One’s experience of a festival usually occurs at the gastric level, monkey-hopping from one hangover and stomach complaint to the next.
What time isn’t spent on ingestion and indigestion is given over to marvelling at the arbitrariness of the zeitgeist and the acts associated with it, and at the fact that people are willing to spend hundreds of pounds to dispense with their critical faculties. I should add that I tend to enjoy festivals immensely, it’s just that I feel they usually deprive me of as much as they give me. I don’t believe in them, fundamentally, and I don’t feel engaged; I do my best to loot them for what I can and then I move on. Festivals make gluttons and parasites of us all, and I don’t go to these events to discover new art and music, I go to be reminded of how selfish and stupid I can be (very selfish, very stupid), and how many cigarettes I can smoke in a day (around 50).
Unsound, in Krakow, is the exception that proves the bitter rule. It’s a fine balance to lay on sufficiently diverse and numerous entertainments to keep a large ticket-buying audience interested, without overwhelming the individual, but this wonderful festival succeeds in just that, and emphatically so. Unsound currently obeys one very important law, a function of the measure and intimacy that defines its every aspect: there are no clashes. Events do not take place simultaneously. You do not have to miss one thing in order to see another. As as result, the entire festival had a unity to it, and an unbroken narrative arc – you feel as if you’re being guided through something, rather than simply being bombarded with consumer choices weighted towards the familiar (hotdog or pizza?). At Unsound the curator is king, which is how it should be. While it clearly strives to appeal to a wide range of punters, there’s no attempt to over-indulge or patronise festival-goers, and most importantly this is a festival that takes its time. Events are spread over nine days, which means there’s none of the beat-the-clock stress and urgency of the typical weekender, and out of this leisurely pacing a genuine sense of community and continuity is allowed to arise.
As befits Krakow, a breathtakingly pretty town that seems to have Catholic psycho-drama inscribed into its every surface, the 2010 edition of Unsound was gothic as hell.
As befits Krakow, a breathtakingly pretty town that seems to have Catholic psycho-drama inscribed into its every surface, the 2010 edition of Unsound was gothic as hell. The organisers played to the city’s strengths, constantly changing up the venues – I found myself in churches, cafes, art galleries, museums, cinemas, concert halls, warehouses – unlike your average urban festival, which quickly becomes a tiresome case of trudging to the same venue day after day. The theme was horror, a sufficiently general but pregnant precept to assemble a diverse range of artists from across genres and disciplines, and one which gave the festival a very satisfying shape without being allowed to suffocate it (I mean, there’s nothing horror about, say, James Blake, but that didn’t stop them booking him). With so many festivals rallying around a hollow notion of “the cutting edge”, Unsound’s desire to put more ancient feelings of “fear and unease” at its centre was refreshing to say the least, and somehow more appropriate to the way we live now.
When we think of horror, we think of horror movies, and so it made sense that film should be an important component of Unsound 2010. Peerless connoisseurs of the video nasty, Jigoku (Lovely Jon and Cherrystones), curated a week of midnight shockers transferred direct from VHS in order to retain the degraded feel that’s crucial to their enduring character. The stand-out screening for me was the first, The Headless Eyes (Kent Bateman, 1971) – a seemingly scriptless, maniacal slice of New York exploitation cinema that tells the tale of a down-at-heel artist with a predilection for murdering women and stealing their eyes (think Ferrara’s Driller Killer, but considerably more unhinged), all set to a nuts electronic surf-jazz soundtrack as addictive as it is out-of-place. Similarly zonked, skronky sounds abounded in Jigoku’s DJ set later in the week, warming up for Oneohtrix Point Never, Lindstrom and Zombie Zombie. I’ve always been unimpressed by Zombie Zombie – their latest album, a John Carpenter tribute album, seems like a ridiculous idea, as what on earth has this duo ever been but a John Carpenter tribute band? – but their being joined on-stage here by Alan Howarth, Carpenter’s long-time soundtrack collaborator and an intrepid sonic explorer in his own right, lent the show a dignity, unpredictability and cultural interest that for me it would have otherwise lacked. Howarth turned out to be one of the stars of the festival, shining as a personality as well as an artist and craftsman in various talks, workshops and solo performances.
Knowing how and when to impose their own personality on proceedings is a rare but crucial skill for a live scoring band to learn.
Less self-consciously trashy cinematic delights came in the form of a live re-scoring of Haxan, Benjamin Christensen’s legendary 1922 docu-fantasia on witchcraft and devilry. Quite simply one of the most visually inspired and disturbing films ever made, it’s a bold and possibly foolhardy idea to try and match it sonically, but Miasmah artist Elegi, cellist Marcin Maczynski and soprano Jolanta Kowalska acquitted themselves reasonably well. For me, Elegi’s ominous drone constructs lacked bite and individuality, and at times seemed rather arbitrary in their relationship to on-screen goings-on, but they did provide a fine setting for the vocalisations of Kowalska, who succeeded in evoking suffering and hysteria without resorting to shrill histrionics. Perversely enough, I think the trio would have come across far better without the filmic backdrop, just as it would have been more powerful to see Haxan shorn of the trio’s soundtrack.
Polish double act Sza/Za were an uncomplicated delight, nimbly scoring a number of fiendishly brilliant Roman Polanski shorts in chamber jazz style with clarinet, violin and and looping pedals. Their music perfectly matched the impish humour and bravura flourishes of the young Polanski’s narratives; they brought the on-screen images to life without distracting from them, and yet the pair somehow managed still to give a performance of sorts. Their placing on stage was undoubtedly significant: angled so that they were half facing the audience and half facing Polanski’s images, their responses felt genuine and immediate; their musical interventions seemed to literally bounce of the screen. Knowing how and when to impose their own personality on proceedings is a rare but crucial skill for a live scoring band to learn, and Sza/Za seem to have it it down.
Shining are the best, and most absurd, live band on the planet. It’s that simple. I’d been told as such before, but seeing them play the intimate Manggha gallery – the same place that Elegi, Sza/Za et al had performed the night before – confirmed it. Led by the monstrously energetic Jorgen Munkeby, the five-piece’s virtuosity as individuals and tightness as a unit is staggering, and the nihilistic attack of their music – a molten meld of black metal, jazz, prog and speed-punk – is underscored by a knowing theatricality and frequent flourishes of sax-assisted brightness. There was something hysterical, in both the pure and corrupted senses of the word, about their performance; I spent much of it internally debating the financial feasibility of booking them to play my birthday, which probably tells you all you need to know.
To know that such a head-crushing, mosher-friendly sound is emanating from a man’s lungs – whatever the external circuitry involved – is a chastening thing indeed.
Shining were preceded by Jazkamer, who I unfortunately missed, and Monno, whose sound occupies a surprisingly rewarding grey area between power electronics, improv noise and monolithic metal. What’s really staggering is that the pummelling mid-range crunch of their music – which sounds for all the world like guitar – is actually borne of frontman Antoine Chessex playing a saxophone through a bank of distortion FX. To know that such a head-crushing, mosher-friendly sound is emanating from a man’s lungs – whatever the external circuitry involved – is a chastening thing indeed. Never, for me, had doom felt quite so…guttural.
Wildbirds & Peacedrums
If I had my way, all gigs would take place in churches, not just because of their typically immense acoustic character, but because their very architecture forces audiences into a mood of quietude and reflection that you just don’t get elsewhere. The imposing 16th century St Catherines in Krakow’s Kazimierz district provided the setting for a double-header from Tim Hecker and Wildbirds & Peacedrums. I regret to say I missed the former, but am reliably informed that his performance was a face-melting affair, apparently far exceeding the achievements of his recorded work, which I’ve always found to sound rather anonymous, at times toothless. Husband-wife duo Wildbirds & Peacedrums were joined by the Schola Cantorum Reykjavik chamber choir singing parts scored by Hildur Gudnadottir. For all the simple acoustic pleasure of hearing a choir in full voice, in a humblingly beautiful church, I felt it lent Wildbirds’ songs a grandeur which they didn’t deserve, and which they couldn’t quite shoulder. I’ve always had this problem with this evidently talented duo: that their complex harmonic and rhythmic arrangements mask a fundamental lack of songwriting prowess; there is, I can’t help but feel, something terminally decorative about what they do. Even at her, er, wildest – hands snatching at the air in gestures of rapture and yearning – I found Mariam Wallentin’s vocals remote and unaffecting. What W&P do well is rhythm: Andrea Werliin’s drumming was riveting throughout, and whenever Wallentin turned to percussion and interacted with her husband that way, the effect was instantly transporting.
As befitting a festival themed around the idea of horror, studies in doom weren’t exactly thin on the ground. Performing only his second live show in 28 years, in the huge Kijow Centrum cinema-cum-concert-hall, Brian Williams AKA Lustmord didn’t disappoint in terms of bombast. His Hollywood pedigree (Williams is based in California and has worked extensively as a sound designer on a number of notable films and TV shows) was obvious in the high-def acuity of his visuals, which were self-evidently cutting edge but predictably, and pleasingly, essayed old themes and tropes – smoke, bones, dungeons, bottomless chasms, logic-defying fractals and strange bio-industrial mechanisms, the perfect evocation of the bad trip to end all bad trips. To hear Lustmord’s music as loud as it was on this night – and so to experience the full extent of the sub-bass that girds and grounds it – was to realise how inadequate the term “ambient” is to describe it (though at times the low-end assault was such that I was hearing the rafters of the building shaking more than I was the actual tones). The set itself, musically speaking, was brilliantly unrelenting and oppressive, almost bullying the audience into a level of sober introspection rarely achieved in live performances, though one found oneself thinking that yet greater volume would’ve yielded even better, more excoriating results. The Moritz Von Oswald Trio followed, providing a more dynamic, jazz-inflected music, and it was plenty absorbing, but to me felt weighed down by expectation and all too understated after the wonderful gothic excesses of Lustmord.
Gothic excess met crisp sound design in the debut live performance of Raime. This London-hailing duo have only released one EP to date, but their assured and sonically powerful show hinted at a bright future, with shark-eyed grooves underpinning swathes of carefully modulated industrial noise. Actress, an inconsistent live performer, found near-perfect pitch with his set, making techno and house sound freshly mutant and awkward and avant-garde. His Shake-style rhythmic constructions are abundantly funky but the natural reaction for the audience was a kind of opiated swaying; they were responding, consciously or otherwise, to that isolationist chill which lurks beneath all that Actress does. Oni Ayhun began his set with 15-odd minutes of serrating noise before falling back into the kind of chiming, chicaning techno with which he’s made his name. I was met with a lot of people speaking enthusiastically of that intro, as if they’d never heard 15 minutes of noise before, but to me it seemed a little pompous, even glib, in this context. Far more impressive was Shackleton, a musician with an ability to fuse the fucked-up and the danceable rather than separating them out for dramatic effect; indeed, there were passages of his set that at once provided unreconstructed dancefloor pleasure and unsettled the mind far more than Oni’s speaker-testing scree. The climax of his set was controlled delirium, quite astonishing really. Detroit’s Kyle Hall and Mike Huckaby rounded off the night, providing relatively straightforward deep house thrills. The latter in particular was impressive, but both felt rather distant, and, as the first two headliners of the night to be DJing rather than playing live, there was a curious sense of the event having finished as soon as they began. On a less performance-led bill they may have fared better.
Krakow’s Engineering Museum provided the setting for the synthesizer dream-weaving of Emeralds and Goblin. Cherrystones and Quiet Village’s Joel Martin warmed up the room with mix of outre soundtrack and library finds; I found myself wishing that they could dispense with some of the more schlocky tunes and dialogue samples, but respect where it’s due – it’s rare in this day and age to hear DJs spin so much good music that one struggles to classify, let alone recognise. Early on in the set they dropped a track which sounded like techno if it were an invention of the 1960s; I’d give my right arm (or a significant chunk of it) to know what that fucker was. Seeing Emeralds perform I was reminded afresh of how obscenely young they are; perhaps this is one of the reasons that there music comes across as so raw and impassioned and not merely as a retro-active study in kosmische. Critical appraisals of Emeralds tend to ramp up the comparisons to Ash Ra Tempel and their 70s Teutonic brethren, but perhaps underplay the band’s US 80s and 90s stoner/post-rock lineage, a lineage that really comes to light when you see, and hear, them in the flesh. Guitarist Mark McGuire was a real presence on stage, his body language fully enacting the music’s gradual transitions from spindly arpeggiation to bowel-loosening noise. Goblin‘s curious place in 20th century popular culture is unassailable, but as live act in 2010, they were guilty of a slickness and over-virtuosity completely at odds with the queasy, tape-saturated minimalism of their early work. Perhaps I’m wrong, but there was a sense that the band themselves still don’t quite understand what it is about their past achievements that makes them so adored today.
Mount Kimbie built a set that pulled off the balance of strung-out fragility and shamanic power they’ve long been striving for.
The following night focussed on (dread term) bass music. The notional headliner, Joy Orbison, was forced to cancel due to illness, so grime survivor Terror Danjah stepped in. The early part of his set was littered with lumpen wobblers, which distressed many of the assembled neo-garage scenesters but for my ears provided a pleasing contrast to the tricksy, high-octane – and, lest you misunderstand me, completely riveting – house syncopations of James Blake. Still, the latter half of Terror’s session ended as they always tend to, a hodge-podge of old drum ‘n bass anthems both good and bad; a bumpy ride to say the least, provoking as much wincing as dancing. The highlight of the night, to my surprise, came in the shape of Mount Kimbie – who seem to have overcome their initial shakiness as live act, finally building a set that pulled off the balance of strung-out fragility and shamanic power they’ve long been striving for. In the smaller, darker and and rave-conducive Room 2 of the Fabryka complex, Badawi delivered a set infinitely less fashionable than those taking place in Room 1 but, for the most part, a good deal more intoxicating. Like Shackleton, Badawi exists at a obtuse angle to contemporary dubstep and its mutations; he’s not part of the scene, and it shows in his music, which has a kind of autistic, hermetic intensity to it.
The basement of Fabryka was given over to The Hidden, an assembly of light and sound installations. The wonderful Jana Winderen presented Energy Field, a work derived from hydrophonic recordings of deep ocean ecosystems, building on her recently released album of the same name for Touch, while Mordant Music brought a sliver of welcome British humour to their Nesst, a walk-in pillbox-style construction in which one could find a looped playback of MisInformation, an MM-curated and detourned selection of public information films soon to see release through the BFI. Most enthralling, though, was Jacob Kirkegaard and Lukasz Szalenkiewicz‘s The Visitor, an immersive and hard to rationalise work that used low sonic frequencies to elicit an almost primal disquiet.
Sinfonietta Cracovia, Daniel Bjarnason and Ben Frost
The gala finale, if you will, of Unsound 2010 was the world premiere of Ben Frost’s new music for Solaris. Taking inspiration from both Tarkovsky’s iconic movie and the novel by Krakowian Stanislav Lem upon which it was based, Frost was commissioned by Unsound to collaborate on this work with composer Daniel Bjarnason and the Sinfonietta Cracovia (the work will see release as an album on Bedroom Community next year). Frost is a likeable character, a talented musiocian, and not lacking in balls, but his statement in the programme notes that his new creation was born of a dissatisfaction with Eduard Artemiev’s original score for Solaris rang some alarm bells. Frost’s position was that Artemiev’s score emphasised the science fiction elements of the story, rather than its more human meditations on memory and loss; he’s right to a degree, but to suggest that Artemiev’s inspired synthesizer work lacked humanity or emotional delicacy seemed almost like a deliberate mis-hearing. Frost was setting himself for up a fall here, but I was still on his side – the implied arrogance was charming, and suggested that we were about to treated to fireworks; flawed fireworks, no doubt, but fireworks.
Brian Eno and Nick Robertson’s graphics seemed to have a lot to say about those very things which the music seemed only to hint at: ageing, mortality, our place in the world, the treachery of the body.
When it came to it, I was in truth galled by the reserve and lifelessness of the performance – all the violence and vigour of Frost’s solo work was absent. One of the musicals idea driving the work was particularly interesting – an attempt to get the Sinfonietta to imitate the sound of decaying electronics – but arguably not a million miles away from what Gavin Bryars was doing with more feeling and formal flair in the Sinking Of The Titanic all those years ago. The subtleties and involutions of the composition, which will probably come into their own record, just didn’t translate in this live arena. It was dimly apparent to me just from that there were all kinds of complex tonal interactions going on between the different string parts, but all I really heard in my fifth row seat was a one-dimensional wall of strings. Perhaps more elaborate and considered mic-ing or simply a different live sound mix might have better conveyed the detail on offer.
In terms of narrative, there was no real tension, rather just an agreeable tremulousness punctuated by abrupt crescendos. Frost – who has evidently played a huge role not just in the conception but also the composition and studio exposition of this work – was reduced, in the live performance, to triggering seemingly discreet FX from his guitar and looking at once distant and petrified. Though the ambition of the project was hugely creditable, I think many audience members would have been happier to see Frost alone and fully engaged, creating the kind of eardrum-splitting, heart-rending sonic assault that we all know him to be capable of. The most enjoyable aspect of the show was actually the visuals by Brian Eno and Nick Robertson, which riffed on Tarkovsky’s imagery and other visual fragments (including, I think, a Bruegel painting) to create a succession of haunting and beautiful morphed graphics that seemed to have a lot to say on those very things that the music seemed only to hint at: ageing, mortality, our place in the world, the treachery of the body.
Nonetheless, this performance was typical of Unsound’s most laudable quality – its commitment to affording artists of considerable cult and critical renown the opportunity to realise grand projects and perform in grand spaces; to instil a level of trust in these artists that most safety-first festivals are incapable of, or unwilling to, countenance. The programme mixed the challenging and the accessible, the high-art and the low; even the very occasional bum-notes felt educational, and not once was there a sense that any artist had been booked in order to sell more tickets. I didn’t feel like a parasite, I didn’t feel stupid, and I wasn’t forced to give up my critical faculties in order to survive; I felt engaged from start to finish, and not at the expense of having fun. Anyone unfortunate enough to see me at the Jackmaster and Deadboy-soundtracked closing party – brukking out to ‘138 Trek’ and dribbling honey vodka down my front – will testify to that. Unsound: a festival even I can believe in. Bloody hell.
What, finally, of the “horror” theme? What did Unsound 2010 tell me about fear and unease? Perhaps only that a broad range of stunning artistic practice has taken place, and continues to take place, in the service of these ill-defined but age-old sensations. The abyss is simply where the action is, maybe now more than ever.