A week-long trip into drone and techno at MUTEK Montréal 2017
MUTEK is a Montréal institution and has survived almost two decades, highlighting peculiar electronic music from throughout the world. John Twells headed north for another year to examine the festival in 2017, as arts funding dwindles and the perceived usefulness of creativity is put into focus once more.
MUTEK Montréal is not for the faint of heart. It’s an ambitious, long-form event that spans almost a week and highlights music from across the electronic spectrum, ranging from searing harsh noise to pummeling, big-room techno. On its 18th year, it kicked off on Tuesday and ran until Sunday, with art events, lectures and demos often taking up daytimes and performances running all evening into the early morning.
Something was different this time, though. MUTEK Montréal had conspicuously moved from a regular position in early June to a brand new spot at the end of August, and this changed more than just the date. The weeklong festival used to serve as a summer opener of sorts, haloed by a certain kind of hope and excitement. But placed at the end of August, it instead closed out the season with a blend of catharsis, euphoria and darkness as the humidity of the Quebec summer dissipated and reality began to set in once more.
That humidity was still in full force as the festival opened, mind you. After driving through an actual tornado to get to Montréal from balmy Massachusetts, my first stop was the Society for Arts and Technology (SAT), where Max Cooper was performing his multi-chapter A/V project Emergence. But the weather quickly switched from torrential rain to oppressive heat, making Cooper’s IDM-flecked tech house excursions and impressive visual display only bearable in bite-sized chunks. Facing down a week of endurance clubbing it was easy to lose hope, but thankfully the sweaty spectacle wasn’t repeated.
The next day, musical programming started in Montréal’s Place des Arts. The area was bustling all week with oversized chess games, free makeovers, food trucks and market stalls adding to the overwhelmingly positive atmosphere. And while the outdoor stage was tempered slightly by volume issues, it was encouraging to watch explorative artists like London’s Beatrice Dillon perform in front of families, random passers-by and hardcore MUTEK regulars.
Over in the SAT, sound sculptor Graham Dunning impressed with a hectic show of mechanical techno and Canada’s own Myriam Bleau showed another side of vinyl manipulation with her odd fusion of computer music and turntablism. But it was London duo Sculpture who had jaws on the floor with their engaging juxtaposition of lurching tape rhythms and eye-popping visuals. MUTEK’s fixation on audiovisual showcases can be tiring – there are only so many flashing lights and pretty shapes one can endure without completely switching off – but Sculpture’s visuals were clever, funny and captivating. Harnessing a sort-of zoetrope effect, the duo used vinyl discs printed with animation frames to create a spectacle that sat somewhere in between early Disney, Yellow Submarine and Ray Harryhausen. It was a true A/V show – the visuals supported the music and the psychedelic sounds fed the vivid display.
Mark Fell rounded off the venue’s programming with a frenetic, disjointed Sensate Focus set, clearing the room with his challenging footwork variations and impressive bass-heavy house-influenced minimalism. I wasn’t sure quite how this linked with the evening’s “turntable” theme (the showcase was titled “This Wheel’s on Fire”), but any opportunity to see Fell perform on a decent soundsystem should always be seized.
The main event for many festivalgoers on Wednesday was a mammoth 6-hour DJ set from Daphni at huge club venue Métropolis. But as events at the SAT fizzed with unpredictablity, Dan Snaith’s respectable selections felt a little too easygoing, even for a Wednesday. It was good – a sneaky drop of Joe’s enduring classic ‘Claptrap’ was a particularly smile-inducing highlight – but there was a sense from the audience that they wanted something with a little more (smoked) meat. Pleasant, dusty crate diggers’ club music is great, but Montréal’s a messy place – you only have to wander outside the venue, stepping over sprawled, heaving bodies at 3am, to see that.
Thursday sported the lineup I was most excited to witness and it didn’t disappoint. At Métropolis, MUTEK had teamed up with Red Bull Music Academy to present a special night of drone music that concluded with a performance from Norwegian dark ambient legend Deathprod. Outdoors in the Place des Arts and over at the SAT, MUTEK exploited its connection with Mexico, showcasing a selection of emerging Mexican artists and N.A.A.F.I. alums respectively. And at the Monument-National, the de-facto base of operations for the festival, Robert Henke (aka Monolake) expanded his long-running A/V project Lumière.
Live drone music – and experimental music in general – can be a hard sell, but Red Bull and MUTEK didn’t pull any punches with their programming. Using a venue as big as Métropolis was a bold choice and while seeing such esoteric music in this space was a risk, it paid off immediately. Canadian artist France Jobin was first to test the limits of the venue’s deafening system, coaxing the audience to sit or lie down on the ballroom floor to absorb the bassy rumbles, tones and flashing lights more effectively. And while Sarah Davachi didn’t push quite as hard – that’s not her style – she instead used the intense volume to accent her glacial analog oscillations. It was one of the week’s most unabashedly beautiful sets, impressively never resorting to nostalgia or hackneyed, sentimental “ambient” tropes.
Anthony Child’s improvised live set was a real surprise. Thanks to a childhood spent on the outskirts of Birmingham, I grew up regularly watching him tear up local venues like the Q Club, a space not dissimilar to Métropolis. So seeing him ditch the Surgeon moniker to slowly build up alien drones over the course of an hour was a rare delight; when he developed the set into a sub-heavy blast of sound it felt like a science fiction movie finale – overpowering and all-encompassing. There weren’t any grinding 4/4 beats, but this was as heavy and as visceral as Child has ever been. He told me he wasn’t sure how it would go, as he was using a Eurorack modular setup instead of his usual Buchla Music Easel synthesizer; he shouldn’t have worried.
When New Zealand’s Fis stepped up, it was a welcome breath of fresh air. At this stage, Oliver Periman has shifted almost entirely from the jungle variations of his past, but the soundsystem is still the backbone of his sound. This was blindingly obvious as he toyed with wobbling, heaving bass and bursts of white noise and percussion, performing with a junglist’s glee. It was a perfect palate cleanser, rattling out anything left in the ear canals before Deathprod’s expedition into Norwegian darkness.
With punishing volume and some particularly spine-chilling lighting – there appeared to be an old film projector flickering throughout that made the entire set feel even more eerie – Helge Sten performed one of the most visceral and impressive drone sets I’ve ever seen. It was impossible to disengage from – my mind never wandered, I was transfixed from beginning to end, even if the deafening version of ‘Treetop Drive’ felt like a metal bar to the head. The set was a live experimental music masterclass: transformative and expertly engineered, surprising and deeply unsettling. As I left the venue, a friend was already checking to see where Sten was performing next and planning a trip to Portugal to catch the set a second time. It was that good.
My head was still buzzing as I wandered back to the N.A.A.F.I. showcase and, as good as it was, with Mexican Jihad closing out the night with a pummeling club set, it was hard to concentrate fully. I was still fixated on what I’d just seen, shuffling to trapdoor slams and bass womps but only hearing Helge Sten’s cacophonous, Lynchian noise.
MUTEK Montréal added yet another venue on Friday, the Édifice WILDER dance space – a small, dark room behind that housed the NTS Radio stage. This was a vital lineup and Beatrice Dillon’s live performance was one of the week’s finest experiences. With a precision and sound palette that sounded not unlike early Mille Plateaux or, more aptly, Jan Jelinek’s ~Scape catalogue, Dillon slowly built all kind of scraping samples and squeaking foley sounds into a freeform mess of glitchy rhythms. Eventually, booming dubby bass spluttered into focus, bringing to mind T++ or Rhythm and Sound. But for all these reference points, Dillon’s set was completely out on its own; in fact, it was the most progressive set I saw all week.
Manchester’s Space Afrika also pushed things forward, melting their chilly Northern electronics into fuzzy noise and disjointed Artificial Intelligence templates but never really sticking in one place for too long. It was the perfect surrealist start to the night, before I headed over to Métropolis to catch hardware techno evangelist Aurora Halal.
Bathed in blinding light, Halal looked almost saintly in front of her tangle of drum machines and synthesizers, belting out retching techno and electro bangers that practically commanded the heaving crowd to dance. This was the meat the Montréal crowd had been searching for, provided by a woman at the top of her game, unwilling to sidestep into bland, populist tech house. The vibe carried over fluidly into Surgeon and Lady Starlight’s punishing Birmingham techno onslaught and the duo looked as if they were having almost as fun as the audience, grinning behind their epic modular rigs, pushing booming rhythms in and out of electronic squeals with genuine glee.
It’s usually at this stage when the duration begins to take its toll. Even with great bagels, copious amounts of poutine and hand-made dumplings that were worth the trip alone, a few days of near-constant shows without restful sleep will push even the most seasoned festival veteran. But MUTEK’s programming was enough to inspire a second wind, and seeing the lineup curated by Berlin’s CTM over at the Place des Arts was worth the endurance. Particularly impressive moments here came from German DJ Sarah Farina and Dis Fig, who added spice to the Esplanade with her machine-gun set of noisy edits and punishing beats.
By the time Driftmachine introduced listeners at the SAT to their playful Krautrock-inspired modular experiments, I was completely ready. It was like a warm hug, coaxing us into the rest of the evening with kosmische textures and dubby, cyclic rhythms. Montréal’s Marie Davidson followed, and the venue swelled with local support. Davidson is something of a local celebrity and her set showed why, with charged (if almost inaudible) vocals draped over disjointed beats and peculiar synthetic bleeps and groans. Each time I’ve witnessed her play, Davidson’s confidence has grown and this was the most effortless set I’ve seen from her – commanding, powerful and unashamedly political.
rRoxymore was comparatively restrained, but her thoughtful rhythmic productions offered a unique opportunity that night to get lost in music without obvious reference points. When Monolake arrived to perform a typically austere set of precise beats and Chain Reaction-era cavernous effects, it felt reliable but predictable. Over at the NTS stage, British noise adventurer Helm was a more intriguing proposition, with a brain-altering performance that juxtaposed chopped samples and musique concrète elements with eerie, horror movie-esque lighting.
As always, the Saturday night at Métropolis was positioned to draw in local crowds, and it did so with “jazzy” tech house. I walked out of DeWalta & Shannon’s set as soon as a saxophone rung out over the tightly gridded, playlist-ready beats and while Detroit Swindle and Zip were a little more interesting, the night paled in comparison to the rest of the festival’s programming, highlighting regression rather than progression. But this is a mild criticism; the night was popular – a crowd of local tech house bros stormed the doors as other clubs shuttered for the night – and people appeared to be getting what they wanted, flailing sweatily to music that was only notable for its lack of notability.
On Sunday, we all needed a breather and MUTEK provided willingly. For those still buzzing from the night before, a collaboration with local outdoor club event Piknic Electronik kept the tech house flag flying for most of the afternoon. But for those of us desperate to sooth our aching heads and jaws, the SAT had a lineup of chilly ambience and downtempo house that served as a bottle of Advil and a warm cup of cocoa. The high point of the night and a fitting finale for the festival was a powerful set from local artist Kara-Lis Coverdale. Coverdale had impressed me last year, but this set was more developed in every way, using fragments of church music to add a spiritual quality her billowing drones. The light display only backed up her performance, drowning her in fiery light that burned through wisping clouds of dry ice; it was a religious experience.
MUTEK’s commitment to showing the diversity of electronic music is commendable and as the discussion around arts funding (or the lack of it, globally) continues to inspire polar responses, it’s events such as this that should stand as examples of funding’s importance. Bringing a community together has never been more important as rampant individualism continues to erode society, so even if a week of constant artistic engagement seems like a feat of endurance, it’s easier than a week of world news.
John Twells is on Twitter