Unsound Festival New York 2012 Five-day fest featuring the likes of Hype Williams, Actress, Demdike Stare, and Laurel Halo

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.

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