Admittedly, I had a single motivation to visit Le Guess Who?, but after four days gorging upon its smorgasbord, I found myself leaving with many more reasons to return. This was the eighth edition of the festival in full, but its first time based at the architecturally impressive TivoliVredenburg building—an incomparable contemporary-meets-classical music hall (boasting no less than five rooms of varying size and character) located in the heart of Utrecht.
The festival has grown from humble, Canadian-influenced beginnings into the lofty, city-sweeping event it is today. After an impromptu tour of the original Tivoli space ahead of Thursday's grand opening—now known as Kytopia, a non-profit studios and artist-in-residency initiative—it certainly felt better fit for purpose than the new TivoliVredenburg. Whilst striking and accommodating for the most part, the latter's refined and slightly trendy feeling at times sapped a little of Le Guess Who?'s festival spirit.
Einstürzende Neubauten opened up proceedings in the Grote Zaal (main hall) of the building, performing material from their new WW1 concept album, Lament. Not familiar with the project, its theatrical nature was an early shock to the system—imagine some sort of satirical Stomp cabaret show, in German—but grew into one of the most entertaining performances of the weekend. Moving onto De Helling, one of the other main venues serving Le Guess Who? (of which there were many), Ben Frost proceeded to blow me and the rest of the room away. Armed with a simple laptop and guitar set-up, the apocalyptic landscapes of A U R O R A were brought to life in this sweaty black box on the outskirts of town, and remained a tough act to beat for the rest of the festival.
The program only seemed to balloon from there. With many more venues added to the bill, and earlier opening times, navigating them all required wheels. And while the city isn't exactly large, like the rest of Holland it's best traversed by bike. Without such a luxury I found myself inhibited to the main drag. Luckily there was still plenty to see—both on and off my own radar. I had a loose plan and some definite must-sees (Autechre, the reason I was here; SWANS, this year's festival curators; BINKBEATS, local multi-instrumentalist and internet sensation), but the best approach was to simply explore. This way I saw the phenomenal Words To The Blind piece by brutal pop group Savages and Japanese punk foursome Bo Ningen, and another stunning cross-continental collaboration between Montreal rockers Suuns and Jerusalem In My Heart—both the kind of rare and exclusive performances Le Guess Who? has become known for.
If there was ever a peak moment it was on the Saturday. Headliners SWANS readied drone fans for the festival's inaugural 24-Hour Dronefest, which featured the likes of Tim Hecker, William Basinski, Stephen O'Malley, plus a slew of others. And from midnight it did exactly what it said on the tin. The more cloistered Pandora space was plied with cushions, and for the first time TivoliVredenburg seemed to finally slip into festival mode.
In the daytime, Le Mini Who? took over the Oosterkade and Voorstraat districts with a food and vintage market, while a handful of pop up gigs sounded in the surrounding bars and shops. Again, following a suck-it-and-see tactic, I found myself listening to the electro-pop antics of youthful duo Big Hare, followed by the less youthful stylings of Rotterdam cult figure Harry Merry. Clad in a patented sailor outfit, the latter's spirited weirdo shanties had the little haunt whipped into a furore (the Dutch-speakers, at least).
It soon dawned on me that this was not exactly an electronic festival. There were barely a handful of electronic acts to choose from, and those that had made the cut were either relegated to the outer-parts of the city or vying for your attention on the Saturday. Yes, Autechre completely destroyed the place—as we all knew they would. But Le Guess Who? wasn't about playing it safe or seeing who you knew. With that in mind, BINKBEAT's painstaking reconstruction of Aphex Twin's "Windowlicker", using a spread of some 50-odd instruments, was a delightful surprise and one of the certifiable highlights. For those who value variety in a festival programme—from experimental bands to out-there electronic acts—this one is certainly worth a look.
Photo credits: Tim van Veen (cover image, Einstürzende Neubauten), Juri Hiensch (24-hour Dronefest audience)