Dub Techno legend's now-colorful splash of sound
I've never made it to the New York edition of the Unsound festival, the third installment of which kicks off Wednesday, April 18, and runs through Sunday, April 22. But I've attended four of the past five years of Unsound on its home turf in Krakow, Poland, and I can attest that it's a singular event — a provocative survey of electronic and experimental music that ranges from techno and dubstep to contemporary composition and doom metal, taking in, along the way, film, lectures, installations and (in Poland, anyway) copious amounts of vodka. (Full disclosure: I've moderated panel discussions there and DJ’d the closing party, in addition to my duties as a regular punter.) Now, in the lead up to the New York edition, the festival offers up a cheerful bait-and-switch, in the form of a roots reggae mix from Berlin's Pole (Stefan Betke).
A playlist heavy on Gregory Isaacs, Pluggy Satchmo, and Desmond Dekker isn't necessarily what you might expect from a festival that's best known for crepuscular acts like Sunn O))) and Ben Frost. (The New York edition this year features Actress, Biosphere, Demdike Stare, Hype Williams, Laurel Halo, Lustmord, Maria Minerva, Julia Holter, and more; see here for the full roster.) But Unsound is hardly as dour as themes like 2010's "Horror" and 2011's "Future Shock" might lead you to expect. Past lineups have carefully balanced Sturm und Drang with goofy performers like the kitsch-pop provocateur Felix Kubin and the Orthodox-minstrelsy act Moishe Moishe Moishe; one of last year's best events was a dance party utilizing only vintage Polish sound postcards of disco and easy-listening music, played on monophonic, Communist-era turntables. Jello shots were involved, and the party eventually devolved into a drunken sing-along of "Viva España!," netting not one but two noise violations for the organizers. (These two videos sum it up pretty well.)
Anyway, back to that mix: Entitled "Birth of Reggae Music," it reflects Pole's return to dub aesthetics after various experiments with hip-hop and Krautrock. As far as the selection, he told me in an email, "I just chose my favorite reggae songs and what I thought might give an overview of what I like and where I'm from. Besides, it was sunny, and I just grabbed what fit the first sunny day."
Highlighting spacious, brightly colored dub reggae from the 1970s, it's an intriguing peek behind the curtain of Betke's own approach. His recent Waldgeschichten EPs don't sound anything like the grainy dub techno of his first three LPs; the blurred grays have given way to dizzyingly precise sound design, careful use of the stereo field and an air of sparkling clarity. He's long been identified as a minimalist, but that's not really the case any more. Pole's sounds are dense, supersaturated, and meticulously textured; they just happen to float against vast, anechoic backgrounds. I imagine him as something like the Ferran Adrià of reggae, serving up spherified ganja in a gaping bowl of liquid nitrogen.
In addition to a live set of all new material, Betke, who also runs a vinyl cutting studio in Berlin, will lecture on the theory and practice of mastering on Thursday, April 21. The talk is a part of the Unsound LABS Discussion Program, a series of panels and lectures that also features talks with Monolake, Stuart Argabright, Biosphere, and Lustmord; a screening of Icon Eye, a documentation of Sun Araw's Jamaican collaboration with the Congos; and a lecture on Miami bass from Dave Tompkins, author of How to Wreck a Nice Beach, a history of the vocoder. Check Unsound's official website for the full schedule events and ticketing information.