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.
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.
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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Holly Herndon (pictured above) opens Thursday’s programme at Manggha, and she is fantastic, a revelation. Perhaps this shouldn’t be a surprise: at a festival where 80% of the acts perform with laptops because, well, it’s just the most practical means available to them, and look almost apologetic for doing so, Herndon is someone whose entire artistic and academic motivation is to explore the immense and ever-expanding potential of the laptop as instrument. She’s not embarrassed to be relying on her MacBook, she’s absolutely delighted, and she’s also thoroughly in command of it on a technical level, generating sounds of unbelievable fidelity and heft out of her custom Max/MSP patches. A long passage of self-reflexive vocal manipulation – the kind of thing you need to see to truly appreciate, hence why her debut album Movement doesn’t quite hit the mark – gives way to a mischievous play of extreme panning effects and the introduction of 4/4 kickdrum thump that threatens to split open the wooden floor of Manggha. It’s a star-making display, the kind that Unsound makes possible – for few, if any, other festivals on the world stage have the foresight and the desire to give an artist the billing that their talent, and not their record sales or media profile, deserves.
After Herndon’s masterful turn, Emptyset‘s brutalist techno rinse-out comes across as rather clumsy, its pseudo-scientific visuals only adding to the sense that this is music about, well, not a great a deal. In terms of sheer physicality, it’s undeniable, as the sight and smell of an ecstatic dancefloor illustrates; but the fact remains that this Bristol duo appear to contribute little to the sonic or aesthetic grammars established by their heroes (Mika Vainio, Alva-Noto, British Murder Boys, et al) a decade or more ago. Furthermore, given Holly Herndon’s ability to generate equal, if not greater, volume and intensity with little more than a deft flick of the wrist, Emptyset’s inordinately sweaty, head-banging performance feels like so much macho posturing. Evian Christ is very watchable, his tweaked, strung-out take on R&B overly reliant on well-worn hipster tropes (particularly pitched-down, post-Salem vocal loops) but delivered with a conviction and a streetwise swagger that feels refreshing amid more self-consciously refined company. Even if he’s not quite the Messiah his name pegs him as, one suspects he has much to offer in the months and years ahead.
Factory Floor endeavour to project an air of edginess in all their operations, but this apparent fuck-you stance is somewhat compromised by the fundamental conservatism of their music and an endless courting of their elders, from Chris & Cosey to Mark Stewart to DFA. Whatever happened to killing yr idols? Regardless, they remain a powerful and well-practiced live act, and their set lacks nothing in volume and motorik momentum. Interestingly, and perhaps worryingly, the ascetic minimalism that defined their sound for years is suddenly opening up to accommodate hooks right out of the crowd-friendly electro playbook, no doubt a response to, and a symptom of, their being booked to play larger and larger venues. Shed both satisfies and occasionally perplexes a mushrooming crowd of baying ravers with his headlining set; though he is virtually without equal in his ability to engineer functional techno sure-shots (see all Equalized, WAX and Head High productions), his main and more digressive solo project is better suited to a space like Manggha than it is to a dancefloor; here the astonishing depth and dynamism of his work, not to mention its deep underlying melancholy, is given full and fabulous vent.
Unsound’s organisers are amazingly adept at making the most of their city’s spaces, and their decision this year to repurpose central bar/restaurant venue Feniks (picture a windowless 1970s Russian Mafia hang-out) as a site for experimental musical performance is nothing short of genius. New York’s Ben Vida opens with a challenging, at times tiring, but ultimately exhilarating exercise in electronic abstraction, but his PAN compadre Helm steals the show, locating deep wells of beauty and pensiveness in the violent, volatile churn of his pedals and oscillators. Stuart Argabright, the veteran Ike Yard best known as frontman of Ike Yard, plays as Black Rain, showcasing dubby, apocalyptic techno compositions old and new, and joined for a couple of numbers by Ukrainian artist Kotra.
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Given the knee-jerk controversy surrounding the booking of aTelecine (pictured above), the industrial music project helmed by erstwhile hardcore porn actress Sasha Grey, one might have expected their performance to be aggressive, confrontational, visceral. In fact it was none of these things; instead it was plaintive, introspective and at times directionless drift of crepuscular ambience and shoegazey walls of noise, nervously directed by a rather remote-looking Grey, hunched at her laptop with furrowed brow, giant headphones seeming to insulate her from the crowd’s steadily escalating disappointment. In some respects the whole presentation was actually a blessed relief from industrial cliche: the visual backdrop suggesting not earthly urban alienation but rather otherworldly flora and fauna, the music offering redemption rather than immolation. It remained, in the final analysis, a lacklustre performance – but to be fair, any artist making their live debut on a stage this grand (an aircraft-hangar-like space on the grounds of Krakow’s Engineering Museum) would have their shortcomings not only exposed but amplified. aTelecine’s cause isn’t helped by the fact that their show is bookended by sets from two formidable and, crucially, more experienced acts: Raime and Ben Frost.
Admittedly Raime‘s on-stage charisma doesn’t extend much further than looking gravely down into the glow of their laptop displays, but they nonetheless exert a powerful magnetism over the large crowd gathered at the Engineering Museum. Performing tracks drawn almost entirely from their [at that point upcoming] debut album, they excel on two fronts: both as storytellers, capable of compressing challenging musical ideas and phrases into linear and accessible narratives (proof of an understanding, if not a whole-hearted embrace, of dancefloor dynamics), and also in pure sonic terms, their battery of sub-bass detonations, disembodied screams and dried wood snare-cracks shaking the very foundations of the building. Their hypnotic, at times punitive, performance is supported with disarmingly cinematic visuals that begin in terrifically ainterly and suggestive fashion, only to lapse into heavy-handed symbolism as the music swells to its climax.
Ben Frost is an Unsound regular, and seems to use the festival as a testing ground to push his artistic practice into new realms – 2010’s edition, for instance, saw him collaborating with a local orchestra on a new piece he composed in response to Stanislaw Lem’s sci-fi classic Solaris. This year he’s joined by two drummers, and their set – an ecstatic blur of thunderous but abstracted percussion patterns and alternately piercing and pulsating electronics – is extraordinary. What’s most significant is how well it works as a performance: obviously the sight of the drummers thwacking away at their kids brings provides an obvious visual focus, but it’s the wild-eyed intensity and concentration with which Frost approaches even the smallest adjustment to the sound that’s most enthralling.
The inevitable fatigue of a week’s gig-going and vodka-glugging (when in Rome) brings about a wave of unconquerable fatigue come Friday night, meaning that my attendance, not to mention recollection, of the first night of club-oriented entertainments is fragmented and incomplete – a shame, given the presence of, among others, Ron Morelli, Theo Parrish, Shackleton and (secret guest) Silent Servant. I fare better on the Saturday night, and am better able to take in the setting: Hotel Forum, a huge communist relic that dominates the Krakow skyline. With its labyrinthine layout, dim lighting, riverside views and, best of all, thickly carpeted floors, it couldn’t be a more perfect a location for dancing like there’s no tomorrow.
Lee Gamble is, predictably, a highlight of Saturday’s line-up: he plays a live set that draws less on the junglist ambience of his Deviations 12″ and more on the deconstructed house moves of upcoming album Dutch Tvashar Plumes. Heatsick (another PAN operative) proffers an “extended play” set; often ponderous on record, his deliberately plodding rhythms and acutely psychedelic synth phrasings come alive in this context, and he has a room of mind-scrambled ravers rapt for the full three hour duration. Back in the main room, Cooly G offers a slick and fitfully riveting live manifestation of her recent Playin’ Me LP on Hyperdub; surprisingly, it’s more successful than Mala’s group presentation of Mala In Cuba, which comes across as a work in progress, unsure of what exactly it wants to be. The most important discovery of the night, for me, is Traxman: he turns out to be one of the best DJs I’ve ever seen, effortlessly shifting tempos – from the steady chug of classic Chicago fare, through the high-energy thwack of ghetto-house and right up to the inhuman velocity of footwork.
Real life requires me to return home before Sunday’s climactic concert: Concealed, a specially commissioned performance from Demdike Stare that would see the Lancashire duo work, for the first time, with live instrumentation (courtesy of players from the Sinfonietta Cracovia) and video. I’ve said it before, but such a project is typical of Unsound: giving artists of real talent the opportunity, and the occasion, to push themselves beyond their comfort zone and attempt things that not only entertain us, the audience, but which irrevocably advance and deepen their work not just for the moment, but for life. I know that Unsound 2012 was The End, but I sincerely hope it’s not the end; the world needs this remarkable festival now more than ever.