Review: Robin Fox illluminates Thebarton Theatre during Unsound Adelaide’s Friday night out

We return to Thebarton Theatre for Unsound 2017, the third time the experimental music festival has utilised this venue, but the first as a standalone event in Adelaide. This is hugely exciting because it emerges from the coat tails of the Adelaide Festival to really stretch out into other spaces and engage in different ways with the people of the city. Although it benefitted from the marketing reach of the AF, it still has a core following and should grow as people get used to the new format.

With a kick off, there is a good queue for tickets on the door in true last minute Adelaide style. Entering the theatre, people are spaced evenly throughout the floor and some are seated far back from the array of speakers above the stage. Looking up at them it is hard to imagine all the blasphemies and joys they will facilitate this weekend.

Robin Fox is a veteran of Unsound, having brought his lasers to old Queen’s Theatre and the Masonic Hall in previous years. As smoke machines fill the air with tiny particulates to catch the laser light, loud and pure electronic tones begin, conducting this year’s on-screen dance of pure colours. People are scattered throughout the whole venue but the greatest density gradually coalesces underneath the laser’s projections in the middle, where you can almost reach up and touch the light. Thanks to countless sci-fi films over the years, there is a reluctance to do so!

This year there are four lasers which are impossibly fast and accurate, and spell out different polygon shapes for each colour, growing and shrinking in tandem with its oscillator volume. Without warning the pattern abruptly changes, and spots of light chase each other around the screen accompanied by buzzing squarewave tones. It’s suddenly very Australian and you want to reach for the Mortein. Each particular shape the lasers make on the screen seem to correspond to a different waveform. It is a thrilling display where sound is not needing to be music to be entertaining.

Midway through the set a particularly bright set of patterns burst out and it becomes blindingly loud. It sounds like a massive metal tunnel which some larrikins are hurtling ballbearings into, our ears are assaulted. Lasers use stimulated emission of electrons, cascading in a chain reaction, catching photons resonating in a tube and finally bursting forth, directed by robot precision faster than the eye can train on. It’s fun to try to keep up.

After the set we turn backwards and cheer the creator for his experiment. One guy is so enthused he comes up to our group babbling and grinning. Whether aided by any chemicals or not, his enthusiasm is infectious.

There is a short gap and I sense the smell of mineral turps in the air, before Pharmakon text the stage. Is this to prepare the walls to have their paint flayed off? On stage is a set of modular electronics and mixing equipment along with a microphone with a very long lead. Triggering the pulsing tones, Margaret Chardiet begins widely pacing around, staking out her territory as her equipment sits on tables under a dark grey sheet, like a cadaver at a morgue. Long blonde hair flicking around as she storms from one side to the other, there is a sense that the artist means business.

Pharmakon’s latest album deals with trance states of mind but those very different to psy-trance or gentle shamanic drumming. Her work is very physical and engaging while at the same time seeming to rage against our very physical form. Her fierceness comes off like a wrathful Buddhist deity. The sound is a minimal version of the industrial noise of Nine Inch Nails, her voice and attitude reminds me of Fiona Horne from Def FX, but wilder, and through distortions, it thrillingly punctuates the pulsing machines.

Part way through the set she is suddenly down among the crowd, passing through us and presenting the incantation close up, at one stage resting her head on someone’s chest and yelling, seemingly furious but resigned to the state of physicality we are trapped in. People helpfully pass the mike lead over their heads so she winds her way further through the crowd. The audience is cool even with this physical, sexual wraith among us, until she happens to ensnare a couple of guys and accidentally hauls them in the mic lead back towards the stage before they, slightly panicked, escape. It’s brilliant, her metal attitude and noise obliteration, moving past language towards something universal.

Wolf Eyes are an incredibly prolific noise improv group from Michigan in the United States, known for its changes in economic fortunes after the collapse of the automotive industry, something which is very real for South Australian people, our last manufacturing plant at Holden closing only a month ago. The band return to Australia after 10 years and are clearly happy to be back and gracing the Unsound stage. The three members all wear odd sunglasses, masking their identities somewhat and perhaps allowing better access to the dissolving of personality for their music to work. The central player stands over a small bank of modular electronics, a common theme of tonight’s performances and a growing movement around the music world.

The instrumentation for the other two players consists of an electric cello funnelled through a multiplicity of effects, commanded by their NYC guest, sound artist MV Carbon, and a range of brass, wind and percussion including a soprano saxophone, and a tiny pocket trumpet, used both with a standard mouthpiece and also with a saxophone mouthpiece, to great shrieking effect. The songs are swampy and deconstructed, forgetting melody, taking us into a Dr Seuss flavoured mindbending landscape of noise. It’s actually a lot of fun and brings to mind The Residents or early Birthday Party, especially in the vocal tracks. This is not music to feel comfortable to, this is as the singer says, schizophrenic, eschewing conventional band ideas, although they appear as cool as it is possible for a band to look. The screeching cello and trumpet and relentless anti-groove of bass electronics seem to tap into some pre-lingual urges, as Pharmakon does too, and their jams have something of Aussie trio The Necks also, minimal and orthogonal with the three instruments. The only sentence I can properly make out comes at the end of their last song and it is, appropriately, “words left behind.”

To great applause, the band removes the sunglasses and leaves the stage, while us in the audience try to string our own words together after that zombie jazz trip. It feels too early to be going home, which is lucky for those moving on to Fowlers Live for the first of the two club nights.