The music industry may still be under the Anglo-American hegemony, but if you casually venture outside your comfort zone you may be surprised just what you find...
Last week I visited the picturesque Slovenian capital of Ljubljana for MENT. Now in its third year, the festival/conference not only attracts gig-hungry Slovene punters and local musicians to the party, but also sees international promoters, agents, bloggers, radio people and labels on the new-music discovery trail.
In my experience so far of Central and Eastern Europe, it’s an environment largely untouched by elitism, snobbery or the dreaded hand of the hipster; so when a festival is small and well-curated like MENT the hospitality makes you feel more like a guest than a delegate.
Ljubljana itself is lovely with a unique set of arts venues at Kino Siska, Metelkova and Stara Elektrarna; and with MENT’s attention to detail, scale and ambition, it was a quality experience for musicians and audience alike.
Unusually weighted in favour of guitar bands, I personally saw music from around a dozen different countries and the standard was always high. So here’s a Top 10 for y’all…
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As you might imagine, Slovenian acts were well represented on the bill, but Sirom most definitely stood out. Combining traditional acoustic influences, poly-rhythmic classical tropes, ancient eastern instrumentation, wayward improvisation and a disconnected, aloof air to their performance; they might be described as post-folk… if you dare! Judge for yourself with an album for the always excellent Glitterbeat label.
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I liked the name… which is always a good start. But when faced with a sartorially challenged trio of teenagers from the Netherlands playing dystopian post-punk, it could have gone either way. Thankfully the impossibly young but well-drilled trio were mightily impressive. With a tangible sense of contempt for their audience and a potential threat of danger onstage, Danish subversives Iceage, Scottish trailblazers Josef K and early Happy Mondays came to mind.
The guitarist’s combination of grey farah trousers, black turtle neck and white flip-flops just added to the anti-vibe! Look out for the debut album in early March on the Subroutine label…
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Having seen them three times previously, I knew roughly what to expect from Slovakia’s post-rock behemoths. The Ills deliver a muscular, instrumental rock with elements of shoegaze, metal and prog in the mix. Ethereal and gentle one minute, dark and chaotic the next; here’s a band to stand next to Red Sparrowes, Explosions in the Sky and Mogwai in depth and extremity. Add in an 8 string guitar and some incredible, tortured facial expressions from the bassist and you have a recipe for chin-stroking, head-banging success…
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You want brutal? You want extreme? You want loud? You want a singer who manipulates his voice with mad effects and spends most of the time in the audience? You want metallic soundscapes with scraping guitars and skronking synths? You want Shellac, Swans and Slayer in a blender? Well then, Belgium’s wild-man, post-hardcore and metal sociopaths Raketkanon are definitely what you want…
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Please The Trees
Band names a somewhat bewildering in the modern age, and you never know what you’re going to get. Czech Republic’s PTT apparently do plant a tree in every city they play, which can only improve upon their already dynamic, psychedelic, metronomic drone-rock. Taking influence from the past-masters of the 60’s, 70’s & 90’s and turning the volume up, they have already toured the UK, Europe, USA and Israel and look set to continue. Watch out for your eardrums… they were intense in Menza Pri Koritu!
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Hungary was definitely well organised at MENT with various acts playing and a large support network from the country spreading the word, as well as delicious slices of strudel and glasses of palinka! But on my Friday night scramble around the squat-club complex of Metelkova, I was genuinely taken aback by a young female-fronted punk band of theirs called Gustave Tiger. Coming across like surly teenagers from early 80’s Los Angeles, they brought to mind X and the Alice Bag Band with hints of Dead Kennedys’ surf and Sonic Youth’s noise. I thought they had huge potential, especially when you hear the polished single ‘Thermidor’…
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MENT showed once again that the new frontier of rock’n’roll is no longer a boys’ club. It was great to see so many women up-front and in your face with talent, confidence and sack-loads of ideas. Croatia’s Zen are three stylish girls playing stadium-sized shoegaze and drone-rock with nods to Spacemen 3, My Bloody Valentine and The Cure. Their set was watertight, melodic, heavy and accompanied by unrelenting, psychedelic visuals only adding to the mind-meld and pleasing disorientation. They’ve just joined the superb Ljubiljana label Moonlee Records, so watch this space…
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I know very little of Russia’s emerging alternative music landscape, but judging from this band it could be extremely fertile. An explosive mix of Frank Zappa, surf twang, Krautrock, shoegaze and Canadian jazz-punk legends NoMeansNo, Spasibo weren’t short of ideas, energy or musicianship. I was even tempted into the mosh-pit for a singalong and a wee jump! Hitting the Channel Zero venue on Friday night, good times were had onstage and off…
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Persons From Porlock
Maybe the Slovenian act with the most ‘crossover’ potential right now are Persons From Porlock. Not only were was their ‘Things People Don’t Like’ album voted 2016 best by local Student Radio in Ljubljana, but their hooky mix indie, goth and post-punk is excellent LIVE as I witnessed in front of a bouncing local crowd. Their newest track ‘Bad Fanfiction’ is probably their best yet too…
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As well as all the music showcase gigs in the evenings, MENT put on a huge conference with a range of music-related panels, workshops, seminars, networking and talks. Kevin Cole from acclaimed radio station KEXP and Jonathan Poneman from Sub Pop Records took part - both Seattle-based, bizarrely. As well as writing this piece and playing highlights on my BBC shows I too sat on a ‘listening session’ panel checking various acts appearing at the event, some of whom I’ve mentioned here.
It felt like I was genuinely involved in some helpful, constructive criticism for an open-minded set of musicians, managers and promoters. Having attended Pohoda in Slovakia and Waves in Vienna as well as MENT, I now see how they could all teach the UK and thing or two about meticulous organisation and high production values.
The truth is that when you travel a little off the beaten track, not only do you regularly find superb bands doing their own individual thing, but friendly welcoming folks running the show too. MENT was a total blast…
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Vic Galloway presents on BBC Radio Scotland at 9pm Mondays & 11pm Thursdays www.bbc.co.uk/vicgalloway
You can also hear him regularly on BBC 6Music.
Vic’s book ‘Songs in the Key of Fife’ is published by Polygon: http://www.birlinn.co.uk/Songs-in-the-Key-of-Fife.html
Contact Vic at http://www.twitter.com/vicgalloway