Ljubljana. Capital city of Slovenia whose population of just over a quarter of a million people accounts for more than 10% of the nation’s inhabitants. Once known as Laibach, a name perhaps more widely associated with being Slovenia’s most famous musical export. It’s a city steeped in history and tradition where tourism is currently rivalling the manufacturing industries of pharmaceuticals and food processing as the country’s fastest growing economic sector.
Having only gained independence as recently as 1991, it’s development in such a short space of time has seen many changes to its infrastructure, most notably in the capital city. While Ljubljana Castle stands out impressively above the rest of the city, its medieval foundations proving a grandiose sight overlooking all that surrounds it, parts of Ljubljana have undoubtedly become homogenous to the more western desires of its closest neighbours. With its closely aligned borders to Croatia, Italy, Hungary and Austria – all reachable within a couple of hours by road – there’s a definite European feel to its backdrop. Having become a member of the European Union in 2004 and therefore embraced the Euro as its main currency unlike some of its closest allies before independence, Slovenia is buzzing right now even if not all of the locals would necessarily agree.
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Indeed, one long serving inhabitant who wishes to remain nameless describes it as ”Having lost its identity since becoming independent”, instead claiming it to be”imitating Berlin” whilst still falling ”under the spell of Russia.” yet these observations seem a million miles from our experiences here as traditional eateries and bars nestle gracefully alongside a multitude of second hand bookshops and thrift stores. Food and drink are ridiculously inexpensive here with meat and potato dumplings (or “Idrijski žlikrofi” as their traditionally known) proving the most popular form of sustenance in Ljubljana’s many ornately decorated restaurants. We even encounter a fast food café called [Hot Horse](http://www.hot-horse.si/), which specialising in all kinds of dishes made from – yep, you guessed it – horsemeat. Situated next to the unfortunately named Lumpi Park, a miniature fairground aimed at 4-12 year olds, it’s a unique and actually delicious experience provided you weren’t enamoured with My Little Pony throughout adolescence.
Local beverages range from the lightly brewed Union lager which forms part of the Laško brewery empire to the more exorbitant likes of Rakia, Pelinkovic and its sister drink Pálinka, the latter imported from Slovakia. All of which contain alcohol ranging anywhere between 50 and 80% proof and ultimately, stronger (and more lethal) than anything this stomach has ever encountered previously.
Add an array of beautiful architecture and breathtaking scenery in and around Ljubljana’s main city centre and there’s little wonder so many overseas visitors are flocking to Slovenia’s undeniably alluring capital. Tourist attractions aside, Gigwise is here for the 4th edition of MENT Ljubljana, now widely considered as Eastern Europe’s main showcase event for new music. Having recently won both Best Small Festival and Best Indoor Festival at last month’s EFA (European Festival Awards) ceremony in Groningen, MENT is well and truly on the map.
Which is a startling achievement for an event that only opened its doors for the first time in 2015. Organised by the city’s Kino Šiška, a multi-purpose space billed as Ljubljana’s Centre For Urban Culture and mostly staffed by volunteers, MENT is at the forefront of a growing number of showcase events (See also Focus Wales, Tallinn Music Week and Vienna Waves among a steadily building group of others) primarily focused on the musical rather than business side of the industry. While the Kino Šiška and its adjoining M Hotel act as a hub for the festival throughout the daytime schedule of conferences, meetings and keynote speakers, it’s the Metelkova over the other side of Ljubljana that plays host to the majority of the evening’s live music programme. Formerly a military barracks for the Slovenian division of the Yugoslav national army before becoming inhabited by squatters after the country gained independence, it’s gradually become a haven for artists, musicians and designers. Housing a total of seven buildings, four of which (Channel Zero, Menza Pri Koritu, Gala Hala and Klub Gromka) serve as live music venues over the course of the festival. Venturing further afield but all within a short walking distance are the intimate Orto Bar, a traditional live music venue that regularly hosts shows from every musical genre you’d care to name to the Stara Mestna Elektrarna, an old power station until being renovated in the 1980s and Slovenska Kinoteka, the city’s main cinema that’s instantly recognisable by the two huge flags (one depicting the Slovenian national emblem, the other proudly displaying the EU emblem) that adorn its main entrance.
Over the course of MENT’s three days, a cross section of paying punters will rub shoulders with music industry delegates from all over Europe where any kind of elitism is left firmly at the door. If most of the bigger showcase events rely on a hierarchical pecking order, everyone here is treated equally. Every venue is packed to the rafters for each performance Gigwise witnesses, and more importantly, there’s an absolute treasure trove of talent encountered.
Perhaps the most heart-warming aspect of MENT’s programming is the dearth of obviously commercial acts on the line up. Instead we’re confronted by an array of leftfield artists, bands whose existence was unashamedly inspired by the likes of Cabaret Voltaire and Einsturzende Neubaten, rather than Coldplay and Elbow. Such as Lithuanian trio Sheep Got Waxed for example, whose jazz-infused (and mainly instrumental) post-punk falls somewhere between the outlandish avant garde of the aforementioned and frankly impossible to categorise nuance of Blurt and Pere Ubu.
Russian outfit Glintshake borrow from a similar era, their short sharp attack packing a punch not unlike a modern day Siouxsie Sioux fronting Entertainment period Gang Of Four. Possessing in their myth a bonafide star in the making in the shape of formidable singer-cum-guitarist Katya Shilonosova who also chooses to sing in her native tongue rather than English, they’re an exceptional (not to mention musically tight) live experience who will almost certainly be gracing new territories before long. The following evening she’ll play another show in her solo guise (Kate NV) once again captivating all those present.
Serbian trio Dogs In Kavalva are another band whose influences are clearly defined by western sounds yet still manage to create a unique sound of their own. Some songs reference Black Lips frenetic garage rock, others the west coast melancholy of Allah Las. Close your eyes and the blissed out shades of Diiv or early Beach Fossils seep through from Srdjan Jeremic’s guitar. What’s most astounding is they’re barely two years old yet having only formed in their native Belgrade over the Easter of 2016.
Sticking with the Balkan territories, Weed & Dolphins sound like an amalgam of every band that graced Sarah and Cherry Red Records towards the tail end of 1980s. Which wouldn’t be so eye opening if they weren’t from Belarus. Their set veers from the sublime to the ridiculous on more than one occasion yet at the same time, renders itself unmissable. Shambolic yet utterly mesmeric, even if many of their songs blatantly proffer from better-known compositions courtesy of The Beatles and Public Image Ltd to name but two. Nevertheless, their cassette only album Islandkid is a bargain for the couple of Euros it costs to purchase and well worth half an hour or so of anyone’s time. ”There’s so much happening in Minsk right now” insists DJ and promoter Alexi Kutuzov while thrusting a CD of Belarus’ current band most likely to break Dlina Volny in my hand. London based Kutuzov is also responsible for curating Minsk Festival and tells me his homeland is a hotbed of talent right now, post-punk outfit Teleport being another act worthy of investigation.
Over in the Czech Republic, Manon Meurt are spearheading a thriving shoegaze scene in their homeland. Hailing from the small town of Rakovnik approximately 50 kilometres from the capital of Prague. Their music transcends definition at times in a similar way to This Mortal Coil or Galaxie 500. While vocalist Káta Elznicová proves enchanting as a focal point, her angelic voice reminiscent of Liz Fraser or Cranes’ Alison Shaw. The rest of the band makes for a cataclysmic backdrop where all four parts create an exquisite monster. Afterwards we find ourselves talking to Elznicová alongside drummer Jirí Bendl and recently acquired bassist Jana Karlíková, all of whom seem genuinely overwhelmed at the response afforded to their highly impressive set. ”Most of these songs haven’t been released yet” claims Karlíková, who wasn’t even in the band when their first and only release to date (a self-titled six-track EP that’s just been re-issued on vinyl) came out in 2014. While their sound does wear its influences on it’s sleeve, the potential to broaden their horizons way beyond Rakovnik is evident for all to see, and with a long awaited album due later in the year, only a fool would bet against them following fellow Czech outfit The Ecstasy Of St Therese into bolder territories.
So what of the host nation? There’s no commonality or Slovenian scene as such. However, what we do find is a plethora of acts inspired by every genre known to man from punk, soul and electronica to folk and metal. Take Darla Smoking for example, whose dub heavy mash up of squidgy beats infused with traditional folk from the backstreets of Ljubljana makes for an interesting late night concoction. Experimental sextet Kikimore also highlight the spirit of the local “scene” in that they sound like nothing else we’ve ever heard. Having met and formed at Kersnikova Institute’s Rampa Lab which examines women’s roles in science, technology and art, Kikimore’s mostly improvised repertoire using both traditional and electronic instruments is a joy to behold. While it’s hard to imagine them ever getting coverage on any commercial radio station throughout Europe, they embody everything that makes MENT arguably the most special event of its kind.
Not that everyone on the bill is from the Balkan states. Dutch four-piece Blue Crime prove something of a revelation. Hailing from Amsterdam, they’re a riff heavy yet equally mesmerising melange of noise and confusion. 75% female in make up and featuring Liu Mottes who we’re reliably informed is arguably the best guitarist in the Netherlands right now. Their forty-five minute set in Metelkova’s Menza Pri Koritu stands proud as one of the finest Gigwise has witnessed anywhere so far this year. Channelling the spirit of Sonic Youth’s intensity and Warpaint’s delectable harmonies, they’re not to be missed should the opportunity to see them arise. Which I’m sure it will very soon. Likewise Belgian outfit Hypochristmutreefuzz, who are also a force to be reckoned with, ridiculous name aside. However, don’t let that put you off, particularly if you’re a fan of left field oddballs The Residents or The Butthole Surfers while at least two songs remind us of Incubus. As unpredictable as the name suggests.
Although the UK representation was minute, those present all managed to put on memorable shows. Anglo-American prog rockers Algiers are probably best known for having former Bloc Party drummer Matt Tong behind the sticks, and their mix’n’match of styles and sounds works a treat here. As do Scottish hip hop experimentalists Young Fathers, a band I’m still to get grips with on record, but in the flesh their boundless energy alone makes for an all engaging, all inclusive party out front that spreads onto the stage during closing number ‘Shame’. Radio One DJ Mary Anne Hobbs also packs a punch in the closing hours of Thursday’s programme having given a highly entertaining and passionate talk with Leiden based journalist Richard Foster earlier that day.
Elsewhere, Malmo four-piece Hater demonstrate why they’ve been snapped up by Fire Records in the UK. Playing winsome indie pop in its purest sense, their simple yet swoonsome melodies evoking thoughts of classic Camera Obscura or the more recent wares of Amber Arcades and Alvvays. By the end we’re tired but happy, still buzzing with excitement. If only every showcase event was like this…
Words: Dom Gourlay