I'm off to Poland in a couple of weeks for Unsound, an annual festival of electronic and experimental music. This year, my itinerary involves not just a flight from Berlin to Krakow but also, apparently, some kind of time machine: the festival's 2011 edition is being billed as Unsound 1970. (That's the year before I was born; hopefully it won't cause me any problems at the bar.) Behind the temporal slippage lies this year's theme: "Future Shock," a phrase borrowed from Alvin Toffler's 41-year-old treatise on technology, social change and information overload.
The topic is timely for at least two reasons. Toffler's description of future shock as "the sickness that comes from too much change in too short a period of time" remains applicable to much of our contemporary malaise, from the Tea Party to the Euro zone. The concept also applies to broad swathes of contemporary music, as artists and listeners alike grapple with unprecedented access to the history of recorded music.
As Simon Reynolds explores in his recent book Retromania, popular music is addicted to the past as never before. This is particularly true in electronic music, from the '90s stylings of so much contemporary house and techno to the muddled memory-beat of chillwave, which spins scraps of new wave, shoegaze, ambient and more into an ersatz vintage swirl.
Since its origins, electronic music has often been steeped in futurist mystique, leading many of today's inquisitive musicians down a retro-futurist hall of mirrors. Consider Unsound artist Dylan Ettinger, who makes lo-fi, high-concept synthesizer music that might be described as new-age déjà vu. Or take VHS Head, who samples old video cassettes (and, probably, YouTube streams) to lend the impression of rapid-fire channel surfing through decades-old transmissions.
Not every performer at the festival is explicitly retro-futurist: the lineup includes acid house, Chicago juke, bass music, contemporary composition, drone and unclassifiable hybrids, as well as electronic-music pioneers like Morton Subotnick, Chris & Cosey and John Foxx. But, taken together, the program offers an intriguingly blurry snapshot of music for a time out of joint.
In anticipation of the festival (where, full disclosure, I'm also playing records), I've put together a sampler of artists scheduled to perform. Titled in homage to a song from the Minutemen's 1984 album The Politics of Time, "Futurism Restated" features Maria Minerva, Model 500, Laurel Halo, Hype Williams, Kangding Ray, Rustie, Kode 9, Ricardo Villalobos and Max Loderbauer, and more. It's like a three-hour tour in a hotwired Delorean.