Richard Foster and John Robb have seen more live bands than any other human being on the planet – Tallinn Music Week is perfect for their lust for the high decibel and the eew! This is their report from the frontline…
Tallinn Music Week website
The remarkable Tallinn Music Week hits its tenth anniversary and is still shifting gears.
Never content to rest on its laurels the event has helped put the small Baltic state on the map in a social and cultural way that is way beyond the scope of a normal music showcase event.
Less about the puffed up chests of music biz, TMW is making a genuine effort to reconnect the culture with the landscape, the noise with the people and build bridges instead of empires.
An example of this is their latest project – a festival in the northern Estonian city of Narva – a remarkable attempt to reconnect with a broken industrial city with 90 percent Russian population on the banks of a river that is the border with Russia. Instead of the usual paranoia and stupidity that dominates these times, the festival is a cultural embrace and is bringing a lost town back into the mainstream rebuilding communities with the power of music, arts, culture.
And that is TMW for your – this is a festival where the main currency is ideas and not money. Estonia is uniquely placed as a geographical and cultural bridge between Russia and Europe – a nation with a population that is 30 percent Russian and has an innate understanding of both sides of the equation.
It’s a small nation that is rich in culture with a deep choir tradition and the birthplace of the brilliant composer Arvo Part and like most small nations on the edge of Europe it has a deep cultural history yet to be tainted by the big money. TMW draws on all of this and into the big idea of being this cultural bridge and is very much the first stepping stone on the current big scene of great Russian bands getting heard outside the motherland.
In the past few years, Tallinn Music Week has seen the addition of an added conference about social change powered by culture they have added a flux of fascinating guests and speakers into the mix without ever taking an eye off the musical ball.
Like most East European festivals like in Ljubljana MENT the mix of local talent and risk-taking marks these events out and this year was no different with a breathtaking array of music from medieval chamber quartets to punk rock to electronic music sharing the stages in the city.
The event utilises and shows off the beautiful old city of Tallinn whilst underlining its techy, fast forward rush into the future. The old town is cobbled street, middle-aged, Disneyland – a world heritage spaghetti of atmosphere that has served as the backdrop to TMW for the past decade – this year saw shift towards the Telliskivi area on the outskirts of town – a converted warehouse districted where there are six venues, cafes, bars and a 21st century digi-industry that shows that Tallinn is keen to create its own 21st century narrative.
The conference itself was held in Kultuurikatel, a converted power plant with cavernous halls and polished old pipes that looks like the set form an industrial video and it breathtaking backdrop to panels.
Here are 20 highlights from the music front at TMW – to make it easier to get through the dense foliage of great stuff for the poor bamboozled reader – it’s compiled from three wild nights out of your author and a mini team of helpers. Of course, we will have missed things – we are mere mortals and the density of events is one of the special things about TMW.
Preview – Ratkiller at EKKM Tape night (Richard Foster) ‘Sometimes you should just follow your nose. The opening night’s concert is brilliant but packed and a sit down affair, which has never ever been my thing. So, picking up on a tip from a local, we popped over to the EKKM (Estonian Contemporary Art Museum, once a boiler room) to watch a live gig given by a number of local and international cassette artists hosted by Tallinn’s Serious Serious label. It’s not part of the festival, but definitely vibing on the same energy. And it turns out to be a great tip. People are wandering round in the circular space or crashing out, as if in a daze. The small room is filled now and then with dry ice. The toilets have scented candles and drapes. I get offered some very tasty homemade soup. Someone starts talking about “Heads” and ‘the scene” and I feel I’m a bit part actor in Blow Up. Then I get given (note, given) a book on Stalker by local head and organiser, Andres Lõo. Now, the choice of gift isn’t so strange as it first appears. It turns out that the EKKM – right next to the old power plant now known as KultuuriKatel – is one of the locations Tarkovsky used in the film. In fact the tower that directly adjoins the EKKM is the famous UN tower. This is nuts and adds an extra dimension to proceedings. Just about this point the music gets into serious kraut-kosmische territory courtesy of Stockholm’s Maria W Horn. People are wobbling and crashing out. There’s even more soup, what on earth is going on? And deep into the night local legend Ratkiller deconstructs the whole of time and space and my senses are akin to cornflakes being shaken about in a packet. A brilliant start to the weekend.
1. Pohjonen Alanko (John Robb) ‘Ismo Alanko and Kimmo Pohjonen is a legend in Finland where his deconstruction of the musical possibilities of the traditional accordion caused ripples of anxiety in the trad scene but is now embraced with his seeking out of all the possibilities of sound from the instrument.
On his own he has reinvented the accordion, playing it as new melodies or percussively- as an instrument full of wheezing drones and unexpected melodic rushes. For the Pohjonen n Alanko project he has teamed up with Ismo Alanko and the third member of the team, sound designer and manipulator Tuomas Norvio, to create a three piece that deal out an astonishing set that is a bricolage of genres and smashes barriers and boundaries in an entertaining rush of ideas that combines prog, drone, electronic, Finnish folk, fantastic weird, and a gripping groove that is like a 21st Beefheart or a Primus if they were embedded in the deep winters of Finland to let their minds really wander.
Sod all that – you can’t place them at all – the room is packed with 1000 people dancing to this weird trip – and it works – it really works and Pohjonen n Alanko could own any festival anywhere.’
Pohjonen Alanko. Photo by Mirjam Varik
2. Kaukolampi (John Robb) ‘The intensely shamanic Timo Kaukolampi is the leader of space rock outfit K-X-P. That band is great enough but, never content, Timo is working on something very different here with this solo project as waves of deep dark drones from his keyboard fill the room. It’s a tsunami of sound that sits somewhere between Sunn O))) and soundtrack – a mesmerising flood of sounds that you float in, lost in the dark energy of this perfect noise.
3. Musicians from ensembles HaftCraft and Astria Oboe Trio (Belgium): (John Robb) ‘It would not be TMW without some deep cultural resources. One year we saw an improvising orchestra and this year in the beautiful old chruch in town we watch a classical triup ne with ancient instruments deliver a spell binding rendition of British composer, John Dowland’s “Lachrimae or Seaven Teares” (1596), and the Estonian Tõnu Kõrvits. “Driftwood Songs” / “Kaldale uhutud laulud”.
4. Evestus (John Robb) ‘Describing themselves as the new wave of industrial Goth local band Evestus have caught the moment perfectly. Even if industrial goth is not the media flavour of the month it has a growing groundswell of acolytes attracted by its intensity and dark shadows that perfectly mirror these tripwire and dangerous times and the band’s stark, melodic and beautiful sound jarred with perfect noise with a whiff of the Marilyn Manson about them make them prime contenders for the new crown.’
5. Hatis Noit (John Robb) ‘Disconcerting brilliant sparse electronic soundscapes that sound like no other,, the clash between the unusual and almost jarring rhythm sand looped vocals make for something completely astonishing and original from this Japanese composer.’
6. Neoandertals (John Robb) ‘Estonian death metal band Neoandertals are dealing in the narrowest and yet most oddly brilliant of concepts – lyrical concepts revolve around the ancient Neanderthals, their obscure defleshing burial rituals and about their mastered forms of flaying flesh all delivered with bear growl vocals over a rattling bass and busy drums from Sandra who lives deep in the Estonian forest ina home made log cabin and runs a vegan website! – The two piece sound like some weird crow cross between annoyed garage rock and the deepest and darkest of death metal. Genius.’
Neoandertals. Photo by Tanel Tero
7. Lynch (John Robb) ‘Slovenia has a great music scene which is highlighted by LTW’s other favourite festival, MENT – the cross-pollination between these smaller European countries is part of the real thrill of the current music scene – Lynch are an example of the ‘they who dare, win’ motif of this part of the world with their music that switches from choral industrial to neo Swans grind to thrashing rock in a captivating and dangerous live show that can’t be pinned down creatively, physically or stylistically.’
(Richard Foster) ‘It’s late on the Friday night. I’m more than full of beer. Eating the dodgy looking snacks at Kuku’s bar hasn’t alleviated the situation one iota. I find myself watching Lynch, who are a bunch of young Slovenian alternative rockers. I’ve seen them before, in Ljubljana, and want to see them again, as they are a strange band but very moreish. Yet again I’m struck how fresh faced they are, despite the all black uniform and serious demeanour (and the weird rabbit masks they sometimes sport). Somehow these disparate elements add to the allure. Moreover, the angular singer has something of Tom Verlaine in his looks. Much, much better, he has a cracking voice; one that calls the crowd to attention and acts as a sort of centrafugal point that the band play around. Lynch proceed to knock out a seering wall of noise, sometimes clever, sometimes abstract but one that is predominantly about dynamic, melodic noise. The first thing that pops up into my head is seeing Radiohead in the Broken Doll in Newcastle, sometime in the 1360s. It’s the same power play on show, albeit more new wave in timbre. The place is going nuts to them, mainly because their spirit is the pioneer spirit that the best hungry bands have, a confidence in the communicative abilities of their own material. They move people even if no-one understands Slovenian. There’s no old school showmanship going on. Rather, they realise the room is half-cut and up for cutting some rug, so they let rip, with total abandon. Suddenly your correspondent is handed a guitar which is mangled courtesy of a pint and a drumstick. I can hear absolutely nothing which is, of course a very good thing. Regardless of me, a band to watch.’
8. More Than Life (film) (John Robb) ‘Psychoterror are the most loved Estonian punk bands – a lot of it is down to the charismatic drunken madness of singer – Freddy Grenzmann – the clown crown price of the Estonian punk scene whose drunken mayhem is a mask for a rampant creativity that can never quite focus itself but makes for the perfect central point of the film.
More Than Life is a touching film about the reality of living in the middle of the madness of punk rock from rubbish festivals in fields with staggering drunk punks to wild club shows in their home town and dealing with a singer who is An Estonian Iggy pop but forgets to revert back to James Osterburg. there are flashes of brilliance and hints at a band that are far more adept than their attractive punk rock madness hints at and the film is an engaging romp through the reality of being in a band.’
8. Elizabete Balcus (John Robb) ‘From just down the road in Riga and dealing in sparse freak electronics creating sparse and tripped out soundscapes, Elizabete Balcus delivers her wonk digital with a perfect kooky dress code and stage presence.’
9. Petlia Pristrastiya (John Robb) ‘Dealing loud post-punk from Belarus, the band are the latest in a rich seam of groups from the country that has already given us the great Super Besse. With the same kind of dark driving undertow with big crashing chords over the top the band sound like a classic UK post-punk band like the Bunnymen or the Sound.’
10. Rotten Sperm (John Robb) ‘Ha, with such a name you have to be interested and the Estonian duo deliver screaming, screeching, totally mental metal that sounds like its crisscrossed with those Death To Trad Rock bands love of angular, annoyed and yet darkly humorous madness.’
11. Spasibo (John Robb) ‘The Russian revolution is the big talk of this year’s Tallinn Music Week and also at most of on the ball music conferences and commentators. The richness of bands in the motherland is a never ending rush of inspiration and brilliance. We already have documented the brilliance of Shortparis and Lucidvox and Spasibo and the later are back with a set that is even more brilliant, intense and powerful than before. The band’s psychedelic energetic rush through alt rock is a thrilling live spectacle like an urgent take on Dinosaur Jnr.’
(Richard Foster) ‘Another bunch of Muscovites that provide the heavy artillery. Spasibo are a brilliant live band. I’ve seen them in this club before and was blown away by their elan and their utterly irrepressible rhythm section. And once again they deliver in spades in an increasingly frenzied club. It’s a whirlwind of noise, never stopping but with plenty of hooks and riffage to hold onto. Imagine No Means No as a prog band, or a speeded up, heavy Seattle-style Soft Boys playing an opera version of ‘Where Are the Prawns?’ They look the part too, grunge lords in sweatpants. My mate Dave – who is similarly bowled over – says this relentless assault reminds him very much of the live gigs from My Bloody Valentine round the time of Isn’t Anything. I see his point; it’s the same relentless attack, the same swashbuckling guitar the same battery of beats and throbbing low buzzing bass lines. They stop, play a softer last track which sounds tame compared to everything else they’ve done. Regardless, they blow most guitar bands in Europe away.”
Spasibo. Photo by Alesja Stavitskaja
12. Show Me A Dinosaur (John Robb) ‘From the bleak landscapes of north-west Russia, Show Me A Dinosaur create a music that matches with elements of the ice blue brilliant of Mogwai and the soundscape possibilities of guitar, bass and drums painting spectral landscapes with musical highs and lows in a mesmerising series of songs.’
12. Elephants From Neptune (John Robb) ‘Local boys made grunge, the four piece band twist trad rock with a 21st century urgency and ecstatic grunge overcoat that gives them a feral rush over their stadium melodies.’
13. Port Mone (John Robb) ‘Dislocating their music into new shapes the Belarus band deliver an accidental post-rock but are reaching deeper into ambient folk and avant-garde tradition to create intriguing soundscapes.’
14. Tesa (John Robb) ‘Latvian band Tesa are yet another example that if you want to seek out the cutting edge where music is shapeshifting into new textures and space then head into East Europe and into the fringes of metal where the dark melancholy that so infused the best areas of post-punk in the late seventies is making a similar kind of impact. Tesla have that dark matter to their sound and infuse it with classical choral melodies but retain the power and majesty of rock.’
15. Kate NV (John Robb) ‘Glintshake are another Russian favourite for LTW with their post shoegazing spectral rushes and perfect sculpting of sound so its fascinating to watch band member Kate NV deal something so different on her own that is a sparse 21st century pop – a keyboard driven deceptively light pop landscape that also draws in Japanese pop from 80’s to concrete music and contemporary classic is a music that is both deceptively mainstream and threaded with cutting-edge underground creating a world of wonk-pop brilliance.’
Kate NV. Photo by Alesja Stavitskaja
16. Inturist (John Robb) ‘Inturist is an audio-visual project by Evgeny Gorbunov, known from bands such as ГШ / Glintshake and Interchain. This is a sparse and dynamic scratchy electronic music that also hints at the post punk twilight so beloved by the likes of John Peel.’
(Richard Foster ) ‘Most of Kuku Klubi is taken up by acts that play with ‘laptops n’ backdrops’ (a great lost Heaven 17 LP title that, if ever there was one). Guitars and other forms of synths are in short supply. There are things that buck the trend. On the Friday, Moscow’s Inturist (Jenya Gorbunov, the guitarist in ГШ / Glintshake) spits out a brilliant one-man set that alternates between corruscating guitar runs and quirky bleeps and beats. The following evening, his ГШ / Glintshake bandmate, Kate NV puts on a sparkling pop display, part story of the glass slipper rendered pop, part one-girl take on Ryuichi Sakamoto. Both are funky fresh and a forcible reminder of the spirit that lifts the Moscow party scene above many of its peers.’
17. Aleksei Taruts (John Robb) ‘With stripped down juddering electronics that bring a dark almost classcial feel to the form, Aleksei Taruts has a unique musical and personal worldview which ‘ examines the neuroses of contemporaneity shaped by the obsession for immediate representation and the politics of “post-truth”, disenchantment by internet and overexposure to wow-effects.’ wow – and you can dance to it!’
18. Marti Avi (Richard Foster) ‘I can imagine Kuku Klubi being a really, really annoying place when Tallinn Music Week isn’t on. Full of squiffy artists and tough real estate agents who demand wall-to-wall Madonna, it’s a place that (due to its size) doesn’t encourage solitary reflection. Or, for that matter, manners. Still TMW have the reins for 2 days and they’re holding the Crypto Market there, a sort of post-digital pioneers club for the digital generation. We are told there’s a whole story why it’s called the Crypto Market, and it has something to do with the great Mart Avi which means a wealth of exciting countercultural thought has gone into it. However as is the way with these things, the 2 days becomes a colourful, sometimes confusing riot of ambition, noise, trickster brilliance and outright chancer bollocks. It’s hard to tear yourself away to go elsewhere. And when we get to see Mart Avi in action, all makes sense. Mart Avi is out there. What makes him brilliant is the fact that nothing stops him, or his vision. The Kuku Klubi PA is coughing out the worst sound ever (at times Avi’s set sounds like a shellac recording of Caruso) and, to make matters complete the visuals freeze and die. Stressed techies swipe ipads and twiddle cables. Mart sits there, as to the manor born, smoking an e-fag and parping ululations courtesy of some weird miniature horn. However, all is made right by his songbook. His music – lush postmodern pop topped off by a voice that sometimes soars into a weird interzone between mind and lughole – is the sort of noise that started Ragnarök (amongst other cup finals). This is an artist to make you think, to dream, to do something irresponsible. Finally giving up on the PA, Avi throws his magnificent fanzine, ‘AviZonas’ at his bewildered flock. Why can’t all pop stars be like this?
Mart Avi Photo by Väino Valner