Festival locations don’t get much lovelier than the medieval walled old town of Tallinn. Studded with gothic spires, the layout of narrow cobbled streets was first established in the 13th century and has been meticulously preserved and granted UNESCO world heritage status.
As tourists generally give the two-part city – divided, at least notionally, into an Upper and Lower district – a wide berth at this time of year, Tallinn Music Week allows local artists and promoters to set their muso credentials centre stage instead. For some 35,000 punters and delegates who’ve travelled from all over the world to experience TMW, the ordinary touristy perks are but a sideshow to the hundreds of world-class live shows that rattle and reverberate around the ancient stone walls of the Estonian capital.
At first glance there are precious few recognisable names on the bill, a sorry consequence of our Anglocentric media which overlooks much of the creative output from the erstwhile Eastern Bloc. Though this festival is theoretically global in scope, a disproportionate chunk of acts appear to hail from Russia, the Baltics, central or Eastern Europe, and the Balkans. There’s clearly a seismic shift happening, though, as we’re starting to see some of the most innovative artists of a generation emerging from this part of the world – and TMW is the the launchpad for those who are truly pushing boundaries.
Of those acts here in 2018, I have my eye on an especially exciting line-up at KUKU club, assembled for a showcase named CryptoMarket. “It’s called that because the bands will either crash or burn,” smiles the showcase's curator Ingrid Kohtla. Elsewhere, a Latvian flautist who plays dream pop with (actual) vegetables, a nightclub in a moody abandoned factory hosting a satanic rave and a surprise Canadian showcase are high on our wishlist.
On the opening night, I kick off at Made In Canada – the Canadian showcase – because hip-hop/R&B stars Samurai Champs are billed. Based in Saskatoon, far out in the prairies of Saskachewan, they’ve a slick sound with the scratch turntablist Sonny Grimez, who is also the DJ of Arlo Maverwick’s, filling in on the decks, triggering instrumentals that draw on old school hip-hop and trap. Two vocalists lead the charge at the front of the stage – rapper Jeah and singer Merv xxx Gotti. Jeah, who moved to Canada as a Cambodian refugee, has a tone and flow that make him easily one of the country’s most exciting new rappers. Gotti, meanwhile, brings in more neo-soul and R&B sonics with his falsetto, and is perhaps one of the most energetic frontmen on the showcase circuit. He pogos around tirelessly, even risking his neck to climb to the ceiling. The driving, dynamic beats coupled with the manic stagecraft make them an intriguing proposition for the future.
Next up for Gigwise are Nova Scotian rockers Walrus. They look like a band who could have emerged from the Boardwalk in Manchester in the mid-80’s, all Adidas jackets and a Man City scarf on display. Sonically, they nod towards 60’s legends Beach Boys, Syd Barrett, T-Rex, and supplement their infectious hook-laden melodies with an enthralling wall of sound built upon a trio of guitars, bass, drum, and enough pedals to raise, one imagines, even Ride’s Andy Bell’s eyebrows. The five-piece are so well drilled and confident, they never miss a beat or a note. They have a confidence that stems from living out of each other’s pockets for years and adrenaline that’s born out of an authentic zest for playing live. It's thrilling to witness how such delicate melodies can be juxtaposed with that layered guitar sound and visceral rhythms – the drums are pummelled in a way you fancy Bonham himself would approve of. The drummer and bassist being jazz trained helps, while singer Justin, apparently, once ran a label that hawked cassettes, which gives them enough of an obscure grounding to make them familiar yet exotic simultaneously. They’re the only rock band representing Canada at TMW, and thoroughly deserve their air fare over here.
Next day it’s off to KUKU club for the CryptoMarket showcase. The venue’s situated in a basement below the strikingly modernist Freedom Square. The square’s most eye-catching landmark is the light-up War of Independence Victory Column, a stark memento mori to the bloody conflict that killed 4,000 in the chaos that followed World War I. Lining the side of the square that faces the Art Deco Russian theatre are a row of cafés and bars, and it's through one of the doors on this side and down the stairs that the showcase awaits. Formerly a members bar, KUKU club is a low-lit windowless venue with stylish seating nooks arranged around a modest stage. Generic local lagers and no-nonsense bar service bring a welcome punky un-pretentiousness to proceedings, which happily attracts the most music obsessed people I think I’ve ever come across. Conversations here are passionate and insightful, often leading to tips that lead you down rabbit holes and into microscenes as yet undreamt of.
On the tip of everyone’s tongue is Tallinn’s own Mart Avi who made a stunning impression at TMW last year and has brought his one-man show tonight. If he was British he’d surely have won the Mercury Prize for his latest album Rogue Wave. Few artists we’ve ever come across exhibit such artistic breadth and captivating spirit: think earwormy Tears For Fears-esque pop hooks (‘Blind Wall’), Brainfeeder records-style electronic soundscapes, Jah Wobble dub runs, plus neo-classical and jazz influences to boot. Bowie’s discography has clearly made an impact on his sound. It’s truly a remarkable amalgamation. Thematically he’s unafraid to push boundaries, too. The showcase curator tells us Avi is someone who feels more comfortable not belonging to any one group, and is a stern critic of nationalism, reminiscent of Benedict Anderson’s notion of Imagined Communities – perceiving the human cost of fighting for a nation as farcical, when a nation is a social construct built on such limited imaginings.
Before leaving, Avi starts handing out his fanzine called Avizonas – set in a parallel world he’s invented from scratch, where, among many idiosyncrasies, the singles in his invented chart are called CryptoPlates. There’s also a note about the CryptoMarket showcase. “Global restart with brave new sounds of life-hacking, pirate utopias, digital punk, scripture socialism, shibuva strokes and other post-genre aftershocks. Two nights to crash and burn in a legendary artists’ haunt in central Tallinn,” it says.
The words sum up that which all bands at this particular showcase have in common: an intrepid imagination, and ability to grab the discourse by the scruff of the neck.
Following Mart Avi is the more brutal sounding Aleksei Taruts. This baseball-capped gent is one of 20 Russian acts booked to play. The number of Russians playing is a conscious move by the Estonian organisers, as foreign policy makers are anxious to exploit the arts’ role in fostering healthy international relations, now more than ever. Hats off, to be fair. It’s inspiring at this time to be sharing such positive experiences with people from all different countries. It juxtaposes the messages of conflict, and disorder channeled and amplified by fear-mongering newscasters.
Musically, the industrial hardcore of Tartus is hardly hippy-dippy peace-and-love ditties, but the situation that TMW facilitates by creating a space where people can build social connections leads by shining example. If we’re to teach our children ways of behaving towards one another then an event like this is a great example of how we can tear down prejudice. Perhaps it’s the elated atmosphere in KUKU club, or the smooth-going local lager, but it feels like anything is possible.
The small crowd are absolutely losing their shit to lengthy, abrasive instrumental passages that are nothing short of exhilarating. Barbed basslines are sporadically interspersed with an arresting Nick Cave-esque baritone, while occasionally less dense soundscapes cast precious beams of light into this murky atmosphere. It petrifies me to think what this man’s film and music collection at home looks like. Nevertheless, the paranoiac sound, delivered with implacable commitment, gets a phenomenal reaction and would be a worthy addition to the Warp Records roster.
In true CryptoMarket style, even the rock bands approach music making in an unconventional way. Lynch, an awe-inspiring Slovenian four-piece with a background in classical musicology, drove some 2,000 miles from Ljubljana to be here. They approach their guitars in a dynamic, feisty Sonic Youth way, yet the groove is more desert rock and grunge with tantalising hints of classical Eastern scales that speak of broad, cultured musicality. Ill content to let black t-shirts and boisterous behaviour define them, they do well to add a freakish element. A man as spine-chillingly haunting as the Donnie Darko-esque bunny is stood to the right of the stage, repetitively clapping hi-hats in some manner of trance. Meanwhile, the lead guitarist hands a spare guitar to a member of the audience, who proceeds to use his pint glass as a slide and punches the strings repetitively. The discordant sounds, augmented by industrial rhythms draw the room to attention – and this spontaneous freedom, to aspire to something other than anodyne perfection, embracing energy and playfulness, makes them fun and approachable despite the theatrics. Tonight has delivered everything you could possibly want from a small gig, and I’m unable to shake the nagging sense that what’s going down around these parts is the start of something truly groundbreaking.
The next day begins in the early evening at the art deco Russian theatre on the other side of Freedom Square from KUKU club. I'm here to see avant-garde dream pop artist Elizabete Balcus, who places emphasis on both visual art and music. Wearing a hat plastered with gloves and a leotard, the Riga-based singer/flautist has a striking presence. Trained at the Latvian academy of music to the highest level, she is surely one of the most accomplished flute players around and uses her classical chops within the unique context of her own music, evidently borne of the deepest recesses of her vivid imagination. Drawing mainly on the English language tracks on her bilingual debut album Conarium, the set is compelling, spectral, and supernatural. The arrangements, rich in brass, keys, woodwind and electronic beats, are all written by her and executed completely live. Utilising a loop pedal and sample pad, she feeds in flute, unearthly vocals and synth chords triggered by a selection of colourful fresh fruit that’s on a keyboard stand. Her sound is full of colour yet teetering on the edge of darkness. And while the likes of Bjork, Efterklang and Braids are audible influences, Balcus is creating her own path in music that feels unique and has the potential to see her become a major international star.
Hearing there’s a “Self-styled Slavic gangsta geisha pop artist” who sings in Slovenian over in the KUKU club, it’s back into the dark basement venue for one last stab.
The singer is dressed – amazingly enough - in a top built from a dense collection of fresh flowers and sings hypnotic pop to a backing track that has flecks of oriental instrumentation and cold, hard-hitting electronic beats that wouldn’t sound out of place on an FKA Twigs cut. Given that the afterparties are all due to start, the room is in the most high-octane state it’s been all weekend. There’s a collection of people at the back hardly engaging, but those at the front are rocking out like teenagers. She takes issue with those not listening and walks through the crowd singing closely into their faces, transfixing them with her gaze. This quickly gains everyone’s attention and the set begins to flow a lot more. It’s my first time hearing the Slovenian language sung live and it works brilliantly with her broad palate of sound traversing disparate genres of pop, dance, folk and r&b. It’s the perfect pre-amble before heading off to catch the official afterparty.
Next up is the official closing party in a warehouse called Sveta Bar, a mile from the old town. Moscow disco punks Wet Red are showing they’ve got stadium-sized credentials even on this intimate stage. The band are minnows in the UK but borrowing from the likes of Siouxsie Sioux, Kraftwerk and The Kills, you can’t see it staying that way for long. With songs called ‘Absinthe’ and 'Testosterone’, they’re an extroverted force and an intriguing proposition for anyone visiting The Great Escape, where they are one of a number of Russian acts showcased.
The afterparty becomes in hot demand and we hear remixes of Fischerspooner among the choices. But told there’s a “satanic afterparty with fire in cages” we're intrigued to see what’s happening. This venue is in the slightly further out Kalamaja, a former fisherman’s district turned arts hub, and requires an Uber to get there. It’s the Estonian equivalent to Hackney Wick, only there’s a lot more space, natural beauty, and much of the derelict space is yet to be transformed. Venues seem in an embryonic stage, yet to live up to their full potential. Excitingly, it’s the first night at Hall for some unrelenting, ritualistic techno from Regis, a Brummie famed for founding the Downwards Record label in 1995 and often mentioned in the same breath as that perhaps better known fellow inhabitant of the second city, Surgeon. Manning the decks with an unwavering, intense focus on what he's doing, he sets off an incredible wall of dark sound that has festival goers primed to give their all for one last blow out. There are numerous fires blaring in the cages, plenty of industrial goth style – and some more fetishistic styles too. Nearly everyone’s wearing black and as dawn rises, the colossal sound and atmosphere shows no sign of slowing down. He’s a pretty much a cult concern, but those who like him are truly transfixed. I meet one couple who’ve travelled from St Petersberg by bus especially to be here, which shows those who delve deep into his back catalogue recognise him as a genius of sorts, and one of only a few heritage acts to grace TMW.
Ultimately, TMW is an absolute treasure trove of musical inspiration, not to mention the passion with which it is presented by a highly attuned group of people working tirelessly in Tallinn to create their beloved festival. It’s rare to come away feeling this inspired. For an inner city festival, this is truly up there with the best. It’s satisfying knowing that the intentions of those behind the scenes are all coming from the right place, namely an aspiration to create a better world through music. Not only in the hedonistic indulgence of the moment; but socially, by bringing people from all over the world together with a mutual desire to further this artform. Sharing knowledge and making connections to travel the world are providing a serious lift to artists signed and independent alike, who know touring is the most vital income source to sustain a career.
There’s even quantifiable evidence of how beautiful the minds behind this festival are: the TMW conference held discussions on future skills, gender equality, civil activism and sustainable development. They also held the first international conference in Estonia to reach a gender balance among speakers. With a line-up that provided such incredible music, a mentality that’s out to shape our future for the better, it becomes impossible not to fall for TMW. Sublime stuff.