Like my jolly pal the Buttplug Gnome, the inaugural Left Of The Dial festival initially feels slightly out of place in the Dutch port city of Rotterdam. But once you get a little acquainted, you learn to embrace it in all its offbeat glory. Just to elaborate: many music outlets have declared rock –in all shapes and forms – perished and buried; a mere relic from simpler times, too crude or quaint of an artistic medium to reflect, admittedly, some pretty outlandish times.
In Rotterdam, however, there’s an expansive cluster of smaller live venues who can accommodate the type of ‘guitar-based’ bands who reject the notion that the boundaries of rock-based instrumentation have been met. Off the top of my head, there’s Rats on Rafts, Bonne Aparte, Jo Goes Hunting, Lewsberg, The Sweet Release Of Death, Goodnight Moonlight and The Lumes: all of these bands make music that’s a raw extension of their personality and interests.
So even though Left Of The Dial might have brazenly rolled the dice by programming 48 bands – most of them relatively obscure – in six venues, it has paid off. They have timed it exactly right too; because it’s the same week when a certain Dance Event enraptures Amsterdam, a lot of bands have to look elsewhere in The Netherlands to perform. But that’s a bit beside the point: Left Of The Dial has an extremely keen eye for the more exciting, stubborn bands, ones that are perpetually overlooked, because rock music is increasingly treated as this token genre. And it’s precisely these kinds of bands that shine the brightest at Left Of The Dial.
Italy’s Any Other, for instance, was one of those wonderful early surprises. Watching them, I imagine a bunch of kids who obsessed over Eliott Smith’s Figure 8 as teens, only to crawl down the rabbit hole of Alice Coltrane and Laraaji in their early twenties. I ain’t kidding, that’s pretty much what Any Other sound like. Their singer/guitarist Adele goads the kind of candid, bedroom poetry that unnerves even the flock of bro’s rattling about by the left side of the stage.
Though Adele doesn’t exactly mince words, the rest of the band isn’t doubling down on her emotional intensity and vulnerability. On the contrary: they play free and light, stretching out the songs with flourishes of keys, slinky bass, and the kind of restrained drum playing that emphasizes texture over cadence. It’s pretty unreal. Adele’s guitar playing is discordant, prickly, and corrosive, creating these strange juxtapositions with the woozy workouts of her bandmates. Sure, Any Other could benefit from converging their free-form playing to more cohesive, melody-driven moments to build better suspense, but all and all, I was pretty much spellbound throughout their set. Also, they reference Songs: Ohia in one of their songs, so I think my love for this bunch is no fluke. If you plan to hit Groningen’s Eurosonic next January, by any means, don’t miss them.
With the Dutch scene flourishing at a ridiculous pace, Left Of The Dial naturally gives the newcomers some burn. Let me start by declaring that it's refreshing whenever the Dutch underground scene is taken seriously and on face value by a showcase festival. On day one, WORM hosts two offshoots from the mighty Korfbal (who also have The Homesick’s Jaap van der Velde on the reigns), the bands in question being Real Farmer and Price. While the former still has some miles to go, having only played maybe their second show, the latter was brilliant. Not just brilliant as in ‘promising’, but more like ‘they really are just as good as Korfbal’. Marnix Visscher’s unassuming, unhurried poise might be his foil in a small country like The Netherlands, where the ones who scream the loudest get the most rewards. But seriously, the dude is an absolute tour de force. Though Price features Visscher’s signature acidic squall and penchant for wiry hooks that always seem to stick, it’s an entirely different operation than Korfbal. Honestly, I don’t know much about korfbal, so I’m just going to break it down for you in basketball terms: if Korfbal is a fast break, Price is your fundamentally sound half-court execution. Their bread and butter is restraint, steadiness, and depth, never getting too ahead of themselves. I hear a lot of sonic elements of The Stone Roses, Ulrika Spacek and Isn’t Anything-era My Bloody Valentine. But within the frame of Visscher’s melodic tendencies – turning frequent about-faces – Price is quite a unique little beast.
Häxxan’s swaggering garage pop preceded Price’s set: if you dig bands like Jacuzzi Boys, Meatbodies, and Tijuana Panthers, these guys are pretty much it. They are raunchy, but not a crust punk-lad-on-a-bad-acid-trip kind of raunchy. More like a sweltering, sexy kind of raunchy, inciting visions of blocky parties and nightlife on some kind tropic boulevard, with cafés, palm trees, and ocean winds. Häxxan can and will whip it up with abandon on strategic moments, but in general, their energy is built on happy-go-lucky, head-bopping and hook-heavy delights.
I was a little surprised with the quality control Left Of The Dial: most of the bands I managed to catch were entertaining at worst, and very compelling at best. Unfortunately, Vulgarians didn’t live up to their billing. Their set at the Schotse Kerk was maybe a tiny bit amusing; they were trying their damnedest to sound edgy by cranking up the volume and bloating up their already on-the-nose angst with haphazard splurging and mashing on their instruments. Though they themselves might believe it was edgy-as-fuck, Vulgarians’ lack of composure in both sound and playing make them appear like some cartoonish soap-opera depiction of a band, not an actual band. I’m sure there are some good ideas lost in the shuffle here, but it’s stuff like this that makes people want to roll their eyes all the way back about the state of rock and/or roll.
Though their name might suggest a similarly obtuse exercise in full-blown racket Rev Rev Rev sure do know what they are doing. Italy loves their phantasmagorical doom bands, and Rev Rev Rev fit the quintessential bill and then some. Their set was tectonic and hypnotic at the same time, and I found myself as spellbound and immersed as when I watched Mandy. In on the bright Red Light Vessel 11, Rotterdam-based upstarts Pig Frenzy prove they belong in the city’s current Hall-Of-Fame of incendiary racket makers. You don’t get much more on-the-nose (or in this case, on-the-snout) than this squalid bunch of existentialist jokesters. Pig Frenzy, as their name suggests, is one messy romp of Dead Kennedys-meets-Dead Milkmen yeoman punk.
Old MacDonald’s farm doesn’t just have pigs, there are some Crows skulking about as well. Usually, these birds will settle for scraps, but on Left Of The Dial, James Cox and his phalanx are claiming the entire buffet. Good heavens, what a show. Where to start? Well, first of all, Crows’ guttural brand post-punk/noise rock somehow awakens my irrational fear of revolving doors. It’s like this bad dream, where the door is – first of all – made of reinforced fucking steel, and it keeps crashing into me from both sides. As I come in Crows have already turned Rotown into a mass of flailing limbs. But amidst all the mayhem, I gawk in fascination at frontman Cox. His towering presence on stage oozes this deeply scorched inner anguish. But at the same time, he isn’t wallowing in it, but more like deadening himself to it, like some novice Dark Souls player taking on the game’s hardest boss, despite knowing he’ll get killed over and over and over.
There’s a veiled defiance there, and as the band burrows an echo chamber for him to bellow into with Ian Curtis-like abandon, resolve or solace are never truly realized. Nevertheless, one can detect a whim of warmth and kinship, the way Cox leaps onto the bar counter and gives out these slightly relieved nods to various audience members. I said in the festival preview that for every IDLES-like breakthrough, there are about ten bands like Crows who are perpetually overlooked. Boy, I was wrong. Because, in reality, there are no bands remotely like Crows either who coalesce that level of sheer blunt force, mystique, and magnetism. The festival’s absolute highlight.
Day two bookends two noisy bands of the dark, nihilistic variety: Stuttgart’s Die Nerven and Brooklyn’s Bambara. Let’s start with the first: I’m pretty sure Die Nerven know we’re all fucking doomed, and I have a strong impression this trio pretty much crams this predicament into their skulls before they stake the stage. Their forty minutes of ragged post-punk, awkward silences (“You don’t have to applaud”, the singer/guitarist at one point hisses, after my sad sack excuse of hand-clapping gratitude) and subdued theatrics awaken the more perverse reflections, like what people in medieval time would do after attending a public execution at the gallows.
Bambara’s cyclonic, heavy-handed set also sparks more even seedy reflections of another age. Instead of templars and executioners, however, their searing, ominous noise barrages evoke the anarchy of the Wild West, the epoch of outlaws and slingers like Billy The Kid and John Dillinger. Just the possessed, penetrating gaze of vocalist Reid Bateh as he riles up the front row is terrifying: the look that says, “I’m just going to take everything, no matter what.” Besides Crows, this particular set marks the apex of the achievable sneering intensity and horsepower. Bambara has turned Rotown into a god-forsaken Hacienda of Hell.
LA-based musician Dre Babinski’s outfit Steady Holiday explores the darker tendencies of human nature on a more subdued, even-keeled playing field. I’ve quickly grown fond of Babinski’s all-encompassing work, and her excellent latest album Nobody’s Watching deserves more ears. Due to financial reasons, Steady Holiday is only able to perform as a duo tonight instead of her full-band, but that doesn’t take the enjoyment out of it the slightest. Babinski is an affable, beguiling presence, flaunting a million dollar smile and coaxing the crowd to come closer from the get-go. From the eerie, loitering stride of ‘Terror’ to the supple soft disco sway of ‘Love And Pressure’ Babinski and her “twin brother” Derek Howa manage to weave a rich melodic tapestry with synths, guitars, violin, and drum computers. It’s all in service of keeping Babinski’s dewy voice at the center, forcing the audience to hang on every syllable leaving her lips. “I’m the blue under the flame”, she deceptively coos on ‘Flying Colors’, and indeed, like candlelight, her set was sleek, simmering and luminous in its locus of economy.
Amsterdam’s HOWRAH, though slightly more foreboding in their sonic makeup, also have a mesmeric quality about their music. It’s not hard to recall the dynamic of Sonic Youth in their shiny prime, with those impetuous rhythmic plunges continuously at odds with burrowing, hypnotic pulses. Also thrilling, but in a more extroverted way, were Canshaker Pi, who have endured some drastic line-up changes over the past few months. Unfortunately, Boris de Klerk had to depart but found a new exciting vehicle in Petersburg Orderer. The Canshakers also found a new drummer in Leon Harms of Korfbal and Rafts on Rats infamy, and his giddy propellent style has taken the Canshaker’s already formidable stage prowess to another ridiculous level. The band’s nucleus of Willem Smit and Ruben van Weegberg still hold down the fort with their disarmingly quirky charm. It’s difficult to find a band right nowadays who display more consummate fun and spirit on stage than they do; they’re like the band equivalent of a John Hughes flick, they really are. The quartet seems to embrace literally everything that comes their way; they even continue truckin’ along after a guitar string breaks. I do wonder sometimes, when are the Canshakers are going to slow down and finally make the record they really want to make? Nevertheless, seeing them utterly tear things apart, well, it never fails to inject the obligatory awesome dopamine rush.
So that’s it for the very first Left Of The Dial, so aptly named after that The Replacements song. The gambit to focus on ‘rock’ bands over all else paid off in its inception. I can’t help but hope, however, to gradually see a little bit more inclusivity and diversity in types of live acts, without abandoning the gist of the festival’s initial mission. Showcasing the more idiosyncratic bands, who truly bring something fresh to the table without compromising to reach a more prominent audience, is by any measure a vital, bold and noble gesture in a climate that doesn’t exactly favor said acts. And, as we’ve seen across this decade, the city of Rotterdam has all the means and willpower to amplify these singular voices further.
Left Of The Dial takes place in Rotterdam, The Netherlands, in October. For more information about the festival, including details of the 2019 edition, please visit their official website.
Photo Credit Banner: Rosa Meininger
All other photos: credit as indicated