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Say it’s not The End: Unsound 2012 reviewed

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  • published
    17 Nov 2012
  • words by
    Mark Baynham
  • photographed by
    Anna Spysz
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The theme of the 2012 Unsound festival in Krakow, Poland, is The End.

It feels appropriate to the times, both in the sense of the volatility of the geopolitical climate and an increasing feeling of cultural entropy that may or may not be connected to larger factors. Even if the apocalypse doesn’t hit in a few weeks, as those darned ancient Mayans prophesied it would, it’s hard to imagine western civilisation’s post-Enlightenment, post-industrial fantasy of neverending progress lasting much longer. The tide has turned, and at the very least things are going to get worse before they get better.

But Unsound 2012 as a whole doesn’t feel despondent; it feels celebratory. The programme, exquisitely curated as ever, gathers a wide array of international artists who have reconciled themselves to the darkness, and whose work either engages with it directly or seeks to find the seeds of new growth amid the smouldering wreckage of what-was-and-might-have-been. Freed from any obligation to any media-generated grand narrative or movement, these artists are content to pursue their own smaller and more idiosyncratic goals, and Unsound is the perfect platform to help them reach them, and maybe even go beyond them.


Even if the apocalypse doesn’t hit in a few weeks,  it’s hard to imagine western civilisation’s fantasy of neverending progress lasting much longer.


The first major showcase of the festival features three artists who have colonised despair and abjection, lived in it, made it their own: Dominick Fernow (pictured above), whose Vatican Shadow project reimagines industrial techno as war music for Middle Eastern conflict and religious extremism; Keiji Haino, who with his recently resuscitated Fushitsusha pushes the rock ‘n roll power-trio template to extremes of volume, repetition and ritualistic intensity, and Kevin Drumm, whose nerve-shredding explorations of scorched-earth ambience and trebly power electronics suggest that, in his mind at least, The End has already happened and we’re living among the ruins. After such a display of mature and carefully cultivated nihilism (no contradiction in terms, I assure you), a performance by Teengirl Fantasy in the same venue the following night feels rather hollow. The American duo’s saccharine, dude-ish vision of techno, for all its outward effervescence, is grey on the inside, and far more dispiriting than anything wrenched out of Fernow, Drumm or Hainio’s livid circuitry. It feels effete and ephemeral, though judging from the average age of the audience members, it’s aimed at less weathered and cynical ears than mine. I’m far more engaged by Matt Mondanile aka Ducktails, whose music has evolved subtly but enormously in the last few years; freed from the nonsense-context of “hypnagogic pop” (for which he was an unwitting poster-boy), the sincerity and classicism of his work now shines through; his elaboratedly looped and layered improvisations have far more in common with the unbridled romanticism of 80s guitar dreamweavers like Maurice Deebank and Vini Reilly than they do with the consumer-music parodies of James Ferraro.


Despite its brevity, Holter’s set is marvellous, her deft, tremulous arrangements playing to the ambient as much as the expressive strengths of the string instruments.


Ahead of his sophomore album release on Tri Angle, The Haxan Cloak performed a one-man (he is sometimes joined by other players) live set that showed considerable nerve and artistry, slowly building up an immense agglomeration of drones which, despite an absence of any substantial shifts in dynamics, had the sizeable audience captivated. What with his impressive engineering credentials and deep-seated appreciation of dub, Pole always gets the best out of a venue’s PA, and Manggha’s certainly has much to offer; however, his decision to focus on the more jaunty, stepping tracks in his trick-bag doesn’t quite come off – the music is neither quite kinetic enough to dance to, nor quite still enough to meditate on or in. It ends up sounding like something designed to be piped through the better class of Amsterdam hash cafe, and Pole is frankly better than that. Another veteran and widely revered artist, Uwe Schmidt, appears in his Atom™ guise, and his combination of twee visuals and wriggling, walloping art-techno is enthralling up close, but bewildering at a distance.

The action moves to the 16th century St. Katherine’s Church, a magnificent building that seems to sing even when there’s no music playing in it. Delays in seating the many people who have bought tickets to see Julia Holter perform with a string quintet drawn from the Sinfonietta Cracovia mean that Holter’s set is, unfortunately, a little shorter than planned. Despite its brevity, Holter’s set is marvellous, her deft, tremulous arrangements playing to the ambient as much as the expressive strengths of the string instruments. Having arrived at the show thinking that Holter is an overrated talent, I left thinking quite the opposite; I’m not sure people adequately appreciate quite how good she is. Certainly she blows Tim Hecker and Dan Lopatin out of the water: their collaborative set relies too much on the setting to confer grandeur on their meandering dronescapes; this is a duo that is, unfortunately, less than the sum of its parts.

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