stirring revelations. Sternberg’s thrifty songs travel the wormholes between uplifting and sad, containing little pocket universes of thought that feel like direct extensions of their heart.
Lost Girls, Jenny Hval’s joint project with partner Håvard Volden, is just as fascinating as the Norwegian artist’s solo works. It’s their version of pop music without filter, where all the imperfections, mistakes and impulses are incentives to compose songs in real time. Music in constant flux, a language between two close-knit artists that unfolds organically, never resorting to technique or routine. Every Lost Girls show will be the only one of its kind, and for that reason alone, it’s worth showing up.
Backxwash made her triumphant European debut at Roadburn this year, so it feels only right to follow that up with a stint at Le Guess Who?. Lusaka-born producer and rapper Ashanti Mutinta combines the fabric of hip-hop and metal in ways unheard of, a craft that somehow feels secondary to her charismatic stage presence and obdurate lyrical avalanches. Backxwash’s shows are rousing rituals where joy and pain run rampant, always exhilarating, and – despite confronting the darker corners of the human experience – ultimately bring a smile to your face.
Better bring an extra pack of tissues along when Brooklyn-based artist Rachika Nayar plays Tivoli’s Hertz venue on Friday. If you close your eyes, it’s hard to believe that this is a guitarist at work, because Nayar’s compositions unfold like dramatic fully fleshed out symphonies that sound as if conjured from a fictional alien planet. From monolithic ambient odysseys to tracks that feel like epic raves melted down into cinematic soundscapes, indeed, it’s not an overstatement to call your record Heaven Come Crashing, which we shall experience first hand.
Le Guess Who? has always been a family affair, with artists like Moor Mother, Circuit des Yeux and Jerusalem In My Heart becoming as much ambassadors for the festival as they are performers. Kelman Duran is another worthy inclusion, as his multi-disciplinary works always delve into the unexpected. From scorched earth noise sets, experimental club music to appearing on Beyoncé’s Renaissance, from the outside looking in, Duran’s body of work might seem like a cluster of contradictions. But rest assured, considering the strong thematic threads woven through his work, to him it all makes perfect sense.
Here’s the kicker: most people who follow the famous shitposting account inzane_johnny probably have no idea it’s being run by John Olson, currently one half of noise outlaws Wolf Eyes. Alongside his co–conspirator Nate Young, Wolf Eyes have happily gone through the motions of as the self-proclaimed “weirdest band alive”, with shows that seem as if you’re entering Westworld on a throwed acid binge. A Wolf Eyes show is a place where chaos runs rife, with the occasional shrug of the shoulders assuming it’s all just part of the plan. I mean, how can you tell?
There will be plenty of racket-making bands scurrying around town, with FACS and Neighbours Burning Neighbours being a slam dunk in that category. Many have deemed Model/Actriz another name to circle, a band that employs the propulsive qualities of dance music with the serrated edges of noise rock bands. The Brooklynites are reputed for shows described as in your face slugfests where the boundaries between audience and artist tend to blur. A forecast that makes us rub our hands in rejoicing fashion.
Ana Frango Elétrico
Those who wish to seek some respite from the surplus of quixotic experimentalists at Le Guess Who? can check out Ana Frango Elétrico, a multi-disciplinary artist who shape shifts pop, rock, post-punk and jazz into woozy, head-nodding jams. There’s a looseness and sense of whimsy to Frango Elétrico’s songs, embracing a sprawling eclecticism that doesn’t come at the cost of feeling comfortable in their own skin.
Irreversible Entanglements remain a must-see band at any festival they play, and at Le Guess Who?, probably even more so. Always in flux, always in transience and always potent in message and modus operandi. Even their soundchecks are legendary, as they tear apart and rearrange the fabric of music on an hourly basis, making you wish you had bootlegged it. As consistently perplexing as the avant-jazz group’s body of work already is, seeing them live is always something to truly behold, because it’s never the same damn show. Any performance with Moor Mother on stage will never be accused of phoning it in. Hold onto your butts!
Le Guess Who? takes place November 9-12 in Utrecht, Netherlands.