Celebrating Cultures in a Turbulent World - Impressions from Unsound 2016


Emptyset performing live at Unsound 2016. Photo by Camille Blake.

Bigger Picture

Despite increasing unrest in our surroundings, Unsound 2016 gave a powerful statement on the beauty and importance of cultural cooperation

Many people we met at the festival over the past few years approach Unsound Krakow as a type of Hajj. And it must be said that it’s difficult for that not to rub off on you - go once or twice and you end up booking holidays a year in advance. Part of the reason is the ever pleasantly surprising feeling of community, another is the city of Krakow, which you get to know a little bit more each year. Crucially it’s trust in the curation - the relevance of the bill, everything where you’d put it if you knew that’s where it went. This is also the reason why this year can be forgiven for being not as stellar as previous years, and why next year there will still be every reason to be excited about Unsound.

Unsound surprised once more with reinventing the concept of the festival. While last year’s edition aimed at subverting the audience-spectator relation, this year was more of an artistic-geographical experiment with dislocating artists from their respective comfort zones and putting into different contexts. A risky and brave affair indeed, especially having in mind what level of effort and curatorial skills must have been required to establish these connections across different cultures and to join them into a cohesive line-up.

Early Trans-continental Pleasures

We were first exposed to Unsound at the Remote Presence gig in ICE on Sunday. The bill featured Dasha Rush and her Dark Hearts of Space performance with A/V artist Stanislav Glazov and Moritz von Oswald’s collaboration with Kyrgyz band Ordo Sakhna. This first part of the show - Dasha Rush - was hardly a surprise. A favorite of many electronic music festivals, Dasha delivered what she was expected to and her meditative set of cold and elegant ambient fit great both with the multilayered cosmic visuals and with our state of mind at the onset of the festival. Next up we had Moritz von Oswald, and the level of expectations corresponded with the importance of the artist. Unfortunately the collaboration felt really all over the place and aside from “that one cool ambient track” (a phrase heard quite a few times that evening) it was almost funny.

The opening party at the Kamiena old railway warehouse threw some early surprises too. Just as last year, the warehouse was turned into a very cool rave venue with great, crisp sound and a dynamic light setup that really tied the room together. The queen of the night was definitely Lena Willikens - her ability to merge intelligent and sophisticated music with wild danceable sensibilities seemed uncanny. She dropped some Detroitish gems with subtle electro cuts and provided one of the most enjoyable dancefloor experiences recently. Meanwhile Dasha Rush went with her background and played a selection of uncompromising, monolithic techno - subtle and heavy.

[yottie id="1"]

Next day the Trespass evening in Manggha began with the moody slowcore of Lotto, whose calm tone did not so much as hint at the madness to come. The Dwarfs of East Agouza, an unlikely trio consisting of Alan Bishop from Sun City Girls, Cairo musician Maurice Louca and Sam Shalabi from the Montreal improv scene balanced between hypnotic and trippy psych sounds and neurotic improv that almost evolved into organic noise. It was beautifully chaotic, pleasantly unlistenable. A very interesting and fresh performance up to the point where it became hysterical and directionless. After that it was time for the Iranian noisemaker SOTE, who revitalized his creative efforts over the past couple of years, first with a 2014 release on Beaini’s Morphine Records and a few other releases, most notably this year’s Hardcore Tapes from Tehran - a gloriously weird release. SOTE merged intense tribal infused techno with harsh experimentalism. Without touching the area of 4/4 rhythmics the performance became a rough digital maelstorm. At the same time it was very intelligent, moving and dynamic. Bodies shook on demand to SOTE’s complex, yet somewhat primal rhythms and raw textures, a combination of industrial heaviness and unrestricted improv freedom. It was as if techno had never been confined to 4/4 standards.

Tuesday’s Rapture was a celebration of several different cultures, their interrelations and fusions. Xylouris White was one of the most upbeat moments of the festival with their folkish cheerfulness interplaying with smart proggy structures. Stara Rzeka’s collab with Samo was very surprising and in a way it was the only one where the less known part of the collab led the way. Kuba Ziołek of Stara Rzeka provided the performance with only an acoustic guitar and a few unimposing atmospheres - otherwise it was all Tajik folk band Samo. The show suffered from the venue because it was a really silent, acoustic folk performance that was overwhelmed by noise and chit-chatting from the bar and the hall. Only being very close to the stage was it possible to really enjoy the séance of Eastern exotica. In the end it was a heartfelt and honest performance, one of the most authentic moments, simple in its form, purified in its essence and very powerful in its core. A pity that this was one of the very rare moments in the festival when part of the crowd did not show proper respect to the performers. Aisha Devi ended the night with a performance that was on the opposite end of the spectrum - a very loud show, where sound acted as if it wanted to subsume, devour and escape the venue. If Stara Rzeka and Samo represent the authenticity still embedded in its natural habitat and existing in its pure and unchanged form, Aisha Devi’s performance was a modern post-cultural post-internet collage of various ethnic elements. However her vocals still retain folkish sensibilities with Eastern flavoured melodic lines floating over massively loud and bassy post-witch house soundscapes. Aisha’s sound is like folk music for the social media generation. In a way it was the most interesting performance due to the response it got - some loved it, others used it as an example of the ephemeral in music that will never survive as meaningful culture, still others claimed the prerequisite for enjoying it was having a penis. Perhaps these latter points have their merits, but there’s no denying that it was a very well put together performance both sonically and visually, even though she clearly missed a great opportunity to end it.

Exploding Bouquets of Sound

Wednesday’s Signal Flare show began with Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith and her signature new age ambience - subtle sonic passages and melodic lines swinging across the gigantic and cold ICE hall. Her performance was cozy and heartwarming, as was her sound with its constant shifts from ecstatic calmness to sweet poppy sensibilities. All of this is transmitted through organic analog means (primarily the Buchla Music Easel), giving it that additional warmth. After that Rashad Becker delivered one of the most difficult performances of the entire festival. There is something quite unbeatable about having to learn to love a musician’s sound, to get what he’s doing. It’s like finding that one tape from the 80’s that’s bound to gain a cult following upon it’s inevitable re-release to mark 10 years since the artist OD’d. Becker has this quality. He builds his groove patiently, moving against the impatience of his audience. He buzzes and screeches and tumbles until suddenly you’re inside whatever bizarre world his sonics come from. A stellar performance. The Horse Lords of Baltimore who were super fast, precise and intense bonus - truly impressive in those senses, but not something that will be remembered after a while.

That same evening there was a dance party at Hotel Forum’s kitchen - another new space, another uncovered part of the giant structure’s maze. And what a party it was. Dancing among the white tiles of a post Soviet industrial kitchen to insane mashups was a blast. Lao’s set was a stunning exercise in simplicity and the rudimentary pleasures of dancing and partying. He dropped a brave portion of eclectically mixed, distorted, chopped and mashed superhits. Even Underworld’s “Born Slippy” was there. Ziur was even better - with her brave mixing, confident turns towards a vast array of different tracks ranging from a stretched and unhomely Justin Bieber remix to digitalised tribal experimentations or urban music. She leaped across genres, merged them and at the same time tried to negate their existence with every pick. And she made a wild party out of it. It’s would be nice to see more Djs like Ziur in the line-ups. A lot more interesting than listening to another perfectly mixed and overtly technical set of techno.

Thursday’s exclusive highlight was Matmos’ rendition of Robert Ashley’s TV opera Perfect Lives hosted in a movie theater. This was one of those performances you’re unlikely to ever catch again and it was indeed great - the artist complimented the piece and the piece fit the artist. Perhaps the only issue with it was that the performance was quite verbally overwhelming and the stories distracted from the music. One can argue that the original was the same way, but I think where Matmos strayed Ashley’s voice always walked that fine line on the right side.

Thursday’s Hotel Forum kicked off with a bouquet of abrasive and organic electronic sounds, merging aesthetics and traditions of different eras. It was the strongest night at that venue as the following ones tended to disappoint. The first exciting artist at Forum that day was Babyfather - Dean Blunt’s satirical (?) take on the state of hip-hop. His 2016 LP BBF Hosted by DJ Escrow left a lot of people wondering what the project was about, but few thought it was anything groundbreaking musically. It was a sketch board of ideas at best and an insult at worst. Therefore it was no surprise that the live performance left much the same impression - a cool idea here and there, but bland overall. Afterwards came another Samo collab, this time with one of Unsound’s long-time friends, Rabih Beaini. This was a louder, more improvised and expressive affair, which easily filled the large space of the venue. After Samo left the stage, the spot next to Rabih was taken by Kafr, who dove even deeper and sent the public into a rough hypnosis, an uneasy trance brought about by the combination of primal and mechanistic pulsations from Beaini’s machines and the uncontrolled chaos from the Senyawa members. In the Mouth of the Wolf (Cindytalk and Ancient Methods) relied on a similar performance pattern - vocal vs. electronica. It kicked off on a very exciting note as Gordon Sharp began painting soundscapes with his voice on the pitch-black drones of Ancient Methods. This slowly turned into an EBM/industrial techno madness, which lead the performance out again in the same direction.

Lights and Concrete

Friday had plenty of highlights and started out strong with Emptyset playing at the Museum of Engineering. Despite the fatigue that had begun to kick in towards the weekend, Emptyset would not be denied. As always, their performance was not only aural, but also physical and visual. The sound system was placed around the room and the waves of thick sound shook powerful projectors flashing beams of white light in various patterns all over the concert space. It was as much about the shadowplay and the “visuals” on the walls, as it was about the interplay of light that filled the air in the dark room, and, of course there was also the signature Emptyset sound, as thick as an amplified echo within a gargantuan cave.

Death Grips was undoubtedly the biggest name of the festival and also by far the biggest disappointment. The number of fans and their impatience reminded the final moments before some hard rock giants appear in the arena. However, these people were constantly triggered with Death Grips’ attempts at soundchecking and at times it was hard to understand whether it’s the start of the show or still a belated soundcheck. It’s hard to say whose fault it was, but in the end the sound at this particular concert was beyond terrible - only a minor portion of Death Grips’ textured sound could be heard. The rest reminded a messy bubble of noise, where only the vocals and drums were more or less clearly heard. Yves Tumor’s performance at the Forum actually more successfully fulfilled the expectations for Death Grips.

Thanks to Rrrkrta for a nice transition into Severed Heads with Suicide’s “Cheree”. The Severed Heads dropped a tight and dancefloor friendly set, leaving aside their more experimental output in favour of legendary tunes ranging from “Petrol” to “Dead Eyes Opened” or “Harold and Cindy Hospital”. However, even at their most danceable SH never loses these twists that make their sound unique, namely the neurotic melodies, unexpected structures and futuristic horror filled, slightly Ballardian moods. Their Unsound set did not lack this and did not slow the tempo down. Tom Ellard still seems comfortable and at home on stage after all these years of split-ups and reunions. And a selfie at the start of the set showed that they were enjoying themselves.

Equiknoxx’ set was a bit further from the colossal dancehall tapestries of “Bird Sound Power”. Shanique Marie’s presence created an upbeat dancehall party. They are much warmer live and there was an organic synergy between the audience and the artist. It in a way reminded last year’s Nozinja performance, just slightly less intense and more trippy.

Between Glowing Fantasies and Cold Landscapes

Fracture was one of the most eclectic and strange concerts even in this context. Felicita’s interdisciplinary show merging ballet, folk dances, visuals and his own signature combination of collage experimental/PC music was one of the weirdest moments of the festival. It tried to combine hardly compatible elements. The chaotic performance is quite difficult to pin down as the elements floated around. It is hard to evaluate this show. However, it is surprising to see PC music making it that far and acknowledge the fact that it is very flexible and compatible with such interdisciplinary affairs.

Amnesia Scanner, Bill Kouligas and Harm Van Den Dorpel’s collaboration was the most unsettling experience of the event. Harm joined various elements in the visuals to create an uncomfortable and intense sonic experience, an uneasy collage reflecting a kind of surreal experience of the modern web-driven world. Roly Porter’s performance was in contrast to that, aiming at grandeur using “epic”, almost Hollywood style techniques. Multitextured drones swirled with strobes and HD visuals of Icelandic landscapes. His sound is detached from the mundane and elevated towards an awe-inducing scale. If Amnesia Scanner and Bill Kouligas’ collab aimed at an uncanny representation of the world, then Roly Porter’s was more of a romantic wandering across unexplored spaces, a celebration of the human mind, of the grandeur of spaces.

Helm provided another portion of icy drones in his collaboration with Moa Pillar from Moscow. The show was illustrated with amazingly captured visuals from remote corners of Russia presented by The Embassy for the Displaced. The textures were stark with occasional turns into the ecstatic, but mostly maintained their slow-paced colossal nature. The sound was like a static arctic landscape with subtle details changing and micro-narratives constantly creeping out. This made for a perfect resonance with the visual material, where shots ranged from overtly romantic to completely realistic as vast landscapes of mountains and valleys led to bleak Soviet tower blocks, run-down villages and depressing urban landscapes. The melancholic tone, however, was also present throughout the performance and the combination of sight and sound created a strange meditative tone. It was a documentary art in its most abstract form. Moreover, it was really surprising to see the ever-expanding scope of Luke Younger and the ongoing topicality of his art. Having just explored the chaos and surreal nature of post-Olympic London in his last album, with this project he proves to be capable of going into entirely different spheres conceptually and geographically.

Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein’s live rendition of “Stranger Things” soundtrack was a nice juxtaposition to Helm. They transferred the listener into the retro-romantic and surreal world of the acclaimed series. Subtle stripes of light illuminated the stage, creating a neon maze, where the duo’s warm synth palettes thrived along. It was one of the brightest and charmingly naive moments of the festival, maintaining the atmospheric charm of the series without overly adhering to the visual narrative and allowing the appreciation of their sounds without a visual equivalent. This merge of a warm 80’s glow with kosmische elements and darker interludes works fine on its own. The live performance just realised this fantasia in a beautifully elaborated mode.

We were slightly out-of focus during the last night in the Forum, but the evening was not very fruitful in terms of impressions. Forest Swords set sounded dated and kind of disappeared in the vast spaces of Hotel Forum. Having in mind all the innovative collaborations and the intercultural cooperation taking place around, this one seemed like a relic from 2010. Raime are getting more and more merged with their Moin alter ego by introducing live drums and more intensely relying on live instrumentation for their shows. However, the monotonous and repetitive structure of their recent material is transferred in their live shows as well. I admit that this was part of their creative intention with Tooth and it is more a matter of taste, but the current form of the project does not work for me, quite often reminding the same loop repeated over the course of an hour.

The Sublime End

The final day of the festival has always been this special moment, the last intake before leaving the city. This year was no exception. The space of Filharmonia Krakow added some additional weight for the sounds of the evening. Kara-Lis Coverdale’s hazy architectural soundscapes were a good start. She sculpted beautiful sound patters silent enough not to disturb anyone’s pleasant lucid dreams, but intense enough to keep your inner emotions and mind awake. The overall space was filled with MFO light, which nicely complemented the sound with soft and ethereal ambience. The whole space turned into a kind of baroque hypnotic chamber, a hazy play of light and sound.

Even though my initial reaction towards the pairing of Body Sculpture (BS) with Ilan Volkov and Sinfonietta Crakowia was quite sceptical - these two worlds quite frequently do not match or one simply overwhelms the other - the final result was entirely the opposite. The main thing was that neither of the participating sides attempted to challenge each other or impose its own discipline. They rather enriched each other for a mutual result. Body Sculptures’ elegant synth patterns were decorated with washes of strings or horn sections, while the noisier and more rhythmic parts were powered by gongs and percussion. There was no clash between the two aesthetics, but rather true cooperation. We might also argue that BS’ music was decontextualized and approached from a different angle, which was hardly imaginable in the project’s early days. However, the Posh Isolation crew has never lacked a strong tendency towards modern romanticism and here was a very direct elaboration of these sensibilities. It is good that both parties rejected the formalities the environment usually requires and concentrated purely on each other. Loke’s static and captivating apathetic frontmanship also added its additional charm.

To sum up, even though the festival did not have such emotionally powerful and breathtaking highlights as 2014’s Swans and Ksiezyc or 2015’s Current 93 or Matana Roberts, this year it stood out with its topicality and the attempt at broadening our aesthetic and global senses, which are sometimes too steeped in Western cultural traditions. If last year’s topic attempted to conceal the artist and create the mysterious tension between the performer and spectator, this year is more about unity and involvement. Having in mind the ongoing global tensions, threats and disasters happening around, this is one of the core concepts that we need to explore, rethink and rediscover. And the fact that people from different continents gathered in old Krakow to (re)appreciate and celebrate the diversity and interference of global sounds is in itself a relief. The world seemed a smaller and slightly friendlier place, at least for one long October week.

About Author

An interdisciplinary journal, offering eclectic mixes and smart interviews with original artists and label owners as well as contemporary art reviews.

Comments are closed.