Things Learned At: Elevate

Tristan Bath heads to Graz to experience a multitude of modern music buried within the city's underground network. Photos by Lupi Spuma

All we want, is to feel that we’re doing something

By the standards of a Londoner, even Vienna can seem a sleepy place. So Austria’s second city of Graz – home to some 250,000 people – feels positively comatose in comparison, though perhaps not this weekend. Elevate Festival has been taking place in the city since 2005, providing a stellar three-day programme of contemporary music and politically-charged discourse, providing the hungry people of Graz with what, for many, seems to be the peak event in their calendars. The city lies in a basin, all centred around the domineering structure of the Schlossberg, a steep hill with a fortress on top dating back to the 16th century, providing godlike views of the city’s mediterranean-infected red rooves. The fortification has never been conquered, proving too steep even for Napoleon’s invading forces several centuries ago, and later during the second world war, a network of tunnels and caves was carved inside the hill itself, providing shelter from Allied bombing to the citizens of Graz. However, its purpose has now wholly shifted, as a cast of artists from the UK, US and elsewhere are invited inside with the sole aim of filling the stone caverns with challenging modern music for the people of Graz.

The facet of the festival dedicated to seminars, workshops and talks on politics, culture and technology seems to uniformly carry the message that something has to be done with the state of the world, and that social reform is tantalisingly just around the corner – so long as we get active that is. Political complacency is as fraught in Austria as here in the UK, with a government currently led by an ambivalent coalition of essentially centre-right parties, while swivel-eyed loons gather in the wings. Slap bang in the centre of a mutating Europe, Austria’s very own far-right FPÖ (Freedom Party of Austria) has mutated in recent years, thriving on the Euroscepticism that increasingly surrounds us, led by a popular charismatic leader, and constantly pointing to Austria’s alpine neighbours Switzerland (who are outside of the EU), and yelling "oh! to be like the Swiss" (sound familiar?) Yet, as back in the UK, beyond its major cities and news coverage, Austria remains largely a nation of noble hard workers in sleepy villages.

The draw of something actually happening in their town brings thousands of the city’s youth; they celebrate restlessly, deep inside the caves of the Schlossberg, with the music starting at 10pm and running non-stop until 6 or 7am the next morning. For three full nights in a row. In amongst the crowds, listening to contemporary musicians consistently shatter the thought that "the best is all in the past", I slip out, and climb up to the top of the Schlossberg to take a break during Mika Vainio’s throttling Saturday night set. At night from above, the city of Graz is beautiful. The surrounding mountains disappear into the dark of night, and the many twinkling lights of the stoney town below seem to hang in a void, calm and at peace. It’s getting cold outside, and I head back inside the shelter to hear Vainio chop and slice up inhuman noises before a rapt crowd. To me, at this moment, atop this unconquerable fortress, it really seems like we’re already doing something; that for the most part, we’re already winning.

Music will always win

After landing at Vienna airport, I’m picked up by my very friendly driver, Michael, who’s been sent to drive Kate Tempest, Rhys Chatham and myself to Graz in time for Chatham’s soundcheck ahead of tonight’s performance. Kate Tempest is ill, but her replacement (and friend), the instantly likeable performance poet Deanna Rodgers, is joining us in her stead. Rhys Chatham regales us with tales of New York City during the artistically fruitful period in the 70s and 80s that saw him, Glenn Branca, Sonic Youth and many others emerge. "It’s all about the rent," he says. "We could get these huge SoHo lofts for a couple hundred bucks a month […] we’d put on these shows in our lofts, and then you’d see Phil Glass and Steve Reich having breakfast together at the cafe downstairs the next morning". It sounds like a real utopia, but we go on to discuss the state of things in the UK, and Rhys’ home for decades now in Paris. It sounds pretty hopeless, and yet today we’re in a Europe producing more and better music than ever before, despite – or perhaps because of – the current state of infrastructural flux. We arrive to a crisp night in Graz some two hours later, instantly confronted by the city’s gentle pace, and I soon cross the River Steyr that runs through the heart of the city, and climb the metal stair that lead from street-level straight up and into the cave-like heart of the Schlossberg.

Although the lineup seem to be largely populated with overseas artists, I’m most immediately drawn to the local acts for much of the first evening, firstly getting utterly confused by The Striggles in the festival’s basement-like tertiary venue aptly called the Tunnel. This local Graz band smash and clatter their way through the uncategorisable back doors of rock, riding harshly percussive math grooves in the vein of Steve Albini’s Shellac, whispering, squealing and screaming vocals and guitar lines with all the backwards logic of Keiji Haino’s Fushitsusha, and at one, point the massively bulky lead singer Martin Plass even goes ahead picks up a saxophone, suddenly blurting out a variety of lilting jazz themes and quirky duck calls. At their loudest, the group grind along at bonerattling volume, but then they suddenly switch things around and trade chugging riffs for sparse atonal call-and-reply while the domineering sight of Plass starts crooning Sinatra. Other moments see the group clatter through murky gothic blues, and they eventually climax with an epic stadium-rock reading of Mozart, parodying their nation’s musical messiah. Vocalist Plass bizarrely breaks into a faux soprano voice, mocking the lavishness of the opera, and breaking every Austrian face in the house into a beaming grin. It’s one of the most intense sets of the whole weekend, from one of the country’s most versatile bands. These guys really deserve a wider audience – dive into their Bandcamp page for a listen below.

Austria’s quietly nurturing some incredible musicians

Away from the dank grey Tunnel, on the main stage in the much larger and swankier Dom im Berg, Vienna-based Austrian singer Mimu is right in the middle of a collaborative performance with cellist Lukas Lauermann. The brilliant young artist originally hailed from the local bundesland of Steiermark (or Styria in English), and is also an illustrator, provided much of the festival’s distinct graphic design. Parked over her laptop, Mimu’s voice is at times reminiscent of Björk’s impassioned elfin intonations, and her overtly pretty songs navigate Lauermann’s effect-laden cello soundscape expertly, with the singer at times conducting his movements with a wave of her hand. The music’s yearning and gentle, leaving Mimu’s voice plenty of space to soar high into the ceiling of the cavern. The pair’s navigation of each other is something incredible to witness too, as the many interlocking lines of Lauermann’s cello almost engulf Mimu, only to recede as she waves them away with a far-reaching burst of singing – like waltzing spectres up on high.

Several other Austrian acts made a huge impact at the festival, including Broken.Heart.Collector up in the cold dusty space of the Dungeon, and ‘live techno’ trio Elektro Guzzi, who headlined the main stage on the opening night. The Dungeon is christened by the punctuation-abusing Austrian metal duo [[[Altar:Thron]]], who combine a Godflesh- and Rapeman-like approach to throbbing harsh metal assisted by a meticulously-programmed drum machine along with strange operatic vocal stylings. Later, at the front Vienna-based quintet Broken.Heart.Collector, Slovenian born singer Maja Osojnik sings and performs with the bassy intensity of a Carla Bozulich, sing-speaking her way through the group’s disjointed song structures and improvisations. The band are all phenomenal musicians, with a bassist, guitarist, bass clarinetist and utterly brilliant drummer in the form of Dieter Kern (who has recorded with Austrian resident, Mats Gustafsson). Kern kicks off the set with some manic freeform flailing all over his drum kit, while his bandmates rumble to life on all sides, eventually chanting and humming a mournful theme called ‘Eckig’ (from their great self-titled debut album). They break back down to sparse atmospheric free improvisation, moving to drones as Osojnik’s breathy tenor voice eventually starts to croon, and then suddenly kicking into full swing through a mutant rock song punctuated with alien-sounding contra-alto blasts ala Red-era King Crimson. A stonking great set of colourful music unfolds, with bass clarinet blasts, bass guitars whacked with drum sticks, guitars scraped with biros and a whole heap of high-energy drum clatter from Kern. It’s an intensely physical performance throughout. They’re something of a rarity, as Broken.Heart.Collector manage to navigate us through a rich series of non-sequiturs, kaleidoscopically invoking central European folk tropes and freeform rock music all at once – without seeming the slightest bit pretentious.

Elektro Guzzi, also from Vienna, look like your conventional rock trio. Sporting guitar, bass and drums, they look like they’re about to burst into some Yo La Tengo-style slacker classics, but this could hardly be more wrong. The music’s more akin to an addictively unfolding techno set, churning over and over on digital-sounding metronomic beats as deep basslines mutate and swirling manipulated sounds amass. I first encountered their music via their absolutely stellar 2013 tape release on the Tapeworm, which had me utterly convinced I was listening to the work of a solo producer, but closer inspection revealed a trio of instrumentalist drawing inspiration directly from the electronic realm. Like New York’s techno-mimicking jazz trio, Dawn Of MIDI, it’s a real feat of concentration, perfect timing, and the tightest possible ensemble playing, as one bum note could throw off the entire illusion in a heartbeat. It’s one of the highlights of the entire festival, and they meander their way from theme to theme for well over an hour, never far away from being able to push the hyperdrive button and send the overjoyed Grazers into waves of wigged out dancing. I’m told that actually getting this many Austrians dancing is something of a special achievement (Hyperdub do it again and then some the next night, but that’s hardly a representative sample), and I certainly can’t contain myself during Elektro Guzzi’s set, swaying, toe-tapping and nodding along moronically for its entirety. They’re one of the best live acts working today, and before their set I nabbed the chance to speak to the band for an interview soon to be published on the Quietus.

Always fear the bass

Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe, aka Lichens, provided one of the festival’s most subtle and hypnotic sets, bringing his suitcase-sized modular synthesizer setup into the Dungeon for one of his consistently brilliant free forms. Silhouetted against the damp grey stone of cave-like venue, Lowe summons a lonesome, slowly building tone, fleshing it out with languid vibrations on a lengthy loop cycle. Lowe’s performance is utterly alluring, eyes often shut in a state of ecstatic meditation, silkenly moving his hands around his apparatus, caressing the buttons, knobs and pads with the careful precision of a brain surgeon. He clasps his microphone for dear life as he strikes up his strange high-pitched vocalisations, layering them atop the dub-infused wobbly atmospherics emanating from his machine. The second half is infused with bass-heavy rhythms, which unfold from single sparse notes to a smattering of trippy rhythmic phrases. When Lowe hits the first beat, it fills the room with a brain smashing heavy hit; At the same moment, an unsuspecting camera man is right by the main PA busy snapping a closeup of Lowe, but the first beat nearly sends him flying right up into the ceiling with fright.

Belegschaft #005: doze by Doze on Mixcloud

The stone rooms of Elevate go on to amplify several of the bassier sets at the festival, including the beguiling set from fantastic Graz duo doze. These two wield bass like a blunt instrument, blowing the heads off the surviving punters early on Saturday, before blending abstract drones into beatier snatches of techno and surreal moments of pure collage, taking in samples from every inch of the globe. It’s psychedelic, like Demdike Stare’s uncategorizable clatter, and dissolves the barrier between DJ and live set. At one point the PA throbs so menacingly with bass, I’m forced to break a long-term personal tradition and whack some earplugs in.

Robert AA Lowe later summarised Mika Vainio: "he’s the master". Truer words have never been spoken, yet twenty years in – and despite all they’ve begat – both members of Finland’s Pan Sonic remain an otherworldly enigma to this day; a indecipherable code never to be unlocked. Mika Vainio’s solo projects have as a broad a range as Pan Sonic, but anybody hoping for the near-absent subtle ambience of Vainio’s Ø incarnation are in for a shock. The chopped and sliced rhythmic noise of albums like 2013’s Kilo are what we’re in for, and from behind his laboratory of wires and buttons, Vainio lunges straight into unleashing grizzled sine waves, thumping beats and buzzing static, all organised with alien logic into structures that retain semblances of music. The speakers pound and fizz throughout Vainio’s seamless set, as the man invokes some demonic spirit from deep within the machine. The lack of cultural signifiers is what’s so unsettling about his music, and Vainio refuses to succumb to almost any cohesive recognisable structure or timbre on a large scale – but those moments though, the musical thumbnails that make up the performance exist in a miniature universe all their own, creating a new kind of abstract robotic logic. It makes for an inescapably ‘live’ experience, forcing us to grasp on to every ephemeral moment, no matter how harsh it may be. My hands hover readily over the earbuds still in my pocket throughout Vainio’s harsh, terrifying set.

There’s no ‘taking sides’ in the war of words over users’ rights.

A short walk from the Schlossberg down at city level, hours of talks are taking place across the weekend in the school assembly-like Forum in the Stadtpark. There’s so much to be said about the world right now, so between offerings of vegan food and beer, I catch a full two hour discussion ominously titled, ‘Reality is the Next Big Thing’. Shoshana Zuboff, a former professor from Harvard Business school (and who uncannily resembles Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie), opens up the proceedings via Skype with a stirring keynote speech. She points to Google as a bleak example, painting a dark picture of the burgeoning future where citizens are simply farmed and herded for data, no longer living as employees or consumers (or god forbid, individuals), but become wandering livestock, existing solely for the benefit of a data-driven corporate elite. The ubiquity of figures like Google is only strengthening, as the trackability of users increasingly enters the physical realm of reality, with train tickets, card transactions and GPS data forming an all-encompassing network of knowledge covering both the real and the virtual plains of our lives. The real question though, is to what extent this really amount to something about which I should be concerned?

Zuboff describes how we make a "Faustian pact" with companies like Google, agreeing to unread terms and conditions, and trading our very real selves for these free virtual services. Perhaps I’m too cynical, and suspicious of paranoia, but I remain rather unconvinced. If a company like Google want some useless data about my existence in exchanged for the ability to search the web for my name every single day (sometimes two or three times a day), then it seems like a pretty fair trade. Panelist and Swiss professor of digital culture and network theories from Zurich’s University of the Arts, Felix Stalder, ultimately makes the most compelling argument, suggesting that rather than look to these institutions to solve the problem and self-regulate, we have to work to disassemble the symbiosis between our economy and our democracy. The economy is inherently unequal, as is the nature of capitalism, and thus it needs to be diffuse to remain truly democratic. Stalder manages to somewhat unite the entire panel and much of the audience behind his concept of workable alternatives to major companies, and the protection of competition as the best defence against corporate domination, and an Orwellian dystopic destiny.

Of course we don’t have to opt in to using these data-collecting corporate services – there’s always the off switch, or the pen and pencil – but it’s the very nature of their power that we all choose to opt in, despite intimately understanding the cons. "It’s like how we here are all speaking in English right now, at an Austrian festival in Austria," Zuboff puts it. "We don’t really have to per se, but it’s basically impossible to really get to that next level [in your life or career] without speaking the language […] You can walk against that slanted service, but it’s very difficult."

There’s no place like home

Living in the UK, it’s all too often far too easy to idolise the rest of world. Luke Turner and Rory Gibb’s recent beautifully written up soujourn to Poland’s Unsound Festival sounds beyond anything we could muster back home, awash with forward-thinking, raw Polish homegrown talent. But, of course, I’m wrong.

Following on from Mika Vainio’s Saturday night set up in the dusty Dungeon, Seb Gainsborough, aka Vessel quickly sets up a table full of his own digital toys, and gets going a few minute early with piercing analogue drum machine blasts. Launching into one of the best shows I’ve seen all year. It ambles to life, taking the lighting guys a few minutes to clock that the random percussive blasts mean that Vessel’s started, but the lights dim, and a blue and purple field washes the wall behind Vessel, silhouetting the artist into nothing more than a viciously nodding madman, at the controls of an increasingly powerful machine. On his bonafide masterpiece, Punish, Honey out earlier this year, Vessel made the quantum leap from exceptional Bristolian beatmaker to perhaps the UK’s most defiantly original composer, synthesizing organic and electronic source material into throttling industrial raves and pulsating, at times stunningly pretty, instrumentals. The random rumblings at the head of his set grow and grow into a steady beat, touching upon Punish, Honey‘s various key themes. Vessel climaxes with a lengthy, loose, and wigged out reading of ‘Red Sex’, and the lights start to strobe, and the smoke machines muddying vision in the stone room to the point where all you see is the hazy image of Gainsborough maniacally dancing as he brings the track’s wailing klaxonesque melody into the foray. Vessel is operating on a different plane right now, and the almost painful state of ecstasy he finds himself in, is infectious.

Emptyset–another Bristol institution–make an appearance immediately following Vessel, combining wobbly bass and live manipulated visuals to stunning effect. It begins so minimal, almost as minimal as both sound and vision can be, with nothing but a quivering white cross on a black field projected behind them, and a slowly awakening bass tone. The tone slowly opens and closes, and loudens and quietens, each time causing the giant white X to suddenly wobble out of focus, and we realise the lines are soundwaves. In one gradual shifting motion over a quarter of an hour, the tone evolves into a highly animated primal beast. It peaks deafeningly over the PA, and then cuts back to nothingness, and then begins pulsating into a rhythm. The black and white visuals behind travel with the music, manipulating the odd effects created by live analogue manipulation, and the entire affair resembles a minimalist church service. We gather, to worship the power of electromagnetism, to offer our ears to the mighty soundwave, as we soft machines seek redemption in the cold wisdom of mechanical spirits.

Friday night is Hyperdub night at the Dom im Berg. Ten years in, the label’s a real institution, and its story one of constant progress, and ever-growing success. Label founder/leader Kode9 has chosen Mala, Ikonika, Cooly G and Scratcha DVA (along with himself) to represent the bass institution on something of a celebratory world tour for the decade anniversary, already playing recent shows in Tokyo, Berlin and Barcelona. The kids of Graz I’ve met seem to almost hardly believe their luck at what’s in store for them – and by Scratcha DVA’s closing set for the crew, Hyperdub’s position as the greatest label for bass music in the world is without question. Although she’s just put out one of the year’s most alluringly intimate vocal albums, Cooly G warms up the gathering throng with a decidedly funky set. Some journalistic duties force me elsewhere for a bit, but by return the room is explosive in the midst of Mala‘s belter of a set. He’s only got an hour – relatively paltry for your average DJ – but squeezes every last ounce of rhythm into it. Just walking into the room is a rush, and from an observation area up on a balcony you can see a thousand punters utterly letting loose. Mala jump cuts at an absurd pace, barely shifting from crunchy high energy rhythms and wobbly bass, almost cathartically sporadically yelling "Hyperdub! 2014!".

Kode9 plays for over two hours, taking the party into a high-energy dreamstate. The man practically faints off the stage – now full of dancing punters and Hyperdub associates – as he passes proceedings over to Scratcha DVA, and I later spy him and Robert Lowe warmly chatting about their mutual friend, The Bug. The Hyperdub message is an intense thing to witness, and after hours dancing alone in a crowd I feel something I’ve never really felt before. I feel homesick for Britain. It’s an unexpected side-effect, especially at such a great festival, in such a beautiful city, but by the time I’m heading home, I’m actually excited to see those grey skies and Brutalist rectangles.

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