Unsound 2015 - Shrouded Marvels in Krakow

Unsound Festival 2015 Review

Unsound Festival 2015 Logo

It has been over two weeks since Unsound 2015 ended in Krakow and I can still feel a decidedly strong lack of motivation to go out to town, to catch a gig, or even to have a beer. There was no nagging alarm bell signalling the weekend in my mind on Friday - everything had been seen and heard and discussed within the salt-mine, or the Synagogue, or some other Krakow venue last week. The array of performers and genres at Unsound seemed stacked even before the secret acts had been revealed. RP Boo would follow Current 93 who would follow Tim Hecker, and that should be enough for any get-together if I'm being honest, but this year's theme was "Surprise", and that meant half the names were a (sometimes) well kept secret until the performance was underway. The fact that no one seemed the least bit worried about this said a lot, and me and Paulius were quick to find out why.

It's fair to think of there being two parts to the festival - the morning to evening gigs at various venues and night shows at the Hotel Forum. The two were a very different affair. The venues themselves were a good fit for most of the artists not merely in a sonic sense, which makes it a shame that for reasons out of anyone's control some of the gigs couldn't go through as planned. The David-Tibet-supposedly-being-a-satanist scandal meant that Current 93 could not play at St. Catherine's church, but perhaps even more importantly, the "Morning glory" gigs which were to take place in a different church, also got cancelled. Current 93 was going to be special regardless of where they played, but Rrose playing a James Tenney piece on a gong would clearly have been a lot more impressive with the acoustics of a church. That said, all the other venues, which there were more than 10 of, were good, and the fact that you had to walk around Krakow to get to the events turned the city itself into a sort of "act". As such, at no point did the gigs suffer from the surroundings becoming predictable and boring.

Days Between Musical Extremes

Manggha was one of the main concert spaces this year. The good old Unsound venue had probably the best sound, a lot of eclectic line-ups, and a good number of highlights, many of which turned out to be surprise acts. I was particularly blown away by Lawrence English and his onslaught of drone that he'd prefaced by making everyone lie down because "sitting is shitty". Someone later commented that his set was like riding an asteroid, and in the sense of sheer magnitude of sound that metaphor was apt, I could not escape the feeling that surely no man-made "thing" could be responsible for the intergalactic grumbles that left all my insides irradiated until well into the next act. Rabih Beaini and Wacław Zimpel followed Lawrence’s mammoth performance and they would've been forgiven for anything they showed the audience, not least due to the fact, that the two had met for the first time a mere few hours prior to walking on stage. Nevertheless, the improvisational ethos of both musicians made it all work in surprising ways.

Both of these performances were in stark contrast to the second performance of the day - the burst of raw physicality from Lucas Abela, who played noise using a contact mic and a piece of glass. His display could not have been more different than the others - the sound was there, but it was the connection of performer to listener that was so electrifying about the eccentric Australian ‘Granpa’. The finishing move - breaking his instrument on his forehead - seemed the only logical conclusion to the show.

Yet another unannounced Manggha act that left no one wanting was Damien Dubrovnik. The Danish noisers gave what I thought was the most impressive performance of the whole festival in terms of presentation. The blinding-white strobe shone on Loke and Christian as they shredded out a torrent of passion and blood for all to see. It was a voyeuristic experience If ever I've had one. The power of “Vegas Fountain” was amplified to a new level and every tiny detail of their sound could be felt: you could hear mellow undertones and synth brushes through the abrasive layers of noise. There was physicality and emotion combined and made to explode.

Elysia Crampton’s gig was certainly the most controversial one, format-wise, because she chose to both play music and do a live-reading of a paper she’d written between each track. It worked for some and didn’t for others, personally, and this is from someone who enjoyed both the American Drift album and her earlier work as E+E, I thought both would have been more interesting separately because it felt there was a lack of coherence. Elysia’s music was a nice digression for the evening, and indeed the festival as a whole. She presented a peculiar and eclectic mix of genres, played completely in digital, ‘cartoonish’ sounds, and she herself does not seem to have any set cultural identity. In the end musically it was a great exercise in deceptive simplicity, while overall the performance was at the very least different and therefore welcome.

Yves De Mey was another Manggha secret act. He started with his flat and precise sharp sonic cuts and slowly built up his set to intense levels, but never went into 4x4 monotony. It was an adventurous deconstruction of techno and IDM, a distorted futurist structure. It was with him in particular that I feel the “Surprise” theme came to life - not knowing who was playing until it was done, I just took it all at face value. It was a tremendous long-forgotten feeling.

The last Manggha act I’d like to mention is, perhaps somewhat counterintuitively, the Polish hip-hop band, Syny. Having stepped over the boundary of it being rap in a language I could barely muster a few curse words in, I ended up moving with the glitched-out synths and (undoubtedly) bravado-filled verses until the end. Unsound made me surprise myself with this one.

Early Highlights and Treasures of the Underground

One of the concerts was held in the Wieliczka salt mine and we were lucky enough to get a tour of the place beforehand. It was a case of the venue and all the contextual non-musical aspects overshadowing the performances. The spectacularity of the place and the daunting beauty of the underground Chapels and lakes left us spellbound. But the thing that was most striking was the vastness: the mine is a separate world of tunnels, passages, gateways, the majority of which you could go down never to be seen again - the call of the void was almost palpable. In the midst of all this there was a spectacular long hall decorated with chandeliers made of salt crystals where the concert was to happen. After an immersive ambient set from DJ Richard (props for the “Remote Viewer” piece), came the first and probably the most controversial surprise act, challenging our preconceptions, prejudices and expectations for a live gig. Funnily enough, we were joking before that there should have been some gimmicky process to decide who played at the salt mine. When the first voice sample gave away in no uncertain terms that it was in fact Burial playing his first ever live set, I couldn’t help but chuckle. In the end it was nothing astounding: too short and perhaps best heard at home. I think this type of set would be something expected from Burial if he were to play live constantly, and it would not have been surprising in an entirely different cultural context. The idea itself overwhelmed the actual performance. This was even moreso the case when the speculations began (and haven’t ended even now) - was it Burial? I wonder whether this will ever be officially explained, but I suppose that’s the point - can we enjoy a live show without knowing who is playing?

The following King Midas Sound and Fennesz set was to be expected, in a way. But it was a very welcome entry in the line-up. Unfortunately, the over-amplified sound made the performance unbearable at times even though the musical part was beautiful - especially Fennesz’ high-pitched signature sonics intertwining with Kevin Martin’s rough bass structures. It seemed that the whole performance fell prey to the acoustics of the space, which I assume are less than stellar. Both artists operate on very high and low levels of sound respectively and Kevin Martin’s monolithic bass did not work well with the Fennesz in such a setting.

Current 93 was a late highlight of the festival, and I knew they would be difficult to top. Not because they’re one of my favourite bands, not because they played their excellent last album in its entirety, but because it was one of the most personal, touching and professional shows I had ever seen. The chemistry of the band was on point and the flow was very heartfelt. All the members seemed to very organically complement the whole. Minimalist raw guitar swings, neoclassical piano melancholia, James Blackshaw’s bass, Andrew Liles’ electronics, Jack Barnett’s backing wrapped around David’s signature poetry and vocal ruminations. It was all the more special due to David’s monologue and context. It showcased a very informal and open-hearted side of this project.

Matana Roberts’ set in the beautiful Tempel Synagogue was yet another peak of the festival. Having put her free jazz aside she dove into a hauntingly beautiful combination of drone, ambient and atmospheric jazz with vocal inclusions. She did not, however, lose the thematic and emotional core of her jazzy explorations of black history - something that resonated with the venue in an interesting way. The show was based on her more abstract third instalment of “Coin Coin”. The echoing vocals and droney passages reminded me of “Marble Index” era Nico put into an entirely different cultural context. It was a touching journey through black history and her own personal hauntology, embedded in multilayered wraps of sound, ranging from monolithic layers of melancholy to soft post-modern lullabies.

Another gig that was separate from the general festival schedule was Tim Hecker’s Ephemera. On our way to the old cigarette factory where the show took place we met some friends who had just been to an earlier session and merely said that it was cool and they were not going to spoil it for us. Interest piqued, we walked into a curtain-covered room and were instantly lost - everything was covered in a fog that was so thick you literally could not see more than two meters in any direction. It was impossible to tell how large the space was or how many people were in it. I honestly could not say much about the musical side of things because it worked so well as a whole - the sensory deprivation created an alternate ghostly plane to walk through, the lights colored the fog red and blue and anything inbetween until, after a while, my mind began playing tricks on me and drawing silhouettes in the fog that weren’t actually there. It was difficult to know how much time had passed, the only thing clear was that it had not been enough. After it was all over, it took some ten minutes to find the exit. On a less serious note, gig idea - book Tim Hecker’s Ephemera and gather the fees by pickpocketing confused concert-goers. You’ve been warned.

Alessandro Cortini’s gig at the Engineering Museum was full of minimalist and mellow synth arrangements that fit well with the expansive visuals, creating an immersive cinematic experience. Cortini’s sound always felt like a soundtrack for some unfilmed movie or the view through the window of a train, so this combination really made sense. Naturally, a seated venue with a cinema screen might have suited the concert better than the packed venue, but the vast space of the Engineering Museum hangar sounded great. High-pitched noise mingled with synth-laden analog soundscapes and melodies. The dynamic was quite stable and consistent, without any digressions, but the tension was there to capture my attention until the last second.

Fis was a nice surprise and discovery. His intense audio washes and twists pierced harshly and sometimes flowed into IDMish interludes reminiscent of “Chiastic Slide” era Autechre, yet even further deconstructed and remodelled. With his excellent recent release in mind, Helm was yet another expected guest. Luke Younger dived through the shafts of his “Olympic Mess” and the dancer onstage helped to accelerate the unhomely feel of the record. From the clumsy and messy glitches it faded into the monolithic balearic twists and the urban beauty of “I Exist in Fog” - an awe-inducing ambience - before getting back to its “messy” wanderings. “Strawberry Chopstick” was an excellent wrap up to the set, a human touch to the underlying structure of the city - the same feeling transmitted by the dancer, who complemented the show and illustrated the organic but eerie mood of “Olympic Mess”.

Joys and Disappointments in a Concrete Cage

Thus we get to Hotel Forum, which was the main venue during the long weekend Thursday to Sunday. I must say this part of the festival was the weakest. Granted, at that point in the festival we were a little jaded, but even so, the individual concerts at Manggha and other venues blew Forum away. There were several reasons for this but mainly the sound was too much, there was no good lounge area, and the line-up just wasn’t as interesting as the rest of the festival had been. All of that aside, there were still some very cool performances.

The post-modern and dance music deconstructions of Amnesia Scanner were a strong start. Holly Herndon’s vocal-digital explorations of virtual dangers and sometimes a bit naive political undertones were far from being overtly exciting, but the sound itself was very current, professional and well presented. The first night, however, was definitely dominated by Lorenzo Senni and Powell’s unexpected collab under the tongue-in-cheek name of Hot Shotz. This performance showcased the punkish nature of the two and highlighted their similarities. Lorenzo’s punctured rave pastiches fit well with Powell’s raw no wave. It was a very playful improvisational affair. Their signature sounds were unleashed to create a dialogue or interplay that could not be ignored. Surgeon and Starlight’s primetime techno set sounded quite dull afterwards.

The T’ien Lai opening surprise set on the second day sounded like a darker version of Juno Reactor and was in no way amazing. One of the highlights that evening were definitely Nozinja and the whole positively organic Shangan experience - seeing them live and getting to see the chemistry, the moves and the energy multiplies the experience. Their set had a very natural and appealing minimalism to it. The constant number of BPM (1-9-0! Repeat!), their catchy melodies and harmonies were all that was needed for a bewildering dance. Prostitutes was one of the best sets of the whole festival for me personally due to the sheer aggression and masterful buildup. Unfortunately it also made my ears bleed - any longer in that little room with those huge speakers would have amounted to torture plain and simple. Finally, to close my evening there was RP Boo, whose sinister brand of footwork was as danceable as it was a pleasure to listen to (even with tinnitus).

The final evening was dominated by innovative bass/grime and techno. SHXCXCHCXSH’s atmospheric soundscapes were supplemented by impressive visuals. The set started slowly, delicately and did not venture into rougher territories, which was to their favour. Sometimes the Swedes showed almost ambient dynamics although the signature pulsations were always present. The music flowed nicely and it was the best performance of that evening for me, although it would have worked even better in a more chamber-like environment or even a seated venue. Andy Stott, on the contrary, was in a way more danceable mood and, unfortunately, did not sound anything like his excellent last album. Instead there was a lot of at times good, at other times average break techno with noisy interludes and sharp touches. It was very tight and professional, but there was a distinct lack of mood and too much dance floor material.

After Forever

The final chords and echoes of Unsound were played by Pole and MFO, and all that was left were some final handshakes and goodbyes to people you might or might not meet until next year. The echoes were still present during our nocturnal drive across dimly lit Polish roads and the wide futuristic highways of Warsaw towards the Lithuanian border. The images shifted behind the car window accompanied by snippets of memories from the past week, but the cultural overload prevailed and it was obvious that our world became a little different to what it was before the festival. That might be the biggest surprise of all.

Honorable mentions: Lorenzo Senni’s emotional rendition of Alicia Keys at the Unsound karaoke, Richie Hawtin reportedly not wearing a Hawaiian shirt, Lawrence English’s amazing field recording workshop featuring sound geeks with boom-mics awkwardly standing around drainpipes, the drunk opening warehouse rave with B. Baran & Chino tearing it up oldschool and Rabih Beaini being the most high-profile early morning DJ for a while, and, finally, the unnecessary snow.

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