For the thrilling stuff that sometimes doesn't make it to British shores
In the five years since its establishment, MENT Festival has gained a reputation of one of Europe’s most significant showcases – unconcerned by hype and far more likely to get it right by showcasing the weirdest, most thrilling acts (acts that seldom make it to British shores and, for the depressingly obvious political reasons, are unlikely to in the near future). Why does MENT have a track record of getting it so right? For one thing, Ljubljana is particularly well situated, a rare outpost that’s easily accessible for acts from Northern Europe, the Balkans and Russia alike. Crucially, though, it’s the festival’s bookers who genuinely make the event what it is, having their tentacles in the underground scenes of all of the regions mentioned above.
It’s because of this that you can find yourself in Ljubljana’s Kino Šiška watching a performer who feels, to all intents and purposes, a star – exactly how I felt about halfway through watching Moscow’s Интурист / Inturist. The music is taut and tightly-wound – think Lizzy Mercier Descloux or James Chance – and clean-cut frontman Jenya Gorbunov echoes the music’s nervousness, twitchy like David Byrne with a similarly charismatic onstage presence. It’s incredibly exciting, and his band features various luminaries from across Eastern European underground music, notably Glintshake’s drummer Alexey Yevlano, On-The-Go’s bassist Dima Midborn and ТОПОТ/RIG saxophone player Sergei Khramtcevich. In their amalgam of punk funk and free jazz saxophone, you could be listening to the latest Speedy Wunderground banger. Perhaps, they should be the next Speedy Wunderground banger.
One of two UK acts performing at the festival is Kamaal Williams, the bookers wisely shining a light on the UK’s continuing new jazz moment. Williams, an understated presence on keys, makes music that sits at the point where jazz, Afrobeat, hip-hop and hard funk intersect – almost exactly the unique combination that makes today’s London jazz scene so exciting. Listen to the impossible yearning of sax player, or the cosmic lounge hinted at in Williams’ keys – the breaks alone, heavily inspired by hip-hop, anchor Kamaal in the contemporary.
Cabaret – in all its artifice, its fusion of the high and the low – has often been a response to tumultuous political times, and this is something that’s drawn upon heavily by Dakh Daughters. Dakh Daughters are seven actresses who use music and performance to explore the biggest of themes: history, poverty, war, crucifixion, family. There are moments of immense poignancy – lyrics based on classical Ukrainian poetry delivered over slow droning viola – and moments of lightness that use fragments of popular hits as a way of exploring the past. It’s a mesmerising, politically sharp performance – some of the reference points may be lost in international audiences, but there’s a universality to the overall effect that captivates at MENT.
In an old cinema in the centre of the city, Bolt Ruin sits in front of a silent, utterly hooked audience, sipping from a can as he generates the most apocalyptic sounds we hear this weekend. The Belgian artist specialises in a concept-heavy form of electronica that shares much of its DNA with Tim Hecker, even with the sonic totality of Blanck Mass. There are complex labyrinths of echoes and tape loops, as well as field-recorded textures, Burial-esque fractured rhythms and barely-there samples. Across a forty-minute set that’s lifted mostly from his self-titled debut LP (released in March on Amenra’s Consouling Sounds) the dismantled club beats are accompanied by ominous, grey clouds of washing synths. He even pulls out a Les Paul guitar at one point, though it sounds absolutely nothing like a Les Paul guitar. There’s plenty more where this came from too: the Croatian artist and multi-instrumentalist Tena Rak performs in Ljubljana Castle (one of the best venues of the festival) with a Broadcast-esque showcase of glitchy, fractured folktronica. It can be headachey and tortured, or it can have genuine soaring pop moments. The psychedelic shoegaze of Gnoomes has for some time garnered an audience over in the UK, and though the extent to which they’re innovative may be up for debate – how far do they deviate from the template set down by Michael Rother in the ‘70s? – they’re still a captivating live act, heavy with glacial electronics and titanic discord when they’re at their most propulsive and exciting.
French jazz-and-electronica-influenced Cheap House similarly are contemporary and genuinely fantastic, bringing to mind the cosmic, club-influenced London acts like The Comet is Coming. One track even seems to ape traditional Jewish klezmer music, something that’s also been appropriated by Black Country, New Road. Having followed this group closely since the release of debut single ‘Athen’s, France’, it’s a thrill to be in a packed Slovenian club watching an international audience sing the riff to that very single. And to ‘Sunglasses’. We’re overdue a new BC,NR single, and the unreleased tracks aired tonight continue to suggest that the enigmatic, unnerving onstage presence of Isaac Wood is that of the most talented young lyricist in Britain. If BC,NR had just him, they’d be a great band; if they had just their astonishing set of musicians, they’d be a great band; that they have both means we’re exceptionally lucky.
If you’re looking for more of the intelligent art-pop with which Black Country, New Road occasionally flirt, then Bernard Eder isn’t a bad place to start. The group are clad in matching clothing, and Eder has by this point worked in music, theatre and film soundtrack for over a decade – a fierce pop instinct illuminated with piercing synths, organ and the woozy electronica of Air. One song sounds like New Order, and there’s another track that’s about George Best (“El Beatle”). Similarly pop-focused, Berlin’s People Club (pictured top) are a delight: blue-eyed soul that touches on sexism, addiction and anxiety, it’s broad brush primary colours optimism in the mould of the Go! Team, a much needed tonic at the start of the current decade and clearly amassing a strong fan base in Eastern Europe.
MENT is an astonishing festival and a crucial part of the Eastern European alternative nexus. It should shame us that forthcoming visa changes mean that something like this will be increasingly impossible in the UK, but it continues to inspire what is being made possible in Ljubljana right now.
Photos: courtesy of festival. MENT Festival, various venues, Ljubljana, 5-7 February 2020.