This year marked the third installment of the New York edition of Unsound, an offshoot of the annual Kraków fest (which will have its 10th installment in October). From April 18-22 and across five different venues — BAMcinématek, (Le) Poisson Rouge, Public Assembly, Lincoln Center, and ISSUE Project Room — Unsound New York 2012 featured music that included everything from warped dub and ambient metal to bass-heavy club music and techno. This meant we were treated to the likes of TMT favorites like Hype Williams, Sun Araw, Heat Wave, Laurel Halo, Peaking Lights, Actress, Demdike Stare, and many more. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to check out any of the Unsound Labs (which featured panels, discussions, screenings, lectures, etc.), but we caught plenty of shows that wonderfully reflected the festival’s desire to connect Eastern European and Western musicians together through some penetrating music.
The Option of Silence: Julia Holter, Jenny Hval, Julia Kent
[Wednesday, April 18 @ ISSUE Project Room]
My friend K. and I arrived late to the show because we were at a Poetry Project event wherein 17 people read passages from The Library of America’s The Collected Writings of Joe Brainard. Set the bar pretty high for the night; sadly, the J-named women didn’t meet it. We missed Julia Kent entirely. We sat down (yes, this was a seated show) for the last two songs of Jenny Hval’s set. The best that can be said for it is that it was inoffensive. The audience looked bored, but at least there were a lot of them. Two songs were all K. needed to hear in order to devise the formula Hval = Enya + The Cranberries.
Julia Holter played piano and sang. She wanted pretty heavy reverb on her vocals, which, as K. noted, seemed like overkill because Holter has good pitch and the ISSUE space is cavernous. But I think too much reverb is part of the ethereal atmospheric package, which includes a voice that sounds like it’s coming straight out of her throat. The problem with this lack of physicality is that Holter isn’t a good songwriter. The effect was strange, a blandness that was hard to be present for. And I wasn’t the only one having trouble paying attention, because the average rate of attrition across the set was four audience members per song. One can hardly blame those who took the showcase title up on its offer and opted for silence: with Holter, there was no challenge, nothing out of place.
Singularity: Actress, Hype Williams, Next Life
[Thursday, April 19 @ (Le) Poisson Rouge]
I was stupid enough to arrive on time (without a friend). Next Life is a metal band from Norway with an electronic element. I think the best way to illustrate their approach is to note that the bass player was wearing a Don Caballero T-shirt and said “thank you” a lot. I’m not sure whether I liked the music, but they played well. I think the phrase “proliferation of discourses” is a lie, but it arrives as an alibi for my “not getting it.”
Then Hype Williams got on stage. A tiny white woman, Inga Copeland, stood at the microphone while a massive, beautiful black male bodybuilder stood off to one side. For at least half an hour, the audience listened to a relentless but mercifully complex loop, which turned out to be a technical hiccup. (My favorite part of the night.) When Hype Williams finally played their set, it was very loud and made extensive use of strobe effects. It was depressing in the way that I imagine doing a ton of blow is depressing. Copeland sang in a somewhat dispassionate way while the strapping black man flexed and gyrated slowly.
Actress got on stage. By 2 AM, I was unfortunately fading with no prospect of reconstitution. Check out this video instead:
The Bunker: Monolake, Demdike Stare, Hieroglyphic Being, Ital, Laurel Halo, Zemi17
[Friday, April 20 @ The Bunker]
Nearly all of the artists invited to play Unsound this year had a spiritual lineage stretching back to techno, and accordingly, most shows involved versions of dance music, no matter how minimal, abstract, mutated, or monstrous. However, the Friday show at The Bunker was the only night specifically pitched as a late-night rave. Featuring a packed lineup, a massive surround-sound system, and a large projection screen with live visuals, this was a show tailor-made for adventurous minimal techno, dubstep, and house music.
Laurel Halo’s set was the first to make full and glorious use of the venue’s surround-sound capabilities. Her dreamy, expansive compositions were divided spatially between channels, with woozy tape-saturated synths coming from the rear speakers, trebly clicks from the front, and deep bass frequencies from giant subwoofers on the floor. The effect was immersive and cinematic, and Halo’s vocals provided a uniquely human touch the other “enhanced laptop” performances of the night could not provide.
Ital excels within a special brand of house music that achieves its unique effects not through the alteration of structure, but through the use of a set of sounds with radically different textures and fidelities. A perfectly punchy kick might coexist with a deeply distorted bass synth, or a wobbly overcompressed sample that cuts in and out. His set was mesmerizing, and the most apparently “live” of any of the acts that night.
Textural complexity also was the hallmark of a hybrid DJ set by Hieroglyphic Being, a Chicago producer who has excelled at dipping his toes into a large number of divergent mutations of electronic music over the years. His set moved across eras and genres for an experience that was enjoyable, but seemed a bit incongruous in a lineup of artists who tended to stick to one consistent sound for their sets.
Demdike Stare was the first act of the night to provide their own visuals, a creepy mix of weirdo rare mondo and giallo cinema clips focusing on close-ups of eyes and montages featuring surrealistic visual rhymes. It was the perfect accompaniment for the duo’s dark spin on bass music, all cinematic drones and breathtaking, eye-vibrating drops. Surprisingly for a group whose recorded output often verges on noise, it was the only set of the night that did not utilize blown-out, noisy, or low-fidelity sounds. It was rich, pure, and crystal clear, all the better to communicate the heart-stopping menace of their miniature explorations of heightened emotional states.
Monolake is the longtime project of Robert Henke, one of the two guys who created Ableton Live, the DAW that has launched a million laptop performances. His music sounds as you would expect the music of a software engineer to sound: seamless, systematized, enumerated, and cold. His performance was billed “The Ghosts In Surround,” a reference to his new album Ghosts, as well as the multi-channel mixing of his set. The irony of an artist named Monolake performing in surround sound was apparently lost on the organizers of the event. I won’t describe the set because it was indistinguishable from the recordings; even the surround mixing didn’t seem to add much dimension to music that is technically impressive but emotionally remote. Coming at the end of so many great performances, and starting well after 3 a.m. when most had peaked and were on the downhill slope, Monolake could not help being something of a letdown. On any other bill, his performance would have been a highlight.
True Horizons: Sun Araw, Inner Tube, pole
[Friday, April 20 @ (Le) Poisson Rouge]
I arrived a bit late for Inner Tube’s set. It was New Age computer-and-guitar wankery, not dangerous in the least, nor urgent, nor necessary. During the last song, a guy walked up to me and said, “Has anybody started playing yet?” I pointed: “He’s playing right there.”
I was worried that the rest of the night would go the way of all the other performances I’d seen at Unsound. (I think not dangerous is the most concise way of describing their common failing.) pole (Stefan Betke, a middle-aged German man who looks like he could be a retired golfer or pro poker player) began tweaking knobs. He was making some strange high-end noises, but it wasn’t particularly special. Then the bass dropped, and I mean BASS. I could feel it in my chest, and for the better part of an hour, I was transfixed and transported, gyrating and wishing for once that everyone would let their shit go and just dance. This was the only show I saw at the festival that was serious and funky. Will be buying some pole records.
Sun Araw was four dudes I probably wouldn’t get along with. The set was hip; kind of a mess, kind of sucky. I left early, but other people seemed to be down with it, if not getting down to it.
Transgression: Lustmord, Biosphere
[Saturday, April 21 @ West Park Presbyterian Church]
So, aside from going to see Lustmord and Biosphere get super fucking serious here of all places, I had to leave my girlfriend across the street because we were too cheap to pay her entry. But arriving right at the beginning of they’s set, shit starts to get real: indistinct talking from either the stage or audience, switching taps and twitches, overture atop of overturn atop of overturn, etc. Lectures on thinking happened and it got kitschy, so I zoned in on the screen behind them displaying black-and-white nature and landscapes. Absorbed in colorless trans-views and -sound, there was patience in the audience as sounds chiseled away at their being.
Away from all this land, Lustmord and Biosphere led the audience to a beyond blanket of sound and meditation. In that landscape, the viewers are led both musically and visually (upon their screen) to a place hidden, yet past our existence. Humming scorched any hearing I had the rest of that night. Swelling between myself, their instruments, that dude who keeps taking pictures, cameras they used to film, and the church began to fuse everything into one vibrating entity. Which also turned on my dead phone, as my girlfriend was calling me from across the street. Beating the crowd, I raced out only to hear my girlfriend’s inquiries on the ritual I just experienced and if there was anything that climbed out of the dead body she assumed was sacrificed.
Bass Mutations: Distal, Nguzunguzu, 2562, Sepalcure, Dave Q
[Saturday, April 21 @ Indie Screen]
This year’s Bass Mutations night of the Unsound festival took place at Indie Screen, a venue I’ve passed by for years on my way to either Death By Audio, 285 Kent, or Glasslands in a small but ever-increasingly bustling block/corner of Kent Ave between South 1st and 2nd in Williamsburg, overlooked by an enormous, towering decrepit factory and along the East River. In a positive sign of growing relevance and significance within the electronic and bass music scenes, the party was thrown by Percussion Lab and Dub War (NYC), and started off with current resident Dave Q, who got it going strong by only 10:30.
There was no mistaking the focus of the event was BASS: upon entering the venue — which is, in actuality an independent movie theatre with a bar — I noticed the performance space overlooking everything and everyone from a balcony; under it was a set of speakers emitting blaring beats of such density as to literally dissolve one’s tympanic membranes, and you couldn’t escape them, even when wandering into other areas such as the actual movie theatre, which was showing all manner of short films, hand-drawn and computer-generated animations, lights, shapes, birds flying, clouds, scenes that seemed to have been left on the cutting-room floor of Blade Runner, sped-up footage of city streets, ballet, King Kong, Babes in Toyland… all the while, viewers engaged in all sorts of activities, which grew all the more daring as the night wore on, ranging from dancing on the seats, to the active use of illicit substances, to possibly, well, intercourse… yeah.
The bass having drowned out almost all else pertaining to sense and sensation — and perhaps I’m exaggerating as a result of partly having had more than a few drinks — Dave Q (who at one point yelled he just wanted to play some drum ‘n’ bass, or “whatever you call it these days”) seemed to blend seamlessly into Sepalcure’s schizophrenic old-school homages, and from there to 2562’s house and dubstep-ish variations and then Nguzunguzu’s inventive bleeps and bloops, all the way into arguable headliner Distal, but by then, I reason I must have been effectively rendered incapable of reporting on what occurred thereafter.
Fade Out: Sun Araw vs. Heat Wave, Eltron John, Maria Minerva, Napszyklat
[Sunday, April 22 @ Glasslands]
Napszyklat was slick. They got them deep beats, which world-ruled. Their vocals weren’t totally a style I was into, but they were into it WAY hard, so I bobbed, ya dig? Went back stage with Alex Gray [of Heat Wave] after, and they were so Polish-ly verklempt that when I was saying, “You guys were feeling that set,” I only received sweat and nods.
Maria Minerva (pictured) gave 100% too. I mean, like, performance-wise, as someone who’s caught the MC ego bug, I’d rather Maria Minerva handle shit on stage than anyone else. She questioned why there was no whiskey accompanying her between her first and second harsh-crooned track. And her backgrounds were real real: work-out dancing, the Milky Way, a hurricane, etc. Deep electronic melodies surged and the stage strobe-light seemed to display the rainbow intermittently. Some of it was cut up super-fresh too, like her first album Tallinn At Dawn. Shit was 3D in a real way.
The Eltron John set consisted of talking to Jonathan Dean about some nasty shit and how hurricanes are not cool. Eltron John was some jam-dance shit, and it got all the Italian ladies bopping. Yeah-yeah, though. Attention was my first priority at this point. Like, rock ‘n’ roll and all that jazz, yeah?
The main event-slash-after-after-after party was a Sun Araw vs. Heat Wave DJ set, which expectedly caved the roof in. It was a rainy night to begin with, but if some of that Cali weather were temp’ing outside, and the roof had actually been torn off, the moisture would’ve been welcomed by savagely dancing audience members. Oh, they brought that Fornia-funk via soul-zones to the East Coast way hard. Without remorse. Gray turned his faucet to drippy and was wearing a kick-ass purple shirt with yellow guitars on it. But Cameron Stallones boiled them noodle beats, strained ‘em, and by a mustache hair, won the live versus!