Unsound is a festival dedicated to the dark arts of electronic music, to experimental and innovative practice, with most of the acts pursuing an interesting unique approach to sound whilst maintaining something of a dance music sensibility.
It’s set up like a rock music festival, with everything that entails, meaning strict set times, changeovers, a stage for the audience to face and the desire to entertain. Each year the venue changes, and this year it’s in Thebarton Theatre, a large venue that will be hosting both Belinda Carlisle and Godspeed You Black Emperor in coming weeks.
Throughout the two evenings it felt like there was a tension between the music and the performance, with most artists seeking some way to make their sounds feel more immersive, and more performative. It’s an age-old dilemma, how do you entertain with a laptop? And the various attempts to circumvent these issues were fascinating.
Most tended to go for visual accompaniment, such as dub-step pioneer and Hyperdub boss Kode9’s 1st person video game with simulation artist Lawrence Lek, who took us around an evacuated, fully automated, luxury hotel known as the ‘Nøtel’ with a drone for a guide. Yet to some extent it was its similarity to a video game proved to be its undoing, as well, nothing really happened, despite Kode9’s dark ominous sounds suggesting the worst.
Kanding Ray also relied on visuals in his solo set, which betrayed his earlier minimal leanings, though these days he’s opted for a much more straight up dance floor friendly style of music. The previous night though it was live instrumentation to keep things interesting, teaming up with Mogwai’s Barry Burns on guitar in their Sums project, which also featured double bass and percussion, which he mixed through a mixing desk as well as his own modular sounds. Whilst there were some peculiar amalgamations of worlds the main issue was that all the instrumentalists seemed somewhat restricted, playing basic chords in slave to the electronics. It would’ve been nice to see them break free in a more egalitarian manner – hopefully that will be the future development of the project.
Jlin is the new kid on the footwork block, whose computer generated images, melded curiously with her up-tempo percussive heavy music. Her music is quite remarkable, operating at an alien slightly hyperactive cadence. About 20 minutes in everything felt like it was just falling apart, as she added and removed elements, yet seemed to know where the rhythms were and how they fit together – despite the fact that no one else did. The introduction of a dancer midway however tended to be a distraction, as were the abstract visuals – particularly as they served to ground the music, and this music needed to be free.
You could describe Fennesz’s music these days as ambient noise, large overwhelming swells of sound that you could just sink into. When he gets out his guitar and strums it sounds like worlds coming apart, with epic emotionally resonant tails that take 10-15 seconds to dissolve and seem to be saying so much. He’s paired with live visuals of Berlin animation, video and media artist Lillevan, and the relationship, the sounds colliding with golden toned sepia images of waters and more abstract organic/ electronic images, sometimes consists of collusion, at other wilful ignorance, as the duo test the boundaries of audio visual connectivity. It felt like the most nuanced, considered and related relationship of the festival. Abstract nostalgic class.
Vessel’s dark electronic sounds were coupled with disturbing, yet also quite clichéd misogynist images of submission and BDSM. The music was big and busy, with large bass and almost all the space taken with percussive throbbing repetition, -a bleak mechanical industrial techno. The images though striking felt like a visual representation of what we were hearing – which felt slightly redundant. If the music is saying Vessel is a transgressive industrial dude what is the point of the images repeating it?RP Boo, the guy they say is responsible for the first track footwork track ever (1997’s “Baby Come On”) didn’t need any visuals for his set. He is a cult of personality on his own, with rapid hand gestures, simulating a weird twitchy kung fu and the biggest smile you’ve ever seen. His music is frenetic, off its head in a blizzard of percussion, clipped repetitive vocal samples and a bass line like a rocket about to be shot into orbit. The highlight of his stuttering sugar rush of a set is Roy Ayers’ ‘Sunshine,’ which he plays at normal speed, yet envelops it in a frantic avalanche of snares which seemed chaotic, almost random, but he knew each and had hand gestures for each. With two disparate rhythms it’s confusing, and disorientating, yet also genius. One of the most inspiring DJ sets I’ve ever seen.
Similarly it wasn’t the visuals that made the only Australian artists on the bill, Tralala Blip so engaging. It was their sheer presence, and this is despite the pedals and laptops. This five piece were having the time of their lives, moving, and dancing to the music, pointing at the audience and singing heartfelt lyrics over the glitchy abstract, electrics and gentle grooves. It was impossible not to get swept up in their energy and enthusiasm. The visuals though consisted of live footage of what were seeing on stage distended and decaying, mixed with more obtuse images. Tralala Blip were a case of the humanness surpassing the electrics and the imagery, creating something new, yet possible to connect with.
The highlight though was last minute addition, UK’s Babyfather, aka Dean Blunt, who filled the room with smoke, turned on the brightest lights he could find and was a silhouette for his entire performance. We knew he was from the UK because his set began with “This makes me proud to be British.” Repeated ad nauseum before he took to the stage. This is his electronic outfit, and over hazy beats he rapped, murmured and whispered songs off his forthcoming album. He also periodically and unexpectedly blasted the audience with brutal noise, “don’t panic,” he was heard to murmur. Then he would launch into another electro groove interspersed with sirens and squealing tires. You just never knew what was going to happen next, and surrounded by performances where you knew what you were going to get within the first few minutes, Babyfather was equal parts refreshing and terrifying. Make no mistake though. Dean Blunt is a very odd man.
Aside from Babyfather, RP Boo and Tralala Blip, there was an overtly self-involved seriousness to proceedings – which is not necessarily a bad thing. And whilst not everyone has to smile or do something wacky and unexpected, many of the audiovisual collaborations felt one dimensional, with very little discordance between sound and image. The second night too, consisting of the likes of Lorenzo Senni and Powell (aka Hot Shotz), Paula Temple, Vessel, and Kanding Ray might have benefited from a club environment as opposed to the stage of the theatre.
I just read a quote from Brian Eno suggesting we should consider art as a trigger for experiences, and to be honest this is what makes Unsound so great. It’s the questions it provokes, the issues that arise, the statements that it makes, that continue to resonate long after the bass bins cease reverberating and our ears stop ringing.