Review: Unsound Festival 2016

Art & Culture

Day 1 – Thursday, October 19

A weight of expectation lies on my shoulders over heading to Unsound for the first time. With a music policy that aligns with my own tastes in many aspects, it’s been on my radar for many years but never quite materialised into a trip out to Poland until now. This expectation is fortified by exultant praise from hard to please attendees, mythical accounts of you-had-to-be-there performances in thrilling spaces, and an admirably managed modus operandi that sees the rest of the year full of equally intriguing events in curious (and less curious) parts of the globe. As well as the expectation I feel towards the festival, I’m also detecting an undercurrent of pressure on myself, to get the most out of the event, catch as many talks as possible, keep my ear to the ground about less publicised installations and day time shows, and still keep up the stamina for the late night sessions at Hotel Forum. And strangely, to ‘get’ the challenging art on offer and do a good job of reporting on all this madness.

With a 4am start in Bristol it’s hardly the perfect launch pad to the ‘long weekend’ programme kicking off (following days of already impressive-sounding activities on the Unsound agenda), but such matters fade in the face of a bustling programme once I’m on the streets of an ominously rainy Krakow in the early afternoon. A talk feels like a good place to get my footing, and Severed Heads’ Tom Ellard a fun, accessible way in to the more considered side of the festival programme. Talking with John Doran about the nature of progress in music, the veteran Aussie lambasts vinyl and ca-ssettes, instead showing us his computer game as the future of music. I’m not sure I agree that an interactive walk around an island is ready to usurp the bog-standard album as a listening format, but he delivers his opinionated opinions with candour. As he jovially says himself, he’s a bit of a silly person.

From there, it’s a wet trudge around the corner to Dolnych Mlynow, a former tobacco factory that provides the first taste of this fabled location magic that Krakow offers. The space doesn’t disappoint, striking an end of days note as the dim October light struggles through pink tinted windows, with scant light to be found elsewhere but on the stage. Cool headed Unsounders drift about in the dark while Laura Luna unfurls pleasant threads of ambience. With her gaze fixated on her laptop, it’s the kind of performance that satisfies the ears but makes my legs ache through its stillness. Waclaw Zimpel meanwhile follows up with the first true thrill of the weekend, striking a different kind of one man band approach that’s simply astounding. His mechanical contraption playing the Rhodes is perhaps a little more for spectacle than sound, but his layering up of keys, synths, analogue beats, saxophone (soprano sax maybe?) and traditional woodwind pipes is staggering to behold. 

My favourite crowds are circular ones, and in my vantage point I take in my first impression of Unsounders. In my mind I imagined them to be a slightly glum, frosty but respectful bunch, and initially that seems to be the case. I reason with myself that I too probably look the same. However the power of Zimpel’s music is such that I delight in seeing / sensing the ripples of energy spilling out from his actually rather immediate music. Smiles crack, heads shake, eyes close, and that downtrodden experimental music lover veneer breaks open to reveal the passionate soul inside. That the sax takes on a slightly Gerry Rafferty-esque tone perhaps supersedes any need to be ‘edgy’ or whatnot.

Peder Mannerfelt follows up this exercise in instrumental expression with a live set that fails to coalesce. Having seen him perform at Phono in Odense two weeks earlier, this afternoon he seems to stutter, and when a power cut breaks his flow momentarily towards the end it’s hard to tell if it was an accident or not. As such his ‘hardcore’ finisher lacks the force that it had last time I watched him. This issue of comparison is set to come up again, as I realise many of the live acts I saw in Denmark are here again this weekend. It’s a mixed blessing – a chance to test an artist and see how much environment feeds into your enjoyment, but equally it makes it impossible to take a performance at face value. 

There is no frame of reference for Matmos’ performance of Robert Ashley’s Perfect Lives opera, other than the US duo’s reputation as an utterly unpredictable proposition. Walking into the Kijow Centrum cinema has the intensity of a classical concert, thanks in no small part to the mildly stressed usher freaking about festival attendees sporting beers in the auditorium. In this condensed version of Ashley’s five-hour epic, Martin Schmidt takes the form of narrator with a stunning thespian delivery, backed by Drew Daniel on beats that menader from lilting tablas to errant glitch, and a chorus of two female vocalists. The whole operation is utterly slick, the first of three sections backed by a quartet (violin, cello, flute etc), the timing of the vocalists immaculate. In terms of narrative, it’s not the easiest to cling on to, feeling like a very American kind of absurdism, but the word play and Schmidt’s delivery make it a pleasant experience all the same. The jaunty second section ditches the quartet in favour of ‘boogie woogie’ piano, and the narrative heads further out around notions of the self. By the third section I’m feeling like this is a performance that encapsulates Unsound itself, guaranteed to split opinion between brilliance and nonsense, and ploughing on regardless. I fall in the former camp, which makes me slightly ashamed to admit that as Schmidt tenderly plucks harmonics on the guitar and a gentle tabla mantra unfurls, I feel my head sinking back on the comfy cinema seat. I swear I only fell asleep for five minutes, max. 

From such cosy civilities it’s a long march down damp streets and across the river to the fabled Hotel Forum, the venue for the late night shenanigans that in some ways shape up the core of the Unsound programme. It’s a special building for sure, steeped in faded, dated glamour, haunting like Kubrick’s Overlook and fogged out with dry ice. As I walk in Babyfather are blinding the room with perma-fixed headlights as they saunter through all kinds of UK soundsystem music. At times it has a warm, early 90s Smith & Mighty-esque roll, and that’s just fine, and at other times it veers towards grime, trap and abstraction. I wouldn’t call it a revelation particularly, and as a British person the relentless British schtick in their samples and lyrics makes me feel uncomfortable. I get that it’s supposed to be casting a critical gaze over nationalism, and every other nationality I speak to at the time reassures me about all this, but it doesn’t make me enjoy it. 

In the next room Foodman is turning out his wild Japanese variation on footwork, and again the sceptre of Phono looms in the background. His sounds are undeniably infectious, playful and brilliantly produced (a friend and I fawn over a notable soda pour that proved to be the highlight of the set), but something doesn’t feel right. I’m not bowled over like I was two weeks ago, but I’m reassured by finding some fellow Phono attendees who feel the same way. No doubt there will be more to come on this issue. 

Back in the main room Rabih Beaini is playing with Indonesian duo Senyawa, fusing traditional string instruments and brilliantly fearsome throat singing with Beaini’s 808 rhythms. The initial impression is a powerful one – I imagine said singer down a dark alley in a B-movie laying waste to gangs of thugs with his powerful larynx. I’m always a sucker for being scared. However, musically the focus seems to drift, Beaini’s machine rhythms not always gelling correctly with Senyawa. It’s fun, but not quite marvellous. 

Over in Room 2, the footwork marathon is in full swing with DJ Fulltono and Traxman egging-on singalongs to “I Just Want To Celebrate” (something I didn’t expect at Unsound to be honest) and chopping up “Hanging On A String” to devastating effect. Ancient Methods and Cindytalk’s In The Mouth Of The Wolf live debut meanwhile seems a little po-faced in light of such sprightly offerings, even if aesthetically all the right pieces are there. Orphx provide a much-needed techno thrust as the hour grows late, starting off in somewhat standard territory but growing beautifully into a fearsome, dynamic hulk of expressive electronics that slam where it counts. 23 hours on from hitting the road and adrift from any compadres, the limbs start to stiffen and a couple of false glances towards the cloakroom coalesce into a firm decision to march back to the Old Town, dodging gaggles of drunkards in the party quarter of Krakow where I unwisely picked my bargain basement hostel. 

Day 2 – Friday, October 20

With the dust settled from a first night of revelry, it’s inevitable that certain aspects of the expansive Unsound programme will get overlooked in favour of some extra rest. In my case, it’s the Emptyset installation at the Engineering Museum in the Kazmierz district that falls foul of a slow start to Friday. Still, it’s the kind of event where you can easily get over such mishaps in view of the other treats on offer. 

For a second day running the old tobacco factory plays host to live performances from acts affiliated to the Shape intiative. A hurried dash into the pink-tinted gloom of the space results in being confronted with the ‘psycho acoustic’ yelps of Stine Janvin Motland, whose piercing, processed voice certainly drills into the cerebellum. Having only caught the last five minutes, it’s left to my companions to confirm that the full performance did indeed start to have some kind of subtle psychological effect. 

A dash back to the Bunkier Sztuki gallery space and Matthew Collins is presenting a talk about The Politics Of Raving, which touches upon the free party / teknival scene, the great work of the sadly departed Keith Anderson of Desert Storm, Underground Resistance and the New York ballroom scene. 

Back in the tobacco factory, the evening is drawing in and M.E.S.H. is performing in as minimal a light as possible. With a truly creative approach to CDJs that perfectly suits his richly produced digital deconstructions, the artist is nothing short of astounding in his control, variety and expression. 

A frantic hunt on the darkening streets for a taxi finally comes good in taking the long trip out to Nowa Huta, a suburb of Krakow reportedly iconic as an emblem of communist-era Poland. The tough, concrete concert hall climes of Teatr Laznia Nowa are an apt setting for a double bill of Senyawa and Death Grips. The former transcend their appearance with Rabih Beaini the night before to present a jaw-dropping feat of handmade instrumentation and guttural vocal acrobatics. Veering between sweet, delicate tones and vicious roars, their powerful performance receives a rapturous response. Death Grips follows, and while they may indeed represent the kind of uncompromising originality in keeping with the festival, to these ears it sounds fairly unpalatable. One suspects the group are just fine with such a response. 

Wasting no time pottering in town, we hit Hotel Forum uncharacteristically early and capitalise on the excellent, insanely cheap food on offer. Healthy, simple and appealing when in the midst of an alcohol and sound soaked weekend, it’s as on-point as any other aspect of the festival.   

Equiknoxx prove to be an early draw in Room 2, hitting their stride with a run of oddball dancehall belters featured on their excellent Bird, Sound, Power LP. As the set progresses they divert towards a more direct, party-starting repertoire that includes an eyebrow raising riddim based around Enya’s “Sail Away”. While it leaves the music snob in me grumbling a little, the crowd are with them and you can’t fault their lack of pretension. It feels like it’s from the heart, which places them in a kind of opposition to Severed Heads in the main room. 

I’m not going to say that Tom Ellard doesn’t care about what he was doing on stage, but when faced with an older gentleman singing “Lamborghini” slightly off-key with a smart phone in one hand repeatedly taking photos and selfies over slightly tepid house beats, it’s hard to feel that sense of progress he was so passionate about in his talk the day before. 

Nan Kole and DJ Lag meanwhile set Room 3 alight with the South African sounds of Gqom. It’s not a club style I’m naturally inclined towards, but it proves to be a thrill. The heads down, moody sections are especially infectious, the subtle off-kilter rhythms rubbing against the 4/4 in a way that’s totally relatable to someone with UK soundsystem music in their blood. 

Tessela and Truss’ Overmono set proves to be a looming, booming slab of heavyweight ambient in the main room, perhaps landing at the wrong time of the night to draw me in but impressive in its presence nonetheless. Instead, the drum-rich throwdown of Uruguayan crew F5’s live premiere is a perfect heater to loosen up the limbs. Demdike Stare sound equally inviting as they start their set with bassweight broken techno, but the lure of Don’t DJ’s hypnotic circular rhythms is too much to resist, and the German producer strikes the perfect balance between danceability and subtlety through a performance that holds my attention from start to finish. 

After all that transcendental business, Miss Red is a virulent shot in the arm thanks in no small part to The Bug’s monolithic sound. The room is apocalyptic, full of smoke and lit in red, with the system tuned appropriately for Kevin Martin’s exacting tastes. Red is the consummate performer, ferocious and approachable in equal measure, and every drop of monstrous bass inspires a feverish response on the floor. 

In hitting the final set of the night, Denmark’s Apeiron Crew smoothly commandeer the main room with a considered blend of heads down dubby house that teases towards crafty electro and then on to a more pumping brand of techno. Meanwhile Giegling main man Konstantin provides a similar if slightly more intimate kind of fare in Room 3, but at that point two rooms of 4/4 feels like a sign to take the long walk back up town in light of yet more delights to come.  

Day 3 – Saturday, October 21

After the second night of revelry at Hotel Forum (stopping shy of the after party – more on that tomorrow), it feels like an achievement to be up in time to catch Don’t DJ’s talk on Authentic Exoticism at the museum. While the crowd is somewhat scattered, those there seem committed to the topic. Touching on love, culture, the future and more besides, the themes reach surprisingly deep and actually cut through the hangover to stimulate a conversation which ends up continuing on a sunkissed walk through the leafy streets on the way to the ICE concert venue. The rain has finally stopped, and Krakow looks glorious in its Autumnal hues. 

As ever, it’s futile to think you can catch everything at Unsound, and the talk took precedence over the first of the afternoon’s performances at one of the city’s most recent large-scale venues. ICE is an impressive spot, sleek and modern in stark opposition to the charmingly grimy spots the festival seems to favour. It’s a fine place to catch Roly Porter delivering a jaw-dropping live show of searing, neo-classical noise, drone, and the kind of bass that could only come from a former member of Vex’d. The visual element of the performance is equally arresting, moving across vast Icelandic landscapes before an audacious climax that instructs the audience to shut their eyes while an array of strobes trigger closed-eye visuals in sync with the music.

Following a shift change to the main auditorium, Helm and Moa Pillar perform an engaging live ambient set shaped out by a lot of live cymbal action. On screen some captivating footage from Siberia follows a vague narrative, although the music feels a little static after an hour. Then comes one of the curveball bookings of the festival, if that’s the right word to use. 

It seemed a little out of step with the ethos of Unsound when they announced two of the members of Survive debuting the live rendition of their synth-laden soundtrack to Netflix phenomenon Stranger Things. It’s not that the music isn’t worthy, but the borderline mainstream profile of the series seems populist at a predominantly cultish festival. I’m sure the organisers don’t care about such concerns, and as the music starts it feels like it transcends the limitations of soundtrack incidentals to become genuinely engaging. However at some point it feels like the flow stumbles and starts to fall into a meandering collection of short pieces. The theme tune emerges out of the mix towards the end of the set, but sounds a little disjointed. Most notably that bassline arpeggio fails to cut through, which feels like a shortcoming of an otherwise steady first outing for the duo. 

Saturday, it turns out, is the night that the crowd at Hotel Forum swells, which causes crowding issues in Room 3 (the only space you can drink spirits at the festival, perhaps equal parts curse and blessing). Either way, it transpires to be one of the strongest nights of music at the venue, kicking off in earnest with the cheery house tones of Soichi Terada before Africaine 808 tear the roof off Room 2 in a drum frenzy with Dodo Nkishi. Forest Swords fill the cavernous space of Room 1 in a moody, trip hop paced style that sits easy on weekend-worn ears, but the warmer setting of Room 2 and Anthony ‘Shake’ Shakir’s on-point classics prove to be a more natural draw. 

JD Twitch playing the music of Muslimgauze is a tempting proposition in principle, and in the spirit of the festival feels quite different in its execution from what you might expect. The blasts of breakbeats and overall soundsystem tropes hit upon a UK-centric musical theme that lingers over a fair portion of the whole weekend – in the programme Unsound declares this an intentional move, and it doesn’t go unnoticed amongst other festival goers. In truth, as someone with only a surface-level knowledge of the expansive Muslimgauze legacy, it’s sometimes hard to hear the material in between the beats, but it’s a powerful sound nonetheless. The element of surprise continues as Paula Temple follows up with a new project specially commissioned for the festival. ‘Dis.Integration’ shows a softer side to a producer known for her brutalist approach to techno, although the overall atmosphere still edges towards the dark side. 

If ever there was an unpredictable option on a line-up Errorsmith would be it. As it happens, the errant German producer is in the mood to party, and does so with a vicious precision peppered with playful garnishes that wind up as a certifiable highlight of the weekend. Bringing in tough, UK Funky-esque rhythms (again, British beats loom large) with wild synth wails on top, he chops, stops and starts the groove with an infectious flair that sets Room 2 ablaze with flailing limbs, whoops and hollers and an overall frantic energy. To put it in plainer terms, shit goes utterly crazy (atleast until he veers off for the last third into what could be deemed a more typical Errorsmith sound). 

After that absolute thrill, the steady tones of house and techno that spell out the later hours of Hotel Forum go down smooth, but the lure of the vodka draws us into Room 3 where Marfox and Nervoso are representing the Portugese sounds that hover around Principe Discos. It’s undeniably a unique style, but the rasping frequencies and unrelenting pace feel abrasive in a less appealing way than Errorsmith’s own brand of controlled aggression. It’s a vibe that has lingered over Room 3 all night, with earlier sets exercising a kitchen sink attitude of chucking all kinds of rowdy styles into the blender and belting them out, feeling a little tacky in the process. That might be unfair, or at the very least at odds with other people’s perception, but this is after all a festival where it’s rare to think anything is simply ‘OK’. 

As the hour grows late, the question of the fabled 89 after party venue lurking underneath Forum starts to loom, but the legs are growing weary and there’s still one day / night to go. With Olivia and Nazira holding an acidic, electro-tinted court over the main room in fine style, the sensible option is plumped for against more reckless instincts. The question is, will that negate checking out this intriguing den of iniquity before it closes on Sunday afternoon?

Day 4 – Sunday, October 22

One of the benefits of travelling solo to an event is the luxury of self-determination. It can of course sometimes be a hindrance, but more often than not it makes it easier to catch all the things you want to experience rather than being swayed by social convenience. As such, when my alarm goes off some four hours after bedtime (the nights sleep have shortened progressively throughout the weekend) it’s possibly only because I’m on my own that muster up some kind of motivation to get down to 89 and see what’s what. 

It’s a staggeringly beautiful day in Krakow, and unseasonably warm, which certainly makes the 30-minute walk back down south more manageable, although no-one in such a situation needs the subtle shaming of having to walk past the finish line of a marathon. Still, it adds to the surreal delight of heading straight back towards the heat of the party. It takes time to find the way in – alarmingly Room 3 has been miraculously turned around and now functions as a café full for normal people sat eating food to a backdrop of smooth lounge music. This is DEFINITELY not the after party. A shuffle around by the entrance and all becomes apparent, with a tatty sign pointing down into a bowl of sorts encircled by the busy dual carriageway. A gaggle of ravers are lying out on the grass. This looks more like it. 

Walking into the dark bosom of the former strip joint, the sensory switch up is shocking and for a moment I’m blind. The dim outline of people on the edge of the dancefloor only comes into view when I’m about to walk into them, and I nearly stumble on the raised platform around the circular bar. It’s a fuck or fight situation, so I check in my coat and grab a beer. Annoyingly, I’ve missed Miles Whittaker (one of the main motivations for marching down there against more sensible practice), but Not Waving has taken over for the final hour with a hardware set that hits just right for the time of day/night/whatever, the impressively energetic crowd responding in kind. For some reason he seems dissatisfied with the sound, but it doesn’t translate in the music or the atmosphere. 

It’s everything I hoped the after party would be, and it pings me off on a fun afternoon of socializing with new friends, ticking a box that had somewhat escaped me up until that point. Unsound is after all a relatively niche festival in the grand scheme of things, and as such the degrees of separation between attendees are minimal at best. While drinking and chatting can be seen as a frivolous past time, it’s actually a perfect emblem of the community that exists around this kind of music, and amongst other festivals, clubs and parties the world over it’s a valuable quality that comes to the fore here perhaps more than anywhere else I’ve been before. In a world where spheres of community are no longer geographically determined but exist in a virtual realm, the chance to intermingle with your perceived kin in a physical setting is quite a life-affirming experience. 

Still, there are two more events at two new venues to check before the weekend is out, and so we march up to the Filharmonia Krakowska for the closing concert. The space is another architectural delight in a weekend full of them, with a monolithic organ providing a wonderful backdrop to the stage. The range of venues in the city is remarkable, and Unsound’s commitment to capitalizing on this is admirable. It could be far simpler and more cost-effective to centralize proceedings in a few choice venues, but from the talks to the parties, the city becomes an adventure of constant discovery for the first time festival goer. It’s just one aspect of where the festival wouldn’t necessarily need to go the extra mile to do a good job, but they do so just the same. With this in mind, it’s touching to hear Gosia Plysa and Mat Schulz address the crowd before the music starts, placing most of the thanks on the audience. It’s an interesting notion, that in a way the event depends on the crowd having the right kind of attitude to trust in the programming and approach everything with an open mind. It would be futile without that support, and in an interesting way the setting of the high-brow concert hall raises another issue in my mind as the ushers stress the classical formalities of no re-entry during the performances. 

In a conversation I was having elsewhere a week earlier, there was a general maligning of the classical world with its backwards, tradition-obsessed focus, it’s stuffy, hierarchical infrastructure and other such issues. I’m not sure I’m best placed to have an opinion on such a point of view, but as I sit in this concert hall I feel that perhaps Unsound, the music it presents and the respectful behaviour of its crowd represents the next generation of what might be deemed classical music. These scruffy, party-worn people are packing out a hall and remaining in utter silence, so very well behaved compared to the mildly primal scenes at the after party just hours earlier. Granted, some of the ‘up-all-night’ crew are asleep, but they’re doing it in a civilized manner. 

Kara-Lis Coverdale opens proceedings with a beautiful, harmonious ambient set that reaches a new level once MFO’s visuals fill the expanse of the organ wall. It’s exactly the kind of accessible yet thoughtful stimulus needed at this stage in the game. Ilan Volkov then performs a brief solo violin piece before taking to the stand to conduct the Sinfonietta Cracovia, while a supergroup of sorts from the Posh Isolation and Northern Electronics labels steer the front of the stage with a variety of equipment. It’s a curious, yet utterly successful combination that again strikes on this notion of classical music’s next generation, with the slightly laid back demeanour of the Swedes and Danes on stage providing a welcome foil to what can sometimes be a stiff stage presence where orchestras are concerned. Volkov conducts superbly, and the end result is a natural cousin of the haunting, icy heart of the Scandinavian sub genre the producers call home. 

Then, it’s on to the aptly named ‘Evacuation Slide’ for one last push, and one last surprise. The club in question, Kamienna, is north of the Old Town, and once again it’s a vast industrial space that actually appeals far more than Hotel Forum as a party venue. It’s a free event that brims with energy you might not have expected for the last night of a long and winding week. Nearly all the Unsound regulars I speak to have been in town from the very start of the programme on the Sunday before, and yet they’re all still here until the bitter end. As it happens, the ending is not so bitter, with Edward weaving a delicate but driving thread of live house and techno true to his style before Veronica Vasicka ramps up the fierce factor with her signature Minimal Wave approach. Dr Rubinstein takes the reins for a more ravey flavour as the night deepens, but those diminished hours of sleep are lurking on the fringes and a taxi beckons. 

It’s no doubt completely indulgent as a writer to write some five thousand words on one festival, but Unsound is an event that inspires such detail. As noted earlier, there’s very little in terms of middle ground at this event, and if every performance is a talking point on a bill bursting with talent, then to not go into detail feels like a disservice. 

In short (yeah, right), Unsound is a festival like no other, raising the bar intimidatingly high across every aspect. It’s not an overstatement when I say it feels like a vital cultural advancement, from the thought-provoking discussion to the presentation of incredible music. I can’t quite elucidate exactly how it helps advance culture as I sit here a touch fragile on the fittingly turbulent plane ride home, but it’s an undeniable sensation in the back of my mind. 

On that note, my full respect goes out to all concerned. Thanks to the festival for having me, and I sincerely hope I get to experience it again. 

Visit the Unsound site HERE. Thanks to Anna Spyz for the photography. 

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