> UNSOUND: LEE GAMBLE, CUT HANDS, MORTON SUBOTNICK, NURSE WITH WOUND – Review by Alex Needham
Wired for Unsound: Morton Subotnick plays Adelaide. Photograph: Alicia Canter for the Guardian
Last year, Adelaide festival’s electronic music strand Unsound caused a sensation by bringing the heaviest, loudest and weirdest elements of the avant garde to South Australia. People from as far away as Perth flocked to see the likes of Ben Frost and Hype Williams reduce the venerable Queen’s theatre, the first playhouse built in mainland Australia, to a shuddering mass of smoke and strobes. It was a total triumph, achieved against the odds, and this year it’s enjoying a victory lap.
Coming to see Unsound for a second year, the shock of the new has worn off, though it’s still disconcerting – then funny – to see once again that the queue for the gents is much longer than the queue for the ladies, such is the imperturbably male-dominated nature of this music’s fans.
First up is the UK’s Lee Gamble, who investigates and recontextualises the drops and spaces in the jungle and house records of his youth. The sound is familiarly warm and minimal, with dissonant keyboards, a thunderous kickdrum and all-enveloping sub-bass, before it’s interrupted by the kind of noise you get when the needle slips off the vinyl. It’s atmospheric and intriguing, though not the kind of DNA-reconfiguring performance last year led us to expect.
Following Gamble is Cut Hands, the latest project by William Bennett, prime mover behind Whitehouse, one of the most punishing bands ever, both sonically (white noise was a staple) and conceptually (so were scatology and serial killers). Cut Hands is Bennett’s percussion-heavy, African-influenced project, and it’s almost all polyrhythmical drums, the aim being to put the audience in a trance as they’re overloaded with the information that causes the feet to move. It seems to work on Bennett – he makes praying gestures and stretches his hands to the Queen’s theatre’s corrugated iron roof – but even at the front, a dancefloor frenzy never quite kicks off, despite Bennett’s intricate arrangement of bells, congos and thunderous bass drums. A film across the back amps up the voudou atmosphere, but what the music really calls to my mind is the raw-edged electro of early-80s New York.
Morton Subotnick is the next artist to scowl in the general direction of the plinth on the stage, although rather than a laptop like everyone else, he’s operating an old-style modular synthesizer, with wires poking out of it all over the place. Subotnick, 81, is a genuine electronic music pioneer, and it’s thrilling to hear his 1967 album Silver Apples of the Moon played in its entirety. It’s a record that starts with pensive rattling and moves through ambient sound-washes, rattling sounds, comforting drones and elegant chords. Almost 50 years since its release, it still sounds both otherworldly and absolutely contemporary and alive.
Topping the bill is Nurse With Wound, whose 1984 single Brained by Falling Masonry was memorably reviewed in Smash Hits at the time. The nom de disque of Steven Stapleton, they’re far more versatile and less industrial than that pipe-banging title might suggest, beginning tonight’s show with a clock counting down the time from one hour and a cluster of laptops emitting ominous whistles and drones. The ensuing performance includes a sonically thrilling sequence set to backwards-running film of mattresses being dropped into a field, and a singer who groans and wails to alarming effect. Towards the end, that most heretical of instruments – the guitar – makes an appearance, and the set culminates with the 1994 song Rock’n’Roll Station, which tonight boasts licks that could uncurl Jimi Hendrix’s afro. Finishing in a tempest of feedback, it’s elemental stuff, and another vindication of this extraordinary festival-within-a-festival.