Sasha Grey’s Debut Live Performance And Other Stories Of Unsound

Krakow’s electronica festival wraps up with the premiere of aTelecine, the former porn star’s ambient project, and a handful of concerts that are as controversial (V/Vm) as they are memorable (Raime, Shackleton)

Unsound’s final score could only be qualified as excellent: Raime, Shackleton, Ben Frost and Voices From The Lake put on amazing live shows, while we could also see the profile of Sasha Grey in her live debut with her ambient band aTelecine.

1. Techno with carpeting

The floor of the Hotel Forum, an abandoned space that Unsound has converted into a dance floor for its night-time events, is covered with carpeting: that light, soft kind of carpeting that the lobbies and halls of expensive hotels usually have. Clean and soft, with a pattern like tiger skin, it is gentle on your feet, keeping your calf muscles from getting stiff and making walking from one side of the room to the other feel like walking on the surface of the Moon. Compared to the carpeting in the Museum of Engineering, where the Saturday afternoon concerts are held, a space made of cement and metal that used to be a tram depot—and which isn’t at all easy on one’s backside—the floor of the Forum is truly high-class, allowing one to have a truly luxurious rave experience. This is another detail that gives Unsound a certain cachet as a festival that few events in the world can equal or surpass. We’re so accustomed to—and also a bit fed up with—stone and pavement, with the park as the peak of comfort for our suffering feet, that clubbing on carpet is truly the last word in terms of comfort. If you add a low ceiling –not recommended for those who suffer from claustrophobia, it’s true– and well-balanced sound that puts up a strong battle against the space’s acoustic enemies (which is to say, precisely the carpet, the low ceiling and the wooden panels, three major drawbacks for any sound technician), then we can only talk about two successful nights in Krakow.

The festival closed its tenth year yesterday with a significant increase in attendance. On Friday and Saturday, Unsound added the two usual nights focused on the latest fits on the techno and bass scene to the afternoon and evening events, conferences and concerts with experimental themes that have always been the festival’s distinctive trademark. The second evening was much too short for yours truly, just barely enough time to confirm that Kuedo isn’t from this time or place–radical futurism with frenetic rhythm patterns and synths that seemed like tidings of an alien invasion. Furthermore, that Mala’s Cuban project, on the contrary, in spite of the virulence of the bass and the feeling of infinite space arising from his incorruptible reading of dubstep, is just the opposite: it loses more than it should live due to a certain “Gotan Project Syndrome” that was covered up, or at least better integrated into the album released this year by Brownswood (a balance that Cooly G masters more thoroughly, freer every time with the double task of managing his mic and his laptop at the same time, to put out his almost maternal dubstep-soul).

The previous night at the Hotel, on the other hand, was not as speculative, but rockier (a rock with bits of sand), with memorable moments– Shackleton, Voices From The Lake– as a prelude to others who gave less clear results and showed that they still need more hours of work to really be ready to go. In the case of Interplanetary Prophets, this is normal: it was a house jam done by little Ital and Jamal Moss, alias Hieroglyphic Being and owner of the Mathematics label, especially commissioned by Unsound and which was seen for the first (and perhaps last) time within the framework of the festival. With analogue drum-machines spread out over the table and the feeling of fitting them together by ear, Ital and Moss went on with their own particular ‘jam the box’ for almost an hour, building solid rhythms in which the drums and the machines stampeded, but without finding many nuances: it seemed like an energetic lesson in how to make primitive house music, but doing without any acid bursts or vocal exhibitions, which left it all a bit unbalanced, too heavy on the jacking.

They’ll have time to widen their range, which was exactly the opposite of what happened with Juju & Jordash, who have so much on their plate –their last album, “ Techno Primitivism”, mixes Autechre with deep house, Steve Reich with dub and all sorts of oblique dance rhythms– that they chose not to complicate things to start with, so they started off with their more Detroit side and kept the odder cards for the end. In their case, the live show didn’t live up to the album, which Voices From The Lake did: whilst the self-titled debut of Italians Donato Dozzy and Nuell is a very long track of over 70 minutes of hypnotic, watery techno, the live set is darker and thicker, with sudden changes in speed. It goes from an almost Frankfurt moment, at 180 bpms, to suddenly finding yourself at 90 in the midst of a slowing tension, and from there sliding into a gliding ambient to later pick up the tempo, wrapped up in squeaking drones. However, it does all this without ever changing the concept: playing with techno as if it were dust and they were God. Right after that, Shackleton took over, who seems determined to demonstrate at every appearance—whether in clubs, at Sónar, or on CDs recorded in his home studio– that he has one of the most malleable, hypnotic, elegant live shows today. The Englishman spent an hour and a half giving what in the olden days we used to call dubstep all sorts of shapes (spheres, squares, forms turning in on themselves like a black hole or a dirty sock); in his hands dubstep is something else: tribal, travelling music with rhythms that wrap around you and move towards unknown spaces. He had some tough competition, but the night belonged to him. And out there, of course, in the cold of the Polish autumn, there was fog gathering on the banks of the Vistula River.

2. Three different ways to die

Black Rain, an ancient, experimental and pseudo-industrial project with a bit of standoffish techno was reborn a few months ago, with a reissue of songs composed in the mid-90s, “Now I’m Just A Number: Soundtracks 1994-1995”. It was originally an underground band, but today is led only by Stuart Argabright, (a man very similar to Mixmaster Morris circa 2001) and it had two opportunities to show its sound at Unsound. The second was at Hotel Forum, right at the same time as Interplanetary Prophets, and it called on the drums to quiet the pack of hounds. The first was a few hours earlier, in a lovely little venue, Feniks Dance Club –originally a cabaret with red bordello lights, reserved tables, mirrors, and (here too), a thick red rug—where the computer crashed twice due to insufficient ventilation. So the live show, which we had been looking forward to, as it came recommended by the latest heralds of darkness, the labels PAN and Blackest Ever Black (in fact, the Feniks show was supposed to be a showcase of PAN to which the cut-up electroacoustic music of Ben Vida and the pressurised noise of Helm were to be added), ended up dying of heat exhaustion.

So what we mean to say is that not everything goes well at Unsound, and mistakes in calculation form a part of the programme, as well as blind debuts that turn out well in the end. So there are many ways to die, some of them more elegant than others, and leaping blindly is a part of the game, especially at a festival whose theme is “The End”: the idea of the end of life, civilisation, time, the world… whatever, it’s logical that there would also be death (figuratively speaking). The death of a computer is one of them, not very romantic, but a very fitting one for our time. And then there was the gloomy, apocalyptic death of Lustmord & Biosphere with their show Trinity. It took place in a huge cinema a few streets from the historical centre of Krakow, the Kino Kijow, during a double show with V/Vm; with the support of projections on a screen, the couple showed us their particular idea of nuclear apocalypse, which is synonymous with destruction and the extinguishing of all life. The music was a duel between ambient according to Lustmord –as black and abrasive as tar, fighting to raise the decibels and leave your eardrum looking like a piece of Swiss cheese– and ambient according to Geir Jenssen, more subtle, and with a hint of drum. Obviously the more brutish of the two won out, and at times the flow of thick layers worked well for images that allowed a reading that was too linear: deserted spaces that seemed to hide something malignant, the discovery of a nuclear testing station, the exploration of its buildings and workers, the launching of the H bomb and the lethal effects of the explosion on the environment. At times, Trinity was too obvious (the detonation preceded by a silence), and it was so static that one could have ended up falling asleep (I swear that there was a fellow snoring to my left), or injuring themselves (I swear that there was another bloke covering his ears to my right). But in general, it was profitable, especially when your body started to shake.

Before that came the great controversy of Unsound. Many people understood it as cheating and wanted to leave, although the arrangement of the seats in the cinema kept them from leaving easily for the foyer, where one could smoke, buy popcorn, and go to the loo. So in practice, V/Vm, the earliest, longest-lasting alias of Leyland Kirby before focusing on his current aesthetic, identifiable with the sound he makes as The Caretaker, managed to corner everyone into a delirious resurrection by turning the space of Kino Kijow into a trap. For many people, the problem might have been that they didn’t know exactly what a V/Vm “concert” is; the last one was in 2006, and the thing at Unsound was a special resurrection to definitively bury the project, (apparently) without the possibility of a comeback. There are people who still remember what happened at Sónar in 2000, when Kirby spent most of the performance throwing pieces of meat at people. V/Vm came about as a violent reaction against the principles of the experimental electronica scene, which is so serious, with its musicians imperturbable behind their laptops, without any sign of humour, and the live shows have always been a chaotic performance combining pogoing, noise, nonsense, crooning, hard rock and an effort to turn the situation into a riot.

It went like this: before you went in, they gave you a balloon (they didn’t say what for), and on the screen appeared a video that summarised the funeral of George VI, the last King of England, while a group of people carried in two coffins that they put on the ground. At the end of the video and after a series of signs: the name of the show, “Proper Kaputt”, plus a series of the project’s usual brand of advice and jokes, a character came out of the first coffin who seemed to be the spirit of Rank Sinatra, one of the most hateful, delirious characters in the V/Vm universe, the crooner with the satanic voice who transforms pop hits into a hysterical cacophony. He was covered with loo paper, with two masks—one with a lock of hair, the other that looked like a mass of fleshy meat– singing “Earth Song”, one of Michael Jackson kitschiest songs, in playback. Kirby came out of the other coffin wearing a pig mask, the classic V/Vm mask, rolling around on the floor as he deafened the audience with a Billy Idol song, all at a thundering volume (before, he had even gone up to the sound technician to tell him that it was too low, to turn it up as high as it would go). Nothing made any sense at all; it was chaos for its own sake. And so went an hour of pogos, invasions of the front rows, karaoke versions of the worst sort of romantic songs– Bryan Adams’ “(Everything I Do) I Do It For You”– plastic guitars, spontaneous folk running about naked, popping balloons that caused a violent reaction (some joined in the mayhem and ran onstage, while others were perplexed and disgusted). One of the bits of advice that appeared on the screen before it all began made it very clear: “if you don’t accept what V/Vm is, we guarantee that you are going to hate every last minute of what you are going to see”. Kirby, public enemy number one of electronic snobbishness, knew what he was doing.

3. Cosmic buffet

Saturday afternoon, Unsound had a double programme. During the daytime, at the welcoming Muzeum Manggha, there were two live shows with artists from the Spectrum Spools label, the analogue factory led by Emeralds’ John Elliott, and two from the more ambient branch of Tri Angle. The acts from Spectrum Spools were Bee Mask and Container. The former, seated in front of his laptop with his cup of coffee, reviewed the different aspects of his retro sound, from academic electroacoustic to German kosmische music, especially in the final stretch, where he performed an abbreviated version of “Vaporwave”, the A-side of his latest record. Meanwhile the latter slid down the slide of a filthy techno with tempestuous drums that would fit in better with the Dutch sound of the early 90s (especially on the Bunker label), than with the anarchic, not particularly acidic, rhythmic jams of his recommendable “LP” (2011). His upcoming album, which will be released in November, is supposed to be more Unit Moebius than Klaus Schulze.

The young bucks at Tri Angle lowered the level of chaos and grime, and brought with them instead melody and hypnotic suggestion. This wasn’t the case with WIFE, who gave the first concert of his newly-begun career at Unsound and who has a more pop/R&B sound with sugary twists and turns, but it was with Vessel. The author of one of the techno albums of the year (nebulous techno, but techno after all), the devastating “ Order Of Noise”, spent almost an hour spinning out layers of ambient and meticulous rhythms with uneven results, like a violent contrast between polar cold and boiling heat: while some parts bordered on obviousness and got tangled up in an ambient entirely lacking in mystery, at other times the stars aligned –the springy bass, the asymmetrical beat, the phantasmagorical textures– to create instants of pure beauty. Although it’s clear that he needs to polish his live show and produce more material to end up nailing it entirely, when it all came together, it made the hairs on your arms stand on end.

4. Sasha Grey

The aTelecine project has been in operation since 2008 –when Sasha Grey was still working in the porn industry, standing out, pointed to by Belladonna as her successor and a future number 1 in the genre. However, it wasn’t until 2011, when Sasha retired from the erotic film industry, that the band started to work regularly, first doing demos (which could be heard on MySpace) and later releasing records on Pendu Sound. After a couple of years maturing, aTelecine was finally ready to go live, and the chosen stage was Unsound, which selected the coolest, most industrial-friendly place for Sasha Grey and Ian Cinnamon to develop their language. They were barricaded behind two laptops, under the cover of darkness –she was only lit from behind, so her face was in the shadows—and with background projections showing poetic, bucolic scenes, with shots of Sasha gesturing mysteriously, twisting her hands and mussing her hair.

Was aTelecine’s debut live performance extraordinary? Musically, they still have a ways to go: they have changed their position, going from the ramshackle industrial sound of the trilogy “A Cassette Tape Culture”, to a sort of dense ambient inspired by both Coil and Biosphere, splattered with voices (a very 90s resource, used without a narrative sense and dubiously decorative). There are also elements of space-rock, which can be found in certain guitars sampled as if they were trying to make the language of Flying Saucer Attack their own, plus a phase of convulsive beats, like The Third Eye Foundation. Conceptually speaking, aTelecine propose a sensory journey based on the music, layers and layers of ambient that seek to invade the body and mind, as well as on their images. But they are in that early phase where everything is very obvious and heavily based on references that still carry too much weight with them. The extraordinary thing, on the other hand, was having an icon like Sasha present there, with headphones on her thick dark hair, taking music seriously, starting out on a path that must still be long and hard.

In other words: aTelecine and Raime, the real Sith Lords of today’s dark wave, are worlds apart. In what may have been the best live show of all of Unsound (not counting Shackleton), Joe Andrews and Tom Halstead gave us a preview of the poisoned delights of their imminent debut album– “Quarter Turns Over A Living Line” will be out on Blackest Ever Black in three weeks– with a display of dark analogue layers and certain moments of muffled, deaf, visceral techno that created the feeling of being captured and tied up by invisible threads. The music, quiet and persistent, paralysed the body. Raime’s performance was like slowly, persistently entering a black hole, patiently being crushed by layers of textures that sounded light, but were really as heavy as lead, perturbing the senses. A black hole that later spit one out violently with Ben Frost’s ferocious live show , also a world première; he showed up with two drums to recall his past in punk and metal bands, and marked a milestone of savagery within the Unsound programme, which earned a final score that could only be qualified as excellent (and very close to cum laude).

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