The room is almost pitch black as I step inside, and were it not for the frequent nudges from people behind me, it would be peaceful. A wash of electronics fills the silence with a foreboding ambience, and the mutterings of the crowd beneath it become a pleasant babble. In the corner, glowing so softly that it only becomes visible after I blink a few times, is a spinning sculpture of a molecule. As its light pulses in time to the sounds emitted from the room’s hidden speakers, an ephemeral scent evoking ancient forests and even more ancient gods drifts in—subtle, but with an underlying sense of power.
The room, one of three arranged in a corridor and broken by “resting stations” containing abstract projections, is the beginning of Unsound Festivals’ Ephemera, a collaborative installation that utilizes sculpture, visuals and compositions from Kode9, Ben Frost and Tim Hecker. One of the main focuses, however, are individual scents crafted for the occasion by perfumer Geza Schoen, known for his 2006 pheromone-enhancing fragrance Escentric Molecules, which sought to provoke discussion on the way scents are marketed to the general public. While the installation’s highbrow conception says “art-piece,” it’s certainly the more wearable and easily marketable of the two lines Schoen has produced. But I say that as someone with junk pheromones that nobody really wants to smell.
However, thanks to a decade of working in clubs, I’ve developed an olfactory organ primarily adapted to the smell of fog machine fluid and dirty concrete. And like other people, I find myself transported to another time or place instantly with the barest hint of certain smells, as they are obviously closely connected to memory and emotion. For that reason, smells are employed to manipulate mood. Tying that idea to music strengthens the connection; how many times has your mood shifted entirely because of a song? Ephemera picks up on the notion, but mutates it with elements of electronic music: BASS, NOISE and DRONE.
With this in mind, I decided the best place to experience the scents in question was actually outside of the original installation, in a place where bass, noise and drone fester. In other words, a music venue. Borrowing the empty boiler room basement of Berlin’s Urban Spree along with a few decent speakers, I filled the small space with each scent and its corresponding sound.
Music: “Vacuum Burn”
Steve Goodman’s piece recalls exactly what the title suggests: a burning vacuum cleaner smell. There’s a lot of base in BASS—it’s heavy, and while not necessarily something you want to dump all over your neck, wrists and junk (if you roll that way), splashed across the walls of a cold basement it had a surprisingly human touch. For me, it conjured up the detritus of an old study, untouched for weeks. But more than anything it summoned memories of my early teen youth spent in front of a computer. The dusty hum of an old PC and the slight alcoholic tang of keyboard cleaner hanging in the air are enhanced by mouse click samples and the compisition’s crackling dryness. In the acrid mustiness of BASS, the ghost of my adolescent browsing history whispers “aphrodisiac”.
Composer: Ben Frost
As dark and harsh as its namesake, NOISE hit my nasal passages like a blast of cold, metallic air. But what followed was closer in tone to warmth and candlelight. Signatures of well-worn dark wood and a heavy helping of frankincense and peppercorn were obvious, as was the sharp tang of ozone. The image that gradually formed in my mind, as I dance in the fragrant space to Frost’s majestic and sinister piece, was of some ancient place of worship—though, perhaps, not to any god of forgiveness and light. Easily my favorite of the trio, it clung to me long after the last notes of the music had faded.
Composer: Tim Hecker
Like NOISE, Hecker’s contribution also conjures a pagan vibe, but the mood here is further from old gods and closer to the angelic or cosmic. “Immensity” is the word DRONE speaks inside the mind and nose, tied to this world by the odor of fir trees and juniper and the subtle earthiness of patchouli and ambergris. What DRONE finally leads up to, however, is something akin to antiseptic incense: interesting for the mind, but less so for my nose. At the end of this trial, I burnt a bit of sage to clear the air and disperse whatever nastiness was lurking around, because I had to go home and start writing. You don’t know real horror until you’ve stared at the hungry, expectant and empty face of a new .doc file for two hours on a deadline.
After I packed up my gear, left the club and got the train, I noticed how strongly the scents still clung to me, like dying murmurs of attention. Unexpectedly, they combined in a way that made them all compliment each other. While NOISE will surely find the most use in my odor arsenal, the symbiotic bond of the three makes them ideal for combined re-perusal. In fact, I’ve taken to combining NOISE with WHISKEY and AMPHETAMINES, and eventually MINOR HEAD TRAUMA. I call it HNW. The accompanying compositions are generally unlistenable.
This article originally appeared in the Spring 2015 issue of Electronic Beats Magazine with art direction by Johannes Beck. To read more from this issue, click here and read our review of Unsound 2014 here.
Horrible iPhone photos by Daniel Jones.
I’m not much of a music festival person. The idea of being outdoors, surrounded by thousands of happy teens is fairly appalling to me. I just don’t have much tolerance for floral headbands and saying “Woo!” anymore.
And that’s why Unsound Festival is my kind of music festival: it’s indoors, full of people with extremely honed tastes (read: music nerds), and crammed with all of the specific sorts of sounds I require to function.
THURSDAY, OCTOBER 16
Awesomeness was apparent from the first hour I arrived, early in the evening of October 16. Walking around looking for food, I ran into the rude dudes from Zs—two fellows I’d seen often back when I lived in Brooklyn. Being able to speak so casually with performing artists is a big selling point for Unsound. Music festivals rarely foster so much receptivity.
The panel conversations and exhibitions were another resource for meetups and discussions, and they deepened my understanding of Unsound as a great big nerd-out for those who fancy the strange. Topics like “Nightmare Culture in English Industrial Music” and shows like Ephemera—a scent/sound/vision experience of giant rotating molecules set to original compositions from Ben Frost, Kode9 and Tim Hecker with original perfumes embodying Bass, Drone, and Noise—are as fascinating as they are necessary respites from the OD amounts of dancing that the festival’s lineup inspires.
Carter Tutti Void
And as for the lineup…by gods, what a beast it was. On my first night, I was bombarded by bass from Vessel, led on an acid trip by Carter Tutti Void, and given a total mind meltdown courtesy of Ben Frost. Though I generally can’t stand the hyper-pop aesthetics of the PC Music crew, SOPHIE’s futuristic crunkage was a welcome change of pace from all the techno (before those piercing highs kicked in, anyway). After that, Perc finished me off with a growling procession of industrialized bass. By the end of the night, I could barely move, and the journey had only just begun.
FRIDAY, OCTOBER 17
The next evening, I found myself in an enormous warehouse packed front to back, waiting for a laser show from Atom TM and Mr. Fox. I expected something like a planetarium and left in awe at the pure power of the synchronized beats, video projection, and RGB lasers, the sum total of which left me with a vocabulary consisting solely of the word “siiiiiIIckkkk” for about 10 minutes. Nurse With Wound’s dark ambient set seemed a bit out of place afterwards, though it was a pleasure to listen to—particularly as they were accompanied by the transcendent Rob Lowe, aka Lichens. His haunting vocals lent even the gauziest moments of the set spectral weight. Suddenly, my 93 finger tattoo began to tingle—David Tibet must have been near! Exiting the wide doors, I saw no sign of him; however, former Coil members Stephen Thrower and Ossian Brown were both hanging out, so maybe it was residual magick residue a’lurking. Either way, we chatted briefly and I left excited for their performance as Cyclobe the following evening—though not nearly as excited as what was waiting for me at the main festival venue.
By Saturday at sunset, Unsounders were rabidly hyping the upcoming sets from DJ Stingray and the Teklife clan—I’m pretty sure I was one of 50 dudes who didn’t have a Teklife shirt. My vibe that night was of a different sort: the Janus kids, US transplants who throw some of the best parties in Berlin. I arrived in their room just in time to catch Amnesia Scanner, a duo I’ve been upping since I heard their mind-bending live set earlier this year, and their reconceptualized, industrialized take on grime didn’t disappoint. I was less familiar with DJ Hvad, though that’s certainly changed now. Dressed like a toxic mad scientist, he spun a wicked combination of gasping, Arabic-influenced grime and brutalist hardstyle. Any photographic evidence of the evening almost certainly includes me in the front row, doing my best Dead Can Dance movements.
Lotic brought the fun with a smile-inducing set of hip-hop, club, and R&B edits that included plenty of fake drops going into jet-engine noise before “Turn Down For What” whipped the crowd into a frenzy, proving that even amongst the musically academic, there’s always time to get sloppy and silly. I popped into the back to catch a bit of Bronze Teeth (harsh, grinding noise and blacklight cables) and Powell (his first live set; very assured but still sounded just like Powell) before my crew and I dipped. Though the party was still banging, I had to save a bit of energy for tomorrow, the date that had me slavering more than anything: Swans, Pharmakon, and a set by The Bug featuring Flowdan, Manga, Miss Red, Grouper’s Liz Harris, and Copeland.
Young Echo takeover
SATURDAY, OCTOBER 18
Cyclobe occupy the same hermetic zone as neofolk, and their performance was less a show than a ritual: a gathering of ancient forces into the gleaming Ice Kraków theater. Never before has a recorder sounded so primal. Then a long trek across the city to the Teatr Łaźnia Nowa and aural obliteration.
Unsound attendees tend to favor black wardrobes, and the Teatr Łaźnia Nowa on Saturday night undoubtedly held the least amount of blue jeans I’ve seen outside of a goth club. Home sweet home, complete with earplugs and looming Orange amps. After a mysterious warmup of the clicking noise from Predator, Pharmakon took the stage. It was a fittingly visceral performance, Margaret Chardiet stalking the audience and shrieking into sheet metal. The beautiful material was all new, although I could sense a desire to hear her breakout single “Crawling On Bruised Knees”.
Before I got my wish, Swans blasted onstage with a roaring rendition of “Frankie M.” It was a fantastic set, but by the time they got to “Don’t Go,” I was a bit ready to. Plus the girl next to me was wearing sunglasses and it kept cracking me up. The night had barely begun and I was already blasted, and I needed to conserve a bit for The Bug’s fury.
The Bug, Flowdan, Manga, and Miss Red destroying
Oh my freakin’ Bug. From the get-go it was hellish: red lights and so much fog I couldn’t see the guy in front of me, much less anyone onstage, for a good 15 minutes. But I could hear, and that’s all I—and the rest of the crowd—needed. It was chaos. It was violent. It was perfect. As Flowdan and Manga prowled the stage, growling out verses over the grinding bass, feet rarely touched the ground and hands stayed way the hell up, stabbing in a frenzy. There were four rewinds during “Function.” It was legendary. By the time the whole crew came onstage to spit, I was soaked in sweat and completely unable to stand. Evian Christ and his accompanying light show was fantastic, and I showed my appreciation by sitting in the back of the room wiggling the one arm that still worked. I was bummed to miss Mumdance and Logos but by the time they came on, I was in bed with bae and a j.
SUNDAY, OCTOBER 19
The next evening proved to be a beautiful closer. Fresh from her night of murderous Bug backup, Liz Harris filled the Ice auditorium with a melancholic delicacy that, after days of going as hard as a could, was a balm. Drifting through levels of consciousness, I knew I wouldn’t make it to the after party (despite an anticipated set from the god Total Freedom)—instead, I returned to my Airb&b feeling fulfilled. There are many great music festivals, but for me, Unsound is the music festival’s music festival. From the day I arrived, I felt at home: the music, the people, the atmosphere of true passion. I still have a ringing in my right ear; this is an aptly-named festival indeed.
Oh yeah, and someone made funny Michael Gira stickers. Turn down for what!