DIARY
Unsound 2016 part 1: Tajik folk, almond-flavored vodka and Iranian techno

Unsound 2016 part 1: Tajik folk, almond-flavored vodka and Iranian techno

1. A unique balance

Writing about your first Unsound is a particularly difficult challenge, given the overwhelming, all-encompassing nature of the festival; not to mention the drunken, pierogi-infused haze that filters the entire experience, as a friend put it. Many people rave about Unsound and flee to Krakow with cult-like devotion, and rightfully so.

What makes the festival so special is its unique way of finding a balance between the entertaining and the adventurous, the academia and the dance-floor, the old and the new, the experimental and the club, house and techno. The list of dichotomies can go on. Bluntly, Unsound manages to provide something for everyone, in the best way possible. Outside a Saturday show at the ICE congress center, we were joking with a couple of girls from the team that the only critique we have for Unsound is that the schedule doesn’t accommodate time for lunch of dinner, as one would like to see everything. They said that was the exact point - people who come to Unsound are curious music explorers, always hungry for more, who also know how to get down on karaoke night.

It is a glimpse into a potential future of inclusiveness, curiosity and music as a breeding ground for ideas and exchange. Did I mention it also takes place in a superb, medium-sized, shockingly affordable (even by Romanian standards) city?

What also contributes to the general exhausted-ecstatic vibe of the punters, besides the comforting nature of Polish cuisine, is the universal quality of the sound; I know, complaining about the sound is the go-to noob move, but basic psycho-acoustics say that when the sound quality is bad, no matter how good/comforting the music is, it will put us in a bad mood. For this, Unsound engineers deserve a star-studded gold medal, as everything and I mean everything from Manggha, the Japanese art museum, to the old tobacco factory or communist ballrooms of Hotel Forum, sounded great. It was mind-bogging to the point that acts I had seen in other contexts recently and didn’t impress me much went through a complete metamorphosis through the Unsound sonic lens.

Given all these elements, it is quite hard to pull yourself out of the festival stupor and try to have a level-headed opinion. It is one of the most intoxicating addictive yet intellectual festival experiences.

*photo 1 credits: Anna Spysz/Unsound festival

2. The first drops

The Dislocation theme couldn’t have been any more appropriate for the pan-global yet family-like vibe of the festival.

This first night is still a blur of almond-flavored vodka, Doliprane, pizza and a lot of faces, faces, faces. We’re finally at Manggha. It is dark. The first act just finished playing. I try to get closer to the stage. Alan Bishop, Maurice Louca and Sam Shalabi are getting ready to start. Although I had seen the trio play recently, what occurred was as if the Dwarfs of East Agouza had been bitten by a radioactive bug and their sound had gained superhero powers. Max Eilbacher joins Drew Daniel and Britton Powell, his Perfect Lives squad. We hear a loud, thunderous base erupt. The low-rise stage is impossible to see from where we stand, but the music penetrates through every fiber of our beings. The boys start head banging. Iranian Sote’s live techno act is incisive and merciless, in a good way.

The next morning, feeling human again, I rush to J. Francois Bonnet’s highly interesting talk about listening. The Presences Electronique curator’s lecture is followed by the moment we’ve all been waiting for – the Matmos panel on Robert Ashley, moderated by Philip Sherbourne. The talk is even more delightful than the sum of their interviews and Drew’s twitter feed combined, blending the entertaining and the informative with grace and levity. One as to ask – is MC Schmidt a closeted standup comedian?

A couple of goulash-drenched latkas and beet soup later, we’re back at the Manggha stage, just in time for the commissioned collaboration between traditional Tajik trio Samo and Polish Stara Rzeka with his delicate guitar sonic filigrees. Samo’s music is of a primitive, overwhelming savage beauty, despite the constant feedbacking of the array of mics around their handmade instruments. Rzeka’s counterpoints are rather restrained, but add gentle textures to the heartbreaking mountain ballads.

Still sweating out the last drops of last night’s karaoke-induced tequila excess, I melt into one of the comfortable upstairs seats of the packed ICE center. Prismatic amoebic creatures appear on the large screen, bringing the Alva Noto-scored plankton video I saw at Fondation Cartier and Jodie Mack’s films to mind… Deep, microtonal drones wrap me in a warm blanket of baselines. Ghostly vocals are masterfully peering through the electronics. It is Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith orchestrating this entire modern pagan ritual. The Rashad Becker hype doesn’t really click with me; I’d choose to hang with the Robert Ashley gang in the hallway instead.

We take advantage of the now-empty room to get our spots right up front for Horse Lords. I snap Drew eating a Rom bar. The four-piece Baltimore ensemble takes to the stage dressed in chinos and tucked in shirts; once they start playing, the nerdy vibes turns into a devastatingly dancey math-North-African jazz , sounding incredibly fresh.

We are now good and ready for the after party at the newly-opened Kitchen, the former cooking facilities of the communist relic Hotel Forum, traditionally hosting the weekend parties. After a lengthy warm up in the chic bar, we finally head to the floor. Nobody could have ever anticipated the mix of raw energy, unpolished setting and nostalgia-driven yet futuristic sounding music that made Wednesday night perhaps the wildest party of the festival.

Right as NAAFI founder Mexican Jihad was finishing, Berlin’s Mobilegirl continued the ’90s Eurodance-sampled alien bass fantasy with extra chutzpah. By the time Lao took to the booth, the bodies drenched in sweat in the foggy, strobe-lit space entered a collective music-induced acid trip, cheering to the choruses of What is Love or Madonna’s Music, cultural detritus from our MTV childhoods.

3. Thursday

The following day, back at the Krzysztofory, we were all congratulating Lukas Warna-Wieslawki for curating the party. Someone else expressed what we were all thinking – „normally I would so hate that kind of music, but oh god last night was amazing!”.

Hearing NAAFI’s talk the day after the party, things took a completely different meaning – what we had taken as millennial´s obsession with the ‘90s and the skeletons of PC music had actually a profoundly local, political edge. The Mexican story of Eurodance hits dominating dance-floors and popular culture until the mid-aughts sounds strangely familiar for an Eastern European. The ubiquity of Ace of Base, Coco Jumbo (which became slang for jocks in Romania) or Mr Vain in the extra-American space speaks volumes on marginalized cultures. What NAAFI emphasized was their effort to be local and reference their history rather than Internet fads, using samples as musical postcards from the past.

Finally, the long-awaited Robert Ashley moment arrived. The 800-seat cinema at Kijow Centrum… was filled to the brim, unlike Martin’s predictions. Their take on Perfect Lives was both and ingenious, bringing some original interpretations to the libretto as well as preserving its spirit. The addition of vocalists Caroline Marcantoni and Jennifer Kirby as the Greek choir was a very inspired move, their hypnotic repetition of phrases created a trance-like state. My favorite was perhaps The Backyard, which, since the 2013 Presences Electronique performance, has evolved into a transcendental dance piece with Drew’s sublime use of electronics and Martin’s delightful cadence.

The first real night at Hotel Forum was as decadent as anticipated, with sensual techno flowing from the big room; while an unexpected selection of footwork artists were wreaking havoc in Room 2. I arrived just in time for the excellent Senyawa / Rabih Beani collaboration, while rushing to catch a glimpse of Foodman’s set, which proved to be even weirder than his 3hd piece, however inconceivable that may sound.

The real highlight of the night was the unexpected Dj Fulltono / Traxxman duo, a trans-Atlantic premiere collaboration united under the Teklife flag. Their lightning-paced dirty house music was the perfect party lubricant everyone’s been waiting for. When DJ Earl took to the stage, together with a crew of footwork dancers, the crowd went into full abandon mode, discovering new moves on the dancefloor while samples of Kym Mazelle and Tronco Traxx brought an ecstatic smile to all our faces.

4. Who rules the world?

If Thursday night felt excessive, Friday seemed almost impossible to grasp, given the three-room formula. I did stay through the Uruguayan F5 live premiere, a highly inspired example of locally-flavored dance music, bonus for the live drums, while trying to find my place within fractures of Demdike Stare’s dark set, Faka’s energetic live and DJ Lag’s rather disappointing efforts in Room 3. The highlight came in the shape of Acid grandparents Phuture who, despite the recent loss of DJ Spank-Spank, saw DJ Pierre perform a tantalizing set with Angel Alanis. However, one of the most entrancing Unsound sets came from Kablam; playing the 5am slot in Room 2, bathed in blue and magenta lights, she delivered a maze of RnB remixes, Tangerine Dream-like interludes and rave moments. Glaring at the dancefloor filled with queer millennials in ‘90s gear, the entire setting felt like a scene from a Gregg Araki movie.

Denmark’s Apeiron Crew female trio continued to fuel the girl-power trip instigated by Kablam with edgy big room sound. „Who rules the world? Girls.”

Wind Tunnel was a more-than –appropriate name for this shape-shifting night.

Saturday, the last major party at the Forum, embodied that moment when a well tuned machine goes off course – everything felt like too big, too much, lacking the coherence of previous parties. This baroque excess was first expressed with the first familiar chords from Forest Swords, drifting into Soichi Terada’s infectious smile and happy house tunes, dipping further into the dark side with JD Twitch’s Muslimgauze set. Africaine 808’s and Dodo Nikishi’s live performance was a highly entertaining set, proving once again the almighty power of live drums.

Overcoming physical and technical difficulties, master Anthony Shake Shakir delivered the ultimate veteran schooling set, making the crowd go wild over fucking Radiohead. Via App shared some fresh house, Yves Tumor showcased the first crowd surfing episode of the festival, while Kamixlo was too high to mix his own tracks…

Further in the night, Fred P performed a deep house healing ritual in the big room, followed by a maximum energy b2b by Polish Olivia and Kazakhstan DJ Nazira. I was already hooked after their NTS live set and seeing them work a proper room was a real treat.

The Sunday burnout was quite brutal; everyone was equally tired, sentimental and sniffly, spreading the Unsound virus going around.

Kara-Lis Coverdale’s Philharmonic performance was the perfect over-the-top, majestic display of drones we were all craving. On top of a white-lilies-covered stage, drenched in digital geometric stained glass motifs by German artist MFO, she was our goddess for the evening, ensuring a safe passage back into the real world.

Coming back to these lines on the American election morning puts a rather apocalyptic damper on things right now, making this inclusive, pan-global sonic utopia all the more special. Force-listening to Lou Harrison on this wet November morning before work, I’m trying to muster my strength and finish this text, as in the sobering light of potential planetary chaos it is crucial to remember, preserve and promote such positive experiences. It is festivals like this that make the real political statement.


Read also: Unsound 2016 part 2: Alternate Reality Games in Real-life Krakow




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