Next Stop Kosmos – Tallinn Music Week 2021

Richard Foster encounters the new and the unusual at Tallinn Music Week, "a festival that encapsulates all that is forward-thinking and unexpected in music and the arts"

Mart Avi courtesy Tallinn Music Week

“Get off at the Kosmos stop.” This is how one finds Mart Avi in Tallinn, should you ever need to. It could also be a set of instructions for Tallinn Music Week, a festival that encapsulates all that is forward-thinking and unexpected in music and the arts.

Tallinn Music Week has always tried to map out a better future through music and creative friendship. This year, it is noticeable that the pandemic has sharpened attitudes: new networks are being forged in real time, and there is demand for new faces and voices. The urgency is palpable. Talk is of building a sustainable future not begging for crumbs from Spotify.

Shamingly – or encouragingly – for us Brits, there is open consensus that pan-European creative alliances are needed more than ever. Kosmos – the Estonian word for space – is also one that can easily be associated with the country’s electronic music; stratospheric sounds have been forged by the modern classical rebels of the 1960s, Sven Grünberg’s kosmische theatrics on the cusp of the 1980s and this century’s electronauts such as Kiwa, Anni Nöps and Hendrik Kaljujärv.

Unsurprisingly, Tallinn Music Week is stuffed full of variations on this musical style, including a stunning premiere of a weeklong international residency called ‘Themes For Great Cities: Tallinn’, the work of Jonas Kaarnamets and Erki Pärnoja, Mew’s Jonas Bjerre and American musicologist Alex Maiolo. There is room for a slew of properly “out-there” Latvian, Russian and Italian acts, too.

The festival is also known for picking surprising locations for its showcases. Tallinn seems to be full of joints that magically appear like the spaces found at the other end of Mr Benn’s costume shop.

Uus Laine (which translates as New Wave) is one; an intriguing venue behind the station that hosts the brilliant Heaven’s Trumpet label showcase of wyrd Estonian electronics on the closing night. A renovated shack that smells like a sauna, Uus Laine boasts a seedy bungalow ranch style including “kosmische” toilets with painted galaxies and vintage pictures of doubtful provenance.

The bar sells (and I quote the laidback barman) some “cucumber herb liquor shit”. A gigantic glitterball, whose tik-tok sometimes intrudes into the ambience, and a large green elephant’s head complete the scene. New Wave it is not; but I can imagine Bryan Ferry owning it. It’s groovy.

First up and setting the tone for the whole night is local maverick Roland Karlson. We are expectant as we’ve already spotted an elegant longhair who has brought along a homemade placard. Amongst the drawn hearts and emojis nestles a simple message: “We love you, Roland”. Roland lives up to the love with an all-too-short twenty minute set full of strange about-turns and intriguing sonic puzzles. His music is best described as an exciting set of ‘Zuckerzeit’-style non-pop; proto-rave glitches and blurts that refract, shatter and reform into new hybrids.

Following Roland is Vera Vice, a brand new duo who play some of the strangest, simplest electronic pop I have heard in years. Dressed austerely in black and white, Vera Vice build up a slightly atonal, velvety hum that has the crowd in a woozy thrall. It is sexy non-music, consisting of sloth-like hooks and arch but weirdly comforting vocals. At times there is a definite sinking quality, as if we are being lowered by lift into a subterranean space, or sitting in a submarine, listening to depth charges. The two women, serene and unmoved by glitterball or elephant, patiently apply themselves to their task. Amidst the silences we are told that some songs are “very long” and “very slow”. Even the breakdown of the final “long” song (attempted twice) just makes things better. On this evidence, Vera Vice are very, very good.

Then a glorious surprise; a six piece known as Eesti Elektroonilise Seltsi Ansambel play tracks from Sven Grünberg’s glorious 1979 LP, Hingus. This gig signals an abrupt change of tone from icy, digital bleeps and blurts to full on romantic synth swells. According to the great soundscaper Ekke Vastrikk, (one of the Ensemble), the music had to be rescored from the record, which accounts for the players reading from sheet music whilst firing up their vintage synths. Hingus is akin to a sacred text for many in the country, and a rapt audience literally drinks this symphonic widescreen music up and lies prone, in thrall to the suitably 70s set of animations that flicker beneath the elephant head. It is a fabulous dip into a future-past, resonant of how the country has changed these last 50 years; especially given the closing piece from the film score, ‘Dead Mountaineer’s Hotel’. A triumphant show.

We quickly catch some of Estonian electro artist legend Kiwa’s “pop-animist” weirdness (best described as Anselm Kieffer’s woodcuts made sound) and run over to the “Üle Heli and Skaņu Mežs Night”; another showcase featuring cable and keys. Again, this is held in the most unexpected setting, Winkel, a cave-like space located deep in the touristic Old Town. The place has a beautifully renovated Upstairs Stage (grey painted wood and austere Baltic vibes) and a low-ceilinged stone cellar which resembles West Kennet Longbarrow, albeit with booze on tap.

The cellar’s walls are initially tested for thickness by Italy’s L’ímpero della Luce, who lay down a set that sounds like a pair of barrage balloons talking to each other in a quiet moment. Bleeps and whirs and scratchy passages were given a strong grounding with an unearthly thrum. Upstairs, yet another Estonian electronic wizard, Sander Saarmets, plays cuts from his new record. A brilliant exponent of glitchy electronica, Saarmets is a professorial type who has a very precise way of switching cables and turning the dials of his instruments. This allows for a surprisingly graceful set, despite the regular eruptions of atonal noise and chopped up half-beats. A further contrast is given by the brilliant Russian duo Tonoptik in the cellar. One was wearing what looks like a black lacquer lamp shade as a hat, the other is a longhair recently escaped from a Glastonbury convoy. The one with the hat makes strange alien noises into a mic and channels them though a beat box of sorts, whilst the longhair makes the deepest of bass counterpoints, which range from pure droning throbs to a sub-rave tub thump. It is a brilliant and at times virtually indescribable noise.

Upstairs brings the sun to Tonoptik’s moon in the shape of Latvia’s Sign Libra, whose beautiful Mannerist pop charms all present. It could have been a bit monotonous soaking, as wave after wave of precise and melodic synth stabs, indecipherable warbles and a strong elfin vibe hit the audience. But there is a steely determination underpinning everything that stops the gig from being a soundtrack for a new age sauna and something more like a bastardised Talk Talk instrumental set.

Her fellow countryman m.a.t.a.d.a.t.a. looks to live up to his billing as “a manifestation of an energy from one of the parallel dimensions in the form of brain breakdance music” and maybe succeeded in shaking heads into other dimensions, though perhaps the cramped cellar makes everything too much.

Then time for Mart Avi, who rises from his sickbed to play the closing gig in the Upstairs room. Starting off with a kick at the mic stand and a pirouette, Avi charges through some of the cuts from his latest sparkling urban pop cavalcade, ‘Vega Never Sets’, and his new single, ‘Tides’, as if the hounds of hell are following him. Never less than uncompromising in the manner of laying out his audiovision, Avi is at times mesmerising; balancing dreamlike, almost loving attitudes and some hip-shaking, poptastic action that would not shame George Michael in his Imperial phase. At times the groove gets a bit tropical, a rumble that seeps from the stage like magma. One thing is noticeable, Avi’s choice of backdrop imagery (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Kurosawa films, the star Vega) are obviously the things that are going through his head during the gig. Glorious stuff. Time finally to watch +K+M+B, a green-hooded trio, who do inexplicable things to soundboards and unnamable, “folkish” instruments.

After this a number of diverse local musicians, writers, artists and layabouts pile out and jabber, reflecting on an incredible series of a dozen or so gigs in two utterly incongruous spaces. On this evidence, established and new alternative electronic music from Estonia, Latvia and Russia has an awful lot to offer.

Tанцуй под радио

“I play with my wife. Come and see.” The invitee, a shaven-headed tough, resplendent in a scarlet tracksuit, stares hard at me. Not the offer you would expect to get when standing on a porch backing onto a disused Chinese restaurant known as Kauplus Aasia. Thankfully this is an invitation to watch the legendary Petersburg deejay duo and married couple Tema Dobrota and MaryMary (aka Masha Pavlikhina), who run that city’s Kruzhok club and are hosting the Kruzhok Versus Import night. I’ve taken refuge here after being shaken up by the twin Telecaster sludge attack of Finland’s Boar in the gloriously naughty Sveta Bar and being handed my eardrums on a plate courtesy of some glorious post-metal doom from Norway’s Dwaal at the legendary metal venue, Von Krahl.

Strangely, I find myself the only person in Kauplus Aasia for at least an hour. This is madness, as we get everything you could term party fun. To begin with there is a beautiful bubblegum cavalcade of sounds from Dimka Batarin and Gggaaaf from Petersburg’s brilliant fuzz pop band, Tapenight. The pair set up a gloopy, chewy, fizzy Nuggets-style set that traverses pop, rave and partyhead cuts. It is akin to watching the brightly painted horses on a merry go round.

Following that Igor Litvinov (aka Igorelle), who runs the ITALLIKA party series in “St. Pete”, sets up a mesmerising set of Italo and synth pop that threatens to lay waste to this dour building, audience or not. People slowly start to trickle in, noting the smart switches between tough electro and fancy-pants Italo, a souped-up car of sound that is able to pull the most outrageous stunts. The scene is now set for MaryMary and Tema Dobrota. To say this is a beautiful experience would be understating things: I am on the verge of tears. The couple play music like it is part of their everyday, ongoing conversation; dovetailing matters beautifully, somehow intimate and tender in their exchanges on the decks. And all the while MaryMary’s predilection for mashing vintage Russian electro pop into new shapes is balanced out by Dobrota’s quasi “doof-doof” beats and deep bass passages. A press of people, increasingly intoxicated, crowd round the decks, hollering them on; the sizable Russian diaspora and Petersburg partyheads going wild to a mix of nostalgia and the couple’s utter disdain for the trappings of deejaying. At one point Tema, resplendent in red and beshaded, jumps up and raps frenetically. Things go wild. After all of this, the scene is sent into another giddy stratosphere with Petersburg scenester Zavvi Diski, who plays a beautiful, warming pop-karaoke set, where howling in Russian is an integral element.

More Russian joie de vivre is found on the Saturday with a blasting gig from Petersburgian trio Oligarkh, whose operatic deconstructions of party music (ranging from classical, new age, nu-folk, rave and house) threatens to teleport the audience to a scene straight out of Spirited Away. The last word, though, should go to SADO OPERA’s Katya Kov, who plays a stunning set in the weekend’s party central and supreme hang, Sveta Bar.

Kov rattled through a number of 80s classics in the way that brilliant deejays are able to, making old tracks sound both utterly new, different and yet incredibly comforting. The spirit of Whitney and Rozalla is pumped like insulin into our withered souls. Kov, high-kicking and coming on like a flapper dancing on the tables at a 20s Berlin speakeasy, gives true emotional content to a brilliant communal experience. After that, there is time to catch the last snippets of a fabulously committed groove laid down by Tromsø’s Charlotte Bendiks at Kauplus Aasia, and more excited chats with the Estonian electro mafia. Oh, and dealing with a mass evacuation at 05:30am from the hotel due to a fire alarm being set off. Variety is the spice of life, and Tallinn Music Week has it in spades.

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