Make Your Transition: Future Shocked At Krakow’s Unsound Festival

Rory Gibb travels to Krakow for the Unsound Festival, and gets lost in a week's worth of forward-thinking music, art and discussion

The strains of Yazoo’s ‘Don’t Go’ stab from the stage into the smoky basement of Krakow’s Club Pauza. It’s an auspicious start to 2011’s Unsound Festival: its theme of Future Shock takes its name from Alvin Toffler’s 1970 book, itself closely tied to 70s and early 80s concepts of futurism. Except it’s not Alison Moyet hogging the limelight. It’s a tall, slim Polish man, wielding a fluoro lamp at the crowd like a lightsabre. A couple of songs later Vojciech Kucharczyk, in his guise of The Complainer, offers a version of The Smiths’ ‘Panic’ flecked with a soft Polish accent.

A preview of his upcoming covers album, where he takes on a series of synth-pop standards (‘Don’t You Want Me Baby’; ‘Blue Monday’), Kucharczyk’s performance articulates one of the central concerns that runs throughout Unsound’s tenure. Back when Toffler’s book was written, the development of synthesised sound was still driving ultra-rapid shifts towards an alien musical future. As these changes have slowed, much of this year’s line-up asks, what happened to the wonderful utopian world we were supposed to be inhabiting by now?

If anything Unsound offers a convincing argument, via opposition, that the rampant excesses of late-period capitalism and consumer society are largely responsible, thanks to their compression of the modern experience into a constant series of nows. Its effect on culture has been to encourage neophilia – the ceaseless quest for brand new things (music, art, sexy gadgets) to sate a growing, unsustainable appetite, akin to the guzzling of vast quantities of fatty and insubstantial fast food.

But one of the things that makes Unsound different is that it runs in opposition to this hyper-stimulated, caffeinated way of being (though admittedly our week is fueled in part by unhealthy quantities of Burn, an evil, crack-in-a-can sort of an energy drink). Rather than cramming the line-up into a hurried and stressful three days, it takes place over a full week. The schedule allows the festival’s attendees to catch almost everyone on the line-up, as they all play at different times. Not only does this slow the incessant, frazzled rush of your usual festival down to a leisurely stroll, it also provides ample time to absorb, discuss and digest the music we’re presented with.

The after-effects of last month’s heatwave are still being felt in London when we land in Krakow on Saturday 8th, though there’s little trace of it here. Still, the fact that it’s a good ten degrees colder outside is swiftly made up for by the discovery that our apartment is done out in gaudy 70s-style decor, complete with large glass coffee table, zebra-patterned sofa and jacuzzi bathtub. It works nicely as an opulent base for the week’s events.

Ideally, a festival ought to actively encourage a lowering of the usual barriers. Those attending need not only to feel as though they’re involved in the festival’s day-to-day running – they actually need to be involved. That’s one aspect Unsound gets completely right. From the moment the festival begins the small crew of organisers mingle with everyone else. They’re hogging the dancefloor for Legowelt’s dreamy analogue techno at the opening party. They’re stood around chatting after the lectures that take place throughout the week. They’re mingling in the same cafes and bars. It seems like a small point, but it makes a huge difference, contributing to the sense that those attending are as important an aspect of the festival as those in charge. The attention to detail is charming too. When we collect our wristbands we’re given a list of recommended places to eat and drink around town, including the wonderfully named Sausages Under The Bridge. Again a small but very appreciated gesture.

The theme permeates everything. Each event, whether discussion panel, gig or installation, is given a title: ‘Eastern Bridges’; ‘Enclaves Of The Future’; ‘Stability Zone’ – matched to its contents. One of the organisers, Radek Szczesniak, has put together a beautiful little ‘zine containing a series of written and visual responses to Future Shock from a selection of the artists involved. Stellar OM Source’s essay sticks in the mind, contrasting modern electronic music with the almost confrontationally future-centric attitudes of early Detroit techno (via reference to Underground Resistance’s ‘Transition’, with its opening gambit of "There will come a time in your life when you ask yourself a series of questions…").

That’s an idea that rears its head again during Friday’s all-night rave-up in an old communist building, ‘Techno Rebels’, when Detroit innovators Model 500 take to the stage. Admittedly, it all gets a bit Gladiators during a particularly bombastic middle section, but being battered into submission by the so-rigid-they’re-funky syncopations of ‘Night Drive (Thru Babylon)’ and ‘No UFOs’ is as blissful an experience as any this week. It is Juan Atkins and Mad Mike, after all.

Similar thoughts about the past to future electronic music continuum rear up during Chris Carter and Cosey Fanni Tutti’s performance on Saturday. Opening with chilly murder ballad ‘Dr. John (Sleeping Stephen)’, and peaking in the middle with a ridiculously punchy version of ‘Driving Blind’, it’s striking how vital their music still feels. That’s partly down to the fact that their influence still resonates strongly now – traces of Chris & Cosey and Throbbing Gristle can be heard literally everywhere this week. Equally, though, it’s because Carter’s sound design is second to none. Every last element has been tweaked to perfection, synths sharpened for maximum damage. Like the techno and electro acts they continue to inspire, this is first and foremost impact music. An hour and twenty minutes of devastatingly sexy pop later, we’re bruised and battered into submission.

It would be impossible to write a comprehensive, chronological diary of all the arts and music over the course of the week. Thanks to careful curation, nothing (except a disappointing, dry synth-wank session from Ricardo Villalobos and Max Loderbauer) falls below a uniform high standard, so instead I’ve chosen to pick a few more things especially worthy of a mention.

The first is Felix Kubin’s performance at Monday’s opening party. A relative unknown in the UK, the German avant-pop producer’s music is something of a cult concern. But that’s hardly an issue in a packed Club Pauza, where he shifts from chaotic, snide pop to melancholy synth instrumentals. Kubin is every bit the showman, wielding cardboard thunderbolts during closer ‘Lightning Strikes’, punctuating the show with oddball videos and berating a cameraman for clambering all over the stage. The following day, he hosts a presentation entitled The Symptom Of The East, based around the interests that have fired Kubin’s career so far: the connections between East and West Europe, and the strange chemistries that have emerged since the fall of the Soviet Union. Like his music, which began through imagining an alternative, Soviet-dominated future Europe, it’s thoughtful and playful in equal measure.

The second is less a highlight than a single aesthetic that runs across several days. Since long before the advent of Not Not Fun’s sister label 100% Silk, there’s been a convergence in sound and attitude between many artists making hazy, web-age pop and those making dancefloor music. It’s admittedly taken 100% Silk to crystallise interest in that crossover region, but the fact remains that many of that label’s releases don’t quite cut it in a club. They still remain too insular and distant from the core requirements of the floor. However, a few performances this week offer decisive evidence that something rather exciting is happening along these edges where several genres bleed into one another:

Over the course of its hour’s length, Laurel Halo’s show on Thursday evening, hunched in a hoodie over synths and a laptop, slowly shifts from the formless stews of her Antenna cassette into fuzzy-edged, rhythm-driven tracks. Closer ‘Spring’ is nothing short of tremendous, its single towering melodic theme allowed to plunge repeatedly into a rattling pool of percussion, like a triangulated midpoint between Drexciya, Chicago footwork and the sultry devolved techno of her Hour Logic EP. On Sunday Stellar OM Source, whose Trilogy Select album on Olde English Spelling Bee was totally beatless, debuts a devastating new live set of sexy, acid-flecked house tracks.

Not Not Fun head Amanda Brown’s performance as LA Vampires finds her backed by 100% Silk’s Ital for one of the best sets of the weekend. Far from the swirling vortices of their recent collaborative EP Streetwise, it’s thick, heady, disco-leaning house that temporarily suspends an entire room’s worth of hangover. The tracks still teeter on the edge of indistinct, Brown’s sing-song chants chasing short melodic impulses, but they’re always reined in by the chunky anchor of a bass drum. In terms of physical impact, it’s most reminiscent of Leipzig’s drum machine wizard Kassem Mosse, whose excellent performance at Friday’s ‘Techno Rebels’ night produces the exactly same suspension of consciousness in an audience.

Hype Williams too, who have previously attracted a certain degree of suspicion for the withering way in which they present their YouTube samplescapes. Backlit by the constant pulse of a strobe and shrouded in dry ice, it’s striking just how much physical and emotional weight their live performances are accruing – with its crushing low-end, ‘Rise Up’ hits a packed audience like a tidal wave.

Any of the above could have held their own at either of the weekend’s all-night parties. In contrast to a lot of increasingly clean, sexless bass music production, each is beginning to offer emotive and sensual routes onto the dancefloor, and increasing engagement with the rules of club music.

The week’s most affecting performance, though, comes on Friday night. It’s 7pm, and a huge cloud of ginger curly hair comes barreling – half-rolling, half-falling – down the aisle of a cavernous auditorium, before leaping onto the stage, reaching for a microphone and launching into a furiously pitched-up version of ‘Ace of Spades’. It’s immediately satisfying to witness that Leyland Kirby hasn’t lost the wit and warped showmanship that defined V/Vm (his early project that toyed with the workings of well-known pop tracks). The drag-strip whine of Lemmy’s voice suddenly cuts out and Kirby settles behind his laptop, whiskey bottle in hand.

Live, presented alongside a flickering photo/video montage taken from his own life, his slow, sad instrumentals are prone to sudden collapse. As ‘Eventually, It Eats Your Lungs’ gradually escalates, he cuts it out without warning and starts again, something he repeats a couple more times. It’s a telling gesture – as with the rest of his career, he’s unafraid to destroy things, repeatedly toppling atmospheres only to rebuild them anew.

Kirby closes with a pitched-down version of Elton John’s ‘Can You Feel The Love Tonight’. Standing unlit at the lip of the stage, miming and reaching out towards a seated crowd that’s by turns delighted and perplexed, he cuts a lonely figure. It’s startlingly moving piece of performance art, and in three minutes does more to highlight V/Vm’s brilliance than any discussion session or academic paper ever could. Recontextualised, Sir Elton suddenly shapeshifts, transformed into any number of pop wannabes from the last decade who’ve been chewed up and spat out by the industry. Here in the darkness, miming the words, he’s all grand tragedy, a sad performer in front of a fickle crowd. It’s a mirror held up to the sorry state of modern pop, exposing the casual cruelty of reality television for what it really is: futile, and fleeting. Now if that isn’t Future Shock, I don’t know what is.

Photos by Anna Spysz: (from top) Robin Fox; Hype Williams; Model 500; Laurel Halo; Leyland Kirby

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