Dressed in black trousers and a short-sleeved white shirt that suggested he may have just wrapped up an additional shift as a bus driver, singer Joe Talbot veered between the empathic and the vitriolic in his between-song missives as readily as he does in his music. 2021 album Crawler formed over a third of the set, and the frontman rarely missed an opportunity to lay blame at the UK’s incumbent Conservative government – not least on “Mother”, reminding listeners that “the best way to scare a Tory is to read and get rich”.
The focus of the evening never vanished. As the night’s entertainment drew to a close, Moscow was reportedly planning to annex Donetsk and Luhansk, while the European Union prepared to sanction Russian oil. The victims remain elsewhere, the extraordinary amount of money raised a temporary balm to a deeper political fracture.
In The Conference of the Birds, a 12th-century poem written by the renowned Persian mystic Fariduddin Attar, a flock of 30 birds set off to find the legendary bird king Simorgh. At the end of their long and arduous journey, the birds reach the destination, only to find the king does not exist – but that they themselves have become kings in the process.
For Matthias Koch, the founder of Hamburg label 30M Records – thirty is pronounced ‘si’ in Farsi, while ‘morgh’ means bird – the story offered an enchanting allegory for his project. When Koch first flew to Iran in 2016, a landmark nuclear deal signed between Tehran and world powers had just been implemented, lifting multilateral sanctions on Iran and promising to open it up to the world. Various international artists began performing in Tehran, including modern classical composers Ludovico Einaudi and Ólafur Arnalds.
Then in May 2018, Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from the nuclear deal and, instead, began pushing through waves of vituperative sanctions on Iran, as well as his notorious travel ban on Muslim-majority countries. Shortly after the announcement, a series of highly-anticipated performances by Grammy-winning Japanese artist Kitaro was cancelled, reportedly due to concerns that the American members of his band would face difficulties acquiring future travel visas if they visited the country. More cancellations followed. The international cultural renaissance appeared to be over – or at the very least, on hold.
With ongoing sanctions prohibiting Iranian musicians from releasing their music worldwide, Koch founded 30M Records in January 2020 in order to publish some of the most exciting new electronic and experimental music coming out of the country. To Koch, it was about more than just a philanthropic gesture. “It’s not a charity thing. I don’t do it because I feel pity for the musicians,” he says. “I really think it’s great music which comes from the country – and as a secondary matter, I can help these people, because they’re limited in what they can and can’t do at the moment.”
“What is it about a bonfire?” The opening question from Phil Elverum’s press notes for Lost Wisdom Pt. 2 is one that haunts the latest Mount Eerie album from start to finish, an elegiac motif that returns to the word “smoldering” twice on its journey. It’s a term that invariably carries a sense of interlocation, though its passing is noted both ways: when we think of a smoldering romance, it evokes the presence of flame waxing, ascendant; when we think of a smoldering bonfire, we mourn what’s left of the light in its embers.
When Natasha Khan announced a new album informed by the baby pinks and teals of 80s music and cinema, it would have been easy to sneer at it as the latest cultural power-grab for nostalgia, the aural equivalent of a New Coke can left in shot a little too long. That it would be a costume to dress up in for the night rather than something, you know, authentic. As it turns out, Lost Girls is a phenomenal record, which should come as little surprise for an artist whose just about to release her fifth on the bounce as Bat For Lashes (six if you count the Sexwitch LP, which you absolutely should). But that’s almost beside the point.
The point is that costumes and make-up are ways of telling stories; when we strike a pose, we reach towards something higher than the everyday motions learned by rote, which is ultimately what Khan does best. Each of her albums carries a concept, and yet even when they’re playing dress-up – quite literally in the case of Pearl, the blonde-wigged chaos twin she built into the Two Suns narrative – they’re telling us something about the artist, about ourselves.
We’ve stopped briefly on our walk through the Italian countryside, on the way to a local restaurant, because Ludovico Einaudi wants to eat some flowers. He beckons the press over and begins to speak about the qualities of this particular specimen, encouraging us to pick a few to garnish our salads and risottos later. Various members of the international press in attendance begin collecting them, stuffing a handful in pockets and the occasional one or two in their mouths. I chew on a few petals and watch as the composer sets off again, down the road to find the next adventure. Are they poisonous? Nobody asks. Today Einaudi is the pied piper of Piedmont, and we follow him wherever he takes us.
As it turns out the 63-year-old is an excellent walking companion, which is exactly what makes his new album cycle Seven Days Walking such a compelling work of art. Inspired by a succession of mountain walks taken during the darker months, the project is intended to illustrate the capricious nature of both the environment around us and our perception of it, each subject to change at any moment, however much we grasp at commonalities. If it sounds like the work of an experimental artist on the fringes of modern classical music, that may belie the fact that Ludovico Einaudi is something of a superstar – well beyond the remit of where his genre typically extends.
In the music videos for ‘Lilith’ and ‘Loomis’, the first two singles to be taken from Faith Eliott’s debut album Impossible Bodies, a glorious and near-constant duel plays out between the sparkling and the mundane. Flashes of electric pink and lightning gold illuminate the washed-out scenes around them, and we taste both senses of the word “impossible”: not only as frustration towards something that can never be achieved, but also as something thrillingly beyond the limitations of the present. We live in our own impossible bodies, but we also yearn towards wilder ones.
The glory of it all, of course, was that none of this needed to happen. “The hacienda must be built” was the mantra, a Situationist quote from Ivan Chtcheglov refashioned by Tony Wilson to lend the project an additional veneer of counter-culture chic. But the Haçienda didn’t need building. Peter Hook supposedly once ventured that New Order would have been better off if they’d given ten quid to everyone who ever came to the club and sent them on their way; by all accounts, it was a financial disaster, tentatively propped up for most of its lifespan by the band’s record sales. Not that it matters now. “Some people make money,” Wilson observed at the time. “Others make history.”
“Bloody foreigners,” the shopkeeper gestures towards me, before adding a wink to convey levity. As a progressive student city that prizes itself on inclusivity, it’s fair to say that Groningen’s warm hospitality is matched only by its puzzlement at the events unravelling in the UK, a series of spread-legged power stances that appear both hostile and ludicrous to the rest of the world.
Later that evening I’m sharing a cigarette with another local outside a bar, who visibly rallies himself to present the question in the way that one might ask out their high school crush: “Do you like Brexit?” I do not. I like watching European bands and drinking cheap gin at equally unsustainable rates. Thankfully I’m at Eurosonic Noorderslag, the finest new music showcase in Europe, where my remit extends to both.
If recent single “Love is You” sounds familiar, you might just recall the sample it’s built on. The last time that beat was riding high in the charts was August 2000, when Spiller’s “Groovejet (If This Ain’t Love)” became the soundtrack to every WKD-soaked dancefloor from Ipswich to Ibiza, promptly ushering a 21-year-old Sophie Ellis-Bextor into pop stardom.
What’s perhaps more remarkable is the constant evolution she’s worked hard to maintain ever since. Never interested in playing it safe, Ellis-Bextor made a conscious decision that 2014’s Wanderlust would be created independently and without any disco or dance tracks, a philosophy that largely carried over into 2016’s Familia. Both were written with Ed Harcourt, both carried a sophisticated blend of hooks and heart that made them two of her finest records, despite being largely overlooked in various corners of the press. Not that she cares too much about that sort of thing.
If anyone required a reminder of music criticism’s intensely performative role in global culture, look no further than its reaction to ‘El Mal Querer’ within the US and UK. Much has been made of its reconstructive qualities, imagining that the threads of R&B, electronic voice treatment and Justin Timberlake samples weave through flamenco’s superannuated frame like so much scaffolding. In truth, mainstream pop has been swiping bits from Catalan and Latin quarters for decades, and this is perhaps why Rosalía’s breakthrough LP feels so natural: for many listeners, that sonic palette came closer to distillation than adulteration.