It’s not controversial to crown Unsound the European underground’s favourite, with each edition bringing a rich mix of weirdos to Kraków for eight days of bold performances and frontier club sounds. Its success lies partly in the adventurous line-ups, but equally important is the engagement with attendees through an annual theme. Every year this prompts fun if not difficult questions to heighten the experience: each edition is a puzzle.
2018’s theme, Presence, raises some particularly personal questions compared with last year’s Flower Power: has connectivity transformed our notions of what it means to be present, and should we resist this transformation? Are you really at the rave if you spend half the time trying to get a nice IG story? Or should we accept that social media has rewired us? Are complaints about phones in the club really valid, or have they become the boorish refrain of techno bros obsessed with quaint notions of ‘keeping it real’?
The nearby Wieliczka Salt Mine proves a good place to start reflecting on these questions: the Wi-Fi is pretty lacking 135 metres under the ground, and leaving means a lengthy walk through its rocky veins for a high-speed lift to the surface. It’s down here in a somewhat claustrophobic chamber that Terry Riley and his son Gyan, a guitarist, deliver Thursday night’s performance: a set of colourful improvisations that draw on Riley’s wide range of musical pursuits, from Indian ragas to pointed, piano-driven minimalism. Certain passages are meditative, others are lively and charming, and to see the 83-year-old master have such obvious fun on stage says something about living in the moment (although clearly not to everyone – a sizeable chunk of the audience leave their seats early which, even between songs, feels a little awkward in such a confined space).
A second key evening performance comes from Jlin, serving as counterpoint to the stillness and restriction of Riley in the mine. In the spacious ICE hall, she is joined on stage by dancers from Company Wayne McGregor for an edited version of Autobiography, a collaborative production scored by the Baltimore producer herself. Jlin has always worked ahead of footwork’s tropes, but now she has moved into totally singular territory: waves of sharp, syncopated rhythm thunder over blasts of expertly sculpted noise. On stage, the dancers move largely in pairs, their patterns angular and combative. It’s an utterly arresting show, brimming with drama. In recent years, Jlin has played sets in Hotel Forum, the concrete beast that houses Unsound at night. To see her move so effortlessly into a different environment is testament to her artistry.
Although very different, both Riley and Jlin’s pieces centre audience attention. In playing with the theme of presence, some artists deliberately draw attention elsewhere. A particularly blunt example is Amnesia Scanner. Before starting, the ever-playful Berlin duo fire up their own Wi-Fi network, allowing the audience access to a private chat room. Live, their molten thick dancehall and extra-terrestrial pop sound more otherworldly than ever, overloaded with distortion and voices autotuned out of recognition. They’re joined by a third member – an on-screen ‘artificial intelligence spirit’ named Oracle whose random utterances (Papa Roach lyrics, for example) aren’t unlike that of Space Odyssey’s HAL losing sentience, as the murdering machine is powered off for good. Meanwhile, said chat room has predictably descended into a mess of shitposting and gibberish. There’s plenty of jokes, not many of them funny. In effect, participants are present on two planes, and club-goers with a distaste for phones are missing out – although given what they’re missing, they may be glad for it.
Two more Hotel Forum highlights are Gabor Lazar and Async Figure. Lazar’s 2018 LP Unfold has cemented his status as one of the most forward-thinking club music producers out. For his live show, he rifles through styles at a thrilling pace whilst staying true to his icy, elasticated signature sound, from gritty electro to what sounds suspiciously like grime instrumentals. Meanwhile, Async Figure is the new project from MM and Suda of Her Records. With the room engulfed in smoke, the pair layer high emotion synths over dizzying, blown-out breaks. It’s a deeply disorientating set, littered with fragments of UK club culture, with no readily available point of reference – although maybe fans of Roly Porter would do well to look out for future releases.
However, if there’s one group Unsound 2018 belongs to, it’s the Nyege Nyege crew and their affiliates, including Sisso, Slikback, and DJ-MC duo Bamba Pana and Makaveli. Friday night in the kitchen sees the latter send the crowd into hysterics with their Singeli style – a raw and riotous creation from Dar es Salaam, made of rapid fire drums, MIDI instrument jams and sped-up pop samples, all performed at breakneck speed. With just a laptop and a mic, the pair bleed a transformative energy that’s impossible to ignore. It demands presence.
Taking a brief turn on the mic that night is South African rapper Sho Madjozi, whose own show on the Saturday night is surely the most fun all weekend. She is an electrifying presence on stage, where her tireless flow is soundtracked by DJ Lag, a pioneer of Durban’s dark and eerie gqom sound. Presumably any festival preoccupied with Presence would be keen to produce some had-to-be-there moments. This has a screamer: DJ Lag dropping Benny Benassi’s enduring 2002 smash, Satisfaction. The reaction is enormous.
Fearless curation, an absorbing theme and spectacular venues mean that Unsound has outdone itself once more. We can only wait to see how it follows it up in 2019.