this has been quite a week for shows. true, the advent of pop montreal generally brings with it at least a couple of things worth checking out (sometimes on the same night, such as last year's faust vs. diamanda galas debacle, thank you so much festival planners), but it's comparatively rare that i'll have three nights in a row where there are bands that draw me out of my little cocoon. in this case, it was a pretty divergent group as well, which is always welcome.
wednesday, 29.09.10:: download and guests @ cafe campus
this was a show i went into with mixed emotions. back in the day (the day in this case falling sometime around 1994), i thought the first download (and chunks of the second) was absolutely brilliant. unfortunately, i believe a lot of that brilliance emanated from the mind of dwayne goettel, who died shortly afterward. the fractured, multi-layered "furnace" is a difficult listen to this day because it confounds listener expectations, but, robbed of a primary contributor and a decade and a half later on in the careers of the artists involved, is there still going to be the same originality, the same loopy aesthetic, that endeared them to me so much?
we arrive late, meaning we miss the first opening acts. i'm told one of them was good and that most of the people i know went and got food during the second act. i didn't know either, so i can't judge. when we arrive, plateau, a cevin key project i know nothing about, has just taken the stage. everyone seems confused, because no one is announcing the bands, no one knows half the bands and most people only know cevin key, but no one seems to know who the gentleman on stage with him is (i still don't, although he seemed to be the dominant force in plateau). there's some time before we're able to to work out that the group on stage is not, in fact, download. when i finally do figure out who it is, i'm relieved, because if it were download, it wouldn't bode well for the night. the music is pure euro-dance, smooth keyboard melodies (occasionally punctuated by promising but underdeveloped little analogue noises) and repetitive four-to-the-floor beats.
eventually, mark spybey joins the group on stage, which marks the transition from plateau into download. it also marks the sonically interesting part of the show. the lengthy plateau set degenerates into the lovely, staccato, noisy sound of download that i was so hoping to hear. the atonal electronics swirl, the rhythms chug and sputter unexpectedly. it's fun watching the latex-encased crowd who'd gotten used to plateau try to continue dancing.
at the end of their set, spybey calls out the follow-up band otto. this is sort of an odd placement, since you'd assume that download, being the headliners, would want to play last and longest, but they end up almost exactly in the middle and playing less time than anyone else. otto are made up a group of guys (this is a decidedly "guy" band) who have money to spend on instruments and costumes, but all the creativity of the average dining plate. their chief role seems to be to make most of the patrons flee the room, to the point where it looks like someone is holding some sort of gothic fetish party in the middle of prince arthur street on a wednesday night.
in fact, the only reason why people are sticking around is to get a look at mark spybey's solo project dead voices on air, who are closing the night. i will admit that i haven't kept up with dvoa music. the stuff that i remember is roughly contemporaneous with the first download releases and, as i remember it, the music was beatless without being what anyone could describe as "ambient". it's always been a sore spot for me that i missed dead voices by two days one of the first times i came to visit montreal, so i see this as a chance to redeem past losses.
some losses, however, are permanent. instead of what i remember, dead voices on air has morphed over time into a very mellow, safe idm-type sound, the kind of thing that would be at home in the background at a trendy restaurant or cocktail lounge, but not the kind of thing i'd regret missing. we stay for a good part of the set, but eventually, the lure of being able to catch the metro home, rather than paying $30 for a cab, is too much. i can now say i've seen dead voices on air, but i still feel like i missed them.
high points: the entire download portion.
low points: otto
thursday 30 september, liars & guests @ le national
i hate the rain. i know it's necessary, but it's a pain in the butt when you want to go out, so the fact that this evening sees us caught in a rain storm that has more than a few neighbours building arks in the backyard does not make for an auspicious start. it gets even less auspicious as we enter le national and get to enjoy the aroma of a few hundred people who have just spent too much time in the rain. personally, wearing a sweater with a large wool collar, i smell like a sheep who got separated from her shepherd.
as we're waiting on opening act women to take the stage, it's hard not to notice the prevalence of skinny jeans, ironic mustaches and oversized glasses floating around the room. yes, we are in hipster territory. unfortunately, this is the sort of show that draws this kind of crowd- artsy, angsty, smart indie rock- it's just that liars are a whole lot better than the majority of bands embraced by denizens of williamsburg and their followers worldwide.
just before the lights go down, a young man with soaked skinny pants, flip flops and a nest of birds living in his unkempt hair and beard strolls by. i'm hoping the music will be enough to distract me from making smart-ass comments about the people.
women are an all-male group who are apparently hell-bent on bringing back the early 90s swirl sound. influenced heavily by ride, my bloody valentine and, from an earlier era, wire, they aren't what you'd call objectionable, but there's nothing new, nothing added to the list of artists who've shaped their music. it comes off sounding like a very slick cover band. what surprises me is that a good portion of the crowd actually seems to be there to see them rather than the headlining act. why? who knows. they are probably the band with more buzz at the moment, but it is disheartening when the crowd visibly thins between acts.
and those who left made a terrible mistake. from the minute liars take the stage, they launch into a dynamic, super-tight illustration of what exactly makes them different (and better) from most over-hyped indie artists out there. the band is expanded to a five-piece from their usual three-piece to give extra depth to the live sound, but the focus remains solidly on lead singer angus andrew. standing about eight feet tall, he is a born performer and entertains with a mixture of forced awkward antics and surprising grace. his voice retains all of its studio range, from power that rivals that of the electronic instruments around him to a falsetto fragility that is truly haunting. even after a set of an hour and a half, it feels like they're only getting started.
for an encore, only the band's full-time three members emerge, but the sound suffers not at all. in fact, their final track, broken witch (the only track played from my personal favourite album, they were wrong so we drowned) builds to such a fury, becomes so feverish and inflamed, that it seems to implode rather than end.
high points: the encore set
low points: a sizable chunk of the crowd leaving after the mediocre opening act.
friday, 1 october: swans & guests @ le national
i'll be honest, i not only skipped the opening acts at this show, but i persuaded several others to do so. it's nothing against the opening act, who i don't know, but i'd seen the middle act, baby dee, opening for current 93 a few years ago. at the time, the schtick of having a tiny tim-like balladeer accompanying himself on the piano and harp was interesting for the first track, amusing for a couple more and irritating for the rest of an overly long set. certain things you don't need to repeat. (i found myself wishing that someone had switched zola jesus, opening the same night at another venue for another band, to the swans show. it would have been an appropriate mix, really.)
so we arrive in time for swans and swans only. in the moments before the band takes the stage, i feel my brow furrow. there have been examples where i've seen bands who i've carried in my heart a long time and been very satisfied with the show, even years after what i would identify as their prime. but there have also been experiences where the show was bad enough to make me re-evaluate the parts of the band's music i once loved. i'm nervous that the same thing could happen again. to boot, i'm not a huge fan of michael gira's post-swans material. there are some of the angels of light recordings that i like, but none of them speak to me in quite the same way as swans. unlike many bands, i felt swans left on a real high note, their final album soundtracks for the blind being their strongest since the iconic children of god. sometimes, it can be a mistake to resurrect what's passed.
however, even the very beginning of the swans set, a lengthy introduction by their percussionist that builds slowly until the rest of the band comes out and takes their positions, that this is something pretty special. and from the moment the full band kicks in, it's obvious that this is not going to be some lame imitation of past glory. if nothing else, the sheer force of the sound wall that collapses over the expectant faces of the audience is enough to announce this. it takes a while for the music itself to come into focus, because its force and density are so immediately overwhelming.
the composition is gira at his best, all instruments playing off one another in an intricate arrangement under the direction of the man himself, so that he often seems more like he's conducting an orchestra than fronting a band. his own vocals are as plaintive, as painful and as perfect as ever. time has not robbed him of any of the range or expressiveness of his laconic bass. he is no longer spitting vitriol as he did in the days of cop or holy money, but the impact is no less profound for that.
much like the classic swans, their new material has a weightiness that is an almost physical presence. "turn up the heat," gira jibes a few tracks in, "it should be really hot in here". he's right, too, because taking in the entire show, it seems that everything should be heavy, thick, oppressive and being overheated would only add to the atmosphere. (that said, i'm just as glad that no one turned up the heat.) the set is similar to a meal of a really rare steak: on the one hand refined, elegant, beautiful and on the other bestial and brutish.
it is only fitting that the band's short encore, starting softly, builds quickly to an infernal roar and crashes to an end in away that leaves the audience simply numbed by what they've heard. the applause is plentiful but there is a pervasive sense of exhaustion. as i poll the different people i know there to get their reactions, i am repeatedly greeted by saucer-eyed countenances like those of people who have been mainlining heroin for a few hours. whatever their response, their expression truly speaks for itself.
high points: hearing "beautiful child" and the most perfect ending to any show, ever.
low points: my lows are really quibbles, but i would have liked to hear a few (not a majority, but a few) more of the older tracks that made me love them to begin with. this is especially the case since the newer material is not incredibly varied itself.
(photo: swans by dominic f. marceau)