Surprise! Unsound 2015 was really, really great.
It also provided one of those rare occasions where a festival’s theme adds to, or indeed integral to its entire experience and not just an excuse to dress up in some questionable gear (this year’s unofficial theme was Wear Black). While inevitably providing some frustration among the patrons (FOMO was a constantly observable anxiety), the theme seemed to have the opposite effect – people were more prepared than ever to simply see where the day, night, or 100m miners’ lift would take them. It was Revelations, the concert that many of the out-of-towners arrived at first, that would provide the full spectrum participation-based emotion. Those that made the trip deep into the Polish crust found themselves in a sprawling complex of narrow passageways, elaborate banquet halls and innumerable places of worship, painstakingly carved from the dense seam of salt that have been mined since the 13th century. And it was in the largest of these halls, after DJ Richard’s engulfing set of ambience that we saw (or rather, didn’t) someone playing a set of exclusively Burial material. The stage was empty, pitch black, the only sign of a performance being a few figures skulking around in a separate raised area at the back of the room. Was it Burial? Was it Kode9? Someone knows, but no-one told us. Regardless, to hear these cracked, emotive records reverberate around such a space was worth the trip (and the omnipresent claustrophobia).
The other real trip of this year’s festival was Tim Hecker’s Ephemera show, developed in collaboration lighting designer MFO and scent creator Geza Schoen. While the smell accompaniment was somewhat lost on me (though I guess it made an abandoned cigarette factory not smell like an abandoned cigarette factory), the sensory experience was truly one of the most intense experiences of my life. Vision is reduced to smudged colour as MFO’s lighting is dispersed amongst smoke so thick you can barely see your hand in front of face. Trying to make sense of the room, your location within it, and the proximity of the other 90 or so participants becomes a genuine mental exercise, one which bought me to the point of paranoia more than once. Hecker’s score violently accentuated the sensation, as his visceral, tactile mix of heaving drone and delicate musique concréte tore from the soundsystem through the dense air. I’d argue that the hour-long performance was arguably a little too much for such an intense environment, but Unsound has always seeked to push it’s audience, and here they were pushed right to the edge.
Besides these noteworthy excursions, the majority of the festival focussed on forward thinking club sounds, with the day programming seemingly taking more of a backseat this time round (not a criticism at all – we love a bit of doof in all its forms). However the inclusion of HEALTH and Liturgy, two of this generation’s most intense live bands, bought some serious weight to the daytime proceedings.
It was at night where Unsound really seemed to come together though. Taking place in the at-once expansive and intimate Hotel Forum – a retired symbol of 80’s Soviet hospitality plonked on the bank of the river Vistula, we were witness to everything from the expansive techno-vocalism’s of Holly Herndon (complete with Colin Self on hype-man duties) to a rowdy party set from Optimo in the bar. Nidia Minaj’s hyperactive syncopations were an early highlight, blending the rowdiness of peak-era UK Funky with the localised kuduro and batacuda sounds of the label’s Portuguese home. Helena Hauff went b2b with Berceuse Heroique’s Koehler (one of the many surprises across the Forum’s club programming that made a perfect sense) at the end of the evening, sounding like an acid-techno arms race between good friends.
Alessandro Cortini provided an underwhelmingly naive assortment of simple acid lines the following evening (though others I spoke to found his set a particular high point of the festival – such is the nature of experimental music) before we checked back into the Forum for another relentless night of heart-palpertating bass and sub-£1 pints. Andy Stott, Untold and Aurora Halal all impressed with engrossing live sets before being pummeled into the dawn by the unfuckwithable DJ Bone.
The final night’s closing party saw everyone’s favourite The Black Madonna bringing things to a close with local boys Ptaki, Principe’s DJ Nigga Fox and Pitchfork’s dance music oracle Philip Sherbourne in tow. She wisely chose to reach for the belters, knocking out Daft Punk’s Burnin’, MMM’s Jack7 and some insane Super Mario Bros sampling pumper seemingly within minutes of each other (time had become a vague concept by this point). Bailing out of the venue as she bought her set came to a close at 2:30am, it was clear that Unsound has positioned itself right on the line between brain-expanding musical experience and body-melting dance euphoria. That it manages to pull this off so successfully year on year is a testament to both the risks offered up by the organisers and the willingness of the audience to take them.
And Burial? Underground? It’s almost too good to be true.