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Things Learned At: Tallinn Music Week 2017
Richard Foster , April 13th, 2017 06:38

At this year's edition of the Estonian festival, Richard Foster finds a much-deserved focus on the multifarious homegrown talent and is reminded once again that guitar music isn't dead – obviously. Photograph of Glintshake by Diana Didyk

“The West is dead! It has lost its mojo! If you want to hear some really good new music, discuss relevant things about music and culture and get a blast of life, come to Tallinn Music Week!” No, that’s not me earning my flight costs by way of some sloganeering, but the thoughts of Laibach’s Ivan Novak, who was present at this year’s festival. And he has a point. There is, indisputably, something magic about Tallinn Music Week, a key stop on an emerging Balkans-to-Baltic festival circuit. Everything about it - from the panels, the talks, the food and the films, to the acts that play there - have a sharpness about them and possess none of that wearisome, bullshit-laden nonsense you encounter in the Anglo-American “bizz”. No; the festival is still - despite its (and the host city’s) constant metamorphosis - wild, inquisitive and inventive.

Working with borders and fear

I’m sat in a room in the Vene Kultuurikeskus (a splendid, and immaculately kept, example of late Soviet Classicist architecture) watching a panel hosted by Nick Hobbs from Charmenko, entitled, “Organizing an Event in the Most Challenging Times”. Being in East and Central Europe often sharpens the mind. Currently, one can simply point to Belarus, Poland, Hungary and Turkey to see incredibly divisive socio-cultural and political tensions at play. And it’s not so long ago that a swim in the wrong part of the Baltic would have resulted in a bullet in your back. Fun becomes, therefore, a much more important business the further east you go; not something to latch First World guilt onto, or to view as just another product of late capitalism. The idea of Soft Power, sometimes so derided in the West as being something for “snowflakes” or “liberals” is seen as the key to both maintaining good relations and sneaking around any divide.

Borders are such weird things; as anyone who has crossed the Slovenian-Croatian border will testify. But divides can be swiftly circumvented by culture vultures. And the simple act of talking face-to-face and taking heart in each other’s humour, intelligence and talent becomes a great source of strength. As Nick Hobbs (who, seeing he lives and works in Turkey, knows what he’s on about) says in his panel, “the biggest topic for all of us is fear and self-censorship.” At Tallinn, there’s a strong emphasis on using culture as a springboard for change. And we end up watching some mad bands, and talk late into the night to Lithuanians, Belarusians, Slovenes, Croats, Russians, Estonians and others; all with the goals of making contacts and maybe friendships, helping each other and passing the good stuff on.

Russian alternative music: the good and the plain weird

Talking of borders, the neighbours are here in force this year. Tallinn Music Week 2017 is marked by the amount of remarkable Russian music we see. The sense that the acts are eager to show what they can do is overwhelming at times. Definitely on the roster marked “great” are the feisty post-punk situationists Glintshake, who navigate the thin divide between utter pretentiousness and brilliance with a sparkling, joyous aplomb. Imagine a Russian take on Ludus, covering drawn out Henry Cow-style workouts, and (for light relief) dropping now and again into ‘Interstellar Overdrive’-style Barrett guitar runs. Singer Ekaterina Shilonosova’s face is a joy to behold, as she gurns, laughs, bawls and screeches through a brilliant set. Late on the Friday night, in the louche cabaret joint Kuku Klubi, Spasibo prove yet again that they are the best, most bruising and armour-plated Rock Thing since NoMeansNo. Their big friends, Lucidvox play a gig that (for me at any rate) shows they are well on the way to being a legendary, and even more way-out, female take on Simply Saucer. Elsewhere, Belarus’s Shaman Jungle come on like an intriguing and refreshingly rough “trad-folk” take on the Hapshash and the Coloured Coat. And on the last night, (again at the tiny and fabulously seedy Kuku Klubi), we see Coldwave / alt-electropop duo Electroforez, who sound like a bugged-out, karaoke version of Erasure. According to my new Russian friends, the band are singing ironic songs about execution and the Patriarch. Blimey.

Estonian "multi-music"

Is there such a thing as a “multi-music”? If so, Estonia is the place to find it. Tallinn Music Week showed us many great Estonian musicians, from a diverse array of musical backgrounds, ripping up templates and striking out for new ground. Maybe these Estonians develop this restless, inventive streak to shake off the country’s moody, dank climate. But whether it’s through nature or necessity, it shouldn’t really be a surprise. Music here is a binding force, ground-level stuff. The country is known for the singing revolution and a folk tradition that stretches back thousands of years. A striking example of this Musik-Mischmasch was the brilliant show given in the Muspeade Hall by Ensemble U: and Ekke. This collaboration (at turns light, playful, and rigorous, with melancholy or romantic undertones) was breathtaking and showed contemporary classical at its best; Taavi Kerikmäe and Tarmo Johannes sensitively counterbalancing Ekke’s primal electro and Aphex Twin-ims against an ever-changing tableaux of traditional instrumentation. Imagine a clash of Stockhausen’s ‘Hymnen’, and Benjamin Britten’s ‘The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra’ and Aphex Twin’s ‘Analogue Bubblebath’. I kid you not. (Ekke’s Kluster-like, subliminal growls and drones had been seen earlier in the festival, in a pensioner’s sitting room, and in the gantry of the city’s Botanical Gardens, issuing Drone Goodness to a bemused party of five-year-olds and their guardians.)

It would be insane not to mention other exciting collaborations; Maarja Nuut’s transition from poster girl of trad-folk to electronic experimenter (helped by her alliance the brilliant electro-wizard Hendrik Kaljujärv) is in full swing, and at times on the opening night and in the folk showcase in Muspeade, the duo sounded as if they held the keys to electronic-folk heaven. Watch out for those Eeter girls too (their new material sounding like a C21st, alt-folk take on Organisation). And on the evidence of her gig in the incredible Vene Theatre, Siiri Sisak’s muse continues to flit between grande dame classical, folk, and multitasking shamanism.

“Never listen, to electric guitar…”

If I had a penny for every time I’d heard, or read some inane, no-mark, nobber-tastic comment saying something along the lines of “guitar music’s dead” I’d be able to afford to host, and stock, a yearly pie festival in Accrington. Do you think Velázquez turned round to his mates (while they were sat watching Geordie Shore) and said, “yeah man, Rubens and Titian, man, those cats have done everything oil painting has to offer. I’m off to squeeze walnut juice onto canvas as a brave new artistic gesture”. No he did not. Enough; Tallinn Music Week 2017 hosted an incredible array of brilliant acts using electric guitars. Take Lithuania’s Sheep Got Waxed, a power trio who play a crunching and kicking sax-drums-geetar-driven fusion rock, placed somewhere east of The Ex’s Terrie Hessels and Soft Boys’ Kimberly Rew. Fans of Dead Neanderthals and Sex Swing should flock to their standard, post-haste. The Russians we have mentioned elsewhere, but please, I beg you, check out Lucidvox, Glintshake and Spasibo (preferably live). Finland’s Mikko Joensuu has happily fought his way out of terrible illness to rock out with abandon with an extended line up; his epic Springsteen-isms balanced out by some farm-punk soul and alt-country.

And then there is local Erki Pärnoja and his band, whose mellifluous guitar runs and dreamy minor key pop (not a hundred miles away from Jaakko Kalevi) forcibly reminded this old goat of enigmatic Felt guitarist, Maurice Deebank. Later in the night, in teenager’s hang Kultuuriklubi Kelm, Croatia’s Žen make blissed-out audio visual journeys into your psyche and come on most forcibly like the righteous post-gender take on Spacemen 3 that they truly are. That’s not all. Upstairs, Friesland’s The Homesick destroy all notions of pop’s hoary past with their scally teen anthems. Sparks fly and the three 20 year olds grind out the sexiest guitar pop on a stage since, god, The Beatles in 1964? Maybe. Probably. Now, Estonians aren’t known for wild rug-cutting in public, but the place goes collectively nuts. Incredible.

What more to say about Tallinn Music Week 2017? Nothing really, except, maybe to point you back to Ivan Novak’s quote at the beginning of the page. He’s not wrong.