In which LTW’s John Robb and Richard Foster go east to Ljubljana the fine and historic capital of Slovenia, for the ever wonderful MENT festival to drown themselves in great new music from one of the best showcase festivals in Europe, an event where the future of music is embraced and with a great line up of genuine cutting edge bands.
Ment Festival is held every freezing January in Ljubljana, a city that is marked firmly on the musical map by the ever active and fascinating Laibach who LTW share a meal with as they detail their ever-evolving, deeply artful and brilliant plans that involve another concert idea to equal their recent sojourn in North Korea as well as other trips into other musical and art-forms that are quite staggering.
Meanwhile, MENT itself is dealing with yet another wave of new wild and wonderful bands from the area and internationally. There is so much great activity in modern music that its a relief to have properly curated events like here or at Tallinn Music Week that have been introducing us to the New Russian Wave, the genuine fabric tearing East European bands, the ceaseless brilliance of the Dutch underground and the fiery thrills from the reignited UK grassroots that seems to be full of great fringe bands that are firing into the actual mainstream in the current sea change.
It’s all here at MENT and held in the Kino Siška art complex and across town at a former barracks turned into six squat like venues were the tidal wave of imagination and great music can easily be captured rushing from one venue to the next. We warmly recomend this showcase festival to anyone what wants to see the actual future play live right now or get discussed in panels that are genuinely engaged in the precious now and pushing out into the musical future and dealing with what is actually going on instead of the same exhausted panel formats of many other places.
Here they talk about how to use Spotify instead of moaning about it, how to deal with the closed shop of syncs or how to think international by touring China – it’s all about thinking out of the box and dealing with being in a 21st century band and it helps to place MENT at the frontline of modern showcase events, that in 2019, are split between the big behemoth, old reptile events and these fast rising music and culture driven, scurrying mammals that are the forefront of an evolutionary charge.
There are often unseen golden threads in the best underground discourse. The legendary Johnny Štulić of Azra sparked one for me this week when I remembered his song ‘Balkan’, about Ljubljana’s seminal punks Pankrti (Bastards). Štulić’s transition from hippie to new wave was captured by the lines, Brijem bradu, brkove, da ličim na Pankrte, which translates as: “I shave my beard, moustache to resemble Pankrti”. One of Pankrti is now involved with Kino Siška where one of Europe’s most forward-thinking and surprising festivals, MENT, was part-hosted. It really can be a world full of coincidence if you want it to be.
Louder than War’s MENT kicked off on the Wednesday night with a Gatsby-esque delegates reception and two packed and very sweaty gigs. Escaping the lure of indeterminate finger food impaled on cocktail sticks, we jostled into the small hall to take in Slovenes Haiku Garden, who lined up and gave the audience what for with a gloriously technicolour gig full of feedback and shuddering, tribal beats. This was shoegaze writ large. Given the digital revolution with equipment and sound systems, it’s a style that has really come into its own this past decade. And bands like Haiku Garden are there to plunder past and present with aplomb. Huge sounds – ones that triggered some latent synesthesia in this reviewer, (or was it the killer lights) – washed over the rapt, damp, numbed audience in crushing detail. Regardless, the sense of being submerged was at times overwhelming; akin to being in some monstrous Sea World. The set seemed to take in and reprocess a raft of references. The Horrors’ ‘Sea Within A Sea’ was an obvious one (the trippy synth loop on last track ‘Drifter’ gave it away). But you could also say the Scream’s XTRMNTR, Chapterhouse, Lansing Dreiden, Pale Saints… you flop your fringe at me and I will name it. They were a great MENT opener for us, nonetheless and their LP is a gem.
Five hours late after being trapped in a blizzard at Manchester airport I finally arrive at the venue just in time for Sevdaliza.
Living in Holland but originally from Iran, she has been building a big reputation with her sparse, stripped down, post trip-hop that has built her a big reputation after the release of her debut 2017 album 2017, ‘ISON’. Her powerful set sees a series of songs that clash classical string stabs against sparse crackling beats building a foundation for her husky and compelling vocals. Clicking and clanking rhythms take full advantage of space for her dramatic and flamboyant vocals – try and imagine a 21st century Iranian twist on Yma Selmac or a Diamanda Gallas if she had somehow grappled with dark pop – Sevdaliza has the same kind of drama in her voice but without the compelling drama and black terror of Diamanda – not that this waters down her art as she manages to squeeze in plenty of drama and off-kilter dark atmospherics into her performance which she also dominates with her flamboyant and spectacular presence.
I have always found Iceage a compelling band, from their early hype (which they rode with some grace), through to their latest “beatnik country punk” heard on new LP Beyondless, which feels like the sound of their inner world. The band certainly seemed to be in a place they like, and any studied cool has been whittled away, leaving them possibly more feral and impregnable than before. I really don’t know why but as the concert progressed and we saw more Jaggeresque stalking and Sutherland-style licks bouncing round the room, I was reminded of all those mid 60s Nuggets bands like Litter or The Vagrants. I daren’t say the Elevators… the heavy lidded, wall-eyed psychedelia that is deeply ingrained in their sound always threatening to tip over any studied Gothicisms or punk moments. But is this how those acts would have gone about their business back in the day?
So this was a mesmerising gig, but a strange one to watch. Somehow the very brilliance of the band made the audience totally cool with walking in and out at regular intervals. It was an utterly captivating experience without people feeling the need to be captivated. People nodded on outside the hall, happy to find a spot to ingest the sounds in their own space. It was an all pervasive gig, informing, not pleading, happy to set a contract of total independence of action. I’ve rarely see something like this outside of a squat gig. They really are amazing.
After this a comparatively early night for this flu-stricken correspondent, though many international delegates, enamoured by the various fruits of the vintners trade to be found in a long and well stocked bar, and charmed and the hospitable Slovenes, partied deep into the night. Ain’t no party like a Siška party!
MENT is a great festival for reminding you of how trends change. Listening to More Zvukov Agency booker Natasha Padabed’s stories about getting Russian and Eastern-East-Central acts into the Western circuit, you were reminded that, to most Westerners who went to watch bands not so long ago, music from “Eastern Europe” meant Romany or folk, or turbofolk or folk-rock hybrids, or terrible EDM. People like Padabed have slowly been changing this perception around thanks to her passion and interest in the music from the likes of Ukraine, the Russian Federation and Belarus. In fact for those happy to follow her lead, or that of the likes of Tallinn Music Week, Moscow Music Week or MENT, it now feels weird watching a Western band at a showcase. This was the case for me when catching Belgium’s Slumberland at Stara Mestna Elektrarna. If ever a visual and aural metaphor for Belgian Man was needed then Slumberland’s Jochem Baelus is your candidate. Rangy and bearded and hiding behind what looked like a chicken coup full of weird accoutrements-cum-instruments, Baleus politely introduced himself and the two drummers he was flanked by. He nevertheless gave off the vibe of a militant pigeon fancier who has taken up music to curb anger management issues. Musically Slumberland were fascinating, a sort of primal test lab that spewed out wild concoctions of Tom Waits’ Bone Machine blues, a bit of Suicide’s existential, howl-at-the-void vocal mannerisms, thumping Goth beats that wouldn’t sound out of place on an early Killing Joke or Bauhaus record, or strange Stroom TV-style experimental work outs. In making this racket he was considerably aided by the two drummers, who gave shape and pace to the gig. By the last two tracks all the angularities and eccentricities had loosened up to being a proper trippy, sub-Goth groove. Pretty great!
The theatrical setting suits Slumberland perfectly and their neatly staged show of two drummers facing eachother across the stage with Jochem Baelus partially hidden behind his barrage of percussion, guitars and bric a brac in the centre back dealing out the clanking rhythms and howling dirt blues guitars from this pile of instrumentation is key to their unique and brilliant schtick. From Belgium, Slumberland have been dealing this post industrial blues howl for a few years, taking an artful and compelling path down the post ‘Bone Machine’ Tom Waits clank and grind with an added industrial pulse. This, they serve from twanging guitars with an added neo soundtrack space and have somehow ended up with something utterly original and compelling.
Next up, Yegor Zabelov is one man from Belarus and his accordion who brings the instrument into unfamiliar terrain of soundtrack and modern classical atmospheres of a Philip Glass or an Arvo Part literally squeezing out atmospheres as well as wild textures and off kilter melodies from the squeeze box in an intense and gravity defying performances.
We also stuck around the Stara Mestna Elektrarna to see Belarusian accordionist extraordinaire, Yegor Zabelov. This was a sensational gig; starting with a few slow meandering forays into sound to set the scene. These gradually built up to a vortex of impassioned, though often mellifluous passages. Impressive blurts of noise created by some dizzying finger action and Baroque sweeps of the bellows created dramatic audio-visual contrasts and played nicely to the gallery. There is a palpable sense of melancholy in his music, regardless of how loud, or fast he plays (and things can get loud and fast). In fact, Zabelov often looked on the point of tears. It’s as if the instrument unlocks something in him he has difficulty in controlling on an emotional level. And it always seems (well the two times I have seen him) that at some point he his trying to eat the top corner of his instrument’s grille, like some demented beast of the forest. It wouldn’t surprise me: Zabelov disappears into another world, but you’re pretty happy to follow him wherever he is going. Sensational.
Off to the very cold and wet Metelkova squat complex after all that emotion, to catch ShiShi in the small, cosy Gromka, a Lithuanian pop trio who, quite frankly, blew our minds. Looking like three lasses on a day trip to Todmorden, and having – no shit – the BEST asides and intros to songs I’ve heard since Edwyn Collins used to hold court on stage in the 1980s, ShiShi proceeded to lay down the best pop-surf-trash set I have heard in maybe 20 years. It turns out they all front different bands. And this nous and ability to hold harmonies and add a clear tone, wit and direction to the vocals was their key card. The songs were cheeky, funky: like Delta 5, ESG, Rip Pig…, Trash Kit or Vanilla. They also, somehow – no don’t ask – reminded me of Pepsi & Shirlie… The tracks also boasted a winsome 50’s rockabilly twang to them. And their song about humans talking to plants was a brilliant C21st update of ‘Mind Your Own Business’. The band just had the lot, clean simple song lines with clear melodies that turned on a melodic sixpence, charm, their own space and a feeling they really didn’t give a fuck. I was smitten.
Within 20 seconds we fall in love with Lithuania’s ShiShi – the three piece band are constructed out of members from other groups in a side project that very much has its own sound, style and trajectory. Their sparse post punk is working the same seam as the wonderful Kleenex once did or the early Delta 5 or even the Modettes – those wonderful warriors of sound from the post punk era who were mostly ignored at the time but have become a reference point for anyone who wants to make smart, hip, modern pop music. Their rhythmic clatter and tight rushes of sound play with space and the clipped guitars and energetic, running rhythm section is thrilling with the trump card being their perfect harmony vocals as the three women combine to really deliver the songs.
One of the great things about MENT is the unexpected surprises it throws up. This really is a festival of cutting edge and it’s not about the conveyer belt of record deal hopefuls – every venue is a surprise and every stage is a revelation. Ptakh_Jung are from Ukraine and create dark and thrilling atmospheres with their ambient soundscapes that combine electronica with classical in brooding and hypnotic soundscapes.
After that we stuck around Gromka to catch more bearded Belgians, It It Anita, who played a very rock and roll show at pulverising volume. We got tricks aplenty, chants, forays into the crowd, orchestrated yelling… We even got a repositioning of the drum kit into the middle of the crowd. (Weirdly enough I’ve seen that with a couple of other Belgian acts, is it a thing there?) Regardless the gig was loud, simple, direct, and a lot of fun. A very boogie take on Screamo that had the place jumping around like loons. After this my flu-ravaged body gave in and off I trudged through a bitterly cold night.
It It Anita have driven all the way down from Belgium to deliver their hyper kinetic and uber intense take on the post hardcore, post Screamo dislocated Fugazi beat. This is all black and calling riffs and huge explosive climaxes and thoroughly full of genuine musical brinkmanship.
French band Rendez-Vous have been building a reputation with their post-punk dark energy and they really deliver it tonight. A set of bass driven songs takes full advantage of their imaginative approach with no two songs being constructed in the same way. They build around the rock-solid bass lines that curl and clip like prime time Peter Hook switch between the two singers or slash over the top with two keyboards. It’s also deliciously dark and filthy, thrilling and cranked with an intensity and energy that makes it perfect for intense for flickering dark shadow live shows. After two well-received EPs and tours all over Europe, the heavily anticipated debut album ‘Superior State’ arrived in October and the band’s compelling dark wave show is a genuine highlight.
Did I tell you I had flu? Flu meant I missed everything of the conference except the eloquent q & a given by the head of Moscow’s Hyperboloid label, Sergey Saburov. I then went back to bed convinced I hadn’t actually been there. Quite the trip… While most people went off to Ljubljana’s spectacular castle for a set of gigs that looked pretty eccentric (though probably loads of fun), I eventually dragged myself out of my pit some 3 hours later and went to the fabulous rock hang, Orto Bar to take in locals The Canyon Observer. Although billed in the programme as “the soundtrack to your worst nightmares”, the band proceeded to make a very pleasing, sometimes inspired take on industrial sludge/doom noise that in places started to open up into an expansive dark-jazz tinged take on free rock. Sometimes the noise became like the Dead C’s epic lava flow, other passages began to get elegiac. There was a fair smattering of industrial Goth assault, too, as befits this city. The cool, heavy audience took this in and nodded appreciatively along whilst the band rocked and crunched in unison, the singer pacing on the floor declaiming lord knows what. Pretty inspiring stuff it has to be said and maybe one of the quiet [sic!] highlights of the weekend.
Charlie and the Lesbians are on fire. The Dutch band have been building up a rep with their powerful shows. Shows that are hooked around a perfect filthy bass sound that runs around those post-hardcore jazz punk runs that instantly place the band somewhere between Black Flag and Flipper but sieved with a 21st-century intensity. Charlie himself, with his shaved head and wiry and intense presence, looks like he has stepped out of the pages of one of the Washington DC hardcore scene photo books squeezed in-between a photo of a youthful Ian MacKaye and Henry Rollins and has the same kind of wired and wiry presence as he charismatically barks out his vocals. The band are brinkmanship brilliant and they turn the venue into seetmoshpitphpit.
It’s wonderful stuff.
We forsook what looked like a promising gig with young Serbian punks Vizelj at Orto for current Rotterdam faves Lewsberg, who were in laid back mood in Metelkova’s Menza Pri Koritu. Whilst this wasn’t the best I’ve seen them (they seemed a bit too laid back at times) they sure have some killer new songs to go along with their splendid debut set. Outside of their live nous and sangfroid, this is possibly the reason why they are destined for big things; their songs are so damned catchy. Like a warm bath, these tracks slowly seep into your skin and leave you in a mood to accept just about anything as long as it’s another Lewsberg track. It’s impossible not to get sucked into their vibe, even when they’re not at their brutal, disdainful best.
Following Lewsberg we skipped across to Channel Zero to take in Moscow’s Rosemary Loves a Blackberry, the solo project of old Fanny Kaplan drummer Diana Burkot. For once I got to watch Diana’s fascinating act benefitting from a good sound. We heard the clever contrasts (funny purring noises, offbeats, changes of texture and tone) and the subtle quarter tones in the vocals, which can be unnerving, but fascinating. Best of all it just didn’t sound like an underpowered synth wash. Burkot’s strange waif-like movements also started to make sense, and you realised what she does is actually incredibly focussed and detail-oriented, not some clubby girl trancing out to a synth-laden pop. It’s a shame that kind of subtlety often gets lost due to circumstance.
Squid are the next in the endless queue of great young British bands who are breaking out of the florid and thrilling underground that didn’t get the memo that guitar music is over. This rush of bands is now embracing the mainstream. These are curious times and the most thrilling of musics is getting a genuine chance in the post Fat White Family, post IDLES rush. From Brighton Squid sound like neither of these but embrace the adventure with their post punk, sharp and angular songs that pack a manic edge and genuine intensity and a kooky weird that is utterly compelling. Their singer scratches his itch with a powerful David Byrne twitching vocal over the krautrock grooves with psychedelic breaks and Television style, hypnotic guitar slashes and it’s literally only weeks before they break out.
A quick dash back to Menza Pri Koritu followed, to catch some of Italy’s Bee Bee Sea. This was a whirligig of loud, treble-tastic, bug-eyed psych, the sort of thing that used to soundtrack Breughel’s peasant weddings. It wasn’t especially new fangled (Oh Sees, etc., etc.), but it had that wired intensity you see with Italian bands; they all seem to have ants in their pants and to play at bone-crushing volume. How the guitarist kept his hat on given all his gyrating we shall never know. It really was a lot of fun, though and the place was completely shaken up by their energy and elan.
Balans are unsettling kooky – the Ljubljana two piece deliver a stripped down set of clipped rum machine rhythm s dark waved bass and dark vocals interring about the banality of day to day live – it’[s hypnotic and genuinely odd and gets under your skin with its clipped shimmering weird.
At this point the prospect of a 4am start and marrow-squeezing flu symptoms started to be the drivers of my destiny. One more, then, for good measure: Hyperboloid’s A. Fruit in Gala Hala. Anna Fruit, a demure figure dragging on a quick, pre-show tab started with as little ceremony as possible, quietly, steadily built up a wall of sound that skipped playfully and often abruptly between acid, trans, New Beat, footwork, techno and drum n’ bass. People started to groove only to be stopped in their tracks. It was startling to see this omnivorous, cut-and-paste approach to dance music history and genre carried out with absolutely no interest in holding a feel or a communion with the audience. It was almost Ballardian in its distance, and its wit, or more like a bored flick-through of a Netflix channel. Now-music for restless heads. A startling show, and not a little brilliant.
The last bus called and after that a hellish flight home. Regardless, I’d do pretty much anything for this festival.