Go half way around the world, and everything’s the bloody same. Well, that’s not totally the case. In Adelaide, South Australia there are possums. And koalas. And kangaroos. And it’s really hot in March. And everyone lives in a bungalow. And there’s no ozone layer. And they talk funny. And everyone knows a genuinely intimidating amount about wine. And they have something called ‘a pint’ that is much smaller than A Pint. And the starts are different.
Some things, though, are familiar. I am out here in a period called ‘mad March’, where the city seems to be in some sort of strange contest with itself to book as many festivals as physically possible. There is a rock festival. There is a car festival. There is Womad, except it has, very wisely, been renamed Womadelaide.
Mostly, though, there is the Adelaide Festival of the Arts, a madly eclectic pileup of artsy joy that ambles freely between six-hour-long Shakespeare mash-ups (Toneelgrup Amsterdam’s ‘The Roman Tragedies) and, er, six-hour long opera films about Norman Mailer trying to reincarnate his way three times through a river of shit (Matthew Barney’s ‘River of Fundament’).
And nestling at the heart of it is good old Unsound, come over from the cold places of Poland to curate a string of concerts for the second year. It’s not as incongruous as one might think: Unsound co-founder Mat Schulz is an Aussie, surprisingly, and the festival has been quietly building up a small international empire over the last few years.
Out here for the festival in general, I catch two of the three shows, and even kick off by doing some actual research. The first show, at Adelaide Town Hall, is Snowtown Live, and features Jed Kurzel performing his soundtrack to Snowtown, a magnificent but harrowingly joyless true Australian crime flick about some killings that happened, er, just around the corner from here. Plus: unseen footage from the film!
I borrow Snowtown from an Australian and watch it before going out. I feel really depressed and not especially in the mood to go and watch it again, but with live music. But actually Kurzel is a revelation. His ragtag musical crew – I don’t think they’re an actual band, though they seem to be having fun together – muster up a racket reminiscent of a smaller Godspeed, dreamy and expansive but eerie too, with a constant, nagging ‘knock knock’ percussion motif that makes your skin itch. The accompanying film largely consists of unused establishing footage from Snowtown, endless shots of endless suburbia, Australia’s searing skies filtered to an ominous lead colour – it’s unsettling but strangely romantic, evocative of the continent-country’s sheer unbridled massiveness.
Though the night is called Snowtown Live, the second half of the night is nothing of the sort, but rather the first ever Australian concert from Stars of the Lid. Augmented by local string players Zephyr Quartet and Friends, Brian McBride and Adam Wiltzie seem delighted to be here, in their scholarly way, and judging from the audience rapture the virtual sell out of this 1,000 capacity municipal building can be put down to them. In depth analysis of what they do feels a bit redundant – it is one heavenly sound, a skywards drone given wings by strings and woozy projections, a waking dream.
The next day Unsound moves to the confusingly-named Queen’s Theatre, which isn’t a theatre but a cool little warehouse type thing in the centre of town (but there was a theatre here about 200 years ago, or something). Also slightly confusing, the line-up for tonight is slightly different to the one billed in the programme; even more confusing, the absent Haxan Cloak has been replaced by Lee Gamble, who both looks and sounds not a million miles away from the absent Mr Cloak. But it’s nice to hear these crunchy, desolate, skin-tingling 3am sounds at the more civilized time of 7.30pm, in a relatively brightly lit room – maybe it encourages a touch of beard-stroking, but it’s quite nice to stand there and take it all in, rather than being drunkenly frightened by it all in the wee small hours.
Cut Hands isn’t even on the official bill as printed in the festival programme, but it’s nice to have William Bennett there – his set feels less brutally percussive, more the more austere end of techno. He does some faux sexy dancing, and there’s even some light gyration from the crowed.
Next up is 81-year-old American composer Morton Subotnick playing the entirety of his 1967 electronic opus Silver Apples of the Moon. A fun-loving, sun-loving folk, the Australian crowd initially seems rather baffled by the elderly chap with the bank of electronics making noises that sound not unlike the Clangers theme tune. There is not inconsiderable audience chatter. But at some difficult-to-pinpoint moment it all switches over somehow – what started as twee bleeps and whistles has blossomed into steely shrieks, girders of sound… unexpectedly monumental.
Completing this mini Northern hemisphere avant-garde are Nurse with Wound. The set starts with something of a dummy, ten or so minutes of pretty ambient meandering while a projected timer gently drifts downwards from a little over the hour mark. Then all hell breaks loose, sickly howls of electronics, diseased roars of distorted guitar and the most almighty headfuck of a series of backing videos. It is horrifying and strangely exhilarating. At one point the guitarist plays the riff to ‘Purple Haze’. It’s fucking weird. I like it.
I have to leave Adelaide before the final day of Unsound. And before Womadelaide really gets underway. And before the two day avant-garde modern composition marathon Tectonics starts. And before John Zorn’s mouth-wateringly amazing Zorn in Oz multi-night stand at the Festival Theatre. Basically, Adelaide, for all its hectares of bungalow, is pretty much the leftfield music capital of the world for ten or so slightly random days in March – and it’s a pleasure to be part of it.
Photo by Tony Lewis