In keeping with the brutalist architecture that dots the Montréal skyline and the freezing weather (that I dubbed “nature’s cocaine” due to its invigorating properties), the best bands at M for Montréal are either the most abrasive or the starkest. CLAASS definitely fell into the former category. They were also one of the festival’s most anticipated acts as they featured two members (Alex Ortiz and Vincent Lesveque) of We Are Wolves, last year’s M for Montréal breakout band. Rounding out the trio onstage was local DJ, Jordan Dare who brought a techo edge of Ortiz and Levesque’s dance-punk panache. At first the group sounded like a cacophonic variation of Liverpool’s Clinic: Dark, gloomy synths, and syncopated nonsensical lyrics collapsed into each other as Korgs clashed with live bass and a Mac sat ominously in a corner, churning out beats. But as their set progressed, they morphed into a more dance-flavored sound that was harsher in its approach, utilizing repetitive, rumbling disco-infused bass regurgitations and vocodered vocals. It was harsh and slightly inhuman, yet lots of people, including myself, were moved to, well, move.
At the other end of the musical spectrum, Couer de Pirate, a petite, platinum blonde, sat alone at a baby grand piano, pounding out beautifully dreamy songs as she opened proceedings at the festival’s closing showcase at Metropolis. Just 18-years-old, Béatrice Martin, who plays as Couer de Pirate, is a precocious talent capable of pulling the most cynical of listener into her slight and subtle, yet satisfying songs. As Martin’s fingers danced along the keys, her vocals intertwined seamlessly with the notes, and even though I couldn’t understand a word she sang, the inflection and rising cadence sounded overtly optimistic. Her performance was a musical embrace and I stretched out my arms and squeezed.
Similarly stark and sweet was Emilie Clepper, a singer songwriter who split her time growing up between Texas and Quebec. With just a full bodied Les Paul for company, and the odd flourish of percussion from a friend, Clepper worked her way through a set of fingerpicking folk, country twang, and blues-y desert shuffles that sounded like Joanna Newson if she’d grown up in Nashville. Playing a late afternoon showcase at St. Sulpice as part of the M for Martini schmoozing session, Clepper’s songs made me want to put the vodka down and break out the bourbon.
While Couer de Pirate and Emilie Clepper were amongst my favorite acts musically, performance wise they were slightly sedate—more akin with rainy afternoons than rock and roll. Luckily, Red Mass and Duchess Says were on hand to rectify the staid onstage situation.
Closing out the festival’s first night, Duchess Says, melded dark and heavy histrionic punk with broken beer bottles, keytars, and karate chops. Backed by keys, bass, and drums, the group’s singer, Annie-Claude, careened around the stage and into the audience, bouncing off everything in her path like a punked-up pinball machine. Sounding like an industrial X-Ray Spex, or a guitar-less version of Baltimore-based Ponytail, Claude, and her non-descript backing band, were confrontational yet uncontrived. But while it was frenzied and fun to watch, over the course of a 45-minute set it soon became slightly repetitive. The show culminated with Claude crowdsurfing before a scrum of audience members were invited onstage for a final musical onslaught. And while the keys did add a slight disco element, overall it was the visual aspect that was more appealing than the musical one.
Going back to the Gories, Montréal has a long lineage of garage bands and Red Mass, can now be added to that list. Taking the stage at the very un-rock and roll hour of 4pm on Saturday afternoon, Red Mass was perhaps ten strong (it was difficult for me to see in the small, packed side room at Les Foufounes Électriques). A crazy, colorful gang, resplendent in red capes and hats, ties, and socks, they were too big for the stage, and their sound, a raucous mess of garage rock rumblings, was too much for the sound guy. But even though I couldn’t discern the horns or keys, what I could hear was catastrophic and out of control yet somehow coherent and melodic. Framing the band—standing on speaker stacks at either side of the stage—were a nonchalant guitarist and a guy in his underwear playing percussion. It was far and away the most interesting act to grace any stage over the course of the festival, and by the time they finished with a choral chant that stated “party party party, die die die,” we were all ready to do the former and not worry about the latter.
Playing a free after-party on Friday night, Misteur Valaire were neither stark nor abrasive, but like the city of Montréal they were an amalgamation of eclectic influences. With more equipment on stage than they could possibly play, this five-piece group, who appeared in matching fur-lined multi-colored vests, was akin to a boy band version of Funkadelic. (They even broke out some synchronized dance moves late in their set.) Mixing samples and turntables with real instruments—percussion, horns, bass—Misteur Valaire switched instruments and sounds with ease, slipping in and out of hip-hop, electronica, dance, rock, and jazz. For the most part it was a purely instrumental set, and the peaks and valleys of their varied sound warmed up the crowd, which was just as well because many had waited out in the cold until after midnight to see them. Sure, it was gimmicky—they wore flashing sunglasses for a portion of their set—but it was also fun and funky, and if you have the stage-side bouncers nodding along, you know you must be doing something right. Right?