Northern Winter Beat 2024

In the depths of each February, Aalborg, a city split by a fjord, hosts Northern Winter Beat, a music festival of odd-ball bands and askew soloists. I saw six acts in the 2024 edition, across two days in five different rooms at three different locations.

Six performers took to the stage when I saw HHY & The Macumbas on the Friday: two drummers, two synth tweakers, a trumpet, and a shaking man with his body turned away from us and an orange mask covering the back of his head. He throbbed and jiggled, shook and wiggled, his mask’s nose constantly jeered at us, its warning orange gleaming along with one of the synth tweakers’ cyan trousers. Little of the man’s jiggling coincided with his bandmates’ movements, but not many of their movements coincided with one another either. Due to the lack of cohesion in dance, nodding – and fashion – I soon zoned in on the interplay between the two drummers. Rhythms bounced and sparked off one another, before shifting and rearing their heads unexpectedly elsewhere. The feints and switches challenged our bodies to lock in and grab hold of any semblance of a beat, to drink deeply from the space being gradually smothered between the two drums.

When he was head coach at Leeds United, the ever humble Marcelo Bielsa resisted the assertion that he had somehow improved his charges’ footballing abilities; he had merely helped them realise the potential which had already existed within themselves. As I danced, I wondered whether that’s what music does. Does music help us realise our bodies’ potential for movement and our psyches’ potential for emotion? Like Michelangelo’s quarried stone, we are already the masterpiece within, we just require a maestro to help unleash us. In that case, the two drummers in front of me were unlocking new twists and turns from within me through their novel compressions and elongations of time. But this is evidently horseshit. We are not masterpieces within quarried stone. Marcelo Bielsa did improve his players. And I, and the rest of the audience, was shaking and wiggling just like the masked man, out of sync with everybody else, lost to our own rhythms.

Julie Byrne was next. She was accompanied by a harpist and a violinist, a violinist cloaked by earnestness and solemnity. Each song was performed sincerely, with an undeniably beautiful voice, though the voice always stayed within, curled up with its comfort blanket. Each song’s lyrics wafted over me. I believe mountains and nature were mentioned, but their might and scale were never evoked. The instrumental backing was mostly sufficient, but never more. I wondered of the harpist if this was the future she had imagined for herself when she spent countless hours mastering her control and technique, to be plucking out simple arpeggios to sound pretty in the background.

I arrived late to the next act. I was waiting in the main room until I overheard that the duo were already playing in the second room. I didn’t know that there was a second room. But if there ever was a band made for unknown second rooms, Cantenac Dagar are it. After walking through hanging beads, I shuffled along in the dark to find a spot to stand in the circle surrounding a banjo-player and a beatboxer with an itchy throat. Banjo torturer and beat conjurer may be more accurate descriptions. A violin bow screeched against banjo strings; mouth beats mixed with coughs and jangling chains. As the screeches droned and the beats ebbed and flowed and midnight drew near and I looked around at the couple dozen of us gathered in a circle in a dark attic room with the iciness of a Northern winter outside, I had come the closest to partaking in a pagan ritual I had ever come, I thought. A pagan ritual to summon a god. Not a major god – the music wasn’t intense enough. Maybe the god of strepsils.

Saturday proved more fruitful, with performances from Baby in Vain, Föllakzoid and Chris Imler.

A steady pulse set the stage for Föllakzoid. The beat gradually morphed, adding an additional hit here, stripping back to the barebones there. Years of early mornings in Offenbach kicked in as I focussed in on the miniscule and rode the scintillating crunch of the hi-hat. A real hi-hat, for there was a real drummer on stage on the right flank, an electronics twiggler on the left, and up front – and what a frontwoman – was Domingæ. She played with the light, and us, blinding members of the crowd with reflections of stage bulbs bouncing of the shine of the scratchpad of her guitar. She seduced and stripped, urging us to embrace her music and sexuality. But we were the ones being watched, being judged, being dared by Domingæ. Were we audience enough for her?

The next act, Chris Imler, could perform to an empty audience and still have a good time. The multi-instrumentalist soloist joked he almost quit music on account of his bandmates, and when the microphone kept drooping from its stand, he drew comparisons between his relationship to the microphone to that of a romantic one. ‘Rocky start, but those sometimes lead to the best ones.’ He added, ‘Let’s see how it goes tonight.’ Even a failed explanation of why a song about Norway was funny because Norwegen sounds similar to something else in German, was rescued when he looked at the crowd of confused Danes and deadpanned, ‘It’s funny.’ And even if it wasn’t funny (thought it was), it was deranged, unhinged, mid-range crushingly good ol’ fun. Stupid synths with laughable lines and big bad beats squelched at the remains of a crowd shook loose from all inhibitions. More please, we begged, when he tried wrapping up. For the first time, he was the one perplexed, wracking his brain to come up with additions to his setlist. We danced and danced and begged not to be left to the charge of DJ something-or-other to mop up the sweaty dregs of the festival.

Though both Föllakzoid and Chris Imler put on great performances, it was the first act who I saw on Saturday, Baby In Vain, who were the stand-out show of Northern Winter Beat 2024. They shared a timeslot with Deerhoof, the festival’s headliners, but having discovered Baby In Vain’s Got It In You on an Iceage playlist a couple of months earlier, I opted for the creators of my favourite song of 2023. The trio of drummer and two guitarists are the real deal. They exuded an effortless cool and a calmness of having been there, done that, despite their relative youth. Their friendship was palpable and they invited the audience in to their haven. The two frontwomen switched up lead vocals: Andrea’s were prettier, Lola’s were grittier. Throughout, Benedicte messed with time, slowing down the beat until it fell apart, before haphazardly gathering up the pieces together again. Meanwhile, guitars purposely sabotaged solos, and the bandmates grinned wildly at each other at the end result. My partner had accompanied me for this one act, and we kept checking in with one another, ‘They are really good, aren’t they? They’re really really good.’ Each song confirmed our suspicions more and more and more.