It's before the festival's started. We're sitting in developer Jaanus Mikk's, jeep at the gate, waiting to pass through to this private island of Kreenholm where Station Narva is held, and Mikk tells us Swedish investors bought this - and more land that came with it on the European mainland to make 32,000 acres - for 22.5 million. The Kreenholm manufacturing company went bankrupt in 2010 and now Mikk is backed to turn it around.
We're soon ushered through by security. The first thing that takes us is the mostly empty 19th century factory buildings: they are stunning, falling apart spectacularly, and have the haunted charm of the horror film Hostel - which itself was set further west in Czech Republic. The small island is a stone's throw from the razor wire of Russia's border on one side, and it’s hemmed up close to Estonian mainland.
For Helen Sildna, CEO and founder of Tallinn Music Week and co-founder of Station Narva – Station Narva is run as a collective with local partners and Shiftworks which runs TMW – this spec of land on a beautiful salmon-rich river is "a festival organisers' dream location."
Her comment isn't an exaggeration. Kreenholm is especially suitable given Station Narva’s multidisciplinary direction - the festival’s a platform for political discussion and business innovation, as well as a hub for the best live music on the planet. Geopolitically, the festival is bringing in more ethnic Estonians into this majority Russian speaking city – years of bad integration policy have had an effect – and they’re hyper aware of this so are providing a platform for discussion about better integration moving forward. A discursive change is brewing. For the music, the faded glory of a once teeming cotton mill is magnificent as a backdrop. Especially for headliners Echo and the Bunnymen, who similarly to Joy Division, evoke the gloomy post-industrial landscape incredibly well sonically.
Of this decayed ambient aesthetic that surrounds us, we feel it most once the Jeep parks up on one of the paved bridges that connect to Estonian mainland. We get out to look at the limestone river bed where the rapids create a welcome cacophony. Viewing the red brick factory buildings towering above the tree canopy, we're taken aback by the size of the place. To appreciate the scale of this gated enterprise further – it was once the largest cotton mill in the world – it proves rewarding to go back across the bridge and wonder around various pathways which act as tributaries to the main festival square; or wonder to peer over the wall with a vertical drop into the river rapids. Decayed after years of neglect, there is so much space here mostly unused. It’s to the extent where inside clumps of dust gather hang from much of the ceiling like a warped, manky tinsel.
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Developer Mikk – who by now we’re getting to know a bit and has told us he’s also a jockey, as well as CEO of narva Gate – says they're estimating 20-years to complete the revamp. They want to turn this vast urban space somewhere close to habitable, and a vibrant part of the city once again by then. But in what way? The plan is Kreenholm'll be a holiday camp of sorts, with some long terms accommodation available, too. "We have a master plan" says the owner, making it sounds like the end is in sight for a long lineage of people working the mill.
At present, there are still factory workers, but numbers have plummeted at the hands of neoliberalism: there were 10,000 and more at its peak whereas there’s only handful of textile workers now; hence the eerie derelict feel. Mikk points to a tiny section to some of the dark windows facing the courtyard and we hear – faintly – the hustle and bustle going on. He seems to think about introducing us, but then doesn't. No one pushes otherwise; there's the very first Station Narva to see.
Shortparis, Zahir + Beebilõust: Day one music
Kreenholm is particularly exciting because no other festival of this ilk – there was one opera day event earlier this summer that attracted over 20,000 – has been here before. It’s such a worthy line-up to honour this space, too. The crème de la crème of alternative rock, left-field electronica and hip-hop, experimental jazz and loads of other music.
First up on the mainstage, the only outdoor stage – is Saint Petersburg's inimitable, jaw-dropping Shortparis. It's the scintillating reviews they received on the European showcase circuit that's shone a light on them to us.
The size of the crowd gathered at the feet of this six-piece band is modest because they're not necessarily huge in their Russia, or the Baltics. Their following is spread all over Europe, eschewing the idea that you need to break big in your homeland before making it big outside. As such, they're riled up, ready to work to earn the crowd's energy and earn new fans. Their unique strand of industrial alternative rock is a smack to the senses on the colossal PA. They're out to over-deliver, not rest on anything but an audio/visual spectacle.
How compelling they are is largely down to their knack for rhythm distribution. One drummer hits a more motorik techno pattern, and the other simultaneously beats a Latin pattern whilst standing up and playing with rambunctious energy. Together, they create the petrol that the rest of the band's fire needs. The keyboardist, who is a big Soft Machine and Killing Joke fan, keeps the skull-crushing obliteration of multi-effected frequencies bursting out of the speakers like arrows. The guitarist switches on to bass and Baja seamlessly.
Visually, all eyes are on frontman Nikloai Komiagin as he is subverting the machoism expected of him as a rock 'n' roll, goth-robed hipster. A high-pitched vocal, utilising scholarly, acrobatic prowess, seldom heard on a pop stage is compelling. Coming from a country that's an authoritative discourse on gender that clearly defines how people ought to behave, it's powerful and important to create music that doesn't sound oppressed by 'traditional' expectations. Moreover, they're not hemmed in by the post-punk pigeonhole that’s always thrown on them there's a surprising amount of pop choreography given how dark their look is and they've hooks that pack a sucker punch. The more impulsive dance moves - the manic flailing - draws inspiration from the dark places in Komiagin's peripheral psyche perhaps. It's great being able to switch moods and genres in movement and sound.
Such - for want of a better word - eclecticism isn't necessary for the next act we see: the Jesus Lizard-inspired Zahir. This four-piece are all about channeling one expertise and being the very best at it. Despite gigging since 1993, this Estonian post hardcore band are under appreciated. Perhaps the result of an Anglocentric press that's not paid enough attention - or taken bands from Estonia as seriously as they ought to have over the years.
The rush of seeing them is helped by the melodic vocals. Pixies' Black Francis feels nearly in the room thanks to the lead singer’s ability to cut above the mix with brute force without screaming and enunciate brilliantly. As for the mix, it’s a deadly assault. The guitarists cook up a distorted storm strong enough to prick up Michael Gira of Swans fame's ears. As you'd expect with a post-hardcore band the drums are unrelenting, blister-inducing mania and he's always on the front foot. The crowd are deliriously appreciative.
The next act Beebilõust, real name Andrus Elbing, is another highly rated Estonian act. Rapping in his Oeselian dialect, his trap and gangsta rap set is impressive. But famous for his short fuse, he decides to cut it short, going prematurely to wrap things up with his acclaimed hit 'Mendid'. The track was named song of the year 2011 on Estonian Raadio 2, a reputable station on which John Peel's mate Raul Saaremets presents. During the opening bars of the cut, Elbing leaves the stage and unleashes his furor from the pit floor to incite a more visceral response from the crowd. Elbing seems frustrated they aren't as rabid as he'd get at a headline gig. A couple of moshers start flicking arms in the air and chanting along, though. The lyrics are controversial to say the least. His language is indiscriminately brutal towards all types of cops. And given he's been in and out of jail for a lot of his adult life, you know he’s not having us on.
Here’s just some of his long rant in the cut translterd from Estonian:
“but fuck all of them cops /
I'm armed to teeth welcoming them /
because the only cops that I like are dead cops.”
Wrapping up the set, he skulks off muttering something negative about the sound. No fucks given about this being a leg up in his career, and never afraid to say what he thinks. There’s actually something quite arresting seeing a personality this theatrical and feral on stage.
...Your reviewer looking happy...
Next, we see some of Tricky's set - ' Nothing Matters' still rings out as one of the best songs of the last 10 years - then head back across the bridge from Kreenholm island, and back to the city of Narva itself because festival have a whole programme going on at Art Club Ro-Ro. Ro-Ro is thriving as a venue, creating a legacy of its own by inviting good artists to perform, but this weekend is hosting some brilliant choices by Station Narva.
Ro-Ro is situated on the promenade on the River Narva, where earlier we took a life-affirming walk where men on the Russian side were fishing. Where we could see the bridge connecting the countries, with all the cars queued up for a border check. Ro-Ro's situated not far from the bridge and it proves an interesting spot to look across to the Russian city of Ivangorod, home to 10,000 people. It has a stunning medieval castle yet all the shabby buildings around it are indicative of very little funding from Moscow and it's a town for which the words "frontier" and "outpost" still suit it. It makes for wistful viewing whilst queuing up for a drink.
As for the club, it is a beautiful venue run by a musician who's bled his heart and soul into creating an existentialist, escapists dream space. It's fitting given the ornate hand crafted decor – much of it fills the walls and stage – that the first band we see here, PVC 16, is led by a singer in black bob wig, leggings, pink marigolds and a transparent poncho.
The music PVC 16 make is a powerful mixture of experimental brass, guitar and electronics. It borrows from Krautrock in that it defies all notion of pop structure and the frontman appears to be in some kind of fucked up trance, somewhat like you'd expect Damo Suzuki to be, or Iggy Pop at the end of a long night on trips.
Walking downstairs from the loft venue, turns out Tricky and his crew have heard about how great Ro-Ro is. It’s here we see how much of a passion project the place is because the owner opts to play them some classsical piano that he resolutely nails and the whole venue starts cheering.
Outside on the river bank, impromptu jams are taking place. We sit next to two Russians; one of whom is playing scales on his bajan with enough skill to have made it in music, but he's a worn face indicative of someone who's worked outdoors for much of their life.
We don't speak the same language, but the music does bring about an affable, communal atmosphere. It's moments such as this hints at the enjoyment Station Narva is bringing to the streets of a town that's had its fair share of problems over the years. The bankruptcy of Kreenholm one of the more recent.
But it's worth noting that despite us not seeing any active resentment towards Station Narva festival per se during our time at the festival, it's inaccurate to represent this event as a rosy ride for everyone - "I hate Estonians" confides a man sat by the bajan jam. "They write that I'm an alien on my passport."
Turns out this man among a number of Ethnic Russian's privvy to bad integration policy in Estonia. He is a stateless citizen in Estonia and given a gray 'alien' passport for not passing a citizenship test - or not choosing to do one. The test is given those born on Estonian land before the country's independence from Russia in 1991.
It’s keeping in mind the minority, like the above mentioned gent, that Station Narva is good at, fortunately. It is equipped to address and not brush under the rug serious issues.
The biggest manifestation of their ethics occurs the next day at a panel at Narva Art Residency, which is in a historicist style villa, built for the technical director of Kreenholm. This unique cultural platform facilitating residencies, art exhibitions, talks and educational workshops all year. Listening today from one of the 100 or so seats laid out, they come up with some great ideas about improving relationships and embracing plural identities in Estonia. Some of the main points we get from the discussion surround the option of having more first language Russian's in government; how Estonia can better accommodate those who only speak Russian in jobs in general; how being culturally Russian doesn't necessarily mean allegiance to the Kremlin; and how any allegiance to the Kremlin, especially by the older generation, can be traced to religion. Essentially, ideas that ought not to be looked at as weakening Estonian sovereignty, but easing the chances of a rebellion. And at a time when polarization – whether it be through online trolling, or physical protest or violence – is on the rise; it's brilliant to hear nuanced discussions about identity at this festival. Hopefully it will see emotions such as that felt by the 'Alien' passport holder I met a thing of the past.
Echo and the Bunnymen, Mart Avi + Joensuu 1685: Day two music
Over in the festival gates and back over to Tallinn-based artist Mart Avi, with members of Echo and the Bunnymen looking over from the crowd. For us, Avi's draw is not only his unique avant-garde visuals and kitsch, provocative stage presence; it's his compelling way with sound. This artist takes leftfield electronica, Tears For Fears-esque vocal hooks, Bowie circa-Blackstar vulnerability and creates a new sonic world. It's normally easier to argue that everything under the sun has been done before, but we'd say it's harder to argue that Mart Avi is like any other artist. And his new album Other World is one of the best records we've heard in recent times, making him one of the hot new talents in the world right now.
...Mart Avi belting his mid century baritone to unmapped sound and pop hooks...
Next up, Finnish shoegaze band Joensuu 1685 on the main stage. The sheer beauty and world weariness to the distorted trebles, haunting church organ, fitting for the faded grandeur of the Kreenholm factory, are tremendous.
"You have no idea how much this means to us" says the singer Mikki Joensuu whilst sat at his keys. But this isn't a singer going through the motions; he truly means it. The 31-year-old is playing his second gig with the band in eight long years, and delivering it with the sort of emotion that you'll unlikely repeat on demand. It makes the Spiritualized-esque psych gospel of the recordings a very thin entry point compared to the colossal impact of seeing this set live.
Impressively, they take a track with a Jesus and Mary Chain-esque beat such as '(You Shine) Brighter Than Light' and then go on wig-outs, finding new, semi-improvised sections and then when you're least expecting it pull back to the main melody of the song. When the clever shift back into the main track happens looks among the audience of 'Holy fuck, did they just do that?' emanate. It's a common practice for bands to veer away from the original, of course, but Joensuu lead you on unexpected turns that are that bit more surprising and compelling that the bulk of bands.
The one and only Echo and the Bunnymen are up next with a setlist compiled of songs from across their oeuvre, with the early 80s period most heavily represented. They launch with hit-of-a-generation 'Lips Like Sugar', and the powerful touring backline - and audiophile attention to detail from the players – that makes it sounds technically as good as guitar music can ever sound. There's a certain level of detail that bands with less touring experience miss out on.
...Ian McCulloch and Will Sergeant: the iconic original members of Echo and the Bunnymen.
It's incredible seeing a crowd, most of whom are seeing this band for the first time, react to the level you see fans in the 60s going mad for Jim Morrisson. It helps that Ian McCulloch is a lyrical genius and that the songs stand the test of time. And that looks every bit the rock god he always has: shades, great hair, dark clothes and a domineering stage presence. The singer keeps chat brief between songs but is in a good mood and says it's the first time the band have ever been to Estonia.
To his right is Will Sergeant, the sole constant member of Echo and The Bunnymen, and writer of a lot of their most loved music is. It's no secret he is a phenomenal guitarist, a master of psychedelic lead lines that cut through the mix and offer so much to hang on to for the listener at every bar. He effortlessly brings in glorious hooks that chime so beautifully with McCulloch's voice. The rest of the band are younger and great players in their own right, living up to the challenge of presenting some of the best music ever recorded. Closing with direct hits: 'The Cutter', 'Killing Moon', and back on for an encore of the majestic 'Ocean Rain' with its haunting line, "Screaming from beneath the waves" is a fittingly sombre cut to see out a place as eerily crumbling as Kreenholm.
As they leave, the front row, who were shaking the barrier in near panic at how insanely good this set was, are hugging with the kind of happiness that shows when live music is at its very best. When it is a catharsis. It’s pure joy here.
After their set, a friend knows The Bunnymen so we amble backstage to the room with the manky dust. It’s a vast space and after seeing bands all weekend, talking with Will Sergeant about recording in North Wales with cult band Ectogram offers some respite from homesickness for us Welsh. He tells us Bunnymen are working on another album but as to what shape it'll be, he can't tell yet. Joensuu 1985 are around too, telling Sergeant that the band was a pivotal influence on them.
By the time we're done talking, the gates to Kreenholm are shut and we consider walking around another mile to another exit. Getting stuck in here afterhours isn't the sweetest spot to be. But some guards spot our lost look and help us out where a taxi is waiting to take us to Ro-Ro club for Electroforez who have post-punk chops and an element of Bunnymen. But we're too late and miss it. Bunnymen's keyboard player sings their praises to us nevertheless. And it's great the Bunnymen are here. For the second night running bands have been coming down to check out local music and it's heartening to see a support network emerging, yet unsurprising given the inspiring nature of these surrounds.
Ultimately, Station Narva brings out the best in people. It is all about bridging gaps and opening discussion. And it truly feels like Narva is opening up. The words that are used to describe this place on the internet already gave off this fatigued impression of Narva. It paints it as a drab place. And in many ways you could see that. The walk back to the hotel from Ro-Ro passes some depressed looking houses and rusted children playgrounds being reclaimed by nature. But that's a footnote. The spirit of the place is picking up. The rise of Kreenholm, the beauty of Narva by the river and the expertise and ethics of the Station Narva team makes for an unstoppable formula. And one we'd do again in a heartbeat.