Reviews //

Hard edge, SOFT CENTRE

Sydney’s premier experimental music festival evolves, expands, and unfurls.

Photography By Ravyna (@byravyna)

Let us set the scene. You’re hungover, nauseous, have been at work all day, and the location of the experimental music festival you’re imminently due at is a church where you once sat a chemistry exam.

You take a deep breath, say your affirmations, and put on a brave face.

This is how it went.

Held across four days and a variety of impressive venues, SOFT CENTRE returned last weekend with UNFURL, a festival program of concerts, raves, workshops and discussions based around experimental performances, visuals, and sounds.

Earlier this year, SOFT CENTRE shocked and scared us — but we were ready for more. UNFURL is described as a ‘new evolutionary phase’ for the festival, and this new lease on life was evident across its vibrant and vivid events.

Going into the opening night of UNFURL, we knew that it would be a ‘concert of ecstatic ritual music and hypnotic live sets’ — visions swirled of dancefloor ecstasy, transcendence through music, and sounds without words to describe them.  

We should have known that every time we think we know what to expect from SOFT CENTRE, it throws us a curveball.

Walking into St Barnabas’ Church on Broadway, two thoughts echoed in our minds: “I’m scared,” and “how did they get this venue?”

Through the doors, we were met in the foyer by an assortment of drinks available (obviously natural wines and other trendy drinks) as well as beautiful banners by Eek, visually identifying UNFURL through a series of cryptic, biomorphic artefacts and sigils.

Called further into the church by fog and noise, we emerged into its main auditorium where attendees sat cross-legged on the floor, enraptured by the performance taking place on the stage. The audience’s single-minded focus on appreciation of sound felt appropriate for a place of worship.

The lights dimmed, smoke filled the air, and the crowd nestled closer as the opening act of night number one — Silzedrek (Tarquin Manek) — echoed through the room. Impressive, unique lighting has become a mainstay of the SOFT CENTRE experience; warm red and white ethereal lights poured into the space, illuminating the fog, and the space was immediately transformed into a new world. Silzedrek’s set was characterised by shimmering and undulating synths, otherworldly notes which entranced us, and an unrelenting confidence driving it from start to end. 

Piquing our interest, Silzedrek not only utilised electronic instruments, but he also experimented with the clarinet and bass clarinet throughout the performance. The piercing brass layer provided a guiding direction for the performance, uniting disparate elements in a single through-line. His performance was heightened through playing instruments effectively upside down: speaking and vocalising into the open end (‘the bell’) of his bass clarinet, the inversion elicited cosmic and elastic thrums like nothing we had heard before. 

Silzedrek was the perfect act to open the four-day rave — sonically and visually it was our portal into the weekend. Willingly, we stepped forth into the second act. 

Welcoming us (and our hangovers) with open arms were the tranquil notes of the Newcastle-based duo Troth — Amelia Besseny and Cooper Bowman — and their xylophone. The lights shifted pink, the fog ascended to and engulfed the rooftop, and suddenly the once square church hall felt like falling into a limitless dream.

Troth’s haunting, siren-like vocals were grounded by a heavier beat behind them, a reverberating sound like machinery being dragged through a cavernous space. There was something nostalgic about the reverb and xylophones, sonic imagery of youth that felt peaceful yet full of depth.

If you had asked us an hour earlier what we expected at UNFURL, xylophones certainly would not have been on our list. However, Troth’s nature-inspired and ambient sound seamlessly paired with their haunting instrumentals to create an immersive soundscape like no other. 

If Silzedrek’s performance was a portal to a new world, Troth’s was the journey through it. 

By this point, we again felt like we had a handle on what this night of UNFURL would present to us: that it would be a peaceful introduction to the festival. Again, we were wrong.

Lulled into a false sense of security, the third act of the evening brought us back to reality: the electric pairing in the hybrid musical act, Senyawa. Existing within an international avant garde scene, the Indonesian duo match industrial, metallic clangs with guttural yet operatic vocals to construct a high-powered, rancorous atmosphere. 

Soaring melodies from Wukir Suryadi were accompanied by Rully Shabara’s chant-like vocals, filling the space with their all-encompassing presence. Appearing through a scarlet haze, we could see only the silhouette of a man with a scarf wrapped around his neck, he exercised complete vocal control over screeches, croaks, and undulating vocalised noise. A vampire rave in a holy space, the night had unfurled into an experience decidedly and uniquely SOFT CENTRE.

The night’s final performance, courtesy of collaborative trio Karina Utomo, Rama Parwata and Mike Deslandes, RINUWAT shattered the between-the-set silence with a thunderous crack of the guitar. Their heavyset sound is founded in traditional sonic instrumentation from Southeast Asia, and yet it effortlessly melds itself with contemporary metal genres. Not for the faint of heart (or lacking of sleep), the outfit’s lead vocalist Karina’s words pierced the audience with dark incantations and carried RINUWAT’s intellectual message with strength.   

The sonic onslaught of RINUWAT left us with an overwhelming sense of dread; we stumbled back out onto the mean streets of Ultimo, unsure what to do with ourselves. What to do, of course, was to rest up for the next night’s event.

Pleasures Playhouse was the ideal venue for UNFURL’s second night, as the venue itself is an anomaly in Sydney. Set against the backdrop of a city that has been historically unwelcoming to late-night partying, Pleasures Playhouse has recently breathed new life into Chinatown’s abandoned Harbour City Cinema with an initial six-week program of affordable music, film and parties — their licence was recently extended until the end of December and until 3am.

With one of us having attended the venue previously for a Charli XCX party (don’t ask), expectations for the energy UNFURL would bring to the room were high. Again, these were subverted. Attendees were seated on the tiered dancefloor that once housed cinema seating, their focus honed on the performance. 

This is our largest criticism when it comes to SOFT CENTRE: wishing that attendees would give themselves over to dancing. What read as worship at St Barnabas now appeared as detachment. Intellectual and sensory enjoyment of visuals and noise does not have to come at the cost of your own movement — standing at the back and moving with the beat feels far more engaging and respectful of performers than sitting motionless.

Regardless, the night’s early performances were an emotionally and physically moving mix of club beats which echoed through the space as if heard through an adjoining room, alongside dance performances that conducted the space while also appearing to be invisibly puppeteered themselves.

Under the assumption that the energy could change at a moment’s notice, we continued on with our quest to dance. For the first time during the festival, we were right.

Spider Gang producer SOLSA screamed onto the stage, physically dragging the audience to their feet. Howls of “GET THE FUCK UP” echoed through the room, SOLSA enforcing that the audience would match his energy.

Violent, energetic and entirely outward-focused, SOLSA’s frenetic trap and metal infused rap was set against a backdrop of AI-generated faces warping across the digital backdrop, fluidly changing from one face to the next. The scenes were an appropriate representation of the ever-evolving energy of his set.

The highlight of the night was his solo performance debut, and it is hard to imagine that SOLSA is not already considered a master of the stage. He utterly enthralled the audience; this section of the review would be longer were we not afraid he would knock our phones right out of our hands at the sight of us taking notes.

The night’s penultimate performance was a DJ and A/V set from Horse MacGyver, an exploration of corrupted audiovisual delight and horror. 

A journey through Blair-Witch-iMovie-cyberspace, Horse MacGyver’s entrancing visuals and lively set filled the room with easygoing, flowing movement. Deeply enjoyable and immersive, we are certainly keeping an eye out for Horse MacGyver’s next local performance.

The night’s final performance was decidedly not easygoing. After a last-minute reshuffle of the setlist, FITNESSS closed out the night with a deeply terrifying performance. Adorned with prosthetic electronics and wielding laser-encrusted fingertips, FITNESSS moved through the crowd like a wounded animal, negotiating space with the crowd as they lurched forward for a closer look and back out of his way. 

The set was complete chaos, the room shook with harsh beats as red lights and lasers bathed the space. In the cacophony of noise and light, we absconded — ejected onto the comparably quiet streets of Haymarket and wondering what exactly we just experienced.

There were an additional two nights of UNFURL to follow — Saturday’s performances at Greenhouse Studios and Sunday’s at the Royal Botanical Gardens — however, we were thoroughly defeated. As we have come to learn with SOFT CENTRE, it is our sonic Everest and after two full nights (and days at work) we tapped out, but did so with smiles on our faces. 

Ranging from soothing synths that carry you across dreamscapes, to the electric chords and vocals of contemporary metal-infused performances, nobody could argue that the performances at UNFURL weren’t wide-ranging, nor that they didn’t deliver. If even one part of this festival sounds like it might be up your alley, be sure to check it out next time — who knows what you might discover.

Though we loved every second, we weren’t hard core enough for SOFT CENTRE. Still, the four day melodic marathon has left us both eager to see what they deliver next — and if you dared to test the waters at all four nights of UNFURL, at all hours of the night, our hats go off to you.