Notes from Tallinn Music Week 2017
Who killed genre? The question kept repeating in my head throughout the whole weekend as I walked the streets of Tallinn, from venue to venue, exploring sounds, discovering new acts.
Are music genres meaningless nowadays?
This was the theme of the panel that kicked off for me this year’s Tallinn Music Week (TWM), possibly the best music showcase festival in Europe. Three brilliant music minds led the panel discussion: music writer Simon Reynolds, DJ and Senior Director of Programming at KEXP Kevin Cole and music journalist Kieron Tyler. All of them agreed we live in some sort of an undefined post-genre era. Boundaries are vanishing and slowly disappearing. The festival’s program is a good example of this. It lists 34 different genres and most of the bands refused to be classified in one genre. Artist rather choose different tags to describe their music, even making impossible combinations such as avant-garde and easy listening. The weirder the mix, the cooler the band. That’s the trend.
Still, the music program at Tallinn Music Week is very much anchored in traditional genres. Whether you’re a metalhead, wish to explore unheard folk from different countries or simple you want to dance the night away to funk or hardcore techno, there’s a showcase that’ll fit your taste. The diversity of the festival is sublime, making it tremendously inclusive and welcoming.
So, music genres matter, right?
Not really. Or better said, we really don’t care. In the pre-Internet, pre-streaming days, music fanatics had a deeper connection with the music they listened. Fans were rockers, punks or metalheads. Crossover was unlikely. After all, music discovery required time, effort and money, so why to spend limited resources chasing a genre one might not like. Along with the music genre came fashion and a way of life. Go to a metal show in the eighties as a punk and you’re likely to take a beating. Gangs did not mix well and music was a key component of a lifestyle.
Nowadays our music listening habits are much different. Music is a commodity. Thanks to streaming services we can easily jump from one music genre to the next one before a song is over. From Mastodon to Kendrick Lamar, from 1930s Appalachian music to Nigerian funk.
This is why music genres do not matter at a festival like TMW. Genres are just hints, signposts that allow us navigate through the festival. Start your evening listening Hungarian folk and end up in a techno party after a few gut-punching shows. This diversity, this inclusiveness is what TMW does best. And it does with an impeccable production that takes over the city across singular venues.
Three things I learned in Tallinn
Donald Trump is a glam icon
Simon Reynolds is the author of outstanding music books such as Retromania and Shock and Awe: Glam Rock and its Legacy. Reynolds is a much better writer than speaker, but at the music conference in Tallinn, he delivered an hour-long lecture on glam rock and fame. David Bowie, Marc Bolan and Alice Cooper were probably the biggest stars of glam rock. You may want to add Lady Gaga to that group. But think of someone else. What if Donald Trump is the ultimate glam rock star, said Reynolds. His obsession for stardom, fame, his multi-persona. Apply some makeup and, scarily enough, this thought might be true.
Rock belongs to the basement. Rock bands and loud guitars are no longer the main performers at any festival. At TMW rock music lives in Woodstock Rock Stars bar, in the outskirt of Tallinn’s old town. There, bands come to play in its low-ceiling basement, while locals drink cheap beer and whisky shots, surrounded by posters of Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones. In every edition of the festival, I’ve experienced fantastic shows in this soggy watering hole, like Black Lizard in 2013. This year was no difference. On Friday night, I head to Woodstock to see a couple of rock bands from Canada: Like A Motorcycle and The Stanfields. Both offered a fantastic rock’n’roll experience. The Stanfields blend hard rock with elements of Atlantic Canadian folk. And yes, that combination got the dozens of rockers in front of the stage jumping and pogoing. Like A Motorcycle displayed even higher energy with their ear-piercing punk rock, revisiting the riot grrrl sound of bands like Sleater-Kinney.
Rising stars: TMW 2017 MVPs
Ok, I’m cheating here. I did not get to see Mikko Joensuu in Tallinn, but I heard many delegates raved about his performance. “Transcendent”, Kevin Cole called his music. The fact that his music is not getting more exposure outside Finland is bewildering.
The first time I saw The Holy I was blown away by their massive, overwhelming sound. In Tallinn, the band played a late night gig at the beautiful Kino Sõprus theater and once again they delivered a fabulous show, creating awe-inspiring soundscapes. The band’s live sound is loud and overwhelming, yet clear and melodic, taking the songs from their debut EP to anthemic heights. Beautiful music.
I must admit this Estonian guitarist was completely unknown to me, but after this year’s festival, I will keep a close look at his work. Erki Pärnoja and his band played four packed gigs during the festival, presenting his newest album Efterflow and becoming one of the stars of the festival. On Thursday night, I got to see Pärnoja’s gig at club Sinilind. Ok, seeing is an overstatement because when I arrived to the venue, the place was completely packed and I could only find a spot behind the stage. From there, I absolutely enjoyed the band’s ethereal and dreamy pop explorations with a collection of elegant instrumentals.
Finland at Tallinn Music Week 2017
After eight editions, Tallinn Music Week is well-established as the largest new music and urban culture festival in the Nordic and Baltic Countries. Over 200 acts are part of the line-up, with shows all over the city, along a meaningful conference and a showcase of Tallinn’s fabulous restaurants. It’s a long, long weekend to discover new artists and bands of any genre, from all over the world.
Once again, after Estonia, Finland is the second country with a larger representation with 26 artists. This year’s edition includes well-known Finnish artists such as Mikko Joensuu, Astrid Swan, Teksti-TV 666 and electro pop veteran Jori Hulkkanen. Plus, revered booking and management agency Fullsteam will celebrate its 15th anniversary with a very special party at the iconic Kultuurikatel. Already my favourite showcase festival, this will be my fourth time at TMW. I’ve marked in red the following Finnish artists in the programme.
The Empire Strikes
Turbonegro, Gluecifer, The Hellacopters… In the late 90s and early 2000s, a wave of Scandinavian bands played some of the most exciting rock’n’roll and punk rock in years. The Empire Strikes are taking a few pages from this bands’ playbook, loudly bringing high energy rock back to the forefront. The band just released their second album, High Tide.
One of my favorite parties at TMW is the Estonian Funk Embassy Stage at the charismatic Erinevate Tubade Klubi. Hours of funk, soul and disco in a remarkable club. Seven-piece The Blassics will take the stage to get the audience dancing with a bunch of old-school funk instrumentals, spiced up with some afrobeat. Very organic, very greasy Oh, by the way, there’s no need to bring your dancing shoes as outdoors shoes are not allowed. You’ll be provided with some fancy slippers at the wardrobe in the entrance.
Project Vainiolla is Kalle Vainio’s solo project. Experimental piano music to explore techniques, structures, creating layers of sounds and emotive soundscapes and textures. His shows might include grand pianos, pre-recorded tape, live electronics and lights. Anything is possible.
Demonic Death Judge
This four-piece not only has a fabulous band name, Demonic Death Judge, but also a solid collection of ear-piercing guitar riffs for some epic stoner/sludge. Released in January, Seaweed is DDJ’s third album.
The Holy have only released one EP, but they already being booked by major festivals, becoming one of the most interesting new bands in Finland right know. The secret is their peculiar approach to songwriting, their “Heartland” sound and, above all, uncompromising live shows. With the help of two drummers and a wall of guitars, their live sound is absolutely mind-blowing.
Astrid Swan – From The Bed And Beyond
Many pop albums are just a collection of songs which happen to be released at the same. But there are some others with songs that we, as listeners, can only understand in relation to the context in which they were created, written and recorded. This is the case of Blood of the Tracks, which will always be regarded as the ultimate divorce album as Dylan recorded it around the time his marriage fell apart.
From The Bed And Beyond, Astrid Swan’s newest album, certainly belongs to this second category. Even if you’ve heard little or nothing about it, the theme of the album presents itself crystal clear the first time you listen to it. These are songs about becoming a mother and falling ill with cancer. Songs about your body failing, about the fear of leaving your loved ones behind. Songs recorded in the aftermath of cancer, while the body is in the process of healing.
If you’ve heard a bit more about the album, you’re probably award this is a five-star album. Critics are loving this album and reviews are raving about it. They are probably right. It’s such an earnest, brutally honest and emotional effort. As expected, many of the songs come from a dark, sad place, presenting blunt, merciless words. Some of the lyrics feel like inserting needles under your fingernails. Go for a walk and listen to them, reflect on them. “I’m afraid I’ll never sing”, the singer sings in ’Song of Fear’. “I’m afraid of broken bones/ I’m afraid of hospitals/ I’m afraid I never kissed enough/ I’m afraid of disappearing/ from the hearts of the ones I love/ I’m afraid of dying young”. Bloody scary song.
However, towards the end of the song Astrid repeats relieve words: “I’m alive”. That’s the hope and light which remains at the core of the album. That’s the essential takeaway of this album. Be alive. Enjoy every sandwich.
From The Bed And Beyond joins a list of albums that empathize in times of cancer and loss, and it does it as one of the most gratifying and compelling examples. It’s a difficult album, uncomfortable at times. But it’s not depressing. Let yourself be carried by its elegant and sweet jazz touches, its intimate blues and the colorful synths and electronic soundscapes. While the music does not make a break from the negative phase of life in which it was created, From the Bed And Beyond dignifies the pop album as an art form.
Find out more about From The Bed And Beyond in this insightful Q&A with fellow Rosvot blogger June.
Catch one of the upcoming Astrid Swan gigs next week at Tavastia in Helsinki (29 March w/ Jennie Abrahamson), in Tallinn at Tallinn Music Week (1 April) and later in the summer at Flow Festival.
Waterloos – Writings on the Wall
Sans the makeup (yet), but with guitar riffs galore, Tampere trio Waterloos are set to continue the tradition of the most charismatic Finnish hard rock. One that expands from HIM to The 69 Eyes and most recently, Reckless Love and Santa Cruz. Inspired by 80s glam metal, but underlining the pop melodies and hooks, rather than the sleazy elements.
After just a few months composing songs and rehearsing, Waterloos present their first release, a four-song entitled EP Writings on the Wall. The EP stars off with the title track, which ticks all the boxes of the genre. That’s right, it’s song best savored while gulping shots of Jack Daniel’s. Personally, I find the other three songs more compelling, specially ’Jaded’ or the semi-ballad ’Where Are You Know’. Anyway, it’s a pretty solid effort which will be followed by a full-length album later in the year.
To be continued… Ebbot Lundberg
The album cover depicts the perfect middle age couple: pretty, beautiful eyes, perfect white smile. Man and woman look happy, they welcome us to their elegant house. On a closer look, the image is disturbing. Too much perfection. Both drink what it seems to be a super healthy green beverage -it actually is papaya coconut milk mixed with a heavy dose of absinthe. Too much happiness. These two individuals do not look real. Could they be replicants? Or maybe aliens that have just arrived to Earth?
That’s the artwork of The Soundtrack of our Lives’ album Communion (2009). At the time, singer Ebbot Lundberg explained they chose that particular image “because it is one of the images we’re being fed every day. The perfect life that does not exist. Some sort of modern mass psychosis that people subconsciously get sucked into. The cancer of corporocracy which now has spread all over our planet. And everybody is happy”. A gloomy look to society that did not even intend to mess with people’s heads because “Most people heads are in a mess nowadays. And maybe these images are to blame.”
Fast forward nearly eight years and times seem more somber. Ebbot Lundberg is set to play in Helsinki again after a long absence, but his band does no longer exist. The Soundtrack of our Lives split in 2012 after a series of farewell shows in Stockholm. For the last four years, Lundberg has been working on a solo career. After a myriad of projects, he’s put out an inspired album and has a solid backing band to support it and tour behind it.
The day Ebbot Lundberg and The Indigo Children took the stage in Helsinki is the day Donald Trump sworn in as the 45th President of the United States. The singer briefly acknowledges this fact on stage and I can’t help thinking of the couple on the cover of Communion. In this last seven years we can’t really say the world has gotten any better. In the era of Brexit, Trump, terrorism, financial crisis mass hysteria, we keep drinking smoothies to make us feel better in a ever-connected narcissistic society. Today, those aliens might not even want to come to Earth.
But the show must go on, and it’s a new beginning for Ebbot Lundberg. Or rather, it’s the start of the third act. First, in the late eighties, he was the wild short-haired punk fronting Union Carbide Productions in the late eighties, growling maximum dogbreath over Stooges-inspired guitars. Union Carbide would grow into more cosmic, spaced-out pop songs. From the ashes of this band, Lundberg went to form The Soundtrack of Our Lives and his musical journey embraced sixties sounds, psychedelia and a love for melody and pop forms without forgetting guitar riffs and power chords. Now, for his solo venture, he’s joined forces with The Indigo Children, a bunch of kids more than half his age -none of them were born when the first Union Carbide album hit the stores. In many ways, The Indigo Children are the perfect backing band. They grew up listening to The Soundtrack of our Lives so the songs are in their DNA. Lundberg feels mentally connected to them and plays well the role of a mentor. In response they band has reenergized his music. Without the heavy weight old bands carry, The Indigo Children are malleable enough to play any song, and Lundberg is not shy to go deep into his catalogue, including in his set old Union Carbide songs for the first in years. And, Lundberg feeds on the energy the band brings. Past the age of 50, the shaman-like figure of Lundberg is revitalized.
Greatest Hits Providers
Precisely is that energy what he seemed to be missing at the end of TSOOL. “We got lame towards the one. We had a big festival to play in Toronto but nobody felt like going there then, so it was better to split up”. This is what Lundberg tells me before soundcheck at Korjaamo, speaking quickly, without hiding his heavy Scandinavian accent.
Apathy, boredom, lack of inspiration… Whatever the reason, time was up for The Soundtrack of our Lives. Lundberg affirms he always envisioned the band would peaked in 2012 and so it happened. The muse was gone.
The Soundtrack of Our Lives (TSOOL) were meant to last forever. Or so it seemed. At the end of the nineties, the band from Göteborg, Sweden, rewrote classic rock for the 21st century. Firmly based on the heroes of the sixties: the psychedelia of early Pink Floyd and Love, the proto-punk of The Who and a Beatlesque approach to melody and grandiose arrangements. Lundberg fronted the six-piece group with his shaman-like immense figure. As greatest hits providers, the band recorded extensively. Long, epic albums followed by a torrent of B-sides and EPs.
By their third album, Behind the Music (2001), TSOOL were heading for the big time. The Swedes were going to be big stars. Songs like “Sister Surround” or the emotive “Nevermore” had it all to be worldwide hits. The hype machine worked, specially in the UK. Noel Gallagher proclaimed Behind the Music the best album to come out in the last six years, and Steven Van Zandt raved about the band. They appeared on the Conan O’Brien, on Letterman and other TV shows. It was even rumored that Johnny Cash recorded a version of Nevermore for his American Recording series.
Against all odds, TSOOL never got any more popular. They remained that little rock band from Sweden, playing festivals and club gigs across Europe. But the big breakthrough in the US never happened. Despite the TV appearances, the songs on TV shows like Californication, TSOOL remained unknown in the US. Sure it didn’t help Pitchfork beard a grudge against the Swedish band. Harsh reviews qualified Behind the Music as derivative and bland, dismissing the band for being in large part a classic rock band with no hooks and no energy. Nasty words without much arguments to back them up. Pitchfork being cooler than cool.
As TSOOL started to fade away, loud guitars dwindled and melancholia took over. Filled with mid-tempos and ballads, mostly acoustic and folky, the band’s last album, Throw It to the Universe (2012), was a fitting goodbye. Sad, but positive as the last song sung “Shine on/ There’s another day after tomorrow/ There’s another day after the end.”
“I felt I was the only one who wanted to continue”. There’s no bitterness in his voice when Lundberg pronounces these words. Just acceptance. Fuck it! If they don’t want to do it, I’ll do it, he seems to say.
Shine On (There’s another day after tomorrow)
And so there was another day after the end. After nearly three decades fronting bands, Ebbot Lundberg launched a solo career. Since those farewell shows, many projects have kept him busy, even though there was not a clear direction or touring: a self-release one-song psychedelic album, a self-made album of demos and a few singles. He even participated in the Swedish version of the reality TV/music show The Best Singers, in which different artists cover each other’s songs. “Oh that made me suddenly famous”, he chuckles. That show led to one EP, The Freereelin’ Ebbot Lundberg. This is one of the few recordings in which he sings in his mother tongue, in Swedish. “I always preferred English”, he admits. “I was never interested. I listened to English music when I grew up. I remember listening to ABBA for the first time and they were still singing in Swedish before they got famous. I was six years old and I thought, meh, what’s this shit, turn it off. English appealed to me much more”. Despite that, he remembers singing in Swedish early in his career: #I was in a punk band in the early 80s before Union Carbide and I sang in Swedish. It was a fun dadaist thing. We just had a title and wrote down whatever came to mind”.
For the Ages to Come
After some time in the making, waiting for right time to release it, For the Ages To Come was published in 2016. And with The Indigo Children, for the first time in four years, the singer has a solid band to tour behind this album. These new songs don’t represent a departure from the TSOOL sound. “Heck, it could have been the next TSOOL album”, Lundberg says. “It’s a continuum of TSOOL. You can hear it.”
True. Right from the opening track For the Ages to Come is a continuation of Shine On. Written and produced by Lundberg, it is another trip through much-loved 60s sounds, with a few experiments along the way. Melodic psych-rock with a strong folk-vibe. The album sounds inspired and focused, with anthemic rockers like Backdrop People and gentle folk ballads such as In Subliminal Clouds. A couple of songs (“Drowning in a Wishing Well”, “Little Big Thing”) connect directly with the melancholic vibe on Shine On. Unlike the last TSOOL album, this time there are no scornful feelings, a bitter farewell, but a rise of energy, of positive energy.
Maybe it’s age, or maybe it’s just a phase, but mellow sounds are predominant. “I’m really connected to the West Coast of Sweden. There’s a mystic aura around it”, Lundberg tells, thinking of home. “It’s like paradise to me and the biggest inspiration in my sound. There’s this magic forest next to where I live, I wonder around, thinking and writing music. I can’t live without it.”
To Be Continued
As a closure to For the Ages to Come, Lundberg shows himself as the last man standing. “Here I am again/ Here I am the only one again/ And it’s the story that will never end/ With all the unfinished dream I had before I was gone…/ With the sound that made me believe in anything”, he sings in the closing track “To Be Continued. Those lines are the right follow-up to TSOOL’s “Shine On (There’s Another Day after Tomorrow)”.
For the Ages To Come contains two cover songs. One is a hard rocking version of the fuzz-fueled song Don’t Blow Your Mind, a song by The Spiders, Vincent Furnier’s garage band before he transformed into Alice Cooper. “That’s a song I always wanted to do, even with Union Carbide. But nobody else wanted to play it. Now I decided to record it with The Indigo Children and it’s a great live song too.”
The other cover on the album is even more surprising. After falling in love with the song, Lundberg translated Los Pekenikes’“Cerca de las Estrellas”. This is a rare Spanish pop nugget from the sixties and Lunberg is fittingly translated as “Calling From Heaven”.
“A friend of mine sent me this song and I thought wow, this is really good! If I could translate it and adapt it, I could record it. “Calling from Heaven” felt like a good title and had the same theme as the original. After I recorded the song I found out the guy who wrote had passed away. I looked up on what date he died and it was the same day I got the song. And it’s titled “Calling From Heaven”. Shivers! Mind blowing!”, Lundberg explains.
None of these two songs were played in Helsinki. The show was not very well attended. It’s a cold January night and there were plenty of other shows around the city. Despite notable guests like 22-Pistepirkko’s P-K Keränen, half the venue is empty. Years ago, TSOOL would have sold out Tavastia. Today Ebbot and his band can barely fill a smaller venue. Psychedelic rock is not selling tickets this year any more.
Full house or a small audience, it does not really matter. Ebbot Lundberg continues his journey. One that started thirty years ago with the punk rock of Union Carbide and continued with The Soundtrack of Our Lives. Now, with The Indigo Children, it’s time to revisit the pass while moving forward.
What’s next? “I don’t know what the next thing is going to be. Probably crazier.”, Lundberg guesses.
Your guess is as good as his.
To be continued…
Yvonne and the No Regrets – Mark (Part 1)
The idea is neat: love letters in a punk rock envelope.
Using lyrics allegedly based on handwritten love letters Yvonne has received from all around the world, Yvonne and the No Regrets have recorded a collection of thirteen songs that form the band’s debut. The album is appropriately titled Communication through postal services and the songs, I believe, are titled after the admirers who wrote the letters: Demian, Boaz, Adam, David, Mark… 13 raw and high energy, punk rock blasts. Arid and abrasive, these songs will not be the first choice for a prom dance, but sure are a kick in the guts of any heartbroken lover.
Communication through postal services is available in cassette and digitally.