Unsound Festival 2014 - The Reminiscences of Dreams

Unsound Festival 2014

Photo by Camille Blake

Since the first childhood visit to Krakow, this city has been looming somewhere in a dreamlike space, existing as an unexplored twin brother of my hometown Vilnius, which reminds the old Polish capital with its extensive and preserved old town intertwined with green spaces, Vistula river and diverse, mostly medieval architecture. Having been a bit too young to appreciate the vivid ancient spaces of Krakow, the city remained like an artefact in memory, artefact of half-remembered impressions and repercussions, another place in the neighboring Poland, existing very close, yet somewhere far away. Thus the introductory performance of John Cage "The Dream" played by Chris Abrahams was an interesting transition from reality to the festival space, from dark and exhausting labyrinths of moonlit motorways on the way to the fest to homely Krakow full of strange experiences and unexpected encounters.

Thus the 2014 edition of Unsound was a bit paradoxical as the surreal musical narrative integrated into the city brought Krakow back to reality and consciousness. The migration across different venues made you embrace the city's vibrant charm, which is also very multilayered - from the cobbled streets and churches of Stare Miasto to monolith riverside with late-soviet Hotel Forum occupying the skyline, the labyrinths of Kazimierz district and the Soviet-realist decadence of Nowa Huta.

The festival took part in the mentioned parts of the city - the Old Town, Kazimierz and Nowa Huta. They are very distinct and unique in their history and symbolize different historical eras with their fears, ghosts, charms and beauty.

Hotel Forum and Ice Krakow, standing just opposite each other, present a nice contradiction of two different realities of the city - the Soviet brutalist hotel building representing the dystopian grayness of the regime reality and the sterile and cutting-edge modern conference center with glass and snow white surroundings representing the present day. Juxtapositions were felt in some other locations ranging from modern Japanese cultural center Manggha to old theaters, pompous galleries or engineering museum. Thus the narrative was already embedded in some buildings beforehand. They provided a perfect background for the musical story, they acted as different layouts, spaces, places to dream.

This article will not be adherent to chronological order as dreams usually do not work that way. The report will be focused on the most memorable moments and highlights and written from more emotional perspective. The artists are grouped according to subjective criteria and several keywords in sub-headlines - this might help to figure out the direction. Of course this is just one of the possible narratives as every attendee had its own individual and private experience.

Memory hauntings and urban spectres

This year's Unsound was prominent for the masters of surreal futurist decadence, industrial techno mavericks and motor city legends.

Xeno and Oaklander was a great starting point. Noted for their all-analog performances they wandered mostly through the material of “Par Avion” and “Sets and Lights”. Nothing very special about the show and the congested Lucid Dreamers venue was a bit too crowdy, noisy and uncomfortable for the melancholic synthwave experience. The sound also seemed very messy making it difficult to decipher the structural elements of their sound. Thus the performance flickered very quickly as the blurred image of the reel. Xeno made no pauses after the tracks and it felt like a quick and coherent showcase of their recent material.

The decadent and semi-abandoned Hotel Forum was a perfect setting for heavier sounds with shady undertones. It looks like a remnant from the past, a strange, but somehow charming architectural scar occupying the riverside skyline. The giant add somehow hides it from the presence of the modern Krakow marking it with a symbolic sign of capitalism. The interior also has this concrete brutalist charm and the vastness of large open spaces feels overwhelming. The whole environment of the building resonates nicely with music, which fills the empty and cold corridors, strange halls with carpets and large chandeliers.

Another prominent moment in Unsound's bill was Vessel, who started the Hotel Forum program on Thursday. It was indeed a very powerful start. The Bristol's producer dives into the nightly realms and wouldn't be out of place in Blackest Ever Black or Modern Love catalogs. The live show highlighted the essential elements of his recent release "Punish Honey" and realized it in full HD 3-dimensional mode. The rough textures gave way to the heavy bass influenced beats sounding like Raime in a bigbeat mode. The show was thick and straightforward, a nice concentrate of the key points. The weird black and white visuals also contributed to the experience. It sounded big and massive, but without the pompousness and cheap tricks like overextensive layers of noise and complexity for its own sake.

Powell’s show was another moment applauded by most visitors. But he was massive in a different way. The live show was really surprising in its playfulness and variety. It seems that he dared to take his sound event further during his debut live performance. The show was very diverse and a bit chaotic in a good way. It was like a collage made from techno, no wave and noise tropes and tweeked into coherent whole. Powell played punk rock for digital age, it is no wave for the newborn and confused social media generation.

Rrose (who has made a special mix for Secret 13 https://secretthirteen.org/rrose) and Carter Tutti Void were also in their finest shapes. CTV set could be quite freely described as techno, and Nik Void presence was felt. Yes, it was more Factory Floor than Chris and Cosey. The monotonous beats were drowned in layers of guitar and vocal, but never went to the background and was a backbone to the performance. It was Chris and Cosey’s synth experimentalism and moodiness channeled through more experimental forms of dance music. The backbone was Nik Void, but the emotional substance was the couple. Rrose nicely balanced goth techno vibe with decadent futuristic techno scapes and classy 4/4 rhythmics. The whole dynamic was in the details as Rrose plays in a very subtle way maintaining the tense atmosphere and solid mesmerizing monotony. A very nice balance between techno energy and colder experimentalism. And it is definitely one of the best techno sets ever heard.

Friday was the voyage to the looming presence of Detroit started by Dopplereffekt. And Hotel Forum's gray presence was a nice setting for diving deep into the textural vaults of the motor city, its ghosts, fantasies, scars and hopes. The cold, robotic and decadent soundscapes of this legendary duo provided short sketches for the forgotten fantasy world of surreal sci-fi reminding lo-fi minimal versions of “Brazil” or “Blade Runner” aesthetics. The visuals were displaying some obscure scientific experiments, primitive 80’s graphics reminding the futuristic versions of public information films, and the show had this chilly, abrupt and impersonal vibe despite the flowing and strangely beautiful nature of the sound. However, it was still pure good old Dopplereffekt experience with Gerald Donald, the godfather of electro, in the front.

And if Dopplereffekt channeled their visions through haunted sci-fi lenses, Robert Hood show intensively blew to the reality of Detroit’s past and present. The masterbuilder's sound was stripped down, emphasizing the key elements of bass, rhythm and kick. The skeletal structures were in line with shifting, but cohesive dynamics and vivid neon-lit nocturnal atmospheres. His beats are as precise as assembly line, they are sharp, hard-edged and pure, but his heart, passion, soul and strong commitment to place that fills these structures with life. The starting sample provided the show with dystopian undertone and embedded the classy sound essentials into his own personal narrative - the same as he does in most of his releases. And the reference raises a question at the very start of the show: is this simply a representation of some forgotten nightmare of his native town or a symbol of present realities?

Yes, Robert's show was one of these rave moments of the festival, but it was just one side of the coin. He knows how to make the crowd go crazy, but never loses the spiritual core of the sound.

Drones and Voices

Ksiezyc is an underrated Polish experimental folk band from the 90’s playing a strange mix of ethereal, neofolk and minimalist avant-garde. Its show in St. Katherine's Church in old Kazimierz district was definitely the best discovery of the festival. This moment also captured and perfectly reflected the ephemeral nature of this year's Unsound festival. If I had to pick the most hazy moment of the festival, it was Ksiezyc. The title contributes greatly to the nocturnal nature of their sound, which balances between strange coziness and something unhomely.

The space added additional experience for this Polish band crystalizing the best moments of the golden age of 4AD and reminding some lost band from secret Ivo's treasures, some parallel universe of ethereal beauty. The thin, crystalline sound elevated to levels of pure melancholia. It was like Dead Can Dance or This Mortal Coil merged with some old forgotten Polish folk tune and the simplicity and beauty of Erik Satie, the more vanguard edges of neofolk mixed with neoclassical blissfulness. The dreamy soundscapes were interfered by more hysteric moments, thus creating strange contrasts and swings. However, they do not have any exaggeration or pretentiousness which sometimes spoils the case in these waters. The beauty lies in the fragility of sound, it is like a drone made of crystal or porcelain echoes merged with the essence of melody and the meditative melancholia.

Deathprod played in the cinema theater and it was a great setting. They transmitted a grand and noisy burst of dark ambient with violin creating some neoclassical overtones. No visuals - just a cinema hall drowned in some smoke and lights created a perfect surrounding for the experience, which peaked at the moments of white noise overwhelming the heavy layers of cold baroque drones. It was a heavy and subsuming experience.

Grouper's set in mammoth white Ice Krakow building was a bit devoured by visuals and overwhelming space. It happened literally when the sound of spinning reel was almost louder than her silent droney dream pop pieces. She sat, laid herself back, took her shoes off and picked a flask. This coziness again was is in a bit of a contrast with the overwhelming conference space, but it was very charming to observe how comfortably and silently she produced her flowing dreamlike visions mostly from “Ruins” and “The Man Who Dies In His Boat” albums. But such performance would fit much better in a small room with a view to the spacious fields or somewhere outside near the bonfire. But the intimate nature of the show was amazing. It was Grouper stripped to the core - just Liz and her electric guitar with some effects and it reminded the performance of a confessional songwriter more than of a drone artist. However, the visuals displaying abstract urbanistic imagery provided the whole atmospheric element of the show and introduced another layer, which sometimes lacked the connection with Liz's pastoral sound.

Ben Frost in Hotel Forum was quite a contrast. His emotional textural core of "A U R O R A" was a bit subsumed by the raw bass, thick layers of noise and intense salves of drums. This program was definitely made to sound big and looks like a drone music, that could be played in stadiums like Camp Nou. However, the pompousness and thickness of the sound hid the emotional line of the release. The lighting was awesome and the live drums presence contributed to this epic feel, but it devoured the core of the album, this neon space romanticism, which was so prevalent and subtle in his “Solaris” project with Daniel Bjarnason.

The pairing of Suzanne Ciani and Neotantrik was indeed the highlight. Sean Canty and Andy Votel generated deconstructed tape and vinyl loops around Suzanne Buchla’s wanderings. However, Andy and Sean’s presence was also strongly felt and sometimes even drowned Suzanne’s analog wanderings, especially when Lichens joined the crew. Suzanne’s trademark cosmic voyages were not that explicitly expressed and merged with the soundscapes of haunted drones from the British duo.

Lichens was also present during Nurse With Wound show, who delivered a lengthy ambient trip. His own show at Manggha was ethereal futuristic ambient hypnosis. He maintained this steady flow, which drowned you into his luminescent world of pure sound and vocal loops. It was an exercise in abstract beauty, very minimal, bright, light affecting and subsuming.

Otherworldly Wanderings

The Radians and The Necks was probably the first show which set the bar really high during the first day of the festival. The dynamic was perfectly maintained and suspended just in order to be released in the form of drum salves or distorted guitar sound. I must admit being not very familiar with both bands, so I had no prejudice beforehand. But the pairing was excellent. It was a great moment of tension after Chris Abraham's rendition of excellent "Dream" by John Cage and hypnotizing neo-classical etherealness of prominent Icelandic composers Hildur Guðnadóttir & Skúli Sverrisson.

Another remarkable point was the collab between Atom ™ (interview can be accessed here https://secretthirteen.org/Atom™) and visual artist Robin Fox in the same Engineering Museum venue. However, it was the case when form and structure were above the content. The RGB aesthetics and all the lasers were accurately crafted and the combination of visuals and sound was carefully and precisely constructed, but there was some substance missing here. It was more like a showcase of technological capabilities and production techniques of both artists rather that a genuine artistic performance or narrative. Robert Henke's "Lumiere" came to mind as the comparison of the show of a similar format. However, latter was a bit more coherent, concise and conceptually whole.

Craig Leon was the grande finale of the fest and unlike Grouper felt quite fit in the chamber space of Ice Krakow. "Nommos" exploded in all its colored variety and multilayered soundscapes, which were highlighted by the chamber orchestra. No radical digressions from the recording's narrative - it was more of a high-end version of it accompanied by the 40 piece orchestra, where every element is realized in its full potential. However, the initial minimalism of “Nommos”, a bit raw nature and its wild exoticism, yet at the same time futuristic and nomadic vibe are sometimes in stark contrast with orchestral pompousness. The record wasn’t made to sound like that. The two worlds do correlate, but sometimes you realize that you hear "Nommos" extracted from its original context, transferred to entirely different time and space and put in a different dress. It's like a savage alien wearing a suit. It looks and sounds great, but it's not the "Nommos" we hear at home. When listened personally, it sounds more dense, captivating and adventurous.

Explosions and turbulences

Container and The Bug performances were probably the peaks of the festival in terms of concise explosions of raw and primal energy.

The Bug was one of the most anticipated shows of the evening. It merged two worlds of Kevin Martin - the hazy emotional part of his new release and the rough urban wilderness of "London Zoo". The result was a massive bombast live experience of abrasive bass and rough urban sonics. The short hazy introduction with Copeland soon became a massive and angry dancehall party and it seemed that the whole Hotel Forum building was about to explode. A massive experience with constant changing MC's and bombast atmosphere. Again, it was a proof that true rave atmosphere is definitely not dead as all the action reminded a bit of some warehouse party with open mic and massive soundsystem.

Container provided a short and powerful bomb with two drummers accompanying his own weird and distorted vision of techno. As opposed to Ben Frost, the drummers here served as a perfect addition and realized Ren's full potential.

Meditations of noise and concrete

The taxi trip to the easternmost suburb of Nowa Huta was quite an interesting experience. It was a nice transfer further from Krakow’s old town to the realms of more monolith part of the city reminding the ghosts of the past embedded in looming tower blocks and presenting entirely different face of the town. Łaźnia Nowa Theatre was quite a nice place - a monumental building situated within the older estates of Nowa Huta (again reminding me some parts of Vilnius, Lithuania a lot). Here Pharmakon and Swans created a remote world of their own - the world of contrasts and juxtapositions existing further away.

Pharmakon and Swans were an interesting pairing. Margaret's performance, lasting about 25 minutes, was a short and straightforward attack. However, her sound is much more subtle and elegant than much of power electronics/noise acts seen live. Her bursts of aggression, wild beats made of scrap metal, screaming presence have a sense of frightening fragility, like being trapped in a cold glass house with your own fears and weaknesses. She creates a very personal performance, which is intimidating, but very touching and affecting at the same time (her interview made just before the show can be read here https://secretthirteen.org/pharmakon)

Swans were opposite in length as the show lasted for about three hours. It was a lengthy and elaborate study of their recent material and completely opposite experience. And their energy resources kept growing every minute. One of the definite festival highlights. They put you in a state of trance, a spiritual journey to your own inner self, a floating cosmos. I had an opportunity to see Swans in Edinburgh a year ago, when they did "The Seer" shows. And if it was more like a deep dive into your own fears in all their vividness, this performance seemed like a result of purification, an ongoing meditation, an enjoyment and cathartic moment. Swans were not loud this time. And this is really felt when your compare two different shows. The abrupt “Seer” aggression gave way to almost 3+ hours meditation, which was slowly and coherently built up to the peak and then slowly realized.


That was the essential percentage of personal Unsound experience. Of course, it was much more in terms of quality and quantity, but everyone had his or her own individual path in Krakow’s space and sonics. The beauty of Unsound lies in the fact that the same festival might be a completely different experience for two different people. It resonates with your inner self in the same way as the trip across the city does.

Getting back home was a different narrative. Warszaw embraced with its glassy metropolitan skyline before falling again into the maze of dark highways leading the way to Vilnius. Is it the way out of the dream? Not sure. But dreams usually subsume spaces. Spaces usually evoke the subconsciousness and decode the overall beauty, which cannot be absorbed at once.

More about Unsound Festival: website - facebook - twitter - soundcloud

About Author

Paulius Ilevicius is a Secret Thirteen journalist, editor and occasional DJ focusing on more dreamy and melancholic soundscapes. Born in post-industrial town of Pavevezys, currently he lives and works in Vilnius, Lithuania.

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