The festival took place in the spectacular setting of Serbia's Petrovaradin Fortress in Novi Sad last weekend
Within hours of the gates opening on Thursday (July 4), The Cure had bewitched EXIT festival 2019 – the political rebellion that grew into one of Europe’s most celebrated weekends in the awe-inspiring setting of the Petrovaradin Fortress in Novi Sad – with their world-beating sound storms, and the weekend was never less than overwhelming from there on in. The Chainsmokers shook the battlements with an EDM firestorm, Skepta brought the “London sound” and Greta Van Fleet beamed in from 1976 to rock the place to the ground. Here’s how it happened, in pictures (all pics: Chloe Hashemi).
The Petrovaradin fortress rises from the middle of the Danube in Novi Sad, an international symbol of peace and, for one weekend a year, the biggest 18th Century house party in the world.
The Petrovaradin Fortress is a labyrinth of tunnels, crypts, courtyards, grottos and crannies, all of them housing a stage - some tiny and secret, others, like the main Summer Stage, home to the biggest names in rock and electro.
They don't come much bigger than The Cure, drawing the biggest crowd of the weekend for their set early on the first day - arguably the biggest name on the bill practically opening the weekend.
In an arena closed in by lamp-lit trees, the sweep of sparkling wind-chimes that introduces the blast of brilliant bombast that is ‘Plainsong’ set the scene for a blast through a gig almost identical to the world-beating set the band played at Glastonbury, but far, far more intimate.
Following the trajectory of ‘Disintegration’, out of a tangled weave of guitars rose ‘Pictures Of You’, Robert Smith hugging his guitar to his chest as he sifts through old photos in his mind and the song blows past him like a wind tunnel of memories and regret. The Serbian heavens dutifully opened, yet ‘High’ was remarkably sunny, adorned with visuals of neon pink clouds.
The grinding ‘A Night Like This’ ushered in a more dour and menacing mid-section, then ‘Push’ blew the cobwebs – and, it seems, the rainclouds – away, launching into a second pop segment including ‘In Between Days’ and ‘Just Like Heaven’. The encore, too, was half an hour of solid Cure-pop classics. 'Lullaby', 'Friday, I'm In Love', 'Why Can't I Be You?', 'Boys Don't Cry', 'Close To Me' - an indie-pop joy burst as spectacular as any confetti cannon.
EXIT floated away from the main stage, deeper into the fortress, to hunt out its late-night delights. Until 8am the cobbled courtyards, ramparts and hidden tunnels of Petrovaradin hosted DJs and knees-ups of all shade. Bobadu (pictured) spun Jamaican dancehall and Afro-tropical beats on the Wenti Wadada Positive Reggae stage, Rudhaman dished out warped Latin spacetronica at the Chipsy Disko Zone and Live Egon’s Embrace squeegee'd third eyes aplenty with gabba trance on the ultra-psychedelic Gaia Experiment stage.
There was an old punk flavour out there too. Peter And The Test Tube Babies brought the unadulterated scatalogical punk while The Selecter delivered stylish Jamaican ska fed through the mean streets of Coventry on the Addiko Fusion stage, making anti-Brexit statements and slipping occasionally into bits resembling a skanking Franz Ferdinand.
Meanwhile, Charlotte De Witte drew a rammed crowd to the eye-blitzing mts Dance Arena for her artful techno minimalism.
Friday hosted an even more beat-driven bill, but no-one told Hungary's Mongooz And The Magnet, blasting out classic blues rock on the Addiko Fusion stage while the bassist flung around a double bass like an overloaded Paul Simonon.
A thumping Dance Arena set from Peggy Gou went head-to-head with Chase & Status’s Return II Jungle show on the main stage – the first half of C&S’s stage time was given over to electro-ragga acts amphetamising “beats coming out of the depth of the ghettos of Jamaica”, and when C&S themselves joined the party they hammered out a sleek, refined breed of jungle.
Headliners The Chainsmokers, pulled out the big guns, arriving at their video podium at 2.30am to the fanfare of the ‘Seven Nation Army’ riff and not leaving until they’ve doused emo, R’n’B and everything in between in EDM stampedes, flumes of fireworks and blasts of flame and steam.
Bombarding EXIT with beats that shake the battlements and bass that rattles the catacombs, Alex Pall and Drew Taggart did their damndest to live up to the genre-straddling ethos they claim for themselves. When they dropped in snippets of Papa Roach’s ‘Last Resort’, indulged in crazed ragga or went rap pop on ‘Everybody Hates Me’, they seemed to epitomise the millennial myth that everybody loves everything.
With ‘Sick Boy’, a proper song even emerged, an atmospheric piano pop piece attacking the modern “narcissism” of how new generations define themselves by online popularity. Hand in hand with Calvin, this was EDM emerging from behind the smoke and mirrors and engaging with pop music on its own terms.
On Saturday, Sixth June spun out crepuscular tapestries of Numanoid bleakness, doomy crypt pop and vampire disco, carried along by Lidija Andonov’s frail, fragile vocals. Basically, we're saying it was synth goth.
Tom Walker – the fisherman of soul trawling for young Serbian hearts - laced his big soul bellows with EDM kick-offs and electronic crescendos. His everyman charm had a vengeful streak though – he hoped the robbers who stole his two favourite guitars from the back of his van “get hit by a bus” before the Latino epic ‘Karma’ and described ‘Dominoes’ as “my two fingers to the news, because they really are bastards”.
Headliners Greta Van Fleet arrived at midnight like they’d stepped straight out of a wormhole from 1976. There were flowing zebra pattern shirts. There was a bare-chested drummer in a waistcoat, hammering out a solo in the second song. Guitarist Jake Kiszka wasted no time in proving himself a florid finger ninja, and his singing brother Josh prowled the stage in a navel-flashing future rock shirt, sprayed-on white trousers and eagle feather hair adornments, throwing flowers into the crowd and wailing helium vocals through the roaring bluster of ‘Cold Wind’ and ‘Safari Song’ like a munchkin Robert Plant.
They’d clearly studied the set texts of classic ‘70s rock – ‘Back In Black’, ‘Led Zeppelin IV’, ‘Paranoid’ – but they weren't hemmed in by their rules. ‘Black Smoke Rising’ and ‘Flower Power’ particularly rejuvenated the genre with stirring choruses, infectious hooks and hearty chipmunk bellows, the latter coming across like a cock rock War On Drugs.
There were prog rock freak outs, plenty of rolling tribal blues thunder and bits that felt like trudging through swampland. But it all rolled to a close with the stomping AC/DC heft of ‘When The Curtain Falls’ and GVF strode back into their wormhole leaving sticks, picks and a heady sense of history re-evaluated.
Dub FX provided a refreshing alternative to all the spacebar DJs, building his beats from beatboxing, hisses, clicks and ghostly throat singing, all voice-generated and looped into ragga rave stampedes, like he was an electro Ed Sheeran.
At one point he told the crowd to raise their fists, explaining that every fist was an antenna to the fifth dimension where the spirits we've bought along to the festival were being downloaded. Or something.
After a Sunday thunderstorm threatened to wash the entire fort away, IAMDDB arrived with a whole lot of puns about being 'wet'. Threatening to steal everyone’s girlfriend, encouraging widespread cunnilingus and insisting “if my nipple slips out don’t enjoy that shit, let me know bitch”, she laid the minimalist future soul seduction on thick, to the point of displaying symptoms of chronic "pussy" fixation.
According to his hype man's express demands, rising US rap superstar Desiigner hit the stage lit only by people's phone lights. Special.
"This guy is the greatest performer in the world!" said hype man declared, and he wasn't wrong. First Desiigner ventured out into the crowd on piggy-back...
Before you could blink, he'd been carried out to the sound tower, and clambered up the side like a rap Spiderman...
Then he spotted the 40ft high VIP balcony where NME was reviewing the set from, and thought 'I'm having some of that'...
Having climbed up a sheer wall to get there, he tottered along the lip of the balcony, rapping all the while. Health and Safety must have had an aneurysm.
Follow that Skepta. And without getting too parkour on EXIT's ass, he did.
He set out to prove his worth alongside Stormzy at the top of festival bills with chest-shaking grime bass, subtle club-crawling vibes, the occasional video game beat and a hearty slice of tower block garage, topped off with Skept’s infectious, bounce-along chant raps.
An opening ‘That’s Not Me’ came adorned with visuals of drone surveillance over south London, and after a relatively chilled opening segment the set came alive with the horn-slavered beats of ‘Crime Riddim’ and a trap-ist throb rap ‘Redrum’. It was a set designed to highlight his individuality – his seductive menace on ‘No Security’, a track crying out to soundtrack a vampire teen flick, and his explosive vitality on ‘Shutdown’. All he needs now is some ballet lessons.
With Jeff Mills and Amelie Lens taking the crowd through til dawn, sleep was for the dead.
But the end, the fortress itself looked how our heads felt...