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Eeestirocksampler: Welcome To New Weird Estonia
Richard Foster , October 17th, 2018 10:37

Our man from Accrington, Richard Foster, goes deep as he investigates soul-boy situationism, (pre)teen mumblerap, “techno shamanism”, nonstop laptop cabaret and tales of stolen geese whilst making sense of what constitutes (New) Weird Estonia

Live picture of Maarja Nuut by Liisi Anvelt

“The Song Begins Where the Anchor Chain Ends”
Ilmar Laaban

“Eeestirocksampler”

There is something currently going on in Estonian alternative music. In many ways that should not be a surprise; this small country nestling on the Baltic has a proud history of producing inspiring “modern” sounds. Already boasting an ancient folk tradition, Estonia was known in the Soviet era for producing adventurous modern classical composers like Arvo Pärt and Kuldar Sink and great cheeky pop acts like Apelsin and Kukerpillid.

The (semi-legal) musical periphery was initially given form through righteous prog-rockers such Mess, Psycho and Kooma, and later a notorious, creative and long-lived punk/post-punk scene, featuring bands like J.M.K.E. and Ne Zhdali. The country is known for some devastatingly good film music, too; with the wonderful Sven Grünberg being the prime progenitor. In fact Grünberg is such a far out cat that, like Pärt, many Estonians find his back catalogue too much to swallow at times. Still, his scores Dead Mountaineer's Hotel and ‘Hingus’ are must haves for all Heads.

For the lounge lizards among you, there is a great easy listening-cum-Bossa Nova scene to check out, something that was madly popular in the rest of the USSR in the 1970s; with the likes of Jaak Joala, Uno Loop (two times Estonian boxing champ), and Arne Oit leading the charge. Post (singing) revolution, one can point to ambitious polymath sound artists like Rauno Remme, Kiwa and Andres Lõo. And a thumping 90s alternative rock and electronica scene with John Peel favourites ÖÄK (brainchild of the remarkable Erkki Tero aka Djerro), Röövel Ööbik and Una Bomba (more of them later) and the great fuzzy noiseniks Zahir.

This article, however, won’t announce a new and huge wave of talent sweeping westwards from this small but determinedly forward-thinking land. As usual with any creative scene a handful of unique people are currently making boundary-pushing sounds; connecting with older heads and a wider world. I should say now, too, that I’m certainly not looking to set up a number of disparate, often solitary artists as representatives of a whole country. No-one needs another helping of an undercooked, patronising exercise in Western Gaze. So I don’t hypothesise that the country’s much discussed geo-political situation acts as a creative lodestone. Or that the land is full of faery spirits guiding the composer’s fevered brow.

Estonia boasts switched on alt-pop, alt-folk and folk, industrial & metal and rock scenes very much part of the wider Anglo-American / Western European tradition. Some elements in this industry have international reach, such as Ewert and the Two Dragons. The brilliant Inga Copeland has strong ties to the country, too. We can also point to the consistently excellent ambient-shoegaze-indie label, Seksound. And many acts - outside of the fabulously named acid-sludge magicians Estoner - don’t feel the need to mention where they’re actually from.

“Little Estonia”

Regardless: a handful of current Estonian artists seem to me to have addressed their situation to make Wyrder sorts of music, or a different, music-based performance art. This has happened through deliberate manipulations of sound and image, through moving abroad, their (sometimes unwitting) reactions to being Estonian, or a careful study of their country’s musical and cultural history. One element that consistently plays into this narrative is the size of the country. Its smallness either seems to drive aspiring artists out to further form their vision in other lands or to hunker down and draw deep on alternative resources, creating internal headspaces along the way.

Two of the nomads - Grete Ly Valing, aka Regret and Anni Nöps - both told me that (in the London-based Valing’s case) the “easy going” nature of a small Tallinn scene could be difficult to square. Valing: “Whilst that fits many people very well, the problem is the amount of people who consume your music and how very easily you can meet everyone.” The young audio-visual artist Anni Nöps, now flitting between Berlin and the Hague, felt that Estonia’s scene was the preserve of “a few people who become gatekeepers. Too much depends on personal relationships.” Sound artist Hendrik Kaljujärv takes a slightly different view. “Since Estonia is so small it's really good to get the training here. If you do something, you’ll be noticed, and if you’re smart and consistent you'll know how to use it. But it's almost impossible to have a impact in Berlin or wherever. So in a sense it's really always up to yourself.”

Connectors

Scenes - however small - always need connectors and catalysts. And the legendary Raul Saaremets is such. A vital presence in Estonian underground activities for nearly 30 years, nearly all that is good here comes from, or back to him. This creative chameleon has built up a ridiculously important and far reaching musical legacy. We can point to his 90s musical activities with brilliant pop situationists Röövel Ööbik and the “hooligan house” of Una Bomba, both acts effectively being the midwives to the country’s alternative indie and electronica scenes. Saaremets was behind Tallinn’s notorious Mutant Disco nights and great alternative music events like Kalana Sound and Mägede Hääl. He gets other kicks running the inspiring and wild Porridge Bullet label, hosting the Vibratsioon radio show and being the weird deep house DJ, ‘Ajukaja’.

Another DJ is a vital cog in Estonia’s underground; Aivar Tõnso, one-time collaborator with Saaremets in the truly crackers rave act, Hüpnosaurus and creator of electronic wizardry in the outrageous Kismabande. Tõnso is, then, another spearhead of the Estonian electronic/dance music scene since the early ‘90s, and certainly someone who gets his kicks from introducing others to weird sounds. This normally takes the form of organising club nights and international festivals such as Hea Uus Heli (‘Brave New Sound’) and running the uncompromising independent record label, Ulmeplaadid. In terms of civic or national initiatives, Tallinn Music Week, now facing its 11th edition, has been a springboard for many underground musicians. A forward thinking festival with socio-political concerns to boot, TMW has - despite the odd grumble - always put leftfield local artists in the programme and has increasingly developed a policy that promotes hyper-adventurous locals. All three actively promote the more interesting things happening in their own backyard, regardless of the traditional dominance of the Anglo-American music industry.

Creators - Mart Avi & Soulboy Situationism

Much is currently written about the remarkable singer and producer Mart Avi, still in his mid 20s and probably the most transnational of all the artists mentioned here. Avi, who makes some of the most glorious and intelligent pop music around, and all from his own bat, is the product of many internal and external wanderings. These include the arcadian anarchy of his childhood on an old collective farm, during Estonia’s wild, sometimes fraught early days of freedom. Or Luxembourg, where the teenage Avi formed the marvellous, resolutely leftfield pop trio, Badass Yuki. Or his neverending psychicke trawls through the internet; which he has (probably rightly) called “the mother city” in an interview with this publication. Avi is always “somewhere else” and is nothing if not driven by his own inner sense; which appears to this observer to be a fairly common Estonian trait. Yet Avi’s outlook is resolutely intergalactical and non-atavistic. A soul boy futurist-absurdist in love with stats, his heroes include Bowie, Muhammed Ali, Miles Davis, Estonian writer Arvo Valvon, stats wizz Bill Simmons and a whole heap of NBA players. Avi’s brand new record OtherWorld is a brilliant synthesis of these influences and a limo-drive through the (strange) sunlit uplands of his imagination.

Avi also seems to share some creative sensibilities with the celebrated Estonian sound poet Ilmar Laaban, another driven polymath but one who fled to Sweden from the Nazis hidden under a cargo of coal. Laaban, despite being dead this past 20 years is still an inspiration for many musicians and artists here. What links the two is their uncompromising and humorous approach to performance in general and their use of technologies that drive the potential of performing sound. Like Labaan, Avi plucks and connects multifarious, seemingly random ideas and practices out of the ether, and makes another world from it all.

Techno Shamanism in “The Zone" - Ratkiller And The Serious Serious Label

About a decade ago, Estonian sound artist Kiwa used the term “Techno Shamanism” to describe how digital technology had begun to profoundly shape people’s reactions to music. And how the demolition of traditional concepts round performance and listening necessitated a radical reevaluation of the performer’s role. According to Kiwa, a new breed of performer - techno shamans - showed themselves at premeditated times and places, to act as a “community functionary”; allowing the public to interact with technology as expressed through music and music-related performance. Techno Shamanism is certainly a seductive phrase, and could be employed on a superficial level to describe an imaginary Estonian alternative music scene, seemingly full of individuals cooped up in some shotgun shack next to a bog or in a functionary apartment block, creating their own worlds whilst flitting from project to project in the many newly renovated spaces in downtown Tartu, Tallinn or Rakvere. This theoretical cap (or the resulting mental image) doesn’t fit everyone of course, though its spirit is certainly given some form by one of the more remarkable members of Estonia’s underground, Ratkiller.

Ratkiller, aka Mihkel Kleis, is a compelling artist. Someone, somewhere in this land, once wrote that Kleis “listens to music on the edge of human perception”. Quite what that entails, or whether he does is open to debate, though it certainly sounds shamanic enough. Regardless, Ratkiller moves in mysterious ways. He is a recording nomad whose wild, “organic electronic” music is littered like empty burger cartons over a number of labels, including one utterly brilliant vinyl release on Porridge Bullet, Meltdown Of The Highest Order. Kleis, it seems, suffers from a sort of project mania and his decades-long activities include annual tapings of “best-of 500” compilations for his mates, playing in spaceage jazz prog bands, and solo forays in black metal and library music; all under different aliases.

The author first saw Ratkiller in Tallinn’s EKKM (a generator room converted into a groovy artspace, actually slap bang in Tarkovsky’s “Zone”) during a fringe event at 2018’s Tallinn Music Week. Kleis turned up, spoke to no-one in particular, played a set of bone-crushing dance music on cassette and seemingly disappeared into the dry ice; mystery intact. This night was hosted by the new Serious Serious label, brainchild of (amongst others) Artyom Astrov, aka ‘Benzokai’, aka brother of Inga Copeland. Another who revels in changing shape to the music he plays, Benzokai’s live and recorded music shuffles stylistically between what sounds like aggressive rap penned by Hanseatic knights, chilly ambient, or electro-Gothic incantations.

His label hosts another master of reimagined sound, Hendrik Kaljujärv, currently working under the moniker Ruum, with Maarja Nuut. Kaljujärv is an experienced sound engineer who cut his sonic teeth in a traveling theatre company. Along with choreographer Karl Saks he formed the inspiring dark electronics project, Cubus Larvik whose explorations with encrypted occult messages recently got them into trouble with The Man for manipulating ‘Willow’s Song’ from The Wicker Man.

Sound And Inner Visions And Geese On The Loose - Maarja Nuut, Ekke And Anni Nöps

Another inescapable element in alternative Estonian music is how the country looks. I have to admit being told “don’t mention the fucking swamps and forests” when I once casually broached the subject of this article to one of my Estonian friends. But any train journey in the land reveals a panorama of sylvan greenery and Baltic shoreline set against ever-changing skies that is impossible to ignore. And this landscape does find its way back in various musical ways, doubtless unintentionally at times. We can point to the freeform contemporary music group Ensemble U:, an outfit that’s not part of the alternative scene, far from it. Still, their ur-interpretations of sound draw in part on on-the-spot experiment and what sometimes sounds like an atavistic investigation of their country. One of Ensemble U:’s recent collaborators is sound artist, academic and analogue dance man, the genial Ekke Västrik. Västrik can sometimes be seen wandering around, Hannett-like with a boom mic or two, picking up sonic frequencies from the wilder parts of Tallinn and its surrounds. His precise, minimalist electronic dance music (which often resembles a beautifully effervescent take on chamber music) and his rich, shifting drones (the aural equivalent of a very satisfying soup) have a very have a site-specific nature to them. Ekke’s music is, like U:’s, witness to both an inner and outer headspace that in some ways needs the Estonian landscape to accurately describe it.

Despite living in the Netherlands, audio-visual artist Anni Nöps seems to plough a similar furrow. Her gigantic, often romantic soundscapes and fearless audio-visual explorations have a spirituality and freshness to them that suggests Nöps is creating a personal aural version of Estonia in exile, with the accent on a love of the absurd and an ever-shifting relationship with an inner-outer landscape.

Whereas Ekke and Nöps’ work have a reactive quality that draws on the here and now (something that also maybe comments on the relentless march of technology in this, the most “connected” land in Europe) the work of the remarkable Maarja Nuut draws on a polar opposite. She occupies an increasingly strange place in her country’s musical landscape. Open a tourist brochure about the charms of Estonia and you may see a picture of Nuut, lying demurely in a forest, fiddle at her side. This displaced-Hygge pic misrepresents one of the most compelling and driven artists in the land. Rather than being the pretty C21st waif in a forest, Nuut is a shamanic live performer and a determined experimenter, someone who seeks a personal, spiritual fusion between native song traditions and new technologies. A perfectionist who squeezes every ounce out of her vision, she maps out an imaginary landscape using folk songs about death and the landscape. Nuut clearly revels in showcasing the dramatic nature of these ancient songs with their terrifying lyrics (here seen in ‘The Lost Geese’: “A seat of goose bones is brought to me / I am given goose meat to eat / I am given goose blood to drink”). This is a worldview that sometimes feels like the sonic equivalent to Marc Chagall’s paintings of Russian village life, albeit a digi version. It’s worth noting that Nuut also has pronounced raver tendencies, digging her techno somewhere between 126-131 bpm. Her partnership with Hendrik Kaljujärv has produced this year’s Muunduja (Shifter) LP, a brilliant set piece battle between old and new with the duo acting as ferriers on the Styx.

Nonstop Laptop Cabaret - Florian Wahl, Maria Minvera And Regret (And Henri Hutt)

Not too long ago, reeling around in a stupor after watching the Crypto Markt showcase at Tallinn Music Week 2018, (effectively two nights of abandon in the rough-and-ready kuku klubi bar), I wrote in this august publication that, “A new form of digital-musical interaction has been hiding in plain sight this last decade. Fermenting in bedrooms and common rooms, feeding off questions of gender identity and social righteousness, fuelled by Skype, WhatsApp and YouTube, (the) latest creative outlet has somehow channelled (a form of) cabaret [...].” Summoning the spirit of Molesworth, I called the phenomenon “Nonstop Laptop Cabaret”. Jokey title or not, It was truly memorable to bear witness to; a procession of Estonian “artists-in-exile”, all brazenly stepping out in front of the laptops, driven by bags of imagination and sometimes clunky attempts to conjure up a communal experience.

In my experience, Estonians are pretty stolid folk, not given to cutting rug at the drop of a hat. Maybe this night was a display of expats sticking it to the boring stay-at-homes. Regardless, three artists - Maria Minerva, Florian Wahl and Regret - forced their personalities on the kuku crowd. Despite the initial similarity of approach (to shock, or to seduce, or to shake things up), all three are very different artists in character, experience and approach. First, there is the brutal, restless white noise attack launched by young, London-based Regret (whose work increasingly explores symbols and territories that can be described as unsettling). By contrast there is the kitsch/camp, but increasingly raw audio-visual despair conjured up by Florian Wahl. On the night mentioned, Wahl (now resident in Japan) shagged a cream cake in the missionary position and decried the boredom of Estonia to some reedy, glitzy show tunes, which certainly took some gall.

And then there is remarkable LA resident and artistic agent provocateur Maria Minerva, who is by far the most well known of the three. A graduate of Goldsmiths, Minerva is someone who exploits a more traditional, musical approach. She has been described as a “lofi / hypnagogia pioneer”, and her music - which is indeed spacey - is a masterful C21st take on electro pop, Eno-esque sensibilities with full glitzy trappings and honeydew moves. And bittersweet and ever-so-slightly deranged ballads in the style of Loretta Lynn or Marc Almond.

Another who explores the interface between performance and sound - though in a much less brazen manner - is Henri Hütt. A very talented actor, dancer and composer in his own right, and increasingly part of the cultural establishment in Tallinn, Hütt’s work (often very romantic and gestural in nature) sometimes shares more with that of sound artists such as Ekke and Ratkiller.

As is the nature of these things in this small land, Hütt’s work can be found on established Estonian rap label Lejal Genes - a small but upbeat outfit, straight outta Rakvere (a no-nonsense provincial town halfway between Tallinn and the Russian border) that specialises in crazy hip hop, trip hop and boom bap party beats!

(Pre)Teen Mumblerap And Provincial Lyricism

In Estonia, rap is a pretty big thing. It seems to assuage something in the (male?) character here. A chance of self expression, to let rip, to blur party lines and party. But mostly, it seems, it provides some with the chance to be a poet. That’s the feeling when encountering the loquacious but troubled Estonian rapper Beebilõust - dubbed the “Estonian Mayakovsky” by some (albeit a Mayakovsky who has been in the clink a couple of times for GBH). Regardless of his personal situation, his turbocharged raps driven by his Oeselian dialect sometimes feel like he’s speaking in tongues, druid style. You get a similar experience of otherworldliness with the poetic and Gothicke presence of the mighty 12EEK Monkey, boasting the god-daddy of the Estonian rap scene and all-round Head, Genka. Many will also be aware of the more material, cheeky boy charms of Tommy Cash. The lyricism of these rappers is very marked. They could be advocating Third World War for all I know, but there is a mercurial, fast flowing and very moreish element to their work.

And then there’s a recent phenomenon, mumble rap, fired up by the track ‘KIki Miki’ by Arop and helped along its way by chart hound Nublu, who has scored a number of #1 hits in the land. One crackers exponent of the genre goes by the name of Lil Pede. Lil Pede is about 14 and has knocked out a handful of “extraordinary” tracks with the help of lashings of vocoder and intermittent bouts of comedy coughing. To say it’s at bedroom level is underselling it. On ‘Toa Koristamise Lauluke’ (Room Cleaning Kit) for example, Lil Pede threatens to do terrible things to the family cat if he has to do something as Centrist as clean his bedroom. Going to the sauna gets the sarky treatment too, as does the Humana charity shop organisation. There’s also a great short rant where we hear a mockney-Estonian take on Estuary; ‘Fack You Mayte!’ It really is all kind of scally class.

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