Overlooking the Váh valley in Western Slovakia sits the mighty medieval complex of Trenčín Castle. With inscriptions dating back to 179 AD that mark the victory of the Roman Empire over German tribes, the castle has been reclaimed by many over the centuries, eventually falling into the hands of the wealthy Zapolsky family in 1461. At that point, in continuous conflict with the Ottomans, Trenčín received word of a Turkish siege and reacted decisively, defeating its army and capturing its leader, Fatima. To set her free, her distraught fiancée Omar vowed to build a well for Lord Zapolsky, enlisting the help of hundreds of men to dig eighty metres in the ground and create the well that exists today. “Now you have water,” he said to Zapolsky, “but you have no heart.” Thus, according to Slovak legend, goes the story of the Well of Love.
Fast forward to now, and a different scene unfurls in the location. Across the river, a new acropolis grows upward and outward, as thirty thousand people flood in for this year’s Pohoda festival. Pounding bass bloats the dusk air, distant cheers echo from smaller stages and people gulp down good, cheap beer. The real excitement, however, coalesces around the main stage for the event’s opening headline act; Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds. The Australian has been a rock and roll trailblazer for a career spanning four decades, but with the release of mellower albums, it’d be easy to assume he’s since wound down from his previously notorious ferocity.
It immediately becomes clear that these are no salad days for the Bad Seeds. Beneath darkening Slovakian horizons, Nick Cave cavorts and capers across stage for two hours like some delightfully messianic cadaver, a flurry of limbs and glossy black hair hammering away at a piano one moment, diving jubilantly into an adoring crowd the next. Standout performances such as ‘Get Ready for Love’ and ‘There She Goes, My Beautiful World’ off 2004’s ‘Abattoir Blues’ add a heady intoxication to proceedings. Despite a level of showmanship that borders on braggadocio at times, the frontman never loses control, his performance peppered with reminders to “just breathe, just breathe,” or else cries of “boom, boom, boom” as he mimics the sound of a beating heart. This feels like a necessary emotional purge for both artist and audience, and a deft and sweet rendition of ‘Into My Arms’ for the encore rounds out a full, honest and raw set.
A trip across the runway (the festival is built on the now unused Trenčín Airfield) and Metronomy are taking to the Orange Stage. A playground of colour in comparison to the previous set, the five-piece provide a solid hour of wall-to-wall pop. Sickly-sweet keyboard and synth trills pepper songs such as ‘Reservoir,’ and the bouncy ‘Things Will Be Fine’ off 2022’s ‘Small World’ makes for a genuinely engaged and uplifting set, vivified principally by the fantastically industrious drumming of Anna Prior and the charming conversational interludes of Joseph Mount. Nary a stiff hip can be seen in the place as the bass kicks in on ‘The Look.’
Slovakian artists and groups from varying genres suck the local crowds toward the smaller stages throughout the following day. Bratislava-based 52-Hertz Whale can be heard positively pulsating through the thin barriers of the Herbert Club stage. Beneath an aggressive aesthetic and a vigorously upbeat stage presence, there’s a melancholia that lurks beneath the surface of their sound as they combine elements of post-rock and shoegaze on songs such as ‘Fish in the Dead Sea’. Meanwhile, Slovakian rapper Porsche Boy has even the festival’s elder statesmen peering into the Aréna Slovenskej to see what all the fuss is about. His style of bass-infused style of bedroom trap is evident on ‘baby.relax’ and ‘dodge.viper’ as he lays down flow after flow, screens displaying coarsely edited clips of The Simpsons’ Sideshow Bob, a dopey Porsche grin and general footage of youthful loitering. The swaggering facade drops for a moment as he admits that “nobody understands what he’s trying to do” in his hometown and expresses his deep gratitude for those in attendance at what turns out to be his first ever live show.
Having swapped their main stage slot with Slovak punks Slobodna Europa, Wolf Alice’s performance kicks off two hours earlier than originally intended. While cuts from their latest album ‘Blue Weekend’ offer a cinematic and pristine sound, the last-minute timing change does seem to have diminished their crowd slightly, and as a result, the group’s initial enthusiasm seems to ebb towards the end of an otherwise punchy performance. Fortunately, a feel-good and well executed set from The Libertines makes up for it later in the evening. Favourites like ‘What Katie Did,’ ‘Can’t Stand Me Now,’ and ‘Don’t Look Back Into the Sun’ - as well as a very pretty rendition of ‘You’re my Waterloo’ from Pete Doherty - instil a collective wistfulness and renewed appreciation for the golden days of the Likely Lads.
Meanwhile, Arizona hip hop outfit Injury Reserve strike an intriguing balance of diligently improvised DJing from Parker Corey and manic rapping from Ritchie With a T. The latter idly comments on a kebab truck that sits in his line of vision, then dives into a blistering performance of ‘Superman That’ off latest album, ‘By The Time I Get To Phoenix’. Ritchie T wanders around stage like a man possessed, delivering disparate lyrics over instrumentation that is so loud it sounds quiet, occasionally fixing his brooding audience with a razor-sharp stare. The pair offer constant, loosely cohesive snippets of post-rock and hardcore hip hop that succeed in reflecting the nervous tension of their latest album live. The day continues with Yves Tumor, who deliver heavy guitar riffs and strangled vocals from a haze of stage fog, black midi, who treat their audience to songs across their two stellar albums with well executed prog rock experimentalism, and an ear-splitting set from Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs.
By this point many are flopping down on patches of dry grass as the lull of late afternoon begins to settle. Those that persevere make their way to the Europa stage for the Black Country, New Road set. Four days before the release of their latest album - ‘Ants From Up There’, which impressed critics across the board - saw the sad departure of their lead singer, Isaac Wood. And while Isaac’s lyrics were a key part of the band’s initial success, now, with the band having spent months recording new material for their current European tour, this would an opportunity to glimpse the first few steps of their next musical direction.
The six musicians have been long term friends and jam partners, but throughout their hour long set they are dialled in, focussed and wonderfully present. There is very little jocularity amongst them on stage, and not even much interaction with the audience; all of it comes through the music. Bassist Tyler Hyde interweaves cleverly melancholic lyricism with lovely harmonies on the song ‘Geese.’ Silence falls for a full eight minutes as keyboardist May Kershaw sings “don’t waste your pearls on me / I’m only a pig,” on the song ‘Turbines / Pig’, before final song, ‘Dancers’, sees Tyler hold on to one line as the instruments swirl and slide between major and minor key around her: “dancers stand very still on the stage, dancers stand very still on the stage.” It feels like the closing scene of a Greta Gerwig film; the quirks are embraced, the awkwardness accepted, the characters involved bade goodbye. Despite exiting the stage to rapturous applause and calls for an encore which last minutes, there is no return; this is all the material band have got for the moment, but we’ll wait eagerly for more.
As darkness falls on the second night at Pohoda a real buzz begins to form round the Arena Slovenskej for slowthai’s evening set. Out of nowhere, a ragged voice cuts through the din – “POHODAA!” Tyron Frampton springs from nothingness like a jack in the box, and for the next hour he has everyone eating from the palm of his hand. Mosh pits open up of their own accord like giant sinkholes and the audience seethes and churns through tracks like ‘Mazza’ and ‘Psycho’. Playing the part of conductor gone berserk, he tells the audience to “open that shit up” on the left and right, before he plucks a girl from the crowd to rap Skepta’s verse on the track ‘Inglorious’, and soon surveys the chaos he has artfully constructed.
The set is gleefully Bacchic, but not without its more honest and fragile moments. Having suffered concerns regarding mental health in times of late, he speaks candidly of “suicidal thoughts” and gets a call and response going with the audience: “I won’t let the world in my head.” The penultimate song, ‘Feel Away’, has an extra weight to it. “In life, some people will agree with you and some people disagree with you,” he preaches for a moment; “but the only thing that matters is that you be yourself.” That’s what you feel you’ve got as you walk back out into the night air, ears ringing: the man himself, warts and all.
The responsibility rests on Flume to see off the final set of the night on the main stage. His atmospheric brand of dance music and visual effects make for a sensorial and utterly immersive experience. Alongside his infamous remix of Disclosure’s ‘You and Me,’ as well as his blissed-out, drum and bass inspired collaboration with Toro y Moi, ‘The Difference’ are highlights, while psychedelic natural landscapes and vivified images from Hieronymus Bosch’s triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights project above him. Skip forward a day, however, and it’s Confidence Man’s artfully-constructed brand of hedonistic pop that steals the show on the dance front. The duo - Janet Planet and Sugar Bones - slink onstage in shoulder padded, David Byrne-esque suits to the lustfully playful hit ‘Toy Boy.’, the influence of Talking Heads undoubtedly fuelling the performance from the off. “Does it make you feel right? Does it make you feel good?” they repeat on their most beloved track and it’s clear that, for this shared hour, no is not an acceptable answer.
The strength of the voice that echoes across the fields on the final day couldn’t belong to anyone but Snail Mail. The final stop of her European tour before returning home, Lindsey Jordan picks apart the process of self-interrogation that can only come from heartbreak with a set of pipes that would make any legendary singer green with envy. The clean, robust guitar riffs sound great on the main stage’s giant speakers. “It’s crazy we have fans out here,” she hollers out, then pauses for thought; “and even if we don’t, I appreciate y’all for coming anyway.” Later, Lianne La Havas makes a return to Trenćin with her third album, having performed a solo acoustic set here back in 2019. Her folksy brand of neo-soul play out like lullabies, while an equally broad age range can be found enjoying the hyper stage presence of South Korean collective Balming Tiger, whose collectively stage presence and infectiously bubbly music make for an upbeat afternoon set.
As midnight approaches, anticipation builds for the Bristol band Squid. Following on from last year’s debut album, ‘Bright Green Field’, the sense of expectation is palpable. Exhibiting a nervy tension not dissimilar to The Minutemen or The Feelies, with a driving sense of rhythm inspired by the krautrock that also influenced LCD Soundsystem, the group harness the energy of their crowd and build it into its own force. With lyrics charged by post-Brexit political disenfranchisement and youthful apathy, the quintet will often present a palatable rhythm and then disintegrate into discordance, constantly walking a fine line between tension and breakdown. Eight-minute epic ‘Narrator’ consists of an immense build-up in which all sense of control slowly unravels. Beneath the Europa Stage’s tented canopy, a clipped rhythm builds, builds and collapses as the stage becomes a pressure cooker of repressed energy, before the song dissolves into hysteria as Ollie Judge - drummer turned master puppeteer - is barely audible shouting above the cacophony of noise and the chaos of kinetic bodies. “Thank you very much, you guys have been great,” he mumbles politely into the microphone as the group traipse off, the moment gone as quickly as it first arrived. But the feeling remains; soon the Váh valley will be nothing but a slow-moving river once again, with Trenčín castle standing above. Until next year, that is.
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