Unsound: First Impressions From Krakow

The coolest exploratory electronica event has started, with highlights including Julia Holter (and her bag), the Factory Floor earthquake and Atom TM's gay porn

We're at the Unsound festival in Krakow to tell you everything that's happening in Poland. Today, the first report, with names like Julia Holter, Daniel Lopatin & Tim Hecker, Emptyset, Pole, and Factory Floor. More soon.

As soon as we enter Poland, it's nothing but good feelings. Magazines with Copernicus on the cover in the news-stands, and in the food departments in shops they have this biscuits you have to dip in your coffee with a bit of butter called Leibniz. All very rational, very scientific, useful and nutritious at the same time, nothing to do with the tremendous halo surrounding Unsound this year. The event has chosen the idea of “The End” as its central theme: the end of time, the Apocalypse, Parousia (or the Resurrection of the Dead), Armageddon; all that, because of an ancient Mayan prophecy, which started as a gag and has been stretched infinitely by everyone. Unsound, probably the coolest experimental and underground electronic music festival on the planet, took advantage, to say the least, of the apocalyptic trend to put together a superb line-up, assembling it with a solid expressionistic continuity, ennobling, once more, the idea of its director, Mat Schulz.

Those who've been at Unsound at some point, know how it works: unusual spaces – small, in general, with an illegal, artistic or sacred feel about them (synagogues, museums, churches) – divided over marked enclaves all over Krakow, the city of electors and kings. The place is a guarantee for pleasure, once you step into its historical centre and you're surrounded by its architecture and sculptures, full of castles, shiny streets, cathedrals and flowers. A musical adventure with ten years of history already, which usually takes you to unexpected places, not only sonically speaking, also geographically; yours truly got lost three time last Wednesday night in the streets of Kazimierz, the Jewish neighbourhood, in the area near the river Vístula.

We arrived in Krakow Wednesday afternoon, although the program started last Sunday. We missed out on Teengirl Fantasy and Vatican Shadow, among other poisoned sweets on the bill, but Wednesday, at the elegant Muzeum Manggha, we came in right when Pole started to find the right speed for his live show, in which he shows he has found new inspiration for his role as a dub reformer. Before him, The Haxan Cloak had played, the herald of the apocalypse recently signed by Tri Angle. As we weren't there to see it, we have to trust the experts: Philip Sherburne and Ángel Molina, gourmets who know where the action is and never miss an Unsound edition, concurred that while the start was too contemplative, the final, screeching and with all kinds of noises entering in friction, was almost epic. It's understandable that, after that, Pole's digital reggae, based on subtle details and the patient moulding of the empty space between the sounds, could deactivate the tension. Molina was bored ( “he always does the same thing”), but in all honesty, it wasn't like that (Molina is a dark man; word has it he has no electric light at home, and that he hates the sun). The Pole who came to Unsound parted from the same strategy as his glorious trilogy from the late 90s (urban dub, digital, cold textures that still make you feel warm), but he's managed to dominate - especially on the EPs from the series “Waldgeschichten” - that erratic analogue twist, with live guitar samples, of “R” and the lukewarm “Steingarten”. The best thing Stefan Betke has done was to take a break, and giving us a break, keeping his dub vision in the fridge for a while, only to pull it back out with an updated sound, right when we started to miss him. It was hypnotic, and the heads on the Manggha floor were swaying like trees in the early morning breeze.

Uwe Schmidt completed the night under his Atom TM moniker, which, unlike Señor Coconut (his Latin joke) and Lassigue Bendthaus (his pop explorations on the back of digital cynicism), is his ironic way of making dance music. In fact, everything about his live show was ironic: his hair combed back, his moustache limited to an ultra-fine line, a turtle neck pullover and a jacket, standing upright looking forward, as if he were imitating Ralf Hütter (the Kraftwerk joke was continued in the visuals, gay porn scenes hidden behind distortion, like the old satellite TV channel for those without satellite TV). The music, a kind of stumbling electro seasoned with stuttering house and robotic melodies, was pure Atom: it makes you smile, and it causes a sprain when you try to follow the rhythm with your feet.

On Thursday, things were happening at all times and on different places. It was the first day Unsound took up all of your day, with four lectures in a row at the Bunkier Sztuki. One of them was with Biosphere and Lustmord, heralds of black ambient, who talked about their project “TRINITY”, which they will present tonight, Friday, and for which they made field recordings in areas of New Mexico affected and polluted by nuclear tests, “where you need to sneak in without being seen, because they're vigilant and if they spot you, they shoot first and don't ask questions”, according to Lustmord. There was also the very interesting “Where Does A Circle End? Magick And Pop Music In Britain, 1888-1978”, courtesy of theoretician Mark Pilkington, pure pop paganism with Aleister Crowley and Throbbing Gristle as protagonists, which should have lasted a week instead of an hour, to fully develop as the question demands.

And so we get to Julia Holter. For the fourth consecutive time, Unsound is occupying a sacred place (Saint Catherine's church in the Jewish quarter, part of a huge religious complex that includes more churches and an enclosed monastery; in between concerts, you can see the nuns moving around through the windows, on the other side of the building, taking care of the altars), and this sacred place, neo-gothic and with high vaults, is perfect for concerts with a high level of solemnity. The night's bill was a double one: Julia Holter first, then Daniel Lopatin & Tim Hecker, both with exclusive premieres. The problem is that Holter, who came with the Sinfonía Iuventus Quartet –four blond girls softly caressing their violins, viola and violoncello - played four songs and left (well, actually three pieces, the last one was divided in two).

Twenty minutes. Twenty minutes worth of completely new music, which nobody will probably hear for a long time, but it was twenty very short minutes, even though the music was sweet. Just when we started to get into it, it ended. There was a moment when they looked like they were going to continue, but, maybe out of insecurity, or simply because they had no more material, Julia decided it was over. You have to give it to Holter, she's casual like no-one else: she sat in front of the piano like she was going to shop for shoes (with her bag hanging from her shoulder, full of scores), and she whispered standing up, enchanting the main hall of the church, leaving out all unnecessary embellishments and giving us just pure essence. So there wasn't even an encore: when we expected some kind of extra in the form of “Tragedy” or “Ekstasis”, the crew started to clear the music stands and seats, to make room for Hecker and Lopatin.

The stage in darkness, the two of them across from each other, handling synthesisers and engaging in a dialogue in their respective languages until they came to an understanding: their concert, based on the record they will release on Software, one month from now, featured traces of the enveloping ambient of Oneohtrix Point Never, and rough specks of Hecker's noise. The music flowed between heavenly and hellish, with very short intervals, all supported by a constant, sharp bass line which made the altarpieces, walls, arches and stained glass windows tremble. Afterwards we were told that the tremble had worried the sacristy (maybe because it sounded like the end of the world). No wonder: the show became rougher and rougher, and it ended satisfactorily; sometimes, you only need to give just a little bit more to reach the exact boiling point. That little bit more that Julia Holter, in spite of the quality of her performance, didn't dare give; the difference between eating one chocolate, or the whole box.

The final performance brought us back to the Muzeum Manngha, twice as crowded as it had been on Wednesday (a symptom that Unsound has entered a cycle of exponential growth, with its audience growing parallel to the international interest in its concept), and holding juicy performances. Although a great thing about the Muzeum Manggha is the top floor - where the bar is, and the outside space, where people go for a smoke, taking advantage of the friendly weather in Poland these days (we started to talk to Ron Morelli, who thinks our fellow countryman Raül/DJ Zero is “God”, and we overheard Julia Holter talk about the experience at the church) - the real juice is inside.

Evian Christ, recently signed by Tri Angle in his 'phantasmagorical rap' version, still needs some polishing, or maybe it's just more something to listen to at home, rather than in a crowd. His chopped and screwed phrasing and muffled beats didn't have the same effect as on his mixtape earlier this year. Bristolians Emptyset, on the other hand, unleashed their inner techno demons, and played a set full of abrupt tracks, with sharp beats, alongside noise and feedback to back things up; something like the recent 'danceable' Autechre crossed with Pan Sonic turning their frozen techno-dub into mud. Although if anyone wanted a festive concert, there was Factory Floor, the kind of band (acidic, frantic) LCD Soundsystem would be now, had they gone on. It was the perfect moment to return to our cave, because this is going to be a long one, and the best is yet to come.

Photos by Black Box Photo

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