Day-by-day, on-the-ground reports from this year's week-long festival in Kraków.
Teatr im. Juliusza Słowackiego
• 20:30 PM - FLUTTER
“Where would dildos be without plastic? You would have to use copper dildos, which make your ass green” I 🖤 Matmos and their music that makes our complex relationship with plastic and hugely entertaining. A perfect way to conclude another wonderful @unsound 🙌🏻 pic.twitter.com/jgv0SaTlCD— Luke Turner (@LukeTurnerEsq) October 13, 2019
Sunday night's closing concert featured a group that feels quintessentially Unsound: Matmos, a Baltimore duo whose music, made with a kind of oddball found-sound wizardry, is playful, sonically dazzling and politically aware. Martin Schmidt and Drew Daniel took the stage at Słowacki Theatre like a stand-up duo, bantering and teasing each other as they explained the concept for the show, which was based on their last album, Plastic Anniversary, on which every sound is sourced from a piece of plastic ("except for the sounds that aren't plastic," Schmidt quipped). In the first piece we heard only samples already recorded, twisted and reshaped into glitchy electronic compositions. Then we saw them made from scratch. "There is some music that I fucking hate," Schmidt announced to crowd. He took out a record—The Best Of Bread Volume Two—and, after heaping scorn on it for a while, smashed it on the corner of the worktable that held their mass of gear. He took a shard of the broken record, held it against surface of the table so half of it stuck off, and flicked it, creating, via a nearby mic, a sonorous "thwack," slightly different in tone and pitch each time he flicked it again. On the other side of the table, Daniel started playing with this sonic nugget, looping it and eventually forming a kind of groove. Gradually, a song took shape. By the time it ended I'd forgotten it had begun with the broken Bread record.
It was a funny show—sometimes individual sounds had enough comic effect to make the audience laugh—but it ended with a striking shift in tone. Daniel told the audience that Plastic Anniversary was not just about plastic, but about how we as humans seem "locked into patterns of living that are going to kill us." For the final piece, Schmidt stood crinkling a plastic bag into a mic. From this coarse, inelegant and utterly lifeless noise, Daniel slowly summoned a washing drone, then from there, a suffocating wall of noise. On a movie screen behind them, we saw submarine footage of plastic bags on the bottom of the ocean, and then, as the mounting sound started to feel overwhelming, of bulldozers moving through what looked like acres of plastic waste. When the piece finished, Schmidt and Daniel, having cracked jokes to the crowd all night, walked offstage without a word.
• 23:00 - PARADE
Unsound's closing party—free, as always—took place in what, for me at least, is the festival's vibiest dance floor: The Kitchen at Hotel Forum. When I walked in, Seltron 400, a duo made up of Eltron and SLG, were playing hard, chunky techno for an already teeming dance floor. I stupidly missed Violet's live set because I was chatting in the vodka bar—though to be fair, in the bittersweet mood of the festival's final night, the chats felt essential, especially with people you'd shared moments with throughout the week. Closing the night were Monster, a DJ from Warsaw's Oramics crew, followed by Nazira. Both played walloping, offbeat techno, a clean, hard jolt of energy that went down particularly well after a week of less familiar dance floor sounds. That evening, it had taken some effort to venture out to a fourth night at Hotel Forum. But when Nazira suddenly faded out her last track, sometime around 4:30 AM, the end felt impossible to accept.
• 9:30 PM - DAZZLE
Saturday's programming at Hotel Forum took in a mind-melting array of club sounds from across the globe, from Detroit to São Paulo to Dar Es Salaam. But it was a local act who provided one of the evening's early highlights, with Polish artists Olivia and Chino premiering Radiation 30376, a hardware-focused live set of acid-washed techno. It went down a treat in the Chandelier Room, and set the stage for Population One, AKA Terrence Dixon, whose live show was hard, fast and full of unusual transitions and unconventional melodies. Later, Shanghai's Hyph11e went back-to-back with the Kenyan artist Slikback for a pleasing real-life manifestation of the duo's recent studio collaboration. In The Kitchen, Aya played a stunning set of IDM and bespoke edits while also taking the time to crowdsurf and, in the artist's own words, "give a TED talk on haemorrhoids."
The São Paulo band Teto Preto stole the show in Ballroom with a performance that oozed raw energy. Best of all were the weirder, darker tracks, sometimes nothing but Angel Carneosso's wild wails over spooky noise. To finish, the singer eyeballed the crowd, grabbed the mic and yelled, "Fuck Bolsonaro!" Then she curtsied.
Carlos Hawthorn and Aaron Coultate
Not being dramatic but @aya_yco crowd surfing to her remix of call me maybe is the best thing to happen in the history of electronic music— Niko (@neekolov) October 12, 2019
• 9:30 PM - FLOCK
No1. Literally no dj on planet earth:— Scratchclart🚫 (@ScratchaDVA) October 12, 2019
There's a lot to love about Unsound's weekend events at Hotel Forum, from the venue's retro kitsch (brutalist architecture, wall-to-wall carpets, lots of chandeliers) to the hard-dancing and admirably open-minded crowds. But the best thing about spending a night there is this: as you wander from one room to the next, you have absolutely no idea what you're about to hear. That's partly because Unsound's program is too vast and complex to keep straight in your head. But mostly it's because, of all the acts they book, no two of them sound alike, and very few are even loosely in the same genre. Across three all-night parties with dozens of acts each, that makes for a dizzying cornucopia of sounds.
Let's take Friday as an example. Early on in The Kitchen, DJ Python slung out out spacey, sexy, dancehall-inspired grooves in the same mould as his last record, Derretirse. Down a purple-lit hallway, around the corner into the Ball Room, Gabber Modus Operandi delivered a performance of carefully considered shock value, with chilling costumes, vocal-chord-destroying screams and, of course, 200-BPM rhythms. The highlight of this one came when Ican Harem, the Indonesian duo's vocalist, put on a pair of lazer gloves and pointed them at the crowd. One older man looked directly into the beams and stuck out a defiant middle finger.
Through the swinging double doors along the the Ball Room's right side, past a small bar and an all-night cafeteria, Giant Swan, a last-minute addition to the lineup, raced through an hour of gnarly, live and seemingly improvised techno in the Chandelier Room. When they were done, London MC Lady Lykez and DJ / producer Scratchclart had the audience moshing and climbing onstage. French DJs Betty and Teki Latex brought the energy to a staggering high, effortlessly moving from certified bangers like MMM's "Nous Sommes MMM" (mashed up with 20 Fingers' "Short Dick Man") to campy tunes like Neon Genesis Evangelion theme song "A Cruel Angel's Thesis."
If at some point in the midst of all that you'd circled back to The Kitchen, you'd have seen Nyege Nyege affiliate MC Yallah rapping for a crowd that lapped up every bar. On your way there, with the right timing, you'd have seen Erwan Karavec, a French bagpipe player, playing in the center of the Ball Room. Down a curling flight of stairs, in the Secret Lounge—a circular room with a sunken dance floor lined with leather booths—were Polish saxophonists Tomasz Gadecki and Paulina Owczarek and Sly And The Family Drone, an English group that, weirdly enough, kind of live up to their name (maybe easiest to see for yourself).
Will Lynch and Maya-Roisin Slater
Teatr Łaźnia Nowa
• 7 PM - EXALTATION
Sunn O))) fans descended upon Teatr Łaźnia Nowa on Friday night as the auditorium filled with a sea of grey goatees, ratty Teklife sweatshirts and plaid flat caps. Putting the American singer and composer Lyra Prymuk in this opening slot was a genius bit of programming. She swept over the stage in a long red dress with a string of pearls around her neck surrounded by towering silhouettes of the headliner's amps. As the delicate first few notes left her lips the metalheads stood in complete attention as their faces softened. Relying mainly on vocal looping with some electronic tracks playing in the background, Pramuk took her voice to soaring peaks and vibrating lows. It was beautiful without being precious as she pushed herself to the limits of her range. In doing so Pramuk, a classically trained singer, showed us her technical side while also inviting us into some quiet moments of vulnerability. In line with the title of that evening's concert, Exaltation, the performance in many ways felt like an expression of joy as Pramuk twirled her hands and jumped around the stage.
As the smoke fills the room at the Sunn 0))) gig pic.twitter.com/f66wHrm3OR— Pure Joy (@purejoydj) October 11, 2019
Biuro Festiwalowe - Pałac Krzysztofory
• 15:45 - ARTIST TALK: THE CARETAKER, IVAN SEAL & WEIRDCORE
Andy Battaglia's discussion with The Caretaker (Leyland James Kirby), Ivan Seal and Weirdcore on Friday afternoon explored the way the three artists intersect and overlap in their work. (All three were involved in the previous night's audiovisual live show at Kino Kijów.) Kirby and Seal also discussed The Caretaker's striking record sleeves, with Seal describing his art in a way that was both droll—"I drew a shadow, then I drew a box, then a ball, and then I stuck a match in it," he said of the cover art for An Empty Bliss Beyond This World—and highly conceptual. The audience questions were fun, too—most notably the Russian man wearing a glove who challenged Kirby to a duel in Moscow. "You're not the only one who's after me in Moscow," Kirby replied. "We'll need to have some elimination bouts first."
• 1 AM - PANDEMONIUM
The first night at Hotel Forum, Unsound's main late-night venue, was for flitting between performances. In The Kitchen, a white-tiled box with a wall of windows, upsammy kept it dark and slinky with nods to dubstep, techno and jungle. Low Jack, playing Chandelier Room, jumped between rap bangers, some French, some American, and wicked, low-slung bombs. I passed through Ballroom, the venue's largest space, during the Polish gabber collective WIXAPOL, but didn't stay long, a move I later came to regret—everyone agreed it was mind-meltingly good.
My favourite performance was by Rosa Pistola, a Mexican reggaeton DJ who came strongly recommended by Low Jack. Bouncing behind the decks, she powered through banger after sultry banger, each fresh dembow beat like petrol to a raging fire. Overhead, the room's signature chandeliers swayed severely.
• 20:30 - HUM
The Caretaker's live show ended with a pig mask slowly rotating around the platter of a turntable on stage at Kino Kijów. What came before was a performance that captured Leyland James Kirby's ability to be both poignant and daft in his art. The mask, which Kirby was wearing when he came on stage, was possibly a nod to The Shining, the Stanley Kubrick film that provided the creative spark for The Caretaker, a two-decade project that explored early-onset dementia through a series of manipulated 1920s and '30s ballroom recordings.
After a giddy opening in which Kirby declared himself the world's heavyweight ambient champion (his opponent: the music industry) and aired a cover of Bon Jovi's “Wanted Dead Or Alive,” he launched into a karaoke version of Simply Red's “Holding Back The Years.” In keeping with Unsound's Solidarity theme, Kirby threw his support behind the band's often-maligned frontman, Mick Hucknall, whose face was twisted on-screen in terrifying cartoonish contortions. This was the first sign of Weirdcore, the visual artist noted for his work with Aphex Twin. The music was enriched by Weirdcore's vivid interpretation of the project, which referenced Ivan Seal's album sleeves and The Shining's haunted ballroom scene, with flickering visions of velvet curtains, sinister doorways and creepy armchairs. The visuals then moved into sparse rooms with peeling wallpaper as the music, initially rich and lustrous, was slowly consumed by the ever-present vinyl crackle—signalling a plunge deeper into memory loss. Ultimately, Kirby provided what fans in the audience wanted: a run-through of The Caretaker's greatest hits. But it was the twists and turns along the way that we'll remember most.
Biuro Festiwalowe - Pałac Krzysztofory
• 17:00 - Complicity And Accountability: Our Agency In Counterculture
Yesterday delivered another packed and invigorating discourse program, including a panel moderated by journalist Tayyab Amin called Complicity And Accountability: Our Agency In Counterculture. Panelists Frankie Hutchinson, Laura Diaz, Mat Dryhurst and DeForrest Brown Junior delivered thoughtful critiques on financial hierarchies in the music industry.
"When we impose morality onto marginalized people, we give a free pass to rich kids dressing down," Dryhurst said on the ethics of brand partnerships. For those who partnered with the beverage companies that injected their marketing budgets into electronic music, the rug was soon ripped from under them. "The music industry collapsed when Smirnoff pulled out in 2015, and then Red Bull started doing the same," said DeForrest Brown, Jr.
One of the panel's strongest voices, Brazilian artist and promoter Laura Diaz, tied the topics of money, brands and accountability together from a Latin American perspective. She highlighted the privilege of being able to choose if you'd like to partner with a brand or not, as in many places around the world, there's simply no money on the table. "When white men apologize to me, it's for them," she said. "I don't want "sorry," I want the money and conditions to do my thing."
• 20:30 - DESCENT
Unsound boasts a few extraordinary and unusual venues, but none are as impressive as Wieliczka Salt Mine, a network of underground spaces that extends 327 meters underground, first dug up in the 13th century and producing table salt from then till 2007. Patrons for Unsound's Wednesday night concert could wind their way underground on a guided tour or plummet through the mineshaft in a utility elevator. Either way, you end up in a beautiful, cavernous concert hall. This year the lineup included a DJ set from Philip Sherburne and live performances from Felicia Atkinson and a sprawling ensemble made up of experimental jazz trio The Necks and Sinfonietta Cracovia. I got there just in time for The Necks, a group I know mostly through their sublime first album, Sex. Their performance in the salt mine shared a lot in common with that record, moving gradually and fluidly through a single extended piece, occasionally rising to a climax of sorts. The best of these moments came about 15 minutes from the end, when Sinfonietta Cracovia's string players let out a series of eerie, sweeping, wave-like tones. Like Goat the night before, it was a hypnotic and time-altering performance, and for many in the room, a needed moment of rest and reflection. In both sound and sight—a live ensemble playing dreamlike music beneath the uneven black ceiling of an underground cave—it was also pleasantly surreal.
• 23:15 - ROOM 4 RESISTANCE × CLUB CHAI
Lashing rain could've been bad news for Room 4 Resistance and Club Chai, who co-hosted a party at Szpitalna 1 last night. But no. Before the doors even opened, a cluster of umbrella-wielding ravers were huddled outside, eager to snap up the few remaining tickets. An hour or so later, Club Chai's cofounder 8ULENTINA hit the decks in the main room, a cosy space with stone walls and a curved ceiling. They slammed out powerful rhythm tracks, some four-on-the-floor, others more syncopated styles like reggaeton, many fused with R&B and rap vocals. They mimed along as their eyes and hands flitted from CDJ to CDJ. Through the teeming dance floor, I recognised plenty of faces from Unsound's other musical event of the evening, the annual descent into the spectacular Wieliczka Salt Mine. Then, they had sat, silent and still, taking in a hushed performance from Félicia Atkinson. Now, they flailed with intent.
As we got deeper and deeper into the night, the crowd, many adorned with Solidarity baseball caps and Unsound-branded fanny packs, grew progressively looser. The Mutual Respect team could be seen floating around the room in their pale pink T-shirts, shuffling those who needed water or air outside. Despite a temperature that seemed to hover around 79 degrees Celsius, a stunning DJ set from Tunisian artist Deena Abdelwahed inspired some of the night's most passionate dancing. Hand drumming along to her remix of Domenico Torti and Afrika Bambaataa's "Radar," Abdelwahed's ability to combine disparate rhythms and genres is second to none. Her unrelenting energy onstage, jumping between the decks and twisting knobs with undeniable finesse, fuelled the audience's fist bumps and side steps.
Carlos Hawthorn and Maya-Roisin Slater
• 14:30 - PRESENTATION
The panels, lectures and other discussions that make up the daytime program are one of the best parts of Unsound, in part because they don't pull any punches. These are serious and thoughtful discussions on topics that really matter, from climate crisis to the dangerous rise in the strength of ecstasy pills. They can be funny and upbeat, but they have permission to be uncomfortable or even upsetting. You can always expect to walk out thinking differently about something.
On Tuesday, the writer and musician DeForrest Brown, Jr. gave a talk called Assembling A Black Counterculture, a topic that's also the subject of a book he's working on. Over the course of his hour, he confronted the structural racism and appropriation of black culture in dance music, taking aim at icons and institutions from Richie Hawtin to Resident Advisor to Virgin Records (former parent company of Planet Mu, the label releasing his upcoming record). He shared brilliant insights on Alvin Toffler, Juan Atkins and the relationship between technology and people of colour, which extends from slavery to the term "techno." Meanwhile, he toyed with the very format of a conference presentation, meandering off topic when he felt like it, sharing bits of personal history and other seemingly improvised riffs, and allowing tense moments of silence to underline his points. It was a strikingly courageous performance: an artist and a writer with no institution behind him, a black man speaking to an overwhelmingly white audience, laying out uncomfortable truths that implicated people in the room. This was something well beyond what terms like "panel" or "lecture" would suggest.
A couple hours later, on a panel co-presented by Resident Advisor, RA contributor Maya-Roisin Slater spoke with three activists, DJs and promoters from Poland about a subject that's gripped people here for months: the violence at an equality march in July, the tide of homophobic sentiment and propaganda behind it, and its ripples throughout Poland's music scene. This, too, was potently emotional, with people onstage and in the audience at times fighting back tears as they discussed a real and terrifying threat to themselves, the people they love and the music scene they're a part of.
• 21:30 - GAZE
Upon entering the basement of Manggha, a museum of Japanese art and technology and official headquarters of the Polish Bonsai club, the sprawling concert hall was thick with the smell of sandalwood incense. Shortly after the sweet scent came a decimating wall of sound as New York-based noise artist Dreamcrusher started their set. Standing behind a man in a "Silence is Healthy" tee, me and the people around me scrambled to jam bright orange plugs into our ears as we were slapped around by howling screeches and blasts of harsh and gritty bass.
A decade-long veteran of the genre, by now Dreamcrusher is a bit of a legend for their live sets. Rolling around on stage and singing directly to people in the first-row, they seemed utterly uninterested in audience expectations. Through vulnerability, humor, and the cathartic aggression of ear-drum shattering decibels, the show captured a moment of pure-self expression. They jumped into the crowd at one point and were carried through the audience on people's hands and shoulders. Shortly after the opening track came "PSA," from their 2018 EP Grudge2. It starts with a 30-second loop of Katy Perry saying "They ask you how you are, and you just have to say that you're fine even though you're not really fine, but you just can't get into it because they would never understand."
After an intensive discourse program earlier that day, which highlighted systemic problems we as an industry need to address, this show was a beautiful reminder of how vital electronic music can be.
The night's final act made for a lovely change in tone. Goat is a three-piece Japanese band—a drummer, a hand percussionist and a bass player armed with many pedals—with a sound as minimalist as it is hypnotic. Their set was all staccato rhythms and tactile textures, delivered in a handful of long pieces, though their effect on the listener makes it hard to say exactly how long. Each of their fluid, undulating compositions seemed to end without warning, catching the audience off guard before they erupted in applause. Glints of amber light drifted over the stage as the crowd bobbed dreamily along.
Maya-Roisin Slater and Will Lynch
• 00:00 - KARAOKE
When Gaze ended at 11:30 PM, a portion of the crowd ordered taxis or walked 20 minutes through a cool mist to a bar in Kraków's old town for one of Unsound's most beloved traditions: Tuesday night Karaoke. Everyone performed one after another on an empty dance floor for all to see. Artists, punters, students from Unsound Lab, speakers from the day's panels and the festival's core organizers all queued up. Highlights included Black Sabbath's "Black Sabbath," Fleetwood Mac "Dreams," Studio B's "Fascinated" and Another Level's "Freak Me." (Feel like what happens at karaoke stays at karaoke so I'd rather not name names, but I'll admit to teaming up with RA contributor Lisa Blanning for a duet of Peaches' "Fuck The Pain Away.") It's easy to see why this is always such a hit. For a festival presenting some of the most thoughtful and advanced music out there, Unsound is wonderfully, refreshingly down to earth. As much as it challenges and enlightens its audience, it also knows how to have fun.
• 19:00 - WAKE
As I waited outside the historical Juliusz Słowacki theatre for Unsound 2019's opening concert, a local elderly man asked what I was here to see. When I explained it was an experimental music event, his face dropped. "Oh god," he said with a tip of his flat cap. "Good luck."
In the end, I didn't need the luck of this conventional-music-loving old man. Both performances that night, the first by Iranian electroacoustic artist Sote and the second by American poet and musician Moor Mother, were passionate and wildly detail-oriented.
A master of synthetic soundscapes, Sote used processes like physical modeling and granular and additive synthesis to transform two traditional Iranian instruments—the tar and santour—into shrill and punchy electronics. Playing music from the 2019 album Parallel Persia, Sote and his two collaborators, Arash Bolouri and Pouya Damadi, came off like a deconstructed club music jam band. While guiding us through this contorted world of sinister noise, bending strings and playful patterns, the trio grinned and threw each other nods of approval. It was probably the most fun I've ever seen an experimental group have onstage.
After a short intermission, in which fans and industry professionals alike could be seen covertly sipping small flasks of apple vodka beneath the auditorium's 120 bulb chandelier, Moor Mother graced the stage. Her commissioned piece, performed and composed in collaboration with a percussionist, a pianist and two violinists from the London Contemporary Orchestra, was chill-inducing. The Great Bailout is a scathing free-verse poem mapping Britain's role as a destructive colonial power, instigator of the American slave trade, and the financial benefactor of both of these tragedies. Using bells, cans, bows and symbols, eclectic percussion formed the piece's backbone, melting into Moor Mother's mournful words with chaotic harmony.
By fusing the past and present, both acts showed a glimpse into music's future. A future that doesn't discard our sonic history but engages it in conversation. As the 126-year-old baroque venue suggested, it's a future where new traditions stand in solidarity with ancient ones. For a festival that's interested in the wide-spanning outcomes of collective experiences, this was the perfect start.
• 23:30 - COALITION
Every year, the first night of Unsound's week-long programme finishes with a warehouse party, one that, like the daytime talks, is free to all comers, festival pass or no. This is one of the many ways Unsound hooks up its local scene. It's also a sign of their deft pacing and programming. Whether you'd just arrived in Kraków, spent the weekend at Unsound Lab—a two-day series of workshops focussed on empowering young music professionals from Poland, Central and Eastern Europe—or come straight from the opening concert, this jolt of energy was just what the doctor ordered.
This year's opening party was at a new venue: Zet Pe Te, a long and cavernous hall in an industrial complex that was once a tobacco factory, now home to a cluster of restaurants and bars (Unsound also hosted some of their early events here before it was redeveloped). The place was packed. Young locals danced with their eyes closed while Unsound regulars met on the dance floor for the first time of the week. Playing back-to-back, Bambounou and Lutto Lento were the perfect ice breaker. Cloaked in mist and backlit with green and orange light, the duo bounced between trap, kuduro, grime, deconstructed techno and other odd bits, including one searingly fast bit of Italo that proved cruelly un-Shazamable.
Hearing that one from outside the dance floor room, I thought maybe Schacke had turned up after all—initially one of the night's main acts, he'd canceled at some point during the day. That was a bummer, but it meant I got to see a bit of Nastya Muravyova, a DJ from Kiev's hotly tipped CXEMA crew. She closed the night with dark and thumping techno inspired by classic rave. The crowd up front had been gleefully thrashing around all night, but they never went quite as nuts as they did when Muravyova dropped her first anvil-heavy kick.