Unsound may be a celebration of underground music, but from the moment you step into its primary venue, Adelaide’s Dom Polski Centre, the festival couldn’t feel more globally relevant. In the courtyard of the Polish Cultural Center is a large concrete memorial to the over 20,000 Polish soldiers who lost their lives after the Soviet invasion of the country in 1939, in what is known as the Katyn massacres. “Za naszów i waszą wolność / For our freedom and yours,” the memorial reads.
Inside the venue is Unsound’s first act, Ukrainian composer Heinali, who became aware of live streaming from a bomb shelter in the Ukrainian city of Lviv as Russian artillery rained down from above. It is sobering to think of bartenders in the Dom Polski center busy pouring Wyborowa vodka and Żywiec beer to the collected festival beatniks, people whose families may well have been displaced during WWII, and the connection through time to Heinali , whose beautiful synthesizer compositions symbolize a graceful resistance to the tyranny of empire.
Unsound was founded in Krakow, Poland in 2003 and now has several smaller satellite events around the world, including Adelaide, which this year celebrates its 10th iteration. Now packaged in the Illuminate Adelaide program of public, city-wide light and sound installations, Unsound provides some much-needed grit to a family-friendly event. It swings from political statements to raw emotion, abstract electronics to explosive party.
On the first night, Heinali’s electronic protest ends, and the audience is transported to the fantasy realm of the Danish ambient musician Sofie Birch and the Polish vocalist and composer Antonina Nowacka. Taking the form of pointy-eared sylphs in sparkling white dresses, the pair sing wordless melodies, tinkling strings of metal bells and blowing ocarinas. It is a vision of a European mythological utopia: a continent without despots, wars and invasions; a place where there is nothing to do but frolic in long grasses and fall asleep to the gentle beat of fairy wings.
Soon, however, the audience is driven into the present by Robin Fox’s full-bodied bass and laser performance of his latest work Triptych. It’s the first taste of Unsound’s sound system, which feels powerful enough to rearrange internal organs; the first depth charge of sub-bass tones forces surprised gasps and weak knees from the audience.
At this point in his career, Fox is primarily engaged in large public sound and laser installations, but is still a DIY punk at heart who likes bugs and lasers. On stage, Fox is in control, his sound and light compositions flow over the room’s fixtures and architecture. Lasers break into rainbow sprays where they connect with the walls and cut into the thick slabs of bass busy making one’s eyeballs vibrate. Fox’s performance is the equivalent of watching a major pop star condense their stadium show into your local band room.
The night’s headliner Kode9 opens with some vague sci-fi statements before the images on the screen take the audience into a radioactive lava colored landscape. There are missile launches, violently falling parachutes and scorched earth sonics. The wastelands give way to more organic shapes and wormhole-like images, suggesting that the way forward for both the planet and humanity is for us to leave the earth altogether.
Things escalate to borderline mania with the night’s closing act, DJ Diaki, brought in as a last-minute replacement for American rapper bbymutha. Hailing from Mali, DJ Diaki plays a form of regional dance music known as the Bolani Show, turning traditional instruments like the large xylophone-like balafon into relentless 170 bpm bangers. The audience is barely keeping up, and Diaki desperately urges the audience to “dance faster!”
NMESaturday night begins with the emotive post-rock cello experiments of Uruguay’s Mabe Frati, who, along with his supporting guitarist, locks into Battles-esque math rock with unadulterated joy on his face. Sitting under a green-gold spotlight, Frati’s naturally soaring voice gives way to doom-filled guitar squalls and dissonant bowed cello. The crowd is excited, the band beaming back. Manchester two-parter Space Africa, meanwhile, brings us back to the dankest of sub-frequencies with a political audiovisual presentation of grainy surveillance footage of hooded young black men (seemingly suiting their own cause, it’s worth noting), pavement car crashes and references to Arndale -the 1996 IRA bombing.
The Unsound Club, the main show’s after-party at nearby basement bar The Lab, was a bust on Friday, and the bad sound left American experimental house producer Huerco S. in the lurch. After the lackluster showing, Kode9 requested that more powerful subs be installed, he says NME. It works: Unsound Club finally comes alive on Saturday night, Naarm’s DJ Plead brings the crowd together with a flawless set of percussive house and techno, and Tayhana from Argentina takes the crowd on a high BPM odyssey of South American rhythm. Kode9 returns for a surprisingly upbeat set that largely eschews the basic dubstep that the Hyperdub label boss is famous for pioneering.
Rounding things off on Sunday is Unsound’s headliner, Oneohtrix Point Never aka Daniel Lopatin, the resolutely avant-garde synthesist who also happens to be a key collaborator of the world’s biggest pop star Abel Tesfaye, formerly The Weeknd. Lopatin’s set moves from field recordings to glacially huge towers of electronic sound, around the top of which coalesce synthetic thunderstorms from cloud computing.
At one point, glimpses of a cartoon donkey’s tortured snout emerge from a wormhole as Lopatin makes demented screeching noises on a bowed instrument, giving Orwell’s Farm for the age of battery hen farming. Lopatin is a master at gleefully dislocating, dividing and reforming pop culture into his own awe-inspiring constructs.
Illuminate Adelaide’s headline program may feel thematically thin compared to Unsound’s buffet of outsider visions, but it’s clearly loved by a large number of people who don’t normally engage with the world’s dark clubs and experimental subcultures. To some people, many of the artists on Unsound might feel like niche issues, but the inclusion of Oneohtrix Point Never is a reminder that this is where it all starts: how the weird and wonderful sounds of the underground eventually filter into the mainstream . That a mass-market event like Illuminate Adelaide keeps this feedback loop going and funds a program with profits that probably pale in comparison to its grand offering is a credit to it and key to its continued relevance. Unsound might just be Australia’s best under-the-radar music festival – a decade into its existence and its 10th anniversary was almost flawless.
NME traveled to Unsound Festival as guests of Illuminate Adelaide, which continues until July 30