Comprising multiple shows across multiple venues in Montreal’s Ville-Marie, Mutek holds itself distinct from other North American electronic festivals. Organized around unifying themes and musical disciplines, the festival showcases encourage its attendees to consider the relationships between sound and image, between performance and production, and between diverse musicians.
My Mutek experience began at Métropolis on Thursday on a tribal trip with Shackleton, who has a tendency towards screams, radio crackles, temple bells, hollow drum sounds, and beats that one is tempted to describe as “African.” Robert Henke aka Monolake played out his latest LP Ghosts with a visual presentation, which consisted of patterns of colored swirls that looked like metallic surfaces set against astral backgrounds. The pauses between tracks were like set changes between dramatic scenes, appropriate for the theater setting of the Métropolis, whose layout offered a great acoustic atmosphere for Monolake’s thunderclaps and sonic ghosts.
Free outdoor shows were also hosted at places like Place de la Paix, where Tonepushers and Alicia Hush graced the decks on a cloudy Friday afternoon. Tonepushers played house of the melodic and deep variant, occasionally veering into “big-room” but keeping a steady pulse throughout up until closing their set with “Falling Down.” Fellow Canadian Alicia Hush set the mood and got the crowd dancing for the evening. Fusing techno and house in a manner not unlike Deniz Kurtel later in the weekend, Hush toyed with cheeky vocal loops (something about wanting ice cream) over clean dubby basslines.
One of the unique offerings of festivals like Mutek is the collaborative performance. Stephen O’Malley’s and Tim Hecker’s show inside St. James Church showcased the respective artists’ guitar-drone and industrial-ambient working in tandem. It is hard to find a space more appropriate for the pair than the darkened interiors of a neo-gothic church, particularly because it was so dark in there that the show lacked a visual element. Instead, the darkness encouraged more attentive listening to O’Malley’s guitar riffs and Hecker’s electronic murmur, which shifted together at a glacial pace, powerful, richly layered and profoundly arresting.
Meanwhile, the indoor space at La Société des Arts Technologiques (SAT) was the playground for artists chosen by the Red Bull Music Academy. Shlohmo cut up pop (Aguilera) and electro (LMFAO) and slid them between chunks of bass; there was no wobble and overexcited gestures in his show, just a measured journey into bass territory with side trips into pop-nostalgia. Sendai, a collaboration between Peter van Hoesen and Yves de Mey, broke techno down into fractured sounds. Like bullets ricocheting between staccato breakbeats, their set didn’t settle on specific forms until about 50 minutes in: stable kick drums amidst otherworld frequencies were the products of this cross-experiment between genres of techno.
I found myself dancing to KiNK in the afternoon at SAT on Saturday. A through-and-through live performer (he had at least three different controllers, including one that looked like a stunted light sabre), the Bulgarian tech-house DJ played with jazzy rhythms first before going wild with the effects box. Meanwhile, Warp Records’s Clark fractured beats were scattered like a constellation over the domed enclosure of the Stratosphere, an almost metaphysical representation of Clark’s futuristic electronics.
Deniz Kurtel and Jimmy Edgar played the Métropolis on Friday night. Kurtel played a contemporary blend of techhouse, shaping that genre into something a bit more stripped, and a bit more sensual. Edgar, on the other hand, gave us a robust banging techno set that showcased his Detroit alignment, but switched gears halfway in favour of a mélange of RnB-bass and post-jungle, which did little to the energy level of the 3am audience. I somehow managed to find myself all the way up front at the Nicolas Jaar live show, where gyrating bodies of the crowd and cigarette smoke set the stage for Jaar’s rather oriental soundscapes. Manipulating the sound feed from his guitarist, his saxophonist and his own mic, Jaar crafted a tease of a performance based on buildup and expectation and release, a strategy that fared remarkably well with the young audience. I had my doubts, Nicolas, but your music is just so damn sexy.
Elsewhere during the weekend, Kode9 and Roly Porter presented their audio-visual projects in the A/Visions series. Kode9 temporarily eschewed post-dubstep for a gloomy palette in his work for “Her Ghost,” a black and white photomontage-movie about love and loss and time travelers. It made me realize that underneath all that wonky bass, Kode9’s regular album tracks all carry a dark, post-apocalyptic undercurrent. Roly Porter played industrial breakbeat live on stage to “Akheron Fall,” ethereal footage of an temperate forest haunted by blinding lights.
A Guy Called Gerald is an acid techno stalwart who also happens to be equally intrigued by the world outside 4×4; he asked the audience early in his set at Métropolis whether they wanted to hear four-to-the-floor or drum n bass, and decided to spend a good portion of his hour playing the latter. In the middle of his set, his bass got so overwhelmingly massive it felt like it was trapping me from leaving. And at the end of his set, slivers of acid began creeping back onto the speakers, leaving a destructive wake of techno beeps and kick drums. There is this indescribable feeling of comfort in reverting to techno after a long session of DnB. No matter how much we dabble in DnB, at the end of the day, we are fundamentally 4×4 nerds, aren’t we, Gerald?
Minilogue vs. Mathew Jonson, the other collaborative highlight of this year’s Mutek, is a long established partnership between the Swedish minimal/tech/house group and the Canadian techno producer. The dream-like textures of Jonson’s productions (particularly the piano chords) gradually became the unifying elements of the 2hour long live set that hardly ever stopped for a moment’s breath.
And then we have Jeff Mills, whose identification of sci-fi ideas like time travel as creative influences of his craft paralleled the unique juxtaposition of his being the headliner of the festival and yet playing relatively early in the weekend. Mills’ performance, titled The Messenger/Sleeper Wakes, opened with Mills kneeling on the stage floor mixing relatively mild Detroit sounds on four CDJs against gigantic slices of the moon. That whisper of tension only truly ripped open when he stepped to the front of the stage and started operating his Roland-909 with the precision of a surgeon operating on a heart. In a festival that leans heavily towards performative live sets, Jeff Mills achieves state-altering techno-perfection with the simplest of set-ups—just a man and his machine.
The hallmark of a great electronic festival is it leaves one with a redefinition of his/her relationship with music. Walking between Métropolis and le SAT on a cold Montreal night often is often a choice between the more established names of electronica and those musicians on the experimental side of the field. Because Mutek encourages an aesthetic rather than specific electronic genres, the festival organizers makes it easy for one to listen to the diverse fragments of electronica as a cohesive experience, whether one is getting a history lesson from maestros or exploring genre crossovers with scene newcomers. And after Jeff Mills speaks to you through his 909, somehow, every drum pattern you hear will never sound the same again.
Observations by Jared D.