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Things Learned at MENT Festival
Richard Foster , February 14th, 2018 13:01

Yes to Ljubljana! Yes to the Baltic-Balkans-British Interzone! Yes to Russia! Yes to new pop, weirdo rock and sonic ectoplasm!

Glintshake photo by Kaja Brezočnik

Ljubljana's MENT is a special festival. For a relatively young event (now in its fourth year) it certainly can’t be dismissed as some small regional showcase, copying its western peers. There is a spirit at MENT that draws on real underground experience - most of the organisers have over a decade’s worth of booking and touring in Europe’s alternative and squat circuit - and on Ljubljana’s proud alternative history. Laibach we all know, but Ljubljana has always produced interesting acts, including punk band Tožibabe, eccentric and righteous hardcore band 2227 and the legendary Moveknowledgment, whose singer N'toko also performs as hip hop artist. New acts such as Lynch and folk-drone experimentalists Širom can be added to a long list.

MENT’s raison d'être is inextricably linked with the city’s once-notorious Metelkova squat complex, a higgledy-piggledy, spray-painted assortment of squatted buildings in an old barracks that grew to prominence during the course of the 90s and 00s. Over the years, Metelkova (the base for many of the festival’s activities) has hosted a booming hardcore scene, promoted bands like Moveknowledgment and given local alternative booking organisations such as Buba and labels like Moonlee the chance to forge strong links with underground networks throughout the Balkans and East and Central Europe.

Unsurprisingly, MENT takes advantage of its geographical situation and the local underground scene’s extensive contact base, becoming a pivotal regional showcase for a lot of wild and inspiring acts from for East-Central and South Eastern Europe. At MENT, Metelkova’s free spirit and no-bullshit attitude can be sensed in the homemade rakia and the swapped stories, cataloging what’s going down from Kosovo to Pest to Narva, and how to best kick against the pricks.

We like this Baltic-Balkans-British Interzone
After three days hard gig-watching one could conclude that MENT is a riotous musical funfare provided by a modern-day Mr Kite. An East-West interzone that thrives on contrast. The festival has a strong track record in contrasting showcasing brilliant leftfield acts from East-Central Europe (Marja Nüüt, Repetitor, Bernays Propaganda, Glintshake) with credible Anglo-American headliners. This year Algiers and Young Fathers provided powerful, soulful - sometimes explosive - sets in the Kino Šiška cinema.

Later, in Metelkova, the BBC’s Mary Anne Hobbs laid down a brilliant and giving DJ set that fused contemporary sounds (dubstep, snippets of footwork, glitch) with a tricksy, loving vibe that brought to mind early 90s post-rave sounds from the likes of Warp and those old Trance Europe Express releases. MENT is also about finding the sand in music’s vaseline, whether good, annoying, utterly shambolic or downright weird. During an evening, one could marvel at the stickily slacker and chaotically unformed (but very moreish) rock noises made by Weeds and Dolphins from Belarus, Trad! Attack’s splendid and colourful Estonian folk-pop fusion, or the wacky brilliance of Romania’s Karpov not Kasparov (“situationist cabaret” at its very best and worst).

Maybe the act that best encapsulated this idea of everything being thrown into the pot were Lithuania’s Sheep Got Waxed, a truly brilliant power trio who blend jazz, skronk, and Gong-style space trip-outs into a bigger, punky stew. It may not sound that appetising, but as a live act they are a stunning proposition. (And they’ve developed a lot since I saw them in Tallinn last year.) Equally at home in drawing out long quiet passages violently punctured with sax blurts and cymbal crashes or blasting out Steve Hillage-style guitar mantras, the band created enough headspace for the Metelkova audience to trust them all the way. The sort of band some head would nod at and say “yer man, Beefheartian, man” at. Highly recommended (even more so, if they cull the between-song banter).

New pop is good
There are a lot of weirdo pop musicians currently floating around this part of the world, and MENT seems to be a magnet for them. This year, we saw Russia’s groovy synth Russalka, Rosemary Loves A Blackberry (aka Diana Burkot, ex-drummer from Fanny Kaplan) and Latvia’s brilliant Elizabete Balčus. They weren’t playing here, just hanging out watching bands. In terms of the actual programme, highlights had to be Kate NV (more on her later) and Mart Avi’s stunning pop set at Metelkova. A lanky mysterious figure, drawing brilliantly and dangerously on the sonic ectoplasm left by Bowie and Associates, Avi paced restlessly around the stage in a trenchcoat (tightly drawn) and trainers, declaiming in Estonian-inflected English over a tinny, strained backdrop of white noise. A dangerous mix of Ian Curtis and Eric Morecambe (due to the manner of his disappearance,seemingly mid-song, through a side curtain) Avi brought an alien strangeness and brittle glamour that was at times spine-tingling to witness. On the night, his music (normally lush and high gloss, full of deep resonant bass tones offset by warm synth washes) walked the line between annoyingly reedy and overpoweringly loud. But somehow it worked, if only as a provocation. And, vitally, Avi has the air of one who possesses an ill-gotten genius, a C21st Loki who has just nicked your smartphone. On this evidence greatness (and a new set of pedals awaits).

Shortparis photo by Maša Gojić

There are a lot of really great bands in Russia
In the gloaming of Metelkova, our jaws drop as we witness a totally dark and very lethal 21st-century electronic deconstruction of Front 242, new beat, goth pop/Communards-meets-High-Gloss-Sisters underpinned by a ferocious drumming attack that sounded as if it was from a Shellac LP. (It’s also worth noting that the incredible, lissome, hard-hitting drummer was a stand-in. A stand-in! Those who saw it won’t believe it.)

This Götterdämmerung of the senses went by the name of Shortparis; they are four intense lads from St Petersburg who hammered out one of the most powerful sets I have seen in years, akin to being on a runway, such was the concentrated noise. The singer’s incredibly powerful - if slightly erratic - baritone sandblasted ears: imagine a very heavy take on Jimmy Somerville or Billy Mac, a voice that projected vast and deep vats of existential despair. He was also very keen on throwing some confrontational shapes out to the crowd. By the end he was in among the petrified punters, rubbing the mic against his crotch and getting the incredible drummer to join in his suggestive dancing. Blimey.

By contrast Moscow’s kicking party scene has recently knocked out acts like (the late great) Fanny Kaplan, Kedr Livanskiy, Spasibo, Lucidvox and Glintshake. This coterie of young party-heads all seem to know each other, and share a fun, can-do spirit. On the opening night we got to see Glintshake in Kino Šiška which is, as anyone who has seen them knows, a real treat. Glintshake were mesmerising, and transported this old git back yet again to relive memories of Ludus and The Teardrop Explodes. The band, fronted by Katya Shilonosova and driven by some brilliant Barrett-esque guitar riffage and a bubbling rhythm section, have an inbuilt effervescence; it’s a musical bottle of bubbly forever about to burst. Brimful of hope and potential, their chiming guitars and glorious melodies point at new horizons, new ideas. On seeing them live you are left in no doubt that Glintshake have upgraded the hoary old shapes and attitudes of 1978-82. They are the perfect pop band and a reminder of the capacity for post-punk to reinvented in the hands of those who have something definite, hopeful or urgent to say.

Shilonosova’s solo set (as Kate NV) a day later at Metelkova was a brilliant electronica version of the same vision, a feminine, Russian take on Kraftwerk’s “little melodies” with tracks like ‘DE 1988’. She bopped and preened and indulged in a lot of eye rolling to this bittersweet pop par excellence, throwing accents of Harmonia’s ‘Deluxe’ LP, Magical Power Mako and contemporary electro artistes like Musique Chienne into the mix for good measure. By contrast, on the last night at Metelkova, Lucidvox screamed down the room; their shamanistic Amon Düül II-meets-Banshees sound shaking walls and punters alike. They are such an exciting band. Be warned, on the evidence of the last year or so, alternative Russian music is on the march.

So there you have it. Confirmation that - in terms of acting as a gateway to the region - Ljubljana is where it is “at”; a vibrant and informative gathering place for East-Central European heads, weirdos, rockers and pop fans alike. And another edition where MENT proved it is a go-ahead affair with the accent on the musical here and now.