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OFF

Dolina Trzech Stawów, Katowice (August 3rd 2018)

By • Jan 5th, 2019 • Category: gig reviews

For those who take their festing seriously, the decline and eventual demise of T In The Park presented both crisis and opportunity (as Homer J. Simpson would say, a Crisitunity!). Crisis: where now to get my fill of lengthy spells of live music while standing in a field? Opportunity: perhaps now I can find a field that isn’t a mud bath, where I can enjoy someone other than Kasabian or the Foo Fighters, and where I hopefully won’t get stabbed.

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The plethora of festivals that have sprung up in Scotland over the last few years have sated many a musical lust, but for some, the answer lies in far-flung Europe. Fests such as Sziget in Hungary and the mighty Primavera in Barcelona are some of the main contenders, enticing fans from all over Europe with huge, exciting line-ups and beautiful host cities for those that desire a spot of culture to counter all the tune-fuelled debauchery.
The more adventurous fester, however, desires to look further, dig deeper, get weirder, and may eventually find themselves, the first weekend of every August, rocking up to the gates of a hidden gem; the incomparable OFF.

Nestled in the picturesque Dolina Trzech Stawów (Valley of Three Ponds) in the city of Katowice in southern Poland, OFF is a true music lover’s wet dream. Three days of incredibly varied and eclectic acts from all corners of the globe wrapped up in a lean, cost-effective and beautifully-landscaped package.

Access to OFF from outside of Poland (e.g. from Scotland) is plentiful, with cheap flights to Krakow, Warsaw or Katowice itself readily available. Subsequent transport links from the two former cities are easy to negotiate. The sun-soaked, booze-drenched three-hour train from Warsaw to Kato is particularly glorious.

One of the many advantages the majority of European fests have over Scottish shindigs is the ability to stay in an actual flat, and OFF is no exception. The ability to sleep in a proper bed and have a proper shower each morning provides an incalculable boost to personal and group morale, especially for those long-in-the-tooth festers who have outgrown the visceral delights of TITP’s festival village.
There is the option of camping at OFF, but after three or four days of waking up horrifically hungover in searing 35+ degree heat, it may be an option you only choose once.

For a fest to be properly enjoyable it has to take place in an environment that is as frictionless, non-threatening and well-organised as possible. This is an aspect where Eurofests easily outcompete their British counterparts and where OFF delivers in spades.
The OFF festival arena is a playground designed to cause you, the Fester, as few headaches as possible so as to maximise enjoyment of the always outstanding line-up. Here you will find precisely zero aggressive police presence, and neither will you be accosted by drug dealers pushing coke or weed.
Most refreshingly of all, there are no roasters drunkenly knocking into you during your new favourite band, and no fuds who have taken it too far, passed out, taps aff and sunburnt at 3 in the afternoon.

A huge component of the overwhelmingly pleasant atmosphere has to be the absurdly friendly Polish people, in both Punter and Staff format. Simply saying ‘thank you’ in Polish at the end of an exchange conducted entirely in English will elicit a smile of genuine warmth, a far cry from the ‘Here’s your pint, now fuck off’ style of service we’ve all come to know and love.

The frictionless part of the festing equation boils down to two main factors: size and layout. OFF is a small festival, 10-13 thousand people at this fester’s best guess, a fraction of the size of TITP or Primavera and all the better for it.
A well-sized arena with a relatively small capacity means, crucially, little to no queuing. No queues for toilets, no queues for food, no queues for booze. Even at peak times, queue lengths for anything will rarely exceed 10 minutes, which leaves more time for proper festing.

The OFF arena layout is the festival’s secret weapon, a cunningly designed village that provides everything a larger fest does in a much more pleasing, compact package.
Four (count ’em) stages surround a large central hub where one can plan the day’s action. The variety of food on offer truly shits all over the shoddy takeaway burgers and chips you’re used to at British fests. Traditional, home-cooked Polish goulashes, vegan curries, stone-baked pizzas and full-on hog roasts are but a taste of the delights available. I recommend the bull-testicle stew, it’s hefty.

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Booze is likewise varied and plentiful. Every taste is catered for, but the average fester subsists mainly on beer, and in this department, they are in oat-soda Heaven. OFF’s standard pint is the crisp and refreshing Lech, or you can upgrade to a Grolsch if you’re feeling saucy. One of life’s truly great pleasures is tasting that first pint in the blazing sun, excited for the weekend ahead.
At this year’s fest, an ice-cold pint of Lech came in at 8 zloty, which in sterling translates to, brace yourselves, roughly £1.60! A pint! A festival pint for £1.60! Need I say more? Well, I shall. At length.

Once you have your food/booze tokens (known colloquially as boners) it’s time to get stuck into one of the finest, most eclectic, exciting and varied line-ups you will see in Europe. It’s why we’re all here right?
It’s certainly the main reason I keep coming back every year. As previously mentioned, OFF has four stages, two large, open-air stages (City of Music and Forest stages) and two smaller, tented stages (Trójka and Experimental).
The main stages are positioned facing the central village, so that, if you choose, you can watch the bigger acts while enjoying your dinner, while the tented stages are located to the side and rear of each main stage. Unfortunately, booze is not allowed to be brought from the village into the arena.
This may at first seem like an insurmountable annoyance, but you soon get used to it, and it is a large contributing factor of the aforementioned lack of fuds and roasters. Besides, sneaking a beer out should pose no real problem to an intrepid, well-seasoned fester. Not that I’m advocating such skulduggery.
The day’s festivities are arranged in such a way that you only ever have a choice of two acts, one main stage and the opposite tented stage, and in this format lies one of the major assets of OFF as a festival.

Combined with relatively short set lengths (headliners get an hour and a half, smaller/local bands thirty to forty-five minutes, everyone else gets an hour), this means you will see a remarkable number of bands in a single day. This approach requires you to be on your toes, however, take your eyes off the prize and you may realise you’ve missed something special.
Similarly, at some point you will have to grab a bite and recharge, so some potentially significant sacrifices might have to be made (sorry, Brian Jonestown Massacre). Dive in head first though, and you will be treated to weird and wonderful delights from all across the globe that you could never hope to find in Britain (maybe Glastonbury), and witness styles and instruments you never knew existed (hello, King Ayisoba).
Very occasionally, you may be led astray and land on something awful, some gurning, sub-Dótaman children’s entertainer in his bare feet (fuck off, Harry Merry). These missteps are exceptions however, and are easily resolved, due to the short hop between stages.

So now that’s the basics covered, on with the show…

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For the vast majority of people, the main consideration when deciding what fest to shell out for is the headliners. If the big draws don’t get your compass pointing north, why bother?
One of the strengths of OFF is that, for a festival of relatively smaller size, it has always booked attention-grabbing headline acts. Acts that you can sort into the ‘I’ve always wanted to see them!’ file alongside those which fit in the ‘I didn’t think about it till I saw the line-up, but I bet they’re fantastic live’ folder.
Previous short-n-curly grabbers include Iggy and the Stooges, the Smashing Pumpkins, Battles, Patti Smith, Daniel Avery, the Dillinger Escape Plan and Swans. This year proved to be no different, with Sri Lankan/British troublemaker MIA filling the main headline slot, taking to the City of Music stage at midnight on Friday.

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MIA (real name Mathangi ‘Maya’ Arulpragasam) can be seen as a bit of a coup for OFF. Without a new record to promote (albeit an upcoming documentary about to be released) and with only a handful of other festival dates booked this was one of the few places over the summer you could witness her idiosyncratic and completely unique cross-breeding of hip-hop, electro and world music.
MIA doesn’t seem the type to subscribe to the ‘Shut up and play the hits’ school of festival thought, her attitude to such notions evident in opener ‘World Town’; “See me, see me bubbling quietly? / See me, see me acting like you ain’t met me?”.
But without that all-important new record to flog it seems to be a viewpoint she’s taken on board this time. Although I doubt anyone told her to shut up. Waiting a tasteful five minutes past her start time, just enough to bump the crowd’s excitement up a notch or two, she comes hurtling onto the neon-drenched stage, dressed in gold lamé and spotless white sneaks, moving swiftly from statement-of-intent ‘World Town’ into the dark, rhythmic pulse of ‘Bamboo Banga’.
The Big Tunes keep coming, in a set that does service to all five of her major releases. The clarion call of ‘Bucky Done Gun’ and underground London hustle of ‘Galang’ sound just as lively and innovative as they did a decade and a half ago, while the Eastern-influenced middle-finger that is ‘Bad Girls’ (inspired by the story of a Saudi Arabian woman arrested for going for a drive) reflects how she has always positioned herself at the forefront of not just the musical zeitgeist but the political as well.
Unfortunately, midway through the set some technical issues start to present themselves, Maya repeatedly asking for her mic to be turned up. And while everything sounds good to the crowd (one can only assume there was a problem with her monitors), she becomes visibly frustrated, her superbly wild, limb-flailing style of dance becoming less full-bodied and lyrics delivered half a beat out of sync.
To this fester’s distress, my absolute favourite MIA track, the relentless adrenaline-shot that is ‘Born Free’, suffers during this section. After a brief pause for a costume change (and perhaps some choice words backstage) things get back on track, Maya attacking the last act of her set with renewed vigour. As she closes the show with the Clash-sampling worldwide mega-hit ‘Paper Planes’, only a cynic wouldn’t be convinced of her status as a one-off, a fearless trendsetter that many imitate but few rival.

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The tradition of bands playing pivotal albums start to finish is an old but welcome one, and the diligent fester should embrace these events whenever the opportunity arises.
Such was the case with …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead, who took to the Forest stage just before 9pm on Saturday, perhaps prime festing time, to deliver their breakthrough opus ‘Source Tags and Codes’, an album that was awarded a perfect 10 by Pitchfork Media. It’s not hard to see why. The album is a frenetic melding of post-hardcore acts such as Fugazi or Quicksand and the lo-fi aesthetic of Pavement or Sonic Youth, filtered through turn-of-the-millennium brooding. Think all of the good bits of late 90’s/early noughties American guitar music but with fewer shit haircuts.
After the pre-recorded album intro the band launch into majestic opener ‘It was there that I saw you’, a wall of guitars and crash cymbals leading into long, contemplative instrumental passages and back again. Frontmen Conrad Keely and Jason Reece continually swap between drums and guitars/vocals throughout the gig, Keely’s softer vocal style contrasting nicely with Reece’s more aggressive response, particularly on mid-album screamathon ‘Homage’.
While the changeovers sometimes momentarily disrupt the band’s momentum, these are minor blips in an otherwise dynamic and propulsive set presented with the ferocious, jittery energy of At the Drive-In. MVP of the show goes to bassist Autry Fulbright II. Dressed head-to-toe in white denim, his energy levels never drop below 11, jumping around the stage and wind-milling his bass like an epileptic Pete Townshend.

One genre that is relatively under-represented at most festivals is hip hop. This is not the case at OFF, with hip-hop constituting one of the base ingredients of each year’s line-up.
This is no doubt down to the prevalence of Poland’s own hip-hop scene, a thriving and innovative sub-genre based on dark electro trickery, jazz-influenced full-band live orchestrations and obvious lyrical dexterity (even if you don’t speak the language, good flow is always impressive).
This approach is typified by the pick of this year’s homegrown rappers, Meek, Oh Why?, who commanded an early evening slot on the Forest stage on Friday, multiple brass instruments (including his own) backing up his compelling stage presence.
This in-built love of hip-hop attracts some incredible talent to Katowice each year, from heritage acts such as MF Doom and Talib Kweli to (at the time) up-and-coming, before-they-explode acts like Run The Jewels (still the best hip-hop show this fester has ever seen). The main draw for hip-hop junkies this year was one Bishop Nehru, holding court in the Trójka stage late on Friday evening. Known as Markel Scott to his mum, Bishop Nehru’s brand of hip-hop sits perfectly well with Polish tastes.
His smooth, rhythmic flow and the jazz-tinged, bass-heavy compositions of his tracks are in keeping with the hip-hop traditions of his native New York, particularly reminiscent of 90s Nas. His set has a formidable momentum, Nehru resisting the temptation to cut songs short with an abrupt ‘Hold up, hold up, hold up!’ as many if his contemporaries annoyingly seem to enjoy doing. Given their full room to breathe, tracks such as ‘Driftin”, ‘You Stressin” and the triumphant victory-lap ‘Rooftops’ have the crowd enraptured.
Nehru’s showmanship and ability to read the room are further revealed during the long, breathless a cappella raps that punctuate the set, his tempo, rhythm and cadence rising and falling to the ebb-and-flow of the baying crowd. His flow in these sections is truly impressive, the apparent reaction in his performance to the crowd’s cheers suggesting much of this is proper freestyle, rather than entirely rehearsed.
The crowd’s reaction is something Nehru clearly revels in, saying many times during the set how unexpected the response is, prompting him to dive into the audience several times, taking selfies while crowd-surfing mid-rap.

When confronted by the genre ‘Black-Metal Necro-Folk’, you will probably have one of two gut reactions; ‘Fuck Yeah!’ or ‘Fuck off!’.
If you’re the type of person who would travel clear across a continent to go to a small festival mostly featuring bands you’ve never heard of, hopefully it’s the former. You know where you stand with Black metal, but Necro-Folk? Now this is intriguing….

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And so, we found ourselves, late on Sunday night, in the Trójka stage watching Furia, a band who reportedly once played a gig in an underground coal mine (bonus Metal points). Black metal is extremely popular in Poland, as evidenced by a crowd jangling in anticipation, circle pits forming almost as soon as Furia take the stage.
Topless, long-haired, covered in black and white face paint, Ibanez guitars at the ready, the blast-beats kick in and the crowd surges, buffeted this way and that by rapidly expanding and collapsing pits. Heavy, doom-laden riffs and low, growling vocals (possibly about some sort of ritual in a forest) tick all the metal boxes to thrilling effect but, sure enough, you can hear the Necro-Folk under all the satanic majesty.
Snare-led, triplet-arranged drum lines alternate with the blast-beats while choruses are often delivered in a fist-pumping, sing-a-long and, dare I say it, jaunty fashion. Also, people are throwing wicker fedoras everywhere. A unique experience.

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The strong showing from female acts continues this year with Zola Jesus’ late night slot on the Forest stage. Circled by, yep, forest, the idyllic qualities of the Forest stage provided the perfect backdrop to what was a minimalist yet arresting stage show.
Taking centre stage in a flowing red dress, flanked by a single friend on guitar/synth/drum machine duties, the only other stage accoutrements are smoke and lights. This is all Zola requires, as she commands the entire space with her soaring, operatic and often haunting voice. Taking the vast majority of her set from her most recent album ‘Okovi’, a dark, industrial, gothic-pop confessional (with added serial killers) recorded in a shack in the woods, Zola bares her soul from the beginning. In the deep, pulsing, ambient techno of opener ‘Veka’ she asks what it is to have a legacy (“Who will find you/When all you are is dust?”) and if the sum total of our actions defines us (“When the words become you/When all you’ve ever said/Is that all you’ve been hoping for?”) and sets the scene for more introspection to come.
‘Witness’, a plea to a friend who attempted suicide, showcases Zola’s voice in all its heart-wrenching, gut-punching glory. A purely orchestral number, the complementary string lines wax and wane in time with the lyrics, stage lights down to a minimum, creating an ethereal atmosphere that pushes focus entirely onto her stunning voice. There’s an audible exhalation at the end of the song when everyone realises they’ve been holding their breath, looks to their friend and mouths “Fucking hell”.
All this culminates in apocalyptic fashion with set closer ‘Exhumed’, urgent strings leading into a bone-rattling bassline, which sees Zola headbanging and rolling about the stage between lyrics, suitably rounding out a set which felt like one long Kate Bush video, if Kate Bush had been born in Judge Dredd’s Mega City One. To witness such a polished yet raw performance is as cathartic an experience as it must be to give.

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In the midst of all the African tribal musicians, Russian post-industrial electro, Eastern-European choirs and old geezers from Italy playing a genre they apparently invented themselves (hello, Sensations’ Fix), sometimes you need to depressurise from the eclecticism with some straight up, joyous Party Rock.
Satisfying this need in gloriously unsubtle style are Norway’s Turbonegro, who are to Glam metal what the Hives are to garage rock, only clad in more leather and denim cut-offs. The weekend’s only (mercifully short) rain shower is not enough to dampen the spirits of the clamouring fans as the band stride out onto the City of Music stage late on Saturday evening, launching into several songs from their (admittedly fairly naff) new record ‘Rocknroll Machine’. It can be argued that it’s not the actual quality of albums that is important here, but how they are presented live and the sense of fun involved in proceedings, and in this sense Turbonegro deliver in spades.
Looking like an S&M Santa Claus, current frontman ‘The Duke of Nothing’ Anthony Madsen-Sylvester’s onstage patter is superb, informing the crowd “There’s two things we do in Norway; Death Metal and downhill skiing” and claiming they “cross-country skied through Europe to get here!”. His introduction of fellow band members Thomas ‘Happy Tom’ Seltzer (bass), Knut ‘Euroboy’ Schreiner (lead guitar), Rune ‘Rebellion’ Gronn (rhythm guitar), Tommy ‘Manboy’ Akerholdt (drums) and ‘Crown Prince’ Haakon-Marius Pettersen (keyboards) raises cheers and laughs in equal measure.
Throughout number such as ‘Hot for Nietzsche’ and nihilistic anthem ‘All my friends are dead’ the riffs are heavy, the facemelters are flangey and copious and the crowd love every minute.

Special mention goes to the ‘Crown Prince’ on keyboards, shirtless under a denim jacket and sporting a bandana, posing, strutting and pouting like true rock royalty. During closer ‘I got erection’, a death-punk paean to murder-induced chubbys (“This was written pre-me too!” we’re told helpfully from the stage) the band build the tension by splitting the crowd in two, getting everyone to chant the title over and over till both sides are effectively riled up, before letting the riff drop and sending the two sweaty halves barrelling towards each other.
And with that, they leave the stage, waving huge flags, to the sounds of Tina Turner’s ‘Simply The Best’. Careful with that one if you play Glasgow fellas.

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After a long days festing, once the headliners are safely tucked up in bed, you might be forgiven for thinking the fun is done. Regrettably, this is usually the case in Britain thanks to our draconian curfew laws.
Thankfully, this is not the case in Europe, and at OFF these late-night sessions are more than a simple afterthought to pad out the line-up. The aforementioned picturesque qualities of the Forest stage are the prefect arena to field acts that make you forget your tired limbs, at once soothing and energising you for one last thrust (you may have guessed by now that it’s my favourite stage).
These surroundings have played host to Andy Weatherall, Kiasmos, Moderat and John Talabot among others, and this year it was the turn of Jon Hopkins and Jacques Greene to bookend the festival with their pounding, pounding techno music. With a set culled primarily from his latest release ‘Singularity’, Jon Hopkins augmented his brand of lush, ambient house with an impressively psychedelic CG visual show, like an old Windows screensaver got hold of some really good pills. His sense of timing is immaculate, stretching the lulls almost to the point where he’s fucked it and you’ve lost momentum, thus adding to the impact of the inevitable, cataclysmic drop.
This is exemplified magnificently during Big Tune ‘Open Eye Signal’ and the set as a whole proves to be the highlight of this year’s fest, and an all-time OFF top 10. Jacques Green pulled off the incredible feat of not only holding the attention of festers at the end of a three-day sesh, but very nearly outdoing Jon Hopkins in the process. Showcasing debut album ‘Feel Infinite’, his set has a confident Detroit feel, with a liberal sprinkling of R’n’B vocal licks.
The potency of the Forest stage helps create a vibe that is both epic and intimate, hundreds of people dancing their arses off, yet still able to see the whites of Jacques Greene’s eyes. A worthy performance to finish a stellar weekend.

Many other fine acts deserve coverage, but perhaps I’ve went on long enough. If you can, check out Oxbow, Hanba!, Shortparis, King Ayisoba, Sensations’ Fix, Unsane, Wednesday Campanella, Egyptian Lover and Skalpel.

One more thing; it only costs £50…

All words and images by Gary McLean

OFF Festival

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