Unsound 2017: Five key performances

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  • This past Saturday night at Hotel Forum in Kraków, the Ugandan artists Otim Alpha and Leo Paleyeng danced at the front of the stage as a couple hundred smiling people got down to electro acholi for the first time. In a brightly lit office after the performance, they explained the roots of their music—upbeat electronic versions of traditional wedding songs—and said it was the first time either of them had travelled outside of Uganda. This type of thing has become a hallmark of Unsound, which this year celebrated its 15th edition. Although many people associate it with mainly European experimental electronic music, the festival has done exemplary work in giving regional artists their first international gig, in turn introducing many people to a new style of music. It's that sense of unfiltered adventure that defines pretty much every aspect of Unsound. The festival has spent 15 years creating an environment where artists and audiences alike push themselves, uncovering new possibilities in sound and broadening their understanding of different music and cultures. Here are five key performances from across the week.
    Laurel Halo Laurel Halo's set at Manggha on Wednesday night captured her career so far in microcosm. She's just released the excellent Dust, "the happiest album" she's made, which featured bright synthesizers, her own voice and a handful of collaborators. It was the latest dramatic shift in her music, and in turn this performance with the percussionist Eli Keszler, who played on the album, was a further departure. The record was highly idiosyncratic but retained a loose association to what you might call songs; in contrast, the live show was a drifting, improvised soup of sound, a space to inhabit rather than a series of defined destinations. The combination of Halo's vocals and high-definition electronics, and Keszler's brushed drums, conjured images of some futuristic jazz club. A tricky rhythm would be suddenly bathed in a gorgeous chord progression, easing the set back into the realms of reality. Towards the performance's conclusion, the opening melody from "Jelly" drew whoops of appreciation from the audience. Halo pitch-shifted her voice to deliver her lines—"And you are a thief, and you drink too much"—a flourish that was just one of many bold decisions that defined this set and Halo's artistry in general.
    PTU It's tempting to take what happens at Berghain each weekend as techno's absolute barometer, but on Thursday night at Hotel Forum three sets showed that it's sometimes healthy to look in other places. Varg, an artist with a complicated relationship to techno, drew on ambient, noise, R&B and, possibly, trance to make his point. At the opposite end of the spectrum, Nina Kraviz infused her set with wild, rave-like expressions and never stayed in the same place for more than a couple minutes. And earlier in the night, PTU, a Russian duo who release music on Kraviz's label Trip, showed how a couple tweaks to the template can make a major impact. For one, they played fast—almost 150 BPM. The second factor was their arrangements and sound design. The steady pound of the kick drum was constantly interrupted by mini-drops and random blasts of sound. The best example of this was their own "A Broken Clock Is Right Twice A Day," a track that succeeds by creating surprises at every turn. (Kraviz also dropped it during her set.) This all amounted to something you could describe as fun, which made dancing to PTU seem pretty different to the standard techno party experience these days.
    Lanark Artefax In the spirit of Unsound's booking policy, this was the debut A/V performance from Calum MacRae, AKA Lanark Artefax. The grand space inside Tadeusz Sendzimir Steelworks, a Stalinist-era industrial plant in Nowa Huta, the easternmost district of Kraków, was silent as he took to a black-veiled booth to the right of the stage. The hour-long show was a hybrid of old and new material, beginning with a slow series of electrical builds, like the powering up of industrial machinery. Staples from his sound palette—scattered drums, dreamlike choral samples—rose in tandem with strobe lights and a large LCD monitor, which resembled an obelisk transmitting alien visuals at the centre of the stage. (MacRae told me afterwards that the symbols were partly inspired by the alien language in the 2016 film Arrival.) People took in the performance in different ways, some dancing, some swaying and some lying on the floor at the front of the room. When the breakbeats of "Touch Absence"—which is shaping up to be one of the tracks of the year—appeared, there were huge cheers of appreciation. I've heard it countless times, but the track gave me goosebumps all over again. It was a highpoint of a remarkable debut, which many people agreed was one of the highlights of the festival.
    Jlin Jlin made her European debut at the 2015 edition of Unsound, and has since established herself as one of the most distinctive new voices in electronic music—an ideal Unsound booking, in other words. On a panel discussion earlier in the week, she talked forcefully about the power of artistic individuality, an idea that her set in the main room at Hotel Forum on Saturday night backed up in no uncertain terms. The show was billed as her first A/V performance with MFO and Theresa Baumgartner, but I admit that I was too swept up in her intense, cascading rhythms to notice. Tracks like "Enigma," "Holy Child" and "Carbon 7 (161)" from her recent album, Black Origami, showed that it's now almost a disservice to describe Jlin's music as footwork. That feeling was compounded when the Indian performance artist Avril Stormy Unger joined her onstage for the final 20 minutes of the set, her slinky, undulating body movements putting a further twist on Jlin's knotty sound. The show climaxed with Unger tossing roses into the crowd and the smell of incense wafting across the room, again illustrating just how much Jlin is daring to be different.
    The Jon Gibson Group Though there would still be the closing party at Kamienna, Unsound's Sunday evening concert felt like a closing ceremony. Before the curtain lifted, festival organizers Mat Schulz and Gosia Płysa took the stage at Teatr im. Juliusza Słowackiego, an old gilded theatre with a painted ceiling and red velvet seats, to thank their audience, artists and partners for the past week of music. By then the place was already full—GAS, the night's main act, wouldn't come on for another 90 minutes, but Unsound is an event where people make time for artists they don't know, precisely because they might be as good as tonight's opening act. Jon Gibson is a multi-instrumentalist with impressive credentials: he's an original member of The Philip Glass Ensemble, and over the last few decades has performed with artists like Terry Riley, Steve Reich, Arthur Russell and Allen Ginsberg. In Kraków he led his own band, The Jon Gibson Group, in a rendition of Visitations, an album-long piece from 1973. Gibson sat under a spotlight at the front of the stage while his band stood behind him, silhouetted by a wide screen that showed black and white images of suburban America—this was One Way, a film Gibson shot in the '70s. He passed through a variety of odd wind instruments, most memorably a two-ended flute that made what sounded like a synthesized bird chirp. For long stretches of time he sat motionless, even appearing to be asleep, while the dark figures behind him played drums, chimes and more obscure instruments with mallets, drumsticks or by hand. Backdropping all of it were field recordings that conjured different settings and scenes—running water at one point, a forest scene later on. The rhythms were fluid, the textures rich, the overall effect soothing and transportive. That this hypnotic performance was received in a beautiful theater by a rapt crowd reflects one of the best things about Unsound: here, adventurous music gets the platform it deserves. Photo credits / Theresa Baumgartner - Lead Michal Ramus - All except PTU Helena Majewska - PTU Conor McTernan and Will Lynch contributed to this piece