This Estonian showcase festival's line-ups over the past ten years have been so well curated, it's become a treasure trove for finding breaking alternative acts
Cai Trefor
16:15 18th June 2019

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In this article we look at some of the streams through which we discover the music that keeps us culturally nourished year round. Long gone are the days of vegetating on the couch whilst flicking between Scuzz, MTV 2, and Kerrang and back again; feeling the gradual repetition of songs coerces you into fandom of things you never expected. We have to be much more proactive now and use a completely wide-ranging number of streams to obtain new music.

One absolute gem for Gigwise in terms of the things we’ve posted and listened to over the past few years has been annual showcase and conference arts festival Tallinn Music Week. Having swooned over their music line-ups for the past few years, we’ve gone a little deeper to show you the Estonian capital’s finest festival – and most certainly the most important cultural event for new music in the Nordic-Baltic region – has had its finger on the pulse since its inception ten years ago. We consider, on this occasion, such long-standing support of great new music to be crucial in justifying why we title it a ‘best place to discover music’.

So from 2009 to the present year, here’s a year-by-year guide to Tallinn Music Week absolutely killing it:

2009 – A Lithuanian modular synth wonder 

The first ever Tallinn Music Week focused predominantly on Estonian music, whereas it’s gradually grown to be a much more international affair, with now around half the line-up consisting of acts from abroad. Picking those local acts – with a smattering from neighbouring Baltic countries – right at the beginning, however, was vital in being taken seriously. Seeing they held a very early-career show by world-renowned hypnagogic pop purveyour Maria Minerva in 2009 is a case in point. It helped them receive the glowing reviews that would keep people coming back.

Another act that stands the test of time is Lithuania’s modular synth loving new wave band Happyendless – check them out below:

And when a festival is inviting such a broad swathe of the music industry from around the world the idea of a ‘new’ band becomes up for debate as it’s a chance for a new-to-you discovery. So check out Röövel Ööbik, a band representative of the festival’s ability to draw in ace legendary Estonian bands that you may not otherwise find. (Also check out Tallinn's Zahir, a band with more of a cult following who they booked in 2013).

2010 – A fine year for Latvia

2010 was a year TMW booked a hyped Latvian act who could stick around for years to come: crafty electro indie pop act Instrumenti are still around and packing out arenas in Latvia.

2011 – Mart Avi’s band days look like a blast

Knowing the artist only for his unique solo project, which sees his astounding Scott Walker-esque baritone underpinned by left-field electronic music, we hardly expected this. But, one of our most championed new artists in recent months Mart Avi was fronting a Madchester-citing electronica band in 2011, and doing a damn fine job of it, too. Check it out below:

Elsewhere on the bill, Saaremaa island raised rapper Beebilõust was famed for having been done for armed robbery, spending time in jail, and coming out with some of the most compelling hip-hop his nation’s ever witnessed. His set lived so fondly in the organisers memory, they invited him for the inaugural sister festival Station Narva in 2018. You can’t take your eyes off this provocative live force and undeniably natural craftsman at the rap game. Add this one to your list and know that Tommy Cash is not the only Estonian rapper you need in your life.

2012 – Wintry, spectral Finnish indie

Husky Rescue’s take on downtempo electronica and new wave pop meant they were a hyped force among indie circles in the noughties and early 2010’s. Their cinematic, wintry sound, drawing from a wide palette of influences is indicative of TMW’s love of artists who create evocative music that’s not easy to pin down and has no hint of pastiche. However, the band aren't steam rollering on through the industry at much of a pace at present (there's not been an album since 2013). Luckily, the TMW line-up posters allow us to discover this gem of a band late on, having missed them first time around.

2013 – The year of Polish art pop star Brodka

The booking of Brodka reflects their knack to back pop stars who make genuine artistic statements. Brodka may have cut into the industry through Polish Idol, but they are not letting the puppetry of the mainstream vehicle obscure the fact an immensely talented artist capable of greater things than ever before was in front of them. Considering her latest album Clashes – released via Play It Again Sam in 2016 – is the singer’s finest, we count this 2013 booking as a great bit of foresight.

2014 – Tallinn art-punk + Belarusian post-punk

Tallinn's St. Cheatersburg groovily draw influence from the likes of Velvet Underground, Brian Jonestown Massacre, and Richard Hell and are among the best of the great under the radar Estonian music you can find at TMW. There’s a sense of commitment to the hedonistic rock n’ roll dream in their sound and the band's authenticity helps them remain an esteemed live force. 

Another highlight from the line-up was Belarus’ Super Besse, who had hardly played a gig outside of their own turf before they landed this sweet nugget of a booking. They since signed to Latvian label I Love You Records and went on to perform all around the world. We most recently saw them live in Taiwan and were completely hooked thanks to their rabble-rousing sound making the intimate venue somewhat like a TOTP2 crowd on wonky uppers.

2015 – Swedish electro noir

In the months that followed their 2015 set, Stockholm’s electro noir four-piece Kate Boy would go on to have rave reviews for their hook-laden debut album. TMW 2015 was a comparably low key time for them. There’s often this feeling in Tallinn Music Week that so many of the acts from the Nordic-Baltic region that get ushered into critical acclaim (with Pitchfork backing etc) first get booked at TMW.

2016 – Sheep Got Waxed

Lithuania’s experimental psychedelic jazz trio Sheep Got Waxed are a band who ought to be gaining the attention of 6Music playlisters; especially considering the renaissance of bands who can to varying degrees cite jazz as a reference. SGW's appeal is their fresh approach to jazz, electronic and academic music. Such is their astute way with music, they envelop the listener with some thrilling, unpredictable passages. As for TMW, SGW are bubbling up on the alternative scene in mainland Europe and deserve every credit for showcasing them.

2017 – Launching the new wave of Russian acts

Anyone who went to The Great Escape or Sound City this year may have heard about hyped Russian band Shortparis. The band were doing their first ever UK tour. Hell, they even played our stage at Sound City. But long before all that happened, Tallinn Music Week were paving the way for a new wave of Russian acts to break across Europe by being the first notable festival outside of Russia to book the likes of Shortparis, Motorama, Spasibo and Lucidvox. Rightfully putting these epic bands on a pedestal.

2018 – Slavic gangsta geisha pop

Demonstrating their tight grip on any tremor worth listening to on the European mainland, is their championing of self-proclaimed "Slavic Gangsta Geisha Pop" artist КУКЛА, months before she would go on to be the main featured artist at the influential industry orientated Slovenian festival MENT. And we discovered one of our album of the year artists KATE NV in a tiny basement party there that year. Other highlights are here.

2019 – Expressive accordion-biting mayhem

As for 2019, it's the year the accordion biting Belarusian Yegor Zabelov blew everyone away with the most expressive show. Other gems we’ve discovered from the line up include Kiev rap star alyona alyona, who continues to be the fastest rising name in rap in Eastern Europe. For more off-the-beaten-track discoveries  check the unearthly analog synth-laden electronica of Berlin-based Russian Chikiss and Tallinn's own immensely inspiring experimental electronic artist Ratkiller. Or we could turn and listen to Taipei-based neo-gothic post-punk band SEN. The long journey they took to Europe is a wise one as they likely know it’s a festival that paves the way for future opportunities thanks to its long-standing reputation for expert curation. We know each year, whether we research the line-up or attend the festival, we'll be able to come away with something new and brilliant to add to our collection. And it may be a lot more time consuming than sitting in front of Sky, but we think it's definitely worth it. We'll leave you here with Yegor Zabelov:

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Photo: Henri-Kristian Kirsip