Tristan Bath heads to Graz for the eleventh Elevate festival, and spends a weekend in at the frontlines of experimental music, political discourse, and Central Europe.

Jerusalem In My Heart photograph courtesy of Clara Wildberger

Abdul is 35 years old, and married with two children. Both are five years old. He is also blind. “He left Syria on the way to Sweden to meet his brother,” explains the English speaking representative for the local refugees. “He was caught and detained in Austria on the 23rd August 2015, placed in Traiskirchen camp, kept in a tent for one month without medical treatment of any kind. Because of his blindness, he requires special treatment and attention. He begged the police “bitte! Don’t make a fingerprint I don’t want to be registered to stay here, I want to go to Sweden to meet my brother!” He became ill in the camp due to poor living conditions, then was transferred to Thalham to live in a single room with three refugees – again without medicine.”

The opening night for the eleventh Elevate festival sees the Schloßberg in Graz – Austria’s second city tucked away in the south-west corner of the nation – filled with the excitement, big words, and no small degree of anger. The unique ‘political discourse and discussion’ side of Elevate feels more relevant this year than ever before. Last year had internet privacy and digital security at the head of the programme, but this year there are hundreds of thousands of ‘flüchtlinge’ passing right through or into the city seeking help. In many ways the time for talking is over, and actual action is what is needed. That having been said, American filmmaker Antonino d’Ambrosio makes a truly impassioned speech of a sort of mad presidential calibre, practically breathing fire with his words. "There are only one people! Not Iraqis and Afghans and Austrians and Americans. We are one people, and we share life’s outline." He talks about this year’s festival theme of ‘Creative Response’, about "ideas that turn into action”, and about reminding people that “we all share the human condition”. He ends by quoting his childhood heroes The Clash, suggesting we "grab the future by the face."

The entire ‘discussion and discourse’ side of the festival feels fuelled by this sense of closeness to the world’s problems. At times it does venture dangerously close to directionless Occupy Movement territory, with the speakers finding little in the way of solutions, but the likes of producer Matthew Herbert offer up beautifully simple ways to incorporate mild dissent into their art. Herbert describes via Skype how he’s been recording the sound of fast food chain hamburgers as sonic source material, and after a long and arduous train journey from the UK to Austria (he refuses to fly for environmental reasons) his live show on Sunday night features beats built from sampled Ribena bottles. "The sound of a Big Mac or a KFC chicken farm isn’t yet trademarked," he explains. In fact the entire music program is imbued with extra superpowers, like totems of hope for a central European society in daily turmoil. The opening night’s music, following on from powerful opening speeches, is thus one of the more glorious.

Viennese keyboard hero and Ninja Tune signee Dorian Concept plays as a live trio with bassist Paul Movahedi  and percussionist Clemens Bacher. His tunes have always wound up on the jazzier end of the electronic scale, but readjusted for a live trio the dozens of lines of overlapping keyboards and bass notes and shuffling beats sound like a full on update of the funk fusion heard on Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters. Dorian Concept himself sits right at the front of the stage, angled so we can all observe his furious keyboard skills, and it delivers exactly what the likes of fellow Austrians Elektro Guzzi, or perhaps Tokyo’s Nisennenmondai aim for. It’s a way of delivering live electronic music that retains those analogue fireworks.

Armed with a guitar and mic-stand, Eartheater – the solo project of Guardian Alien’s Alexandra Drewchin – stands right out alongside the countless electronic acts on the lineup. I’ve previously covered her far-reaching brand of all-encompassing psychedelic songwriting in tQ’s tape column, and live the music soars on Eartheater’s powerful persona and voice. She’s bathed in pink light, and at one moment bends over backwards before dropping right down into the splits leaving her loop pedal cycling all along. Later on Heatsick provides his now classic lengthy set of danceable loops. Using little more than an old keyboard, a loop pedal, and a microphone, Steven Warwick weaves a dense, lengthy set of luminescent jolly tones and lo fi beats, working in several key themes from his Re-Engineering record. It’s dance music of the simplest possible kind. It’s anti-intellectual and innately hopeful. It’s what we all need right now. Friday and Saturday night’s DJ sets from RP Boo, DJ Funk, Osunlade and The Black Madonna keep an undercurrent of partying and release running throughout the weekend, while elsewhere proceedings get somewhat noisier and weirder.

It’s been 20 years since Vienna’s very own Editions Mego label put out its first record (General Magic & Pita’s Fridge Trax in May of 1995), and the label has since gone on to represent the very pinnacle of 21st century experimental music. Label runner Peter Rehberg has been touring with a host of Mego acts to celebrate the anniversary, and drops in for a full evening of music in the cave like ‘Dungeon’ space near the upper innards of the Schloßberg. The first act I witness is Inou Ki Endo, a staffer at Editions Mego’s Vienna headquarters apparently, and author of the most sickeningly loud DJ/noise set in history. Organ notes climb higher and higher at deafening volumes, and strobe lights abuse those of us willing to keep our eyes open. When it’s over, Endo just slinks off stage nonchalantly, as if she didn’t just punch us all in the ears. Chra – who’s been responsible for one of Mego’s most subtly powerful 2015 albums Empty Airports – is due for a solo set, but Peter Rehberg spontaneously stays on stage with her after finishing his interslot DJ set, and ther pair engage in a laptop jam. They form a snaking super heavy towering monolith of reverb drenched noises, hiss and bass bombs. It’s violent beyond anything in the Chra catalogue, and Rehberg seems to thrust beats on to the table early on. It climaxes with a brutal industrial beat underpinning a trembling mountain of noisy tones, blasting away the dust from the Dungeon’s stoney walls. For the evening Helm, who’s signed to Berlin’s PAN, is an honorary Mego-er, providing a set of his signature mix of ambient concrete and slower moving noise. Helm amasses a wash of treated sample loops, field recorded black magic, and hints at rhythms without ever quite falling into step. Resembling an urban sonic nightmare he sculpts out an atonal textural crescendo

Later Mego night gets rounded off by Americans Steve Hauschildt and Prostitutes (aka James Donadio) both providing some massive relief after so much shapeless noise. Hauschildt’s emerged from the fog of his post-Emeralds foot finding as the foremost master craftsman of beautiful synthesiser atmospheres. The waves of melody emanating from his setup of half a dozen keyboards is endlessly watery and romantic, offset by extended central sections of atonal drones creeping into the mix. Prostitutes winds up something of a highlight, wielding a dizzying array of beat music methods in his arsenal. I mean the man’s quite literally using klaxons! Programming some of his drum machines on the spot, Donadio pummels us brutally, but never stops from being climactic and darkly groovy. We dance late into the night, and the grey dust of the Dungeon clambers slowly up our trouser legs.

Saturday night’s set from Montreal’s collaboration between psych-infused rock band Suuns and Radwan Ghazi Moumneh’s Jerusalem In My Heart project is perhaps the finest moment of the entire festival. I stand in a prime spot right behind filmmaker and half of Jerusalem In My Heart, Charles-André Coderre as he mans four old school projectors, feeding in and visually mixing his handmade films, looped and hanging off a mic stand primed for him to search through. On stage, Moumneh’s unleashing the full extent the full power of lessons learned from the music of his Lebanese birthplace, his hand aloft as he intones reverb laden intonations in dizzyingly vocalised Arabic while Suuns ably build a dense atmosphere of cinematic dronescapes and hard rocking kraut grooves. There’s a lengthy section of glistening buzuk playing from Moumneh, and the groovey crescendos of ‘2amoutu 17tirakan’ and ‘3attam Babey’ provide something of a climax towards the end of the set, all four projectors blazing away at full blast. The collaboration was apparently years in the making, and the results show. Few bands could keep an anxious crowd squeezed into the dungeon space, but the drama of the collaboration, flitting between Middle Eastern tropes, cosmic synth beds, and driving rock songs, is pitch perfect. They play for 90 solid minutes, and not a second is wasted. Also, it’s perhaps a moot point, but the sight of Austrian eyes closed in awe of an Arabic singer feels truly nourishing for the soul amidst burgeoning mainstream discontent during the current refugee crisis.

The Dungeon hosts two other triumphant sets this night. Firstly, the powerhouse of HHY & the Macumbas blow all in attendance to pieces. It’s tough to see what’s going on in the dense shroud of billowing fog machines and red light, but a pounding mass of percussion, electronics, bass and trumpets pummel away. Based out of Porto, Portugal, HHY & the Macumbas dive straight into the heart of some distant jungle nightmare, coalescing strands of industrial, dub, and tribal music tropes into a blinding new sound straight only possible in the fervent Portuguese underground music scene. Another audiovisual collaboration makes a hell of an impact earlier in the evening, pairing the music of local Graz producers fontarrian with the live cosmic visuals of Christian Michael Witternigg, aka ‘Jupiter’. Their performance, entitled Dreams of Avarice erupts from the same potent galaxy as Bristol’s Young Echo crew, where the timbres of garage, grime and hip-hop co-exist with sparse ambience, synthesised trip music, and the cold isolating industrial experiments of Nurse with Wound. (In fact, the Graz collective fontarrian’s associated with disko404, are essentially the Austrian equivalant to Young Echo and are well worth checking out. Luminescent moments of pretty melodies emerge from time to time, but most of the first half of the show sees fontarrian wield an array of sprawling pads and tinkling cymbal samples, before heavier beats emerge, and the man actually picks up a mic and starts reciting doomsday poetry. Jupiter’s display of gradually evolving shapes and starscapes actually manages to wield a commanding presence, at one point even garnering an outright cheer from the crowd when the shapes start to move at higher speed. A visual performance eliciting an actual cheer is a rare achievement, but it’s testament to slow burning power of both this project, and the long form experience of Elevate festival as a whole. They set out to create an unbound time and place where new sonic shapes and political conversations can emerge in the peaceful heart of Styria, and they’ve done it again for the 11th year in a row.

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