In following up the Not Not Fun showcase of the Unsound Festival on the same day at the Engineering Museum in Krakow, two major acts are set to map out the history of the synthesizer and its various uses. As the trailblazers of electronic music, Chris Carter and Cosey Fanni Tutti can thank their days with COUM Transmission and Throbbing Gristle in the 1970s for their eminent position as the people who coined the term ‘Industrial’. John Foxx can lay claim to introducing the synthesiser as an instrument in its own right as part of the rock band format with Ultravox! All of these artists offer very different, though equally as influential, approaches to synthesised music and its progress up until now.
As Chris & Cosey appear on stage one can rest assured that art doesn’t necessarily imitate life as the black-clad Tutti humbly announces, “It’s very nice to be in Krakow. I hope you enjoy the show” before instrumental crux Carter sends a rattling current of low-frequency bass through the eager audience. Launching into lyrics covering all manner of sadomasochistic themes and references to explicit sexual violence, opening murder ballad ‘Dr. John (Sleeping Stephen)’ sets the scene for what will become the foundation of a dark build-up for the following one and a half hours. Carter is flanked by his electronic set up to the left of Tutti as he manipulates her stricken vocal without even needing to look at her.
Tutti’s face features on the huge projection behind them as it morphs and mutates into all sorts of unsettling imagery to equal the similarly unnerving depictions in songs like ‘Driving Blind’. A melodica, heavily distorted slide guitar and Tutti’s famous cornet make an appearance; adding to the driving cacophony of noise that is so well-executed that there isn’t only one rogue dancer arrested by their dark rhythms. At their most profoundly shocking, Chris & Cosey reach a peak in audio-visual synergy; a surreal montage of black and white footage accompanies some crushing bass lines and impeccable sound design before leaving the audience with a strong sense that this will be a hard act to follow.
John Foxx & The Maths are a little bit more of a perplexing affair. As a retrogressive collaboration between the core name-sake and synthesiser collector ‘Benge’, their live incarnation includes the two men of middle-age, plus two young female protégés armed with violins, keyboards and backing vocals to help fill out the sound. This performance is a far cry from Chris & Cosey’s sinister pulse and overwhelming, if not bleak, emotion. Instead, here you can almost smell the vinyl liquid and dust of their analogue equipment as Foxx’s assertive stage persona matches the absolutist lyrics of man in all his incarnations, which at times overpowers the vintage sequencers and glitch-y musical elements of his quintessential, although very dated, synth-pop sound.
To some, seeing these artists perform would be somewhat akin to seeing relics of a time past, making their station at the Engineering Museum in the old Jewish Quarter of Kazimierz an appropriate one. But more than that, these bands are still a vital part of the electronic culture they continue to influence. Foxx, with his very technical, at times abstract, approach to music-making; Chris & Cosey with their very visceral, still disturbing sadomasochistic themes.
(photos by Bob Wass)