Anonymity is an essential element of industrial electronic music – at least as evidenced by Unsound Toronto, held last weekend as part of the Luminato Festival. To make a giant droning noise, you also need a mask. A hood, some kind of headdress. Or at least so much fog onstage that the audience can't see anything but a black-shirted silhouette. You can't have a face. A face would be bourgeois.
On the first night, drone-metal heroes Sunn 0))) set the tone by creating an uninterrupted, non-narrative field of the most extraordinary throbbing textures, in an infernal landscape made entirely of fog, framed by the great disintegrating beams and wires of the Hearn Generating Station.
The sound created by two men with instruments and one singer with a growling bass voice was so deep and intense that it became material. One could feel that penetrating beam of sound as matter in the space. A pressed crowd stayed in this trance, with very little variation in the steady beam, for an hour and a half, just experiencing the physical reactions (a feeling that one's internal organs are turning to liquid; the consciousness of the hair on one's arms) as one would sit in a sauna.
I read individual reactions on social media the next day: "primordial," "incantations," "hurricane," "purring," "my eyeballs have stopped vibrating now."
Of course, no one got more than a shadowy glimpse of any of the performers' faces; they dress in hoods.
The next night, Polish drum-and-synth ensemble T'ien Lai performed in a packed, low-ceilinged room wearing desert-style head scarves wrapped around their faces – as if they had just descended from motorbikes in a Mad Max movie. As they pounded on their congas, their head rags flew around like braids. A satisfying tribal dance euphoria ensued, even in the ambience of apocalypse. No faces were visible.
Angsty Finnish duo Amnesia Scanner performed in the same room, in such search-beam-punctuated darkness that no one could make out their features, either. If anyone had seen these performers in the light, of course, they would see exactly the same archetype of bearded white guy in black T-shirt that constituted the crowd and all the technicians and stage crew as well. Anonymity is ideological here: It serves to perpetrate egalitarianism. It militates against celebrity culture and the media's focus on artists' personalities.
Spacey British composer duo Roly Porter (black T-shirts, beards) put on a main-stage performance that actually sought to blind its audience. A half-hour in, a suggestion appeared in text on the giant screen behind them to "close your eyes during the blinding lights." A series of large strobes then began their onslaught. Everyone dutifully closed their eyes, each attempting to reach an internal enlightenment or dream, isolated while together.
The idea of this device was to create the Ganzfeld effect, the hallucinations that can arise when looking steadily at a uniform field of colour or from having flickering light played over one's closed eyelids. (It is the effect created by the "Dream Machines" of the psychedelic era, a flashing light meant to stimulate internal imagery.)
It didn't work for me as a hallucinogen, but I enjoyed the idea of a performer refusing to be seen onstage. And I enjoyed sneaking peeks at the crowd around me, their faces upturned to the light, their eyes closed, blissful smiles on their faces as if bathing in religion.
Polish industrial techno DJ Olivia did not wear a mask, in her performance in the small room, but her sound was so metallic, so drivingly inhuman that it served to obliterate any sense of personal difference anyway. This pounding genre has been called phallic because of its aggressively driving nature, so it is useful to see once again that these gender distinctions are imaginary. Women's imaginings are as dark and percussive as the boys'.
Another woman, U.S. producer Jlin, generated industrial beats in an equally darkened space, but refused to create regular 4/4 rhythms; her smashing irregular strokes frustrated the crowd's urge to dance. They still swayed, surging forward at anything resembling a repeated pattern.
This is the equivalent of abstraction in music. There are no words – that goes without saying – and no songs and no pictures of anything but cloudscapes or rocky barrens, no narrative in the conventional sense. To eliminate the performer as well as concrete referents in the music is to further the avoidance of representation.
Abstraction is quite old-fashioned now – a modernist obsession, not a postmodern one – but it has taken this long for abstraction to become a widely accepted element of popular music, not just of the classical composer. One can understand why: Abstraction satisfies contemporary desires for meditation, for mindfulness of space and texture, of the immediate moment. Pure revolutionary modernism is finally part of our daily life.