Once upon a time, showcase festival season used to revolve around three events. Eurosonic, South-By-Southwest and The Great Escape. Nowadays, barely a weekend goes by without a showcase event taking place somewhere around the globe. Indeed, there’s a growing concern among many commentators that some artists spend years trawling the showcase circuit from pillar to post without ever really achieving much of note.
Thankfully, MENT - which is held across numerous venues in the historic and monumentally picturesque city of Ljubljana in Slovenia - is a welcome exception to the rule. MENT has firmly established itself as one of the key festivals of its kind, encouraging and inviting applicants from all over Europe to participate in both its conference and performance schedules.
Taking place between 30 January and 1 February, this year’s daytime schedule included talks on touring China, mental health in the music industry, and how to escape the showcase bubble. Meanwhile, over 70 acts played over the course of its three evenings.
While the city’s Kino Šiška cultural centre acted as the main festival hub and base for the daytime events, most of the music took place in locations spread around the other side of Ljubljana. The intimate settings of Orto Bar, cosy confines of Slovenska Kinoteka and palatial Ljubljana Castle became hives of activity at various points, with the majority of live shows taking place in the various rooms situated within Metelkova, a former military base in the centre of the city.
With so much incredible music to see, it was difficult to narrow it down to a dozen, but here are the ones that really stood out from the crowd.
Every festival needs a local hero or two, and this Slovenian five-piece provide a welcome introduction to both MENT and Ljubljana’s burgeoning musical underground. With a sonic palette displaying influences stretching at least five decades, there’s elements of their music reminiscent of early Radiohead (‘What Lies Within’) and Cheatahs’ sprawling shoegaze grunge rock (‘Catch My Breath’) while euphoric closer ‘Caving’ wouldn’t sound out of place on The Horrors’ Primary Colours.
Of course it would be churlish to suggest they’re mere copyists and last year’s excellent debut LP Where If Not Now captures the band at their effluent finest in the studio too.
Hardly a new band or unknowns on the circuit having formed over a decade ago and put out their first EP back in 2009. Nevertheless, the Iceage standing before us in Kino Šiška this evening are an entirely different to the snotty teenage punks that emerged from Copenhagen in the late 2000s.
Assured if occasionally aloof, functional without being rigid and with an arsenal of songs from their diverse back catalogue. They’re something of a revelation this evening. Singer Elias Bender Rønnenfelt understandably hogs the spotlight, prowling around the stage like a defiant amalgam of Iggy Pop and Nick Cave. His band unflinchingly taut throughout the thirteen songs they play this evening. While the majority of the set understandably focuses on last year’s fourth long player Beyondless, the inclusion of older numbers ‘White Rune’ and ‘Ecstasy’ provide sudden bursts of energy that causes a frenzied moshpit at the front.
Photo: Kaja Brezocnik
The all seated Slovenska Kinoteka is the setting for Ptakh_Jung, a duo hailing from Kiev in the Ukraine. Anton Dehtiarov is a one man electronic orchestra while guitarist Volodymyr Babushkin plays patterns over the top ranging from elegant post-rock, discordant math rock and even the odd piece of classical guitar thrown in for good measure.
Together they’re a beguiling force. Loud in places, then tranquil in others. Combined they make a beautiful noise that would almost certainly fit in at events like Le Guess Who?, Rockaway Beach and Supersonic.
Sometimes a name can be deceptive and Austrian trio Tents are a perfect example. While their moniker may suggest an average rainy Wednesday walking round outdoor clothing specialists Millets, their music fuses the best bits of late seventies post-punk and the synth-led futurist wave that followed.
Playing to a sparse yet attentive crowd in the intimate Orto Bar, they’re an exciting proposition that demands a bigger audience. Playing a set mostly constructed of material from last year’s Stars On The GPS Sky, they’re another fine example of why Europe has taken the mantle and moved the post-punk genre to a far more interesting place than many of their UK counterparts.
ManMachine is Goran Uroić, a one-man band from Zagreb that might just be the most improbable front man on the planet. Singing – or should that be screaming – intently at the mic, rarely facing the audience, whilst simultaneously bashing out two-bit rhythms on his trusty Roland XP50. He’s like a midpoint between the nihilistic social commentary of Sleaford Mods and the compelling camp displayed by eighties acts such as Bronski Beat or the Pet Shop Boys.
Which in turn makes his set one of the most distinguished, excitable and utterly insatiable performances MENT throws at us over the course of its three days. While the majority of his repertoire questions the purpose of life in general (‘What’s Wrong With Emptiness?’ and ‘We Are Snowflakes’ being two particular stand outs), it’s the rousing anti-cover of Leonard Cohen’s ‘First We Take Manhattan’ that peels paint from the walls and veneer off the ceiling.
Photo: Urska Boljkovac
IT IT ANITA
Sometimes expectation can be the worst at delivering, so when a band are hyped up as “a dynamic hybrid of Fugazi, At The Drive-In, Metz and Sonic Youth” it can only end one of two ways.
Mercifully, this Belgian quartet lived up to such an embellished descriptive with measured aplomb. Hailing from the city of Liège, each band member spends the next forty minutes playing as if their lives depend on this performance. Mike Goffard and Damien Aresta comprise the two-headed guitar and vocals machine, while the rhythm section that’s Elliot Stassen and Bryan Hayart are among the most taut, composed yet at other times brutal of their kind we’ve witnessed in a very long time. If the audience don’t want to participate then become the audience, a challenge drummer Hayart in particular takes up with glee abandon. Riotous in every sense of the word, there aren’t many acts we can think of capable of following a performance like this.
One of the more established acts on the bill having initially formed back in 2005. However, that doesn’t make Peter Kernel any less exciting or refreshing. Playing as a trio this evening but essentially a duo centred around core members Aris Bassetti and Barbara Lehnhoff, their potent mix of grunge, shoegaze and noise rock reminds us of Sonic Youth at their most visceral. Which is never a bad thing.
Based in Switzerland, which is where singer/guitarist Bassetti originates from, the band’s fourth album The Size Of The Night came out last year and we duly pick up a copy before heading home. The following evening, Canadian born bass player Lehnhoff wows us once more with her experimental solo project Camilla Sparksss. Ones to keep an eye on for sure.
The Zabelov brothers prove focal points over the course of MENT’s three days. Elder brother Yegor’s incredible solo accordion set on the second night proved a major talking point for the rest of the festival. While sibling and fellow accordion player Roman, alongside multi-instrumentalist Jan Sikl, became the undisputed kings of Ljubljana Castle the following evening. Playing as Zabelov Group, their unique interpretations fused ambient textures, freeform jazz, cinematic dance and even post rock into just under forty-five minutes, and for the most part was a revelation. Zabelov’s pained facial expressions throughout coupled with Sikl’s rhythmic accompaniments bore all the hallmarks of two craftsmen deep in concentration, fully focused on the task at hand.
Photo: Matjaz Rust
Rotterdam four-piece Lewsberg should be no strangers to readers of Gigwise, having played their first ever UK show for editor Cai Trefor last summer. Already tipped for big things this year, thanks in no small part to their self-titled debut, which came out last April. Standing on stage looking effortlessly cool throughout the band’s set, each of the four band members meticulously adding their own parts to each exquisitely crafted piece. Named after a writer from their hometown, Lewsberg have been described as a Dutch supergroup of sorts, with all four members having previously played in a variety of other bands over the years. Nevertheless it’s the here and now that counts, and Lewsberg’s distinguished take on art school new wave with a hint of slow core recalls The Velvet Underground, Galaxie 500, Television and occasionally The Wedding Present in their prime.
As the only UK act on this year’s line up, Squid can already count themselves unique in one sense. However, as anyone that saw their set at last month’s Rockaway Beach can testify, put them on a stage and they become another entity altogether. Based in Brighton, their mercurial mix of angular post-punk, funk, jazz infused psychedelia and all round general weirdness has already endeared them to Dan Carey’s Speedy Wunderground label. It’s easy to see why, as the energy on stage quickly transcends itself onto the audience, and before long the whole of Klub Gromka becomes a sea of gyrating bodies and flailing limbs. Comparisons to Super Furry Animals, Can and Talking Heads only tell half the story. Go and see for yourselves as they’re sure to be gracing a festival stage near you this summer.
CHARLIE AND THE LESBIANS
It’s difficult to ignore any band with a name like Charlie And The Lesbians. Not that we’d ever dream of turning a blind eye to something as unstintingly brutal as the performance witnessed here. Hailing from Eindhoven in the Netherlands, this four-piece play uncompromising punk rock that’s hard hitting lyrically as well as relentless musically. Singer Charlie Hoeben cuts an imposing figure, manically stalking the front of the stage while his fellow bandmates play at a death defying pace one can only imagine would result in sore hands and blistered fingers. Both socially and politically aware – the band’s backdrop is the LGBT rainbow flag – they’re an empowering force to be reckoned with, even throwing in a raucous cover of The Runaways’ ‘Cherry Bomb’ midset.
Photo: Matjaz Rust
Last but not least we have Balans, another great find from the host nation. Playing to a hugely receptive audience, this Ljubljana based duo make experimental off-kilter pop that isn’t a million miles from Warpaint, Effi Briest or even The Slits. Playing in front of a slide-heavy backdrop pierced by strobes emitting a range of different colours colliding, they’re an audio-visual experience that leaves little to the imagination. Both Kristin Cona and Andrej Pervanje sing and play guitar at various points of the set while looped beats punctuated with electronic interludes makes for an unconventional yet unmissable performance. What we’ve learned from the 2019 edition of MENT is pretty much anything goes, which is not something to be taken for granted, particularly in an age where playlists generated by algorithms dominate.
Long may it last!