It’s the early hours of Saturday morning in downtown Tallinn and having been summoned over to sample the exotic delights of Estonian music we’re now well into our second hour of Depeche Mode songs, in front of a large Depeche Mode poster, in the Depeche Mode bar.
This curious monument to Essex’ foremost industrial electro-rock outfit may be as empty as Dave Gahan’s soul (late-eighties vintage) but is also nicely indicative of this city’s uniquely quirky charms. Capital of a former Soviet republic, it’s one of the most technologically-advanced locations in the world – pretty much the whole town is a wi-fi hotspot – while also teeming with majestic old medieval buildings, many of which have had gig venues carved into them.
These musical hotspots are now awash with wristbanded folk as it’s the second annual Tallinn Music Week, a beautifully-managed showcase featuring the best, most promising and just downright wonkiest talents in Estonia (and a few neighbours). Even the country’s president, in his opening address, suggests that “what is considered alternative music elsewhere, here is definitely part of the mainstream.” Nice bowtie, too.
We begin at Mustpeade Maja with Maria Minerva, a chirpy young singer accompanied by a surly-looking bloke who could well be her sulky younger brother, forced to join in by their parents. He provides a varied array of beats but also a great surge of feedback halfway through which puts Minerva off her stroke. She’s shaky but ploughs on regardless.
This is pretty much her first ever gig, apparently, and that’s a theme for the weekend – a number of acts new to the stage and a lot more who’ve been banging away for years and are still half-hoping to have fame thrust upon them, but, hey, aren’t going to get all stressed about it.
Antonina are also in the former camp, having only traded up from duo to trio in November. They play earworm-inducing Europop which even the official program describes as “overly pop-sweet” and sport equally jaunty outfits, notably the guitarist who has fashioned his suit from an old tablecloth. A packed crowd seem to dig it but if this is your cup of tea you must take, ooh, nine or ten sugars in it.
Tallinn is lovely but also a bit of a maze, hence we get hopelessly lost and manage to miss the intriguingly Japanese-influenced electronica act Shirubi Ikazuchi, playing at a downtown metal club. We do then stick around for the less-heralded Freakangels though, as they certainly have a look going on.
Elaborately attired, their frontman is rocking an excellent Marilyn Manson-esque make-up job and what look like black binliners up his arms, which I initially assume are to mask the self-harming scars. As his two similarly-sinister bandmates crank out their intro, however, he stands slightly nervously stage-left and gets a ‘good luck’ peck on the cheek from the missus before sauntering on to gurgle at the crowd in an otherworldly fashion over a wall of classic industrial techno while several Dita Von Teese-alikes whoop it up down the front. Sweet.
Back at the curious Mustpeade Maja (which must have the largest pillars of any venue in Europe, blocking the stage for about two-thirds of those present), the fun-loving Rubik have made the short jaunt from Helsinki, albeit without their regular brass section. No matter; they may look like lumberjacks who’ve been lost in a Finnish forest for several decades but after seven years honing their craft this energetic collective manage to be both refined and ramshackle and, quite possibly, ready for the big leap forward.
You’ve gotta love that post-communism anything-goes Estonian ethos. Their version of the One Show finished early on Friday evening with a track by a band called Mimicry replete with numerous F-words, and this bolshy quartet also close out the evening at the largest central venue, Von Krahl. As the name suggests they aren’t massively original but have a lively singer in Kene Vernik and some pleasingly chunky beats.
Time for bed then? Ha! Estonia never sleeps. After that misjudged visit to the Depeche Mode bar we Tallinn virgins bounce back via a thoroughly entertaining set from Estonia’s top DJ, Quest, at the Balou club and are then spirited off to a late-night underground speakeasy called Levist Väljas. Translation? Out of Coverage, because you can’t get a signal down there. Being off-radar is clearly quite a novelty in these parts.
TMW has an accompanying seminar program and the highlight of Saturday afternoon’s talks is a Jukebox Jury-style affair in which four industry types chew over demo tapes from participating bands. Reactions range from pleasant surprise to downright horror, with a bit of gender confusion thrown in for good measure. What’s the panellists’ overall assessment? “Er, very varied,” ponders the slightly bewildered bloke from Rough Trade.
As the maker of any good tape knows, it’s best to start with something visceral to immediately grab the attention, but Estonian live venues take a different tack. Friday’s Tallinn-spotting begins with the cerebral sounds of the Weekend Guitar Trio, not to be confused with the Estonian Guitar Octet, Free Tallinn Trio and UUS Tallinna Trio who are also playing here.
The WGT consists of three middle-aged men making ambient music so minimal that many in the audience remain blissfully unaware that they’ve actually started. There’s a whole classical strand running concurrently with the poppier stuff, which the organisers have interspersed throughout the regular program, thus subjecting younger folk to a few stealth strings along the way.
The curiously-monikered Opium Flirt are another muso-led trio but definitely couldn’t be confused for a classical act, although they do throw every other genre into the mix, from prog-rock power chords to jazz-funk and back again. Tremendous stuff. Originally a slightly charisma-free duo, they’ve now been joined by the weird long-haired bloke from the Phones4U ad (“Yeah…! Yeah!”) who acts as frontman, occasional drummer and also manager. Who says men can’t multi-task?
A bit of a tactical error now: we miss Jurga, an electropop singer whose rather good CD was thrust upon us by an unfeasibly tall Lithuanian the previous day, and also Iiris, who’d gone down well at the demo session, to trek downtown for Badass Yuki, a teenage band who have been getting rave reviews from those in-the-know here. Perhaps it’s another case of on-stage inexperience but they underwhelm, particularly the over-earnest singer who veers toward the drearier side of Ian Curtis. Lighten up son, it might never happen.
Junk Riot are less popular with the Tallinn media types as they’ve apparently gone a bit off the boil since breaking big a few years back. True, they are openly derivative, but also clearly talented, cranking out hugely competent Foals and Arctic Monkeys-style riffs topped by a distinctively castrato frontman. They could be genuine contenders, if they can be bothered.
A couple of electronic outfits to finish the weekend festivities. Jesse are also from Finland and clearly cut from the same cloth as compatriots Rubik, personality-wise, with a nice line in hats and shades and an inability to keep still. This is rough and ready bastard techno and the chaps onstage are clearly enjoying it as much as the ones off it.
Fuck Yuo (sic) I Am a Robot are more reserved, despite the name. They follow the classic electro-duo blueprint of one outgoing bloke and his nerdy mate, and pump out some impressively heavy beats, despite looking like Estonia’s answer to Erasure.
Now an Erasure bar, that would be worth a look.
Words by Si Hawkins
Photos by Vasilis Panagiotopoulos