Sharpe Festival took place this weekend in Slovakia’s historic city of Bratislava. Bands were on display from all over the world with a core emphasis on local acts. Nigel Carr arrived on Friday evening to witness the festival cranking into action.
The Slovakian people are a friendly lot, eclectically dressed, no single fashion. Lads dressed in leggings and shorts, blue jeans, black jeans and T’s, girls in leather jackets, skirts, dresses, shaved heads, bandanas; everything goes! I don’t think I have ever been to a place with such variety.
Sitting cross-legged seems to be a thing, whether it’s an ambient keyboard performance or a mad punk gig. In the UK, if the audience did this they would risk life and limb as the mosh pit descended upon them! There is no merch; this may well be a requirement of the festival, which this year is a card only event, so taking money from people may have been a little more problematic, but it’s a shame. I would have liked to have had the opportunity to support some of the bands on show with the odd CD purchase. The dry ice operators are over enthusiastic!, To the point where you couldn’t see how many artists were on stage! As one fellow UK journalist put it, ‘there are no dickheads’. This meant there was no drunken behaviour or people causing trouble. Finally, they know how to organise. The setup and sequencing was perfection; plenty of time to get between gigs, slick presentations, no cock-ups, bands on stage on time, finishing on time and generally, no mucking about.
Those aside, going to Bratislava to cover this event has made me realise just how blinkered one can become. I tend to hit the Manchester music scene as often as I can but if some of ‘our’ acts cast their nets a little wider they would realise that far from copying artists from the local scene they should maybe be looking outside for inspiration. Some of the bands I have seen in the past couple of days have been outstanding and it’s been a privilege to see them first hand. An immersive musical experience like no other. So on with the show(s)!
The festival is in a dilapidated chemistry school made of breeze blocks and concrete, set over three floors in varying rooms of different sizes with just one small stage outside, which appears to be reserved for the late night DJ performances. There is also an acoustic room where bands take part in secret sessions to seated audiences in an old library, complete with bookshelves and atmospheric twinkling lights. It’s intimate and inviting.
It’s impossible to cover all of the bands on display here but these were the ones I found most exciting:
Laid back and louche alt-rock/folk. This band is all about the lead singer who reminds me of Marissa from The Screaming Females. She covers more octaves than Julia Andrews and could well be the new Bjork! There’s a Stereolab/sixties film scape/Cardigans feel with twinkling keyboards and beautiful harmonies. The band careers from up-tempo numbers to gently immersive pieces full of melancholy and emotion, stopping abruptly to the surprise of the hugely appreciative audience. This gig is part of their second tour of Europe and I’d love to see them live at a festival in the UK. I catch them later performing an acoustic set and the sense of immersion is further heightened by the lead singer’s amazing vocals and the cosy atmosphere. It’s the sign of a great track if you can remember it, and I’m still whistling their standout two days later!
Market (Czech Republic)
Raw garage punk with a hammering discord that careers along like a wrecked train. There is an enormous core power in this band that drags you along with its malevolent discord. If you’re thinking of starting a post-punk band in the UK then get a load of these guys! Forget your pathetic two-chord punk by numbers slurry and get inventive! The thunderous almost jazz-infused melodies are something else. The guy on keys/synths dragging and pounding his instrument like his life depends upon it.
Walter Shnitzelsson (Slovakia)
The cheery lead singer has a big Springsteen voice with anthemic propulsion. More mainstream than the previous bands, they get the whole room rocking with their own brand of indie rock. It probably does them a disservice to associate them with the ageing New Jersey warbler but there is a fair bit of that vibe in the tracks here. They engage the packed crowd with an energetic set of surging power ballads mixed with slower, more thoughtful numbers. Parts sound like the Pixies meets the Manics but as you’d expect, nothing is quite as it seems here with an overall good time/Slovakian wash. They close with a clattering backbeat which builds into a soaring Nirvana/Lithium style chorus, powerful and haunting.
Blame your Genes (Slovakia)
I head down into the basement to catch some old style techno with a twist! The solo project of Lukáš Zdurienčík, it incorporates a booming ‘80s (almost Martin Fry), style vocal, deep and rich, which floats over dark and twisting big beat. I’ve never heard anything like it and at first am completely bowled over, thinking that he demands a bigger space. After ten minutes of repetition, it becomes evident that it lacks the layering and drops needed to create real excitement. Ambient big beat is fine, a genre in itself but I drift away to find something more engaging. If I’d only gone to see this guy I am pretty sure I would have been hypnotised by the repetitive nature of the beats but there is just too much going on at this festival, too many potential wonders to miss.
Totally unexpected, as I hadn’t seen them on the pre-festival line-ups, Scalping are (literally!) an eviscerating techno outfit from Bristol. The difference here is that the set is not pre-programmed, Aphex style, done on computers, wizardry. It’s mostly played with real instruments against a backdrop of dark, twisted and disturbing imagery. The thunderous beats, gut-wrenching basslines and squelching synths pull me in instantly, giving me the kind of feeling of seeing The Prodigy for the first time. I’ve listened to some of their stuff since seeing this gig but nothing prepares you for the live experience of ‘feeling’ that sub bass in a packed room. The bassist careers across the stage, machine heads leading the way, silhouetted against the writhing videos which see shapes exploding and falling, haunting, malevolent faces twisted and dark. The best audio-visual experience I’ve had since seeing Chris Cunningham (The videographer involved here has clearly taken inspiration from him) live with pounding Aphex Twin drill & bass. The best techno I’ve seen since Siriusmodeselektor at the Warehouse Project in Manchester – so expect to hear a lot about them soon! (Probably from me!)
Genuine Jacks (Slovakia)
Cracking melodic punk band from Slovakia. Some acts are worthy of international fame and this is one of them. Like many Slovakian outfits, they incorporate unexpected stop-start moments and abrupt endings which occasionally catch the audience out. There are many facets to this band – raucous punk through poppy-Buzzcocks style choruses and everything in between.
Some of the tracks remind me of Weezer, who I adore, so I am totally blown away by their set. They couple this with hypnotic slower numbers interspersed with the raw punky elements. They swing into playful poppiness through louche frat pop, light and refreshing with harmonies aplenty and crispy lead breaks which punctuate and enhance. Light and refreshing in parts, ‘I gotta go where the sun always shines’ takes us deeper into Weezer territory.
The energetic frontman even pulls out a (rarely seen for me!) twelve string electric for the epic finale with wailing guitars and a proper extended freak out which sees him rolling around the floor to the delight of the packed crowd!
Trupa Trupa (Poland)
Oh my good God, I have seen the light! How have Trupa Trupa evaded me for so long? They played here last year becoming a bit of a LTW favourite when John covered them. The frontman is a ringer for Syd Barrett right down to the heads-down glissando guitar wailing from his Gibson SG. Fingers a blur as he hammers the strings up and down creating an all-enveloping fuzz. There is a dark almost industrial element to Trupa Trupa part Eastern European tropes, almost military chants before exploding in haunting guitars. So many influences – so much to take in!
Dark and incendiary post-punk meets Pink Floyd meets Joy Divison. Doom-laden with screeches, shades of dark and light. Bassist and lead sharing vocal duties in a familiar Gang of Four way. They play tracks from their new album ‘Of The Sun’. Then it’s Wire, Pink Flag era – ‘…Time to turn into dirt’ with its industrial pumping bassline augmented by Hammond sounding organ – a two minute frenzy! Long Time Ago bounces along like a concrete demolition ball tipped off the top of a hill, boom boom boom! A short explosive track, sounding feral and primitive with that ‘60s organ ending.
There’s a surging power and intensity at the core of this band that I love. If any of these outfits could comfortably cross borders, it’s this one!
dné (Czech Republic)
We stop by at the Kabinet stage to watch dné, an avant-garde Czech pianist, rooted in his wheelchair playing keyboards, augmented by an enchanting DIY backdrop of sounds. I feel like I should be getting another dose of post-punk but am transfixed by his hypnotic sounds. Handclapping, people chatting with him playing delicately over the top, variously hitting a drum – choral – organ – haunting. Not looking up, only to tell us when a track has finished – ‘thank you…’. It reminds me of the melancholic, quieter, diy parts of the Aphex Twin- Avril 14 and other snippets from his Druqks and Syro albums or early Burial, but in reality, it’s none of those things as it sits squarely on the fringes, way apart from anything I have heard before. Truly weird and at times unsettling – his own homemade choir of clicks & wails backs what is essentially an ambient soundscape. Music for films maybe? ENO would be impressed!
The Sweet Release Of Death
A remarkable three-piece noise fest from Rotterdam, driven by the thunderous bass lines from the diminutive frontwoman. Stripped down to the bones – with the most amazing drummer, playing triple speed runs on a kit consisting of a just a snare and bass drum. Keeping it simple, no complications – noise meets placebo – at one point as if to emphasise the minimalism in his kit he removes the single symbol and replaces it with a tambourine – no need for too many things to hit! The set is punctuated by the thrashing licks from stage-right guitarist adding a rich hypnotic wash from his guitar. Totally focused and dedicated you can see the determination, and sweat on his face. Another outstanding band to watch out for.
Apart from the festival, there were numerous talks, workshops and panel discussions. These ranged from running your own festival to copyright and management. Peter Jenner ex-Pink Floyd manager who has had a distinguished management career over the years hosted a talk on band management. I took part in a panel with others to rate some of the bands on show. An interesting experience when; 1. you are not familiar with the country’s music and 2. you don’t want to offend anyone! – I’m a strong believer in artistic integrity, so far be it from me to be the arbiter of taste!
Sharpe showed the tremendous talent that exists not just in this country, but the surrounding area, from urgent punk to blissed out ambient. If you’re reading this and all you can see are your four walls, and all you can think of is the last post-punk band you saw locally then get out more. Open your ears – it’s a big big world out there!
Thanks once again to the organisers of Sharpe for getting Louder Than War involved! we will be back.
All words by Nigel Carr. More writing by Nigel on Louder Than War can be found in his Author’s archive. You can find Nigel on Twitter and Facebook and his own Website. Photos – OK the lighting was awful! by Nigel apart from Blame Your Jeans – Ondrej Irša.