Sharpe Festival, Bratislavia, Slovakia, April 25-27, 2024 | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Tuesday, June 25th, 2024  

Los Sara Fontan

Manon Meurt, Los Sara Fontan, The Dharma Chain, Yard

Sharpe Festival, Bratislavia, Slovakia, April 25-27, 2024,

May 29, 2024 Photography by Tomáš_Kuša (lead photo) Web Exclusive
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I’ve written reams of hyperbole about Bratislava’s Sharpe Festival over the past few years. I’m starting to sound like a stuck record but it’s justified. It represents all that is good about music and what a music festival should be.

It’s not just the immaculate curation or the thought-provoking conference discussions (I had the pleasure of sitting on the Listening Session panel with KEXP legend Kevin Cole) but the fact it is a spin-off of the community in Nová Cvernovka - a place that exemplifies everything positive about creativity and culture.

A repurposed chemical institute, it has been adopted for 25 years (well that’s the lease, it is six years down) by a group of radical creatives. There’s a retail space, a live music venue, bar, cafe, bakery, housing for artists (and those fleeing Ukraine), a community garden, and nursery - it’s a standalone community built on the very best ideals. Sharpe is part of that.

There’s three nights of music showing-off the most cutting-edge and thrilling sounds from the region, Europe and the world. Put simply, it is one of the most exceptionally put-together events in terms of new music in Europe, eschewing the usual Anglo-American dominance in favour of something far more exciting.

Manon Meurt (Photo by Ondrej Irša)
Manon Meurt (Photo by Ondrej Irša)

Returning from Sharpe is always a bit of a haze, snippets of memory and excitement materialising through a mental fog, but here is what “happened” at this year’s event.

Starting call-and-response chants of “Fuck” and “Off” and “Angry” and “Black”, subtlety and nuance were not a big part of Angry Blackman’s show. The Chicago-based industrial hip hop duo dealt in dystopian poetry, fraught with direct anger over relentless industrial electronics and sledgehammer beats. They confronted the crowd, urging them to dance, with as much aggression as they have for the world around them. Whilst they broke no new ground, the place went off and filled with all the righteous anger they pushed - it was on message.

For the Bratislavan audience, the special one-off gathering of acts for Kills Your Rap Idols was something special and you could feel the energy in the room. A supergroup (with members of Berlin Manson, Fvck Kvlt, Dušan Vlk, Temný Rudo, Paris and Arleta) took it in turns to lead the tracks, the energy was relentless, the crowd was enthralled. As a Brit culturally out of step with the excitement, I wasn’t sure what it all meant but when you feel you see the lyrics and the beats connect directly with a crowd in such a vibrant way, it’s hard to argue.

Closing the first night, Barcelona’s Dame Area positively oozed punk spirit, not the “punk” of the three-chord zealots, but the idea of challenging the norm, abundant energy and inclusiveness. Their show was a blast of kinetic industrial synths and engulfing polyrhythms in the classic EBM style, the sound of European punks of old discovering electronics. When leaving her bank of gizmos Silvia Konstance was a powerful force moving the audience through seductive voice and movement. Dame Area’s dark dance was something to behold.

Dame Area (Photo by Kristína Králiková)
Dame Area (Photo by Kristína Králiková)

The first full day, started with being led up a mountain, up a Soviet-era tower with views of the city and rides on a metal bobsled run - Sharpe does it differently! Later, as the sun began to set Ida The Young’s skewing of the indie-folk template was a great easing into the sounds of the night. Tightly played, their recognisable classic singer-songwriter fare with a hazy air and sweet vocals they ran the risk of being just a little too safe but avoided that trap nicely, with quirky and often alternative-rock nuances.

“What you might not know about me is, I’m also an architect”, said Lebanon’s Mayssa Jallad in softly spoken tones, during the between-song chat as impressive as the music. Her latest album Marjaa: The Battle of The Hotels explores an infamous battle in the Lebanese Civil War, delving into the concepts of “architecture used as a weapon’, how built environments shape our lives, the societal echoes of war and other thought-provoking ideas - it’s high brow stuff! Thankfully the music more than delivered for the lofty subject matter, merging regional folk traditions with flourishes of jazz, dream pop and indie rock. The musicianship on show was as remarkable as the ideas being explored, with Jallad’s heart-stopping vocals leading the whole affair. At times, the music resembled the ethereal tones of This Mortal Coil, and at others, the rocking end of PJ Harvey, others intricate neo-classical compositions, all infused with the history and present of Lebanese culture. Hypnotic, transcendent and utterly essential, Jallad’s set was remarkable stuff.

Mayssa Jallad (Photo by Tomáš Kuša)
Mayssa Jallad (Photo by Tomáš Kuša)

“Prog” in every sense of the word, Ukrainian trio Hyphen Dash darted and flitted between multiple sonic ideas often in the space of minutes. Why play some of the notes when you can play all of them? Jazzy pretentious dance-tunes with prog-adventuring, hip hop beats and surges of electronica, their set was impressive stuff, even if it didn’t always land. Given the situation they are coming from, their music feels defiant, free and an act of resistance! Catching a quick glimpse of Slowlick play their consummate regional take on the classic 90s trip hop template was a nice diversion on the way to something truly mind-blowing…

Joy is contagious! And Spain’s Los Sara Fontan caused an epidemic. If jazz is freedom, this is the pinnacle. Malleable songs built from violin (plucked, strummed and violated in innumerable ways), drums and electronics the duo journeyed through ideas at a fast pace - one minute they are traditional jazz before being an industrial act leading to a collapsing drum and bass break down. Their own screams of excitement when something came together were infectious, this is clever music played for enjoyment and you don’t get better than that.

Icelandic music has a distinct “thing” - it’s not so much a sound, or a look, but a sensation that it produces, an unspoken, almost indefinable connection to the landscape and traditions of the place. Lupina has that. After the set, I’m informed that because of equipment issues this wasn’t her performing at full strength - not that you could tell. The crystalline soundscapes took pop into strange realms, with abstract electronic soundscapes ranging styles but keeping a deep ethereal air.

The Drin (Photo by Michal Hradskyě)
The Drin (Photo by Michal Hradskyě)

Maximum rock n roll (in the classic sense) wasn’t really the order of the day at this year’s Sharpe, but America’s The Drin filled the quota almost single-handedly. From the very first note, they performed with a relentless gang-swagger drawing a direct line from 60s garage bands, through 70s arthouse punk to the attitude of certain Northern UK Britpop acts. It’s nostalgia repackaged with a “nowness” like the Brian Jonestown Massacre did in the 90s. There was a performative aloofness that, at times, verged on the edge of parody, but never fully fell over the edge. The guitar drive did get a little repetitive, but the blend of skronky sax blasts and additional percussion created a sonic melange rather than a pool of sameness. The Drin live is pure RnR energy, like Pere Ubu playing 60s beat standards. It’s not big, or clever, but it is something to behold.

First-day fatigue left Scuru Fitchadu with an undeserved small crowd, not helped by them being late on stage. But those who gave up missed something special. His aggressive take on Cape Verdian music tradition, fueled by “punk” energy and disruptive electronics gave all expectations a good kicking! Fitchadu himself stalked the stage, like leading a revolutionary sermon, his gruff almost growled vocals being unavoidable. This set was pure fire, pure manipulation of traditions - isn’t that what the best live music is all about!

Scuru Fitchadu (Photo by Michal Hradskyì)
Scuru Fitchadu (Photo by Michal Hradskyì)

After an incredible run of music so far, Saturday had a lot to live up to. But that challenge would always be met when the evening began for us with Croatia’s Žen. Part of the exceptional Moonlee Records stable, they crafted dreamy soundscapes that dance between pop melody and experimentation. This show displayed how in-tune they are with each intricate part of their tunes, somehow having an exciting looseness that can only come from musicians comfortable in their skin. Whether hitting dreamy flows, funky breakdowns or big-riff rocking they never faltered.

Aussie-via-Berlin psych adventurers The Dharma Chain played with a brand-new bassist for the first time, and another member who had not rehearsed due to travels - not that you could tell. The six-piece sank into their classic psychedelic rock tsunami with ease. The driving rhythm section lifts the ethereal din of guitar swathes and reverbed vocals. Their music has that retro-futuristic 90s psych vibe, that revamped nostalgia line where the classic hazy drone is infused with RnR sex and sleaze (in a good way). The show at Sharpe showed they deserve to be big players on the European psych scene.

Ireland’s Yard was the rowdiest band on show. With no regard for pleasantries or subtlety the three-piece bashed the life out of assembled throngs with electronics and guitar. Like Gilla Band, Death Grips, Factory Floor and Nine Inch Nails in a sweaty orgy, the set was an immersive, sense-attacking aural onslaught. It’s like consensual BDSM, it’s aggression to get off to. Punk as fuck, and as unforgiving as a nuclear explosion, Yard are coming for us.

Yard (Photo by Tomáš Kuša)
Yard (Photo by Tomáš Kuša)

Sharpe has a knack for bringing UK acts I have somehow missed to the stage! This year was Swarmm’s experimental electronic dystopia and the surging, uplifting, politicised, working class electro post punk bangers of Doss. Both deserved to have already been on my radar.

In a packed show, Manon Meurt proved themselves to be one of the best bands in Europe, without a doubt. Showcasing their first album in six years Unravel, the Czech band has built on their shoegaze style to be an aural black hole sucking in all genres in their periphery, Swirls of dream pop and shoegaze, big grunge riffs, all manner of electronic styles (dubstep, techno, ambient) and even flourishes of free jazz create an cosmic sound explosion, still grounded in classic songwriting. All this was performed with inch-perfect perfection, their show was a stunning realisation of one of the albums of the year.

With new music fatigue setting in, we caught T’ien Lai, the enigmatic, masked experimental dance trio from Poland who morphed global rhythmic cues into electronic groove-based sound. It seemed fitting that an event with such unity and inclusion at its heart should end (for us at least) with an act breaking down sonic geography so effortlessly. This band use the world as an influence to make people dance - isn’t that what it’s all about!

And with that Sharpe was done. Another triumph, proving that the best of new music isn’t confined to little Britain or the US. Here’s to another one next year!!


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