Slovenia is an alpine country of forests and mountains with a population of just over two million, and its biggest musical export has to be LAIBACH, the avant-garde art collective who have been in operation since 1980 and are currently touring an idiosyncratic reworking of ‘The Sound of Music’.
As I ate strudel and spoke to Ivan Novak from the group in the depths of Ljubljana Castle, I wondered what kind of a country produced such an iconoclastic, influential and often hilarious act. One with a big heart and an inquisitive mind I imagined. Previously grouped together with other neighbouring countries as the former Yugoslavia; aside from the aforementioned ensemble however it is not particularly renowned as an international artistic epicentre. But as the relatively new MENT festival grows in stature, that reputation could start to change.
My second visit to the event and the charming city of Ljubljana, yet again I found the people to be friendly and welcoming, speaking perfect English throughout. My Slovenian includes basic counting, hello, please and thank you, which is vaguely embarrassing but not wholly unacceptable I suppose. Ljubljana itself has a certain majesty with its 15th century centrepiece castle and impressive Austro-Hungarian heritage, set against the more recent communist tower blocks and Soviet style functionality throughout the city.
MENT is a showcase festival and conference with an increasingly international outlook, and nowadays it means business. Without a corporate all-pervading music industry, as in the UK or USA, where tastes, trends and fashions are endlessly re-sold and re-marketed to a desensitised public; many central and eastern European artists don't seem to have such ridiculously high career expectations. They make music for the love of it, rather than some fictional zeitgeist and bland mass market. There's a sense of ambition, positivity and, dare I say, naivety often missing from the blasé ‘seen-it-all, done-it-all’ attitude of the west.
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With more and more showcase festivals cropping up across Europe, I'm sure if you had the necessary energy and appetite you could visit something every week. These days I try to pick and choose my moments more carefully. As a music nerd, I want something special and at MENT you can enjoy genuine diversity in music that includes a cross-section of punk, indie, rock, electronica, jazz, classical, folk, pop and hip-hop. Its philosophy and aesthetic however are derived largely from left of the dial and mainly alternative in spirit. As with other events like this anywhere else in the world, it’s impossible to see ALL the programmed acts, so everyone has a completely different and unique experience – mine certainly was.
Meticulously organised without any noticeable fuss and bother, its daytime schedule at the Kino Šiška cinema and arts complex hosted a solid line-up of panels, seminars and workshops aimed at musicians and audience as well as the business-minded. The conference started with a discussion entitled 'Listen to the listeners', immediately empowering those who actually buy music and attend gigs rather than the usual tired industry bores. Keynote conversations were had by Bob Van Heur, artistic director at ‘Le Guess Who?’ festival in the Netherlands, and Claire O'Neill of ‘A Greener Festival’ on helping to make festivals more sustainable.
Representatives from Spotify were on hand to explain how artists can further benefit from the hugely popular, but still highly controversial, streaming platform. Rod Jones, guitarist from Idlewild and producer at Edinburgh's Post Electric studio, talked about raising awareness for Mental Health within the music industry; whilst other seminars discussed diverse subjects such as women in music, touring in China and making revenue from music synchronisation in advertising and film.
As the conference morphed into the evening concert schedule, delegates and local gig-goers careered around town watching acts from all over Europe play in some spectacular settings such as Ljubljana Castle itself, the former Electricity plant Stara Mestna Elektrama and the squatted Metelkova complex, a scuzzy former military barracks taken over by punks, crusties and beat-freaks. With Iceland, France, Belgium, Germany and Spain, central and eastern countries such as Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia and Serbia all in attendance; the European project is certainly working on an artistic level, with inclusivity and multiplicity a joy to behold.
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Over the two nights I’m in Ljubljana, I absorb icy electronica from Isama Zing, a Slovak producer who makes soundscapes that encompass musique concrète, noise and traces of twisted dancehall; A. Fruit (aka Anna Fruit) is a superb young Russian producer who folds in slinky 2step with elements of dark dub and grime influences; while Slovenian duo Warrego Valles impress with their euphoric, technoid, glitch-mania on laptops and machines. Icelandic avant-pop pixie DJ Flugvel Og Geimskip lets rips with an audio-visual overload of DIY technicolour insanity, like some kind of lysergic, nightmarish children’s party. It’s almost too much for the senses!
I get my fix of unhinged punk rock from Charlie and the Lesbians, a feral four-piece from the Netherlands who warrant comparisons to hardcore heroes Black Flag and Flipper. There’s intense post-punk from a young French band Rendez Vous who are building up a homegrown following with their gang vocals, growling Goth bass-lines and spiralling guitar attack. It It Anita from Belgium inhibit the post-hardcore world chiselled out by the likes of Fugazi and Girls Against Boys, taking to the floor for the climax of their muscular and rather sweaty performance.
And if you’re looking for a weird new noise for your collection, search out Slumberland. Also from Belgium, they hypnotise with an industrial maelstrom of technology and tradition. Two drummers accompany main-man Jochem Baelus on sampler, loops, synths and guitars alongside recovered household hairdryers, sewing machines and film projectors strewn across a homemade wooden frame. The results sound like Nick Cave, Swans and the aforementioned LAIBACH with extra ambiance and polyrhythms in there for good measure.
Satisfyingly, Jazz is in abundance at the festival as well. I’ve found that music-lovers in Poland, Czech Republic and Slovakia are real modern-day aficionados… and it seems as if Slovenians are too. Many in the west often view Jazz as some kind of museum piece resigned to a bygone era; but to others it is a living breathing entity that informs new music structures, rhythms and melodies.
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German duo Ätna brought the perverted pop of The Knife but threw in jazz-flecked drum wig-outs. Manic Belarus accordionist Yegor Zabelov and Luxembourg's KLEIN are even further indebted to jazz, fusing it impressively with rock, electronics and classical textures.
Aside from those already mentioned, if you’re hunting for acts that could potentially crossover here, look no further than indie-pop combo, Shishi. An all-female Lithuanian trio who make ‘fun’ their number one priority and have the songs and chops to match. New album ‘Na x 80’ is effervescent from start to finish, and LIVE they conjure up memories of post-punk heroes Delta 5 and even the joyful, wonky riffola of Mac Demarco. It’s top-drawer DIY pop and could easily charm fans across the UK and America.
Perhaps the most accomplished act of the festival for me though, was French chanteuse, Jeanne Added. Already a star in her native country, she arrives onstage in Ljubljana Castle dressed all in black escorted by her sole drummer/keyboardist who creates the backdrop to her extraordinary voice and heartfelt performance. Bizarrely occupying a space between classic chanson and pulsating EDM, with the spirit of Elizabeth Fraser of Cocteau twins in those vocal chords, she sings a selection of songs from her albums ‘Be Sensational’ and the current ‘Radiate’. Unsure and unsteady at the start, she wins over the crowd and beams us a contented smile as her performance peaks. With assured success in France, global recognition could easily follow.
Those who say that modern music is complacent and that there is nothing new, cutting edge or provocative out there needs to make the effort and visit MENT. It's fresh in outlook and attitude and puts many homogenised, ‘on trend’ showcase events to shame. As we hurtle towards unknowns and uncertainties with Brexit and a post-EU Britain, on a personal level my heart breaks at the thought of separating from a family of like-minded nations with far more in common than not.
Architecture, language, food and music may differ, but that's exactly what's so fascinating about the vast and varied expanse that is Europe. The underlying desires, needs, passions and interests remain the same of course. We have so much to share and to celebrate. Spending time in Slovenia only goes further to prove that.
Much like the country itself, MENT is special – it is indeed a festival with real heart and an inquisitive mind.
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Words: Vic Galloway
Photography: Matjaz Rust, Nejc Ketis, Kaja Brezocnik, Ales Rosa
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