When the Austrian-Turkish wars of the late 17th century were blazing, the people tasked with building the Petrovaradin Fortress on the banks of the Danube in Serbia’s Novi Sad could not have imagined that they were laying the groundwork for this. The strangely beautiful setting has, for over two decades now, been co-opted as the home of EXIT Festival, one of Eastern Europe’s largest and most talked-about annual shindigs. As the 2022 edition springs into life on a blazing Thursday evening, there is immediately a sense that a fuse has been lit.
For a festival with an enviable reputation for late-night hedonism – gates to the festival site are open from 7pm to 8am – to feel the frisson of energy in the air even as the first revellers arrive is intoxicating. The early birds are rewarded with a pulverising set from grindcore pioneers Napalm Death to turbo-charge their long weekends ahead. The band are EXIT veterans, having been inaugural headliners of the Metal Hammer stage here in 2005, and they are greeted as old friends by a growing crowd.
The band’s riffs rampage from hardcore punk spikiness to death metal sounds seemingly on a whim, while frontman Mark Greenway’s vocals sound as vital as they have done at any point in his three decades of fronting the band. A rousing speech on the importance of maintaining the rights of refugees introduces ‘Contagion’ from their most recent album, ‘Throes of Joy in the Jaws of Defeatism’, and even in the illness-enforced absence of bassist Shane Embury, Napalm Death’s sheer force of presence elicits the first mosh pit of EXIT 2022.
Across the site is the aptly named No Sleep Stage, where a laser-eyed owl looms over proceedings, nested between two steep fortress walls. This is the perfect setting for the arrival of BĘÃTFÓØT, the Tel Aviv trio that have an unconventional attitude to genre conformity. They explode into an incendiary one-two of ‘LĀŸF’ and ‘BLÓODFLØW’, with de facto leader Udi Naor pogoing across the floor. They are limited to keyboards, vocals and soundsystem, but the sheer capacity of their music makes them guaranteed winners, drawing from elements of Chicago house, 60s girl group and punk. There is total abandon to their performance, a sense that they have found their own little pocket of artistic freedom – it is an uplifting set from a band that deserve far greater success.
Over on the majestic MTS Dance Stage, an electrifying back-to-back set from Sao Paulo techno talent Anna and Palestinian groundbreaker Sama’ Abdulhadi beckons the night with earth-rumbling intensity, but the bulk of the festival is at the Main Stage for the arrival of headliner Iggy Azalea. After a lengthy fireworks display, the Australian rapper takes to the stage to a groundswell of enthusiasm from the giant Serbian crowd. What follows is a slick, professional set from an artist whose career has never fulfilled the promise of her early hype, as attested by the size of the ovations for early hits such as ‘Work’ and ‘Black Widow’ compared to her more recent material.
Azalea’s beats are fun and accessible (especially ‘Sally Walker’, which tracks incredibly closely to Kendrick Lamar’s ‘Humble’), but they are uniformly well-received and the bond between artist and audience is clear to witness. By the time the mighty ‘Fancy’ brings the curtain down, the crowd disperses to every corner of the fortress to continue the first night of their revelry with an Iggy-inspired skip in their step.