Alyona Alyona, photograph by Masha Kunina
It’s not every showcase festival that can call on a country’s president to pop down and give a rabble rousing speech in favour of the counterculture and the arts, but then Tallinn Music Week isn’t a normal festival. As it celebrated its 11th edition, TMW’s core restlessness with the world about it became all the more clear. The conference programme (‘The Impact Of Arts On The Economy’) delighted in some shock treatment; presenting possibilities for immediate, active change rather than another speaker circle jerk on the conferential gravy-train. Genuinely inspiring panels on the gender pay gap, data and creative space turned old arguments on their head by applying a hefty dose of lateral thinking or daring to say the unsayable. More head banging behaviour was evident with the music on offer. To put it mildly, the festival is not one for following the rules of good taste and “value for money”. And the booking policy – built up over years of informal, ground-level networking and friendship-building – is often impossible to predict. The programming at some venues resembled the new Balti Jaam market behind the train station; a mishmash of complete tat, bargains and superbly crafted delights.
“You Want Some?”
Confrontation is a key element at Tallinn Music Week. The urge to kick convention till it changes shape is a core element. And this festival – run and shaped predominantly by women – actively pushes equal gender billing; looking to make a mockery of the idea that any one sex (or idea of sex) in the music industry should take precedence over another. European music biz, take note. Femme power was at every turn. Ukrainian rapper Alyona Alyona and her crew turned the moody Hiphop Stage into a gloriously brassy singalong that defied so many of the genre’s conventions. We could have been on a cruise ship. Frisian duo Black Box Red played a raging show at Kivi Paber Käärid, where singer Eva van Netten howled and screeched through a glorious set of rough-hewn rock, attacking her drummer Stefan’s kit, to ensure only the most minimal drip of cock rock seeped out. We were also witness to the austere analog electro genius of Rotterdam’s Red Brut – aka Marijn Verbiessen – a striking figure whose futuristic experiments with cassettes and loops are spellbinding.
Then there was the incredible show from Poland’s Siksa in the Sveta bar. Remarkably, beautifully, and very wisely the singer – resplendent in a 60s style wig – explained to us non-Polish speakers what the set would be about. This had the effect of giving context to what otherwise would have been (just) a very effective cabaret punk show. From then on in, we were righteously harangued about female and LGBTQ rights in Central and Eastern Europe, the annoyances with Polish cops, politicians and a whole load of other bummer subjects based around institutionalised toxic masculinity. The laconic bassist made the sort of noises you’d hear if you drilled for North Sea oil. Right at the height of our collective discombobulation, the wig was ripped off; along with a few other garments. Now dressed only in open decollete, the singer jumped on the bar and continued the lecture over an increasingly intense drone. It was a fabulous and righteous gig. High praise too, for lad/lass Japanese duo MOJA; who gave the most perfect deconstruction – and crystallisation – of loud, aggressive, modern alternative noise rock you could wish for.
Remake / Remodel: Eesti Restlessness
Tradition can also be seen to have been thrown out of the window in the festival’s relationship with the city itself. The two seem increasingly joined at the hip, growing and changing together, like teenage siblings. Their cooperation always feels as if it is a spur of the moment thing, based on giddy appropriations of what’s actually happening in the city rather than carefully prepared civic plans for public creative space. This year’s programmes in the amazingly scuzzy, permavibed techno club, Hall, is just one example. I have no doubt that one year I will be dragged to an underwater gig housed in a neglected Submarine base off the Baltic coast.
Maybe because of this notion, it’s difficult to prise my feelings for Tallinn’s creative spaces and some Estonian artists apart. This happened with two gigs at the brilliant EKA ÖÖ Üle Heli 130701 / Fat Cat showcase in the austere Arts Academy. Ekke’s mindblowing abstractions in sound and vision in a small lecture room presented Estonian future-thinking, romantic sonic abstractions and ideas of reusing space as one gloriously transcendental musical moment. Downstairs in the main lecture hall, we were treated to a spellbinding gig by Maarja Nuut & Ruum. The new material from this increasingly experimental pair somehow turned the austere space into a floating, post-techno soap bubble, with their late T-Dream appropriation of their country’s folk tradition.
Other magical moments were provided by Mihkel Kleis – aka the Mighty Ratkiller – during the groovy Kalana Saund night in the Thai-restaurant-cum-pub-cum-shack known as Kauplus Asia. Kleis’s unique explorations in sound (encompassing everything from black metal to library music) are the stuff of legend in Estonia’s underground. These electronic voyages are dizzying appropriations of tiny moments; shards of noise that escape our attention, only to be remodelled and briefly shown to us by Kleis before being ushered back into nothingness. Ratkiller is a mage of the highest order, and it’s wholly appropriate to this festival’s, and his buccaneering, trickster spirit that he played; and in such a backwoods setting. Then there was young rock band KEETAI at Erinevate Tubade Klubi. This seemingly disparate bunch of (Estonian and Russian speaking) “hippy students” – replete with groover on bongos, a very languid cello player and onstage camera woman – knocked out what can only be described as a brilliantly cavalier and very C21st amalgamation of the very best of Amon Düül II and Spacemen 3. “The Perfect Phallus Dei”, if you will. And often at crushing volume. Their mad mates – looking like they’d just come from cult Norman Wisdom/Pretty Things film, And The Goose Saw the Gander, pranced wildly in front of them. It was beautiful.
The Baltic Bridge (Russians, Finns, Belarusians)
There are very few certainties in these times, but I would wager Tallinn Music Week is probably the best, maybe only place to see lots of Baltic, Russian and Belarus acts in one place in “The West”. This edition continued previous years’ promotions with huge contingents present. A shout out should first be given to Finnish doom merchants Demonic Death Judge; who provided the perfect soundtrack to a week-long Warhammer figure painting session that also made Sveta bar’s concrete floor groan and grumble with the afterburn of their feedback. As for the many Russian and Belarusians, a nod to the dirty, driving electropop of Siberian Alex Kelman, the wistful Cold Wave of Belarus’s Akute and the gloriously theatrical sonic fizz served up by “Peter’s” Sado Opera. Elsewhere, accordionist extraordinaire Yegor Zabelov wowed an earnest crowd at the Arts Academy; the Belarusian yet again summoning every particle of his emotional energy to the cause. Over at the weird private members bar Erinevate Tubade Klubi, Saint Petersburg’s Super Collection Orchestra charmed and confused in equal measure with their brave (yet nuts) attempt to fuse SFA-style pop with classic prog. Alt-classical star Kirill Richter also played a spine-tingling set in the Kalju Church. There really is too much going on on the other side of the river Neva.
Three Russian acts are worth additional mention. Your correspondent had previously seen KnightKnights last summer, in the back of a pub in Moscow’s Kitay Gorod district. Then, the stocky bass-drums duo had pounded through a breathless, pedal-heavy set that did its best to out-Gonzo NoMeansNo. In the spacious old railworks shed that doubled as Sveta bar, and backed by a much louder PA, KnightKnights made the most ferocious, unrelenting noise that seemed to nod to all your favourite punk-skronk records. The drummer (who looks like he pulls tractors with his teeth) threatened to create his own personal wind turbine. And the bassist contented himself with making huge dollops of treated sound that exploded all around us like the sudden release of a giant tube of psychedelicized toothpaste. Greatness surely awaits. Over in the cosy groover’s boozer, Kivi Paber Käärid, we were treated to Russian-in-Berlin Galina Ozeran, aka Chikiss; who makes intriguing otherworldly electronica that is hot to the touch and ever so slightly scary. Even though Chikiss was charm itself throughout – and often crooning like a mother to a baby – the unsettling feeling created by her music never went away. Maybe we felt echoes of Nico, heard stories about Rusalkas, or remembered the last time we’d played the Twin Peaks soundtrack. Regardless, it was mesmerising. Mention too, for Moscow’s Rosemary Loves A Blackberry, who openly revelled in the decent sound and vision; allowing her to dance her way through her strange, hyper-treated, but beguiling bedroom electropop.
These are difficult, changing times. And it’s very tempting to cling on to comforting old formulas. But by repeatedly doing the exact opposite, by being brave, making a mess, and acting a magnet for the marginal in popular music and the arts, Tallinn Music Week points to where the creative industries need to go. To appropriate the words of Sun Ra, this particular Estonian space seems to be the place.