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EXIT Festival 2012 Review

July 30, 2012

EXIT Festival is not like your average British Festival. For starters, it’s not in Britain at all. Held in the second largest city in Serbia, Novi Sad, it possess a very unique and intriguing history, born out of a movement in 2000 against Slobodan Milosevic’s brutal regime; Exit out of Serbia essentially.

See our fascinating interview with the festival co-founder Bojan Boskovic for a more in-depth look. From that original 100 day-long festival, it has slowly evolved and grown into one of Europe’s most notorious festivals in terms of size, atmosphere and stupendously picturesque setting. So The 405 thought it was high-time that the beast was investigated.

On the journey over there, I share a couchette cabin on a long overnight train from Zurich with a pleasant Serbian chap called Vladimir. “Vladimir, like, Putin” he clarifies. Before hastily adding “But not Putin, no. I do not get why many Serbian people say ‘Russia, they’re our brothers!’. No, I don’t like this”. I’m already warming to Vladimir. He thinks, then he talks, something that seems to be unique to humans capable of speaking more than one language

It turns out that this is the man from Belgrade’s 10th EXIT in a row, and thus I’m able ween valuable bits of information about the festival and converse into the night (even getting an irate American from the next door carriage worked up enough to come in and tell us to shut it). Tips such as Serbian cab drivers will ALWAYS rip you off, what to expect from stages and how you’ll find ‘your stage’.

The politics of Serbia are hard to avoid in conversation; the festival itself still has ‘political themes’ for different years. For example, one theme that emerged in recent times is trying to integrate Serbia with Europe further, and make it easier for Serbian people to emigrate and travel within the wider continent.

I witness this first-hand in the morning. After waking up somewhere after Austria I go for my customary morning toilet (naturally) as the train pulls into a station. Whilst in mid-defecation I hear raised voices outside and despite the door being locked, someone unlocks it from the outside and bursts in; I slam shut with my foot, whilst remaining on the toilet. Then this happens again, and I slam again and hurry-up my bowel-process. These are not ideal condition for a relaxing poo, who are these toilet-interfering leeches?

I come out and there are four armed Croatian Police outside, who, it turns out are doing routine Passport checks; though, once they hear my English tones are immediately satisfied. Back in the couchette, a flash of my passport is enough for them – but poor Vladimir is being given a lengthy inquisition, being of Serbian origin of course. I have no idea what’s been said, but it’s holding up the entire train now.

This incident in a microcosm highlights the problem many Serbian folk face; viewed as the black sheep of Europe still.

Anyway, there’s a festival to attend, right? I’m advised to get off a station just out of Belgrade, where to my surprise a whole lot of back-packers of a multitude of nationalities get off at, and we wait in the savage early evening sun and swap and regale stories of our travels. Many it turns out have come here almost on a whim – having been persuaded by others on their travels to go to EXIT. Word of mouth in action.

EXIT // Novi Sad

Once in Novi Said, I inevitably get ripped off hugely by a dodgy cab driver to get to my destination to greet friends, despite Vladmir’s sage advice. Beer + days of traveling + hot sun is not conducive to astute decision making.

Thursday

After spending the day at the beach on the Danube (best 30 pence ever spent) in an attempt to stay cool in this 38 degree heat, we head to the abandoned Petrovaradin Fortress that overlooks the river, and where the festival takes place. Despite the late start of the festival (opens at 8pm, most getting there for gone 10pm) it’s still hugely sultry. I can get my sweat on sitting down; wipe, brief-relief, repeat. A beeline for the Dance Arena is made, where we catch half of Eats Everything‘s set that is a great, kinetic prefix to the act we’re here to see; Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs.

Young Oxford-based chap Orlando Higginbottom has been touring extensively for well over a year now, and has even found time to release debit full-length album Trouble; and whilst it is incredibly good in places, the album is so very lengthy; once conquered it’s gold, but a daunting prospect at times.

TEED starts off the set with slow-builder ‘Closer’, a sensuous call-to-arms if you like to prep the full and baying crowd, foaming at the mouth to have a party. Then.. the unmistakable synth-intro of ‘Trouble’ surfaces from the fluid sound, and a party is exactly what we have. It’s unbelievably well received as the first four-to-the-floor beat kicks-in – his delicate vocals swooning over the top of an electronic utopia of rhythm. You make me happy he states; the feeling is more than mutual TEED.

This sets the bar high, and the set never dips below this bar; as a live experience this is TEED at the top of his game, packed full of housey goodness and classic discombobulating skree squirly treble frequencies. The environment is as good as it gets essentially; on a hot night in a foreign land, with the Dance Arena in a mini, sloping valley surrounded engulfed in a Fortress. Not to mention the sound system, every nuance, change and evolution of sound picked up, so very crisp despite the large arena. Yet another added bonus is that the acts on stage are so high-up, that you can actually see TEED on stage from all angles, strutting around in slow-motion, a bastion of concentration and comfortable with it.

The final totemic double-header of ‘Household Goods’ and ‘American Dream, Pt. II’ personify this, displaying a dirty, thrusting cut-up wobble and mini-drops threatening to bring down the fortress from the inside – the T in TEED standing for Trojan

One act in, and already we have a highlight of the weekend contender ladies and gents. Being the first evening there’s a palatable buzz in the confident and dense steamy night air, a situation where the atmosphere takes you by the hand, by the soul. You have no control over it. It’s Wild. It’s full of sideways people-as-monsters like this:

EXIT Festival // Disposable

On immediately after is Jacques Lu Cont for some more electro-house and breakbeat good times, though we decide to take a wander around the festival site in our lust-for-life exploring state of mind; wander being the correct term here. As always at the start of every festival, bearings are tough to decipher, finding stages a master of orienteering – a task a hipster Magellan would even find tricky. It’s not helped by nightfall, consistent drinking and scrambled braincells.

But it’s fun to check out the sights and sounds, and we eventually get to our destination of fate that is the HNS stage for Addison Groove; HNS standing appropriately for Happy Novi Sad. It’s refreshing after the cavernous Dance Arena to be somewhere a little more intimate. HNS is hidden away via a through path, by a little, though acutely steep hill where one can view the gaggle of kinetic limbs enjoying themselves below – it feels safe here. No monsters to report. The curved hill giving the look of a basin that feels like I’m in a warm bath; there’s nothing safer and more comforting than a warm bath right? Yes, this stage is a superb find.

The alter-ego of Headhunter, Addion Groove serves up some select garage/2-step-eqsue cuts. Exactly the kind of output you and your body need to hear at 4:30 in the morning – high bpm and sparse beats that’s subtly filthy. Filthy, like much of the stage as a heullva lot of dusty grass flys through the air from a coruscating atmosphere. Check out ‘Footcrab’ for an example example of his twitchy, juke-inspired dancefloor output. A fantastic, high-energy and sui generis genre-mutation.

After that set we call it a wrap for the night, and find our way of the Fortress as the sun starts to rise over the Danube. It’s a magnificent sight to behold from this elevated position with a whole view of Novi Sad, a city that feels more alive at 5:30am than any city I’ve ever witnessed. The perfect way to end Day 1.

EXIT // Novi Sad

EXIT // Novi Sad

Friday

Another day at the beach is called for where the world goes by, as seen above, as that’s all our bodies can muster in this hungover state and oppressive heat. For the evenings festivities we head down to the festival early at 8:30. By entering at this early hour, it gives us the opportunity to see the surroundings in a fresh manner with the help of our friend daylight – the things that couldn’t be seen last night (or more accurately, couldn’t remember) are a joy to witness.

En route is a mini village, reached by a series of winding walkways and stone tunnels, where there are even functioning pubs between the various stages; that’s before the sight of a man on a heavy metal stage who appears to be thrashing an umbrella? Oh, he is thrashing an umbrella.

From a tavern to Hercules & Love Affair, (it’s like a regular pre-gig experience this) to the imaginatively-titled Main Stage. It’s still relatively early in the evening, so H & LA have a tough job to do of getting everyone into a proactive state of mind. But a few songs into the set and the hangovers from last nights activities are soon forgotten thanks to Andy Butler and his troupe.

The DFA-signed New Yorkers provide a fantastically camp performance, so camp in fact that when I check my notes I’ve written it like this:

‘c a m p’

Androgynous figure Kim Ann Foxman and others are a chatty, catty bunch and provide continuous entertainment between tracks – and during. “Where’s the T?” screams Kim, to a great call and response form the crowd. Nope, no idea what that means either.

The upbeat, uptempo set joins the dots between OTT disco and Chicago house, much like the transition from their two albums from the self-titled to the housey Blue Songs. ‘Painted Eyes’ is a cracking example of the latter with an extended, metronomic outro that leaves space for an extended boogie. ‘My House’ is a super sing-along belting moment, and of course final number ‘Blind’ gets the main stage jumping.

Lukewarmly received is their attempt at Serbian, with the only Serbian phrase they know; ‘Take your pants off’, directed to the Serbian men. Come on, your not going to get into new Europe if you’re that frigid Serbia, darling.

Following on are one of the most-anticipated acts of the weekend (from having talked to a number of people at least) New Order. Of course this is a sans-Peter Hook line-up, let’s get that out the way first; not that it’s particularly a pertinent issue in my or I’m sure most of the audience’s mind – not many here would have the chance to see New Order before, looking at the demographics that surround the Main stage.

They’re a band that have trodden the line between a populist mainstream, and a deeper culturally significant world for a number of years; the weight of history, tragedy and success well documented to the nth degree. Bernard Sumner has a slightly dorky, endearing stage presence for a 50-something well-traveled entity, with Stephen Morris a master behind the drums pulling all the strings.

The set is a greatest hits set, with the wealth of material at their disposal, it couldn’t be anything else but. ‘Ceremony’ charms with a nostalgic-wink as ‘Age of Consent’ shows Sumner on yelping form – ‘Blue Monday’ is the first time that the entire audience gets involved, straight from the off, the drumbeat unambiguous to what’s gonna melt us for the forthcoming seven minutes.

However. For those that don’t know every synth, lyric and drum sample (and there are a decent number it seems), there is something a little lacking. The stage presence has a muted feel in comparison to recent reunion shows of recent, lets take Pulp for example. There was a hugely gratifying live performance that had an electric feel, like it could have been Cocker’s first time on stage. Here we have something that perhaps falls a little flat.

It’s all very accomplished, and yes, I’m signing along to every word and having a ball, but it’s not quite the all-encompassing set I thought it may be – that it had the potential to be. Tonight it’s ‘586’ that stands out – their ravier side sounding the freshest, their (albeit tender) tub-thumping-side not as rewarding.

We’re treated to a double-Joy Division encore of ‘Transmission’ and ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ to keep us sweet – though ‘Isolation’ earlier on surpassed these, partly due to the surprise factor.

EXIT // Novi Sad

Saturday

Yesterday Hercules & Love Affair ticked all the right boxes for good-time hedonistic disco, will Azari & III achieve the same heights? To their advantage they a) are on the Dance Arena and b) at a later time slot (they’re the first act I want to see, and it’s already half-past midnight). Thankfully, the temperature has dropped away slightly for the first time also. The farcical very-English tanlines have sadly not. A snapshot of daytime activities:

EXIT Festival // Disposable

I had the fortune of experiencing the Canadian quartet earlier this year at Heaven, which has remained a highlight of live music in 2012. The theatrics, the supreme sound system, the atmosphere – all those strands combined to create a near-perfect gig experience. So, anticipation is high, especially given TEEDs’s astonishing set the other night at this very stage.

A very atypical intro of ‘Manhooker’ set the scene and builds the anticipation, producers Dinamo Azari and Alixander II behind the decks keeping a low-key stance. This scene is blown-away by ‘Hungry for the Power’ as vocalists Fritz Helder with Cedric Gasiada bound onto the stage with exuberant energy, spliced with early 90’s house from the puppeteers behind them. Helder has his usual mask and armour on, though over the course looses it, with a good deal oh his clothes. They’re hard at work, werking it honey.

Once again it’s gloriously indulgently camp stuff, and they allow a succession of tunes that bleed into each other, form Indigo, into ‘Lost In Time’ and ‘Manic’. This is when they’re at the best, applying an unrelenting pressure steeped in disco-influences, not allowing the audience a chance to stop moving.

EXIT Festival // Disposable

As wild and enjoyable the set is, it doesn’t quite reach the heights of the previously mentioned outing; the sound is not as rich as it should be, trebles becoming lost and generally all on the quieter side – I’m able to hold flourishing conversations with the person next to me, which is a dead-giveaway that things aren’t quite right. Hard to blame Azari themselves for this.

All is almost forgiven by ‘Into The Night’ that closes the set, as the extroverted vocals irresistible to belt out, inspiring all to get their best singing-in-the-shower voice on and let loose for the chorus.

There’s time to kill between the next act on the itinerary, so another late night stroll appeals; I guess that’s a positive about having a line-up that isn’t all-conquering. Inside a walkway tunnel, is another tunnel (if Russian dolls made tunnels…), so after seeing Azari & III perform ‘Tunnel Vision’ mere moments before, we head in towards some very loud beat-driven music.

Before heading out again shortly after, the cramped nature more claustrophobic than intimate, as interesting the one minute experience was. We by-pass a stage that someone called Putrid Blood are playing and head to the HNS Stage once again for Teengirl Fantasy.

The duo of Logan Takahashi and Nick Weiss come to EXIT hot off the heels from the release of second album Tracer, following 20120’s remarkable debut 7AM. Despite their vague pop-leanings and at times sparse chopped style with R&B snippets, the set here is one of a more pure house-laden beat gorging angle. Less 7AM, more 4am, which is what it is.

The continuous set has hints of their eclectic genre-warps – ya know, that James Blake-esque angle and foggy dubby flirtations, and this is what makes it stand out from a lot of the generic stuff that’s found on the Dance Arena around the corner. This all results in a soft, dreamy, amorphous canon, that hint of something igniting underneath this veneer. It’s all about layers people.

EXIT // Novi Sad

Sunday

A series of late-nights, hot days and heavy cheeses have slowly taken their toll, but we get a second wind. A putrid ‘salty pancake’ nay, brick, is so heavy that space and time collapses into itself; not a way to shoo away a hangover oh no. It was certainly salty, I’ll admit that. Serbian cuisine it seems is hugely varied – some delightful (and cheap) meals are experienced, just not today. Pro-tip: avoid the dense cheeses.

So we drag our weary bodies into the fortress for the final time; though we discover we have a lot more Serbian dinar than we’d have thought – money really does stretch a long way out here (beer for 70p or so – and that’s inside the festival). No mark-ups here. Consequently the extra money means extra liquor and energy drinks which means an extra boost.

Sweden’s finest in terms of electro-pop Little Dragon are on the fusion Stage, who helps aid the recovery and alertness with a sprightly performance and jaunty energised beats. Frontlady Yukimi Nagano is charming company, sporting a huge pair of shades and floating around the stage like a soulful swan on E.

The Gothenburg foursome strike the perfect balance between an upbeat electronica with a definite pop-twinge – anything heavier would have been too much. It’s not all about Nagano however (as she’s humbly keen to point on on numerous occasions), with Little Dragon very much a tight group evidently enjoying themselves – at this their third time at EXIT. After playing some of the bigger numbers early on such as ‘Ritual Union’, they free themselves up to a run of three tracks without stopping, weaving their set into a susurrus and thoroughly pleasant performance.

To the main stage for Knife Party, who I know little about; and after seeing them, I wished my ignorance had been upheld. I don’t want to waste too much time on something so turgid but sometimes these things need to be said. There’s nothing wrong with a DJ mostly playing other people’s tracks per se; but to butcher them in such an impatient manner is deeply irritating – cutting from one track to another every two minutes, seemingly without any thought put into the process.

Beat matching? Pah, who needs that when you can slice twenty drops into your set in as many minutes. Gratuitous tabloid music for tabloid people. I later find out he’s part of Pendulum, which explains a lot. It’s like stepping on a piece of shit, to later walk past the original piece of shit you trod in to bring full circle. Hell, people seem to like it though..

We need something to cleanse our music pallet of the experience, and return back to the Fusion stage for Portugal-via-Angola assemblage Buraka Som Sistema. Once again I go in with a blank canvass, and am still willing to take a leap of faith despite the previous encounter of this kind.

After the first track, it becomes apparent that this is something, this leap into the dark landing into a rich, afro-beat frenzy of sheer optimism. Their sound part flies under the moniker of ‘kuduro’ – a traditional Angolan genre of music, though mutated with techno beats to create something otherworldly yet wholly palatable (as seen in numerous Fabriclive mixes).

BSS plough through the small hours of a Sunday (now Monday? Labeling time as days seems like a pointless vernacular exercise now) morning akin to a greased-up runaway train down an Alp, constantly gathering momentum and increasing in energy when it feels like there should be none left. A supreme amount of energy is unleashed, aided by rabid, visceral drumming and loquacious vox from all on stage.

Many of the tracks are downright gibberish lyrically, a track titled ‘Hangover’ consisting of:

‘Ba ba ba ba-ba-ba ba ba-ba

Nyeh nyeh nyeh-nyeh-nyeh nyeh nyeh

Du du du-du-du du-du du-du du du.’

As displayed vibrantly on the screen behind, adding to the spectacle. But it’s so fucking infectious and spirited and energised that it doesn’t matter, something to get totally get lost in. It’s quite possible the most fun I’ve ever had at a musical event. Fun. An at times dirty word in music, not when it’s done as well as this, no Sir. ‘We Stay Up All Night’ another highlight, and advice that sounds hugely tempting. I thought TEEDs would be untouchable in terms of the highlight of the festival; well, we have ourselves a new winner.

It’s 3:35 on a Monday morning, and as much as we’d like to catch Citizens! due on the same stage now, some of us have to be up in, well, three hours or so. Sorry Citizens! BSS are an awesome and fitting way to see out the festival anyhow.

So that’s the EXIT experience. There’s two basic questions you get asked on trips such as these. Would you go back again? For this, maybe. Would you recommend it to people? Definitely. If you are into your electronic music that is – from all out electro, to the genre-refinement analogous to R&S Records, and contemporary labels of a similar ilk.

The line-up for 2012 wasn’t all that hot, though, in a contradictory sort of way it worked to our advantage; no pressure in rushing to stages, and those horrible festival clashes. Consequently, that leaves more time to enjoy the essence of the festival, and mop up the atmosphere and distinctive environ. Not only in the fortress festival site itself, but Novi Sad as a whole. Make sure to get yourself an apartment though (something we did) – only a sadist would want to crash to their tent at 7am in 30 degree heat following a night of partying. Oh and it’s so very cheap, the money spent on airfare/transport you more than make-up for in the prices of everyday items (i.e. alcohol).

All that’s left is to grab a brief power-nap, and it’s time to head back to the unwelcome realities of the real world with emaciated yet burnt faces. Although the political aspect dominated thoughts on the way to Novi Sad – a festival started off in response to a political party out of control – it’s another P that symbolises the actual spirit of the festival. Just a good plain ol’ Party. A truly unique festival that matches its unique history.

EXIT // Novi Sad

EXIT // Novi Sad

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