From Poland With Love #1: Unsound & Avant Art

Posted by on December 10, 2014

from_poland 1

[Editor’s Note: The concept for a “From Poland with Love” column focused on Polish music developed late this past November, at least a month or so after both the Unsound and Avant Art festivals had already taken place. Though a discussion of the two events can no longer be “timely,” we still agreed that an assessment of both would be a compelling introduction to a new, bi-monthly column focused on new music and happenings in Poland and Central Europe. We hope you’ll forgive the timing and enjoy reading the debut installment!]

From Poland with Love is a new periodical column to be written by two music journalists from Poland, Jakub Adamek and Mateusz Mondalski. Jakub may be known to Decoder readers as head honcho of the Weed Temple blog as well as an occasional contributor to Tiny Mix Tapes and AdHoc. Mateusz spent over three years as an editor at Lineout.pl, a leading Polish blog on underground music, and lately he’s worked with Polish quarterly magazine M/I, London-based Inverted Audio, and Decoder Magazine itself.

The goal of the column is to highlight interesting new music not only from Poland, but across Central Europe, a larger region that retains some mystery for non-European readers — it can seem like a different world. Despite that, there are burgeoning and highly active local experimental scenes, that serve as fertile ground for DJs, bands, collaborators, small imprints, etc. In our column we will show you that extreme metal isn’t the only music Poland should be famous for (not that we’ve got anything against extreme metal, in fact, it’s great!). The musical underground of these former communist countries is an exciting place that should not be overlooked.

In From Poland with Love we will collect and discuss the most inspiring albums, labels and ideas happening in Central Europe. We will try to spotlight emerging trends and acts worth your attention. This will include anything from jazz and pop through modern classical to avant-garde techno. We believe good music should spread all over the Web, regardless of its language. And believe us, we’ve got a lot of stuff right here in good old Polska. You’ll see.

•••

Mateusz Mondalski: Hi guys. Welcome to the new column, From Poland With Love. Our aim is to introduce the readers of Decoder to the small but vivid universe of Eastern European music, with some prominence given to our home country: Poland. Jakub, will you “disclose” the topic of our first piece?

Jakub Adamek: Hello there! In the first entry in our From Poland With Love series we will talk about two very interesting Polish festivals that took place simultaneously in October: the Unsound Festival in Krakow and Avant Art Festival in Wroclaw — I visited Avant Art, Mateusz lived the Dream at Unsound. In this piece, we’ll share our impressions. Let’s begin!

Mateusz: First off, it would be good to give a little flavour of Unsound Festival to our readers. The event has been held in Kraków every October since 2003. Over time Unsound developed a reputation for cutting-edge programming fusing music with other art forms like installations, visuals, and recently even theater plays. The event caters to music lovers from around the world — many of them active members of the industry — rendering the curating of Unsound a real challenge. Every year the event sports a different leitmotiv serving as a knot to bind all shows. This year the 12th edition of Unsound was programmed around the theme of The Dream that hinted foremost at countercultures — the Beat generation, the punk movement and very contemporary underground scenes. The idea was also to discuss the future of Unsound through a profound critique of the event. You also have Avant Art to talk about, so let’s keep things orderly. I suggest we talk about the best acts we saw and after that, hopefully, we’ll draw some general conclusions. I’m sure some name-dropping will prove useful to the readers but — at the same time — we want to preserve an holistic approach to the experience.

My first highlight of Unsound was Lorenzo Senni, head of Presto!? Records. The young synthlord from Milano coined the phrase “Pointillistic T,” which about perfectly describes his idiosyncratic take on trance. Senni deconstructs this genre most often deemed very low-brow and reconfigures it into a leftfield dance extravaganza. During his live performance at Manggha, the Museum of Japanese Art and Technology, Senni made use of a mixer and a rare synth in making his offbeat dance music for shut-ins, preserving an air of suspense until the very end.

Valerio Tricoli was another performer that stands out in my memory; Senni is from Milan, while Tricoli hails from Palermo, Sicily. The PAN-affiliated artist and author of the recent, rainy album Miseri Lares, performed an intricate daytime show at Feniks, a seniors dance club that shared its heydays with Polish communism. Tricoli used a tape recorder with a wide array of objects… pieces of metal, a hammer and even a mini-strobe, to deliver his narrative of microcosmic expression.

Valerio Tricoli

One concert could be named a victory and defeat at the same time. I mean here my third choice — Jam City — whose debut live show aroused significant controversy. The London-based producer, a key figure of the Night Slugs label, treated us to a huge surprise. The once club kid came out dressed like a young aspiring rock star wearing a hat and — to the crowd’s astonishment — holding a guitar. From his first chords a resemblance was plain to see; it seemed as if we were watching a new incarnation of Prince. Unfortunately, this was a truly failing version of the iconic songwriter but still, Jam City was one of a few who took a risk at this year’s Unsound. Jack Latham’s mishaps, mostly his imperfect singing and failing arrangements, gave the show a feel of tender vulnerability.

So yes, these would be my personal favourites. Obviously the choice wasn’t easy, after all the stellar line-up included many wonderful artists. So Kuba, which shows did you enjoy most at Avant Art? Can you tell us a bit about the event?

Jam City

Jakub: The Avant Art Festival in Wroclaw, a major city in southwest Poland, may be less media-exposed and internationally renowned than Unsound, but it’s steadily building its image and its own dynamic, featuring its own array of international experimental and avant-garde stars. Collecting heavyweights like Japanese visual-electronic maverick Ryoji Ikeda, noise-jazz unit ZS, free improvisation explorers Supersilent, controversial and intentionally campy Canadian singer Peaches, the black mass of Keiji Haino & Stephen O’Malley and soulful agent provocateur Dean Blunt (among many others) in a variety of venues across Wrocław for roughly a week, Avant Art proved to be a strong counterpoint to Unsound taking place at the same time in Kraków, 270 kilometers to the east. Unfortunately, the decision to hold the festival’s 7th edition at the exact same time as Unsound resulted in news from AA drowning in a sea of Unsound coverage and I’m sure caused pain for many music fans making hard choices between Wrocław or Kraków.

keiji haino

One of the high points of the festival was definitely the performance by Keiji Haino & Stephen O’Malley, where the two played both separately and together. Haino had played at Unsound Festival a few years earlier, together with Fushitsusha, a show often described as the most endurance-testing and excruciating experiences of the whole festival, with only a handful of die-hard fans making it to the end. The same was expected from Keiji Haino now, especially since he was supported by the Sunn O))) lord himself. Actually, this wasn’t the only performance by Keiji Haino during Avant Art — just a few days earlier, he performed live with the German collective Zeitkratzer doing their own interpretation of Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music, in which Haino did vocals. Everyone was expecting a hyper-amplified storm of blackened guitar noise. So it was a surprise to see a set of Buddhist gongs arranged on a table next to a stack of amplifiers, an array of guitar effect pedals, two electric guitars and a table of what looked like modern-day Theremins. Haino started with a short solo performance, emitting long, resonant explosions with a hammer hitting the gongs while manipulating sounds with rapid, mysterious movements of his palms, like a shaman playing with air. After that, SOMA fired up an overdriven, rumbling bass guitar improv which sounded like a rough draft played somewhere between takes while recording a new Sunn O))) album. After two short solo sets they came on stage together and clutched their guitars, O’Malley becoming something of a noisy, pulsing background, playing darkened notes like a super-heavy bass guitar while Haino switched effortlessly between hollowed out hangman blues, screaming abstract lyrics like a banshee and breaking into ear-splitting white noise ecstatic solos where he attacked the guitar and danced on the stage like a medium possessed by ancient spirits. Bearing in mind that Keiji Haino is 62 years old, you can hardly imagine he’s just human.

Mateusz: Avant Art was clearly more noise-oriented and driven by modern classical. I’ve never visited the festival, but it sounds like a more demanding… or even devotional experience. What I like about Unsound is that it offers a wide range of artists — this year the line-up included anything from a showcase of Teklife with DJ Spinn, DJ Earl and others, through established techno artists such as Rrose and DJ Stingray to Michael Gira’s cult band Swans. But hey, we name-dropped so many artists and not a single Pole. We both know there are many talented artists in our country so we should give them the attention they deserve.

My top Polish pick would be Księżyc (Polish: moon), a mysterious band from the mid-nineties that released only one self-titled album. Their concert took place at St. Catherine’s Church in the Jewish district of Kazimierz, a leading example of Gothic architecture in Poland. It was their first live show in twenty years making the Unsound event much anticipated. The group comprised two female vocalists and two male instrumentalists who treated the crowd to a wonderful session of surreal fable-like romanticism inspired equally by abstract cinematic scores as by the tradition of medieval Slavic music. By the way, It’s big news that the London-Berlin based label Blackest Ever Black will release their new album in 2015.

Remont Pomp & Mikołaj Trzaska Ircha Clarinet Quartet

Another memorable Polish concert was Remont Pomp (Polish: Renovation of the Pumps), a cultural and educational project integrating abled professional musicians and their disabled amateur counterparts. During their shows the band always sits around a table dressed up in identical white and blue uniforms. They are always joined by other musicians, usually from the Polish jazz scene. At Unsound Remont Pomp’s guest was Mikołaj Trzaska, the celebrated avant-garde jazz sax player with his Ircha Clarinet Quartet. The event took place at the aforementioned Manggha venue and almost brought us to tears of emotion as we watched the musicians of various ability improvise freely with broadly understood instruments ranging from clarinets to glasses and tableware. So, again, I would name Księżyc and Remont Pomp as my Polish favourites at this year’s Unsound.

Jakub: Another very interesting concert, one that won me over and convinced me to choose Wroclaw over Krakow was the performance of Dean Blunt, one of the most intriguing and style-flipping figures of today’s underground music. Ever since switching from the hazy zones of Hype Williams to the heartbreak avant-pop of The Redeemer in 2013 and this year’s Black Metal, he’s built an emotional, crooning stage persona centered around various aspects of love, or lack thereof. Actually, seeing Blunt live is more like attending a theater performance than a music concert. Which was apt, because it took place in a former train station building converted into two clubs with a theater right next to them. Everyone in the place was expecting something out of the ordinary… and they got it. After a lengthy intro consisting of complete darkness and the sound of rain, Dean Blunt appeared suddenly in a single ray of light, in his Nike cap, completely motionless. Over the course of the performance additional musicians appeared in the back, dimly lit, even though Blunt was the centerpiece, channeling his soul into the mic.

dean blunt

Those who wanted to see Dean Blunt for shock tactics got what they wanted, too. Around halfway into the concert, the pop sounds disappeared to give way to several minutes of sensory overload… intense stroboscopic lights and deep bass rumble turning into an ear piercing high frequency squeak which had many cover their ears, shouting “ouch, ouch, ouch!” before abruptly ending and turning as if nothing happened into another song. It was a very specific performance, where Blunt’s authenticity and emotions were more important than the music itself – much of which was playback, anyway. So watching Dean Blunt live was a bit about “suspension of disbelief” and a lot about getting into that difficult emotional landscape after breaking up — something I can relate to, and maybe that’s what made his performance so compelling for me. If somebody got too shook up by his performance, there were guys from Forest Swords up next with their lovingly hazy and melancholic dub to allow the audience to relax and chill out in the deep of the night (it was around 1 AM when they started playing) whose deep yet gentle bass lines and psychedelic guitar licks almost put me to sleep, especially since I listened while sitting.

Mateusz: I have the impression that we praised both events but there is always place for improvement, right? As for Unsound, this year’s edition exposed the inability of the organizers to deal with a rising numbers of visitors. Club events were held at Hotel Forum, a huge modernist building by the Vistula river which used to be one of the most futuristic hotels in Poland. Unfortunately however remarkable that space is, some rooms felt like a sauna with temperatures sweating our minds away. Another setback is certain artists returning to Unsound year after year, establishing a needless routine. Another aspect I dislike is that supporting DJs are always primarily local though we have many great selectors in Poland, not only in Kraków. Apart from these shortcomings, this year’s Unsound was truly amazing and confirmed its standing as a festival of superior quality. So, readers of Decoder, if you ever come to Europe, you should put Unsound on your to-do list. How about Avant Art, Kuba? Did you notice any weak spots there?

forest swords

Jakub: Of course, the Avant Art Festival wasn’t all-around perfect. But which festival is? For one, I was really disappointed at the lack of after party options, which would be perfect for weekend nights when people have lots of free time and they would fancy hanging around. Unsound thought of that and that’s why people love their raves at Hotel Forum. Wroclaw also has some great possible venues that could be used for after-parties in a more relaxed fashion. The name Avant Art doesn’t need to suggest some stiff, academic approach to experimental and avant-garde music — there’s a lot that fits in with “body music”, too! Maybe next year someone will take some cues and build dancefloor confidence, drawing in locals and maybe even some foreign visitors.

Another beef I had was the fact — which I pointed out in the beginning of my coverage — that Avant Art took place at exactly the same time as Unsound Festival. If they were only placed one or two weeks apart, Polish and foreign fans might have had the chance to check out both. It turned out lots of people opted for Unsound, a more versatile and popularized festival. Avant Art Festival still has some things to learn but easily manages to impress, particularly with their interesting choice of venues and the great visual identification, starting with the website, and ending with the whole range of things you could pick up during the event.

[Photos appear courtesy of Anna Spysz and Camille Blake. This installment’s header uses a landscape by Polish painter Stanisław Wyspiański depicting a view from the studio he occupied later in life.]