Unsound is One of Australia’s Most Serious (and Most Fun) Music Festivals
Yves Tumor, Eartheater and DJ Lag proved that smart dance music doesn't have to be boring at the wild, thrilling latest instalment of Unsound ADL.
Yves Tumor by Sam Whiteside
I worry, sometimes, that I’m not smart enough for the kind of music at Unsound. On the Uber from Adelaide airport to my accomodation, I listened to Florida Georgia Line and Bebe Rexha’s “Meant To Be” on repeat, which is pretty much indicative of my broader listening habits. While I know that enjoying pop music and experimental music isn’t a binary, it sometimes feels like it is. I enjoy silly pop music and mostly unchallenging indie rock and sometimes, when I feel like performing some kind of internalised emotional exorcism, I will listen to the kind of dark, pummelling music that Unsound programs. I enjoy this music quite a lot—many of the artists on this year’s lineup released some of my favourite records of the year—but when faced with the concept of spending two days immersing myself in it, I get sucked up in a kind of mentally debilitating imposter syndrome. The decision whether or not to even leave my hotel room is a surprisingly difficult one, despite the fact that I’ve come to another state (and skipped out on the work Christmas party) to be here.
When I enter the Queens Theatre for the festival’s first night, though, I know I’ve made the right decision. Eartheater—Queens composer and vocalist Alex Drewchin—is onstage performing in rhinestone-studded double denim, certain sections of her outfit marred with cutouts. It is ridiculous, and brilliant: if Drewchin, whose violent, classically-informed compositions are far from comedic, can perform her set in this Dolly-goes-club look, then maybe this festival won’t be too unfriendly after all.
Drewchin’s set is an early highlight; performing with a harpist and bathed in shimmering white light, the delicate, heavenly gilding of Eartheater’s usually-pummeling songs is brought to the fore. Drewchin’s work sits on a knife-edge between violence and beauty, and you can see that tension when she performs; her multi-octave vocal range lends itself to unearthly choral passages not unlike those you might hear in a church, which are then shrouded in noise. The music gestures towards total annihilation and destruction (and when, at one point, a piece of debris falls from the roof of Queens Theatre during a particularly bass-heavy song, actualises this destruction.)
After Drewchin’s set, I was surprised to find a generally cool response from people I spoke to about it; there is, I guess, something a little hard to swallow about the whole affair, with all its grandiose affectation. In my eyes, Drewchin is probably using the melodrama of it all—the rhinestones, the harp, the way she looks upwards into the spotlight as if in communion with God—to counter the fact that her art is actually quite visceral and, to a degree, emotionally bare. I think there would be something quite confronting about seeing Drewchin perform that set straight, and if the audience felt detached, I would have to assume that detachment was by design.
Despite the mixed response, it was still wholly more interesting than Nicolas Jaar’s ambient A/V set directly after. Jaar is known for his club music, and while there’s no reason that he shouldn’t try new modes—his many digressions from dark club music, including the crunchy house project Against All Logic and his trippy collab with Dave Harrington, Darkside, are excellent—the premiere of this new set made a good case against it. It’s not that Jaar’s set was bad, per se—simply that in a festival full of artists laser focused on exploring deeply specific ideas of what music can be, it felt strangely unfocused to see someone whose canvas was so broad. While most of the set comprised abstract swaying and clattering and clicking, there were moments of strange harshness to be found amongst; towards the end, after an audience member yells “Just play the classics, yeah?” Jaar responds—perhaps intentionally, perhaps not—with a few minutes of loud, harsh choral sounds overlaid with ear-splitting noise. Sadly, it’s the first genuinely exciting moment in a set from someone who once staked his name on sharp left turns. The set ends, bizarrely, with a cover of John Lennon’s “Imagine” followed by a few minutes of dense drum’n’bass, as slogans flash across the screen above Jaar: Solution? Era = It Was. Here From There. Front Era. Threat = Front. It all adds up to something that seemed to gesture towards political commentary but oftentimes felt too scattershot to actually do so; it’s a shame that Jaar, whose Sirens felt subtly incisive and distinctly tied to a certain political moment, couldn’t quite capture that lightning in a bottle twice.
Much of the rest of Friday night feels similarly toothless; Matmos, clearly revered by much of the crowd, deliver a set that feels more like panto or musical theatre than anything particularly thought provoking, while Lucas Abela, while impressively committed to his work, fails to sit anywhere outside the realm of ‘curio’. Giant Swan, on the other hand, prove revelatory. The British duo make ritualistic, violent techno that scans as anywhere from high camp to pounding brutalism. It is rare for music like this to feel so vital; there’s a punk streak that runs through the duo’s live sets which pushes them apart from their peers. Giant Swan trade in movement and alive-ness; their music doesn’t lend itself well to discourse or chin-stroking, as some of the other acts on this weekend’s lineup do. Instead, the pair make music that’s almost designed as if to induce out of body experiences. After many hours of slow and often thoughtless performance, the fact that Giant Swan seemed to have such a grip on both their performance and their intent was galvanising.
The program’s occasional tendency to lean towards chin-stroking made me wary of Ben Frost’s set, but it turns out that my fears were unfounded—Frost’s blur of bright, aggressive and extremely intense noise felt strange and violent, pointing at a weird and nauseating version of the end of the world which felt more true to life than the usual doom and gloom. The set—with its glossy, shimmering lights by MFO—reminded me on the whole of Alex Garland’s wonderful, terrifying Annihilation, with its alternately serene and hyper-violent takes on the end of the world. Frost’s new tip is as thrilling as they come.
Yves Tumor, too, was a clear standout on day two of the festival. Beginning the set by begging the lighting person for a spotlight (“Alex, lemme get the spotlight, babe!”) set the tone for a performance that felt like stadium pop gone awfully wonky, in the best of ways. Tumor's wonderful 2018 record Safe In The Hands of Love comprised much of his Unsound set, and while that record is hardly what one would call accessible, this set felt communal and—albeit not exactly easy—wide-reaching. A call for “bootyshakers to the front” was heeded fervently, and it felt like a key difference between Tumor’s set and the others across the weekend: while so much of Unsound is about discursifying dance music and pushing it into an almost academic context (see: the ‘Unsound Discourse Program’ running in the day) Tumor’s performance pulled it back to its roots. Dance music is communal and accessible, black and queer, joyous and affirming. It felt good to be reminded of that, even if only for 30 minutes.
A similar feeling was found later that night when DJ Lag took to the stage at Sugar, the venue for Unsound ADL’s club programming. Like Tumor, Lag understands that joy, movement and community is at the heart of what makes dance music great. Gqom, the Durban genre that he essentially originated, thrives on those feelings, and his set—largely pure gqom with snippets of Migos and Cardi B thrown in for good measure—was all about communal movement, filthy, chaotic bass and generally having a good time. Writhing around to DJ Lag’s frenetic beats, I realised that Unsound Adelaide probably isn’t too serious for anyone—as long as you’re willing to get out of your head and into your body for a bit.
Noisey was a guest of Unsound.