Beats Per Minute’s Jasper Willems wanders Rotterdam’s rising showcase event Left Of The Dial, which has taken a growth spurt, but still wears its grassroots sensibility proudly on its sleeve.
Let’s get this out of the way first: UK-based bands really really love Left Of The Dial. I mean, how could they not? Throughout this past weekend, I’ve heard from multiple artists gushing about how well the Rotterdam showcase festival has looked out for them: from the food to the logistics to the pay.
There’s a lot of going-the-extra-mile within the Left Of The Dial-organisation as well. For instance, they allow visiting bands to design and sell their own custom merchandise, which is, frankly awesome. Being taken care of sometimes has its amusing downsides, however. Every edition of Left Of The Dial has at least one band being a little too shit-faced on stage, which is – more likely than not – the byproduct of not having to worry about getting the bare minimum of needs, like a good meal or a place to rest your head. You can actually let go and unwind when you’re out there doing your thing… you know, the thing you pour hours of work and travel into, often-times thanklessly.
Fittingly, Left Of The Dial in and of itself is a funny byproduct of circumstances. In the same weekend, the cool kids flood Rotterdam’s neighbour city Amsterdam to celebrate their Dance Event, which means a lot of non-dance/electronic artists need to venture outside of the Dutch capital for shows. Left Of The Dial – much like its ancestor Eurosonic Noorderslag – started with a wide-eyed and simple incentive: let’s put up some fucking bands. Rotterdam has a rich tapestry of small venues and clubs, a perfect infrastructure for such foolish endeavors. Now with the festival entering its half-decade mark, you are starting to see the fruits of that fully bared, with alumni like Whispering Sons, bdrmm and Deadletter – who have since gained bigger followings – giving back by suiting up again. It’s the perfect maelstrom effect to gradually expand and diversify your line-up, which is something Left Of the Dial has done with each iteration.
But before we go back into that, let’s talk about the actual music we’ve gotten to witness. NZE NZE’s set at Perron was the definition of ‘jumping into the deep end’ right away. The group’s cavernous mix of African folk, industrial and noise makes the hairs stand in the back of the neck. Vocalist Mathieu Ruben N’Dongo haunts the decayed, low-ceiling setting of the venue like a wraith, a tall silhouette emitting almost inhuman-sounding growls and incantations. The set starts off guttural and shapeless, but slowly it evolves into novel propellent shapes that resemble songs. Fascinating indeed.
Local dwellers Neighbours Burning Neighbours never cease to thrill with their manic, somehow joyous concoction of noise pop, post-rock and shoegaze. They are the rare loud-and-heavy band that doesn’t exude gloom and doom. There’s an odd balance to their skirmishing energy too: vocalists/guitarists Alicia Breton Ferrer (also of the equally awesome The Sweet Release Of Death) and Daanie van den IJssel are like two hens engaged in a perfectly synchronised – albeit frantic – wedding dance. The towering bird of paradise in the middle, bassist Kat Kalkman, discharges monolithic noise from their instrument, while drummer Aram Scheeve shepherds the whole thing along with his knife-edge drum chops.
Neighbours Burning Neighbours are like a nuclear fusion core inside of a snow globe: pure noise-laden abandon cancelling each other out. Each song is an unruly thunderbolt of ideas and tension, and… well, i don’t know, they are just so much fun to watch! Neighbours don’t need to rely on contrived stage hijinks to get the crowd into it. The way they attack their instruments with such grace, intimacy and euphoria, their personalities all so perfectly imbued in their chemistry and sound – it just resonates on an optic and aural level. Neighbours Burning Neighbours-sets are like proxies for a sky dive or a wild rollercoaster ride. Simply one of the best live bands working today, and no one can convince me otherwise.
CLT DRP bring a similar sense of ecstasy within their loudness, although their modus operandi is slightly different. Imagine The Gossip and HEALTH forming a supergroup rattling off a flurry of deconstructed pop bangers, and you’d get an approximation of what they do. They often flirt with familiar-sounding motifs to hook the audience in, a winning tactic only amplified further by the irreverent charisma of vocalist Annie Dorrett. They very much occupy the same spiritual wavelength as Japanese artist Haru Nemuri, who takes the best samples from basically every subgenre consensus-making music critics scorn at, and forging that into patchwork of pop immediacy that’s just irresistible and original. Nemuri is one heckuva vocalist, ranging between gatling gun raps to growling death metal vocals; the intensity of her cult following is pretty evident too, as several fans in the front row knew all the lyrics.
One of the most remarkable acts of the weekend was unquestionably The New Eves. Their music occupies a pretty awe-inspiring space, to the point where Nina Winder-Ling (cello, vocals, guitars) quizzed the audience for more colourful descriptions of “what they are”. Whatever we’re witnessing in Worm and the Arminius feels like entering vital uncharted territory: harmonic folk spirituals performed with the attitude of The Raincoats and The Velvet Underground. The New Eves sound like Margaret Atwood’s take on Fairytale in The Supermarket.
Each member of the band takes on lead vocal duties, and their playing can be described as a strange intermediate between total concentration and absolute abandon. It’s the most wonderful thing to hear a band like this, that feels fresh and novel. The two shows – at Worm and Arminius – also highlight why it’s such a good idea by Left Of The Dial to have the bands play multiple shows during the weekend. In a way, the venues become the stars of the show as well. The New Eves sounded like a totally different band in the majestic church setting of the Arminius than the artistic DIY-space like Worm, even though they pretty much did the same set. At Worm they sounded fierce and intrusive, but within the acoustics of the Arminius, the quartet’s more ethereal, lyrical qualities came to the fore. One feeling overarched: The New Eves are special band, one we’ll likely hear more of in the not-so-distant future.
The charismatic Joshua Idehen also emphasised the earlier conclusion of seeing the same artist twice in different venues. His show at Paradijskerk – another church – oozed gravitas and joy, whereas his stint at Rotown felt like a more informal reception. What became clear from the get-go is that Idehen is always ready to burst the proverbial bubble with his spoken word performances. At Rotown, he warned the crowd he lost his voice the night before, announcing he will redo his stage walk-on, asking everyone in the room to “pretend like he’s Will Smith”. His second entrance immediately is greeted with a chorus of screams, as Idehen now sports a pair of shades reminiscent of the actor’s Men In Black-role. That’s how you work an audience: Idehen’s boundless arsenal of poetry and zingers took it from there.
Mui Zyu and Núria Graham both channeled the magic of their impressive records in a more minimal live setting. The former’s translucent pop is deliberately warped into spectral jazz flourishes and eerie drones. It definitely feeds into the reason why vocalist/guitarist Eva Liu wrote Rotten Bun for an Eggless Century: finding your own identity between two radically different cultures. Accordingly, Mui Zyu’s songs are fighting over the steering wheel between noise and melody – teetering on the verge of dissolving or swelling up – but the soothing tone of Liu’s voice gleams wistfully at the heart of it all.
Núria Graham’s set at Paradijskerk definitely did justice to the material of the excellent LP Cyclamen, a record that paints a porcelain chamber folk firmament where emotions like grief and death are interrogated with Don Quixote-like whimsy. Other than being a great vocalist and musician, Graham has a knack for making her shows more endearing with some clumsy antics. Graham has alternated between keyboard and guitar; when starting “Fire Mountain, Oh Sacred Ancient Fountain”, she noticed she forgot to switch the mic back. Pretty effortlessly, she sat down back behind the keyboard to finish the song without needing to interrupt or start over. It’s the kind of slip-up that actually reveals something cool: how comfortable Graham has become in the living space of her own songs.
The Homesick’s progress over the years has been loads of fun to witness up close. Like a frog’s cyclical evolution from eggs and tadpoles, they continue to shapeshift into peculiar new entities, while somehow still sounding like The Homesick. It’s truly an ethos-thing with this adventurous trio: Elias Elgersma, Jaap van der Velde and Erik Woudwijk care about nothing more but chasing their own curiosity. It serves them right: they are no longer part of the youth movement– a career cemented with an album on Sub Pop – so now the hunt for fun interesting sounds is perpetually a prime directive. The current version of The Homesick is something to behold, with tracks that inspire zany descriptions like “Animal Collective meets Boney M” or “Dokkumer Harmonia & Eno”. They have crafted their own mushroom kingdom of sound – where pop pastiche can be an invasive agent to sonic abstraction, and they remain a band to truly cherish. A special shoutout to the downright surgical drumming of Woudwijk, who probably hasn’t blinked once during the entirety of The Homesick’s set at Worm.
Speaking of progress: sometimes new musical alliances are formed during Left Of The Dial itself. Max Fulcrum & The Win, for example, are a band comprised of Fake Turins and Enjoyable Listens, two notable acts that performed previous additions of the festival. They are indeed a delightful mismatch of styles and sensibilities, with one constant X-factor – a love for slick and propulsive grooves. We hear lounge lizard suaveness of Roxy Music, the seedy urban psych pop of Brian Jonestown Massacre, the subversive indie disco of LCD Soundsystem. To be frank, I’ve become rather bored with the magnitude of bands adopting the latter’s MO, but Max Fulcrum & The Win have a lot of, well, winning qualities. The band’s lead guitarist Miles Valentine, for instance, does some magical things on stage.
Parker Fans are also a new band of familiar faces, with two members also being part of the great Personal Trainer. This trio is just as curious about adopting different styles, applying broader strokes with non-rockist styles like hip-hop, triphop and drum & bass. Fans of Beck, The Whitest Boy Alive and The Avalanches will endear themselves to Parker Fans, and it also helps their synth guy waddles his long limbs around like those nifty Luchador Sky Dancers, the prized mascots of Left Of The Dial. Another cool revelation is the recently opened Club Centraal, which proves to be better equipped for live music than its predecessor Club Vibes.
French trio Mad Mad Mad share Parker Fans’ proclivity for the funkier side of life. Entering the small venue at Perron, you’re not quite sure if this is a band or a lab experiment. The entire stage is filled with instruments, pedals and synths, despite the band only having three members. But miraculously, Mad Mad Mad utilise everything at their disposal. The compact venue really works in Mad Mad Mad’s favor, as the audience pretty much witnesses the physicality of their oddballish disco/electro pop blueprint. You know what they say: there’s something extra satisfying about eating a dish after witnessing its preparation.
Mad Mad Mad quickly work the Perron-crowd into a sweat, often taking bold left turns into post-punk, techno and industrial. Like many French bands of their ilk, they have mastered the Bangalter Brown Note, a low frequency assault that perfectly compliments their propulsive rhythmic thrust. Mad Mad Mad are the type of band that is probably best suited at later time slots, but seeing them early in the day proves they can create a frenzy regardless of where they set foot. Their set was heaps and heaps of fun, mounting with energy and unafraid to take the outré left turn. Groups like this can play any festival and any size stage and lift a ton of spirits.
Every edition of Left Of The Dial has that band that just excel in well-crafted lush songs without too much bells and whistles. Last year it was Canadian outfit Tallies, and this time it was Bleach Lab. Their shoegaze/dream pop sound is a bit by-the-numbers, but vocalist Jenna Kyle is a piercing presence: when she sings one can detect a kitchen sink, lived-through-some-shit quality that reminds of Stevie Nicks or Debbie Harry. If anything, it would be nice if that raw, tactile element pushes a wee bit more to the fore, instead of being submerged in reverb. You gotta let a great voice do its thing, you know.
As said before, a lot of familiar faces return to this edition of Left Of The Dial; for many bands of the past five years, Left Of The Dial gave them a first taste of the European festival experience. It’s heartening to see these very bands pay it forward and coming back: there’s a strong sense of culture and community that you just don’t see that often in other more industry-centric showcase events.
Left Of The Dial has proudly been a festival without headliners, so it’s interesting to see this shift in dynamic. Fast-rising South-Londoners Deadletter rouse up the crowd in a packed Arminius, sounding like The Birthday Party and The Clash going on a bender together. It helps that frontman Zac Lawrence is a charismatic frontman, looking as if Iggy Pop has taken over Paul Weller’s body, slithering and prowling about. Whispering Sons’ set was taut and foreboding; they’re the one band Joy Division fans who miss Joy Division should see. Unfortunately, neither Deadletter nor Whispering Sons could quite match their hype: just solidly executed rock shows bolstered by their tight-knit followings.
Another de facto ‘headliner’, Tramhaus, made a much stronger impression and sure, playing on their home court is obviously a big factor. Their presence at Left Of The Dial feels like an encore of their sold out Maassilo-bout last summer. It’s remarkable in how short of a period Tramhaus have crafted at least two albums of repertoire, with flexibility to boot, from oblique tension-builders like “Minus Twenty” to songs like “Make It Happen”, which has become someone of a folk anthem in Rotterdam in recent years. It’s proof that punk rock in its nascent form can still move the needle, in Tramhaus’s case, pulling the UNO Reverse Card on Rotterdam’s vapid city marketing.
In their closing set at Perron, Tramhaus give the audience what it wants after three days of frantically bolting between those Luchador Sky Dancers: only heavy hitters in the vein of “Karen Is A Punk”, “Amour Amour” and “Beep Beep” this time. They even throw in a blistering rendition of Fugazi’s “Waiting Room” for good measure, a song that fits them like a glove. The entire room erupts in chaos, which begs the queasy question: when will Tramhaus’s music – which channels the alienation and antipathy of all the suffering under the thumb of capitalist growth – be co-opted by the very bourgeois demographic it so ardently rebukes? Who is going to be the first Dutch conservative politician who walks around in Tramhaus-merch like the polder-equivalent of Paul Ryan? Those are shuddering thoughts that you try to keep out of sight, out of mind when witnessing Tramhaus bring the house down. They have become one of those bona fide elemental rock bands, right up there with Nirvana and The Stooges in their ability to dredge up the disenchanted underbelly.
And thus, Left Of The Dial 2023 ends on a deafening high note. The residual sentiment of this year’s edition is a bit bittersweet, however. This festival will inevitably grow and diversify in styles and demographics, as any showcase festival damn well should. But it will feel like a parent watching their kid grow into adulthood. That being said, the organisation’s continued onus on community, independent culture and hospitality makes a person swoon at the sheer purity of it all. Other Dutch festivals like Le Guess Who? and the sadly defunct Incubate have shown that growth and keeping your soul intact are not mutually exclusive, so the future looks very promising. Left Of The Dial proved this year that it can and will navigate a similarly wayward trajectory, setting an important new paradigm for both burgeoning and established indoor festivals across Europe and the UK.
That doesn’t take away that decades from now, we’ll reminisce in sweet nostalgia over that outlandish block party in Rotterdam, where good ol’ word-of-mouth, hustle and treasured misadventures ran rife. They call it weird on the avenue.