Control Voltage’s Friday Five: Unsound Festival in Review
Noise, soul, and techno with Shackleton, Pole, Theo Parrish, Container, and Fushitsusha
There was no shortage of highlights at last month’s Unsound festival in Krakow; across eight days and nights of performances from nearly 100 artists, though, a lot of the details quickly dissolved into the foggy outline of the festival as a whole. As in recent years, certain themes predominated. There was a lot of dark, goth- and industrial-infused electronic music; there were collaborations between electronic producers and chamber strings; there was murky ambience, broken-down machine music, and potent noise galore. My shortlist of favorites includes live performances from Juju & Jordash, Holly Herndon, Julia Holter, Emptyset, Metasplice, and Voices from the Lake. Owing to the pace of the festival, I missed out on a lot of acts I’d wanted to see, and quite a few performances I had high hopes for didn’t really work. Ben Frost and his two drummers struggled with the difficulty of synchronizing live percussion with computer sequences, particularly considering the overwhelming volume at which they played; Demdike Stare’s occult psychedelia fell flat when paired with sweeping, “cinematic” strings. But even the performances that didn’t work felt like interesting failures; they were part of a broader conversation about technology, genre, and affect that played out across the entire lineup. One performance, V/Vm’s drunken, overdriven karaoke takeover of a seated movie theater, actually moved me to physical revulsion. It feels strange to admit now, but in the course of their unhinged playacting, I became half-convinced that the artists were going to enact a Columbine-style murder-suicide to go along with the year’s theme of “The End.” But that, in its own way, is a kind of aesthetic success; not many artists can instill in their audience the genuine fear that they’re about to die. That temporarily harrowing experience was balanced out by getting to do Jello shots with Sunn O)))’s Stephen O’Malley. (Now there’s a sentence I never would have imagined writing.)
I can’t pretend to be objective about Unsound; I played at the opening party this year, as in years past, and I’m listed in the program as a curatorial advisor — mainly because I lobbied so hard to get Juju & Jordash on the bill. In lieu of an all-encompassing review, then, here are five of the performances that best defined this year’s edition for me.
I don’t go to many rock shows, so one of the great pleasures of Unsound is knowing that I’ll have my brain split open by at least one anvil-weight band. Despite the festival’s mostly electronic bent, the organizers typically slip one metal-aligned act into the lineup. Thus in 2009, I experienced Sunn O)))’s scorched-earth drone onslaught for the first time — to this day, one of the most indescribably powerful live shows I’ve ever seen. (The next day, visiting St. Mary’s Cathedral in Krakow’s central square, I broke down sobbing, and while I’ve never been able to figure out exactly what caused it — I’m not a religious person, by any means — I know that it had something to do with that Sunn O))) show’s sense of ritual and the vibrations that still hadn’t stopped rippling through my body.) In 2010, it was the Norwegian jazz-metal act Shining that flipped my lid with a set of fifth-dimension doom improv. And this year, it was Fushitsusha.
I’d heard of Keiji Haino and his psychedelic/blues/noise outfit Fushitsusha, but I really had no idea what to expect from their Monday-night performance. Throughout the day, there had been surreal reports of Haino sightings around Krakow — the whole trio, in fact, was spotted walking around the market square, clad all in black, with the 60-year-old, silver-haired Haino carrying a silver-tipped cane and wearing a black surgical mask in addition to his trademark wraparound shades. Later in the day, there were reports that Haino had thrown some kind of shit-fit during his soundcheck, apparently displeased with the gear that had been provided; according to an organizer, he kicked over an amplifier and locked himself in his dressing room — all par for the course, apparently, for his famously demanding persona. By the time he and his bassist and drummer took the stage, incense floating through the hall, I was more than a little cowed by them. But Jesus, what a sound, and what generosity — by the end of the set, the general impression seemed to be that Haino had fully earned his eccentricities. I don’t know how long they were on, but I made it through at least an hour and a half — chump change, I realize now, for a typical Fushitsusha show — and ended up pressed against the side of the stage, utterly transfixed. I don’t really know what you’d call the music they played: It was a mixture of blues, rock, and free jazz, and they were loud as fuck when they really got going. But silence was just as integral to their music. The bassist and the drummer didn’t so much play “notes” and “rhythms” as attack the fabric of time itself in short, stabbing motions; you could call their approach “pointillistic” if that word didn’t sound so hopelessly dainty. Haino vocalized in glossolalic outbursts, going from mutter to whisper to shriek to moan, sometimes seemingly in the space of a single syllable; at one point, he started growling, moving the mic from his lips to the side of his neck, as though tracking the source of his emanations, like a doctor performing a self-examination with a stethoscope. In one of the set’s most powerful songs, the bassist and drummer did their turning-silence-inside-out thing, outlining the shape of nothingness as though driving tent stakes into the ground, and Haino held aloft a single cymbal, which he would strike now and again with a mallet. As it rang, he would lift the cymbal higher, twisting it slightly in his hand, and it was as though you could feel the vibrations slipping off the metal and spinning out into the crowd, washing over us in rapid-fire waves.
It occurred to me, as I was watching Pole perform his trademark dub crackle against a flickering backdrop of manipulated landscape imagery by the visual artist p.ma, that I’ve probably seen more live sets from him than any other electronic musician. I first saw him play in San Francisco in 2000, back when live electronic music was still something of a rarity, and in the intervening 12 years I’ve surely seen him dozens more times. Maybe it was just my mood on this Wednesday night, but I’m pretty sure it was the best set I’ve ever heard from him. After a long period of relative inactivity in his own productions, Pole (Berlin’s Stefan Betke) has spent the past two years gradually reinventing the buoyant, grit-ridden strain of dub techno with which he first made his name back in the late 1990s; this time, though, he’s managed to imbue it with more detail and color than ever before. His most recent string of EPs is titled Waldgeschichten, or Forest Stories, and his live set conveyed the sense of wandering through a shade-dappled wood, all crackling underbrush and tree trunks groaning in the wind. (Eerie mewling sounds, it turned out, were sampled from Uruguayan tree frogs.)
Clearing the air after Haxan Cloak’s shudderingly loud finish, Pole began his set softly, with the volume set purposefully low. It was a smart move, having the effect of hushing the room and drawing people deeper into the music. Utilizing a laptop, mixing desk, and an array of filters and delays, he sounded unusually precise without ever feeling labored; crisp percussive sounds thwacked into earshot and then disappeared down the signal-chain rabbit hole, morphing as they went. (“Billiard balls in a campfire,” I scribbled in my notebook.) The flickering highlights and faint tone colors suggested filament and metal filings, and the low end was as spongy as loam. Ghost melodies flitted through the porous fabric of the music, and you were never quite sure if they were something Pole was actually playing or just an accidental confluence of frequencies taking on mass as they tangled up.
What the hell happened to Shackleton? Did he find religion? Discover acid? Whatever it is, his live set caught me off guard. In addition to his customary palette of shadowy greys and coppery percussion, there was an explosion of colors that I’d never heard from his music before, manifested in bells and kalimbas and subtle synthesizer melodies that rolled about like agates in the surf. You can hear those sounds and ideas in his recent The Drawbar Organ EPs, but they came alive in his live set in a way that I hadn’t expected. In addition to his usual mixture of dubstep, techno, and African and Middle Eastern sounds, there were strands of Steve Reich and Appalachian hillbilly music; I could swear I even heard a fiddle in there somewhere.
Shackleton’s set benefited from the weekend venue, an imposing, Communist-era hotel on the riverbank that has sat empty and unused for the past eight years. (Unsound’s organizers have a history of securing striking spaces for their events, and they really outdid themselves this time.) The main room, where Shackleton played, was really just a long expense of hotel lobby, with low, wooden ceilings and plush carpeting. I had expected that, sonically, it might be a disaster, but I’ve rarely heard cleaner, clearer sound than in that room. You could stand in the middle of the dance floor and have a conversation with the person next to you and yet still feel completely wrapped up in the physicality of the sound.
P.ma’s visuals morphed from arrays of static to what might have been moon landscapes or perhaps electron-microscope views; they were the perfect complement to Shackleton’s careful balance of the organic and the synthetic.
Come Saturday afternoon, hearing more music was really the last thing on my mind. I’d ended up dancing to Theo Parrish until about 6:30 the same morning, and there was another long night to come; the sun was out, and I just wanted to walk around Krakow’s less-touristed neighborhoods and look for records in second-hand stores. En route, though, I stopped by the Spectrum Spools showcase and managed to catch the last 10 minutes of a swirling, New Age-inflected performance from Bee Mask. Smart programming: It was a perfect hangover helper of a set, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who felt that way. Container (Providence’s Rem Schofield) was quite the opposite: Bent double over a modest array of drum machines and effects, he bashed out a throbbing set of rickety, rudimentary techno, distorted to fuck-all and back. Musically, it recalled Pan Sonic and Drexciya, but you also had the sense that if you mentioned those artists to Schofield, he might not have the faintest idea what you were talking about. Lo-fi, unvarnished, and veering dangerously out of control, it was a version of techno that could only have come from the city that brought us Fort Thunder and Lightning Bolt.
There was a lot of this kind of improv noise-techno at Unsound this year, with Vatican Shadow and Metasplice delivering their own twisted interpretations; I got the sense that we’ll be hearing a lot more music in this vein the coming year, which would be good. After an overload of mannered gothic affect in the past few years, it’s time for electronic music’s darker strains to reconnect with the body and the blown mind. (To that end, I’ve had Container’s new Spectrum Spools record, LP, playing on constant repeat.)
Yes, this was my first time seeing Theo Parrish DJ. No, I don’t know what took me so long. And yes, he was definitely “on” that night. I’ve heard he’s infamously hit-or-miss, having the ability to clear a peak-time room with R&B slow jams when the mood strikes him. For his Friday-night set in the Hotel Forum, though, Parrish was clearly feeling generous. I walked in somewhere around 3:30 in the morning, shortly after he began, just in time to catch the old Chez-N Trent anthem “The Choice” — one of the few songs I’d recognize over the course of the next three hours. From there on out, Parrish took us through soul, jazz dance, R&B, disco, and even the Robert Glasper Experiment’s cover of “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” which, incredibly, didn’t feel the slightest bit gimmicky. (I don’t remember it sounding quite so mellow as is does on Glasper’s record; perhaps Parrish made his own edit?) Beyond his selections, Parrish is a masterfully skilled DJ: There were few machine beats in his set, but his blends of full-band arrangements and flexible, fallible drum grooves were never anything less than seamless. (Several times I thought that this must have been what it was like to hear Larry Levan in his prime.) He has a real sense of drama in his mixes, too, using the EQ to sculpt a vocal or sax solo into a wavering, mirage-like shimmer in the air before bringing the bass back like a gale-force wind. And, like the best DJs, he’s apparently a mind-reader: At least, that’s how it felt when he teased in the horns of OutKast’s “Spottieottiedopalicious,” one of my favorite songs in the world, and one that I never, ever hear DJs play. I stayed til the end, mostly sober and dying to pee — while he held court, I simply couldn’t leave the floor for anything as profane as beer or bathrooms — and stumbled out of the building, alone, into a dense soup of fog, a white hot-air balloon looming ghostly along the riverbank. That sense of emerging into a world I didn’t recognize seemed particularly appropriate; rarely has a DJ left me feeling like that — not just refreshed, but reborn.