Lawrence English’s Wilderness of Mirrors album (Room40) was one of the most full-bodied sonic experiences of 2014. It’s dense and multilayered with resonant swells of sound careering around and colliding with each other, creating something unfathomably immense and transcendent. At the time I referred to it as ambient noise, and it’s the same kind of feeling that his performance tonight evokes. In a grand Masonic Hall, deep in the heart of inner city Adelaide he looms over a table of electrics. The air is thick with smoke and he’s backlight in a bright purple, offering inhuman wailing into dense tectonic washes of sonic debris. There’s something warming about this thick soup of sound, despite the fact that it builds into noise. It’s seductive as opposed to oppressive, with dense heavy waves lulling us, almost grooving us along. I write the words “muscular witch music,” into my phone and it seems to sum up the angelic harshness at play here. It’s music that bodies you, and then if that doesn’t work it coaxes you. It’s large and at times difficult, an ideal start to Unsound.
UK’s Gazelle Twin are the demented children from Aphex Twin’s Come to Daddy film clip. They’ve grown up, formed their own band but still have a thirst for inner city random violence. They’re also still wearing hoodies, though thankfully they have now obscured their faces. Their music is taut electro drill and R&B, electronics and vocals, big on dystopia and sudden shocks. They’re also not afraid to treat the vocals, looping and distorting it in strange ways, with lyrics about blood and taking milk from a baby. You can hear links from everyone from Tricky to the Kitty-Yo crowd, yet there’s no doubt they’ve developed their own distinct identity. It’s nice too to find some non-males on the line-up. “It’s a kind of dream you don’t wake up from,” they offer at one point, repeating the phrase over and over. That feels about right. This is music they play in purgatories waiting room.
US producer Container offers a dance floor unfriendly fuzzy distorted techno. It’s on the cusp of noise, but he manages to rein it in (at times), even making the difficult funky and eminently danceable. With crunchy textured beats and swirling barely controlled chaos punctuated by piercing electrics, often fragmented and shoved protesting into his raw angry grooves, the music has a kind of lofi DIY noise approach bringing to mind the likes of Lightning Bolt, Yellow Swans or Dan Friel. His set tonight is electric, drilling down repetitive techno. It’s abrasive squalling, squealing, and searing. A noisy adrenalin rush that brings the crowd to life in a mass of flailing limbs and shimmying hips. Too often techno is too smooth, too unblemished, too calculated. Container is the antidote.
And then our world turns inside out.
Tonight as I stare at the stage in a mixture of wonderment, fear and confusion I remember someone telling me a story that they once bumped into legendary Japanese experimental musician, improviser and even more legendary eccentric Keiji Haino in Coles in Coburg. The story didn’t feel right. Because Keiji Haino is not of our world. He would never inhabit supermarkets. And if he did surely he would be levitating.
Tonight Fushitsusha come on stage to a smattering of applause. Everyone is staring at Haino. They fiddle around. Haino plays a squalling somewhat abrasive guitar solo for a few minutes, walks around carefully tapping three different microphones, thinks for a second, and then motions to the drummer and the three piece all walk off. Welcome to the Japanese underground.
Bass drums guitar. What could be messier? When they return after some incense lighting (apparently we witnessed their sound check earlier) all hell breaks loose. For the entire performance the drummer never plays in 4/4, opting instead for a stuttering semi beat that Haino appears to understand intrinsically. Between the most piercing riffs ever assembled by a human, cascading into a an almost rhythmic cycle that only he truly understands, Haino screams manically into the microphone in English no less. “Do you still have a mystery?” He offers, to be followed by “Nothing changed, no one can change anything.” It feels like we’re in the grip of a very special kind of collective madness, because over time it all begins to coalesce and you hear the links and understand the genius of this abrasive psychedelic noise. Haino is exacting, always fiddling carefully with knobs, and adjusting his notes, ensuring the sound is right. He gets on his knees, playing a wire metal coil while wailing like Godzilla. The effect is cumulative, playing for two hours +, towards the end he walks absently over to a table and turns on the most difficult punishing electronics. For many, including this writer this was the death knell. As I left I couldn’t resist one last look, and my final image is of Haino writhing around with his guitar likes he is dodging invisible missiles matrix style, hair and arms flailing to a ¾ empty hall. This performance was without a doubt one of the most amazing things I have ever seen.
The second night begins with Forest Swords who are an intriguing proposition. They have a sound that you can never really pin down. What started as a solo project for UK producer Matthew Barnes has since morphed into a duo, enlisting a bass player for this live performance. If anything this gives some indication of their leanings, as the bass offers an almost reggae type groove to the washed out amorphous processed sounds, beats and occasional vocal samples. Everything is filtered through reverb and delay and in doing so it becomes something of an indistinguishable soup, which allows the bass player to anchor the tunes into a discernable groove. Playing in front of visuals consisting of slow motion flowers being dragged through water, crystals spinning and all manner of oblique representations tonight Forest Swords set is distinctively weird and washy indie experimental bass music that is both strange and curiously engaging.
Melbourne audio/visual artist (and this month’s guest Cyclic Selector) Robin Fox’s partnership with one of electronic music’s most respected names AtomTM (Flanger/ Senor Coconut) specially commissioned Double Vision performance was one of the most anticipated of the festival. It’s such an intriguing match, both artists feel like they’re consistently stretching the genres sonic and visual possibilities with each successive composition.
As the words Double Vision appear on the screen and Fox and Atom TM are cheerfully ensconced in front of the mixing desk, the font starts rotating, turning and deteriorating as a hi tempo electro skittering pulse begins before the bass kicks in and Fox makes his presence known via his ever present laser. You don’t know where to look as the laser squiggles manically along the roof and the back of the venue from its vantage point above the front screen. We’ve been conditioned so long to look at television screens, to search out, face and elevate the person or persons responsible for making the art that there is something reassuring about these moments of confusion. It seems apparent there are separate parts created by each artist and they successfully merge into each other like an audio visual DJ set. They’ve stripped television back to its core, to coloured light, which if we hadn’t already gathered Atom TM offers with his trademark wit when a computer generated replica of his head appears on screen and sings in a computer voice “waves of coloured light/to you it’s right/to us it’s RGB.” It’s the kind of electronic pop that punctuated his recent HD album and it’s a welcome moment of coherence amongst the electronic blasts of Fox’s RGB laser show. It all descends into what becomes a jam, the screen and the lasers, Fox and Atom and this is the most fascinating moment, feeling like we’re nearing the finale. Then inexplicably boxing images appear, with the swing but not the impact before a heavily processed impossible to discern b&w image appears over drones before increasing in noise and rhythmic intensity, altering to colour and eventually playing out. This video art finale is confusing, particularly in line with the duos propensity to Mickey Mouse sound and image so carefully. What are they asking? They’ve clearly altered their approach dramatically, and they’ve clearly done so for a reason. But I have no idea why.
The Bug brings bass music large. Hooded, hunched over his turntables, FX and computer, obscured by smoke and swirling, stuttering periodically strobing lights, Kevin Martin (Techno Animal) looks like some kind of street deity. And the audience responds, a mass of writhing bodies in some kind of orgiastic frenzy. It’s impossible not to be affected by the sheer physicality of the sounds. The bass is booming, shuddering through the hall and Martin’s deft ability to withhold and deliver, to entrance you with the mid to upper register before periodically dropping a bomb is on show here. When the MC’s come, Manga and Ms Red all bets are off, it escalates everything. It’s less about compositional trickery and more about raw emotion and its impossible not to get swept up in the frenzy. “Louder, louder, do you want it louder Adelaide?” Offers MC Manga midway. We scream.
Shackleton is an odd one. You feel he could build a rave out of matchsticks. Firstly there’s his ingredients, which are usually somewhat twee electrics and the percussion everything from electric to congas. But that’s not what makes his set so strange. It’s his unlikely way to develop his tunes. He is nothing short of a genius at layering. Whilst we’re schooled enough in electronic music to know when something is going to happen, on every single occasion tonight he does the last thing you would expect – to the point we’re you’re kind’ve dancing along manically as the realisation hits that this is really really peculiar. There is a certain freneticism to his approach. Playing one long DJ like set his sounds are folktronica reimagined as decadent rave music.
Finish producer Mika Vainio has presence. A kind of bodily machismo. Beginning the final night of Unsound, cap pulled low over his eyes, he delivers searing bowel shattering bass music. Yet his music has a very strong experimental bent, something he has exhibited ever since his days in Pan Sonic. In fact during his set I’m reminded of experiencing Pan Sonic playing at What is music? over a decade ago where the floor of the Forum in Melbourne was positively vibrating. There was something almost aggressive in their experimentation then, and you can still hear it hear it now. His drones are tough, almost violent, often eclipsing the beats, in fact for Vainio it isn’t about the beats, sure they rise in prominence, but usually when emphasised by heavy flexing bass. There’s darkness here, a brooding that periodically erupts into violence. And then it hits. Vainio’s music is about submission, about power and control, yet the funny thing is even when you do submit and begin to find something almost hypnotic or in his rhythmic brutality he even takes this away, coming out even more aggressively. When Fela said music is the weapon, Vainio took him literally. Lit only by a single white light behind him, it casts a mammoth shadow on the side of the hall, and its hard not to view the shadow as looming menacingly over us.
With sci fi masks, melancholic synths and a large video backdrop playing images of the large Hedron Collider, Dopplereffekt offer up a soundtrack to a 70’s sci fi film reimagined in 2015. It’s quite pleasing, but after the aggressive at times messy experimentalism of Vainio, everything feels too neat and compartmentalised. Also the looping background films don’t tend to add anything new in terms of context, and when we see the same images 15 or 20 minutes later accompanied by different music it actually works against the band as it doesn’t say anything new – doesn’t recontextualise either the images or the music. It’s during this set that I begin to understand what’s been happening over the last two nights at Unsound. We’ve been watching the battle between chaos and order, the tightrope between organisation, predictability and of course noise. All of the artists at Unsound walk this tightrope to varying degrees. How they do it is fascinating.
Australia’s HTRK however are much closer to order than chaos, feeling very out of place at Unsound, their post punk torch songs at odds with everything that has preceded them. They’re a strange choice, but they were last minute ring ins with the illness of Model 500 and to some extent it doesn’t seem fair to them as most definitely this is not their crowd.
As the smoke fills up for the final performance you can’t help but wonder if Kevin Martin has a clause in his contract regarding the amount of smoke required in the venue before he will take the stage. Despite having performed the previous night as The Bug, he’s been roped in at the last minute with the cancellation of Hieroglyphic Being, performing in his other guise as King Midas Sound System. And it begins in the most unexpected way possible with gentle and almost pop music, yet over time it starts to reveal indications of weirdness, a drone emerges, grows, engulfs the track yet still builds in density and volume. The sounds feel like they’re tearing at the fabric of the speakers themselves an intense dystopian wash of heavily reverbed noise. It’s searing and transcendent, mammoth, bouncing around the auditorium. Next comes a kind of loping groove, long drawn out tripped out bass heavy throb, and in unison the crowd starts rocking almost involuntarily. The remainder of his set follows this similar pattern. It’s Eraserhead dub, large, searing noise-ridden grooves that meld the throbbing dub with the extremity of noise music. It’s quite fitting that the final performance of Unsound is also the best.
Photos by Bob Baker Fish. Except Lawrence English & Keiji Haino courtesy of Lawrence English.