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Festival review: Tallinn Music Week 2018

16th April 2018

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Given Estonia’s unique position in Europe (and the world), it makes sense that Tallinn Music Week would reflect this uniqueness and be a festival unlike any other.

As a young independent nation, having broken the austerity of Soviet rule and drawing progressive ideals from their Scandinavian neighbours they pride themselves on innovation and doing things differently.

Opening the tenth edition of TMW Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid beamed with pride, speaking of the nation’s fresh thinking on the challenges of our world and a shared humanity, evoking Martin Luther King. This was my first time in Estonia and at Tallinn Music Week, and she has much to be proud of.

While the majority of festivals sit with their feet firmly in the past TMW has actively developed itself based on inclusion, diversity and forward-thinking ideas.

The key presence of the Keychange PRS Foundation, the campaign to create a 50:50 gender balance at festivals by 2020, throughout the festival is testament to this fact. TMW has already achieved this gender split in both the organisers and across their line-up, which undoubtedly created a different voice and atmosphere through out the festivals multiple venues.

In the repurposed power station confines of Kultuurikatel, which held the day-time conference, the ‘Future Proofing The Music Industry’ panel, moderated by PRS CEO Vanessa Reed, laid bare the issues and the industry wide change of culture needs to balance gender in music. TMW is already there, and the rest of the industry needs to catch up.

Given this theme, our own musical experiences largely took in progressive female talent and artists subverting the pop form from within, largely at the basement, artists haunt Kuku Kubi, for the Cryptoculture events, over two nights.

Suzi Wu

Suzi Wu

In the dark underground bar, the casual and wonky punk edged pop of Londoner Suzi Wu was a great start. Her free reign over vocal styles and commanding stage presence make her a talent to watch.

As expected the biggest surprises came from artists from outside of our usual British scope of reference. Russia’s Kate NV’s esoteric avant-pop showed an artist with a split personality. Flitting between 80s pop influences and organic, experimental electronica NV had both mainstream and underground appeal equally. Flitting between a two-synth set-up, adorned with pedals and gadgetry she became immersed in the creation of her bubbling electronic sounds, while delivering stunning vocals and improvisation.

Russian dark-wave duo, Tema Kresta, dealt in sonic minimalism, and a meta attack on digital communication. Completely detached from the performance and the audience, the duo switched vocal and visual duties, delivering austere vocals and a cut and paste visual approach that featured internet searches, strange videos and live translation of their lyrics via Google translate. They delivered a thoroughly modern take on electro-pop.

Tema Kresta @ Tallinn Music Week

Tema Kresta

Messing with the concept of gender and identity, Florian Wahl delivered one of the festivals talking points with a middle-finger to conservatism. His electroclash sound is nothing new but a display that included him strutting the stage in a black leotard that displayed his buttocks, exposing his genitals and simulating sex with a cream cake, made his set something of a unique experience. A Euro house version of Michael Jackson’s ‘Earth Song’ with amended lyrics was an unexpected inclusion. Florian Wahl is coming for your moral judgements with a pick axe.

Outside of the Cryptomarket gigs, the femme element was no less powerful. In front-woman Allie Sheldan, Little Destroyer have a star in the making. Musically, the Canadian trio’s synth-driven, alt-pop is not going to change the world but unleash Sheldan in the live arena and something compelling happens. Dressed in Honda motorcycle chaps and a smiley face bra, Shelden burst forth with pure compelling energy and conviction that made her a must-see performer. Writhing around the stage, forcing out her words and clawing at her skin (so much so she draws blood) there is little doubt that this is an artist caught in the moment and not in a contrived act.

The Magnettes at Tallinn Music Week

The Magnettes

On the surface, The Magnettes could be just another contemporary pop band, but something interesting is happening with their own brand of ‘fuck pop’ – an empowering, angsty message for the #MeToo generation.

Their show destroyed pop convention, as they flaunted both their overt sexuality and individual power. With their stage-chat and song lyrics they represented themes that, in the past, belonged largely to emo and rock music – small town alienation, anger, dark thoughts and kicking against authority. Their latest album is simply called ‘Ugly Youth’ and standout track ‘Sad Girls Club’ expresses sentiments that are vital for our put-upon youth, including, “We just wanna cry cos the world’s so mean, we just wanna die because they killed our dream” and “I’m a downer, not a dancer. Please stop talking, go get cancer.” The Magnettes’ message is one of being OK to be different, owning your unhappiness and doing something about it.

In delivering this message Sanna Kalla and Rebecka Digervall owned the stage and converted the crowd with ease. This is conceptually the most interesting pop act to emerge recently.

Elizabete Blačus

Also, digging her own furrow, was Latvian artist Elizabete Blačus. Performing in the intimate and ornate surroundings of the Russian Theatre of Estonia she delivered a set that sat at the fault lines of pop music, experimental electronic exploration and performance art. The neo-psychedelic dream pop/avant-garde pop, performance connected the organic (with her fruit headdress and ‘veggie synths’ – fruit and veg hooked up to be played as part of her set-up) and the array of electronic equipment which built the beats and stabs of the music. Creating each song live with loops, ethereal vocals and live flute playing, the result was an mesmerising work of art.

Icelandic hip hop revolutionary Fever Dream is also rolling the dice for fem-revolution, in her home country and worldwide. Her feminist background, against the back drop of our world, gives a certain anger and aggression to her ‘horror hip hop’. Live she has an effortless flow, swaggering around the stage rapping over juggernaut beats. At Tallinn Music Week whether it was bringing a shopping centre to a standstill or performing on stage, Fever Dream own every space and displayed an inspiring conviction.

Fever Dream at Tallinn Music Week

Elsewhere, across the festival the music was no less interesting and inspiring. Estonian star Mart Avi, created a singular pop language, with pop music as high-concept art. Avi’s live interpretation of pop culture embodies a ‘bedroom Bowie’ persona and the cut-up, strange visuals of the ‘Avi Network’ that harks back to when live video art was subversive and strange. The moment he sat at the back of the stage to vape, like no one was watching, summed up his strange, artistic detachment from the room and the audience. Mart Avi exists in his own world even on stage.

Russian Aleksei Taruts provided aural audience provocation. In front of a single strobe light he stalked the stage speaking slowly in Russian or forcing out guttural death metal growls over dark techno and digital hardcore beats.

Mart Avi at Tallinn Music Week

Mart Avi

Slovenian band Lynch's rock mash-up assault which straddled punk, post-punk, alternative rock, metal and even grunge, ended in an explosion of strobes and an audience member playing guitar was one of the few traditional rock moments of witnessed, and was still away from the norm.

And this is what Tallinn Music Week has achieved in its ten years of existence – a festival which can be aptly described as ‘away from the norm’. Of the blast of new music, ideas and art the above review outlines the standout moments, but TMW was so much more. Some hits, some misses, some ideas that are close to Black Mirror coming to life, it was an overload of the senses.

Estonia is a country connecting innovation and progression with the rest of the world, and Tallinn Music Week showcased this perfectly with a line-up that smashed geographical, cultural and political boundaries and was all the more interesting because of that fact.

When it comes to delivering unique music, art and ideas Tallinn Music Week is a leading light – let’s hope the rest of the world catches up soon.

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