Spend long enough at avant-garde electronic music festivals and, like the raver character in Spaced who dances to the beep of a pedestrian crossing, you start hearing music in everything. Brakes on a train, wind through a doorway â¦ after Unsound in Krakow, Poland, and Semibreve in Braga, Portugal, you can even convince yourself that your local shopping centre is actually an elaborate sound collage lampooning the cacophony of commerce.
Every autumn these festivals head to the coalface of todayâs music scene, where ideas and aesthetics are mined and sent up to the mainstream â and yesterdayâs aural trash is repurposed as todayâs treasure. A keystone act at both festivals was Visible Cloaks, a Portland duo playing ambient music using software alongside voice, glockenspiel and a kind of electric clarinet that resembles a high-end sex toy. Following on from the vaporwave scene and producers like James Ferraro and Oneohtrix Point Never, they champion the aesthetics of the early personal computing era, with synthetic chimes and tones alongside their magnificently psychedelic visuals, which sit somewhere between screensavers, Minecraft and Magic Eye paintings. The duo sit on the same axis as Duchamp, Warhol and Koons, reclaiming the banal as high art, but with the internet making anything accessible across history, the half-life of nostalgia is becoming ever shorter, as even the extremely recent past has its kitsch reconstructed.
In an administrative building for a Soviet-era steel mill at the Polish festival, two British artists also played in the ruins of a collapsed history: Lee Gamble creating poetic shards of 90s rave culture as bursts of junglism vied with the sound of speeding cars; and Lanark Artefax, the talk of Unsound for his set of Aphex-style breakbeat techno hauling itself together out of a stretch of digital abstraction.
Visible Cloaks did something further with their work though â with synthesised takes on east Asian instruments from gamelan to shakuhachi, plus nods to jazz, Muzak and more, their beautiful, radically hybrid music is proudly globalised, reaching towards a â perhaps naive â utopia of shared values. Holly Herndon was similarly utopian as she performed alongside her husband and a gender-fluid choral sextet, their celebration of both the human voice and the permissiveness of club culture sending a surge of righteous passion through the audience. The emancipatory power and emotional clarity of the 4/4 beat was also explored by everyone from Nina Kraviz in a Krakow techno rave to Steve Hauschildt in a Braga chapel, and Gas in both cities, the latter two playing intensely poignant ambient that pulled into focus through a soft heartbeat.
But plenty of the performers had a more pessimistic outlook. Zonal, a new collaboration between seething poet-musician Moor Mother, industrial dancehall producer the Bug and his former Techno Animal collaborator â and Napalm Death member â Justin Broadrick is, as expected, apocalyptically loud and angry, Moor Mother howling âand you sold your soul â¦ for what?â through a gale of static. Swedish producer Varg meanwhile, wearing a football scarf that reads FUCK YOU, dials up the latent empty despair of trap, with a voice intoning âsit back, relax, chainsmoke, internalise fearâ. Bliss Signal, a duo of Mumdance and Wife, seem to be purging demons with their deconstructed thrash metal. Optimism and pessimism felt like equally valid strategies to help audiences dismantle the psychic weight of our current social discord.
Some of Semibreveâs most powerful artists, though, went beyond politics into a realm of pure affect, celebrating in the almost occult power of sound. Argentine electroacoustic legend Beatriz Ferreyra uses a 360-degree speaker setup to send clattering sounds inspired by the Tibetan book of the dead rushing up your back and flitting out past your head. She gets the fight-or-flight mechanism twitching, but itâs positively assaulted by Fis, a Kiwi producer of shuddering clouds of HD digital noise, backed by excellent live visuals from Jovan Vucinic. Their combined genius is to make essentially benign images of lapping waves suddenly flood with dread; a clearly disturbed child is ushered out. This is more than just bland aggro, and is harder than it looks â some moments turn to mere bluster, and Ben Frostâs similarly minded set at Unsound was rudderless.
Their approach, glorying in the sheer faceless power of sound, is shared by Norwegian veteran Deathprod. Playing behind a small desk on a large stage adorned only by a gently flickering strobe and a beam of blue light, one moment he emitted quiet ambient chords, the next a gigantic foghorn blast seemingly from where the river Styx meets an endless black ocean. His stoic demeanour and unaffected presentation framed these divergent sounds as being all from the same inexhaustible, infinite well. Like Luigi Russolo, Pierre Schaeffer and others before them, these musicians continue to dance in the grey area where music devolves into pure sound, and vice versa â a space gloriously unshackled from the narrow mental confines of the mainstream.