"As some music festivals stagnate, Unsound innovates."
The combination of obscure venue locations, sophisticated lighting design and diverse programming carved out a strong aesthetic for the festival – an elegant brutalism perhaps, an aesthetic also shared with the city of Kraków.
The week-long festival, which this year centred on the theme of ‘surprise’, has built up a strong reputation over the years and with that, loyal attendees – festival passes sold out in ten minutes before any line-up was announced. Even experienced as a long weekend, Unsound impressed. Big time.
Words + Photography by Aoife McGuinness
Throngs of sullen-eyed festival goers shuffled in a steadily growing queue outside Stara Fabryka Tytoniu, a former tobacco factory, late Friday morning. DJ Nobu’s closing set the night before may have done a bit of damage. We were there for Ephemera, a synesthetic live show that combined scent, sound and vision.
The audio was arranged and performed by electronic musician and sound artist Tim Hecker and lighting design was orchestrated by visual artist Marcel Weber, a former half of the MFO duo. The olfactory component came from perfumer Geza Schoen, who used raw sonic material provided by Hecker and translated it to a scent called Drone which included “aldehydes and air notes, developing to fir and juniper, with a base of patchouli, ambergris, and vetiver.” Which I obviously picked up on myself…
After what seemed like a long wait, we made our way up the rickety staircase to the 3rd floor where the performance was taking place. The room looked as if it had been hot boxed (suitable, given its former life) when we entered the room, as a deep layer of smoke with a dusty orange hue hung to the air. The bang of Drone could immediately be detected as incomers sniffed their way around the space which was enclosed by a ring of LED lights.
Minutes passed as we soaked up the space and then finally, an explosion of sound as the performance commenced. A symphony of colours morphed with the sounds, from pink to fuchsia, ice blue to turquoise. Over 100 different bulbs allowed for a subtle gradient to be achieved, delicate mono- and duotone rainbows emerged in the smoke as the heavy bassline rattled the wooden frame of the factory. The sonic journey came to peak with a chaotic cacophony of sound, as the light strobed in and out of different hues. At this point the smoke had filled up the room so much that you couldn’t see anything but a blank canvas of shifting colours. The sensory overload was so overwhelming that I started to see shapes and forms morph in front of my eyes, a psychedelic wonderland of a kind. I was experiencing a flicker-induced hallucination which occurs when strong light flashes between 8 and 12hz, also known as the alpha rhythm knock the brain’s thalamus and the occipital lobe out of sync. (Check out Brion Gysin’s Dreamachine if you’re interested). After the chaos calmed, we were bathed in a sea of perfect blue and then cleansed with white light as we left. I still get goosebumps thinking about it.
Hotel Forum was the venue from Thursday to Saturday night, a concrete mega structure built in the late 70’s. Suitably titled, Convergence saw geographical limits and styles being transgressed with probably the most diverse line-up of the weekend.
Room One opened with Golden Pudel’s Nina filling the space with soothing ambient sounds which were then uprooted with a surprise performance by T’ien lai, a Polish experimental quartet, who mix analogue percussion with machine noise, not unlikeHospital Productions-affiliated Ninos Du Brasil.
Before anyone had the chance to identify the mysteriously veiled figures, we were submerged into a hypnotic drum sequence, populated with a squeaky synth line. The icy disposition of the crowd thawed after a few minutes, and side stepping commenced. The breakdown of the dark techno rhythms was cushioned by congas and complemented with bells and horns.
Shackleton followed suit with the analogue and machine pairing as two members of Japanese band Nisennenmondai appeared alongside him, guitarist Masako Takada and drummer Sayaka Himeno. It was difficult to isolate particular sounds, but perhaps that also goes to show how well the hybrid gelled. Visual artist Pedro Maia complemented the textured tones with a live AV show which was rich in analogue grain and subtle shading.
The next performance began with drone-like lights with a manic mind of their own, startling the sea of faces with strobes as if they were controlling the heavy, industrial sounds that belted from the stacks on either side of the stage. The high frequencies screeched as many covered their ears and perplexed faces watched on. The pure visceral sound, by the surprise act who was later revealed as Marcus Schmickler, intended to subvert expectations and create a change in the room. The lighting was arranged by Carsten Goertz, whose website is fittingly titled “more crazy crazy”.
The industrial noise continued in Room 3 with Prostitutes laying it hard. Although not usually my thing, I found myself suddenly dancing, the accessible 4/4 beats allowing a way in. He closed the set with a clamour of different sounds, culminating in brutal noise and then feathered it all with a Hari Krishna song. I personally couldn’t figure him out, but he’s definitely up to something interesting.
Meanwhile Room 2 saw genre pioneers RP Boo of footwork and Nozinja of Shangaan Electro add a splash of vibrancy to all the noise, which regrettably, I missed.
Optimo came as a much needed tonic at 2.30am, but still kept it hard. Banging out tunes like LFO’s ‘Freak‘ and the mental ‘Stranger to Stability’ from Dustin Zahn, the whole room was bopping. The set was beautifully crafted, from the intricate transitions to the extensive track selection that dusted off some classics and slapped in some new – finding time to work in Joy Division’s ‘Atmosphere’ and Aphex Twin’s ‘Analogue Bubblebath’ amongst all of the techno and acid. Whopper.
Helena Hauff closed Room One with Koehler as the surprise b2b. Straight up techno, with splashes of acid interspersed, the set showed off in particular, her tidy mixing capability and edgy track selection.
Saturday’s Night Vision placed a strong weight on the visual aspect of the live show, with world class visual artists collaborating with many of the performances in Room One. Surprise act Shxcxchcxsh opened the night with texturized techno on the right side of sinister, complemented by Pedro Maia’s grainy khaki stills that morphed rapidly behind.
Next up, Jlin took the reins serving up her twitchy footwork rhythms and mesmerising loops that magnetised the entire room. Charged with a tension that never quite climaxed, she kept us rapt. Dramatising this pressure was Banglalore Dancer Avril Stormy Unger’s guest performance midway through the set. Her distressed movements were hardly visible in the darkness, but as visual artist. Florence To bathed her in blue light she opened up and fronted the audience with intricate hand movements and sharp swirls, wafting out the incense that she had placed on stage.
Visionist also had his first live performance, debuting his album “Safe”, which just came out recently on PAN. Kevin Bray provided hyper-digital visuals that suited the fresh grime based sounds perfectly.
Later, Untold took to the stage dousing us in Dubstep as Emmanuel Biard’s symmetrical projections surrounded. Morphing into techno as the live show progressed, ‘Motion The Dance’ and tracks from last year’s ‘Black Light Spiral’ album garnered a strong dancefloor reaction as Biard’s potent pigments flooded the stage.
Room 2 was packed out for Aurora Halal’s live set, taking us on a spooky sojourn through ethereal soundscapes with a forward moving techno push. Eyes closed around me, people were losing themselves in the moment as the performance came to a close with the sublime ‘Sunlight’ off her recent Shapeshifter EP.
Surprise act Xosar followed on from Aurora with hard abrasive hardware driven techno, keeping the energy full throttle. Warsaw based club night Brutaż hosted Room 3 which was an entirely surprise line-up. Speaking at the club culture panel, Brutaż founder Jacek Plewicki explained that his whole ethos is based on trust between him and the audience. For that reason he doesn’t publish line ups, doesn’t market the event and doesn’t have a strict door policy. Gatto Fritto was one of the surprises later in the night and he absolutely smashed it, with a set that drew from his extensive rave, acid and hardcore record collection. Highlights included ‘Vamp’ from Outlander and ‘Jesus Loves The Acid’ from Ecstasy Club. Major freak out.
DJ Bone did a job on closing up the night with pounding techno so heavy that it felt like it was coming from within. As Richie Hawtin’s die-hards stayed in Room Two, Bone kept Room One lit with a flair and groove that many contemporary techno DJs can only aspire to. Classics such as ‘Cultural Variance’ were well received with beaming smiles amongst the sea of ravers.
Celestial Sound Immersion
The sun was shining on the last day of Unsound, energising our sleep deprived bones as we headed back to Stara Fabryka Tytoniu, for Laraaji’s Celestial Sound Immersion. The session was a continuation on from his Peace Garden yoga sessions earlier in the festival which involved laughter meditation and deep listening. An oceanic soundscape was playing as everyone settled into the room, making themselves comfortable. Starting first with his electrical zither, Laraaji then started to layer sounds using his sequencer, sprinkling in some chimes and hollow bamboo sounds. The gong was struck, bringing a stillness to the room as people lay with their eyes closed, engrossed in the moment. Using his soothing voice as instrument, he concluded with a chant, radiating the room with his warm energy. We left feeling refreshed and rejuvenated and wished this could be a weekly occurrence on a Sunday. I think Unsound is going to become an annual event for me.