Review: Unsound Adelaide wind up marathon weekend of music with Australian firsts, a world premiere & more

Sunday, after lucky, bag-eyed fans waded through a marathon weekend of music, was a delightful and unique way to close out Unsound. With a world premiere, and two Australian firsts, the festival still had plenty of surprises in store.

The striking element about the stage for the Abrahams/Avenaim/Ambarchi trio is the twin kick drums mounted centre stage in unconventional positions up off the floor, on either side of the drummer’s seat, joining a standard kick drum centrally. There’s a black grand piano for Chris Abrahams, with lid angled to broadcast out to the audience, and allowing us to see the reflection of the strings. Ambarchi’s setup is a mad scientist’s table of shiny guitar pedals and devices.

This trio had been an idea in their mind for some time but all three are much in demand musicians, for good reasons including “greatest trio in the world” (NY Times) The Necks, Sunn O))), each of their respective solo work, Splinter Orchestra, etc. Chris Abrahams and Robbie Avenaim play together from time to time, whereas Ambarchi has been recently performing works by composer Alvin Lucier and has also made music with his romantic partner using field recording, Buchla synth and guitar, “Hotel Record” an intimate recording just out. This bewildering variety of works indicates that their performance could go in many directions, simultaneously. The first time I saw Oren Ambarchi live was solo at an early Unsound in 2004 at Wagga Wagga, and his setup then was a more modest but similar table of gear.

Their piece, for there is only one, starts at a delicate crawl, and immediately the focus appears to be on textural elements, over obvious melody. Repeated single notes and short motifs from Abrahams’ grand piano start to focus the still-entering crowd from the sidebar by the venue. There are less of the crystalline notes of gentler Necks pieces like “Mosquito”, and Abrahams seems to seek particularly resonant sounds within the venue, and work these qualities into something approaching density. Ambarchi, with foot pedals to gate his electric guitar, then uses it as a readily controllable source of sound. The tool of every rawk guitarist gains new identities in his hands via myriad pedals and loop devices, with very un-guitar synth and bell tones increasingly layering.

Avenaim has been working with his semi-automated percussion system S.A.R.P.S. over a few iterations, and it parallels Aphex Twin‘s experiments with midi controlled acoustic instruments from 2015. Tonight showcases a version with automated beaters and drumsticks on at least two ride cymbals and two kick drums, modifiable in volume and frequency and controlled by a small open source computer such as an Arduino, a $20 device readily available, which Avenaim has included to augment his playing. Actually earlier in the day, the device was referred to by visiting ubergeek Dave Burraston glowingly in his Unsound “how-to” modular synth presentation, well worth checking out.

Mid-register notes from piano now arise in clumps, as the piece imperceptibly swells, and midway through the crowd stands quite still, without obvious rhythmic grounding to tap feet to, taking in this escalating gentle assault. Avenaim at times reaches to modify the patterns his machines beat out on the kick or cymbals, but the tides of sound from the other trio members burst on through these gear changes. The sound becomes more insistent, each musician working away without obvious cues from their counterparts. At one point a near blast-beat on the kicks emerges, and Ambarchi adds some very loud bass electronic notes, the piano charging on, and this is starting to sound combative. As with Branca‘s “Devil Choirs at the Gates of Heaven”, the repetitive drum elements appear to hammer away at the soundspace like relentless battering rams. The tension created was entrancing, a giant sound was now architected and threatened to solidify above us.

As with all good gigs, the sense of time left the building and when the piece started to wind back it came with some relief of tension. On completion the musicians emerged from their self induced absorbtion and embraced, to approving applause.

The moniker N.M.O. stands for many things. Nordic Mediterranean Organisation. Numerous Miscommunications Occur. Neoliberal Madness Offering. The Spanish and Norwegian members met and formed in Germany, and are a wonderfully amorphous project who identify very much with the Fluxus tradition, or anti-tradition, going back to the 1960s where commercialism is shunned, simplicity over complexity is valued, and art is the primary directive, very much DIY, which crosses over with the original punk ethos. If you buy their record from Bandcamp, you can get a bottle of home made hot sauce in the bargain, made by a guy active in the punk squat scene.

After the sustained work of AAA a circuit breaker is what the crowd is looking for, and they gather centrally on the floor of Thebarton Theatre around a portable mixing desk, computer, some drums and other items. As the lights are turned off, a faint snare roll is emanating from the side door, and something is beginning. The tight snare roll continues and slightly increases in volume as the drummer makes his way slowly to the desk. N.M.O. revel in the disorientation and they start as they mean to go on. When the drummer reaches the desk, his bandmate, with white sports towel around his neck, begins to trigger some electronic drums, and things start getting a little wild. The drummer continues to play snare and adds hi-hat too, and plays with intense precision, it’s as downright as “military space music” gets.

Shortly after the beats crank in, bright strobe lights flash bright, in time with the electronic hits and then more randomly. Apparently the duo have developed their own lighting control interface and they aren’t sparing us the club experience. It’s hard to keep still, their insistent anti-funk track “Armchair Evader” is like a fast, techno version of the beat from Can’s “Vitamin C”, with some inexplicable breakdowns where flat bleeps partition the song every minute or so. It’s quite bonkers but by now no one is bothered because it’s such a hoot. Suddenly the DJ, behind a laptop but definitely not standard IDM issue, is jumping on the spot, then the music compels him to do pushups, and people are clapping him on as he ably gives 20. Then he’s running around the mixing desk, it’s quite hyperactive and contagious, people are dancing and if this is Fluxus then we’re in. What a blast. The gig is short, high energy and irresistible and it’s over before you know it. Phew. Pass the energy drink.

Having been a fan of Señor Coconut since their album of Kraftwerk covers, El Baile Alemán (The German Dance, 2000) their live performance had always seemed a tantalising impossibility. That album cover, with colourful puffy-shirted Latinos, no Düsseldorf mensch to be seen, was a great jape. The good-humoured take on the rigorous Germans’ electronic klang is glorious, and was accompanied through the years by covers of synth pop, blockbuster hits, even an album of Japan’s Yellow Magic Orchestra. Creator, bandleader and ubiquitous Unsound Adelaide friend Uwe Schmidt moved from Germany to Chile around 1997 – his AtomTM and many other monikers remained prolific, his discography is daunting but one worth dipping into. Start with the “Flanger” or “Lassigue Bendthaus” work if you need an entry point.

A live expression of the group with eight musicians, including brass and marimba was immediately an Unsound must-see, David Sefton again secured the improbable. And what a performance from the collective. Uwe himself, perhaps in tribute to later Kraftwerk, stood near motion- and expression-less, merely a laptop in front of him. The band all in black tie immediately launched into “Around The World”, the Daft Punk classic, Rumba style, and grins commenced across the crowd.< The Venezuelan singer was in fine voice and cut a graceful figure, using the long instrumental breaks in the songs to add persussive elements and slake the universal thirst for cowbell (which you forget you have until it knocks a song out of the park.) A generous bandleader, he repeatedly ensured the band were all introduced and appreciated for their acrobatic solos. South American music is surely one of the most complex, melodically and rhythmically, and the marimba, a 3.5 octave beast, was showcased by a wonderful player, using its full range and dual mallets at times. It was little low in the mix where I was, but shone in many tracks to provide the tuned percussive elements from "Tour de France", "Robots", and the Sade track “Smooth Operator”.

The upright electric double bass, oddly sans body, had a lovely tone, the player looked like a well-trimmed Christopher Lee; Saruman after the barbers. The brass was sharp as a tack, and spoilt us with luxurious solos, tenor sax, trumpet and trombone. Some were a little perturbed to hear “Riders on the Storm” or Prince‘s “Kiss” playfully reinterpreted, but a brass section, like wine, makes everything better, and it was a joy just to enjoy this spectacle and dance, though that’s not yet something coming naturally to Unsound audiences. (Dance classes next year anyone?)

The frantic jittery electronic rhythms emanating from Schmidt‘s computer were a solid, yes, Germanic foundation for the percussionist to add emphasis to, one solo in particular on the bongos showcasing slaps loud enough to bring tears. As the band left the stage one by one during the finale, Schmidt ably held attention with an impeccable workout where rhythms and bleeps cascaded forth like Robin Fox‘s lasers all the way back on Friday’s opening Unsound performance. The band leader, after understatedly blending in, then reminded us the arrangement and ideas came out of his ultra active mind.

The cheesiness of participation sought from the crowd during tracks like “Smoke on the Water” did differentiate this performance from anything else on the weekend, but what a note to finish on. The exclamation mark at the end of Unsound offered a primo house band and party for those stayers who had seen so many varying moods and intensities over the 72 hours.

The reviewer attended this event on November 19th.

Photo: Eddy Hamras.