It’s 7am in a 17th century Serbian fortress and Darth Vader’s behind the decks, flanked by a couple of Stormtroopers punching the air to banging techno. It’s not your average Saturday morning, but Exit’s not your average music festival — the force is strong with this one. The Sith gatecrashers at local hero Marko Nastik’s set in Exit’s Dance Arena is just another WTF moment in a weekend that’s full of them.
Exit in the city of Novi Sad was hatched in 2000 as a covert revolt against the dictatorship of Slobodan Milosevic, and the festival was instrumental in “crushing the five-pointed star and bestirring an avalanche of liberated minds”, according to one tourist guide we picked up. The first festival lasted 100 days and involved much political debate, theatre and a slogan that didn’t need much translation: “EXIT out of ten years of madness.”
After a decade, Exit may have sidestepped its political message as the festival grows into one of Europe’s biggest, but there’s not much need to protest in Novi Sad during the summer. Thousands swarm to the northern city from all over Europe for the warm Serbian welcome, the warm Serbian sun and the most spectacular setting for a music festival State has ever seen — Petrovaradin Fortress that towers above a cliff overlooking the Danube river. During the first week in July, Petrovaradin is declared an autonomous “State of Exit” with its own coins forged in the national Serbian mint, and the vibe from the fortress swallows up the surrounding cobbled old quarter during the four days. Around 165,000 visitors went through the gates at Petrovaradin this year, to check out over 20 stages and some 600 artists.
The first thing that’s obvious walking through the arched gates towards the Main Stage is the booming crystal clear sound. Apparently Exit doesn’t have to deal with noise level restrictions, but it’s hard to see who’d complain anyway. The locals seem to be in on the whole caper, from the guys selling roasted corn on the cob at the gates, to the girls in tight tops dealing out rocket fuel Rakiya brandy in test tubes, to the wizened oul’ doll selling light-up devil horns at the side of the road daily, dancing with every single person that walks past.
LCD Soundsystem is the first act to test the Main Stage’s mega soundsystem, and after a slightly subdued start they nail it with a manic Yeah and a razor-sharp Tribulations, with James Murphy dressed all in white like an extra from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. After their recent no-show in Dublin it’s good to see Murphy and co on their last tour going out on a high, and plenty of headbanging during Movement. And a shout-out to everyone who joined in the 3-2-1 countdown to roar: “GIL SCOTT HERON” during Losing My Edge, and the DJ who played Eddy Grant’s Electric Avenue as soon as LCD walk off.
Taking a breather with a 1 euro pint of Tuborg, we almost get trapped in Mika hell but escape with a quick juke through the crowd with fingers in our ears, a mission repeated 24 hours later when Placebo whine on to the Main Stage. We find the Explosive Stage to see Californians Suicidal Tendencies punk it up hardcore like it’s 1983. Founding member Mike Muir is 50 going on 15, bandana still in place, banging out knucklehead classics like Institutionalized and You Can’t Bring Me Down, while using skateboarding as a metaphor for life: “You fuckin’ fall down you get right up again”. He also reckons his little brother was, “like, man, the first fucking skater ever”. Whatever about his pioneering sibling, the preposterous show is a class buzz at the same time, a gig that manages to make Biohazard look highbrow. The dunce cap is well and truly screwed on when 100 fans storm the stage and a girl takes her top off for the last song. Suicidal Tendencies: We salute you.
A scuttle up a few windy paths leads State to the grand cobbled courtyard of the Fusion Stage and a big arms aloft moment as Swedes Miike Snow polish off their glossy pop anthem Silvia then Animal, turning me into one of those giddy fair-weather fans that wait for the big hits at the end of the show. And then everyone’s favourite viral video from ‘da interwebs’ comes to life when Fusion gets invaded by Die Antwoord, the hooded Cape Town white-trash rap crew. The unhinged novelty smash Enter the Ninja is their calling card (5.5 million YouTube hits and counting), but they dish it out first, Ninja spitting out his scattershot Afrikaans-patois hybrid while Yo-Landi Vi$$er lays on the skanger sex kitten chic for the boys. This frees up the show for darker tunes like the raved-up Wat Kyk Jy and Beat Boy, as the duo gradually get rid of most of their clothes. Never mind if they’re “for real” or not, Ninja and Yo-Landi don’t miss a rhyme and DJ Hi-Tek’s hardcore beats are Fokken Zef Style. Die Antwoord are perfect performance art – like The KLF but even further into the gutter.
A newly-reformed Atari Teenage Riot is one of my definite ticks on the second night, and it’s panic stations when we realise they’ve been moved forward an hour and their machine gun gabba beats and chainsaw synths echo from the Fortress while we saunter along on the other side of the Danube. A hastily flagged taxi and a triathlon run through the crowds gets us to the Main Stage in time to see CX KiDTRONiK rolling round the stage, strangling himself with mic leads, mainman Alec Empire punching the shit clean out of his drum machine and Nic Endo headbanging on her knees screaming at a level that belies her petite frame. The Berliners’ digital hardcore lives up to its name, with politically-charged anthems like No Remorse, Get Up While You Can and Revolution Action while a strobe-lit Alec is in silhouette, fist in the air like an old communist statue. The anarchists have started riots before in their home city, but there’s no chance of any insurrection from the Exit crowd at the moment, who are a bit static during this pre-10pm slot, or even just stunned – it’s the craziest main stage festival set you’re ever likely to see. Maybe the crowd’s here for The Horrors, whose tracks like Scarlet Fields sound a bit dirgy after ATR, but they pull a few rabbits out of the hat with Who Can Say and the Suicide cover Ghost Rider – a track that could’ve been written for the leathered-up gang.
The Positive Vibes reggae stage is a haven from the madness, a perfect spot to recharge the batteries, resting on the makeshift tree stump seats while DJs drop rumbling dub from The Upsetters, Augustus Pablo, King Tubby and all the other usual suspects. Positive Vibes also beams rare footage on two massive screens, old Jamaican news reels of human rights protests, Lee Perry tinkering in his Black Ark studio, Peter Tosh sparking up spliffs and plenty of clips of Bob Marley’s famous football skills.
And then there’s the Dance Arena. The huge amphitheatre holds over 20,000 heads sprawled around a valley, on grassy outcrops, ancient stone steps and a tiered set-up facing the stage that looks like a football stand full of Ultras punching the air come morning time. Exit would be worth the trip for the Dance Arena alone, and it’s where we watch the sun rise over each day at the fortress, agog at the performance artists also on show – from high-wire trapeze acts to 10ft rubber-clad gimps on stilts to the faux 18th century French aristocrats on stage during Busy P’s set on the final night. A special mention also has to go to the punter behind us on Friday having a moment dancing in his underpants, calm as you like, doing a Porky Pig. Who needs trousers anyway? Friday has the killer line-up, with Moderat, Josh Wink, Ricardo Villalobos and Marko Nastik taking the reins until sunrise. Moderat (Apparat with the two Modeselektor lads) keep it ebbing and flowing, with Apparat’s processed guitar loops and occasional vocals complementing the aggro beats. Tracks like ‘Rusty Nails’ provide respite from the relentless techno, and sci-fi soundscape ‘A New Error’ is the set’s highlight. Josh Wink delivers a squelchy acid set that reaches pandemonium when he drops Jeff Mills’ ‘Reverting’ and his own 303-busting classic ‘Higher State of Consciousness’ as red streamers are fired from the stage hundreds of feet into the air.
Then it’s time to make way for Ricardo Villalobos, who delivers the set of the weekend. For three hours the Chilean/German don seamlessly shifts gears between marching drums, beefed up techno, vocal tracks, synth interludes and his own ‘Enfants’ and ‘Easy Lee’, while dragging on cigs like a 1970s French film star. No such luck with David Guetta in the same slot on Saturday, when an overcrowded Dance Arena turns into a cheesy disco while the Frenchman flicks his hair, points to the sky and dishes out chart fodder you’d hear in a bargain bin clothes shop. It’s not all bad though – State gets to throw a few shapes to guilty pleasure Zombie Nation, but then gets a right slagging off some newly-acquired Dance Arena pals.
Saturday’s a bit weak on the Main Stage too, as Missy Elliot’s show suffers from the worst hip-hop excesses: no-name “special guests”, a smoke and mirrors dance troupe, stop-start DJs and inane hype men. She even leaves the stage for costume changes – forgivable if you’re Grace Jones, but Missy’s just swapping Adidas tracksuits. It’s a nice touch when she signs her trainers and launches them into the crowd, but then she launches her good self into the crowd during ‘Work It’, causing about 20 minutes of heartache for security. Get Ur Freak On and Lose It are the obvious highlights but all the arsing around means the tracks just fizzle out. Misdemeanor leaves the DJ and dancers in charge for the last 15 minutes playing R&B like Empire State of Mind while I make a quick getaway.
No such complaints about Faith No More, in the process of wrapping up their hugely successful reunion year that’s made them more cash than all the previous 20 combined. Whether it’s an ornate old theatre like Dublin’s Olympia last year or vast outdoor festivals, the LA rock legends are still a force of nature, and singer Mike Patton is particularly feral at Exit – downing rakiya, humping TV cameras and trying to swallow his mic at one point while climbing a huge rig during Just A Man. FNM’s show takes in their more vicious numbers like Caffeine, The Gentle Art of Making Enemies and Cuckoo for Caca, and adds a dash of sinister wedding band – covering Peaches and Herb’s Reunited, their piss-take of the Commodores’ Easy, Chariots of Fire and even snippets of Michael Jackson’s Ben and Stevie Wonder’s Sir Duke. Patton makes an early (intentional?) gaffe by greeting ‘Yugoslavia’ but then atones by playing the traditional Serbian song Ajde Jano – not once but twice, Serbian lyrics included. He also takes time to learn Kolo Balkan dancing from a girl in the crowd during Epic. The locals nearly faint with the excitement – and all we got in Dublin last year was a few bars of EastEnders on Roddy Bottom’s keyboard. The newly-crowned World Cup-winners are congratulated too, as Patton croons Evidence in Spanish.
After FNM’s mania, we know the Chemical Brothers are gonna work it out, when the banks of equipment are wheeled on stage for the full live extravaganza. The duo race through crossover dancefloor classics like Leave Home, Block Rockin’ Beats, Galvanize and a blissed-out Star Guitar, lit up by a staggering laser show. It sets State up nicely for another Dance Arena marathon, with Busy P, Sebastian and A Trak going heavy on Ed Banger electro house, filthy dubstep, a few Slayer remixes and A-Trak throws on Duck Soup’s Barbra Streisand. Surely thousands of techno heads screaming in unison for Babs is an Exit first. As we’re ushered out at 9am on Monday morning, State’s plotting a few extra days in Novi Sad, which has started to feel like a home from home. Cancellation calls are made to our hostel in Budapest and later that night we’re in Martha’s bar in Novi Sad centre, raising our glasses with pals old and new. A big ‘Ziveli’ (Slainte) to Exit and Novi Sad — there’s always next year.
Originally on state.ie