Sweden’s Intonal festival brings an astonishing variety of experimental music to Malmö each year. This year, there were club sets from Don’t DJ, Courtesy, DJ LAG and others, noise blowouts from Fennesz and Stíne Janvin, soothing ambient drones from Andreas Tilliander, Ellen Arkbro and Alessandro Cortini and so much more. FACT’s John Twells went to Sweden to investigate.
There’s something eerily familiar about Malmö. Unimpressive to many visitors, the post-industrial urban center is a divisive prospect, even in Sweden. But having grown up in Birmingham, the UK’s similarly-maligned second city and the butt of too many often racist, always classist jokes, walking amongst the gasoline-pocked mid-century architecture and patchwork of vibrant communities feels if not like a hug, then at least a nod.
“Malmö is neither a minor city nor a major one, but it has the qualities and problems of both,” reads Intonal’s vivid yellow program, “it combines a solid cultural scope with a great sense of community.” And in a city well used to battling public perception and its own self-image, fringe events can flourish. In Birmingham, there’s Supersonic, an ambitious collision of art and extreme music that touches on the city’s historical musical contributions (such as heavy metal and power electronics) and in Malmö, Intonal offers similarly esoteric escapism.
Now on its fourth year, the six-day event offers a refreshingly genre-fluid approach to programming, with club blowouts alongside experimental performances, digital art installations, seminars and community-focused events. I arrived on the second day, missing the “Ambient Assembly” that opened the festival, but just in time to see performances from legendary minimalist Charlemagne Palestine and Subtext’s Ellen Arkrbo. Both artists were stationed in Malmö’s awe-inspiring St. Johannes Church and utilized its huge pipe organ. As Palestine’s chiming chords (think Dr. Phibes slowed down 1000%) resonated throughout the hazy, dry-ice-filled church, the sun slowly set, shifting the light as it refracted through the building’s gorgeous stained glass windows.
It was an experience like no other, almost derailed by the inclusion of colored lasers that felt slightly excessive. At the end of his performance, Palestine bellowed to the audience from the church balcony, describing the pipe organ as “the world’s greatest synthesizer” while his collection of cuddly toys sat silently at the church altar. Ellen Arkbro was less gregarious but no less impressive as darkness fell and the lasers took on a life of their own, dancing through the air as Arkbro’s focused tones warbled expertly. The rest of the night was smartly offered to locals, who performed at Malmö’s ample Inkonst venue and introduced us to the sound of the city in a flurry of rave stabs, 808 rhythms and wonky electro squelches.
By Friday, the schedule was starting to look a little more intense. Stationed at Inkonst once more, we were treated to five hours of music from Amsterdam’s Red Light Radio, who provided a decompression area in the foyer, giving many visiting artists (like Don’t DJ and Stíne Janvin) a chance to play records without having to perform for the dancefloor. Throughout the weekend, Red Light Radio’s room was a place to hear challenging, beautiful music – from eerie field recordings and drone to dusty disco and house jams – and catch up with the shifting tide of artists, fans, journos and promoters.
In the venue’s large, underground performance space, Sarah Davachi kicked off a collaboration between Intonal and MUTEK, lulling the audience in with hypnotic ARP drones before ceding power to sound artist Alexis Langevin-Tétrault. He wowed us with a visually arresting live set built around a series of ropes and sensors that had to be seen to be believed, pulling on the cords like he was trying to complete an assault course. Old-school red and blue 3D glasses were handed out for Maxime Corbeil-Perron’s hypnotic A/V onslaught, but the effect didn’t seem to work on top of my prescription specs. All I could see was colored flashing lights, so I decamped to the bar and watched Alessandro Cortini’s artist talk, in which he tore down modular synth fetishists and challenged people to think more deeply about their craft.
Later that evening, Japanese experimental math-rock outfit GOAT (JP) packed out the bar area so densely it was hard to move, or breathe, but it was worth it. The way the band fused elements of Steve Reich, Battles-esque math rock and experimental techno was breathtaking and surprisingly rich with ideas – something near impossible in a genre that’s been so well mined. Afterwards, Arpanet – a long-running electro project from Drexciya’s Gerald Donald – enthralled and confused in equal measure with a refreshingly bass-heavy set of vintage electro blips and womps, reminding the audience that the genre doesn’t always have to be stiff and robotic.
On Saturday, it started to get hard to pick favorites – the entire evening was astonishingly well curated – but an early performance from Berlin-based vocalist Stíne Janvin was impossible to forget. Standing alone in a dark room, Janvin sung repeating phrases that were shrill to the point of discomfort. This, combined with a mind-altering light display from collaborator Morten J. Olsen, made her self-styled “Fake Synthetic Music” – a tribute to or pastiche of electronic music’s past and present – a deeply original, incredibly challenging prospect. It was, basically, an extreme noise show, but with the usual white noise, tape loops and hoarse gurgling replaced by high pitched cries, endless repetition and flashing lights. It was perfect.
Almost as impressive was Alessandro Cortini’s touching performance. He played tracks from last year’s Avanti alongside grainy 8mm footage of his childhood and, broken up by nostalgic cassette recordings, the set was a masterclass in restrained sentimentalism. In the wrong hands, it would have felt manipulative and soapy, but Cortini handled it masterfully and by the end of the performance there was hardly a dry eye in the room.
After energetic shows from Elysia Crampton, Equiknoxx and DJ LAG, the party moved from Inkonst to underground warehouse venue Sorgenfri Kultur and we were introduced to another side of Malmö. As perfect as Inkonst was for this kind of festival, an alarming police presence had been a constant throughout; the uniformed state representatives weren’t hassling festival-goers too much, but their very being there created an awkward tension that felt indicative of the city’s deep striations of conservatism. At Sorgenfri Kultur, it was an entirely different experience: 100 people crammed into an abandoned warehouse on the outskirts of town with no stormtroopers in sight.
I walked in to the plunging electro of Helsinki’s Kristiina Männikkö and the feeling on the dancefloor was already different; it was messy and hedonistic, but safe and respectful. One bedraggled reveler managed to sleep through most of the night on a couch beside the dancefloor and was only disturbed by people offering water or assistance. Don’t DJ followed Männikkö with his second set of the festival, playing rhythmically obtuse crate-diggers’ gems and never losing sight of the dancefloor. Norwegian DJ Charlotte Bendiks finished things off, playing into the sunrise and peaking with a cheeky drop of Other People Place’s ‘Let Me Be’. Seeing this side of Malmö was an essential part of the Intonal experience; under-the-radar parties of this kind are familiar in most urban centers, if you know where to look for them, but in Malmö felt like a vital part of the city’s dance music experience and its historical development.
After Saturday’s onslaught, Sunday was something of a hangover cure. DJs performed at Inkonst for most of the evening, spinning a selection of warming ambience while Fennesz performed a brutally loud and powerful set in the main room. But that evening’s highlight was undoubtedly the six-hour “sleeping concert” from ambient dub survivor Andreas Tilliander, performing under his Mokira alias. I managed to make it through about half of the set (it kicked off at midnight and ran until 6am, with breakfast served in the morning), reading and drifting in and out of consciousness as Tilliander coaxed drones, tones and moans from his ample collection of gear.
But this wasn’t quite the end, not just yet. For a fresh set of locals and a dedicated minority there was an additional night of music on Monday in recognition of Walpurgis, a Swedish public holiday. The night was headlined by Courtesy and Avalon Emerson but as good as the sets were – and they were great, Courtesy in particular had dancers practically bouncing off the walls – by then I was reflecting on everything else I’d seen.
When notorious British racist and occasional politician Nigel Farage described Malmö as the “rape capital of Europe” and linked these statistics to high immigration – receiving endorsement from US leader Donald Trump who used opaque statistics to back up disgusting immigration policies – he was scapegoating yet another post-industrial urban center ruined by the promise of neoliberal economics. The city didn’t matter – it never does. It’s yet another tactic I’m familiar with and it’s never near the truth. Events that question the status quo, artistically or otherwise, are of a massive importance anywhere, but take on new life in cities that bob just beneath the surface. Malmö is a beautiful collection of communities all struggling to work out how to weather the oppression and depression of late Capitalism and Intonal is a valuable building block in the city’s shifting architecture.
John Twells is FACT’s Executive Editor and is on Twitter.