Sharpe Festival, Bratislava
3rd Sep 2021
How do you kick off a music festival? That’s right, you take a tour of an old chemistry school. An act wholly in fitting with the ethos of Sharpe Festival, a smart, young organisation in Bratislava. Standing on the roof of the Nova Cvernovka complex, and gazing over an adjacent building site dominated by a giant concrete grain silo, one is reminded of the wise words of Uncle Monty: ‘there is no true beauty without decay’. Decay and destruction often presages rebirth. And the northern reaches of Bratislava are certainly undergoing rapid change. The “G” word is being whispered about this neighbourhood, with its light industrial estates, arterial roads and used car plots. Our guide tells us that a giant pile of rubble behind the building – redundant interior structures and fittings – is currently being resorted and reused to serve the needs of a new, greener time. An apt metaphor, maybe, for the country’s alternative music acts? On the evidence of a strong line up, all of whom seem to have spent the past 18 months working like hell in private. Maybe Sharpe could be that scene’s focus, and totem.
Sharpe is somewhat different to many other European showcases; it’s small, unpretentious and practical. The talks (with none wasted on streaming, sing Hosanna) are well-attended and stripped back to the basics, no flummery or music bizz egos, just information and experience on tap. And all the bands are housed in various rooms of Nova Cvernovka; meaning that during the festival proper the audience spends a lot of time walking up and down the central staircase. This experience is make-do-and-mend in the best possible way; like one of those private parties where you try to find the room with the happening people. At times gigs feel private, some overlap means some shows are full, others empty. One noticeable “COVID thing” was an early bedtime for many on the first night; it seems people are not yet used to staying up past midnight and many acts booked for the small hours got missed. A shame for the likes of Blasser Kyren whose reflective, gothy, grimoire is definitely worth a listen.
One day I will host an accordion festival. I have five names in the bag, Weijers, Zabelov, Batkovic, Polak and Móser. A sixth will be Zbigniew Chojnacki, who makes fractured, slightly abstract soundscapes courtesy of a lot of pedals and electronic gadgetry. He’s on the Underground Stage, which is functional in extremis, with no thought wasted on anything to make the place look attractive. Backed by a wall of redundant scientific machinery, Chojnack also looks the part; we clock the notable hair (beloved of the accordion tribe), para boots and a certain studiousness. Also, and like all these players I’ve mentioned, he has developed a personal and tactile approach to his instrument. I suppose when playing an accordion, you can’t help but see it as an extension of the body. But Chojnacki doesn’t just depend on its wheezes and gasps to fill a sound or create a musical alter ego. Rather, the accordion is there to add a counterpoint – often blunt, or expressionistic in approach – to the carefully constructed procession of electronic blurbs, beats and ticks. It’s like seeing someone slowly build up a tower of drinks straws only to knock it down when bored. At times the noises Chojnacki conjures up straddles Cluster’s early, pre Zuckerzeit electronic gasbag vibe. A fascinating show.
There is something going on, musically, in Slovakia. Even if it is “just this” bunch of acts. Raptor Koch, playing on the small Kabinet Stage, are a weird mix of everything that is offbeat and curious. For one there is the singing; a frantic combo of ululations on lead and sharp call-and-answer vocals as backing. This makes many of the songs sound like some mini opera, even if they all last about two minutes. I speak no words of Slovak but I immediately know this is intelligent and funny: the audience are wrapped up in the message too, occasionally smiling or laughing along. The song structures are quirky too; I am reminded very strongly of Cardiacs and their fisheye lens view on the world. Then there is a deliberately weak Fall/Devo key sound that splurges over the sharp guitar lines, like watercolours bleeding over a pencil sketch. Maybe Raptor Koch harks back in spirit to the old, illegal Czechoslovakian absurdist “pub-protest” folk scenes of the late 1960s. The singer looks like a suedehead. They’ve obviously been around the block. There is a lot to take in.
I pop over to see Unstrung Harp and the Rádio FM Stage who have a nice Pavement-style slacker thing about them and deserve plaudits for playing their attractive, mid-tempo alt-rock to a virtually empty room. I wander to the outside stage and take in the glorious nothingness of I am planet, whose minimal classical vibe creates something beautiful in this post industrial interzone. People flit between the shrubbery or slump down on a bench to soak up the moment. Never has a grain silo been so beautifully soundtracked. Back to The Kabinet Stage I trot, to take in Bulp who, if the queue of people wanting to see him is anything to go by, has “something”. A whimsical-looking lad with a grown-out fringe is standing behind a pretty ubiquitous set up of synths, pedals, laptops and drum-pads. This is Bulp, known to his mother as Samuel Štefanec. A mic on a stand adds novelty. Bulp presses certain keys on the laptop, doing that head nodding thing to incomprehensible beats all these laptop traders do. A stately, romantic synth pattern swells up; it doesn’t go anywhere but nevertheless the warm sounds act as a beautiful curtain raiser in terms of feel good vibes. Vibes, that’s what dance acts trade in; vibes. After these vibes we get a run through of dance and electronic music styles, from Ulrich Schnauss style club crossovers to trip-hop, dubstep and techno. A true pick ‘n mix of dance music, with each segment introduced by a tantalising drop. There is something in these drops that is very clever; but I have no idea what it is, or how to describe it. Maybe because right here, right now, Bulp’s music is wholly in the moment and each bit of it gets all of him. There is no cruising. It’s probably the fun of playing loud, live music again, and he doesn’t want to waste a second of it. At one point, Bulp grabs the mic and delivers a set of sweet pop nothings in a smooth, soft tenor voice. You could order your milkshake at a chain store to this kind of music. He can do no wrong.
The singer of Brno’s sinks prowls onto the Rádio FM Stage, kicks out a Doctor Martened foot and smashes it into his pedal rack. Great lava streams of thick, fizzing guitar fuzz pour from the amps and cover us with a mid tone fog of noise. Quickly following that, a studious looking girl taps out a Will Heggie-like bassline. Further colour is created by a powerful rhythmic tap-tap-tap from the drummer; a bear of a man who looks like he could flatten his kit if he sat on it. Up goes the noise and we are transported to a place where Jesus Lizard, Cocteau Twins and Killing Joke meet up for a brew and a jam. A certain Seattle band could be mentioned here too, but maybe that’s because the singer guitarist is a restless soul who likes to prowl the stage, and has a noticeable blond mop*… Enough: sinks are great, and I mean, great. A spellbinding mix of sonic shape and structure, sinks have songs that convince and a complete lack of artifice when playing them, even if they like to play around with rock’s stage props and foibles.
This Czech-Slovak band is probably the most in-synch act I have seen in ages, and I include gigs from pre-pandemic times; possibly the most pushing-the-button band since Belgrade’s Repetitor. In sync with the zeitgeist, each other and their muse; a refreshing, maybe vital take on gothic rock and roll. And although there is, as said, plenty of showmanship here, none of this maelstrom feels as if it’s been rehearsed or even thought out; rather the music is the sum total of natural talent and an ear for the other players. One example of this is seen when the singer, caught up in the heat of the moment, starts to sing to the mic stand despite having the mic in his hand. No one can hear. He cracks up laughing, keeps going, deciding to make the absurdity of the moment into something, tossing it into the foundry of noise like some dried herbs in a pot of broth. The other two, impassive, create a wall of precision pressed noise; the beats sound as if they could be used as the chassis for a lorry whilst the bassist suddenly acts as a pathfinder for the track, creating hypnotic patterns that threaten to send the audience dizzy. From then on sinks’ show dissolves into a turbulent, boiling sea of noise, they are utterly glorious.
I’m in the basement Underground stage, which is nothing more than a concrete box with a PA. Here, HRTL is examining my internal organs through the dark arts of electronic noise. We’ve had thrumming beatless drones that built up and created their own ecosystem of sound and right now we get hot jets that harden into pulverising beats. Anyone who has worked on a building site will instantly tune in their soul to the boom, boom, boom of the piledriver beat. This insistence on one noise, over all other noises may sound hellish – which I am sure is part of HRTL’s m.o. on this evening, but it is also a healing moment. The beat is a living one. It’s as if, for all of us, masked and pressed into this small space, great portions of COVID’s black psychic gunge is being slowly scraped out of our bodies and thrown into a furnace, to disappear, even if only for a while.
Other Noises, Other Places
Three impressions, then I leave, exhausted by the novelty of fresh noise, people and learning not to be nervous in public.
My mask is hot, my cheeks burn with my breath. My ears, still wobbling after the assault of sinks, are adjusting to the primordial screams and the wall of noise brewed up by Valencia’s Pódium. The lead singer is incredible to witness. A small unit of pure frizzy energy with a set of pipes that could make the walls of Rome collapse, she leads her punk troops forward to tackle another crisis; each song she sings sounds like an emergency. It’s incredibly exciting music even if, as with all punk, the band constructs each assault from the same well-loved set of punk Lego bricks. Now and again the songs are led by the white shirted rhythm guitarist, who looks like an off duty security guard. These tracks change tone; a bit power pop, or Ramones-style blitz, with the guitars creating a warm furze of recognition. One Buzzcocks-style fuzz number gets a bit of Oi! chucked in for good measure. There’s an instrumental too. It’s just so much fun.
Warm Graves are a trio who have a definite Section 25 vibe going on, what with the drowsy, slightly dubby bass beats, abstract messaging and some mighty impressive backdrops. There is a definite feeling of being back in 1982, their music is a fug of half remembered gestures and other sonic detritus, their beats acting like womb-like memory signals. It’s fascinating and the sort of set you can get lost in. Stepping into their world and suspending disbelief is the key.
What to say of shishi, playing the roomy Radio Stage? Maybe that the Vilnius trio is a brilliant festival band, able to charm birds from trees. I remember I saw them first at a pre pandemic edition of MENT in Ljubljana; then they were beguiling and punky, now they are whip crack sure, with an all-encompassing set of chrome polished new songs from their splendid new album. This new gloss is really noticeable and also belies a certain power and confidence. shishi seem to relish working with a wide repertoire, one that encompasses Doo wop, pop, surf and a bit of Rip, Rig + Panic-style post-punk. The trio also knows how to deliver the music. Harmonies are set up as if they were studio cuts, and the playing is kept in check to deliver precisely the right mood; it’s ridiculously professional in the kind of way you’d expect a Taylor Swift show to be. And yet they can turn on a sixpence and become the brilliantly cavalier dive bar band, earlier tracks Human Plant Communication are still bashed out like someone flooring an old 2CV on a bypass. By the end the Radio Stage is grooving sweatily as one.
All words and photo by Richard Foster.