When the theme of the Krakow, Poland edition of "exploratory-music" fest Unsound was announced as "Surprise," it started a wildfire of speculation regarding who would play, as well as just how the festival would embrace that theme. Considering that festival passes sold out only ten minutes after being available to the general public, that point became moot—and eventually, slowly but surely, the festival began to give notice as to that would play, one of them being David Tibet's Current 93. Then, things got a bit weird, as Unsound was falsely accused of having Satanic ties and was forced to move multiple shows from churches throughout Krakow. Considering this happened right before the festival started, it might've been the most intriguing bit of publicity the festival has ever had in the long run—and in the midst of the weirdness, the fest, which ran from October 10 though the 18th, delivered, keeping things thoroughly surprising without being ironic. With the taste of the false allegations still lingering, Unsound just continued to push the theme, continuously finding way to entice its audiences.
With events taking place in museums, abandoned cosmetic factories, former communist hotels, and warehouses, the festival has always had a thorough understanding into why venues matter in terms of lineup presentation. However, when the only way one could find out who was playing was a quick blurb on the Facebook pages a mere few minutes before the set started, one understood that this was uncharted territory that uncharted waters for both consumer and curator. But with Sunday's opening party bringing the likes of Paula Temple and Rabih Beaini, the tone was set in an instant.
Whether it was Prurient showing up at Manggha (Krakow's contemporary Japanese art museum), Pole stopping by for an impressive set at the Engineering Museum, or a guerilla karaoke session for fans, artists and staff, Unsound was abuzz all week. However, two specific instances really showed the appeal of this decade-plus festival, with Richie Hawtin playing Room 2 at Hotel Forum on Saturday, and a supposed Burial set on Thursday at Wieliczka Salt Mine. While the former was a terrific surprise on an already-stacked layer cake of dance goodness, the latter in this case caused somewhat of a social-media ruckus, as audience members going from lukewarm over the idea of a set of all Burial tracks being played in the dark with no one visible on the stage, to freaking out because that set contained unreleased material. Within 30 minutes, the buzz was deafening, as the audience wondered if it was actually Burial playing. Hyperdub has come out and said that he didn’t show up, and Kode9 (who played a surprise set on Friday’s edition of Hotel Forum) must’ve filled in for him, the speculation lingered—at least until the brutally beautiful set from King Midas Sound and Fennesz that followed.
The latter half of Unsound was based around three consecutive nights at Hotel Forum featuring acts that provided more of the surprise factor: Andy Stott played a set of almost entirely unreleased material, Untold turned back the clock by playing his dubsteppy classics, and UniiQU3 dropped Fetty Wap’s “My Way” at 5:07 am. Kode9’s thrilling surprise set at Room 2 came at the same time as a Friday performance in Room 1 by German composer Marcus Schmickler, whose audiovisual performance subverted expectations of a peak-time crowd and left attendees stunned; there was no massive sonic payoff, but the tenacity of his performance left most people flabbergasted. Meanwhile, Zenker Brothers played a rare live set at 3:30 am in Room 1, where they seamlessly weaved between rugged breaks, hard kicks and smooth melodies—while RP Boo was crushing it at Room 2 with a jovial set of footwork and juke bombs. The constant chaos of going in-between rooms added to the excitement—no matter where one went, it was going to be good.
Thursday’s Room 1 lineup reflected the many vivid directions of techno, with sets from Holly Herndon, Powell and Lorenzo Senni, Surgeon and Starlight, and DJ Nobu, setting the bar for for the rest of the week. Gary, Indiana’s Jlin debuted her live set on Saturday to audience acclaim in Room 1, while Galcher Lustwerk provided smooth, chunky house vibes in Room 2. Next, Brooklyn’s Aurora Halal crushed the floor with a unique blend of live techno and electro, feeding into a vibe of unanimous excitement that held steady until Xosar came on and played a set that bordered on “death-metal-madness techno,” in the words of a sweaty passerby who had just walked out of the room. The biggest divide was hearing attendees argue about DJ Bone in Room 1, in contrast to Hawtin in Room 2. In truth, they both were great, but Bone hit harder, with fury seething out of every track in his arsenal. Hawtin, played a Plastikman-oriented set, starting off with a lengthy intro that paid off with a strong drop that segued into a deep set of wide-arrayed techno.
Then Sunday came and went in a flash, as the Black Madonna, DJ Nigga Fox, Eltron John and Philip Sherburne all delivered unique, memorable sets at the closing party that left people wondering why they didn’t come to the festival sooner. With those Satanic claims wholly unfounded and and with that potentially risky theme in tow, Unsound again stood out from the pack as an institution that emboldens creativity from the artists that play, and encourages its attendees to take it in with an open mind. That’s something that very few festivals do, and it’s something we’ll be glad to get back to next year, whatever the theme. Let’s just hope a church or two can be a bit more accommodating next time.
Top photo: Camille Blake