Spring seems to have settled more slowly and reluctantly this year: in 2021, life and events seemed to surge into existence in a rapid flourish, bringing that much-needed cultural colour back into the world. So it was in Malmö for Intonal Festival 2022 — the best of the cherry blossom eddied towards the concrete as the new green growth replaced the pink flowers, and resplendent magnolia and curated beds of tulips and bluebells took up the mantle of the most vivid colour of the Swedish city. Clear blue skies, asked-for and yet rare for the season, let the sun’s warmth bloom nearly entirely throughout the festival’s 5-day programming.
It was something of a wish granted: the previous year’s events were curtailed due to the pandemic, and 2020 was utterly canceled, so it was great pleasure to catch the festival in its finest colours, and — almost, I’m told — back in full swing. With the past cancellations in mind, Intonal’s lineup was a blend of fresh curation and some long-awaited sets from the last two years. If that instills the thought that the lineup was shakily cohesive, banish it from your mind.
Although 5 days is something of a marathon event in the post-isolation world, Intonal balanced the familiar excesses of a festival with rest and recuperation. “A sanctuary for experimental minds” is the tagline, and it’s readily lived up to, greeting expectations (very frequently exceeding them)
From each cornerstone of what makes a festival an enlightening experience — from the music to the quality of sound, to the very nature of the acts and the programming that enables them to reach their full potential in performance. And, when you have each of these in hand, the rest of the puzzle assembles itself.
Chief amongst Intonal’s successes was the spread laid out on offer: from the energetic character of Jana Rush or Nkisi to the pristine ambient-leaning gardens curated by Grouper, Space Afrika and Ellen Arkbro, Intonal’s programming ate from every plate at the feast. That said, the appetite of the festival was far from all-consuming and ravenous, instead grazing at a slightly more sedate pace that allowed the full flavours of each act to be enjoyed.
One of the best experiences to be had from attending festivals in foreign cities is to enjoy music within historical landmarks or culturally significant areas within the city, in the somewhat rare occasion the festival can gather the rights to so. Elevate Festival in Graz seems to have access to the keys of the city, and Intonal shared the same luxury: Grouper & Alma Söderburg performed in the St. Johannes church, and towards the end of the festival there was a spontaneous-feeling performance from extraordinary pianist Naoko Sakata, within a majestic chamber in the old castle fortress of the city.
Not only does this give you a real feel of being grounded in the location of the festival, it also affords a chance to see something of the city’s heritage. The St. Johannes church was a beautiful setting to get lost in the moonlight and snowy expanses of Grouper’s music, despite an hour-and-a-half seated on a pew being a little rough on the “personal cushions”.
Another very appreciated addition to the in-house performances was the opportunity to start the day’s music at Mutant Radio Tbilisi’s takeover with local internet station Retreat Radio. It was a sweet spot, the street snatching the last of the radiant spring sun, and afforded chances to see Mutant co-founder Ninasupsa, exceptional percussionist Valentina Magaletti (plucked from her more hidden appearance on the lineup within the Holy Tongue act), and a riveting live set from Zesknel, away from the main bustle of the venue.
The festival’s tag line “for experimental minds” was felt in every day, with the low-key first event’s promise of an ‘ambient’ opening playing host to a rather anti-ambient performance from Nkisi, which cleared out the cobwebs of travelling with her scuzzed up gabber style kicks, indelible syncopated rhythms and piercing experimental vocals. It was a little non sequitur for the event, but it helped kickstart the festival’s eclectic yet on-point programming.
Afterwards was one of the low-key highlights of the festival: Rytmiskonsekvens, a four-piece experimental (kinda) jazzy outfit who played a very suave set on a stage shrouded by orange mesh. Behind their anonymising front drop the group proficiently tinkered with multiple wind instruments, some scratchy percussive tools and a little synth here and there, gradually increasing and declining in intensity as they went, restoring the ambient promise in a very unique manner.
The following day there was plenty of time to stroll around Malmö and stop off in some shops and grab coffee (more cities need to implement the bottomless batch brew). The festival had a few daytime events. such as the Sakata concert, but the bulk of the week’s activities were taking place during the evening, allowing you to scope out some of Malmö’s other sights — which, admittedly, doesn’t make a long list, but it just makes for a slower pace in the day, which is no bad thing after a week of late nights.
Thursday’s lineup was minimalist also, with Alma Söderburg preceding a concert by the legendary Grouper at the St. Johannes church in the centre of the city. Alma’s set was another interesting one, a physical and exponentially engaging performance lying somewhere between performative dance, mime and electronic dance music. Motions and dances were matched with Söderburg’s vocalising, initially nearly comical but, somehow both gradually and instantaneously, her performance became utterly magnetic.
Grouper’s concert was always going to be one of the most sought-after performances of the festival, and indeed it completely captured the attention of the gathered mass far, very often reaching a transcendent experience over the 1.5hr unbroken performance. The setting of the grand cathedral was at times not the most comfortable to remain in a relaxed seated position, but this one minor discomfort, and the sporadic coughing, the dropping and shuffling of programmes, were an almost necessary final tether, keeping the audience from drifting entirely away from the world.
Afterwards the festival’s programming seemed to begin in earnest, with events inside the Inkonst art gallery and venue space. There was a lobby area playing host to DJs, bands and solo performers alike, a “big stage” (which housed the likes of Space Afrika and Jana Rush) and The Black Box, a large space below ground which was simply perfect for both the artistic sonic experiences from Ben Vince, Tyler Friedman, Hiro Kone and Ellen Arkbro, and also the heavier dance music of Shackleton, DJ Bone, and Elena Columbi.
Local act Lilium — Malmö locals Miranda Magdalena and Loljud, who really knew their way around their synths — were playing when we arrived at Inkonst for the last of the day, shaping the environment with a performance with enough floaty light touches to pare off the intensity in their darker strains of music, backdropped by a visual performance reminiscent of an animated Google DeepDream landscape.
With each of the stages in close proximity, flitting between was rarely a difficult experience, it remained quite impossible to not miss any of the major acts. Worse still was finding out the quality of acts that you passed on due to being ignorant, only to find out afterwards that they doubtlessly delivered an incredible performance. Tyler Friedman was one such act for me, after falling instantly in love with his music upon listening to his ‘Epiphytic’ release through Kontra-musik, which his live performance develops further.
The sharpest loss for me was missing out on Hiro Kone’s performance (described to me later as a blend of her current live act and the results of a month-long residency at Inkonst), thanks entirely to the electrifying versatility of WaqWaq Kingdom‘s live set. Since learning their 2017 album ‘Shinsekai‘ by rote, they’ve been high on my list for acts to see.
The duo, joined by visual artist Kalma, made physical and geographical reflect in a blurry mirror image of itself for the world premiere their show together with Kalma, ‘WaqWaq Glitches Jungle‘, in which the omnivorous productions of DJ Scotch Egg, fed from worldwide sonic influences as diasporadic as dancehall, techno, grime and even that elusive Shangaan Electro-esque vibe, rendered into fractal digital LSD by Kalma’s visual art. Central to the performance, though, is Kiki Hitomi, enrobed in vivid traditional Japanese garments, chanting out the edge-of-consciousness lyrics that entice you into their world as she twirls bathed in the glitched-out undergrowth.
It’s one of those great joys of music festivals that one can be lucky to hear some exciting surprises, often from acts you’re unaware of. Wandering upstairs and catching Holy Tongue (Valentina Magaletti and Al Wootton) crafting psychic lightning bolts of dubby bass cross-sectioned with hair-raising rhythms, only to find out for certain as they finished that of course Ben Vince had been adding soul-shearing freely improvised sax to the pair’s already watertight act.
Stina Fors, who performed after Lilium on the first day in Inkonst, was another performance within this category of pleasant surprises. While her set had moments of amateur (or, better, unpretentious) character, that comment seeks to take nothing away from her emotionally bare performance.
Half comedy, half drama, it was a divisive act for the crowd, but I often found myself humming one of her songs across the next days, trying to tap out the beat with two feet while picking away at my hotel breakfast. Stina’s performance, an uncut gem amongst a heap of the highly-polished, perhaps, reminded the value of this type of performance within festivals: it seems important to not forget that sometimes they can be as valuable and even have stronger emotional authenticity as perfected, routined performances.
All said though, Intonal was far from slacking in the professional and authentic music. Catching the incomparable industrial grit of John T. Gast right prior to Low Jack‘s slow-motion curveball rhythms within a 2-hour block where the feet rarely touched the floor and scarcely moved location, speaks volumes about the dedication to providing an incredible musical show.
Earlier in the evening, Fulu Miziki — The Eco-Friendly-Afro-Futuristic Punk Assembly from the Democratic Republic of Congo — beat intense patterns and tangled melodies for wild and grinning dances, the band adorned in up-cycled waste materials. Chief amongst the fun within their set was a 2-3 meter pipe that various rubber-enrobed members of the band would approach and hammer the top with off-beat slaps to generate a deep, resonant percussive sound that cuts through the wider rhythm.
Illustrating the lineup with equal parts heavy experimentalism — not merely as a description of sound, although within the case of Fågelle’s blistering guitar work that much is true — with straight-to-the-point dancefloor material became a calling card for the festival: acts like Jana Rush, Shackleton, Elena Columbi and CTRLS were mainstays for the late night crowd.
Jana Rush, a footwork musician from the genre’s cradle of Chicago, came all the way from the US with a set of vividly energetic footwork dosed with several long pulls on the chill-out cig. Footwork’s drum licks and hammering use of samples were of course present, but Rush combined the formula with introspective loops to carry the listener further away into that internal space than footwork has typically allowed, within my experience. Introspective, but certainly a full-on dance nonetheless.
Elsewhere in the lineup, Shackleton dominated the dancefloor experience downstairs in the Black Box, his impeccable off-key rhythmic wonderings blending the all-out energy of club music with elements of his excellent experimentalism heard on the more “artsy” LP’s he’s released since Skull Disco somewhat folded.
It was a hard task to flit between that, and fully enjoy the pitch-perfect ambience of Space Afrika’s live set — fortunately, a few weeks before I had the opportunity to catch it in a much more sedate and personal setting at Prague’s MeetFactory, so the dance breaks from Shackleton’s set to keep tabs on the show became a kind of scouting trip to check that they’re still working those emotional ambient refrains in exemplary style.
Elena Columbi is far from a name that’ll be unfamiliar with the initiated, and her set, timed right before DJ Bone’s closing of the Black Box, showed how a DJ set can be just as experimental as a live act. I once heard that, in 24 hours on the ISS, astronauts experience 16 sunrises and sunsets, such is the speed of the orbiting satellite. This fact ran through my mind throughout Columbi’s set as she deftly wove an impulsively danceable yet cerebrally satisfying combination of ‘floor material and heady beat-driven experimental dance music.
Similarly, CTRLS — the inaugural artist on the TOKEN techno label — provided a very non-standard set of the world’s collective favourite dance music genre, taking many twists and turns through soundscape and sound design that kept the head rocking and the feet moving until the early hours.
However, my personal title of best DJ at the festival has to be awarded to OKO DJ. The whole set was one long series of gold-trimmed aces, of differing suits, fused by alchemical magic into a deck of outright fun: experimental Arab rap from Lil Asaf became hyper-speed astral hardcore, which somehow flowed nicely into something like post-punk juiced with a trap bassline — and so on and so forth.
Holding court for four hours, OKO DJ surpassed all competition when it comes to versatility. With the selection courting just about any known genre of danceable music, the anticipation of what may come next kept me from leaving the upstairs lobby area until the final moments of the evening.
After the planetary-aligning set from OKO DJ, the majority of the festival had concluded, leaving just a smattering of acoustic performances the following day to wind down on. Chief among these was Ellen Arkbro’s composition with Microtub, the “worlds largest microtonal tuba ensemble” (a title doubtlessly hard won from thousands of competitors). The show was comprised of three droning performances that lifted the still-pure soul from the hammered and hungover body.
A short break upstairs (sweetly accompanied by Johanna Knutsson’s ambient/techno prime cuts) and back down again for the final act, an orchestral rendition of Arthur Russel’s ‘Tower of Meaning‘ release, on his more experimental side to the dancy numbers we all know and love, performed by Bill Ruyle, Peter Zummo & Members of Malmö Symphonic Orchestra. The final 20-minute piece, inundated with codas, was a rather sombre note to close out on, but very nicely wrapped up the festival with a performance that married the contemporary and the classical.
All in, Intonal 2022 was, from my standpoint, an entirely enriching and rejuvenating musical experience. Harmonising club music with the explorative nature of those combining sonic art and music is a tricky task, and the minimal team behind the event pulled it off in a unique manner that resonated long after my early departure from Malmö on the Monday morning.
Intonal succeeded in being a vibrant guide to Malmö’s city and adventurous musical scene, as well as finely articulating the importance of acts from outside to an open-minded local audience. By way of criticism, little can be levelled at the event itself — only that they do not provide a cloning or body-splitting service to allow one to catch all the intriguing musicians to be heard and seen within the festival.
As we are, in small doses, afforded the opportunity to party once again like in 2019, this one club-goer appreciates the attention to a nuanced lineup that looks beyond pill-popping euphoria or slamming hardcore — although, all in good measure. Intonal Festival brought an equal portion of art show to the nightlife segment, ensuring the all-essential flavours of culture remained firmly in the palette throughout the event. If this tantalises the tastebuds, be sure to plan for the 2023 edition.
All photography by Henrik Hellström