Malmö, Sweden
25 April - 30 May

Malmö, the third largest of Sweden’s cities, has an energy all of its own.

A short ride across the Øresund Strait from Copenhagen, the historically working-class town was, we are informed, one of the last of Sweden’s cities to embrace a cashless economy. Certainly it’s cheaper than both Stockholm and Gothenburg; the kind of integrated city where startups sit alongside excellent falafel spots and signs of queer culture (an LGBTQ film festival overlapped our stay). In other words, the perfect breeding ground for a burgeoning underground scene. And while illegal raves continue to prove a thorn in the local government’s side, Intonal – now in its fourth year – is doing little to quell this growing appetite, acting as a lightning rod for boundary-pushing music and art.

“There is no better synthesiser than the organ” exclaims Charlemagne Palestine from the gallery of the St Johannes Church, the setting for the festival’s opening concert. As lasers bisected the apse, the minimalist pioneer – a contemporary of Steve Reich and Terry Riley – barely contained his glee at putting the early 20th century pipe organ through its paces. Curious passers-by entered the church, snickered at the music, which shifted from theatrically dissonant to transcendently boring, but, tellingly, stayed. The rarefied confines of the church were a one-off, however. Intonal is mainly situated at Inkonst, an arts centre that has the mod-cons of an art space, the attitude of a DIY venue: murals, kombucha and excellent sound systems.

With the venue divided into three key spaces, including an entrance foyer where Red Light Radio held fort, it was The Black Box auditorium which facilitated the most avant-garde impulses of the festival. Montreal’s Alexander Langevin-Tetrault proved a draw on Friday, as he reframed electroacoustic performance as full-body workout with the help of a custom-built instrument that looked like a Byzantine chest extensor. Pan Daijing, the Chinese-born Pan affiliate, also used movement to spectacular affect, beginning her set by contorting her body, rapping her knuckles on the floor and fastening a black hood around her head and shoulders. This piece of high performance art pulled the audience into her world, acting as a pre-echo of her highly charged musical power-play. In an artist talk with Lisa Blanning the day before, Daijing revealed film as a primary inspiration, drawing analogies between fast editing and noise. Live, she created emotional narratives through monolithic distortion, churning bass and yearning vocals, manipulating equipment through the gauze of her hood; an image befitting of a surrealist masterpiece.

Importantly, festival director, Kontra-Musik’s Ulf Eriksson is clearly embedded within an international underground that is firstly diverse – women made up seeming more than half of Intonal’s bill – and has little truck distinguishing between the avant-garde and the club. The close proximity between the different stages at Inkonst further dissolved these boundaries, reflecting, in very real terms, the feedback channels that frequently exist between the two. Certainly both Tunisian artist Deena Abdelwahed and Montreal duo Pelada played sets that felt immediate, politically pointed but tuned into complex timbre and texture. Abdelwahed, who is best-known for her production work on Fever Ray’s Plunge, brought together hard-edged drum programming and longueurs of languid pads that had the sheet metal ennui of a post-punk instrumental. The set was a thrilling push-pull between abandon and reflection, pan-global bass and Arabic inflections – not least when she picked up the microphone to weave her live vocals into the heady mix.

Pelada, a Montreal duo on the come up, also channelled a vibrant DIY spirit. Comprising Tobias Rochman and Chris Varga. their deployment of amen breaks, combative Spanish vocals and insinuating analogue synths made short work of chatting punters. A special shout out must go to Malmö’s own Rivet – the Kess-Kill boss played a energising set of muscular EBM in the foyer in which Pelada’s single No Hay had people dancing around the sofas.

Of all the rooms, the Club was the most unabashedly fun: opening each night around midnight, the programme ranged from performative trance DJ sets, Gerald Donald’s electro mastery – he played a live set under his Arpanet moniker – to forensic, party-fuelling dancehall from Equiknoxx. Elysia Crampton plumped for a moodier set than we’ve seen her play before, but her tendency to hold a keytar like a Flying V while holding down power chords and sample stings still thrills. No less transportive, Gqom pioneer DJ Lag began Saturday’s headline set with an edit of Juicy J’s Bandz a Make Her Dance. It was one of a handful of hip-hop edits that Lag deployed to thrilling affect along with dramatic filter sweeps and remixes of South African pop.

Four editions in, Intonal has mastered its own internal rhythm. The third day, a Sunday, was given over to more reflective musics, perhaps in empathy for those who saw out Saturday’s after-party in an industrial part of town where, presumably, Sweden’s strict dancing and drinking laws hold little sway. In the Black Box, Valby Vokalgruppe, a Danish all-female four-piece caught our attention. They use two cellos, synth and, most predominantly, voice to explore contemporary issues through sound, drawing from texts as varied as Wikipedia and Gertrude Stein. But never mind the footnotes, the work stood by itself – the clarity of the harmonising and strange snippets of text sounding like a kind of human algorithm, and an inversion of the usual experimental trope of expressing human ideas through hyper-synthesised sounds. It embodied the festival’s capacity to reset expectation – a feeling that carried across the whole programme and was present in abundance during Avalon Emerson’s closing set. Here, the US DJ, fresh from Coachella, led a high-impact closing party that leaned into Aaliyah edits, ridiculously fun garage and, at one point a psychedelic reworking of Inner City’s Good Life. A fitting ending for a festival where the familiar can take on the excitement of the new, while abstract compositions suddenly make perfect sense. Intonal, much like Malmö, has a peculiar energy all of its own. It’s infectious.