Search The Line of Best Fit
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Curation and quality rule at Le Guess Who?

23 November 2023, 11:36
Words by Mitch Stevens

Lead image of Armand Hammer by Lisanne Lentink

Mitch Stevens heads to Utrecht for this year's edition of Le Guess Who? and finds a festival mapping out the future of music with love and intelligence.

Let it be known that as years have gone by, my youthful passion for the relentless onslaught of music that a festival provides has become less and less appealing. I’m a primitive guy who needs some semblance of comforts, to not be far removed from civilisation while dodging hay fever in a field somewhere, and above all else, a uniquely curated, well-thought out festival experience. This is what Le Guess Who? has been offering inhabitants and visitors to the city of Utrecht since 2007.

Focusing intently on exploring the road less travelled when it comes to music bookings, LGW? invites guest curators from across the sphere of contemporary music to make their mark on each event, with this year’s honours being delivered to Egyptian mastering engineer and Björk collaborator Heba Kadry, ambient jazz specialist Nala Sinephro, LA-based multidisciplinary artist Slauson Malone 1 and 90s avant-pop icons Stereolab. While each of the names sharing that responsibility may on first sight seem stylistically disparate, Le Guess Who? have done an incredible job with ensuring that each booking has a home within the festival’s programming that doesn’t feel out of place and allows for easy movement between each of the city’s gorgeous settings with ease and enough time to ensure crowds are vastly populated for each show.

So how do you go about setting up your own clashfinder for such a richly diverse line up of music? I had a set of rules. I wanted to take full advantage of the festival’s unique collaborative performances and special one-offs, so a handful of those went on the list. I also wanted to make sure that I was exclusively seeing artists for the first time, in-keeping with the spirit of discovery that has become the beating heart of a festival like Le Guess Who?.

In that vein, I kicked things off with Kali Malone’s ‘Does Spring Hide Its Joy’; a performance of her ensemble alongside electroexperimentalist cellist & composer Lucy Railton and Stephen O’Malley - renowned producer, composer, guitarist and Sunn O))) member. Taking place in Stadsschouwburg Utrecht’s stunning main room, a cinema-like theatre of truly grand proportions, the space lent itself beautifully to the patient yet all enveloping sounds being developed on stage by the trio. A gradually building cascade of sine waves, fed back guitar echoes and slowly rolling strings, ‘Does Spring Hide Its Joy’ burrows deep into the consciousness, taking hold in an almost meditative state and inviting the listener to surrender themselves before increasing the discordance to snap you back out of the trance.

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MIKE by Maarten Mooijman

One glorious but simultaneously disorientating thing about the diversity of programming at LGW? is the breakneck speed with which you will be encountering performances at complete opposite ends of the sonic spectrum. Heading from the electronically inclined drone of Kali Malone, Lucy Railton and Stephen O’Malley to the malleable rap sound of New York’s MIKE was a stark switch up, but a nevertheless welcome one. Taking place at Trivoli Vredenburg’s Pandora venue, which seems to have been repurposed to become the “club show” spot for the whole festival, before MIKE even steps foot on stage, a Palestinian flag is tied to the stage’s DJ desk.

It’s an important and all too rare marker at the festival of the struggles being faced by others around the world. His show however, radiates true warmth throughout. A magnetic stage presence fused with one of the most dextrous, malleable flows in contemporary rap music, MIKE’s work is laced with his own personal experience and struggle, but with an everpresent inspiration to push beyond it over unconventional instrumentation that truly marks MIKE out as one of rap’s more intriguing talents.

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Backxwash by Tess Janssen

Stark warnings of viewer discretion mark the opening of Backxwash’s set at TrivoliVredenburg’s Ronda at just before midnight on Friday night, followed by warnings of the artist herself promising “to do a lot of screaming today”, but nothing could’ve prepared audiences for the true onslaught they were about to receive. A gargantuan, true wall of sound that encompasses everything from rap, to metal, to industrial music; Backxwash stalks the stage to a sea of strobes, lyrically exploring identity, queerness and her faith to devastating effect. Utilising quotes from activist figures such as Angela Davis, Malcolm X and Nina Simone, Backxwash applies her own mindset beyond the messages of her music with a genuinely staggering audiovisual experience which inspires moshpits from the moment she steps into the crowd. It’s the most kinetic I have seen audiences at LGW? Backxwash’s set, which also features a visual performance with Pupil Slicer’s Kate Davies for their collaboration ‘Nyama’, and it sets an early high benchmark for the rest of the festival. This is then followed by some high octane, abstracted Brazilian funk music from Dominican producer and DJ Kelman Duran, who steps far out of his recent production work for Beyoncé’s Renaissance album to present an hour of chest-rattling sounds that prove just how hypnotic avant-garde club sonics can be.

Italian musician and composer Caterina Barbieri’s collaborative performance with Manchester’s ambience specialists Space Afrika is one of the most talked about performances of the weekend. It’s a masterclass in how to usher intimacy into some of the most expansive electronic soundscapes you’d be likely to hear over the weekend, with Barbieri’s acoustic guitar punctuating Space Afrika’s crackling, emotional textural work. Proceedings are staggered somewhat when a fire alarm interrupts the set, summoning a large section of the crowd to leave the venue, but those committed enough to returning once the alarming subsides were rewarded with a full-bodied final part of the performance, simultaneously hopeful yet punishingly dystopian, with an engaging light show that makes for once of the most well-rounded experiences of the weekend.

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Armand Hammer by Lisanne Lentink

New York City’s Armand Hammer is one of rap music’s most critically lauded duos. Projects such as 2020’s Shrines, their collaborative record with Alchemist - Haram - and their most recent offering We Buy Diabetic Test Strips, have presented hip hop at its most confrontational; unflinching in its message and truly singular in its sound. That sound, unfortunately, is not done justice at Pandora, with Billy Woods and ELUCID working hard to engage the crowd despite volume issues and a smoke technician who is clearly having way too much fun manning the machine. Their performances however, are thankfully enough to rise above the technical madness, with tracks like ‘Trauma Mic’, which includes a powerful contribution from another one of rap’s finest Pink Siifu, more than enough to remind audiences just how powerful they can sound, despite so much working against them.

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Model/Actriz by Tengbeh Kamara

Already a feverishly hyped live act before the release of their dynamic debut album DOGSBODY earlier this year, NY four piece Model/Actriz close out my festival with a throat-splitting brand of post-punk that’s steeped in true innovation. Each member of the band uses the tools at their disposal to enhance the unhinged sounds they can get out of their instruments; tuning pegs are twisted mid-note, distortion and feedback is manipulated to fashion disorientating soundscapes, drums are hammered to within an inch of their life despite a sparing set up. This is all while frontman Cole Haden prowls not only the stage, but the majority of the venue, with the visceral energy of a musical theatre kid caught in a gogo club within the depths of hell. Tracks like ‘Mosquito’ spark a true dissonance in amongst their inherently danceable rhythms and electronic worldbuilding that’s truly a wonder to behold.

With Le Guess Who?, it’s refreshing to find a festival that is succeeding on such a grand scale while integrating unmatched curation at its heart. In a world where the current festival landscape consists of an arms race of exclusivity and chart-dominating acts, Le Guess Who? paves the road less travelled with a stunning array of underrepresented scenes and cultural icons who are carving the sounds of the future, and in turn, the festival is allowing those who attend a weekend of broadening horizons, all under the beautiful city of Utrecht - an area that’s transformed into a true metropolis of culture for the four days of the festival.

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