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Unsound New York

We investigate the experimental electronic music festival

Unsound Festival is an annual forward thinking celebration of experimental music and art that's based in Poland, with a New York offshoot that's just wrapped up its third year. Finally, after hearing consistent praise for all their events, we're in the right place at the right time; the festival is nothing short of astounding in the five days we experience it.

Beginning on Wednesday, the soaring marble arches and gilded ceiling that make up the ISSUE Project Room in downtown Brooklyn are a dizzying way to start the festival. It provides a lavish backdrop for Julia Kent's looped and delayed cello, Jenny Hval's avant-pop, and Julia Holter's stripped down solo set on acoustic grand piano. Holter ends with an enjoyably schmaltzy cover of 'Don't Make Me Over' with her last acapella notes dissipating into the temple-like surroundings. A perfect start to the festival.

Thursday takes us to the Lincoln Center on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, home of many of NYC's premiere classical spaces, but tonight it plays host to LXMP's synthtastic live funk jams and Peaking Lights' dubby electronic folk. The David Rubenstein Atrium is awash with free spirits and flailing dancers by the end of the early evening's festivities. However, the highlight of the evening is the back to back bill of Hype Williams and Actress in Greenwich Village's Le Poisson Rouge venue. Preceded by Norwegian black metal outfit, Next Life, Hype Williams start out with an intensely muscular man striking poses, and a ten second loop that repeats for thirty minutes (which we find out later is due to a technical error and not the perverse statement we suspect it is at the time). Inga Copeland's small frame is crouched in the shadow of the constantly moving adonis on-stage while we are assaulted by a sonic and visual arsenal of strobes, noise and samples for the next hour. Some people leave in disgust, but we find the experience to be intensely fulfilling and cathartic. Actress' set is a complete contrast with no discernible light show and UK producer and DJ Darren Cunningham hunched over his laptop with minimal movement and crowd interaction. Much like his new album 'R.I.P.', Actress relies on space and careworn ambience throughout the set until he ends with the relatively upbeat 'Maze'.

Friday we arrive back at Bleeker Street's Le Poisson Rouge as Mark McGuire gently eases us back into the festival with the vast, organic sounds he coaxes out of his guitar, accompanied by samples and his own heavily-processed vocals. German dub techno producer and veteran mastering engineer Pole goes on next and produces a level of bass and clarity from the PA that stuns everyone. We find out at his lecture the next day that this is because he spends at least two hours tuning every room he plays in during soundcheck. Sun Araw finishes out the early evening program with his cosmic sounds as we flock like sheep from Manhattan to Greenpoint in Brooklyn to the night program put together by the city's premiere techno promoter, The Bunker.

We end up slightly north of the hullaballoo of Williamsburg at Warsaw, a Polish venue that serves perogies and blintzes until close and has a magnificent surround sound system set up by Ableton co-founder and techno technical godhead, Monolake. We are immediately treated to Brooklynite Laurel Halo, who debuts a new set ahead of her upcoming album. The music is meticulously structured out of cyclical patterns and sounds that expertly flow into each other in a beautiful pattern. She ends with one of my favorite tracks from her recent Spring EP under her King Felix moniker and Ital immediately jumps in with a completely updated live set that is more club-friendly than ever before. His hardcore roots are still present in his energetic performance and the crowd really starts to get into it as Chicago's Hieroglyphic Being picks us up and weaves everyone deep into the raw, rootsy fabric of his hometown's sound. Demdike Stare take over with their apocalyptic wash of noise and bring the focus away from our hips and back to the cerebral. This sets things up nicely for Monolake's closing set that makes impressive use of his surround sound system. He is accompanied by his collaborator and visual artist Tarik Barri and together they pummel us with material from his most recent album, 'Ghosts'.

Still sleepy from the night before and with an early shift at work for Record Store Day, we begin Saturday at the Goethe-Institut's Wyoming Building in the East Village with a lecture from Pole, who we saw on Thursday, on the art of mastering. His philosophy and ideas are inspiring and we leave both enlightened and with a better understanding of artistic vision.

Next we find ourselves on the Upper West Side in a dark and cavernous church to see Jacaszek perform his haunting almost-classical compositions with his trio in what is possibly the best venue and music pairing of the entire festival, followed by the Unsound-commissioned piece by LA's Lustmord and Norway's Biosphere. The collaboration, entitled 'TRINITY', is an unsettling sonic piece based on nuclear testing sites and includes visuals and ear-piercing sirens that are very effective in deeply disturbing the audience as intended. Once we recover from this, we head to the Williamsburg waterfront to pop into Bass Mutations for a little while, a dubstep and bass music heavy night by New York City's beloved Percussion Lab crew, to watch fantastic performances from 2562 and Sepalcure alongside local artist's Sougwen Chung's stunning visuals.

The last day, Sunday, begins back in the impressive ISSUE Project Room on Livingston Street where we see three of the six collaborations that Unsound commissions specifically for the festival. Mark Van Hoen and Maria Minerva do electro-pop covers of Eurythmics and Grace Jones, followed by a brain-melting live instrumental noise set from the Denis Kolokol/Tomek Cho?oniwski Due and Nate Wooley. Mark McGuire and Bartek Weber end with Weber's cut up electronic loops meshing with McGuire's transcendental guitar-work.

After braving the rain to get to the final venue of this year's festival back up on the Williamsburg waterfront, we are treated to Maria Minerva commanding the room with the charisma and ease of a pop star as she performs her textural blend of pop pastiche in heavy reverb. She passes time in-between songs with short instrumental snippets with a distinct Cabaret Voltaire/Throbbing Gristle feel that are easily as good as the actual songs. Sun Araw and Heatwave end the festival by DJing old funk, jazz, and disco classics with live drum-machine, synth and vocal accompaniment. Everyone forgets the rain and their encroaching exhaustion for the last two hours as we dance until security brings the lights up. 

To say that Unsound Festival has an important place in today's music scene is an understatement; it is a vital part of the capacious worlds of electronic and experimental music and of the two cities that are lucky enough to host it. We can't wait until next year... or better yet Kraków in October!

Words: Zara Wladawsky