Unsound Adelaide 2017 – Thoughts prior to the event

Unsound, carefully curated experimental music weekend, mid November in Adelaide, and its exciting firsts.

Everyone’s lying on the floor, inside a grand and opulent Hall with white stone pillars, velvet curtains, high ceiling, like we’re all  crashed out in something like Twin Peaks’ black lodge. Secret ceremonies may have left a psychic residue; this is a Grand Masonic Hall after all, but tonight, waves of progressively intensifying ambient sound coat our ears. Lawrence English is weaving an audio charm from the stage. The gentle opening adds layer upon soft layer transforms into almost oppressive layers of noise and tone.

It’s one of many memorable moments that Unsound has stamped into my cortex.

Festivals in Adelaide tend to be crammed into a short few months in mid to late summer. Corners of wallets are probed and brutal decisions are made about what gets struck from the bulging shortlist. It’s refreshing approaching Summer with a festival in November, while nights are progressively warming up, and all the disposable income hasn’t yet been spent on Christmas presents.

David Sefton and Mat Schultz collaborated on the previous four Adelaide Unsound events, bringing out cutting edge, often uncompromising experimental music artists – the contemporary and the legendary. The sense of excitement around the events was palpable, this was Adelaide after all, not Berlin or Poland, and Unsound has been a burst of world class creativity to explore.  You can lay money on the curators taking in the sounds in the audience, because the artists are all most definitely in their own record collections.

Sefton was particularly gleeful about Unsound coups last year, drawing in young futurist producer Jlin (Jerrilynn Patton, Indiana, US) – furiously danceable footwork with African rhythm dexterity, and the worldwide live debut of UK treesmoker Dean Blunt’s post-Grime project Babyfather.  Earlier in an evening, awarded composer Jóhann Jóhannsson (Iceland) performed with Zephyr Quartet in a memorable atmosphere. The breadth of genres at Unsound has always been refreshing, challenging those who are in to “all kinds of music.”

2017 is the fifth iteration for Adelaide and breaks from the others in notable ways. Firstly it’s divorced from the Adelaide Festival, itself formerly headed up by Sefton and now being managed by the Healy/Armfield duo. This is a good thing, since the Festival is now relatively “trad” with the current curators, angled more towards the theater luvvies crowd – the music lineup there doesn’t have crunchy edges to get younger and adventurous punters along (although Mount Kimbie will be a highlight in 2018.) Plus there’s potentially even more creative freedom to bring acts from deeper under the radar, who deserve to be experienced with a proper bass-heavy sound system. But it is unfortunately missing the massive exposure, budget, and interstate pull that the Festival brings. So, spread the word… tickets are priced for the full Unsound weekend at less than one day of Womadelaide.

This year is the first that the standard program of three evenings of music will be followed on the Friday and Saturday by Club nights, showcasing international acts who regularly morph dancefloor crowds into frenzies in Europe and the US. Unsound always brought the doof, but it’s harder to pull shapes in a large hall, when most are just there to listen. Club environs (in this year’s case, Fowlers Live) has enough darker corners for freaks to do their respective things, and the lineups are enticing. Errorsmith(UK) Varg (Swe), Bill Kouligas from PAN records, DJ Richard and many others.

During the days, those of us who can escape from wage slavery can for the first time attend free Unsound art in the Adelaide Botanic Gardens and a program of discourse, presented in tandem with University SA. Wonder awaits with three installations, one from field recording genius Chris Watson (UK) of Cabaret Voltaire and Attenborough documentary fame. Dominic Fernow (US) from Prurient and Blackest Ever Black label, will present a completely synthetic piece called Shield Ferns / Brown Pine Magic. Leyland Kirby (UK) aka The Caretaker, another name familiar to Unsound watchers, is in town after not being able to attend the 2013 Adelaide event. In fact, one notable feature of Unsound is the proven ability to replace late scratchings with equally incredible acts. Babyfather replaced Alessandro Cortini, Tim Hecker replaced Emeralds. No replacements are needed this year.

The artist talks on Saturday and Sunday, presented at UniSA City West Campus, are an enticing sideline to the main performances, including a talk on wonderful sound artist and composer Tristram Cary, known for Floyd and BBC work. Uwe Schmidt, Wolf Eyes and Thomas Köner among others, will all investigate aspects of making music in a world where monetary pressure vies with technological facilitation, and communities of artists operate innovatively.

This week, it’s a juicy packet of artists who are set to grace Thebarton Theatre’s time honoured stage. From the US, now based in Germany, Holly Herndon brings her “daylight surrealism” Platform show including hyper modern visuals to the Saturday night. Years ago I saw her at a Big Day Out as part of Electrocute, who showed off a dose of infectious riot-dance, that unfortunately the beer-drenched bogannaires were not quite ready for. It will be something to welcome her back with an advanced set of works investigating the machine/human interface (explored in quite different ways to Blade Runner 2049 this year.)  Sharing Herndon’s melding of academic theory and mind-bending technique is Kara-Lis Coverdale, Canadian organist, composer and club DJ, who will drive the hardware later that night at Fowlers Live.

Perhaps Sefton’s most impressive “coup” this year has been to jag the mercurial Señor Coconut (Ger/Bra) and his eight piece band, an improbable mix of grand latin instrumentation and covers of Kraftwerk, Sabbath, Sade and others. A great supporter of Unsound, AtomTM graced the Unsound stage at the Masonic Hall sync’ed clinically with Robin Fox’s intense tricolour lasers, and also as curtain raiser for Severed Heads (another coup!) Uwe Schmidt has been such a prolific creator. His work in Flanger with Burnt Friedman, with the line-blurring between live and midi-signalled instruments to full neu-funk effect, is particularly worth checking out on Sunday.

Sunday night’s program opens with a new trio comprising Necks royalty Chris Abrahams who will as ever, coax new colours from his keyboard, and Robbie Avenaim who specialises in long form percussive workouts. They are joined by an artist I was lucky to see first at Unsound 2004, in Wagga Wagga: Oren Ambarchi. Back in Wagga, at a very small and cottage-feel Unsound connected with the University and train yards there, Ambarchi stunned the crowd with a pointillist affair on lap guitar, electrified and via pedals, showering ears as though an army of moths were strumming Glenn Branca. Unsound has come so far, recently completing the acclaimed Polish installment, its fifteenth. The Polish XV theme of Flower Power, echoed in the artwork for Adelaide and the Botanic Gardens events, references counterculture in the 1960s as well as dark ecology and the unstoppable forces of nature. Some acts showcased in Poland will be with us in Adelaide including Pharmakon, Varg and Holly Herndon.

Varg is particularly exciting; the co-head of Northern Electronics from Sweden was talked up by hardware techno demon Container after his own head-spinning Unsound set last year. The cryptic electronic upstart is on late on Saturday night at Fowlers and his set will no doubt continue to blur lines between genres of noise, ambient, trance and improvisation.

The bonus of an Unsound programme is exposure to artistic music outside your experience, where mini epiphanies can occur as an artist rides the mood of a crowd. Unique pairings such as Maurizio and Tony Allen at the legendary Old Queen’s Theatre venue provided a clinical and dubwise set of dexterous riddims. Kevin Martin’s King Midas Sound wowed the crowd at the Masonic Hall, last year, immersed in fog and with only a red-dwarf light orienting us through the amorphous murk. Former Adelaide and Melbourne lad Ben Frost literally made small pieces of plaster spitter down on amazed heads from the ceiling during his bass-heavy Queen’s Theatre set. Severed Heads, Stars of the Lid, Demdike Stare, Gazelle Twin, Morton Subotnick… the highlights of past years are too many to mention, and this year promises equally rewarding listening with the extra elements of the Club, the Gardens and the spoken word.

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Review of Olympia, Producers Hotel, Adelaide, 11 June 2016

The institution that is the Producers has hosted Adelaide music for an age, and the long, Manhattan warehouse style Western side room is a wonderful addition to the ancient beer garden stage, where cobbled bricks underfoot are rich with boot rubber and beer. It’s a chill Adelaide night for Melbourne’s Olympia (Olivia Bartley and band) to perform, and her stage outfit of choice lately (spangled jumpsuit) may require thermals. Scarves are de rigeur for the crowd, and warming drinks – though it’s international Gin day it’s not remotely G&T weather in this hemisphere.

The four act deep lineup of female songwriters and singers opens with Poly Low but alas, we are grappling with forensic architecture in the beer garden while her songs are being performed, apologies to Poly. The set must have been short, and gets a kind shout out from Naomi Keyte, who along with four piece band, impresses with a sure voice in medium and high registers.  It’s the first time I’ve heard Naomi and the band who prefer augmentation over instrumentation. The lead song from the forthcoming album, Undertow, is a brooder – delicate Les Paul guitar and long gaps between deep floor tom hits. Filigree guitar arpeggios flit around the chords and bass anchors the chords. Radiohead comes to mind, particularly around some of the ratatat drums with three guitars, as does sea-obsessed songstress Laura Viers, as the warming crowd enjoy the band’s self-described “severe folk” music.

The new album is shaping up to be cleverly arranged and a step up from her previous 2013 mini album release, and the mix always allow Naomi’s voice and guitar to be heard. It’s the type of voice, paired with these songs, you feel is telling you part of a secret, but not the whole. Sometimes I find myself wanting the songs to open up and hit fourth gear, but they don’t overstay. The final track, a slow burn nostalgic narrative with a lovely journey story from hills to coast, supported by Thomas Capogreco’s viola and backing vocals, is a cathartic closer to the tidy set.

At this point in the night a couple of old hills friends drop by and start buying me Black and Tans. It’s wonderful to see them and it takes rather an edge off the cool night – but we go from being super polite audience members into jovial ratbags… Now there is a girl on the stage at the keyboard – alone and serenading us with synth and her looped voice. It cuts through our reminiscing about friends lovely and those lost, with songs that sound like spells.

A long veil of blonde hair covers half of her face, and the gentle electronic tones are sung with an intensity approaching the drama of Kate Bush. She is Sarah Belkner, from Sydney’s inner west, and there is a hint of Laura Palmer about the effect of her swaying, immersed and earnest in her songs. Having worked with Ngaiire, Jack Ladder, and adding keys and vocals to Olympia’s band this tour, after having augmented Sarah Blasko’s band, she relishes the chance to perform solo. Confident and immersed in her set with cleverly looped vocals and sequences, the effect is not minimal but theatrical – and would be no doubt bolder with a band behind her. Unfortunately Adelaide’s interstate reputation for murder and marijuana is a focus for discussion between songs – must get that seen to and include churches and Chris Pyne too… wink.

Golden jumpsuit with plumaged shoulders, Fender Jaguar, peroxide bob – that would be Olympia, who I expected would be taller in person, but she’s large with presence and barrels into Honey, the opener from the lush Bourke Reid (Gerling) produced Self Talk album. Perhaps it’s the cool air or the mix settling but it takes some time for the sound to mesh and her voice to find stride. Honey is a grand, swooping track and it’s easy to enjoy the logic of Pat Bourke’s bass with the vocal line. It’s sparse compared with the analog synth laden album version, missing a second vocal or some keys, so it’s welcome when Sarah Belkner joins Olympia on stage to augment at times. We’re treated to nearly all the tracks from Self Talk as well as the sparse Atlantis from the previous self-titled EP, bringing Feist to mind or Syd Straw with the plaintive, searching vocal and guitar chimes in 3/4 time.

Album singles including Why Can’t We Have Nice Things come across with more looseness, and the voice is the star attraction here. The harmonies are such a clear part of the songs it’s impossible not to hear them imagined in my head. Olympia has two microphones and the variation in dynamics from gentle to giant has her moving miles back from the mic to belt out huge notes. A co-write from the album with Papa vs Pretty’s Thomas Rawle (the cryptically titled Fishing Knots / Blood Vessels) swoons, and Different Cities shows its colours as a beautiful heartbreaker. Olympia moves across to the keyboard to play a song unaccompanied – a big bold electric piano with long vocal lines looped, and the room is in thrall.

Olympia’s banter is so good natured and humorous, the Producers feels like a lounge room. You can see she’s relaxed, halfway through the tour, backing a well received album. With audience on board, she digresses, describing an Indonesian trip with obligatory (for Australians) motorbike sightseeing ending in a spill and scrapes. There is a wince from the crowd as tells us she stuck with three days of open water diving with gravel rash! Add determination to the list of her qualities. There are tea towels available among the merch, printed with pages of lyric books, littered with sketches in perspective and words crossed out and improved, a restless mind’s fun.

There are chats about the over-enthusiastic and rather loud DJ in the room next door, suggesting he put on Nutbush, Olympia is rightly amazed when some don’t know Tina Turner’s disco/health hustle classic. Finally we’re treated to Smoke Signals, and it’s a rush – the difficult vocal line and melodic solo, the tom driven beat where the drummer really comes alive, plus it’s a notch faster than most of the tempos tonight. It’s a bona-fide hit, the room is all on board and Nutbush mixed with Black and Tans actually works. There’s another tour scheduled for August, go hear her before the rooms she books get too big.

Max Richter – Sleep simulcast on ABC, published in the AU Review

Experiencing Max Richter’s VIVID Sydney production of Sleep…from Adelaide – a review.

Unsound Adelaide 2016 – Night 2

27 Feb 2016

Fennesz and Lillevan

Johann Johannsson and Zephyr Quartet

Kangding Ray solo

Vessel and Pedro Maia

Hot Shotz: Powell and Lorenzo Senni

Paula Temple

 

The magic of Fennesz is the transporting quality of his granular guitar sculptures, distorted without being ugly, cool without being cold. The Austrian is a gutsy collaborator, having worked with the late Sparklehorse on a memorable “In The Fishtank” release, Ryuichi Sakamoto twice, Jim O’Rourke & Peter Rehberg in Fenn O’Berg, and on his most recent record alongside King Midas Sound, who blew Unsound away last year to close the most amorphous, giant red, fogged-out set. He opened night 2 with little fanfare and little crowd, which was such a pity, for such a rare visit. Fennesz opening the night was possibly to avoid other Festival programming for David Sefton? The 200-odd people there also did not act as buffer for the sound, this was the loudest set of the weekend, uncomfortably so when the Stratocaster was picked up for the Bécs track Liminality, where the beauty was lost in volume. Earplugs were freely provided at the door, where staff almost seemed to thrust them upon punters with the fervour of Christ-possessed leaflet givers, but to lose the top end of such a gorgeous sound was a crime. Fennesz’s wonderful Rivers Of Sand from Venice was a highlight and enhanced by the lovely visuals on screen by Lillevan who was on stage with him live-mixing layers of natural scenes flowing like the textures of tree bark or slow-splashing milk.

 

Jóhann Jóhannsson and his meditative works showcased the only Adelaide based act, Zephyr Quartet, whose 16 strings accumulated sound at glacial pace, and meshed with very quiet ambient backgrounds and stately grand piano motifs from the composer. There is a quiet determination in the works presented, some with slow, ten second swells never breaking on their shore. The catharsis is perfectly suited to the soundtracks with which he is becoming very well known for, and this gig was only two nights before the Oscars at which he was nominated again, for Sicario. The minor key works he presented led many to sit on the floor of the hall, and for this set the sound level was just right. His works are well worth visiting, particularly the elegaeic The Miners’ Hymns. His soundtrack for The Theory of Everything gained another Oscar nomination.

 

At this point in the night I had to exit the performances in order to meet family at Groupe F, the French firework spectacular, speeding off by bicycle.  Alas, the hilariously disconnected, grandiose French fireworks show did my head in for an hour, all lit-up moonwalkers, animal eyes and autobahns on a trapezoidal screen, the music Jarré-lite and Deep Forest aping. The burning cage suspended by crane was typical of the weirdness, but the fireworks were choreographed beautifully once they got around to it. My daughter loved it, so all was not lost. After an hour it ended and I was back on the bike and at Unsound in under ten minutes.

 

The set I missed was by Vessel, UK artist who I now realise I had confused with Vessels, which is a shame because the latter’s Dilate album had been a great new find for me recently, electronic dream-pop grooves. Tim Shiel’s mini Unsound primer on Double J made the same mistake. And oh, the reaction when I asked my friends about the set by Vessel (whose next album should be called Kepler?) was unanimous. Music wasn’t bad, quite brutal, but was completely detracted from with the sadomasochistic imagery by Pedro Maia. “You chose the right one to miss” I kept hearing. Were my friends that tame, how bad could it have been? I was curious and looked up a clip, but if anyone has footage… Perhaps this sort of thing goes down better in liberal Europe.

 

Kangding Ray brought my faith back in French music with his live techno set, a far straighter set than his SUMS had presented the previous night. No prog was sighted, but rather a razor sharp set of dance music which drew movement out of the crowd, I gather gratefully, after the confrontational Vessel. Although Friday was my dance peak, Ray’s enthusiasm and ability to respond to the audience’s peaks succeeded in pulling people into shapes. It was my highlight of the night along with the strings.

 

Next, Powell (he of the notorious Steve Albini baiting) came on with Milanese Lorenzo Senni as Hot Shotz, a very “Top Gun” moniker, to blow the cobwebs away entirely. Glitch punk techno is perhaps a distillation of where they were going, improvising and trading lines and pushing the repetition and noise very high, pissing off any neighbours not already deafened in Thebarton. Beer bottles on the equipment tables were swigged from and the set almost had a frat party on acid and bourbon feel about it, chaotic and brutal but ballsy fun. Not my favourite set of the night, challenging and definitely one for the earplugs. It would be interesting to hear a set of Senni where he and Powell were not egging each other on.

 

The final, 12th set was reserved for Paula Temple, maven of experimental techno – so slick on the equipment, the tweaking of knobs an art form! With grinding sounds reminiscent of Ventolin era Aphex Twin, often teasing dancers expecting an obvious beat to drop, this was an interesting techno set and closed out Unsound with great vibes. A friend commented to me how happy she was that there were finally some female stars on the bill this year and she’s right, there was not enough of it in previous years (excepting HTRK and Gazelle Twin.) This set fairly chugged along after the difficult Hot Shotz set and many fists were raised and pumped in the air. By this time the tired was setting in, after two nights on the feet with intense sounds. I was almost grateful the program was not over three nights this year. Catching David Sefton enthusing with Jlin near the end of the night, he was clearly stoked that he had brought the weird, particularly Babyfather’s maiden gig followed by Jlin.

 

Overall Unsound was once again a very high standard of avant-garde music and visuals which succeeded in provoking reaction; wild movement or hushed respect, disgust or deafness, the object is to present some of the most thrilling and free musicians working to their own muse and agenda. As Steve Goodman known only too well, sound can be war, and it doesn’t have to be high-pitched sirens to keep kids out of malls at night time – it can be played on any one of the radio stations you can access right now. Who controls that music? How many of the musicians play it safe, effectively making Muzak the number one genre worldwide because of the control exerted by major labels? It takes an energy to seek out and follow cutting-edge honesty within music, an energy which is sapped from many because of the demands of work. I applaud what Mat and his partner Gosia are doing with their program of events, because of the patient rebellion they foster. One where the underground unites and blows minds in what Maslow termed peak ecstatic spiritual experience. Thank you Adelaide Festival, please let Unsound continue beyond the golden Sefton years

Unsound Adelaide 2016, Night 1

26 Feb 2016

TraLaLa Blip

SUMS feat Kangding Ray and Barry Burns (Mogwai)

Babyfather

Jlin

Kode9

RPBoo

Consistently bringing under the radar musical acts to Australia for the past four years, Unsound sits as a wayward and somewhat awkward branch of the Adelaide Festival, a pet project for David Sefton and Mat Schulz to extend the Festival’s program of arts with futuristic, experimental, mainly electronic sounds. For the unwary, any of the sets encountered may induce ear-clutching hearing damage, cavorting dance, anxiety, or confusion.  Often simultaneously (and enjoyably, if willing.)

This year’s Unsound was limited to two nights, but still 12 acts, and took up in Thebarton Theatre, situated just out of the CBD, after the mixed response from the Freemason’s Hall in 2015. For the punters, most locals would have formative memories from legendary gigs at Thebby. Speaking with Randolf, one of the members of first Unsound act Tralala Blip from Melbourne, he related his time in metal band Massappeal, supporting Anthrax. It tends to be the hall in Adelaide acts will play on the tour before they are “lucky enough” to play entertainment centres, and a gig there will sound ten times better than a stadium.  It’s played host to Massive Attack, R.E.M., Devo, Sonic Youth, and others, typically more sedate than Unsound serves up.

Tralala Blip, adventurous five piece from Northern NSW coast, are “differently abled” and opened the Friday night program with evolving loops of curious mid-paced electronica, moving from melancholy to churning static crunch. While some members’ concentration was absolute, playing Korg keyboard lines and effecting sounds with glee, others were more or less free to sway, add shifting texture to the sound, or gesture happily to the audience – their enthusiasm hitting the building crowd. One member reminded me of a mix of Jeff Fenech and Keith Flint from Prodigy with his confidence and happy gestures to the crowd. At least two of the group sang live, choruses and lines which repeated and looped, with surprisingly strong voices. One particularly catchy tune in a Four Tet vein was Soccer In Space. Visuals for the group were an entertaining mix of washed out effects based on live cameras on the band and other material. The collective clearly work up their music together, what a huge stage this was for them to open, with heavy hitters to follow.

The theatre still was not anywhere near full, a shame because the gear being hauled by roadies on risers onto the stage suddenly looked impressive, for the listed duo to follow. SUMS (not Sydney Uni Maths Society, to be clear) actually included four members. Electronic artist Kangding Ray and Barry Burns from Scotland’s Mogwai were accompanied by musicians on five string double-bass and a giant percussion kit to be played while standing.  This unlikely combination were absolutely suitable for Unsound; Mogwai having played a monster gig in this venue a year ago for Adelaide Festival, and Kangding Ray an uncompromising French musician who was due to play a solo set on the following night. Their instrumental music is scaffolded on Ray’s sharp and clear modular electronics, providing techno-paced tracks which were augmented by Burns’ guitar and keyboard. His more traditional lines with delightful sounding organs would often take a motif and repeat it with incremental developments. Towards a crescendo, the rather wild player on percussion, leapt like a Celt while he hammered out drum lines and fills. His floor tom and side-mounted kick drum skins were thrashed, and it meshed seamlessly with the implied rhythms in the electronics. Without the live drums, the members could have sounded like Tangerine Dream, but the drums roused the music to explore a wider, live responsiveness. It was difficult to say how long tracks were, since they built and changed without obvious choruses, and at times Ray and Burns both wielded guitars as post-rock sounds filled the hall. SUMS were commissioned by Berlin Atonal in 2015 and this rare gig was a treat.

An early highlight of Unsound (2013) was the for-now defunct duo of Hype Williams. Filling Old Queens Theatre with smoke and industrial strength strobe lights focused towards the audience, this set was the opposite of what pop stars do, hiding identity and providing a dense fog where we were forced inwards to feel the deep, crashing homemade dub sounds and Copeland’s everyday-siren voice which rippled through the audience. Hype Williams’ prime mover Dean Blunt’s newly minted project Babyfather were a late replacement for Alessandro Cortini, solo artist and keyboardist from NIN, who had fallen ill. Very late replacement as it turned out, with Blunt’s Visa being organised within a day. According to the Unsound facebook page, Blunt had not even had time to organise any “vegetables” for the gig. The theatre was filled with smoke, so that the stage table with British flag draped over, could not unfortunately be seen. House lights were turned on and once again the venue was unrecognisable and bright, yet claustrophobic, like a fogged out end of the night at a club.  Babyfather (named after a Sade single) launched into Meditation, with production by wunderkind Arca, this first single (on Kode9’s Hyperdub label) features relaxed toasting-style vocals over a hunched-shoulder electronic shuffle. “20 bands, 20 bands, 20 bands…” comes the blasé vocal line. It continues the fascinating line of work by Blunt, challenging preconceptions of what an artist should be by following his own whims and continually putting out songs with wildly varying production quality. This maiden gig by Babyfather was a near-equal of Hype Williams in 2013, with only a handful of songs being showcased, but the music then gave way to a sustained series of long static blasts, at times enjoyable and heightening the sense-disorientation of the fog, and then more brutal and difficult. It was punctuated by the menacing toast “Easy. Easy. Fuckin’ easy.” Certainly this was a wonderful first performance, with an album to come shortly from the project, this may be a gig Adelaideans will have bragging rights to.

Jlin (Jerrilynn Patton) has had an unbelievable run recently as her lightfoot programmed beats and samples push buttons for dancers and critics. So young, and coming from the Jackson family birthplace of Gary, Indiana, she has recently found the courage to quit her day job (as truck driver) and jump into music and more touring. This Unsound gig was about her eighth only, live . For this set, she joined forces with a fluid Indian dancer (Avril Stormy Unger) who came front of stage with burning incense in hand, gyrating slowly with it while the smoke drifted up in spirals. Although the languid style of the dancer would not have been an obvious fit for the fast beats, the effect was mesmerising, adding a feminine element and encouraging more movement among the crowd. Jlin brought a positivity and a very African insistence. She added poignant vocal samples to her older tracks, some from horror films including The Ring. In person after the gig, she was exuberant and clearly thrilled. The track Erotic Heat has been the most popular from her Planet Mu album and is more about bottled-up sexuality than the release of that heat between bodies. Feeling it, those dancing in the crowd went hard, and experienced a gleeful release in the supercharged voodoo beats. Jlin occasionally came out to the front of the stage and encouraged the crowd, grinning like a young Whoopi Goldberg, and at this stage of the night the numbers were at peak, the theatre (unfortunately only) around 2/3 full, but luckily with room to shake. What a set.

Hyperdub label head Steve Goodman, aka Kode9, has had a difficult year, with his vocalist Spaceape, plus footwork friend and pioneer DJ Rashad’s untimely passing. A set of optimistic bangers was not to be expected from the musician whose latest album, simply called Nothing, investigates the zero, or lack, and continues his criticism of western imperialist oppression of freedom, and the role of sound in that. His work is dark, dubby, and on this new release, more jarring and footwork influenced. At Unsound he shared the stage with Lawrence Lek, who presented a visual accompaniment called The Notel, a virtual hotel style building complex which was navigated by mini helicopter drone in real time by Lek, wearing body sensors. Large atriums, modern cold architecture, and computer terminals were surveyed, reminding me of hours spent playing Doom, without the monsters. At times we hovered near writing on the terminals displaying DESIGNED BY ALGORITHMS and BUILT BY ROBOTS, or MADE FOR HUMANS. The eerie musical opening led into deep bass tones and cycling rattle of Nothing’s opening tracks. The set came to life with the faster Holo, disembodied voice syllables at least a raft to ride within the sharp time changes and concrète atonal stabs. But the somber inward energy of the music is better suited to headphones and one person I spoke to even fell asleep during the set on one of the few seats at the rear of the hall.

Luckily there was a giant sucker punch to come in the night, final act RPBoo gave his all in a whipping footwork set. There is very little awareness of this style in Australia, so the Festival is to be congratulated on once again enlightening people. When so many are crying out for new styles of music, it will be happening underground somewhere, and Chicago is exciting at present. The footwork style could almost have come from the drum breaks in drum’n’bass being stitched together, highly rhythmic and often around 160bpm, but without the obvious half-time lurch of early dubstep. RPBoo has been somewhat of a mentor for Jlin and could be seen on the sidelines of her show cheering her on. His set was wonderful to dance to although by five hours into the gig, only those with stimulants were able to thrive! A delightful moment towards then end of the set was RPBoo coming forward to briefly display the footwork style, seemingly in fast-forward, eliciting big cheers from the crowd. And suddenly the night came to an end and all the bikes out the front of the venue were ridden home.

John Zorn: Zorn@60 live, Adelaide Festival, Festival Centre, March 14, 2014.

John Zorn’s relentless musical search reaches corners well tread and niche-hidden, barely no genre is untouched by his alchemical hands. On this unique visit to Australia, no less than four consecutive nights surveying the breadth of his work were granted to the ravenous audiences. A cast of musicians best able to interpret Zorn’s difficult work travelled over the water for the festival, some for only a half hour appearance – it is understandable why many other festivals have failed to attract the Zorn juggernaut, and the coup was relished by Adelaide.

The large and appreciative audience at the Festival Theatre for the last of four programs, known as Zorn@60, heard fields of music as diverse as wild Jewish prog-rock mayhem, intimate acoustic guitar driven melancholia, and technically challenging a capella from classically trained female vocalists. This was the widest reaching program for the week. But for Zorn, genre is nothing – composition and performance are all!  Zorn lives to coax surprise out of the endless moment from his willing performers, who go to any lengths to see their conductor satisfied. Perhaps throwing his head back, holding his fist in the air as if to say – yes, maintain that! Keep on! Or to lift up his glasses and flare his eyes, as he did at one point towards Kenny Wollesen on vibraphones, finding a rich seam between the chords.

Opening proceedings was the Song Project, where Zorn’s band the Dreamers: effectively a dream team to rival any Globetrotters, who interpreted older compositions, sung by Mike Patton, Jesse Harris and the gorgeous Sofia Rei. One or two singers at a time put their own words (and Sean Lennon’s) to these beautiful songs, while Zorn, seated, conducted with his back to the audience. He was there for the music, not for any pretence, that was clear – his trousers, as ever, were rather informal camouflage happy pants.

Mike Patton, though not dominating the musicians, led with equal measure of crooning as well as heavy and harsh top-gear metal style screams, settling himself in a low horse stance, ready to shoulder-charge a Mack. He was a reason a good percentage of the audience were there, including my wife, and he didn’t disappoint; suave but spring-coiled. Jesse Harris, by comparison, the writer of tunes such as Norah Jones’ Come Away With Me, murmured his songs, but managed to pick out delightful obscure melodies, so disarmingly. Sofia Rei, an absolutely resplendent Latin beauty in sequined black dress, sang in Portuguese and Spanish, and mesmerised, exotic swells of her voice reminding me of Bebel Gilberto.

It’s been these songs which stuck in my mind perhaps more than any other on the night. The Song Project allowed vocalists to interpret Zorn’s beautiful music – generous of him – as this entire four-night stint in Adelaide was. What surprises me is that there is no Zorn on the radio, nor on television, and yet this recognised genius works tirelessly from his New York base to further music, creating and nurturing so many gems. Zorn wore a t-shirt featuring The Stone, a NYC East Village performance venue he helped establish, which has hosted over 5000 gigs. This is a man who, as my wife said, must never sleep. He directed his bands on the night with absolute commitment and split-second timing. Should he desire to hear drummer Joey Baron double the tempo, he will hold up two fingers, and the automatic transmission glides into a higher gear – four fingers, and the snare doubles again! The language of hand signals reminded me of a furious Italian driver, gesticulating with vigor.

In 2011 Zorn was inducted into the Long Island Music Hall of Fame by Lou Reed, and his song sung by Patton – Of Wonder and Certainty – was fittingly Reed-esque, sawing back and forth between two chords, then opening up with a flourish (“I remember how they turned away”) just as the best lifts in Reed’s solo songs took off.  Zorn clearly feels, as so many do, the loss of this equally towering New York fixture. The lyrics took us through a growing obsession with Reed, being dimly aware of him and then entranced, as I and so many fans have been.

Osaka Bondage, one of Zorn’s favourite pieces from his Naked City time, had a brief introduction from Zorn, who seemed to almost apologise that “this was where my head was at in 1988” with an audience member calling back “what a beautiful place!” Zorn replied “Worked for me – it’s still working for me!” What followed was a minute and a half of pure animal outburst delivered by all on stage – Zorn’s conducting representing physically the whipping (pun intended) surges and unexpected silences from the frantic players, Patton blasting the microphone, a collective smiling and feeling like a cigarette afterwards.

 

Zorn came away from the stage during the next four sets, other than ensuring all musicians were personally introduced. A set of complex and relatively discordant music followed, from virtuosic pianist Stephen Gosling backed with Trevor Dunn on bass and Kenny Wollesen on drums called Illuminations. This music whirled in obscure intervals and seemed to draw from Shostakovich as much as fast, free jazz, pushing the musicians considerably.

One of the most transcendent moments of the night was when five female vocalists took to the stage in lovely white dresses, for The Holy Visions, which was a reverent a cappella piece and highly intricate. During some moments the group (chosen presumably for their individual ranges from contralto up to soprano) provided bass, mid and high notes for a rhythmic workout, approaching Bjork-like pop. The piece also moved into more abstract regions, the sounds of speaking in tongues, other trance-like utterances. The technicality of Zorn’s piece was evident because each of the singers kept in their hands a tuning fork, tapping and holding it to their ears frequently.

Next, a string quartet composition dedicated to Dr John Dee, Her Majesty’s Physician, from the late 1500s. Dr Dee: the fabled mage, used all rare elements at his disposal, and wielded sharp tools to effect the alchemy that he and his Queen craved, and after more than four hours of hand-picked Zorn in one night, you feel he similarly leaves no lodestone unturned. At sixty years, he has the infectious energy of a much younger man, the playfulness of a cat. This piece was so restless and ever expanding into barely chordant sound – just how is this music scored? Are the musicians really reading the score and would it sound similar by another quartet, or even the same quartet on another night? Such was the speed and intricate mix of pizzicato and bow. Zorn appeared pleased and came back on stage to thank the quartet.

As Moonchild, Trevor Dunn, perhaps the hardest worker on the night on his double bass and electric bass, was joined by self-taught drum feel machine Joey Baron, John Medeski (from wonderful jazz trio Medeski Martin and Wood) and Patton. Dedicated to the Knights Templar, keepers of sacred transcendent knowledge, often doggedly pursued and forced into hiding, or tortured if caught, one felt the pounding heaviness of the chase and righteous aggression of the Templars, then, as with Zorn so often, pauses and quietude to emphasise the violence.

After a welcome second interval, we headed back in to witness one of the more gentle of Zorn’s musical incarnations, The Dreamers. One of the groups I am familiar with from his mammoth back catalogue, it was a treat to experience the confident and respectful group in their often Arabic-tinged, surf, sparse moods. The surf element is due to Marc Ribot in no small part, whom it must be said, has an embarrassingly close relationship to his tremolo bar. There were no songs from albums The Gift or A Dreamers’ Christmas, but these are suggested as a gentle entry point to the Zorn catalogue.

Here as with the following Electric Masada set, we saw Zorn’s control of his players once again. Music played as well as played with, alive under his gaze. Jamie Saft, with the improbably long beard joined the core of musicians on Fender Rhodes as well as grand piano, adding filigree runs and careful accent to the pieces.  This instrumental set was a delight, a night of this lineup alone would have made a wonderful fifth night of the program!

If you don’t know the story of the Masada project which are really his signature stamp on modern jazz, recognising fully his Jewish heritage, John Zorn wrote 200 pieces in two years for the first set of Masada songs. His second set, in the next decade, were 300 pieces – written in three months. One full night of the Adelaide Festival program was dedicated to the often frantic Electric Masada.

Kenny Wollesen was brilliant on vibraphone in the Dreamers, lighter than air, and he swapped to a second drum kit played with gangly abandon during the Electric Masada section of the night. He and all the musicians in the last two sets were easy to watch, none more than Cyro Baptista, percussionist extraordinaire, sympathetic always. My friend Anthony, during the Dreamers’ set, said “it must be almost time for some saxophone” and copped a sidelong glare from Zorn. Never one to overshadow his contemporaries, we had to wait till the final Masada set. As Zorn slowly adjusted his reed, and finally joined the klezmer dervish of sound, his shoulders hunched and rather contorted body belied the gorgeous tones from his alto saxophone. Trills, impossibly high squeals, modal runs, and chromatic solos burst forth. It felt like the previous music of the night was underlined, the composer and ringleader coming forth and blowing the ass off his instrument. Exhilarating.

The sound and experience of this music live was something else – having revisited Song Project online, only a fraction of the live subtleties were audible or visible. The audience were very grateful to have seen one of his four Australian shows.