Freak Scene: The Unsound Festival

April 30, 2012

Freak Scene originally began as a way for us to cover weird and out-there music in a specific corner of the FADER site. Over the years, coverage ranged from harsh noise to psychedelic folk to those early, awesome, Zola Jesus records that nobody really talks about anymore. As an editor at this magazine, and as a fan, reading Freak Scene was always an eye opener. It was like reading an alternate history of music as it was happening. My hope with bringing this column back is to continue to cover that stuff, but also to expand the definition of what fits in this space. That probably means that one week I'll be writing about, like, Gas, and the next I'll be writing about the vocal filter Andre 3000 sometimes used on Aquemini, and then after that a Wolf Eyes retrospective or something. For the first installment, I figured I'd write about this year's Unsound festival in New York, which happened across a variety of venues. Up above, you can watch a video with a few interviews from some of the festival's key performers.

Initially, my plan was to cover every single Unsound show, an idea that quickly revealed itself to be way too daunting. Instead, I hit the shows that felt especially interesting for New York. Considering every one of the artists on the bill are bound to come through here at some point, the festival, was, for me, about seeing this stuff in unconventional venues. Fittingly, my Unsound experience began with Julia Holter at Issue Project Room, a gorgeous space that is smack in the middle of Downtown Brooklyn and is basically connected to the courthouse. Holter has had something of a breakout year, which is weird when you think about how Tragedy, one of the albums she recently released, was a concept record based on Euripides' play Hippolytus. Not exactly the most accessible material! Still, here she was with just a piano and a microphone. Meek seeming at first, before slowly settling into the groove. I have no idea what Holter's career aspirations are, but I would not be surprised to see her in massive concert halls very soon.

Peaking Lights are a band that probably won't ever end up in a concert hall, but they did play a free show in an atrium at Lincoln Center. If you've ever wanted to see woozy psych/dub while sitting next to a dude who is eating a lime like an apple, then this was the show for you. It was actually very fitting. Seeing the duo play to a narrow room just as the last bits of sunlight fully disappeared felt right. The fact that it was a show completely open to the public felt even better. Peaking Lights certainly make weird music—it's informed by classic dub records, but it's also muddier than that, like instead of aping those dub records, they're actually aping the gradual decay of sound that comes with cassettes and old LPs—but it's also music that kids, or old Upper West Siders can comfortably enjoy. It's not necessarily easy, but it does feel distantly familiar.

The exact opposite of that warm feeling was the Hype Williams/Actress bill at Le Poisson Rouge. People really do not know what to do with Hype Williams. Their show began with a (supposedly) unintentional loop repeated for close to 30 minutes before segueing into "Venice Dreamway," the excellent, free jazz-esque opener from their latest album Black Is Beautiful. Hype Williams are a noise band in the same way that Black Dice are a noise band. Both groups make screwed up pop music—fitting their aesthetics into a mold that normally doesn't regard those aesthetics. For Hype Williams its all about context. Their latest album is on Hyperdub, a label known for releasing forward-thinking dance music. They don't fit in with that at all, but they make it work anyway. Multiple people walked out during the endless loop portion of the show. There were even a couple boos. Those that stuck it out (probably more people than you'd expect), were treated to a pretty phenomenal show. Hype Williams continue to make some of the more fascinating, perversely challenging music around.

Following their performance, Actress' very weird set actually felt normal. I'll admit to freaking out (in a good way) a little bit when the ultra distorted thump of R.I.P.'s "Shadows From Tartarus" came on. While Hype Williams are about wild experimentation, Actress is about canny production choices. "Shadows From Tartarus" works not because its dark or has a consistent thump, but because everything sounds like it was recorded on the same level. No sound overpowers another, so it's up to your ears to figure out which direction to take.

Possibly the most inspired lineup of the whole fest was Friday's Mark McGuire/Pole/Sun Araw show. McGuire is an excellent guitarist, able to create gorgeous, heartbreaking epics from layers of guitar. He's extremely prolific, but 2010's Living With Yourself is still his best work. It's an album about family and loss and understanding—and hearing it, there's never a moment where he hits you over the head with those themes, they just weave into the music. His set at Unsound came close to that record. By the end, he was leaning over, dripping sweat onto his instruments, and although we were all just standing there, it felt like something cathartic had just happened.

Pole is someone I've been familiar with, but never really understood until I saw his live set. I knew his whole deal was that he took harsh electronic sounds—the colder the better—and molded them into dub music. It's interesting because he actually adheres to a traditional dub formula, it's just that you have to catch that signature bounced echo under layers of ambient clicks and pops. Live, he sticks to a pure dub template, letting drum knocks bounce endlessly and loudly across cold synth blasts. It's an interesting effect: by making music using sounds unfamiliar to dub, but adhering to the strict template that defines it, Pole makes some of the most faithful, but bizarre dub I've ever heard.

Cameron Stallones, bka Sun Araw has been getting some recent attention for the record he made with The Congos in Jamaica. I've seen it called a dub record in a few places, which is really not true. To me, it feels more psychedelic and, honestly, religious. It's overwhelming and so deeply layered that it takes multiple listens to really excavate the groove. When you do, though, it stands out crystal clear. Live, and without The Congos, there actually isn't much difference. Clearly, Stallones took a lot from that experience, because his set was populated by thick, humid psychedelic flourishes, off-kilter drums, and a sort of relentlessly hypnotic low-end that made the venue feel like some sort of enraptured basement church.

Unsound got Laurel Halo, Ital, Hieroglyphic Being, Demdike Stare and Monolake to perform at Greenpoint's Warsaw, a club that feels like a holdover from Strokes-era New York. If there was any event at Unsound that could make the argument for weird shit getting people moving, it would be this show. It also felt like something of a breakout moment for Ital, who flailed around for the duration of his set, to the point that—in that moment—rickety, homemade electronic music felt like the most vital artform around.

The last show I want to mention so this doesn't just turn into an endlessly breathless rundown is the collaboration between legendary dark ambient artist Lustmord and Biosphere in a church on 86th St. It was probably the most stereotypical Unsound show, and it was definitely the most challenging. For an hour, the duo, in short sleeve button-down shirts and ties, layered weird sounds on top of each other. Against the video backdrop of nuclear testing in the New Mexico Desert, a loose narrative took shape. Squirming in a church pew, there were moments that were exceedingly uncomfortable (a screeching high tone was sustained for a couple minutes), but it also felt reserved and thought out. Too often, noise music like this gets a reputation for being tossed off or not really thought out. The work of impulse more than the work of control and reservation. Leaving the show, it was hard not to feel excited. Which of the artists from the festival would be playing legit upscale concert halls in the coming years? Would any of them? Either way, nothing sounded alike, but everything felt connected.

From The Collection:

Freak Scene
Freak Scene: The Unsound Festival