MENT festival : live review of great new cutting edge European bands at key festival
Live Review PART 1
By LTW’s Richard Foster and John Robb (LTW boss and frontman of the Membranes) running from venue to venue…
Richard Foster : Driving through Slovenia’s rolling countryside to catch a plane at Zagreb airport felt bad. Normally I’m usually happy to get home after a number of hectic days at any music festival. But leaving MENT brought on a tangible sense of loss. The unexpected (and, of course, welcome) blast of Blue Monday on some Slovenian ‘Greatest ‘80s Hitz’ radio show in our taxi, crystalised matters. “How Does It Feel?” Well, a bit shit, if you’re asking.
Set in the picturesque capital Ljubljana, MENT is such an interesting and inspiring initiative; driven by real bottom-up enthusiasm and underground cunning. Here, the alternative music glitterati and brassy, ever-smiling delegates from the established music industry mingle with those struggling to get funds to get their records out, to find a wider audience, or, in some cases, just a gig. The people behind MENT know that both camps need each other; constantly.
Before me and John review the festival gigs, I think it’s worth emphasising what vital, vibrant scenes MENT (and other festivals based in ex-Eastern Bloc countries) encourage. As well as the region’s mind-boggling history of “folk music”, Yugoslavia’s underground rock heritage of the 80s and 90s still feels a potent force, and an energy source to be tapped into, not an over-marketed trope. This legacy is common to the music of Central and Eastern Europe and the Baltic states as a whole. And the current crop of acts from these countries – regardless of genre – have a vitality and determination Western scenes could learn from. Things are moving. Despite the roughness, or gaucheness, or sometimes plain naffness, there is no time, for fakers or reputations. And that’s great.
John Robb : MENT is in its third year now and its strike rate of great and innovative music is as high as ever. Sometimes it seems that these events on the fringes of Europe are where the good stuff is. Not that the home city of MENT – Ljubljana is any kind of backwater. The thriving capital of a small but forward looking country and the home to Laibach is anything but a backwater and this is reflected in the band selection that sees groups from the Balkans and beyond deliver a varied rush of music that is far better than the career opportunity bands that clog up the major music events.
Innovation is the key and yet perversely it’s this innovation that is seeing the bands that play here beginning to break out – from Belgrade’s Repetitor who played the first MENT and are now playing to crowds of 1000 plus all over East Europe and will do the same in west Europe to a whole of host of thrilling and innovative groups.
Day One – 1 Feb 2017
RICHARD: After a day of travel delays I must be honest and say that all I wanted to do was eat the buffet at trendy-friendly cinema Kino Šiška. There, I said it, I sacrificed loads of music on the altar of weird-looking finger food. Still; the first night highlights for me were local loons Leni Kravac; an incredible serious-not-serious-classic-not-classic Balkan act that pummelled the audience’s senses with their Clintonesque take on “The Goran Bregovic Sound” [sic]. I should say I also really enjoyed the DJ backing Estonia’s TOMM¥ €A$H who conjured up sonic washes that could have come off a Minny Pops, or Section 25 LP. Weird, glammy Gothy post-punk noise, combined with ridiculous beats which sometimes nodded to footwork and put the rapper in the shade on his own stage. And a word too, for London duo Heymoonshaker who had something in their act that could easily be “massive”. A simple template (one lad rocking a dirty, bluesy guitar, and adding raw vocals and another pressed into service as an agile human beatbox) initially really, really worked. The music they make should be a hit at festivals, if you dig that kind of stadium-rousing approach.
Tommy Cash is Estonia’s biggest act at the moment with his gonzoid rap running amok like a mad night out in some neon lit Euro city dreaming of America and rap muscle over the quite brilliant stripped down, dark electronics of his onstage electro wizard. Whilst the raps are brutal and bleak, it makes for an interesting clash between a Baltic post Eminem cranked on life and some seriously fascinating electronics that could easily stand up on their own with their dark space and clever textures.
I was a bit more enamoured with Heymoonshaker than you Richard! This is economy rock taken to its logical conclusion. Two people, one guitar a combo and a human beatbox that somehow sounds huge. Led Zep needed 14 articulated trucks to make this kind of blues rock racket yet Heymoonshaker do it with a bloke making drum sounds down a mic! And he somehow sounds like John Bonham – I’m still baffled by how good the bass drum sound is and how he makes hi hat sounds by breathing in. The guitar adds the groove and the songs are festival dynamite – constant touring will see this band sneak up and take the world unless the human beatbox gets a dose of the flu…
MENT Day Two – 2 Feb 2017
RICHARD: Day two started with a huge curry, and a trek downtown to the renovated Electric works, Stara Elektrarna to see locals Širom; who on record are a compelling multi-instrumental alt-folk act, recently signed to Glitterbeat Records. Now, for me, this gig was a classic example of how surroundings often play a huge part in a performance. After walking into the imposing surroundings, seeing the band in action was initially a huge disappointment. The three musicians looked lost on the huge Stara Elektrarna stage. Diffident, and shirts not tucked in-ah their pants-ah, it looked like we had inadvertently gatecrashed a “drum circle for Corbyn” event. Further, they seemed utterly indifferent to the large audience. And that was a tad irritating. But it just goes to show what a virtue patience can be. After giving them five minutes to work through a percussive piece we started to dig their loose, left-field take on modern, transnational, post-post everything folk. Everything felt wobbly, discombobulated, weird. Best of all, the diverse instruments felt like they were being played, and put through their paces, not “brought out” to show off on. To draw on another Fall reference, Širom are a genuine “working band” with weird melodies and a strong, groovy side to them. They could be – given the breaks – big, big big.
Sirom create a captivating elixer with their collection of folk instruments. The Slovenia band dig deep into an ancient sonic archive of mystical folk with their perfect distillation of instruments. There has been a lot of this kind of stuff in the past few years – a search for an authentic past in the modern digital rush of life but Sirom have done this with determination to dig deeper. All the instruments are weird looking neo violins and creaking wooden things with double strings for added drone and they thoughtfully use these to create brooding and swirling atmospheres. The playing is exquisite and the world they pull you into is far from a dusty museum and an exercise in musical taxidermy but a genuine reinvigorating of a folk tradition that stretched way beyond their small home country and all over a world beneath our hi tech romance with modernity. It helps that they have the songs and the capability to switch moods from elation to dark drones and if there is one thing yer author loves it’s a good drone!
RICHARD: Thence, traipse to the famous Metelkova squat to bounce between the four cramped, rough and ready (but friendly) venues. In principle this is a reviewer’s dream. Until the small capacities are reached, that is, and you’re standing outside a squat venue in the Slovenian winter. Still, full venues means good bands, agreed? First up in Menza Pri Kortu was local act, Haiku Garden, who were pleasant enough. They sounded like a quieter version of Chapterhouse. It really should have been louder and harsher, so I will reserve judgement. We then ended up in Gala Hala to see the madly-badly named Serbian trio Straight Mickey And The Boyz. A power trio of considerable presence and attitude, they came at the audience in one fully committed manner, yessir; like the MC5 with a dash of The Clash thrown in for good measure. In short their heavy sound (not too far from Repetitor at times) ROCKED. Hard.
From Belgrade Straight Mickey and The Boyz deal a perfect rock n roll. There’s is a perfect poise and power as they kick out the jams, literally, as there is a whiff of the MC5 about their sonic skree.
They also cram in the Blues Explosion perfect power trio dynamic and that combination of the high octane, soul power blues thing that is so perfect when dealt with by people who really know what they are doing – do it wrong and you are a mundane bar band – do it right and you are incendiary high priests of rock n roll, fortunately Straight Mickey do it right! There’s something about a band that is so tight and so assured that the music just seems to pour out of them that is so magnetic. It’s that effortless way they peel out those killer licks from the guitar, it’s the white heat intensity of the bassist staring into the void and it’s the muscular power of their songs.
RICHARD: After this we scurried over to watch provincial Dutch teen Beats, The Homesick in Channel Zero. Singer Elias Elgersma (also leader of the brilliant Yuko Yuko /]) has a penchant for pulling off interesting sartorial gestures onstage.Tonight was no different; rocking a weird mix of 60s Mod, Glasgow Ned and beach bum (courtesy of white flipflops). Regardless of Elias’s fashion sense, The Homesick are growing into a genuine force. They can really really play in a way that is exciting, and not up its own arse. They also have the confidence that comes of knowing their self-taught, self-absorbed guitar pop music is a big hit: with girls. Tracks in 7-8 time like Gucci Gucci – which would sound pretentious if played by anyone else – sound ridiculously sexy; and songs about (ahem) Christianity (reflective new single Boniface about St Boniface’s Frisian martyrdom, or their rousing set closer, The Best Thing About Being Young Is Falling In Love With Jesus) sound menacing and sarky and nothing like an advert for the Big JC’s code of conduct. Less poppy than previous and playing longer, more drawn out tracks that have a bit of The Beta Band about them (the stomper Half Aryan, or Mattheus for instance), they cruised through this gig, looking as if they were just waiting for the call to step up to greater things. Sorry, but this middle-aged fanboy thinks they’re amazing.
The Homesick are fantastically young skinny rats from somewhere in the north of the Netherlands. That distant flatland up in the wilds and marshes where people speak another language and small towns have tightly compressed worlds that flicker and twitch rarely in the rush of modern times. Dressed in street wear they look like a bus shelter scally gang that has wandered into the music fest by mistake. That is until they start playing. They are, of course, great. A mish mash of that great no man’s land of Factory records in-between Joy Division and the Happy Mondays and all the oddball genius groups that everyone forgets about. They have that driving dark force of the Joy Divs in the sound but that serious wonk and surreal street humour of the Mondays and then all the semi forgotten genius weird of Stockholm Monsters, Crispy Ambulance and the first James single chucked in there. That when the weird get going they going gets weird biut served up as great warped scally pop – kinda like the world Cabbage are now living in (infact they would be the perfect support for the latest Manc darlings) They probably never heard of any of this stuff and they defiantly and definitely put their own stamp on the affairs and are obviously following their own instinct and not taking any orders. Seriously good band.
RICHARD: Popping over to Menza Pri Kortu again we caught White Wine; who was magnificent. Their “human music” is always compelling to watch, as well as being endearingly vulnerable and completely crazed. Joe Haege and Fritz Brückner’s Muse is a refugee from a bygone golden age of pop; the quirky, slightly frayed at the edges urban sound that made stars of Devo and Talking Heads. Their ability to translate their sound in a live setting always impresses me. I’ve seen him play with equal commitment to big crowds of festival chin strokers and (literally) five people and a dog in Leiden. Here, in a packed, grimy club, White Wine pulled the audience’s psyche into shreds; Joe frantically running round the place and yelping his way through his songs of hope and despair. I do think that adding a drummer to the live setup has been a massive step in the right direction too, giving the other two even more freedom to work out their compassionate, entertaining pop. Great!
Then it was time for Rotterdam’s The Sweet Release of Death, in Klub Gromka. The Sweet Release of Death’s rise from an overly arty part-time combo dipping their toes in noise rock to full-blooded sand-blasting, C21st proto Goth band of some force, has been phoenix-like, even if it has been comparatively under the radar. And here, despite sound problems, they smashed out a tough, uncompromising and increasingly glorious set. Singer Alicia worked through her own spooky, increasingly Gnomic tales of despair and anger; whilst guitarist Martijn and drummer Sven provided a cinematic backdrop of snarls, growls and swirls. This Rotterdam band are “big in Poland” whilst being a cult act in their own land. But on this evidence they deserve much, much more.
JOHN: There is nothing better than a better than looks like timid mice that explodes into a flamethrower of sonic possibility. The Sweet Release Of Death are exploring that dank undergrowth and hinterland between the pointlessly derided genius of Bauhaus and the unexplored thickets of art goth and the huge tsunamis of sound of My Bloody Valentine and the twisted sister sublime noise of Sonic Youth – plenty of controlled feedback and collapsing song structures that teeter on collapse but hold together for a driving rush. The three piece have a guitar player who unleashes the waves of beautiful droning filth over a powerful and concise rhythm section. It’s powerful and thrilling stuff and sees the Rotterdam bands who are now on their second album stake another claim for the vibrant Dutch underground that is producing plenty of fascinating bands and just needs some spotlight for some of them to break out.
RICHARD: There is a lot to be said for Slovenian beer but its mnemonic properties are not one of them. Soz, after this I remember being incredibly entertained by Austria’s Mieux in Channel Zero, but can’t remember anything about their sound and why I loved it so much… I suppose enjoyment is the highest accolade. So let’s leave it at that! Stay tuned for MENT review part two!
JOHN : Sod the beer. The coolest thing is the venues serve tea! Unimaginable back home in Blighty! The Green tea is annoyingly flavoured though with a lemon back taste but it keeps your hands warm.
MENT FESTIVAL REVIEW 2017 – PART 2
Festivals are always more fun as they go on. And MENT in Ljubljana is no different. It’s another modern, hard working, multi-disciplinary festival – driven by its own set of local/social circumstances – and suffering no Anglo-American “Music Bizz” cock-rock hang ups. You see more and more festivals like this, ones that don’t rely on music alone, acting more and more as places where people meet and talk, and promise to keep in touch or work together. Given the times we are living in, it’s a highly appropriate modus operandi.
RICHARD: And, after 2 full days of panels, talks, showcases from Hungary, Austria, Poland and all Balkan countries, beer tastings and palinka slurpings (me, not the Upright and Steadfastly teetotal Mr Robb, I hasten to add) we were both energised and still up for any music that this bunch of unassuming, easy going Slovenians had sorted out for us. First up was (frighteningly young) local act, Lynch on Kino Šiška’s Komuna stage. Looking serious, wearing black, and now and then resorting to some serious stagecraft (white rabbit masks, if you must know), Lynch knocked out a set full of poise and power that belied their years. Man; when I first heard them I thought MENT had been kind and given a stage to a bunch of deserving old punk rockers with an American Music Club fixation, just as a favour to reflect services to Slovenian music. But no, I got told that they were all still using their first razors. Incredible. I very much doubt whether they know it, but these tweens had somehow knocked up a sound that floated between dark post-rock and post-punk, fired by the sort of stripped down American punk attitude that Michael Azerrad would froth about in one of his books. They really have great potential. Check them out!
RICHARD: Anyway, we soon found ourselves back at Metelkova for what turned out to be a blistering night of surprises. First stop was the smelly Menza Pri Kortu (the place reeks of old rubber and gasoline, it must have been an old garage) to watch Czech band Please The Trees. Man; dealing with weird, or unprepossessing band names is such a chore. In this band’s case, you could have seen the name, read the biog in the booklet and given the gig the slip. I’m glad we didn’t as John and I got totally sucked into a brilliant, fiery rock gig. From the start the band built on a massive, totally ego-free and patient rhythm section. The drummer set a number of meditative but incredibly tough, tom-heavy patterns down; ones that brought Julian Cope’s great 90s drummer, Rooster Cosby to mind. For his part the bassist coaxed some fabulously deep growls from God knows where, strapping us in for the flight into Inner Space. Topping it all was the singer/guitarist, who boasted the sort of voice that cut through any crap. He laid down some incredible guitar runs too; ones that weaved around the room like a snake on the hunt; knowing instinctively when to cut loose, or adding brilliant, psyched out Spacemen 3-style washes of sound. He wasn’t averse to a bit of showmanship either, hanging his axe from the central pole that weirdly sits in the middle of the stage, getting the maximum amount of distortion and throwing it back into the soundscape built up by the rhythm section. An absolutely brilliant gig and one of the highlights of the festy for me.
Please The Trees are mind-blowing. Literally.
They create a sonic hologram of driving tripped out rock that is captivating and enthralling and pulls you into their world with its repetitive brilliance. Like the early Flaming Lips this is the trip.
The band are like all the best bits of an LSD trip strung out and rearranged – not that this is messy – it’s tight and shapeshifting and stunningly powerful display of the possibilities of three piece band that never loses the groove. The singer has a superb voice – a poetic and melodic thing like Tom Verlaine from Television and there are moments when they hit that perfect cascading crystalline patterns of the New York band but they have their own agenda – a driving bass can switch the songs into krautrock hypnosis or a seriously heavy grunt groove bring the heavy funk like Swans do when the bass takes over the proceedings. There is something mesmerising and perfect about this band that roots you to the spot- they look unassuming and sound enormous and their most perfect creation sees a driving kraut bass line that suddenly switches five minutes into the song in a crescendo of beautiful noise. At the end of the set me and Richard rush over to praise the band like thrilled superfans we have suddenly become.
RICHARD: We then ran over to a packed Klub Gromka to catch some of Hungarian band Gustave Tiger, who were fabulous and loose and colourful in the way The Damned are, with their gritty scuzzy, buzzsaw sound conjuring up heated stand-offs in neon-lit back alleys. Punx not dead! Au contraire! Rocking a sort of scruffy Poundshop glamour, and looking like they were in need of a wash and a square meal, Gustave Tiger dragged punk’s legacy through the club like it was a recalcitrant dog on a lead. It’s a crying shame I didn’t see more of them. After that Magyar sandblast we stuck around to catch something more cerebral; Croatia’s Žen, who make the most beautiful amalgam of droney pop (with the odd Durutti Column-style guitar melody chucked in), Situationist/Cold Wave post-punk, and a warm, C21st take on shoegaze in front of a shifting, often superb backdrop (a black and white cartoon starring a cat looking like Garfield was particularly effective). Sometimes the playing felt it was held together by string, but this fragility (coupled with the beautiful, precocious drumming) was a real plus point. The band could have easily been on Cherry Red back in the day. And on this outing they are highly recommended. I could have easily watched Žen all day, but, just when they were getting totally blissed out I decided to catch Spasibo, a bunch of scuzzed out rockers who had come in from Russia. Somehow that meant I also had to make an effort. I’m glad I did, as they came on like a crazy post-math punk band who had not only NEVER left their recording shed before this gig, BUT have spent years being in love with NoMeansNo and had, through hours of constant devotion and incense burning, vowed to OUTDO them. Bleedin’ heck. What to say? An utterly inspiring, totally convincing, ever-levitating metal-punk stew of green gunk noize. A lambent essence that could have been the sonic firestarter for most of Donald Trump’s Twitter frenzies. A metal Camper Van Beethoven, a Chrome-plated Soft Boys (Can of Bees) or even more wildly, Scotland’s very own Super Adventure Club singing in Russian. The audience went wild and moshed beyond the call of duty. People who should have known better joined in. Let me tell you, they are an absolutely brilliant live band.
Then it was back to Gromka for White Miles and a fabulous rock show. White Miles are from Austria and turn out to be – on this evidence at least – an incredibly tough, raucous boy-girl combo who thought nothing of throwing Glam / Heavy shapes by the dozen. Every rock cliché you could ever think of was reprocessed and thrown back out at us with a very appealing bravado, and what’s more it stuck. Hendrix? Ronson? Quatro? Check. It really didn’t matter how venerable the style, though, as the two of them played with a molten fury that you rarely see nowadays; the girl guitarist shocking many out of their comfort zones with a blistering display of screaming, wailing and axe skilz of the highest order.
Zen are one of those bands that underline why MENT is now a key music event on the calendar.
The all girl Croatian band deliver a perfect set of dark and moody, melancholic, angular, post punk with that kind of delicate and spectral moodiness that the Cure were working towards when they were in-between A Forest and Faith – that perfect melancholia combined with a smart pop. Their intricate songs have the whiff of math rock about that and the chorus guitar arpeggios lock in tight with the swooping bass and the synth washes to create a perfect atmospheres for their deconstruction of gender stereotypes and an artful exploration of role and music and art making them a highly intelligent artful band and proof that being smart still makes for great music in the often boorish Trump-world we now have to live in.
The songs are moody and yet captivating and the moods and atmospheres flicker aided by a very well thought out series of films on the backdrop that add to the artfulness of the band. This is a perfect modern pop post-rock, math-rock, prog-indie, synthwave – very well thought out and hypnotic to watch and listen to. They would cause many hearts to flutter in the UK with their perfect mood music and ability to switch atmospheres from song to song. Zen are a beatiful misty treasure and a real find!
Gustave Tiger are like that buzzsaw punk that flickered somewhere between the end of the Roxy and before the metallic KO second wave arrived. That time of innocence, Oxfam chic, DIY solutions and buzzzsaw guitars and crystalline melodies that rush past like there is not enough time on the planet to make art music. It’s that fleeting and perfect quicksilver brilliance that was always at the heart of great punk rock. That youthful impatience of grabbing the glimmer of the idea and then rushing to the next one. They look and sound like this. Skinny and young and trapped perfectly in their wind tunnel of sound.
RICHARD: After this, the increasingly heavy rain and queues for the brilliant-sounding Persons From Porlock meant I headed off before I got soaked. In retrospect I’m miffed that I missed them, and all the brilliant electronica and weirdo rap over the three days (Kykna, Warrego Valles, Lifecutter, Kikiriki, 2XP, Gregabytes, I’m really, truly sorry I missed you all). As a passing token of recompense, I would beseech you all to hip a copy of the brilliant festival sampler. MENT, you are ace, keep it up.