A four-day party in a fortress on the Danube, Exit is still spectacular after 18 years
Conor McCaffrey
17:58 24th July 2018

It’s lunchtime in a sweltering Belgrade airport and Nina Kraviz glides past me and joins the queue, as if she hasn’t just banged out techno to thousands of diehards in the moat of a Serbian fortress at 9am. I go to say something but let it go – guessing the only thing that’ll come out is some exhausted shite talk or my last beer. I manage a dopey half smile, but the girl beside me saves the day by grabbing her for a giddy selfie before I can really show myself up.

If I could rewind that scarlet moment in Nikola Tesla Airport I’d give her a legit outpouring of gratitude for playing Jeff Mills’ Casa at around half seven just as I was about to throw in the towel. I’d also give her a banging high five for a singular three-hour techno blitz with no winding-down sentimentality – she just closed Exit Festival 2018 with a blast of Pilldriver hardcore, where another DJ would maybe drop something with more hand-heart Insta-vibes to send people home in a warm fuzz in the sunshine.

The hardcore finish is apt — Exit is one of the most full-on festival experiences out there, and it felt like I danced and walked my legs down to stumps over four days at Petrovaradin Fortress — a spectacular 17th century citadel in the city of Novi Sad, looming large on a cliff overlooking the Danube. The festival began in 2000 as a 100-day student uprising against the Milosevic regime, with an idea to 'Exit out of the madness', and this all-in spirit has carried through, even as it’s entered the festival big league – around 200,000 hit the fortress in 2018, under the banner of this year’s theme, 'Freedom'.

Exit won Best Major Festival at the European Festival Awards this year (and once before in 2013), and the Gibraltar on the Danube plays the biggest part in its magnetism. From the first sighting as you walk over Varadin Bridge and mix with locals hawking Lav lager and test tubes of rocket fuel rakija brandy, you know this is a world away from any regular session in a field. You’ll navigate cobbled paths, courtyards, grass verges, underground tunnels, metal staircases and moss-covered walls, as you take your pick from hundreds of acts on 20 outdoor stages that feature everything from corpse paint black metal to dab-worthy hip-hop, pop, reggae, indie, disco and of course techno — the 4/4 pulse of the whole festival. There’s even a Craft Street stage for tribute bands, and sorry not sorry I went to see the Serbian Nick Cave with a fellow Bad Seeds disciple when all bets were off on the Sunday night.

Bring your good comfy shoes too – one mate racked up over 50 miles on her fitbit app, and that’s even when we were a group of entitled wristband wanker journos who could bypass regular walkways and sneak through tunnels between stages.

Fever Ray’s set on the Main Stage on Thursday sets a bit of a theme for women ruling Exit 2018 – and much of the chatter in the week since has been about the acid onslaught of Amelie Lens, Helena Hauff’s serrated electro, Kraviz (obviously) and local hero Tijana T’s early takeover at the No Sleep Novi Sad stage.

Karin Dreijer’s last Fever Ray tour in 2010 felt like some sort of occult seance, with Tron lasers and flickering 1970s poltergeist lampshades offsetting the total darkness. But the live showcase for new album Plunge ditches all the sombre trappings for a fist-up celebration of female empowerment and queer identity through modern dance and fizzling electro-pop. After years of obscuring her face in Fever Ray and The Knife, Dreijer is now the wide-eyed ringleader, licking her lips, smearing deep red lipstick over her face and performing the odd choreographed sex act on female band members. It all gets a bit much for one pal who asks if we can retreat because she’s being felt up – and not by some teenage Serbian lad but a girl copying Karin’s moves.

There’s a surge to the front near the end of Fever Ray’s set with young Serbs elbowing past to get a spot for Migos, but they should’ve done their homework, as the Atlanta trap trio were always going to be late. They fart around for an hour or so but at least they come on before any booing starts. In fairness, it’s a perfect Main Stage hip-hop caper — all call-and-response lines, smoke cannons and DJ spin-backs. They drop 'Hannah Montana' early and the waiting around is all forgotten, and the 'Versace' bars hit the bullseye.

One woman who knows she’s worth the wait is Grace Jones – the queen of fucking everything who prowls onstage fashionably late on the Saturday to 'Nightclubbing', then goes through costume changes after nearly every song – including a disco ball bowler hat, a sharp suit, a crazy-ass grass skirt and plain old naked flesh with Keith Haring body paint. She gleefully prances through her best bits, at one point getting the crowd to scream 'Warm Leatherette' as if it’s a football chant and not a weirdo car crash sex fetish confessional. She extends 'Slave to the Rhythm' to incorporate her now-mandatory hula-hooping and jumps on a Serbian bouncer’s shoulders and declares that she’s not leaving. Miss Grace Jones is 70, and still growing old in the most beautifully disgraceful way.

There’s a point to be made for the Dance Arena being the real Main Stage at Exit – surely one of the greatest places to dance at any festival on Earth. It’s in the fortress moat, an enclosed amphitheatre for thousands – with a 60-metre speaker rig, next-level 3D projection-mapped visuals and tiered platforms on grass verges to catch the sunrise every morning. There’s some serious A-gaming going on when DJs are given that stage, especially the 6-8am slot. Solomun’s Sunday morning set is a revelation, flitting between minor key techno to uplifting spiritual dispatches and even a Foals remix as an encore that actually works. Another ‘moment’ is running through a tunnel and emerging on stage as Carl Craig drops Eurythmics’ 'Sweet Dreams', followed by a set of deep, rattly techno with the odd gospel a capella.

If the Dance Arena is too full-on, you can still get your fix of bleeps at any corner of the fortress, and the Urban Bug stage is a brilliant showcase of Serbian deep house and techno DJs, in a little glade forest clearing for a few hundred that turned into a surprise hub of the festival. The No Sleep Novi Sad stage is a sort of festival-within-a-festival, with daily takeovers from iconic clubs, Fabric (London), The Bunker (New York), Arma 17 (Moscow) and Goa Club of Rome.

The aptly-named ‘No Sleep’ guarana energy drink ends up as a battery pack for the whole of Exit – as the backbone of the No Sleep cocktail that also seems to include every spirit on the rack in a big cup of wrongness. It’s only one of the ways to help your recalibration over the four days, when it starts to seem normal to be walking back over Varadin Bridge at breakfast time every morning, with the smell of coffee wafting around Novi Sad’s squares. Mostly it’s just the buzz that the people of Novi Sad live for this weekend – whether it’s the locals at the festival dying to know what you think of the city and the fortress, or the punks selling T-shirts and sunglasses on the street, or the wizened old lads selling cans out of ice barrels. When the festival was first hatched it was declared the 'State of Exit', and beneath the awards, the tourism, the sponsorship and relentless partying, they’ve still got something pretty special.

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