A superb visit to Petrovardin Fortress...

EXIT began as a rallying cry. A protest that was also a party, a reaction to the oppressive regime of the dictator Slobodan Milosevic. In the years that followed, it blossomed into what it is today – one of the biggest festivals in the European calendar (voted the best major European festival this year) welcoming around 200,000 troops through the doors of the Petrovardin Fortress, ready to go full throttle.

This year, fittingly, it celebrates freedom. And as anyone who walked its green fields would agree, it serves up the goods in spades. Spanning 20 stages across the enclosure of Petrovardin Fortress, built atop a cliff overlooking the Danube, EXIT is a little world of its own creation. The barricades keep the outside out, and the madness in.

Our merry band of stragglers wander over forest glades and cobbled streets, through a maze of tunnels and by riverside walls – armed to the teeth with wristbands and goblets of the potent No Sleep cocktail (pure Guarana rocket fuel, souped up with three different kinds of spirit) for four days of Defcon One festival going.

Because here, they go hard. There isn’t a day we get in before 9am, and that’s even without stamping our dance-cards at the legendary after parties – which run until at least mid-afternoon, for those committed to dancing away the blues.

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But first, the opening ceremony. Backed up by the Almazian Symphony, Serbian ballet dancer Sergei Polunin leads a motley crew of dancers in a rebellious expression of Serbia’s new identity.

Fever Ray’s the first act proper on the mainstage, and my god, it’s a gear shift. A celebration of gender fluidity and queered sexuality – Karin Drejier’s all-female band appear decked out in muscle- man suits and smeared lipstick, American football shoulders skewed by sequins. Their rendition of latest album, 'Plunge', isn’t a faithful playback – more a dark re-imagining, with 'Wanna Sip’s squall surging like an electrical current through the crowd.

From the sublime, to the ridiculous. Migos is a wash-out. The American hip-hop group are late. Very late indeed. Local DJs keep the crowd dancing, and there’s half an attempt at a hype man in the hour and a half that we wait. Is this in vain? And yet, with the puff of a smoke cannon and a blast of Versace, all is forgiven – if not forgotten.

At the dance stage, Carl Craig hands in a banging, stingingly sharp set. Splitting gospel into techno, he takes it to church – reminding us why clubbing is, to so many of us, something akin to religion.

And there’s no more venue more godly than this arena. With a sunken stage designed to help you take the view as well as the music, it’s the real beating heart of the festival, and it’s certainly where we spend most of our time. The programming is magnificient too – Ben Klock into Rohad, Tinman into Maceo Plex – and keeps our ears ringing pleasantly through the weekend. To take in the sunrise here for the first time, to the sound of Solomun’s 6am set, is to feel your heart grow two sizes and the scales fall from your soul.

To Nightclubbing’s cryptic bounce, glorious Grace Jones appears, resplendent in black and white body paint and a centurion’s helmet, a mere hour late. But Ms Jones works to a different clock and – after this set – we’re inclined to believe hails from a different planet. There’s a costume change and Phillip Tracey headpiece for almost every song, as her patter skitters between patois and cockney and a vague Transatlantic lilt.

Bolstered by the glass of red wine that she drains in a heartbeat, she segues into 'Love Is The Drug' – bringing a punky, twisted energy that Bryan Ferry, for all his fey posturing, never could. But this girl’s got soul as well as style, bringing a stunning purity to Amazing Grace, enshrined in her mother’s church robes. We don’t stay chaste for long. She chases it down with 'Pull Up To The Bumper', slick with sweat, joined by an Adonis of a male pole dancer in a duet dripping with sexuality. And she’s 70. Damn.

'Slave To The Rhythm’s strung out to a 12-minute slow-dance, as she hula-hoops seamlessly without missing a single beat. By the time 'My Jamaican Guy’s on, we’ve lost the plot. We’re not being cool – we’re being unreasonable, and we’re singing all the words at the top of our voices and acting them out too. But Grace Jones does things to people. She’s made out of magic, you see.

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Ofenbach are deceptively delicate things, but the energy they generate on stage is fucking enormous – churning out a dense wall of drum 'n' bass that we can feel in our molars. Clearly, there’s an appetite for a kick-drum here, proven when Matrix and Futurebound tear up the main-stage.

The real devil’s in the detail. As much as Exit’s famous for its sprawling expanse and majestic dance arena, it’s the smaller spaces that turn up the diamonds. Craft Street plays host to the tribute bands – Metallica and Arctic Monkeys, The Doors and Tom Waits. It’s a surreal delight to watch local Nick Cave fanatics Cave Dogs turn in a set of late album deep cuts.

A stumble through the forest takes us to Urban Bug. A woodland haven full of twinkling lights, it’s here we eavesdrop on the sound of young Serbia. They’ve got lovely line in thrumming back-to- backs, and Friday’s Tijana Kabic/NRB set spanks some of the bigger acts we see. Credit’s also got to go to Novi Sad No Sleep – a tucked-away techno bunker that sees Tijana T and the peerless Helena Hauff raising the best kind of hell. It’s typically where we end the night – fist raised, blissed-out, dancing away the pain.

Let’s face it, there’s a fair amount of guff on the bill – David Guetta and Martin Garrix just two of the headliners on a main-stage line-up concocted with commercial nous, and big crowds in mind. But Nina Kraviz, the last act, performs a ritual cleansing to wash away the EDM – serving up an industrial strength dose of no vaseline techno. There’s no sugar on this pill. And it goes down a treat. We came, we saw, we raved.

But let the final thought about EXIT come from the tour guide who showed us the story of her city, Novi Sad – the bullet holes scarring the walls of houses, the statues of its poets and its long fight for identity. “People began to arrive from all over the world, and the city began to change. We began to realise that we needed to start this, in order to see the beauty in the world again.”

Exit, you were full of wonder. And I thank you from the bottom of my heart.

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Words: Marianne Gallagher

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