The lads on the plane chanting the lyrics of "Drei Tage Wach" threatened to topple the idea that Bratislava had escaped the fate of some post-Iron Curtain cities like Prague and stag night-blighted Krakow. But mostly it has. In the two decades since the Velvet Revolution, it's barely budged an inch—a tiny medieval town centre engulfed by Orwellian Eastern Bloc landscapes. Once the cultural hub of Central-Eastern Europe, finding good food or good electronic music on the ground these days can be tough. And staging an "advanced" music festival? Even tougher.
The half-a-million strong city has little in the way of club culture. The only decent spot—a venue in a former communist bunker deep beneath Bratislava Castle—was founded by Wilsonic organiser Tibor Holoda back in 1993. The U-club, as it was then known, was the first to bring an international DJ to Bratislava (Neil Landstrumm), and remains the only place of its kind in the city. Other venues have come and gone, usually succumbing to economic or regulatory pressures. In an effort to ignite enthusiasm for dance music and to create a platform for fledgling artists in the area, Holoda took on the task of staging a festival in 2000 with a modest event that was the seed that would grow into Wilsonic.
The early Wilsonic festivals were dogged by attendance problems that have only recently been (more or less) resolved. The program back then trod an electronic music middle ground that was far from the hardcore experimental techno that nearby Vienna was known for in the '90s or the hippy hedonism of Czechtek in the neighbouring Czech Republic. As such, it only appealed to only a small group of enthusiasts. Scraping by on ticket sales when only friends turn up is difficult, and Holoda ended up sinking in a good deal of his own money to support the event. The festival was barely there in its second year: just one evening and only six artists. Things looked better in 2003 with more artists and some big names: Funkstörung, Villalobos, and Luciano. But the next round shrank back again to just seven artists, with Akufen the only name that could reasonably be considered a headliner.
This year there were close to fifty artists across two evenings on the bill with an almost fifty-fifty split between Central-Eastern European and international artists. Wilsonic has grown into an event that offers exposure to regional artists and can bring big name talent to Bratislava. There were fewer known Eastern European artists than you'd think though. Where were the Romanians of Cadenza fame? Where was Polish producer Jacek Sienkiewicz? Or modern classicicist Jacaszek? Aside from a couple of house oriented filler sets from Tom Wilson (RO) and others on the smaller indoor stage, most of the regional artists were drawn from indie electronica: Novika (PL), Midi Lidi (CZ), Auditory Ossicles (BG), Wojtek Urbanski (PL); or, where language was an even bigger barrier, hip-hop and beatbox: Batcha de Mental (SK), EU + Galun (RU), Skiller (BG), Indy & Wich (CZ). The number of beatboxers was truly mystifying for a festival that bills itself as 'reflecting future', and each and every one got a rousing reception. It was at least good to see Romanian dubstep producer TRG (Tempa) on the first evening on the bill with Deadbeat, 2562, and Skream.
The rest of the line-up for 2008 was respectable enough: Nôze (in their fourth appearance at Wilsonic), Apparat Band, Jeff Milligan, Flying Lotus among others—but it took a beating from three big cancellations—headliners all. Kelley Polar bowed out a few days beforehand; Dani Siciliano fell sick and couldn't make it. Neil Landstrumm, not seen in Bratislava since 1993, was there but for the clumsiness of his airline. In a horror-story episode that makes even non-musicians shudder, his gear was crushed beyond repair. And the artists that did make it took a few on the chin too. Flying Lotus suffered an inexplicable outage of sound for the first 15 minutes of his set. He took it in stride, though, keeping the crowd entertained with antics until eventually jumping off stage, marching down to the sound booth and fixing the problem himself. And there was a brush with the local constabulary for another artist. After an hour of narcotic dancehall-dub-techno on a darkened stage, Dutch dubstepper 2562 was interrupted mid-set by police demanding lower volumes—this despite permits for the site having been granted and in order. The organisers complied and left 2562 with no bass and a rapidly emptying floor.
In spite of cancellations, the program attracted a crowd that outstripped that of more experimental events like Budapest's Ultrahang, Bucharest's Rockolectiv or even Krakow's Unsound. But it was still barely 3,000 people, mostly Slovakian; less on the second evening. And even that strained facilities at riverside Tysovo Nabrezie. With only one building on the site, the event is a mostly outdoor affair and even 4,000 should in theory be no problem, but not everything ran to plan for the Wilsonics. Stage tents were organised, but had to be ordered from abroad. They arrived late. "German 'punktlichkeit' is a myth," observed Holoda wryly. The first day's scheduling was thrown into chaos—sound checks had to be pushed way back, artists were left waiting and wondering what was going on—but to their credit, organisers got on top of it and the gates were opened more or less on time. Things got warmed up just as rain set in. The huge tents provided excellent cover for the several hundred that were there for the dark set of rock-dub from Lithuania's Dublicate. Italian Andrea Satori played next and also suffered sound problems when cables started dropping spontaneously out of equipment. "The tables were vibrating so much," he said, aghast. And as the rain came down another problem came to light. The city provided the site for free. But they'd also started digging up the place unannounced just days out from the festival, removing trees and leaving unfilled trenches and unsealed paths all over the place. Unsealed soon became mud. And then slush.
Still, the crowd stayed enthusiastic and patient, if a little scattered, and seemed to barely notice the inconveniences. There was an atmosphere of genuine and energetic friendliness till the early hours on both evenings. Nôze tore the place up with their usual drunken shenanigans, and Skream played to a heaving horde that was clearly made up of dubstep true believers. "They knew every tune!" 2562 bemusedly agreed later, after bemoaning the lack of dubstep support in his hometown The Hague.
"That's the effect of the internet," explains organiser Holoda. Until recently, there'd been no media in the region to promote electronic music; language, distance, and cultural differences meant an ongoing lack of interaction both between Eastern European countries and with Western counterparts. One of the explicit Wilsonic aims has been to launch new artists within the region as well as to an international audience. But despite Holoda's best efforts, Wilsonic remained completely off the radar until recently. Even Austrian drone-master Fennesz had never heard of the event until he was invited to play this year—and he lives barely forty minutes away in Vienna. By helping creating a demand for the music, the internet has meant bigger attendance and, importantly for any festival with bigger ideas than budgets, sponsorship. New deals have enabled Wilsonic to expand the line-up dramatically in the last couple of years and started to garner exposure in international music media. Hook-ups with Popkomm in Germany and plans for co-operation with other high profile events in the future are also helping Holoda ramp up a feedback loop that's set to become self-perpetuating, as it fosters talent and provides exposure to regional artists.
The Wilsonic program offers a wide range of sounds, but lacks focus. The event isn't horribly overcrowded, but some of the artists felt the sting of under-attendance. The site is not too big—you can leave your binoculars at home—but it's a bit lacking in atmosphere. After the festival is over a worn out Holoda acknowledges the setbacks and shortcomings, but he's already ambitious about Wilsonic 2009: "Now that the whole thing's over, I have mixed emotions: angriness, sadness, and satisfaction at the same time. I still need some time to look at everything from a distance, but I already know for sure what will be different next year," he says with something between a grin and a grimace.