Full And True Engagement: MENT Festival 2020 Reviewed

Richard Foster goes to MENT festival in Ljubljana, finding yet more new forms of Russo-European weirdness and wildness. Featuring Scúru Fitchádu, Интурист / Inturist, Neighbours Burning Neighbours and Black Country, New Road

Scúru Fitchádu photographed by Katja Goljat

“Contemporary music, in real time.”

What makes MENT such an intriguing festival? A complete lack of bombast and pretension? Perhaps. Festivals are often keen to trumpet a range of zeitgeisty credentials. But Ljubljana’s MENT is set up by a bunch of Slovenian music heads who don’t look to theorise too much whilst reaping the maximum amount of fun and friendship. We are here to enjoy “contemporary music, happening in real time”.

“Promoting contemporary music, happening in real time” is actually a quote pinched from the festival’s interview with Glitterbeat Records’ Chris Eckman. But it is certainly true of MENT; who are lucky to be able to access so much of it. As I’ve mentioned in a previous review of the festival, Ljubljana is uniquely placed to benefit from being an important junction on popular music’s highway. Slovenia’s capital is within easy reach of Austria and the wider Balkans and East and Central Europe, not to mention Russia. As such, the line up always feels fresh, a charming jumble sale of sounds that are somewhat removed from an increasingly samey international circuit. It’s also a level playing field inasmuch as any festival’s line up can be. At MENT, relatively unknown (if exciting) acts like Rotterdam’s Neighbours Burning Neighbours, Slovakians 52 Hertz Whale, Romanians Balkan Taksim, or Serbia’s Šajzerbiterlemon meet on an equal billing with more lauded contemporaries such as Trupa Trupa and Black Country, New Road.

The audiences are also fiercely independent in character. Balkan music heads are rightly famous for making their own fun and as a consequence not really concerned about what trends are being flogged elsewhere in Europe. What’s happening in places like Belgrade’s wild Hali Gali club, for instance, draws on a long independent tradition and is also key to the region’s future psyche. Consequently, good stuff is lapped up indiscriminately here, irrespective of hype. We can point to the audience losing its mind at a whirlwind gig given by incredible Cape Verdean electro punks Scúru Fitchádu; who torched Metelkova’s Channel Zero with a mind-melting fire kindled by jungle, electro and punk and traditional folk. And mention should certainly be given to riotous nomads Petrol Girls, who sandblasted the audience at Gromka (Metelkova) with a heady cocktail of post-hardcore, rabble-rousing charm and righteous societal concerns.

Inturist photographed by Urška Boljkovac

Inturist are your New Favourite Band

Young alternative Russia made its presence felt again with a vodka-drenched reception for the Moscow Music Week and БОЛЬ (Pain) festivals. We were treated to yet more intriguing acts, such as Gnoomes, Wooden Whales and STADT; who displayed the mercurial, devil-may-care energy that is making the “Russian New Wave” such a compelling thing to witness. Wooden Whales overcame initial uncertainties in Channel Zero to give an inspiring and gloriously skittish performance; the singer coming on like a C21st Bonnie Tyler, fighting a running battle with a band who wanted to make more noise than they were allowed to. The same could be said of Gnoomes’ passionate, multi-layered set and STADT’s declamatory electro cabaret. Yet more collective evidence that Russian youth relies on heart and soul to express themselves. Musical artifice and clever-clever algorithmic thinking is out of the window for these acts, who recast large vats of inner fire to make thrilling, unpredictable music.

Talking of things unpredictable, it’s always a gamble with Moscow’s Интурист / Inturist. Not so much the music (always excellent), rather it’s a case of who will turn up. This fluid project – masterminded by гш / Glintshake’s Jenya Gorbunov – seems to be at the mercy of fate. I’ve even seen Inturist without Mr Inturist, due to visa issues. So when the full band gets it on, it’s a chance not to be missed. For MENT, Gorbunov had assembled an all-star band; гш / Glintshake’s skin basher Alexey Yevlano, On-The-Go’s bass monster Dima Midborn and ТОПОТ and the RIG’s sax-tsar, Sergei Khramtcevich. Benefitting from a quality sound in Kino Šiška, the quartet glided through a set based round their two brilliant LPs. Inturist’s music can be described as a hot and rich stew of post punk rhythms, Gong-style jazz rock and the inquisitive, itchy worldview of Lizzy Mercier-Descloux or Aksak Maboul. A full-strength Inturist is a delirious live experience; akin to traveling in a beautiful and spacious sports car, where every detail of the ride is utterly pitch perfect and, thanks to the inner mechanics of the disparate elements, incredibly exciting. So it was in Kino Šiška. How best to describe the feeling when you know you are watching transcendental musical genius? The tracks off the latest record Экономика (Ekonomika), were stretched and flexed, the delicious music passing like a lambent flame through an increasingly hypnotised audience. It felt as if your entire life was being soundtracked by this glorious music, even if the gig seemed to be a dream, over in a blink of an eye. They are beyond wonderful when in full flow.

Black Country, New Road photograph by Ales Rosa

New Noises

Writing a festival review is often a cruel exercise. If it were down to me I would write about every act here at great length; especially the weirder, more local sounds. Noises that don’t fit, noises that are awkward, ill-shaped, surprising, underdeveloped. For now, keep an eye on young lunatic Slovakians 52 Hertz Whale, whose shuddering fully-amped racket is like watching an ocean liner being assembled by robots. Young Slovenian harpist ZveN’s tantalising and beautiful music is worth your time too, as is that made by the fascinating if unnerving All Strings Detached, whose dark chanson leaves gaping holes for the audience to stumble into. Serbian rap crew Zicer Inc. brought Belgrade’s good time vibe to the festival and Poland’s xDVØNx were beyond magnificent; brewing up a clashing, Coil-style electronics and a glitterbeat that felt at once incredibly futuristic and as old as the noises seeping out of Silbury Hill.

One new noise that has captured a lot of peoples’ attention recently is that made by Black Country, New Road. What to make of them? Speaking as someone who now lives on foreign shores it’s a fascinating exercise seeing gig-going expectations about British music confounded by a new – however fleeting – musical reality. Britain’s weirdness is a cultural optic that is needed now more than ever. And it’s about time the memory rhythms of British pop music are once again reset and remodelled. Only then can we stop boring the continent with reheated musical myths.

The band’s stop-start, sinister-but-sensual vibe draws from many things, and I’ll wager they are the latest point in a previously under-noticed sonic highway that was reopened by the likes of Mica Levy and These New Puritans, a decade or so before. For older types like me, a rope bridge is also (unwittingly) thrown back to the likes of Henry Cow, Comus and other addled hippie loons whose vibe found later expression through the likes of Current 93 or the Family of God. On the evidence of this gig, where the band’s gloriously cussed and clever music split the audience between fervent believers and baffled naysayers, a realignment process is underway. Black Country, New Road were mesmeric, annoying, and in possession of an unblinking third eye that beamed menacingly, like one of Sauron’s Watchers, on the Channel Zero crowd. More.

Neighbours Burning Neighbours photographed by Katja Goljat

Two other acts need to be talked about, namely Freistadt Gdansk’s Trupa Trupa and Rotterdam’s Neighbours Burning Neighbours. Trupa Trupa are a very moreish rock band boasting undoubted skill and killer songs, who trade in a mix of Weimar cabaret, brutal math rock and frazzled psychedelia. Despite seeming to pay an updated libation to the greats of the canon, there is something very un-rock about them. They also seems to be there in front of you but not there; a sensation that has unnerved every audience I have seen them play to. Singer Grzegorz Kwiatkowski obviously enjoys this tension, his pre-song monologues used to both invoke a sense of future-past and a feeling of remove. Is he being ironic? Maybe. I wonder if Trupa Trupa are classic rock’s undertakers, every gig carrying the coffin reverently to its final resting place. Playing the city’s castle they seemed intent on creating an unearthly rumble (helped a lot by some booming bass and very strange samples), and charming out old memories embedded in the stone walls. They are a fascinating act.

Other unexpected rock noises are coming out of Rotterdam, courtesy of Neighbours Burning Neighbours. They are four individuals who look as if they’re not actually in a band, but nevertheless couldn’t really exist as anything other than Neighbours Burning Neighbours. The music they make is a heady, supercharged amalgam of post rock and post punk with a twin vocal attack that sounds at once mysterious and incredibly vulnerable. And something about the relationship between the rhythm section and guitar runs is, on this night, very reminiscent of the Bunnymen in their imperial phase. In a sweaty, increasingly delirious Gromka, Neighbours thunder through their set, their message howled out over grinding chord changes and clattering beats. Frustrations with the world are channeled and laid out for inspection, but, like a reading of Norse runes, not fully explained to the attendees; something which makes the music all the more tantalising to experience. Perhaps the Neighbours Burning Neighbours gig is the one that reflects back on MENT in a wider sense; namely a growing, slightly elusive, but incredibly enlightening experience that demands full and true engagement with those present.

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