tallinnTallinn Music Week is the the best music showcase event and much more – the range of bands is stunning and the ideas and ideals of the festival go way beyond a load of bands. There is a powerful and thrilling agenda of breaking down barriers and trying to move forwards in a increasingly dark world. There is also lots of amazing bands from classical avante garde to a Russian wave of bands to lots of typically great esoteric East European outfits…the future is here – read on as Tallinn Music Week gives a broken world a culture hug…

Friday review of Tallinn Music Week

John Robb and Richard Foster were there to check on the action…

(Richard) When was the last time you saw a drone gig in a hothouse? On the Friday morning, missing speeches and receptions, I hitched a lift with Ekke – one of the brilliant musicians I discovered at last year’s Tallinn Music Week – to the Botanic Gardens on the edge of town. Ekke was to play there as part of the festival’s city showcase, up a metal spiral staircase as it happened, on a small gantry hidden among the palms and banana trees. Driving there, we talked about the frustrations of getting Estonian music heard abroad, his recent gig in Rotterdam (played to a handful of people) and the current craze for mixing classical sounds with izectro. Once set up and ready to drone, we noticed that a party of infants was being shown round the gardens. Picture it; a bunch of official photographers, three or four gentle souls who loved Ye Drone, and a bunch of 5 year olds taking in Ekke’s Cluster-like passages of sound and righteous subliminal frequencies. Actually it was a pretty beautiful experience all round, especially when Ekke dropped the frequency levels which, somehow – and quite literally – stopped the kids in their tracks. Following that we caught Latvia’s  Elizabeta Lāce play an affecting, intimate pop set (based round piano and harp) in a local Heads bookshop. Though verging into millennial-emo territory (which is not my scene at all) her music, especially the songs sung in her own language, had a restive quality that could be made into something far grander.

(John Robb) The day starts early for me, with new Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid giving an upbeat and positive speech that embraces many of the ideals of the conference and it reminds you of just how important the event is in this small country with a big heart. In many ways Tallinn Music Weeks helps to set the agenda for Estonia – a country that is bucking the modern trend for cynicism and looking backwards and trying to fast forward to a much more optimistic future.

One of the key things about Tallinn Music Week is the collision between the traditional and the modern. You can walk into a venue and see the country’s most famous classical composer Kristjan Järvi on stage with a rap crew rapping away and it looks right, mind you the year before he had got a 5o strong orchestra to improvise so he’s a natural at this kind of thing. So it makes complete sense to stand in the hushed atmospherics of the beautiful Muspeade Maja hall and watch someone play violin drones over a sparse laptop rhythm track.  Our Eyes Collective specialise in contemporary classical music, immersive concerts and audiovisual work that perfectly capture the atmospherics – a dark and thrilling slice of tingling textures as the old and the new combine in a perfect synthesis of sound.

(Richard) The early evening programme kicked off in earnest at the beautiful Muspeade Maja hall, where Sweden’s There Are No More Four Seasons dragged classical music’s reputation through an electric forcefield. At times the gig (though extremely good) was just too much for the setting; the arched stone roof making the sound too full on, too strident. At times the “loud bits” felt like a house party where some drunk hepcat has just put Sister Ray on at full volume. Hauschka joined them to play a quick set, which tempered matters somewhat; his patience bringing a structure and sometimes thoughtful counterpoint to the overall sound. Then we got a Hauschka gig proper, which was pretty outstanding. Yes, it’s easy to say he’s the bloke who puts stuff he’s found in his shed on the hammers, dampers and pins of his Joanna. Even the odd ping pong ball, too, blimey. And of course it’s a great part of his act, especially when (near the end) he throws these all these oddments to the ground, creating another set of rhythms and percussive counterpoints. But his gigs are so much more than this; they are immersive, soulful experiences where it’s very easy to be transported away through the simplicity of his vision. Hauschka deals with big questions in a very simple, direct, but seductive manner. Restraint is the key, the all-giving patience of his music keeping everything crystal clear, and hypnotising the audience along the way. Themes are explored carefully and softly, and interjections of tempo or tone seem to come at the point when you need them most. Playing tracks off his new LP, What If, Hauschka had the room spellbound (especially the gig opener, I Can’t Find Water), the deliberate build-ups and drops expertly handled. At the end the place erupted.

(John Robb) We have reviewed the fabulous Trad! Attack several times on the site – even their first ever gig in 2014! In the past three years the Estonian band have honed down their sound to perfection and are perhaps the most popular band in their home country. The venue is the old Russian cultural centre complete with a hammer and sickle above the stage and a fifties style mural on the roof and it creates a great ambience for the band to celebrate their Estonian culture embedded into an international sound. The three piece have put on a big show tonight complete with black clad dancers dancing across the stage and a flash light show which underlines the music’s esoteric and yet sprightly danceable brilliance. With a combination of strident acoustic guitars and  rushing drum patterns the band create a shapeshifting and energetic backing for Sandra Vabarna’s collection of traditional Estonian instruments to lend the songs a real flavour. There are bag pipes, weird pipes, pied pipes, flutes and things with weird air bags hanging off them and loads of weird looking things that we just can’t name, Sandra also sings with her vibrant and thrilling voice and the band’s concert is a triumph and it surely must be time now for them to get embraced in the UK.

(Richard) With John floating off the ceiling after Trad! Attack (or so it seemed after receiving a barrage of texts), I  saw local avant-gardistes Eeter at Muspeade, who are three girls and a whole load of clever programming. They played their ghostly, sensual take on the country’s ancient folk tradition with the same aplomb and humour as last year, the spooky mix of whistles, shouts, humming and rumbling, ur-electro had people enthralled. However abstract their music sounds, it does make sense when you hear it. It often feels that their sound isn’t really harnessed to anything earthbound (well, maybe the tops of the trees in an Estonian forest). They ended on (what I think is) a new, and more developed track that seemed to hint at new directions too. Whilst I nodded thoughtfully along, John was lost somewhere in a Ukranian sonic stew…

(John Robb) Onuka are a Ukranian band who are hugely popular in their home country are another combination of trad folk instruments and 21st century modern pop. They have the kind of instruments that must be hell to transport around including huge lyre type thing and a 20 foot long horn Trembita type thing that they utilise brilliantly to play a Prodigy style techno bottom end riff on. There’s lots of PVC going on and the band can sometimes tip into Eurovision pop territory but then they are constructed to take the old folk and transplant it into modern pop music and they do this very well.  The bits we liked, though, were when they went a bit weirder and wonkier and there were three songs when this synthesis was perfect.

(Richard) Back to Muspeade Main Hall, and a glass of red wine (as the bar has run out of beer AND cider)… Anyway I’m still here because  I want to watch the Finnish rocker Mikko Joensuu. Now, I used to love Joensuu; their stadium rock was always pitched on the right side of bombast, and their all-or-nothing approach to their music always inspired. Then Mikko got sick. Now he’s very thankfully on the mend, and the band are back with an extended line-up. Eight Finns on one stage seemed a bit much for the elegant Muspeade hall, but they got on somehow, and kicked their gig off with some quite brilliant alt-country numbers that hinted at Crime and the City Solution, or a dirtier, Finnish farmer boy take on Edwyn Collins’ Hope and Despair band. The last track, lasting something like 10 minutes, was a killer melting pot of kraut, Springsteen bombast and blue-eyed soul. The place was on its knees at the end, ground down by the Mikko’s refusal to quit until every last emotion had been wrung out of the racket they made. And just to think, that, backstage the band told me that they were worried that they wouldn’t be able to do their long workouts any justice…

(Richard) After this I decide to get save John from folk-overload, and run off to the naughty-but-nice Kuku Klubi, to watch Sheep Got Waxed from Lithuania. Last year I’d missed them. I’ll be honest. I was a bit put off by the text in the booklet, thinking it all sounded very jolly and self-fulfilling but then – as the great Alan Partridge once muttered – things change. This year I decided what the hell, they may have something. And within less than two minutes everything was fine, just fine, sorted in fact. Make no mistake; this band are killer. This Lithuanian trio of sax, drums and guitar (augmented by an array of pedals) make the biggest, most splurging, most enervating array of non-rock rock sounds you could imagine. Zorn with a rocket in his pants. Frippertronics dragged through a spiky hedge. Gong’s Didier gone AWOL; holed up with Kimberly Rew and Han Bennink’s yokel cousin in a shed, looking for the lost note the Moody Blues couldn’t find. That’s what you should expect. They are the ultimate festival band without any of that instant (inbuilt) sonic memory-wipe that most festival bands suffer from.

(John Robb) Sheep Got Waxed are a riot. They are so thrilling and loud and so full of detail that they even mange to drown out Richard’s one man narrative of manic enthusiasm about the band. Twisting and turning they somehow manage to take the polyrhythmic rush of prog rock and crank it through a post punk sieve and into the future kinda like The Ex or the Dog Faced Hermans but very much with their own musical agenda. It’s a stunning show of sharp and angular dynamics and fierce high IQ energy.

(John Robb) Maarja Nuut never ceases to amaze. We have seen her several times and she is constantly evolving. Constantly moving. This is the perfect synthesis of so much of what TMW is about – borders and barriers are removed, musical straight jackets ignored and a brilliant originality and hypnotic spelling beauty and brilliance the result. Marja still has her violin, which she builds up textures with her loop pedal and vocal patterns now joined by the dark pulsating electronics of Hendrik Kaljujärv which compliment and underline the dynamics and mystery of her music. This twist of modern and ancient add to the music’s emotional fascination and you actually stand there with your mouth hanging open at the perfect sculpted sound and emotional skree in the songs that put the human into the machine. Stunning.

(Richard) She never ceases to amaze, that Maarja Nuut John, you are absolutely right; and here, back in Muspeade, she and Hendrik Kaljujärv play their third gig of the festy. Maarja, probably driven a little nuts by days of meetings and talks and soundchecks, nevertheless kept it together and gave a sterling display. The songs sounded more nuanced, and softer in the hall. Somehow the sound in the room wasn’t harsh (despite the treacherous acoustics). And her singing was crystal clear and at turns embracing or spooky and Hendrik’s mixes much more intuitive and complementary. Maybe they stripped back their sound, learning from the night before. Regardless, the gig was a total triumph and this mix of spacey, Broadcast-style psych-electronics, spunky attitude and a venerable folk tradition turned on its head was perfect. Fame or ignominy awaits.

(John Robb) Within seconds of Maarja finishing we are hot foot through the atmospheric cobbled streets of Tallinn to catch one of the great new Russian bands that are storming this festival. In the past year there has been a resurgence of Russian music with a whole clutch of real contenders ready for your attention. There is something really interesting going here. A real cultural shift. Young bands twisting guitar music into their own shapes. Taking advantage of living just beyond the Western media radar to create their own music on their own terms. Lucidvox are in the sky with diamonds and were first covered in the world on Louder Than War here and we are thrilled to meet them and see them play in a tightly packed cellar. The four woman in the band have within months of forming struck on their own sound -a  tripped out melange of psyche, post grunge, krautrock, noise and soaring almost gothic melancholy. It’s a beautiful trip and you are pulled into their spiders web of intrigue and melody.

(Richard) No time to reflect too long on Maarja’s gig though, as we quickly filed off for Russia’s Lucidvox. We’d been tipped off that this bunch were something special. Walking down into the cellar we heard the dum-dum-dum of the guitar and a banshee wail that had me thinking we’d walked into some patchouli-stained, purple-painted Goth club from 1984. Is John McGeogh back from the dead? There, on the stage, gyrating behind what looked like a mini Christmas tree, we saw four girls (looking like they’d all been half-inching in Biba), busy knocking out the maddest racket ever. It was the most impossible set, stuffed full of sounds you’d think no-one could dare plunder. Amon Duul II’s Yeti work outs? Bauhaus? Swell Maps? Siouxsie? All present and correct, and mixed up like worn clothes on a teenager’s bedroom floor. Time and key changes came and went like the seconds hand on a wristwatch. It was at once completely all over the place and played with the confidence and verve of a band that knows exactly what they are doing. This freedom and sass had us baying for more. Old timers sat in front of them, transported back to 1971 when they’d toked on that “heavy” joint at a Can gig. Teenagers went mental. Their Russian friends went bug eyed crazy. Me and John didn’t know where to put ourselves, frankly. They then told us that they would be joining their countrymen Spasibo onstage later at Klubi. This was too good to miss.


(Richard) So: we’re sat in Kuku Klubi, and it’s packed. Around me, tables are being turned over, the PA speakers are visibly shaking, people are pressed together like sardines (albeit dancing ones) and M’Lud John Robb keeps leaning back on a light switch that starts an impromptu disco. There’s a mosh pit in a space you couldn’t put an umbrella up in. In other words we’re in the middle of a Spasibo set. To say it’s brilliant is an understatement. This band sound like NoMeansNo at their most brutal, and given a weird-but-shiny pop waxing, with plenty of tremolo polish. There is no reason in their set list either, fast things follow slower ones, and raucous things follow introspective interludes, but somehow it all comes together brilliantly. Even Lucidvox’s collective, intermittent Cindy Lauperisms worked a treat.

(John Robb) Russians know how to do mayhem and we are shocked that there are no bones broken in this most intense of mosh pits. Spasibo are tight and thrilling like one of those post hardcore bands like Fugazi or No Means No but with added trad rock flavours. Their frontman has that life depends on this noise charisma and they certainly know how to control their dynamics with switches between fast rushes and slow smoking tension sections.

(Richard) Amazing eh? Guitar-based rock music is burning hot at the moment, the perfect vehicle for these unsure, restless times. And the best rock music by far (with the noble collection of NL’s The Homesick) is coming out of Eastern and Central Europe. These cats don’t sound like no spoiled half-arsed no-marks with a Mac, man. Afterwards we partied hard and I drank what must have been fermented sheep piss, and, breaking a 30 year vow, danced wildly to Depeche Mode. Uh, look out!

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Award winning journalist and boss of Louder Than War. In a 30 year music writing career, John was the first to write about bands such as Stone Roses and Nirvana and has several best selling music books to his name. He constantly tours the world with Goldblade and the Membranes playing gigs or doing spoken word and speaking at music conferences.


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