It’s perhaps not surprising that a festival held in a fortress doesn’t do things by halves. As we arrived into Novi Sad at night, the location of EXIT festival, at the Petrovaradin Fortress, made an impressive sight against the cityscape. On Thursday, before the festival opened to the public, we embarked on a tour around the festival site. The space not only highlighted the sheer physical magnitude of EXIT – which saw some 200,000 visitors come through across the weekend – but also the level of effort put into the whole event. Couple this with the history of the festival, which was founded in 2000 as a student movement in the fight for democracy in the country, and it is immediately apparent as to why EXIT has continued to be a pioneering festival in the Balkans, now in its 21st year.
The first night of EXIT saw Sama’ Abdulhadi, known as ‘Palestine’s techno queen’, go back-to-back with Brazilian DJ Anna on the MTS Dance Arena stage. Bringing squelchy and dark techno interspersed with melodic dance cuts, the pair displayed an exuberant synergy in their mixing. There was an infectious joy in watching the two artists collaborate, dancing together throughout the set and seemingly having the best time on stage. This carried into the crowd too, which was packed for their back-to-back. With the MTS Dance Arena’s ostentatious light display and fireworks going off during the set, it felt like a pivotal moment kicking off EXIT 2022.
On the same night, eccentric outfit BĘÃTFÓØT brought levels of heady, high-energy for their performance. On the No Sleep stage the Tel Aviv trio delivered their eclectic mutoid acid-rave meets punk anarchy. Within they draw on 90s party hedonism, a “doing whatever the fuck we want” punk attitude and fuse that with influences from golden era hip-hop. This sound, augmented by the band’s ethos of “everything’s better when it’s faster”, as they sang on their track King Trash, made for an undeniably fun set that stood out as one of the most memorable of the weekend.
Nick Cave and the Bad Seed’s appearance on the Friday was one of the festival’s pivotal performances. The nearly two and a half hour set saw him balance the haunting emotional poignancy of Cave’s work with his rock’n’roll charisma and idiosyncratic droll humour. The set, which featured a vocal duet with Warren Ellis on Get Ready for Love, was defined by interactions with adoring fans in the crowd. Cave performed from a platform adjacent to the front barriers, frequently interlocking hands with those at the front of the crowd and breaking the fourth wall to interact with fans in between songs. During the set, someone from the audience proffered a shiny gold shirt to the musician, to which Cave replied, “That’s my fucking shirt, I remember you!” After that interaction he said with a wry smile, “We have to wait 15 seconds to recalibrate your minds and the traumatic tension,” before he launched into the next song with characteristic, emotive intensity. Later, another festival-goer handed him a bowtie, prompting him to rework the lyrics of the track he’s singing, crooning, “Thank you for the bowtie but I’d prefer a different one.”
Whilst for the most part sound bleeding doesn’t pose an issue, before performing a song from his Murder Ballads album Cave commented on the pounding house music that can be heard from an adjacent stage: “Can anyone go tell them to go stop that music next door?” Towards the end of the set, Cave invited a fan on stage to sing Old Time with him; a cumulative moment that brought an emotive and interactive set to a close.
Later that night Paris techno institution Possession held a takeover on the No Sleep stage, marking another highlight of the weekend. With a predilection for the heavier side of dance music, Cera Khin played a dynamic set with hard and fast techno inflected with drum’n’bass. Parfait built on this, leaning into hard beats from the get-go and bringing hard dance cuts into the mix. During her set, the rest of the Possession crew joined Parfait on stage which created a collective, convivial energy. This was also reflected in the No Sleep crowd that night; the atmosphere and space itself nestled in a walled garden away from the rest of the festival. Closing the No Sleep stage into the early hours of Saturday morning, Héctor Oaks’ heavy, warped techno was the perfect accompaniment to the sunrise, the leafy surroundings of the space adding to that 6am post-dance elation.
A boat cruise down the Danube on Saturday offered a perfect balm following a couple of late nights – the festival itself runs until 8am with an afterparty area opening from 7am – and also gave us the opportunity to see more of Novi Sad’s impressive vistas.
For most of the weekend the large capacity of EXIT didn’t pose issues navigating the crowds, however, there were a couple of points where crowd bottlenecks made it impossible to make it from one side of the festival to another. The area containing the Aqua Vivo Latino stage and Gaia Trance Xperiment stage was difficult to navigate later into the night, with only one narrow stairway offering the entry and exit point to that area. These difficulties felt most apparent on Saturday, which saw Calvin Harris headline with crowd-pleasing house selections, such as an edit of Rihanna’s We Found Love. The sheer quantity of attendees made it feel too much of a mission to get from one side of the festival site to the other.
The final evening saw the current iteration of Brazilian metal band Sepultura play. Early on in the set vocalist Derrick Green, who took over from founding vocalist Max Cavalera in 1997, dedicated the show, and the current tour they’re on, to the band’s guitarist Andreas Kisser who wasn’t present due to his wife’s death. During Sepultura’s performance Green acknowledged former members of the band and said, “We have a lot of Sepultura history to show but we’re also touring our latest album Quadra.”
Across its 40 stages, EXIT Festival hosted a wide range of music, from stages respectively dedicated to psytrance, platforming Latinx music, showcasing traditional Balkan music. The dedicated dance arena and the main stage hosted a range of music across metal, hip-hop, pop, trance and house. EXIT is a festival that can provide an array of experiences, depending on what you want from it. Though, at times, the physical limitations of the 300-year-old winding fortress combined with large crowds made it more difficult to wander and happen upon a new musical discovery, the breadth on offer made it clear as to why EXIT draws such large crowds, and has become a significant part of both Novi Sad and of the country’s legacy.