“Remake / Remodel is the key… not that we haven’t stumbled and fell,” says Ingrid Kohtla, one of the creative minds behind Tallinn Music Week – one of Europe’s most consistently fearless, diverse festivals, in a country that’s always been seen as a gateway between East and West.
Aside from the wry Roxy Music reference, TMW can add rebirth to the mission statement, along with the official line, “Tomorrow’s music, art and ideas”. It’s symbolically held in spring in Estonia, with the last dregs of snow thawing on the disused train tracks that run through the post-industrial festival site as I arrive.
For its 11th edition, Kohtla and the rest of the “little collective” of curators, promoters and strategists called Shiftworks (another impeccable reference, this time The Fall) invited 170 acts from 28 countries, with a gender balance that’s been in check years before other festivals fell into line after being called out.
Ingrid jokes that they do of course showcase “flamingly heteronormative archetypal bands”, but adds that “it’s never been about the numbers, it’s about all-round diversity, education and freedom of speech”. This diversity extends to the music and conference programme, with the line-up a thrilling jumble of non-sequiturs that only fully slots together when you’re there, joining the dots between ambient techno, brutal death metal, cold wave post-punk, contemporary jazz and avant-garde noise in the space of a few hours darting between pop-up venues.
TMW 2019 unfolds on the weekend of the original Article 50 trigger date of March 29, and one conference speaker Malcolm Garrett updates his speech in real time with a title of ‘Brexit Is Over! If You Want It!’ – a title as striking as his iconic Orgasm Addict 7-inch sleeve.
And despite some black humour from UK colleagues in the Whatsapp group about possible quarantine cages on the flight back, Estonian president Kersti Kaljulaid specifically namechecks Britain as a continuing ally in her impassioned speech about creative freedom, the value of counterculture and Estonia’s place in Europe.
“30 years ago we did not know what Estonia was going to be,” she says. “Now we know — it is the creative hub of Europe.” We do love festivals in Ireland, but it’s hard to imagine our Kylie-loving Taoiseach giving a keynote speech at a showcase event with a line-up featuring Barren Womb and Demonic Death Judge.
Kaljulaid knows the value of cultural tourism, and the Estonian government has been fully on board with Tallinn Music Week since it began in 2009. Tanel Sepp is an annual volunteer for the festival who heads the Estonian Ministry of Defence’s cyber crime department and was once the Deputy Ambassador to the US (Obama years, he assures me). Tanel is another example of the Estonian state and creative industries teaming up for TMW. After meeting at Sveta Baar on the first night he acts as an unofficial tour guide, initially for strolls through the cobbled streets, towers and ramparts of the medieval Old Town, and as a left turn, an introduction to the faded grandeur of the Kopli district at the end of the tramline, a “special area of Tallinn with a bit of sadness but also great opportunities”, with its wooden houses, Soviet-era apartment blocks and moss-covered crumbling cars, and a growing community of artists.
“It is not just about music, but also about the urban environment and development,” Tanel says of TMW. “In essence, it is mostly about people — both on and off the stage. I love being part in this as a volunteer, to meet new people and to discover new music.”
As a bonus aside, the festival wristband also doubles as a free public transport pass for the week — not that there’s much need for trams or buses. For the first time TMW is held mainly in the compact Teleskivi (‘The Brick’) district in north Tallinn – a former industrial zone that’s been repurposed into the city’s creative hub, with design houses, studios, restaurants and boutique shops taking over former factories and shipping containers, leaving their mark with street art, installations and the smell of coffee wafting in the air. And in a remake/remodel bullseye, the conference hub is in the new Estonian Academy of Art – once an old sock factory. The festival spills out into the city for further free gigs – with Åmnfx’s droney ambient techno complementing the minimalist art book store Puant and his fellow Russian electronic artist Chikiss treating locals in Balti Jaam Market to some post-lunchtime analogue synth weirdness.
From their opening, it feels like Polish duo SIKSA want to tear down Teliskivi, brick by brick, in a performance art/hardcore noise show in Sveta Baar that’s bewildering, viscerally confrontational but ultimately transcendent – Swans’ vision of ECSTASY through blood and tears. Vocalist Alex apologises that her lyrics are in Polish but she reaches everyone in the audience – directly. She spends most of her time off stage on the floor, sometimes squealing in people’s faces, other times embracing, and in genuine goosebump moments, pleading and sobbing with a trembling lip, asking us to believe her story.
Alex explains this current concept is a version of The Taming of the Shrew, with themes of sexual violence and misogyny. Her partner Piotr nails everything to the ground with an overdriven hardcore bassline fully in the red, as Alex strips off her blonde wig and white dress and flails around Sveta with her shaved head and cowl, at one point climbing on top of the bar and seeming to retch her words out.
The old repurposed railway building and vintage clothes store of Sveta seems to be fuelled by out-there duos over the weekend: Russian bass-drums combo KnightsKnights open up ‘The Kids Are Alright’ showcase with a swirl of noise-punk discord; Swedish act Ghlow swagger through their set with an air of Suicide and A.R.E. Weapons; Ukrainians Geuxx add some shoegaze psychedelia to their melancholy cold wave.
After a temporary palette cleanser of Estonian/Jewish roots music from Shabat Quartet at the jazz showcase in Vaba Lava on the Friday, Sveta is heaving in unison to the maximalist robo-hardcore of Japanese pair MOJA, with frontman Haru contorting his vocal lines through pedals and scraping the mic off his bass strings, and drummer Masumi a mass of twirling hair and drilling kicks, with her sticks regularly flying across the stage. I bump into MOJA at the airport on the way home after spotting Masumi in the Lego shop and they both accuse each other of being the craziest on stage, but I’m calling it a draw.
From the futurist noise of MOJA to the melancholy elegance of Belarus’s Molchat Doma, or Молчат Дом, which means ‘Silent House’ through Google Translate, but let’s go for the more evocative translation from a native Russian speaking friend, ‘The Houses Are Silent’. From the Xeroxed brutalist hotel on the cover of their latest album Etazhi to the lo-fi minimal synths, Molchat Doma come off like an early 80s Iron Curtain cold wave band, and their austere performance in Kivi Paber Käärid adds to the mystique. Frontman Egor channels Ian Curtis in his restrained arm-flail dancing, while his middle distance stare and stunning baritone add an operatic desperation to the event. Truly mesmerising.
There’s no need for Google Translate with Russian queer disco crew SADO OPERA, whose joyous acid house and Hi-NRG bangers sugar coat their underlying message of inclusiveness, equality and a middle finger to the patriarchy in their home country and further afield. They headline the Saturday night in Erinevate Tubade Klubi (Club of Different Rooms), a venue a few storeys up, with grand views of the train tracks and street art through Telliskivi, and an added quirk of trading in your shoes on the way in for a pair of slippers – all the better for sliding across the dance-floor to Russian Anal Game and Bathroom, as SADO Opera’s The Colonel and Katya perform lascivious interpretative routines and the bassist pulls all manner of face contortions.
With a name like Cumbeast, we don’t expect much political undertones from the Finnish grindcore brutal death metal act – unless their latest single Cocktopus is a metaphor for being fucked from all sides by the man, or something. They headline the TMW metal Showcase – which sidesteps fads and trends for brilliantly curated programme of extreme music, including shoegaze black metallers MØL, Estonian sludge act Ocean Districts and the atmospheric black metal of NRCSST. And while not exactly metal, Estonian act Zahir are maybe the most vicious band on the bill, with a snarling sarcastic edge that’s rare outside of reprobates like Jesus Lizard. Their new album What Noise? Is on their second in 25 years, so hopefully they sort their shit out and get back on it.
Meanwhile, Cumbeast circular headbang their way through their brilliantly vile set, in the regulation death metal uniform of beach shorts and band tees – and a bonus point for the frontman in ultra-90s light-up basketball boots. I leave the TMW metal showcase with my only band merch of the whole festival – now the proud owner of a Cumbeast ‘Straight Outta Sewer’ T-shirt.
In fairness, it’s not all bleeding eardrums at TMW – there’s enough folk, jazz and even regular(ish) rock and pop music to be found, and the Made In Canada showcase is the essence of polite indie-rock. TMW does also uncover some Estonian acts with genuine mainstream crossover appeal. F-hoone Must Saal is packed to the back of the hall for singer-songwriter Anna Kaneelina, whose dramatic art-rock nods to Anna Calvi, PJ Harvey and Stevie Nicks, while Yasmyn adds some sweet R&B vibes in Sveta Baar as a sweet palette cleanser after the SIKSA onslaught. And for sheer good-natured vibes, Ukrainian kindergarten teacher-turned viral rap star Alyona Alyona can’t seem to believe her luck, giggling through a hyper set of trap and call-and-response hip-hop with her MC partner, proving she’s able to work a crowd as well as a quirky YouTube video.
Back to electronic explorations, Dublin duo Lakker present their new album Epoca amid a tangle of wires and controllers and abstract projections, its organic use of drones and warped Irish folk instruments adding a vaguely pagan feel to the post-midnight set.
It’s a perfect lay-up shot for HALL – the techno factory on the edge of town that’s fuelled by a long-lost Berghain vibe of rusted fittings, steep staircases, perpetual strobes, near darkness and a no-phones policy. And even though there’s a huge hashtag sign of #everythingisforbidden on the side of the building, the irony is not lost on this TMW first-timer.
- Tallinn Music Week runs every spring, with next year’s festival taking place from March 23-28. See tmw.ee
(Extended version of piece written for Irish Daily Star)