Unsound Toronto 2016: Day 1

By Stuart Oakes, Photos by Alexa Volkov

So, I missed Elysia Crampton. [Photographer] Alexa and I spent a while wandering through Union Station trying to find the Unsound shuttle that would supposedly take us directly to the festival, located in the Hearn Generating Station – the massive, decommissioned power plant just south-west of the Distillery  District (on the opposite side of the ship channel from Sound Academy). Our first once-over of the Luminato – the massive multi-arts festival that encompasses Unsound and a variety of other events up until June 26th – website had failed to uncover anything more specific than “Union Station,” and we did a full circuit before a more comprehensive online search revealed the actual address (say it with me! – “123 Front Street, in front of the Starbucks/Chipotle”). By that point, the elusive Bolivian/Mexican/American producer had already begun her set and I had to resign myself to the fact that I would not be seeing the author of one of my favourite albums of 2015, American Drift (which you should absolutely give a spin). Still, there was a lot more to come – I for one had spent a couple of days prior to the festival freaking out over the excellently curated Friday night line-up, and judging by a couple of conversations with friends and strangers on the shuttle – who were there for “I’m such a fan of footwork; I cannot believe Jlin and RP Boo are playing back to back” – I wasn’t the only one.

The bus itself had a fairly relaxed, quiet atmosphere that only began to crack once the Hearn itself was in sight. It was large. I was impressed. The lineup to get in was also large, and although we were lucky enough to mostly skip it, I heard tell of an hour-plus wait times from people I talked to later in the night. “Try to avoid will-call tickets,” seemed to be the lesson (although things will hopefully move a little more smoothly at tonight’s show). At least they had free earplugs at the entrance! In my rush to leave, I had totally forgotten to grab some from home, and so I have Luminato’s foresight to thank for the fact that my ears are not totally shot this morning – please, Saturday-night Unsound goers, bring earplugs.

And with that, we began our Unsound Experience.

11:22 PM:

The festival was running with a two-stage set up – an enclosed, smaller side room to the right of the entrance and a massive, “open air” (the ceiling was, like, four stories high) main stage, with an L-shaped corridor that connected the two. Immediately after getting in, we dove into the side room for the middle of Amnesia Scanner‘s set. The room was smoke-filled, and even the people a couple of rows in front of us were reduced to vague, dark outlines (the cover photo was taken at AS’ set). The music itself resembled what I could best describe as the sounds of a mechanized T-Rex – electronic growls and stomps – interrupted only by the occasional spoken-word passage or groove. It was loud, and better listening music than dancing music, but that was fine – there would be dancing later – and it set the mood for a night of menacing, foreboding noise. My favourite moment? A detour into what sounded like something a little footwork-y. Also, shoutout to that bass.


11:57 pm

We stayed until the end of the Amnesia Scanner set, and then made our way down the L-shaped hall to the main stage for the start of de-facto headliner sun O)))‘s set. I got the feeling that most of the people attending the festival – except for the odd footwork disciple – were going to catch the Seattle drone-metal legends, and as proof they played to the largest crowd of the night. Although I have never been a huge metal fan personally, I wanted to catch even just the start of their set for the experience – it is spoken of in the same hushed tones people use when they talk about seeing as Spiritualized or My Bloody Valentine – both unbelievably loud, awe-inspiring live shows, apparently. The band opened with a couple minutes of vocal incantations – which moved between a low, guttural growl and the best human impression of a didgeridoo that I have ever heard – before building to a drone so loud that I felt paralyzed. It was devastatingly loud. At times, I broke out into shivers because my body was shaking so much, and the lower tones filled a hole in my chest that I had not even been aware of until that moment. I can’t speak to what emotions it might have stirred in others but, physically, it was punishing. Because of the earplugs, I wasn’t even able to fully appreciate the sound until I had left the stage and took them out. From the other side of the building, it sounded like a massive, never-ending snarl from some unfathomably large animal.

The visual aspect of the set was minimal, which turned out to be a theme for the night. Much of the stage was obscured by fog, and though I was told later that the band had eventually emerged and that someone had worn a mirror-covered suit and crown, I don’t think I ever saw anything more than outlines. In general, I thought the focus on the music was a plus; in most of the cases, the music was loud or interesting enough to render a visual show nothing more than a distraction.


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12:20 AM

We left sun O))) midway through their set to return to the side stage and one of my favourite contemporary electronic artists, Lotic. Lotic – a queer, black American producer based in Berlin – contrasts even harsher sounds than the ones used by Amnesia Scanner with the immediacy of pop music (performed by explicitly black female artists). To give you an idea, listen to these two songs back to back. It was the first set I went to that you could actually dance to, and the audience was definitely into it. Lotic played noisier stuff, including “Heterocetera” – one of my personal favourites – but also dropped some glorious pop, including a remix of Rihanna’s “Bitch Better Have My Money” and Beyonce’s “Sorry” and “Hold Up.” The music was tricky – beats were swathed in layers of what sounded like white noise, and at times trying to take out my earplugs to catch the higher end proved to be a painful task. Still, it was fantastic, if a little too-tightly packed, audience-wise.


1:16 AM

Jlin. Oh my goodness. The Gary, Indiana footwork producer was unbelievable live. The set was one of my favourites by far, and featured a lot of tracks I recognized from her 2015 album Dark Energy, a release that has garnered a lot of well-deserved acclaim. The audience was in for it as well – it was the first show I had trouble getting into, as we had stepped out of the side stage for a quick breath of air following the end of Lotic’s set, and then had to wait to get back in. It was hilarious watching the dancing – despite being very fast-paced, footwork is notably hard to dance to, as the music sets out a lot of rhythmic traps to trip you up or restrain your ability to follow the main beat. The beats use a lot of triplets and changes drum patterns constantly, which makes for a lot of readjusting mid-bob. Still, it was a wild set – one that contained the energy of a trap set with none of the overwhelming, unwelcoming macho vibes (it’s hard to be aggressive when you have to shake your hips in order to stay with the beat). It was my first time seeing a live footwork show and I firmly recommend it. I’m excited to re-listen to her music now and try to draw out all the aspects I had not noticed until tonight.


2:05 AM

I left Jlin early (I know…) to get to the main stage for the set I was personally most excited for, and the final set of the night, The Bug featuring Flowdan and Miss Red. The Bug, a UK heavy bass/dub producer named Kevin Martin, has been making menacing, claustrophobic, absolutely punishing music since the late ’90s, and his output, particularly his 2008 album London Zoo, lies very close to my heart. Leaving Jlin’s set, I had expected that she would be my favourite perfomance of my night – my thinking was that her nimble touch and intelligent, forward-thinking music would beat out The Bug’s raw, straight forward intensity. I was wrong. Although Martin’s beats were absolutely flattening, as expected, they were balanced out by the work of MCs Flowdan and Miss Red, who were perhaps the real stars of the show. Flowdan, for instance, is a quick and twisty rhymer whose voice uses speed and agility rather than  sheer weight, unlike an MC like Spaceape (not a diss to Spaceape, RIP). Although I was totally unfamiliar with Miss Red, she had a fascinating and fluid voice that I now really want to hear on tape. Both were veteran performers, and neither was out-shined by or lost in the subway-sized bass hits. At times, the beats were so heavy that it felt like a private joke on Martin’s part – a comment, perhaps, on UK dubstep outliving its American progeny easily and then glorying in the ruins. Also, they played “Skeng” twice. I was so happy. I am still so happy. Thank you.






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