EXIT Festival is famous for being set in the extraordinary and picturesque Petrovaradin fortress. It is also a completely nocturnal festival, which has given it a reputation, in recent years, as being a hedonistic party. The stages start at 8pm and run throughout the night, with some ending 12 hours later. It leads to interesting scheduling choices and a warped sense of time. After just two days in Novi Sad I was finding it difficult to remember what day it was, and most evenings my perception of time was way out. I'm used to UK festivals, which adhere to an afternoon start; at EXIT I would be wandering around the site at 3am convinced it was only 9pm. Of course, there are benefits to a nocturnal festival.

Firstly, the headliners, whilst on later than at a UK festival - Nick Cave's set was at 11 pm, a time when most headliners are entering the final 45 minutes - are actually quite early in the line-up. Nick Cave and Atoms For Peace were both the third acts to play the main stage on their respective days. This then leaves the stage clear for dance and electronic acts to entertain the crowd throughout the night and allows the revellers get in a few drinks beforehand. Also, with headliners out of the way, the rest of your time at the festival is available for you to explore, experience, and discover the site's secrets.

The real benefit, however, is the fact that it leaves the rest of your day free to explore the delights of Novi Sad, a beautiful Mediterranean style town with a strong cafe culture and excellent gelato. On most days I would relax until about 1pm before getting a taxi into the centre to wander around the town square, or head to the beach.



Wednesday

Wednesday's lineup was suitably varied, reflecting the many genres on offer at EXIT - whilst it does boast a huge dance arena and a predominantly dance heavy headliner set, there is reggae, rock, blues, funk and more on offer. Opening act Marcelo I Iskaz had already started when I arrived and started proceedings with heavy, noisy rock. They were followed by Viva Vox, who performed a capella choral and beatbox versions of famous alt rock songs - among them was a rendition of 'Chop Suey' by System of a Down and 'By The Way' by Red Hot Chilli Peppers. It was odd, but seemed to work quite well. It was clear that tonight was more about celebrating music and the festival than anything else. After a short firework display, which declared the festival officially open, Chic and Nile Rodgers took to the stage to deliver a set of classic disco tunes and tick off another place they've played in what has become a rather comprehensive tour of worldwide festivals.


Thursday

Thursday evening was my first proper chance to meet my fellow revellers and some of the more interesting characters at the festival. It was not long before I spotted something interesting moving through the crowd. Just over the heads of the crowd I could see half a dozen narrow, white mountain-like objects wobbling their way towards me. As they came closer I began to get sight of the round bodies of the costume that bulged like balloons. Just as they passed by me I realised that I've just witnessed six men walking around the festival dressed as sperm. I laughed at the ridiculous nature of the costumes and made a note that I'd probably seen the most surreal thing this weekend. I looked up from my notebook only find myself staring at the crotch of a woman in a harlequin costume who towered above me. I returned to my notebook and added another line - it simply said, 'Actually, too early to tell'.

Alice Russell's retro soul kicked Thursday off quite nicely for me. Whilst the crowd was thinly spread across the main stage field, as Alice's show continued the audience rapidly grew. They were hugely appreciative of her music, especially later in the set where more dance elements were introduced, making her sound like a Motown DFA band. Her last track was my highlight and came across like a cut off of The Talking Heads' 'Stop Making Sense', if the band had been led by Lynne Mabray or Edna Hope.

Thursday's headliner was billed as Snoop Dogg, aka Snoop Lion – but was interesting to note that he only performed two new tunes. Not that the audience seemed to mind – they had come for hits and Snoop Dogg (Lion?) was only too happy to oblige. He later admitted that his new material isn't as ingrained in the public consciousness, but hopes that it will grow on people to the point where his set will be focused on the Lion persona. For now, he's content to deliver a set that featured 'Ain't Nothing But A G Thang', 'Drop It Like It's Hot', though 'Gin And Juice' was notable by it's omission. I feel like I should have hated Snoop's set. It was misogynistic, glamorised the gangster lifestyle and featured commercial, soulless backing music throughout. Yet I couldn't help but love it. The hits are such a big part of pop culture that they really feel devoid of meaning when performed live like this, and the inclusion of Nasty Dogg and some of the dancers' choreographed routines seem more like caricatures of the world referred to in the lyrics. I last saw Snoop at Glastonbury, but his performance this year felt more cartoonish, more tongue-in-cheek than before. Ending on 'Young, Wild and Free' seemed to reinforce the idea of Snoop's show being unapologetic entertainment. After the show I asked Snoop Dogg if his reincarnation as Snoop Lion, and subsequent rejection of the gangster lifestyle, had changed the way he performs. He admitted that he'd never consciously considered it, but is trying to promote positivity and fun, and hopes that that comes across.


My first trip over to the legendary Dance Arena – a stage that later that weekend would hold 25,000 revellers during David Guetta's set – was also to be my first disappointment. I arrived just as Kate Boy were finishing their set of blistering, female-led electronica, equal parts Zola Jesus and Deep Cuts-era The Knife. They had been tasked with preparing the crowd for the arrival of Fatboy Slim, surely one of the original superstar DJs and a major influence on many of the DJ acts who would grace the Dance Arena throughout the weekend, and they certainly had me ready for the party to move up a gear.

It seemed like only ten minutes after Kate Boy left the stage that Norman Cook ditched the Birkenstocks and, backed by the vocal refrain of 'Right Here Right Now', stepped out in front of an eager and energised crowd. Unfortunately, that vocal sample was to be the only Fatboy Slim material we were to hear that evening as Cook contented himself with playing a mix of Pitbull, 'The Harlem Shake' and Daft Punk's 'Get Lucky' (the latter being Daughter's twee take on the Summer smash). As Cook went about fist pumping, joking around and dancing, I felt my heart sink. The lack of his own material meant that anyone could have been up there, although I wonder if the music really needed anyone there at all what with everything except for a few on-the-fly filter tweaks being pre-programmed.

The music he was playing, all build-up and bass drops, was the exact opposite of the music I expected of Fatboy Slim. It left me feeling that I was watching Skrillex's mid-life crisis. That, coupled with the frankly embarrassing 'dad dancing', made the whole show seem like Cook's desperate attempt to stay relevant. I could only manage half an hour of it, so I escaped and ended my night in what was once the fortresses moat, dancing along to the mixes of DJ Conte and DJ Groover on the Radio AS FM stage.


Friday

If ever there was a band for EXIT then that band is The Prodigy. I think the organisers recognised this as well — they certainly rate them highly enough to dedicate an entire night on the main stage to them. Billed as Warrior's Dance, the posters around Novi Sad pitch Friday night's main stage as a showed presented by The Prodigy and EXIT. On arrival the crowd noticed that the Tesla coil banners of Wednesday and Thursday had been replaced by huge red banners with bright yellow Warrior's Dance logos. The line-up also seemed suitably matched to The Prodigy's signature sound, particularly warm-up act South Central.


Their aggressive take on Bro-step was far superior to Skrillex and really seemed to take influence from The Prodigy. I have a lot of respect for them. They do what they do incredibly well and seemed more authentic in their performance than larger acts. Unfortunately, it was all a bit too much for my ears, so I retreated a safe distance to the Urban Bug stage, a small DJ booth hidden in a hollow near the main stage. Nemex and Loco Baby were on the decks spinning a mix of garage and house with pitch shifted RnB vocals. It was a strong contrast to what I'd just witnessed, but it was just what I was after.

I was back at the main stage for The Prodigy, but it was already packed. I picked a spot at the edge of the crowd where I could just about see the stage and let loose with some of my finest dance moves. Their set was an even split of hits, with 'Smack My Bitch Up', 'Firestarter' and 'Breathe' all present, and tracks from their last album Invaders Must Die. It was brash, aggressive and very, very noisy. The set was full of great moments – a ferociously fast version of 'Spitfire' was a particular highlight. Keith Flint and Maxim Reality are still as active as ever, bounding around the stage, yelling like punks and getting the crowd pumped for more. Maxim ended 'Invaders Must Die' by screaming "All fucking Prodigy imitators must die!" I wonder which 'aggressive' dance act he could be referring to?

DJ Fresh was next, to continue the main stage dance party into and beyond the twilight hours. Personally, I was ready for a change in atmosphere and fortunately EXIT easily allows for such flights of fancy. I weaved my way through the crowd towards the northernmost stage on the fortress – no mean feat when you consider that the same night was the closest to a sell-out EXIT has seen. Unlike other festivals, the crowd moves quite freely, with a one way system employed halfway along the route that helps prevent the kind of bumping scrums you often see elsewhere. It's a bit of a trek, but it's all worth it when I finally reach the Fusion stage, home to world music, blues and anything else that doesn't quite seem to fit on the other stages.

I was in time to catch the final half of Ana Popovic's set, a confident mix of Mississippi blues and funk. Originally from Serbia, but now based in Tennessee, this show was something of a home-coming for Ana and the area in front of the stage was packed tight with people who had come to see a local hero. I found a spot on a small hill behind the bar, which afforded a great view over the heads of the audience. The whole band seemed to feed off of one another and the crowd as well, which seemed to be one of the most enthusiastic over the course of the weekend. On a couple of occasions Ana let loose on the guitar; at others we were treated to some deliciously funky bass solos.


"She's Serbian and she's at home!" yelled one of the band as they closed the set. Ana seemed to have dressed up for her homecoming with a silver dress that wouldn't look out of place on the red carpet. There was a celebratory feeling throughout her set – whether she was celebrating the music or her heritage was unclear. It was, however, a perfect way to end Friday night's entertainment, so once the set finished I made my way down the winding path out of the fortress and caught a taxi back to my hotel.

It's probably worth mentioning that if you plan on going to EXIT next year, you really should book into a hotel or hostel. Sleeping in a tent, in that heat (most days it was above 30 degrees), must have been nigh on impossible. Then there was the fact that the campsite for this year was bordered by two main roads and a good half an hour's walk away from the festival – it was no surprise that the people I spoke to all had the same complaint of only managing around two hours sleep a night. Serbia is incredibly cheap, the average pint of beer in Novi Sad was a little over a £1 (moving to a shocking £2 a pint at the festival). So whilst staying in a hotel might be against the 'tradition' of a festival, it really is the one of the best ways to ensure you get some rest in in between the late, wild nights.


Saturday

I was at the festival a little earlier than usual on Saturday, and aside from technical crews and press, there were very few people wandering around. It was a good opportunity to head over to the 25,000 capacity dance arena and get a feel for a space that, by midnight, would be a sea of euphoric dancers, all hands in the air and feet stomping the ground. There are two levels to the arena, the main space right in from of the stage filter back up a hill and opens out onto a plateau that overlooks the bulk of the crowd. The shape of the arena and its landscape calls to mind coliseums, and watching the dancers when the place is full there definitely recalls something tribal, maybe even spiritual, happening.

Whilst over at the Dance Arena, I also took the opportunity to watch some of Dopplereffekt warming up on the HappyNoviSad stage. Their electronic beats and blips reverberated and bounced around the walled space and confirmed why the stage, hidden as it is past the Dance Arena, has the reputation of being EXIT's best stage for forward thinking electronica.


Back over at the main stage I managed to catch some of Vrelo's set. Quite obviously with a big Serbian following, they managed to pull in one of the largest crowds that weekend for the time slot they had been given. Vrelo is a six piece girl group and whilst that might have you thinking they are the Serbian Girls Aloud, they are anything but. Their music was undoubtedly pop, but tinted with shades of psychedelia and punk music, which featured heavy drumming and bass riffs that seemed to employ middle eastern scales and sounds.

Whilst EXIT is becoming famous for its dance music, and the Dance Arena in particular, there is a wealth of other music styles on offer. I strongly advise that you take the time to fully explore the site. That's why on Saturday evening I found myself contemplating a bit of relaxation in a hammock near a cliff edge of the fortress. It was part of an "ambient relaxation zone", all tensile material structures and cool, undulating mood lighting. I wasn't in Petrovaradin to relax however, at least not this early in the evening, so I opted for some excitement over on the Latino Stage. I'm not sure what I expected, but what I found was a stage on which troupes of dancers set foot and entertained the audience with choreographed dance routines to a mix of pop, hip-hop and Latin-influenced rhythms.

Later that evening I caught the second half of the Darkwood Dub set on the main stage. They were on just before Atoms For Peace, but the crowd they had drawn was entirely their own. Earlier that evening I managed to chat with Milorad "Miki" Ristić, the band's bass player. As one of the bands to play the original EXIT festival in 2000, and subsequently playing the festival a further six times since then, they consider themselves to be part of the EXIT 'family'. The audience certainly treated the band like homecoming legends and I could see why Miki stated that performances at EXIT were special and unique for the band. Their music isn't particularly Serbian in style or influence – it's actually much closer to Krautrock and I was reminded of Can whilst watching them. Melodically, it was very complex, each track was almost a ten minute jam held together by the band's rhythm section, which allowed the lead guitarist and vocalist to play around whilst retaining the core structure. It's a great show and really showed why Darkwood Dub is Serbia's largest musical export. It also reiterated a comment made by Dusan Kocacevic in that EXIT is a celebration of Serbia and its future on the world stage.

Saturday's big headliner was Atoms For Peace (or David Guetta, if you're that way inclined), who were preceded somewhat appropriately by improvisational jazz – surely the precursor of the supergroup jam that Atoms For Peace used in recording Amok. The set was a balance of Amok and The Eraser with the material from Thom's solo record being the highlight. It was clear that the extra time the band has had to work with those songs has allowed them to feel more natural and fluid live. 'Clock' was twisted into a ferocious, tribal track with Flea's trademark moves stealing the show; 'Harrowdown Hill' – perhaps my all-time favourite track to be written by Thom Yorke – had an added punch live and, with recent revelations about David Kelly in the UK press, was a timely performance.


Thom wore a white shirt emblazoned with the phrase 'We come in peace', a statement he vocalised to the crowd to deafening applause. He danced his way through an energetic, rhythmic set. Whilst 'Eraser' was a solo project, it is clear that 'Amok' is a true collaboration. Flea, Joey Waronker and Mauro Refosco have clearly had a great influence on the tracks, particularly the way they are performed live. It's also interesting how confident they are as a band, particularly with the Amok tracks which, for the album at least, were created from jam sessions and a lengthy edit process that made them 'difficult' to imagine being played live – yet they pull it off with style.


In the spirit of improvisation, and the fact it was my last full night at the festival, I decided to take the time to explore some of the northern stages a little more. I'll admit I probably spent a bit too long at the Silent Disco, which was undoubtedly fun and full of great sing-along moments. But when you're confronted with the choice of either Daft Punk's 'Get Lucky' or Queen's 'Bohemian Rhapsody' and feel that both are overhyped and overplayed, it's time to quit. I ditched the headphones and made a beeline for the Gaia Experiment Trance stage. The audience there was skewed more towards the late 20s than at most of the other dance stages and the music was that euphoric hands-in-the-air kind of trance that builds to the point where you can't help but move to it and was mixed so well that there was no chance of breaking a flow.


As the Sunday sun started to rise I made my way to the Positive Vibrations Reggae stage. I was just in time to witness what can only be described as a 'twerk-off'. I'm still not entirely sure what was going on and much like my experience of watching break-dancing on the Latino stage earlier that evening, I found myself feeling incredibly confused and older than my twenty-four years. Fortunately next up was Claire Angel, Rasta Rueben Kwabena, Heart Dance Team and Plesno Udruzenje Groove to take the audience through to 5am with classic ska and traditional reggae as the sky transitioned from night, through shades of purple, to the vivid blue of early morning.



Sunday

My final night at the festival was also my shortest due to a 6am flight which called for an airport transfer at 4am. As a result, I decided that I would have as much fun as possible in the few hours I had left by making sure I saw two bands who I knew would deliver great sets. Unfortunately, my plan did not start off well.

Bloc Party's slot at 9:30 pm may very well be the biggest letdown of the festival. I should point out I'm a huge Bloc Party fan – EXIT was the sixth time I've seen them live, having seen them on tour at least once per album. I'm the kind of guy who hopes that they'll play 'Skeleton', but the band I saw on Sunday night was not the same band I had seen in the past. Maybe part of the problem was the absence of drummer Matt Tong, but the sound was flat, lacking the immediacy and punch that they were known for. Throughout the first half of the show Kele looked bored and barely interacted with the crowd – the whole band were static, as though someone had nailed their feet down and was forcing them to play. Kele brightened up in the latter half of the set, but his announcement that they were going to play "some really good songs" was followed by a short cover of Rihanna's 'We Found Love' and suggested to me that his heart isn't in it any more – at least not in the more guitar driven tracks.


Fortunately, Sunday night's headliner was able to turn everything around and ensure that my initiation into EXIT ended with a bigger bang than any of the fireworks that preceded the festival. God bless Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, they rarely disappoint and that night they were on top form, easily putting in one of the best live performances I've seen. Their set was a nice balance of new album Push The Sky Away and classics – most of which seemed thematically linked, suggesting a great deal of thought had gone into the show. In return for a masterclass in showmanship, Cave and the band received some of the loudest cheers I'd heard all weekend.

Their show was loud, heavy and typified the meaning of real rock and roll. 'Deanna', 'From Her To Eternity' and 'Stagger Lee' were noisy and menacing in equal measure, with the gangly Cave spending a lot of his time down at the audience thrusting and gesticulating his way through these songs, somehow managing to come across as a bona fide sex god. He then manages to juxtapose this with two piano led ballads, 'People Ain't No Good' and 'Into My Arms' – both, lyrically, the exact opposite of one another. 'Mercy Seat' and 'Weeping Song' lead the biggest sing-alongs in the main set, whilst 'Push The Sky Away' is a sublime and optimistic end to the main set.

The encore soon pushes the show back to darker territory, ending on the dual salvo of 'Red Right Hand' and 'Jack The Ripper'. The effect of Nick Cave's show was, to quote the man himself, "like a punch in the heart". It was the perfect way to end what had been an incredible and varied festival experience. Petrovaradin Fortress truly is a special place – sure it might not have the line-up of other events, but it more than makes up for it with great moments and a unique, hedonistic atmosphere. With so much to discover on site and around Novi Sad, you need much more than a weekend to really see it all, and after that you'll want to do it all again as soon as possible.