It’s early evening in a gallery not far from the shopping district of Ljubljana. It’s snowing heavily outside, but inside it’s warm and noisy inside, as there’s a party going on. I end up trying to sell Ivan Novak my idea for the next Laibach album.
Yes, you’ve heard it right. Laibach is Slovenia’s biggest band – carrying the flag for their unique brand of ironic avant-garde-industrial-techno-rock-kunst for almost four decades. They play sold out shows all over Europe, they are signed to revered Mute label, they have recorded an album of national anthems once. Several years ago, they went and played a gig in North Korea – there’s a jaw-dropping documentary Liberation Day about that trip (if you haven’t seen it, you definitely should).
Ivan Novak is musical mastermind and creative driving force behind Laibach. Bumping into him at this event, I suddenly remember my great idea for the next Laibach record. I mean, the one I got the night before, and was quick to tell to my fellow scribes. Everyone thought it’s brilliant (or, more likely, just pretended to think so). It needs to be told, I’m a big Laibach fan. So, when I notice Ivan at this party, I figure out it’s my chance to get my name forever embedded in Slovenian art history. And maybe, dunno, get a co-writing credit. Or a free t-shirt. Or, at least, be told to f…k off.
“Wouldn’t it be great if, ahem, Laibach did a conceptual album, a techno opera about Melania Trump? You could call it… errr… Melania,“ I smile
Ivan gives me a peculiar glance. It’s a mixture of amazement (at least I think so) and “who is this idiot, and is he dangerous?” bemusement.
“Well, we could do it… But don’t you think she’ll be out of fashion by the time we do it?” he mutters.
That’s MENT festival in a nutshell. Everyone is approachable. You can easily bump into biggest and most important people of local music scene, it’s a small country. And no, don’t expect these people to get excited when they hear the First Lady of the United States (who was born in a small Slovenian town called Novo Mesto) being mentioned in a conversation.
“She never mentions Slovenia. But if you go to her home town, you can buy her cake. Well, it’s not her cake. But they call it Melania’s cake,” my taxi driver explains on the way from the airport.
Slovenians love their basketball (the men’s team won the European championship last year). They are also good at handball. This weekend, though, music is talk of the town.
Held for the fourth time, MENT is that rare beast – a music showcase festival and conference that actually gives you an opportunity to network effectively and see most of the bands. The schedule is convenient and not overblown. Several dozen acts from all over Europe are playing – lovingly hand-picked by festival’s team of music maniacs. Enough to satisfy your music hunger, but not too many, so after three days you don’t feel sad, having missed around 70 per cent of them (which happens a lot in bigger events of this kind).
The concert venues are brilliant, especially Kino Šiška (a bit further from the city centre), a funky looking cinema with two concert halls and a bar that serves gazillion sorts of beer. And, of course, Metelkova quarter (former military barracks) – a huge yard with a lots of street art, sculptures made of old bicycles, squatters wandering around, a punk rock/reggae bar where you’re not allowed to take pictures, and several club venues (literally 20-30 metres from each other) with sticky floors and 2-euro beer. Basically, a place that has “sex, booze and rock’n’roll” written all over it. Oh, and Stara Elektrarna – an electric plant turned into a concert hall, with a giant chimney and old machines creating a visual impression that Kraftwerk would surely approve of.
There’s also a lot of attention to detail. You can notice that even in the festival name. MENT rhymes with many things. AmazeMENT, amuseMENT, enjoyMENT, entertainMENT, the list goes on (see, what they did there). Every visiting band also gets a special souvenir concert poster, designed by a local artist – there’s an exhibition at Kino Šiška, and during the gigs, a small quantity for sale.
It’s a nice touch. But, then again, Ljubljana is a nice place. The centre is gorgeous – filled with cafes, clubs, bars and antique shops, with a magnificent castle overlooking the old town, it looks especially cosy when it snows. But I’m already waxing lyrical, like an old tourist, so let’s move on to music, shall we?
As most of the showcase festivals do, MENT hosts a conference. A chance for booking agents, music journalists, gig promoters and record label people to sit around the table and talk about whatever subject is on the menu that day (usually about the future of music business). It also features a couple of super stars – like American music industry veteran Seymour Stein (founder of Sire Records) who, at the age of 75, shows no sign of stopping. He gently refuses to tell anecdotes about his famous signings (that list includes Madonna and The Ramones), but confesses his love for old Russian tunes. Or Mary Anne Hobbs, a British music pundit who tells how she lived in a van for a year, trying to break into music business, and how you can play Nils Frahm on a popular radio show because it’s important to give such music exposure. Later that evening, she also plays a DJ set in a club.
When it comes to concert programme, MENT seems to have a penchant for punk, shoegaze and electronic music. There are also a couple of international headliners (presumably, to boost ticket sales for the first night) – Young Fathers and Algiers deliver passionate performances, however, in festivals like these, up-and-coming bands are in the centre of attention. And there’s plenty of acts to choose from.
The local scene, obviously, is vastly represented. MRFY are honest rockers with a good sense of humour (their flyer says one day you’ll tell your kids how you met their mum at this band’s gig) – with strong riffs and swagger, they do not disappoint.
I also dig Darla Smoking – a mysterious electronics-meets-drums (seems to be a hot formula these days) duo that includes ethnic music sounds in its frankly hypnotising performance. The story goes, these guys are well-known musicians, but choose to remain anonymous for this project, painting animals on the sleeves of their releases instead of showing their faces. That part actually sounds a bit silly, but whatever – I strongly recommend you check them out.
Futurski are four shy boys and girls with synthesizers. A bit too shy, in fact – they spend their performance looking like they’d rather be somewhere else. The music is great, however – reminds me of Technique-era New Order with a touch of Ladytron. Which is a good thing – when I get home, the boss of the radio station I’m working for immediately puts them on rotation.
There’s weird (punk cabaret Natriletne kolobarjenje s praho) and wonderful (electronic wizard Čunfa). There’s music for dancing (veteran DJ and label head Borka) and, erm, staring in front you (singer-songwriter Zala Kralj who seems to make an artistic point of singing in a totally emotionless way).
When it comes to guests from abroad, there are plenty of pleasures to be sampled. Lithuanians Sheep Got Waxed (I’m a bit biased, as they are from my home turf) have driven 26 hours to arrive in Ljubljana, but that doesn’t show. This trio perform their punk/rock/electronic/jazz hybrid with menace and humour and are rightly showered with praise from visiting international delegates.
Russians are here in full force – some of the memorable performances of the festival are, in fact, by artists from this country. Glintshake have been doing showcase festival rounds for quite a while – their post-punk influenced songs grab you by… ok, they really grab you. Lead singer Kate NV is charismatic, wild and theatrical – it’s interesting to see her next night, when she plays a solo set. Apparently, she’s also good at melancholy electro pop. Who knew?
Shortparis is another highlight – goth-electro-punk cabaret with lyrics in Russian and French, and a lead singer who looks and acts if he has just escaped a secret laboratory where some extreme tests are made with humans. It’s captivating and slightly disturbing stuff, especially if you happen to know Russian language and understand dark subjects of the songs. Noisy female psychedelic rock foursome Lucidvox also stands out from the crowd – if you’re a fan of dirty guitar sounds and DIY vibe.
Some of the performances are plain weird. Belgians Shhht deliver an unbelievable cover of Bohemian Rhapsody – mixing humorous choreography, electronics and rock circus (the lead singer looks like a man possessed). Freddie Mercury is rolling in his grave, but it’s all good fun.
From Belarus, Weed And Dolphins describe their music as cloud-punk. They have a lead singer who often sounds out of tune, but it seems that’s part of their artistic vision. He stares into the crowd like a long lost brother of Liam Gallagher. Oh, and there’s a surprise cameo from Latvian freak pop hero Elizabete Balčus – she steps on the stage to play the flute, dressed like a mermaid, with giant sea shells covering her breasts.
The most strange performance is by Sequoyah Tiger – experimental electronic music artist from Italy, who released a great album on well-known German Morr label last year. It’s basically a laptop performance with live vocals, but she also has a dancer on stage, throwing weird shapes, waving a flag, trying to to synchronised dancing. It’s Eurovision on very, very strong drugs.
Elsewhere, Croatians Chui perform infectious jazz that would sound great at a rave, Romanians Karpov Not Kasparov do their electronic pop thing with two female dancers dressed as chess figures, Austrians Mother’s Cake play a passionate set that proves they’re actually adopted sons of Angus Young and Iggy Pop.
Disciples of noise rock Blue Crime, from the Netherlands, also play an energetic set which explains why they’re one of the most talked-about up-and-coming bands at the moment – they’re frankly brilliant. Manon Meurt, from Czech Republic, proudly wear their My Bloody Valentine influences on their sleevs. Oh, and there are bagpipes – played by wildly energetic Estonian folk rock band Trad.Attack! who deliver one of the most rousing gigs of this festival.
One of the most interesting performances happens in front of a couple of hundred people, huddles in a lobby of Slovenian Etnographic Museum. Antropoloops is a Spanish multimedia project – an electronic mix of vintage sounds from all over the world, from Indonesia to Argentina. A mesmerizing listen, it’s also an app that shows record covers and geographical data on a big screen, in real time. It’s scientific, but in a very attractive way. If you have a chance, go and check it out.
And, of course, there’s Mart Avi – an oddball Estonian maverick who wears a trenchcoat, brings his suitcase on the stage, shows vintage visuals of NBA players and performs something that can be described as electronic version of Scott Walker tunes, but that’s only if you really, really must compare him to someone. Because, honestly, Mart is one of those rare artists who can be described as “different”. Blessed with deep baritone, he sings as if his life depends on it, and I stay till the end of his performance, although the usual code of conduct at these events is “two songs, then run and see something else”. It’s simply impossible to take your eyes (and ears) off him. Oh, and he does look like Ian Curtis, but don’t mention that to him – I hear that really pisses him off.
Ears still ringing with discoveries, I wonder into the snowy night of Ljubljana, Laško beer in my hand, full of joy. MENT is many things. But DisappointMENT is not one of them. Same time, same place, next year?
Check out MENT’s official report by Derek Robertson