Live Report: Krakow’s Unsound Festival
I almost puked in a club in a Stalinist suburb in Poland, and not for any of the reasons I had ever almost puked before, in a club or anywhere else. The cause was straightforward enough, but it only really makes sense in context.
I went to Krakow, Poland, at the end of October for Unsound, an ambitious music festival whose bill included a week’s worth of performances by a disparate lot: Stars Of The Lid, Omar-S, Sunn O))), Kode 9, Grouper, Johann Johannsson, Pole, Monolake, Nico Muhly, Biosphere, 2562, Ben Frost, and a group of Hasidic Jews from France who played gleaming blue keytar in front of smiling Stars of David, to name just a few. The mix was all over the place, and the mood followed suit.
The mood of Krakow, as much as could be gleaned during a fleeting week there, was rich. The city itself is beautiful and more than a little eerie. Some of the buildings, including an enormous castle right in the city center, date back to the 11th century. Certain statues and gargoyles could probably get active status in an actors’ guild, so expressive are their writhing gestures and anguished looks. Images of dragons proliferate. At least one of the countless churches open to leering boasts desiccated skulls as decoration. The whole city, especially at night, looks fantastic in a fog.
The Unsound Festival, started in 2003, is one of a group of municipally minded music festivals that belong to a burgeoning collective known as I.C.A.S., or International Cities Of Advanced Sound. Others include Mutek in Montreal, Club Transmediale in Berlin, Dis-patch in Belgrade, Sperm Festival in Prague, and Communikey in Boulder, Colorado. Each shares an affinity for electronic and experimental music, as well as the artier ends of indie-rock and classical composition. Each also answers for a stated ethos that “favors quality, critical reflection, innovation and exchange over profit.” (Disclosure: I went to Krakow as a guest of Unsound, both to cover the festival and to help plan an Unsound offshoot to happen in New York in February 2010.)
Unsound 2009 got off to a disquieting start. Opening night featured a contemplative set by the Polish composer Jacaszek, who traffics in ambient sounds haunted by churchly voices and slathered with strings. He played a laptop, backed by cello and violin, in a serene Japanese art museum called Manggha. A crowd of several hundred sat rapt, especially during a piece that played alongside a black-and-white video of swallows swooping in ethereal formation. After the concert came a screening of Beats Of Freedom, a documentary about revolutionary music in Poland from the 1960s to the fall of Communism in the late ’80s. It was startling, as a visitor, to watch such a film in the presence of an audience for whom the notion of “revolutionary music” is both recent and very real. It was even more startling to hear such an audience throw up its hands and laugh away chilling tales of secret-police interrogations and spells of military aggression—laughter as absurdist rejoinder.
The second night was small, and featured a surprise in a homespun Polish act called Sza/Za. Armed with a mix of traditional instruments and machinic gear, the duo played an imaginative set of electro-acoustic music marked by jazz, musique-concrete, and the kind of fidgety minimal rhythms favored by dance-music gadfly Matthew Herbert. They blew into a bass clarinet, sang through the pick-up of a violin, and pitch-shifted pretty much every sound they created until the whole mix shared the air of serious European improv and playful vaudevillian farce.
The third night started rootsy, in a way, with the beloved American indie soundsmith Grouper. The one-woman band from Portland played in a stately old cinema, alone with an electric guitar and a bank of looped and sampled sounds that she made rustle like a thousand layers of leaves left to crunch on the ground. It was a long way from Grouper’s ethereal folk to the headlining performance by Sebastian Meissner, who presented a classical tribute to the California punk label SST. Meissner is a Berlin-based artist who makes excellent ambient music under the name Klimek, but on this night he led a group dubbed Solid State Transmitters that included Meissner on computer and an avant-garde chamber group with strings, reeds, and percussion. Only a few moments were recognizable even to big SST fans—some audio snippets from Black Flag, a treatment of a solo song by Hüsker Dü’s Grant Hart—but the piece had a mysterious quality that lingered long after all was done.
Part of the allure of Unsound was the variety of venues in play, from big spaces marked by officialdom to small outposts like a neighborhood bar in the Jewish Quarter that played home to an exhibition of old Polish metal ’zines. (Best ’zine titles, maybe ever: Brutal Vomit and Evil Intestine #2. Also, numerous old Polish metal ’zines seem to have included actually doable metal-specific crossword puzzles.)
The venue for Thursday night marked a step up to the Krakow Philharmonic Hall, a grand building originally built by a Catholic archbishop said to have once defiantly served a Nazi governor “a bowl of cold porridge.” Opener James Blackshaw cut a solemn figure sitting by himself on the big stage, with a just a 12-string acoustic guitar and some shaggy hair to present in the service of spectacle. Over the course of his European tour, Blackshaw said, he’d plied his elaborate John Fahey-style fingerpicking in “venues in pubs to vegetarian cafes to weird goth festivals with Current 93.” The headliner was Johann Johannsson, an Icelandic composer (and maker of records for the 4AD label) who led the 30-piece Krakow Sinfonietta Orchestra. The result was big, but a little too monochromatically big—a case of uplift and drama dulling its own effect over time.
That was definitely not the case for the first dance-music event of the festival, which took place back at Manggha with a late-night crowd ready to move. The lineup featured storied Swiss house-music DJs The Mountain People and a group featuring sax and violin players from Belarus called The National Fanfare Of Kadebostany. But the revelation came from a trio of Hasidic Jews, in black jackets and hats with curls of hair hanging down, who stormed through a spiritedly raucous live set that flitted through sounds of old Detroit techno and Chicago house as summoned by a few guys with some rudimentary equipment and a lot of energy to burn. Their name was Moishe Moishe Moishele. They played a banging version of “Hava Nagila.” Their keytar flashed a Star of David, as did a microphone screamed into by a “singer” who bounded around like mad. Other Stars of David, with strange smiley faces, flashed on screens around the stage, as the crowd pretty much just lost it. This all happened 1.5 hours from the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz. The context was thick, to say the least. Everybody seemed to know it. But Moishe Moishe Moishele managed to steer the action into a set invested in the immediacy of the moment as much as the saga that surrounded it. What’s a few thousand years of history in the face of something so visceral?
The setting for Friday’s evening show was a Gothic church built in the 15th century and filled with enough chairs for a crowd of around 1,000. How they managed to gain access to such a space was a mystery; it was a functioning Catholic church otherwise, with clergy living in quarters nearby—none of whom could’ve been too supportive of acts like the dark Norwegian ambient channeler Biosphere and the Austin, Texas-bred space-rock group Stars Of The Lid. Biosphere’s set was more magisterial—a calm and patient spell of wandering through sounds that alternated between barely-there tones and loud geological noises. Stars Of The Lid went a different kind of ambient way, with very approachable melodic rounds played by a string octet and supported by visuals (kaleidoscope turns, a hummingbird in slow-motion) projected on what must have been at least 100 feet of vertical church stone.
Get the Flash Player to see this player.
Then, again, it was time to dance at Manggha, with a rangey lineup of DJ/producers that included Brooklyn DJ Spinoza, Detroit star Omar-S, Dutch dubstep artist Martyn, and a tag-team set by Berliners Marcel Dettmann and Shed. The highlight by far was Monolake, a storied techno presence from Berlin with a serious sound-design pedigree (he developed the much-used music software Ableton Live). You have to figure something’s good when the publisher of The Wire magazine comes outside to tell all loiterers of “outrageous bass frequencies” emanating from inside. He was right. And the high-end sounds were wowing too. Monolake had set up a special surround-sound system for his set, and the immersion it offered did a lot to highlight the importance of placement and space in minimal-techno that makes playing with ideas of bigness part of its methodology.
Saturday evening offered a welcome change in the extreme homey looseness of a group out on what they’ve been calling The Whale Watching Tour. They couldn’t have been more different: decorous new-classical composer Nico Muhly, rustic folk artist Sam Amidon, brooding noise-smith Ben Frost, and poised Icelandic producer Valgeir Sigurosson. The connective tissue was Bedroom Community, Sigurosson’s record label, but the spirit of it was something more like hanging out in the country house of a bunch of muso-friends who hadn’t seen each other in a long time. Their set ranged wildly, from Muhly’s elaborate piano pieces to Amidon’s plaintive banjo songs, and Frost and Sigurosson somehow held it all together with scrapes of noise and static that flitted between coy games and recital-hall seriousness.
Seriousness is an attribute often attached to dubstep, but that seriousness can be overstated. The late-night affair on Saturday was given the title “Bass Mutations” and featured a strong lineup of dubstep characters, each of whose sounds proved as fleshy and physical as they were austere. The Dutch DJ/producer 2562 played a set that was all lateral movement, with tracks that boasted a lot of hyperactive energy and an impressive lack of any one specific direction—like a helicopter chopping wildly while staying in place. Untold, from England, followed with a set of omnivorous tracks that tilted toward dubstep but flashed fractious elements of techno and house as well. Kode 9 & Space Ape, of the feted London label Hyperdub, played a live set that dove deep into dubstep’s narrative subtext of haunting darkness and dystopia. Space Ape, as MC, leered into the mic like something between a carnival barker and an apparition, speaking of “faces torn and wretched” and invoking a place “where no peace sign exists.” The great UK producer Zomby was supposed to play, but (as has become routine for him, infamously) he never showed up, so Pole stepped in to play a live set with big, rounded bass and a nice house-y lightness.
Then, on Sunday, came Sunn O))). Talk about the notorious doom-metal band’s impending arrival had been constant throughout the week, and it had seemed like a sensible way to end a festival in a place like Krakow. The setting for the show was outside the city, in a town called Nowa Huta, which had been developed as a sort of Communist showpiece after World War II—the site of the Vladimir Lenin Steelworks and other industrial locales that also later gave rise to big parts of the Polish Solidarity movement. At night, it was mostly grey and creepy. And the concert hall there was huge.
The live sound of Sunn O))) is surprisingly atmospheric, especially for a doom-metal band, and the focus of much of it is on volume. As in absolute, stultifying loudness. It had been the source of worry early in the day if the venue operators had any idea exactly how loud the show would be; the organizer of the festival itself wanted to be assured, again and again, that they’d actually specified likely decibel levels in the contract. Even then, it would be hard to know what would happen until it happened. Earplugs were handed out at the door, and the vibe inside was uncertain and nervous—like that feeling you get when you’re 15 and go to your first rock shows, where it’s dark and it smells weird and some of the guys around look like they could squash you out with no effort at all.
The lights went down as Sunn O))) came on, and soon after the stage was filled with smoke and two guys in black robes. They started to play, and it was in fact really loud. Not just a loud concert but the loudest experience of any kind I’ve ever had or could ever imagine—way louder than My Bloody Valentine and way louder, according to a friend who was there as well, than Sunn O))) had been in New York earlier this year. The volume made the fabric on my otherwise motionless hat waver, so that I could feel it literally swaying in the sound, blowing in a weird kind of wind inside. At times, I could hear the foam in my earplugs crackling, collapsing. The green lights coming off the stage quivered, as filtered through the smoke and fog vibrating in the air in front of the speakers.
It all felt strangely spectral and abstract—and beautiful. For all the shock that attended their sheer volume, it was clear the guys in Sunn O))) were chasing after more than brute force. They sculpted the fuzz of their low-end bass and ran through trills of high-end harmonics that played as delicate, almost like the electric pianos on Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew. Singer Attila Csihar, for his part, bellowed through an impressive range of vocal sounds that suggested Tuvan throat-singing, high time at Black Mass, and the kind of cookie-monster growling that plays as simultaneously comic and terrifying in so much metal.
On top of all that, they seemed to just keep getting louder—to the point that it became a full-on physical sensation more than simply an aural one. Parts of it were oddly luxurious; other parts were disturbing. At one point, the low end started to rise from a rumble to a roar and I thought, for a few very real and bracing seconds, that I was going to throw up all over the floor in front of me. The sound just rolled up from below and seemed to contract my stomach and my throat as it passed through, on its way outward and up. It was like a literal punch in the gut. It was awesome.