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

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

Written By:

Simona Mantarlian


November 27, 2016

1. Poland's Fastest Growing (and sexiest) Start-Up

I walked into the old hotel Forum first thing following a noise, having no expectations. The legendary aura and the “everyone is there” can overwhelm a soul and I certainly wasn’t to insist on that. I didn’t know for sure how I will find the place and I couldn’t even tell exactly how I got there. There was just a drone echo that I could barely identify, while searching for the entrance, which was on the other edge of the building, not on the side covered with the giant banner spelling “Don’t be a corporate slave. Join Poland's Fastest Growing (and Sexiest) Start--Up”, in quirky font. My mobile data options had forsaken me. Without a schedule at hand and fairly intrigued by the loudness that was getting closer I stormed through the entrance system that resembled an airport check in, dropped my two bags at the wardrobe like unwanted toddlers I’ve been carrying into unknown and stumbled into the main room to an amaze-triggered blackout.

The tense sound in the room reminded me of the Unsound commissioned Bass fragrance, from their Ephemera collection. It was just as thick, obsessive and tragic (yep I wear that), the only difference is it wasn’t esters clinging to my lungs this time but the damn sound itself. Navigating through the fog I could tell Dean Blunt was up on stage, performing his absolutely serious UK hip hop project: Babyfather. In Brexit year AD, I’ll call this serious, an adjective I do not abuse normally in a sentence featuring Dean Blunt as subject.

Noise undertones and heavy bassline along an intoxicating beat – despite what this recipe might evoke, my first Unsound impression was rather poetic than aggressive. The lyrics were delivered in such way that a political charging and a powerful consciousness took over, even if the latest album does make too use of pastiche, misplaced quotations and tongue in cheek in Blunt tradition. To quote Dean Blunt once quoting Sonic Youth, it was all whirlwind, heat and flash. For those unfamiliar with the Babyfather project, they released an album on Hyperdub this year, titled BBF hosted by DJ Escrow. The record features Arca as a collaborator.

Right after, in the other room – which seemed to be the footwork headquarters, Jakub Lemiszewski was performing live a fresh and engaging jam. Poland is very connected to the Internet of music, and this showed in the approach of Jakub Lemiszewski, who was one of the night’s unexpected revelations. Thereafter, Foodman built up an abstract groove making use of quirky machine sounds, demonstrating his signature take on rhythm and mental dissonance. The other room saw Rabih Beaini performing two consecutive collaborations, one with Samo, a group from Tajikistan centered on uncovering traditional funerary music, and the other with Senyawa. Rabih’s collaboration with Senyawa is called Kafr and it involved spine chilling lamenting sounds as well, like invocations that aimed at unseen spirits. I was pretty desperate to not find my friends, with no data and no battery, but I kept running into familiar faces by the second. It felt like being in the same room with literally everyone in my facebook newsfeed. One of those afore mentioned unseen spirits must have helped when I managed to send a hopeless iMessage to my crew, a text that got replied. And there we were in the main room before Cindytalk and Ancient Methods premiered their live collaboration, In The Mouth of The Wolf. It’s already known that Cindytalk is my transgender mother figure. I’ve got the genes of an actress, but my real mom can’t hold a candle to the grace and radiance of Gordon Sharp. When Sharp stepped up, it had all crowd under an emotional spell, embodying the perfect paradox of strength in frailty. Lights loomed around the room in a vertigo, emulating an eerie disco ball effect complementary to a performance of hypnotic beauty. Six years ago I saw Cindytalk at Wroclaw Industrial Festival, delivering the most decadent and doomy folk noir in a red dress to kill for. That sounded like nothing heard before or after, and it’s one of the most vivid things I can remember since said year. Back to the present of 2016, the collaboration with Ancient Methods infuses this ravishing vision with dizzying, sedated electronic layers, a dreamlike feeling that reminds me of the times Coil sneaks in my playlist at a point during my REM.

2. Mental health

The very next day I decided to give the posthumanist therapy session a try. Unsound is probably the first “dark” festival to take a step towards understanding the issue of mental health in the music industry at its deeper, not-fake, existentialist potential. First time I heard about mental health becoming a thing in the scene I felt this is the end of times. Of course we are unhappy, cherish our dark energies and question everything, and of course the vast majority of the people I know attending a festival of harsh experimental music have at least a faint tendency of being fashionably self-destructive. But just as the easiest things to transmute are opposites themselves, deep confusion is the premise for even deeper understanding, and dark is the same thing as light in different quantity. I wouldn’t be all paraphrasing the Emerald Tablets in here if it wasn’t along the lines of what I heard from the resident therapist of the festival, Johannes Klabbers. Klabbers has a rather secular approach, but his use of the principle of relativity is in line with the go-to sources of all time wisdom. And nothing compares to waking up after the first festival night having had 3 hours of sleep and hearing someone remind you that we are everything and nothing. Conclusion is, there is a lot of knowledge and reflection within the musical community, and the gist is to find real people one can talk to, as therapists - people who get the music, its audience and the audience’s lifestyle personally and genuinely, and most of all, who actually belong to the underground / experimental music world. Apart from being a post-humanist therapist, Johannes Klabbers is a sound artist, academic and author. He shared the stage with Siouxie and the Banshees, The Slits and XTC before relocating to Australia and doing a PhD in art. Now that’s a person you can trust to get what you’re talking about, without feeling like you’re teaching someone speak a new language without yourself speaking their language, to start with. I hope Unsound is going to make this a part of its formula from now on. I was also surprised to notice NTS Radio – Unsound bff - picked up on the subject of therapy and music recently, and they dedicated a show one Saturday morning to producers and industry people talking abut life, anxieties, depression and getting over it. The chat room effect was pure interactive magic.

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3. Alternate reality

Friday, Unsound was packed with talks and performances in unconventional locations. For a newbie it can be quite puzzling, so I managed to miss the two consecutive Emptyset performances that everybody was talking about and get to the Tobacco factory performance just in time for We Will Fail and M.E.S.H. The room was pitch dark and the afternoon light came in dimmed by tall, magenta windows that were obscuring the space enough to make everyone look ghostly. Throughout the M.E.S.H. live performance I sat on the floor in a dark corner spraying propolis alcoholic extract in my system because the Unsound fever took over me and many others. On that exact delirious near-death mood, M.E.S.H. developed an extremely tense and finely deconstructed narrative, associating broken rhythms and voices, sounds of crashing windows, sharpening knives, gothic hauntology, fragments of words and unheard associations of dissonant samples, organized in a completely new harmony that required insane levels of control, intuition and a meta perception of rhythm.

The alternate reality evoked by M.E.S.H. was a strong catalyst to the real-life ARG that already started for me Friday morning, when somebody gave me a ticket for the sold out Death Grips performance which was about to happen in remote district Nowa Huta, at 19:00. No accompanying badge and no further explanation, just the kind of mysterious meaning tied into a cryptic mission.

I pretended for five whole days of Unsound attendance that I had no accreditation for no magazine, so I was, for some reason, already in one very twisted game – agreeing to queue as much as I can, like normal people do, and lose as much as a mortal can – performances included (yes, this sucked), withstand the hypothermic freeze waiting for tickets to be supplemented for Hotel Forum and even tried to jump a fence at some point (we’ll get there immediately). The clandestine context of my first Unsound experience made perfect sense when the night aped the ante and took the challenge even further. With my Death Grips ticket and no proof of identity I went seeking for Teatr Łaźnia Nowa along with my sidekick, Andra and a festival map.

4. Hazardous choices and exact calculations

Getting to the very destination called for both hazardous choices and exact calculations. No default routes in Google Maps to show the way in Krakow – that did not matter much, however, in an Internet situation outright problematic. After hopping trams and asking questions, figuring out maps and an outburst of freaking out on my side during the 12 stops ride, then finding way through narrow streets among working class commie blocks reminding me of suburban childhood wanderings, things started to make sense. We arrived to the location, sneaked into the queue, passed a first bouncer, got a first stamp, failed the second door check, explained the story to the P.R. without mentioning the game within the game, drew a sigil in the ether and got into the quiet, crowded chaos before the impending storm.

The room was full of smoke, violet strobe lights, raw anger and more people than I’ve seen during the whole festival. It all broke into a hyperbolic, sweaty moshpit by which none was left undamaged. There is no coherent way to go about this. MC Ride shouting full rage, hard hitting live drums, industrial electronics, black metal, total destruction of self and the most experimental noise performance of the whole festival – I would correctly approximate that more than 80% of the people there knew all the lyrics on No Love by heart. And those are meant to be shouted. Not by using half your voice because you care so much about your neighbors. At the top of your lungs. You know that’s not your limit. All in all it was incredibly unsobering. To the point of greeting an old friend I met right after in the crowd with “Hate”, no “Hey”. I guess that’s how you tell a Death Grips gig just peaked.

The ride from Teatr Łaźnia Nowa to Hotel Forum took about 45 minutes, enough time to doze off on the festival bus, wake up, think we were kidnapped, and finally arrive at Wind Tunnel just in time for Severed Heads - old school and energetic, the machine industrial warm-up for the darkness to come. Eomac used dynamic strobe lights and abstract AV, creating a climate of greyscale experimental techno stabbed with lights and sharp rhythmic changes. UK producers Truss and Tessela joined forces to debut new project, Overmono, which weaved together breakbeats, melody and earth-shattering pressure. I heard Demdike Stare while I was laying on the ground in total darkness, so it was all a mass of witchy, dreamy, soothing sounds. My eyes appreciated their lack of visual elements, and I needed this mystery meditation more than sleep.

At the end of the day, I could see the past 24 hours as a rollercoaster of emotions. Starting with a posthumanist therapy session, followed by M.E.S.H. delivering for sure one highlight moment of this festival in a dark room with magenta windows, madness in the brain (had to say it) getting in to see Death Grips channel the mother of anger, the nostalgia of seeing long time favorites Severed Heads perform, a techno witches coven, Internet mutations via Kablam, you name it.

5. Vector of mad change

I couldn’t say the same about Saturday. After an uplifting rendition of the Stranger Things soundtrack on analogue synthesizers at ICE and some logistic delay on my side, the box office tickets for the party at Hotel Forum were sold out. We waited to find out whether the tickets would be supplemented or not, and after some two hours of rainy, wintry wait the answer was no. Of course not everyone was THAT desperate to get in, and suddenly the queue diminished, but that did not make a difference. I met some people just as passionate though – two of them were the organizers of another AV festival in Krakow, Ars Techne. I’m not going to tell how we got in, but one of my failed attempts was climbing up the big fence in the smokers’ area to brainstorm with the smokers about ways to get in contact with my friend Andra, who had no phone on her. The smokers were really nice and encouraged me to jump, which I would never advise anyone to do while wearing a precious, borrowed kimono. Moreover, that big guy in the funny coat was not actually wearing Vetements, but was a real Security guy which started a polemic with my new found friends. I hid myself and my glitter kimono and will remember this as one of those things people do for science. Once in, I spent most of the night around the Staycore stage. It was chaotic, fun, demented and it brought back the comfort I associate to my home and my Soundcloud dashboard.

I was looking forward to one more thing on Sunday, which was the Body Sculptures performance, expecting butchering contemporary classical to meet severe industrial noise in a decorum of white lilies at the at the Philarmonic of Krakow.Body Sculptures would normally rely a lot on the performance dimension, so it was already a context that was challenging them out of their comfort zone. Besides, Puce Mary was missing for the formula which was predicting even more a different approach. However, the present members concentrated into an aseptic, highly controlled nucleus which aimed at stretching nervous impulses and timing in the most tense and refined dialogue of melancholic ambient, cavernous soundscapes and slowly, torturous unfolding strings. It sounded like the very moment before an irreversible nervous breakdown, stretch to its maximum duration.

During a one week festival of sleeplessness and intensive socializing I bet we all could find a cathartic bit in that, as much immediate as metaphorical. But what is really key is that Unsound commissioned Body Sculptures to collaborate with Ilan Volkov on this piece, to conduct Krakow’s Royal Orchestra Sinfonietta Cracovia. The fusion was really intuitive and I was expecting this, given Volkov’s connection to the classical music world, as a world renown conductor, as much as his deep ties with the free jazz, improv scene, drone metal - having brought Gravetemple in Israel in 2006 - and spectralism as Hyperion Ensemble collabortor. But the fact Unsound accelerates such synapses within the current world of avant-garde makes it an informed and unrelenting vector of mad change.

*photos by Andra Chitimus

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

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