Sometimes, small really is beautiful, and Ljubljana’s MENT is that rare thing; a perfectly formed little gem of a festival that still feels grand and significant. In only four years it’s carved out a deserved reputation for excellence, from fans and professionals alike – not only was it was recently voted Best Small Festival and Best Indoor Festival at the EFA Awards in Groningen, but it’s also now generally regarded as eastern Europe’s main showcase event, a hub for bands to reach a wider audience and develop their careers.
Skewing towards the unknown
Spread over three days and a variety of venues – four of them in Metalkova, an old army barracks that’s been repurposed as a cultural heaven for artists of all kinds – the festival feels accessible in a way that’s rare these days. Aside from Kino Šiška and the conference hub of the M Hotel, everything is within walking distance; indeed, part of the charm of MENT is ease with which one can duck in and out of venues and spend more time enjoying actual music.
Aside for the opening night, which is headlined by two successful international bands – Algiers and Young Fathers – the lineup skews towards the unknown and a complete mix of nationalities, genres, and styles. No two bands are alike, and while many fall into broadly definable categories, each has their own twist to mark them out from the crowd. From jazz-infused post punk (Sheep Got Waxed) to experimental noise-rock (Hypochrismutreefuzz) via dub and sample heavy beats mixed with live drumming (Darla Smoking) and everything in between, bands here aren’t afraid to be bold or experimental, defiantly ploughing their own furrow.
Who to see then? There are several ways to navigate the schedule. One could be brave and go for bands with the strangest sounding names; Karpov Not Kasparov say, or Weed & Dolphins (or any of the three mentioned above). This approach might lead you to Eric Shoves Them In His Pockets, a delightfully charming Polish group who repurpose college radio indie and early 90s influences into feel-good, shimmering indie pop. Or to Serbia’s Dogs In Kavala, a noisey trio creating a sloppy blend of garage rock, psychedelia, and various –waves.
Alternatively, one can follow the tipsters, and listen out for who’s being talked up as future stars. Almost everyone we speak to implores us to see Glintshake, a band that’s impossible to pigeonhole and yet deliver on their promise. Shards of guitar and rolling drums combine with a mesmerizing theatricality to make them one of the most engaging bands of the whole event. It’s a similar story with Lucidvox, another Russian band talked about in awed tones. The all female quartet spin garage rock and shoegaze into a dark, pagan swamp of sound; there’s no other option but to surrender and sink right in.
Bonkers but brilliant
“Bonkers but brilliant” seems to be something of a speciality here, some bands pushing craziness so far that one can only applaud their efforts to pull it off. We pile into to watch Belgian loons Shht, an unsigned band from Ghent. “A runaway musical circus” says their local press, and they’re not wrong; there’s an unhinged quality to their left-field indie pop, the vocals warped and skewed through various effects boxes. Bare chested, the singer ends up dancing through the crowd, a look of dead-eyed seriousness on his face as insanity rages all around.
And then there’s fellow Belgians Hypochristmutreefuzz (seriously, these names!), who wear black and decorate the stage with fluoresecent light tubes. Listening to them is like being sucked into a black hole where Pere Ubu, The Residents, and Sonic Youth have coalesced into a hulking great riff-laden monster. “Neo-zunk” they call it, and it’s certainly a force to be reckoned with. Just as powerful are Czech quartet Manon Meurt, whose straight up dream pop and shoegaze is a delightful, hypnotic treat. Drenched in reverb, their tunes are achingly beautiful yet at times shatteringly loud, like a hazier My Bloody Valentine.
Re-affirming one’s faith in grassroots musical discovery
But MENT isn’t all about six strings and walls of noise. Mart Avi is a new breed of popstar who manages to look and sound distinctively retro while also pointing to the future. Something of an oddball, he’s certainly theatrical but has the nous to pull it off; “conceptronica” says one well-known critic. Mesmerising says us. It’s a similar story with Austrian supergroup 5K HD, who blend improvisational jazz with downtempo pop and dub into dark, dramatic swirls. A band not afraid to head off on abrupt tangents, there’s no doubting their musicianship and talent; persevere through their more challenging moments, and luscious melodies and stark beauty appear.
The two best bands we witness veer towards the more traditional end of the musical spectrum though. Dutch quartet Blue Crime blast every other guitar group away with razor sharp riffs and a barrage of noise and feedback. Epically melodic, there’s some super smart writing buried under the sonic maelstrom although the best approach is to simply let the waves of noise wash over you. More upbeat are Hater, Sweden’s answer to the wave of winsome indie poppers that have charmed the blogosphere in recent years. Their music is simply gorgeous; jangly guitars and irresistible charm winning us over from the off. It’s precisely the sort of discovery that makes this festival such a special event and re-affirms one’s faith in grassroots musical discovery. Most of these bands will be much bigger and better known one year from now; we’d be very surprised if that wasn’t also true for MENT itself.
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