Boundary-pushing sets from Ziúr and µ-Ziq—plus a surprise airing of Tiësto's "Adagio For Strings"—at the Sydney experimental festival.
Originally a power station before falling into disuse, Casula Powerhouse felt like a fitting host for an experimental arts festival, especially when the Melbourne duo Friendships took the main stage. Veering away from their usual club bangers, the pair filled the venue's darkened turbine hall with mournful dissonance. Their set was a kind of dissociative opera, beautiful not for any particularly intricate detail, but for the sum of its opiated, reverb-drenched parts.
Next on the main stage was a collaboration between Arafura and the pole dancer Onyx. Lashing the audience with double kicks and anguished screams, the sheer volume generated by the Sydney grindcore band drowned out the constant chatter that had blighted Friendships' set. Onyx spent most of his time upside down, cutting impossible shapes with his legs in the air, and Arafura was similarly devoted to turning every convention on its head. Swinging between pensive noise and blistering, all-out assault, the trio barely stuck with any key or time signature for longer than a minute. This wasn't to everyone's tastes—some people wandered off in search of melody—but those who remained were rewarded with the most exhilarating performance of the festival.
My favourite Soft Centre moment, though, happened by pure accident. Determined to find the bathroom, the melodramatic strains of Tiësto's "Adagio For Strings" found me first. As I entered Hopper Gallery, the trance anthem's opening notes had already worked their magic by clearing the previously packed dance floor. A mass exodus was headed towards the main stage. "Let's find some real music," one disgruntled punter muttered to a friend. Inside, the Melbourne DJ Harold was hunched over a laptop, wreathed in dry ice, milking the symphonic bridge for all it's worth before bringing in the drop, not once, but six times. After a day of experimental trial and error, I realised my cravings could only be satisfied by quantized euphoria at 140 BPM.
This idea was central to the success of µ-Ziq's live set, which drew the day's largest and most animated audience. His performance pushed the BPM (breaks per minute) ratio into overdrive, bouncing deliriously from '90s Planet Mu classics to cuts from his latest album, Challenge Me Foolish. Funnily enough, his set was also the only one where the smell of poppers settled over the turbine hall like a psychoactive fog, though this was tempered by the wholesome sight of a group of shirtless men, who just seemed high on life, gabbering to "Grape Nut Beats (Pt.1)."
Ziúr, on the other hand, was slow to build up a crowd, starting her set with an ungodly clusterfuck of white noise that burned out into a brooding soundscape underlying Rosalie Kunoth-Monks' "I Am Not The Problem" speech. Tapping the cue button feverishly, Ziúr let the words sink in before picking up the pace, tumbling headfirst into a mix of thrash metal, grime instrumentals and high-octane tracks from her debut album, U Feel Anything? By the time the acappella from TLC's "No Scrubs" came in, she had everyone enthralled.
As the final act on the main stage, some might have expected a technically perfect set from Ziúr. They didn't get it, but they did get a glimpse into what the future of dance music could look like. As she said in a recent interview with RBMA, mistakes "belong to the best sets." Forget ambient theatrics or prurient aesthetics—it's this zeal, this courage of instinct, this willingness to try anything once, that will propel the soft centre of experimental music forward.
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