Ljubljana, Slovenia, 29 – 31 March 2023

Culture is more interesting when it has a story to tell, and it is this fact that makes Slovenian showcase festival (and conference) MENT such an intriguing place to attend. Whether it collision between its past (the stunning old town sitting in the centre of Soviet era blocks) and forward-thinking present, or the story of Metelkova City (one of the events’ locations) as a strange autonomous social and cultural centre with squat punk vibes, the tales come thick at fast.

Then there’s the stories, ideas and debates of the conference covering everything from the future of festivals to AI and the backgrounds of artists that we simply don’t hear about in the UK. Ment is a sensory overload in the most cerebral of ways.

Following a multi-transport-mode trek across four different countries, our arrival is just in time for the opening ceremony followed by Estonian “folk” duo Puuluup, who attack regional traditions with walls of effects and looped sounds. Ramo Teder and Marko Veisson mess with the stuffy orthodoxy often associated with the genre, experimenting and, at times, delivering pure pop. It is a relaxed affair, and, I dare say, a “party”.

French psych-pop adventurers Le Femme end the first night in Kino Šiška, with a mash-up of French musical culture – Ye Ye, new wave, techno and blending them with global psych and 60s beat. The set often veers close to cliché, but avoids it by the sheer joyous power of it all. This is synth-led (they have four at the front of the stage) genre-hopping delivered in a fine manner. A decade on from the magnificent debut album ‘Psycho Tropical Berlin’, why they aren’t a household name in Blighty? Maybe they are just a little too French (or Spanish if you take their effortless switch for material from new album Teatro Lucido). Le Femme is a pop band without borders, and we need more of that.

Night two, really kicks off with the woozy-charms of Warp-signees Wu-Lu in Kino Šiška. Somehow they find moments of almost metal heaviness, never losing sight of their alt hip-hop foundations. As they journey through trip-hop haziness, downbeat funk grooves, punk energy and, in one moment, a dub reggae excursion, it is hard not to be utterly enthralled. This is a special live band.

Hightailing it over to Metelkova City, and Channel Zero (one of the areas many venues) Slovakian/Czech producer collective Sam Handwich (yes, the name is one of those terrible spoonerisms) have evolved. I last saw them in Prague in 2022 when they were impressive but perhaps a little unfocussed, but they have now refined all the disparate elements in to a singular vision. The result is downbeat synth-pop with elements of dubstep, techno and indie creating an intoxicating blend. If James Blake floats your boat, this is for you.

We only catch glimpse of Slovenia’s Birds of Unknown in Students’ Home Camp, but their vocal loops, voice as instrument offers a lullingly nice vibe. Their electro-folk jazz stylings immediately remind me of a less quirky Psapp, which is no bad thing.

“She plays fruit” was the first statement I ever heard about Elizabete Balčus from a drunken journalist in Tallinn several years ago – they weren’t wrong. At MENT, her performances have taken on more life, losing none of her uniqueness. In the purest traditions of outsider pop Balčus is part-performance artist, part-interpretative dancer and part-dreampop chanteuse. Her ethereal vocals dance with flute, loops and, yes, amplified fruits. Weird is good, and Balčus is one of the most enjoyably weird pop artists on the planet.

The night ends with the relentless industrial noise of Plie and the skronky, kinetic jazz experiments of UK duo O. Built mainly around saxophone and drums (with a range of effects from other instruments) it sounds like ‘Bitches Brew’, played with Pigbag as rave culture kicked in.

With ears still ringing from the final moments of the previous night, Floex Ensemble came with the calm in new venue Cukrana . A chamber ensemble, put together for tonight’s performance, to play compositions from renowned Czech clarinetist, composer and producer Tomáš Dvořák, they forge connections between electronica and neo-classical, turning tunes, many created for indie video games, into lush orchestral movements. Covering tracks from his extensive album, soundtrack and remix discography, the set proves Floex’s prowess as a composer. It’s beautiful stuff and an excellent primer for an artist well worth exploring.

The next two acts deliver intensity in different ways. There is, apparently, a lot of variety to explore in the career of iamyank, but tonight’s onslaught comes from new post-metal tinged work from latest album ‘Láttam a jövőt meghalni’. A colossal wall of noise, emanates from a central bank of electronics, guitars and bass flanked by two drummers creating a dark, industrial surge of ambient, techno and experimental sounds. UK hype-band PVA is less noisy but no less intense, playing tunes from their debut album ‘BLUSH’. In an age where tech can create perfection effortlessly, there is still something raw about PVA’s synth and drums approach, complete with imperfections and human error. They perform a run of dancefloor bangers, that is pure pop for the rave.

Back in Metelkova City making way through an intense rain storm, Ireland’s Just Mustard destroy any idea that they are simply a shoegaze band, as well as the ears and hearts of all those present. Despite the obvious influences from shoegaze, indie-pop, no wave and noise rock, the manner in which they create kinetic layers of noise is as close to dance music at times as it is anything rock. Katie Ball’s lush vocals provide a focal point for the audience amidst the swirls of noise, shinning a light through the dark turbulence. 

With a 5am departure to Venice to fly home, there is just time to catch Estonian avant-pop wonder Mart Avi, who in this guise is performing with legend of the Tallinn scene Ajukaja (the founder of the excellent Porridge Bullet label and John Peel favourite). With Ajukaja on the decks and Avi crooning his way round the stage, it cuts a strange vision. Klub Gromka becomes a weird off-kilter, house-music party showing how well Avi’s unique take on being a pop-performer is complemented by Ajukaja’s knack for danceable rhythms and big samples. Whether it’s the digital-dub ballardry of ‘Scorpio’ or the 2-step meets Pet Shop Boys of ‘Horse Eats Hat’, this is the kind of act that makes the journey to Ljubjana worthwhile.

For news of next year’s MENT, visit ment.si

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