It’s 2pm Saturday afternoon as intrepid photographer Stu ‘soylent’ Green and I stumble onto the abandoned airport runway. An extremely dodgy and rather morose drum roll echoes over the beautiful sun-drenched hill-filled castle-laden landscape. After a night of semi-hedonism (you try losing it in this heat - it is not easy), we two cynical old men look at each other unhopefully - what sonic hell is this? Then, without warning, the drummer gets on one - white-hot blizzard guitar thrash scissor kicks the sky in half and the ageing Slovakian band leaps into… the theme tune from The Simpsons?!?! We’re granted a minute before the singer starts screaming and “la-la”-ing the melody. Disappointingly but perhaps not unsurprisingly, the band soon run out of energy but no amount of world-weary anything can suppress our laughter. The sun is out, and walls do more than tumble down. Welcome to the unexpected pop-weirdness of Slovakia’s biggest music festival. Welcome to Pohoda.
Let’s get some necessary facts out of the way. Pohoda (translates as ‘relax’) is in its seventh year and the organisers are pushing for international recognition, hence our humble presence here. Based at a semi-abandoned airport, Trencin is an hour’s drive from Bratislava, a newly-discovered destination for teeming hordes of lumpen-knuckled Brit stag parties which is a subject of outright despair to the very many warm-hearted Slovakians that we talk to over the course of the weekend. Running over a frantic 48 hours, the festival is already continents beyond the usual Brit fare - superbly organised (not a queue in sight despite the presence of 27,000-plus revellers), insanely cheap prices (the home-grown lager costing the equivalent of an extortionate 70p and a pint (A PINT!) of wine coming in even cheaper). Admittedly it’s not a vegetarian paradise, but if you like meat you’ll probably never want to leave.
The first few acts of the day on the main stage cover every genre imaginable beginning with marching music, some classical music and one of several choirs that perform over the two days. One of the (many) delights at Pohoda is this hugely eclectic mixture of sound, all of which is appreciated by one seriously chilled-out crowd.
Most unfortunately, the first big draw of the Friday though is a bunch of complete tossers. The Subways run on-stage to frantic screams and cheers. I believe their ‘singer’ has a name but I am going to refer to ‘him’ simply as ‘it’. It is horribly bare-chested and screams some nonsense about something or other before the band limp into some pop-punk bollocks. At the end of the first song, it continues to beat its chest and raise its voice. “Do you know what crazy means?” it yells. The crowd responds with enormous affirmation. Cruising on the deluded adrenalin that only an upper-class nitwit can, it shouts_ “Then let’s go fucking crazy”_ and they let off another wet fart of a ‘song’, something to do with their pony being ill or something, it’s very hard to care. Five minutes of this and I soon begin to become dangerously acquainted with the full implications of going ‘fucking crazy’. I think it’s something to do with pointless spineless posturing punk stupidity. Soylent and I, much aggrieved, busy ourselves over to the O2 tent (god, I hate having to write that) in the hope that our warm European friends can repair the damage.
And they do. Hailing from The Czech Republic, Midi Lidi are, in two words, fucking nuts. Three people, two male one female, stand in a line behind banks of foxy technology. Seemingly plugging themselves in to the frenetic lights radiating behind them, they unleash a demonic overload of prime-time Mouse On Mars electronic noise, but with a twist: Europop. Choreographed head-moving, air-punching avant-garde Europop. They look happy to be there and the many people here are equally delighted to receive them. It’s extremely hard to understand what the hell is going on, never mind describe it, but I’ll try this: Intergalactic avant-loon Stockhausen once wrote an opera for helicopters and eventually performed it. With helicopters. Abba’s first (?) album cover had them sat in a helicopter. So, imagine Stockhausen’s Helicopter opera piloted by Abba. That’s what Midi Lidi sound like.
Back on the main stage, The Gossip invent highly surreal photographer’s rules and play all their E4 advertising jingles. I think they’re crap.
The next act on the bill ably illustrates what happens when festivals get programmed outside of Blighty. Sandwiched between the E4 band and Fatboy Slim is Matthew Herbert’s Big Band. Herbert’s subversive tendencies couldn’t be more ecstatic about such a high placing. The set-up works with the band being monitored by Herbert’s microphones. Each song is live-sampled, torn apart and spliced with all manner of electronic sounds being redeployed back over the top of the band itself. Herbert has always managed to successfully blend concrete-style sound manipulation with polemical inquiry and strong melody. He tells me backstage that the band works wholly as a democratic unit but with nobody in control, every voice vital both independently and collaboratively. Indeed, nobody on stage seems to be composing. Herbert does more than just intervene but he is not the figurehead (a fact clarified laughingly by Soylent as he tells me that none of the photographers even knew who Herbert was and who to photograph). The melodies come from everybody, the band is conducted and you forget about hierarchies as the music fuses good-times with hard fact. Herbert tells me about the power of the microphone, of letting people have a voice. The newly resuscitated Big Band are about to release the second album which pulls all the above together with disparate sound sources like farm-workers sifting seeds, field recordings of executions and sounds from inside the Houses of Parliament that he recorded on the sly. It’s an ambitious undertaking and he refuses to shy away from subjects that a largely apolitical electronic community don’t deal with and yet he manages to make this listenable, unexpected and exciting and vitally of course, entertaining. This is not a didactic lecture but every guitar band here could learn a lesson about the privilege of having a voice and what you do with that voice when people are prepared to listen.
*Fatboy Slim *brings the masses together and my god, this is one huge mass. Over a large site the festival had seemed fairly quiet considering the amounts of the previous year. Clearly people have been turning up in their droves and maybe the all-day midday sun and the white wine has blunted my crowd-measuring senses but it would seem like the entire world has turned up for this. Any semblance of a stage area becomes replaced by a tidal wave of screaming sexy young things and you could probably hear the noise halfway across the world. Slim though feels past-it and well out-of-date now. This probably places me in a balding burnt-out minority and, let’s face it, it’s a festival and you want a party and I’m sure he’ll be getting the call for many years to come. But, both starting and finishing his set with ‘Praise You’ is bloody irritating, especially after this writer nearly killed himself attempting to learn the dance with 500 insane Slovakians a few hours earlier in the baking sun. They get to perform onstage just prior to the set (whilst yours truly is halted by a security guard who refuses to understand that this is MY moment). Nevermind. Anyway, this brings the ‘Praise You’ count to three fucking times in an hour and a half! Fatboy Slim unfortunately seems to have become Fatman Crap.
As what feels like 800 hours on our feet with an equivalent intake of alcohol finally turns our brains to mulch, we decide for one last journalistic hurrah before we can put our brains (but not our feet) to sleep. Mr Ozio, he of the seismic bass tablets, forgoes dry-ice for tobacco smoke and happily quaffing down champagne has Soylent converting to the Gallic cause. He chucks out a seriously hard set of blinding powertronica with visual epileptics to match. Everyone goes crazy, Mr Ozio chucks on CDs, smokes more tabs, drinks more fizzy wine. We collapse, go home, sleep.
First act of Saturday is Czech Republic’s Cartonnage. Its kind of daft but equally fun techno-pop, but worth mentioning for the one guy who plays every instrument in the world ever at the same time and the truly diminutive singer who seems to be wearing a baggy alligator costume. After The Simpsons moment earlier, I dream of a cartoon music festival but guess that this will probably never materialise.
Sean Kuti is the son of Fela and Egypt 80 comprises various members of Fela’s band and my god, they’re incredible. To be sure, the violent outrage of Fela is absent but they pack no less a punch for that- super-tight loud dynamic afrobeat- funky chopped guitar, screaming brass, ultra-rhythmic drums, percussion and bass and Sean himself is a big presence- a possessed angular whirling dervish. They kick out long sustained sharp and funky jams with many players swapping vocals and totally represent everything that Herbert said in regards to the social democracy of bands like these. It also serves to remind not only the ludicrous journalistic ignorance of afrobeat music but the wholesale neglect of Fela for the inspired radical that he was. At their peak, Fela was the African parallel to Miles Davis.
Remember Joy Division? They were okay I guess, but a bit on the miserable side weren’t they? I mean, come on mate, cheer up - life isn’t all that bad is it? Luckily we have Editors to redress those young men with their weight on their shoulders. Yes, Editors are indeed Joy Division, but without all that annoying thinking and the profound alienated reaction to post-industrial unemployed hopeless Ballardian Britain. They’re perky and a bit spiky and very very shite indeed. And they look stupid too. Next up - Rick Astley does Nick Cave!
Highlight of the day is Miss Kittin and The Hacker. Prior to their performance, I grab a few words with them. We talk briefly backstage about how the rise of techno allowed them to distil their experimental influences (Throbbing Gristle, Cabaret Voltaire and, er, Depeche Mode) into this sleek dark throb without diminishing any of their power. The set is extraordinary, Kittin entering in a long black and white hooded cape which she hides under until a coruscating ‘Life on MTV’. She remarks to me that she feels that she is only just beginning to find herself as a performer, and this is exemplified tonight by her truly commanding performance. Whilst The Hacker blasts out this deeply stark hard and tuneful electro, Miss Kittin takes over the world, 20 times larger than life. The words ‘pop star’ hover at the back of my brain and makes me lament the demise of_ Top of The Pops. For all its crapness, _TotP allowed artists like these two to intermittently turn the living room into an alien planet. Regardless, here and right now is more than fine by me.
The Streets wrap it all up and confuse me as usual. Mike Skinner definitely has something and on CD I can buy into… some of it. But live, the laddishness is just too much and the music degenerates from fragile bedroom production to lumpen ska. A point in hand: during ‘Let’s Push Things Forward’, Skinner and co suddenly lurch into The Prodigy’s headfuck bodymelt ‘Out of Space’. I’ve always admired The Streets’ allegiance to rave’s grand moments, but as Skinner starts shouting about taking us to another dimension, I kind of hope he’s going to hand me a bus ticket as that is simply not doing it, especially when the original version is decades more forward than The Streets’ revision of it. It’s not that they’re without passion but it just doesn’t work at all. I just can’t help but feel that it’s the musical equivalent of FHM. The Streets can out-Jam The Jam on record when they want to, but that’s with processed loops and not stale funk. They finish on that song about being fit which uses the words “my gosh”, which is second in the driving us into a rage stakes behind the Cunter Chiefs’ use of the word “thee” (because that’s how people from Yorkshire talk, right?). Soylent and I head off to fraternise with the locals for a few hours more, including the young Slovakian lad who used to get the number ten bus out of St. Helens which was our intrepid lens-man’s old stomping ground. You couldn’t make this shit up.
So, Pohoda is no misnomer. Warm weather, warm atmosphere and extremely warm people. Forget the Brit imports on the bill, as its own unique Slovakian quirks are what make it a truly worthwhile visit.
Find the festival's official website here
Photos: Stuart Green