I think the first time I fully became aware of Unsound was in 2013, when a total ban on photography meant reviews such as this one were accompanied by artists’ interpretations of performers. In the years that followed I went on holiday to South East Asia and was busy learning how to parent during the Kraków festival’s run time, but for 2016 I had decided that I would try it out.
The festival runs for a full week, but also offers long-weekend passes from Thursday to Sunday. When it began in 2003, it took place in bars and basements in Kraków’s Old Town, but over the years it has spread throughout the city (and indeed the globe: iterations and editions of Unsound now take place in New York, Toronto and Minsk, to name a few).
[pullquote]This driving pulse was enhanced by the rumblings of the trams outside, while a passing siren fell perfectly in key with the music at one point.[/pullquote]There seems to be just one flight out of Dublin during the week, which lands shortly before 9am, so I left on Wednesday and pre-booked a ticket for an event known as The Cloud. All of the performances have names, from Morning Glory to Afterburn, with the opening and closing parties called Remote Presence and Evacuation Slide, respectively. This gave a sense that artists were performing as part of a larger series, rather than appearing at a host of individual sets or shows.
Performing at the Cloud were representatives of the NAAFI crew from Mexico, and their sets were a riotous start for me – a far cry from the beguiling tones of Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith‘s concert some hours earlier, which took place while I was in the air. I heard tracks like ‘Born Slippy’ and ‘Smack My Bitch Up’ among interpolations of ‘The Beautiful People’ and ‘Break Stuff’. A friend even texted while I was at the other bar (which served a variety of beers and a stunning seasonal pizza that leaned heavily on nduja) to say that I was missing ‘9pm (‘Til I Come)’. Not quite what I expected, but you’ve got to start somewhere.
The next show was less than 12 hours later, taking place in an unassuming venue on the corner of a busy street on the edge of Kazimierz. Up a few flights of stairs, a large room was cordoned off by high curtains, the room shrouded in darkness. Rather than stumble searching for friends, I headed straight for the edge and found a wall to sit against. Performing was Resina, a Polish artist whose self-titled album was recently released on Fat Cat’s 130701 sub-label. The room was filled with dry ice to a comical degree, and sometime after the 11.30 start time she stepped up from the middle of the seated crowd and made her way to her cello and performance station. Her work is built from looping simple phrases, structured harmonies providing beds for soaring themes. This driving pulse was enhanced by the rumblings of the trams outside, while a passing siren fell perfectly in key with the music at one point. The effect was one of communion, with space and sound collapsing all around us.
[pullquote]It was beyond me, and the music abhorrent. I gave it a shot, and it wasn’t for me – it happens.[/pullquote]This led nicely to the talk from the NAAFI guys, Mexican Jihad and Lao, who were interviewed by editor of The Wire Derek Walmsley. This took place in a museum at Palac Krzysztofory on Kraków’s main square. Fun as their sets were, I wasn’t won over to their sound, but their intentions, passions and approaches are truly inspiring. Speaking about how they value community with artists rather than booking gigs based on sales, they make friends and throw parties in unusual spaces, not unlike Unsound itself. Perhaps here was the most palpable sense of the festival’s theme, Dislocation. I feel uneasy going into too many details here, with talk of borders and detention not best kept for posterity, but this talk showed the value of bringing artists together for extended communication.
I’d not been to Poland before, but nearly every return visitor commented on the explosion of specifically vegan restaurants. I dined with a group of vegetarians at a spot called Green Day, and didn’t dive much further than lentil soup. I did try the local bread juice, however, if only because I was goaded into it after tweeting a picture of the menu. It was kind of like a stale, watery ale. Not the worst thing I’ve ever tasted.
The next gig I attended took place in a former tobacco factory. Just a big empty room with an assembled stage in the middle. As we arrived the first artist was playing some nice synthy stuff. Her name was Laura Luna, and I need to check her out. I went to look for a toilet and found out there were none (none, zero, ) in the building. There was a courtyard with restaurants so I went to one and had a beer with some Twitter friends from the US. The next artist was Waclaw Zimpel, who mixes clarinet and electronics, and I wasn’t too into that so didn’t mind the break. We had some nice chats about life and work and the cost of living, and how they met and how I met my wife, etc. I’m a huge proponent of the greatness of online relationships, but that human touch enhances these things ever so much.
We went back inside to see ostensible headliner Peder Mannerfelt, who performs wearing all black and a blonde wig that looks like a mass of spaghetti. It was insanely odd; lots of widely-stretched globs of sound, eventually building up to a heavy techno push. His laptop – or the power – seemed to cut out, and he just ran with it I guess, hands aloft like a stadium rocker, the crowd cheering. Then he played a few more minutes before slamming his laptop shut mid-track.
Next up was the most divisive performance of the weekend, Matmos performing Robert Ashley’s opera Perfect Lives at the Kijów.Centrum cinema. I can’t describe it properly. It seems a kind of libretto, in that it is a lengthy spoken work accompanied by music but no singing. The opening section featured soothing, beautiful sounds that put nearly everyone I spoke to to sleep – the libretto did not affect this slumber. The second part was infuriating. Some 40 minutes of the same bossa nova preset accompanied by rambling piano noodles – grating doesn’t come close. The text was spoken with much verve and deftness, a mammoth task that deserves unmitigated praise. That said, it was beyond me, and the music abhorrent, so I and some others left after part two. I gave it a shot, and it wasn’t for me – it happens.
After dinner with an assembled (and welcoming) group of Brits, Poles and French, I was brought to local landmarks such as the shots bar Bania Luka and the quaint and charming Alchemia, with its many candle-lit rooms. We then returned to Hotel Forum. Having opened only the kitchen (for the first time) the night before, Thursday night was busier. Hotel Forum is literally a hotel, albeit no longer used in that capacity. Built in 1989, it retains the murky, brutalist character of its origins, and inside feels like the titular building of the recent High-Rise film adaptation. The original ceiling lights in Room 1 remain, and are incorporated wonderfully into each performance. Room 2’s chandeliers are used to the same effect, showing an excellent meshing of the original space with the ideas of festival lighting designer Marcel Weber, aka MFO.
No one on the line-up grabbed me too much so I floated about from room to room. I saw the end of Foodman, which was weirdly good, and a good chunk of DJ Traxman b2b DJ Fulltono, which started with what you might call acid house before ramping up in techno with every switch of the DJ. The only other set I really saw that night was DJ Earl. Fast and unrelenting, it was what you would expect from the footwork expert. His dancers were phenomenal, their stamina unparalleled.
[pullquote]I joked that his set would sound like “whooshhhh click crash“, and for large parts it sounded exactly like that.[/pullquote]On Friday I stayed in bed longer, surfacing only for Emptyset at 3pm, who performed in a large barn adjacent to a museum. Huge speakers sat in each corner, and above each were lights that shone above head height, leaving the room immersed in darkness yet creating beautiful patterns through their intersections across the walls. The performance was as brutal as Mannerfelt’s, a single guitar strum seemingly the basis for every layer of sound. Beats punched through for momentary phrases as harsh blasts of sound cut through the air. No steady rhythm formed for the crowd to start a dance, this frustration felt by those willing to stretch their legs. That push and pull was at the heart of the performance, as they drove forward with beats and pulled backward with delay.
I had lunch with friends in a place called Hummus Amamamusi, eating masabaha, which is basically hummus but with whole chickpeas, and it’s hot. This was amazing. Next came a return to the smoke house, as I called it. This was uncomfortable for several reasons. As mentioned previously, no toilet! Come on! Further, the windows are completely covered in red acetate, which looks cool, but renders the large open space impenetrable. Anyone with visibility problems, claustrophobia or social anxiety might be left shaken and extremely uncomfortable by such a setting. Add to that the necessity of visiting another place of business to use the toilet (of no issue to those who can just brazenly walk in and out of any establishment for that reason) and the whole experience becomes soured. This is without even mentioning the everyday fears and anxieties experienced by people of colour; a friend made the point that the same societal impulses that fuelled the Brexit vote don’t disappear in the “underground”, which itself is not the safe haven we naively wish it to be.
MESH was phenomenal. I joked that his set would sound like “whooshhhh click crash“, and for large parts it sounded exactly like that. That may sound like a dig, but his sounds are so engaging and unsettling that hearing them so loud and up close was a treat in itself. How he conveys this live set through using CDJs is beyond me – he touches on it here, but even his description seems too simple for the complicated sounds he plays. The set did veer toward a steady barrage of percussion in its final third, crashing down to earth after the airy yet unnerving sounds that came before.
I had the option of checking out Senyawa, who were playing before Death Grips in a multi-purpose venue east of the city, reportedly in an old communist neighbourhood, but it was some 12km away and I don’t care for Death Grips [Ed note – we need to talk] so didn’t feel it was worth the effort. The festival is a slog, so you have to be judicious.
So I went for some beers instead! I had chicken goujons, or something like them, with a kind of sour cream and sweet chili dipping sauce. Some of my companions, meanwhile, had vegetarian pierogis. We also got a large tower of beer between five of us. My judicious approach to acts was in fact so sterling on Friday night that I pretty much missed everyone. I arrived late, spent most of my night chatting and saw, I think, a bit of Kablam and not much else. Regretfully, I missed Ireland’s Eomac, Demdike Stare, Apeiron Crew, DJ Lag (whose new track I played on radio a few weeks ago) and Don’t DJ.
Alas, such is life. I rolled out of Forum around 7.30am, before trying to get to the nearby Club 89 for the post-Forum Afterburn party. This was the first time that Unsound used this facility, and you could tell. The queuing system was non-existent, a veritable scrum to enter no deterrent to hardened ravers. I got in sometime after 8am, hoping to find a friend but largely waiting for London’s DEBONAIR to start. After another queue for the toilets (there were literally two), I couldn’t last for much of her set, entirely dead on my feet. I called it a day soon after 9, but so did my phone, so making it back to my Airbnb was a challenge. Somehow I made it, flopped on to my bed and woke some eight hours later to find the sky was dark.
Exhaustion levels reached, I didn’t fully surface till after 11pm. By all accounts I missed a spectacular show from Roly Porter, my biggest festival regret, as well as Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein‘s live rendition of the Stranger Things soundtrack. Reports vary as to the quality of this performance. Like the first section of the Matmos gig, it seems people were lulled into a cosy slumber, “a warm blanket” as one friend described it, while others felt it paled in comparison with the literally blinding lights that MFO provided for Roly Porter.
Hotel Forum was the start of my night and the end of my day, commencing with Forest Swords at midnight, whose languid drones matched my weary mood. Before I became overly morose I switched between a few rooms, first checking out Polish artist B.YHZZ. This was not for me. He was playing what might almost be termed industrial trance, and his crowd was both enthusiastic and detached, perhaps my first true experience of ‘health goth’. I ventured off to a performance that could not have been more different, as Africaine 808 paired their live set with the drumming of veteran Dodo NKishi. This was hugely enjoyable, and hugely fun, but at the same time I couldn’t help but feel the whole thing was slightly naff.
Are fun things automatically naff? Not at all. Anthony “Shake” Shakir reached for classic tracks like Pepe Bradock’s ‘Deep Burnt’ before throwing a huge curveball with Radiohead’s ‘Idioteque’ (not everyone enjoyed this as much as I did – one friend called him Anthony “SMDH” Shakir). Via App‘s stellar live show was intoxicating and other-worldly, yet never sacrificed a moment in the dance. After that came Errorsmith, whose live set featured music that he’d been working on for five years. His set was constructed of familiar elements – varying strands of percussion, bolstered by ever-modulated vocal tics – yet nothing seemed familiar at all. His has an entirely individual approach to electronic music, making even the most boring tropes fresh and vibrant. This was as fascinating as it was fun, a riotous joy of a set that topped all others this weekend. If anything came close it was DJs Marfox and Nervoso, who played a three-hour set that was a relentless torrent of Portuguese rhythms, but this writer was positively drained after just an hour of this, despite the tardy beginning of his evening.
I floated around the city on Sunday, meeting friends who were either leaving or drifting between Airbnbs, psyching myself up to visiting the pop-up NTS studio. DEBONAIR was interviewing Unsound’s Mat Schulz and Gosia Plysa, which was pretty interesting, and then Philip Sherburne played a few weirdo tracks before I skipped off to get a sad and lonely calzone nearby. This was before the grand finale that was Kara-Lis Coverdale at Filharmonia Krakowska. Performing in front of an organ the size of a cinema screen, she truly brought parts of her Aftertouches album to life, with an overall misty and harrowing approach that perfectly complemented and demonstrated her wonderful world-building abilities. Those judicious choices returned as I made the decision to leave Filharmonia before Body Sculptures and Ilan Volkov.
The final Unsound party took place in a former cargo warehouse of the Polish national railway. I had been told that the toilet situation had been similarly bleak a year earlier, but thankfully there was a full row of portaloos, each of which I used featured toilet paper and running water, if not soap. The music came from the aforementioned P Sherbs, who played slow grooves, including tracks by Call Super, Anthony Child and Actress. He was followed by Giegling’s Edward, who played a live set that was all jams, while Veronica Vasicka and Dr Rubinstein played taut, muscular sets that were the perfect way to sweat out the last Polish beers or vodkas of the week.
Unsound really is a slog. I wasn’t even there a full week and I’m still recovering, days later. If I were to return it would require more diligently focused efforts in every regard, from seeing acts to alcohol intake and nap time. Less wandering, less chatting, more real talk and less floating. Sleep better, sleep more. It’s a stunning use of Kraków’s space (not all of them perfect, of course), with collaborations and performances that simply won’t happen anywhere else. A friend asked if it was chin-strokey. Of course, it was, but there was buckets of fun to be had too. And that’s the beauty of it.
Featured Image: DJ Earl | Unsound 2016 © Camille Blake