"It’s so simple, but we fucking love this beat..."
Dance music, especially offshoot genres such as dance-punk, is obviously alive and well in Montréal. With We are Wolves wowing fans at M for Metropolis on Saturday night and the brutalist bombast of CLAASS bringing Day Two to a close, several of the bands seemingly build their songs from the beats up. Woodhands worked Friday night’s crowd into a frenzy, with the duo, according to my scribbled notes, mixing juvenile Beastie Boys with Duran Duran and the Factory Records back catalogue. Listening back to their songs outside of the live environment, I don’t know how true that actually is, but at the time, with the duo stating, “It’s so simple but we fucking love this beat,” before breaking to a simple, yet killer beat, it was more than enough to put a smile on my face and a skip in my step.
While their beats were good, and their whirling synth-tainted sound was sufficiently engrossing, vocally Winter Gloves were slightly annoying. I liked their songs and the slightly twee melodies, but singer Charles F’s vocals grated a little, giving the group a geeky, glitchy pop vibe that sounded like a whinier Postal Service sped up. They fared a lot better when Charles exchanged his synth for a guitar, but that was perhaps due the heavier sound slightly suffocating his vocals.
It wasn’t just the dance-based acts that utilized beats, though, as M for Montréal’s rap and hip-hop contingent also used heavy bouts of rhythm. The most interesting percussive vision came via The National Parcs, who utilized organic field-recorded instrumentation—snapping twigs, sawing trees, and clacking wood—as a rhythmic base. In these environmentally conscious times, this three-piece group, befitting their name, propositioned themselves as the greenest cats in town. With help from an accompanying video screen that highlighted the origin of their rhythmic sounds, the band exchanged hip-hop’s usual trappings, bling and excess, for a heady dose of environmentalism. At one point, according to the video footage at least, they used an overturned canoe for a hollow bass drum sound. It was an interesting concept that didn’t quite translate in its musical execution. If you lost the visual aspect, you would be left with a better than average hip-hop band. And while they did mix things up, throwing in some lazy, lounge inflections and soulful tropical sweeps, their set left me wishing they’d put as much effort into the songwriting as the inventive rhythms that propelled them along.
Saturday afternoon’s showcase saw two hip-hop bands taking the stage at Les Foufounes Électriques—one with a live drummer, the other utilizing samples and electronics for their rhythmic base. Up first was Radio Radio, who walked out to the strains of Donna Summer’s “On the Radio”. Summer’s version soon dissolved into a mass of static and beats, but the song’s undercurrent kept returning as the band’s two main MCs rapped atop of it in a breathless Beastie Boy’s fashion. Utilizing turntables and laptops, the four-piece group was juvenile and jubilant in equal measure and while their songs were littered with some English lyrics, for the most part they sung in an Acadian dialect that even my French-speaking friends found hard to follow.
Whereas Radio Radio criss-crossed their rhymes like an intricate pretzel, passing off lines like a seamless, musical relay, Gatineau utilized the traditional frontman/hypeman hip-hop set up as well as a more traditional band approach. Backed by a gorilla-mask wearing drummer, a bass player, and additional vocals fed through an old phone, Gatineau’s front man, Seba, stomped about the stage, pulling up his shirt, and pulling down his jeans. The band had a certain charm (especially thanks to the occasional use of an autoharp), an off-kilter ear for melody, and they get bonus points for being the only band I’ve ever seen to break a bass string.
It was moments like this—a slightly juvenile crew of hip-hop heads breaking out a traditionally classical instrument (the autoharp)—that summed up the whole experience. As I said at the beginning of this piece, there were more groups playing typically unfashionable genres of music with unabashed glee than there were Arcade Fire or Wolf Parade wannabes. Perhaps it was a purposeful and conscious choice on the part of the organizers. Perhaps that musical fad, for Montréal at least, has passed. Or perhaps there just aren’t any up and coming indie rock bands at the moment. Whatever the case may be, it gave the impression that, unlike Seattle in the early ‘90s and New York earlier this decade, Montréal’s music scene isn’t founded on a singular sound or language. Instead, as I said earlier, it seems to be founded on a combination of “no regret” coupled with a fierce sense of religious-like musical devotion, culminating in an eclectic musical mix.
Back at the Museum of Contemporary Art, before I watched Dan Graham’s video installation, before I checked out Robert Longo’s lifelike chalk drawings and Peter Saville’s intricately designed New Order album covers, before I walked out and chanced upon some Edith Piaf-quoting graffiti and saw a gaggle of young girls shivering in the cold as they waited to catch a glimpse of their favorite band, before I even see any music or eat any poutine, I walk into a small alcove dedicated to Paul-Emile Borduas and his call for “resplendent anarchy.” It’s the 60th anniversary of the movement, a movement that, from what I have read, changed Montréal’s cultural standing and the city’s approach to the arts. And while Montréal’s inhabitants still cling to Leonard Cohen and the places he eats like ivy clings to old buildings, events like M for Montréal provide ample proof that the City of Saints will continue to preach its musical gospel for many years to come. Whether these bands will be export worthy remains to be seen, but even if they don’t cross-over internationally, or locally for that matter, I am pretty sure that they won’t regret a thing.