Instead of going for the biggest draws, Montreal’s MUTEK electronic and avant-garde music festival rewards the risk-takers. It may mean the occasional sparse room or awkward creative misfire, but one thing MUTEK accomplishes year after year is foster a hospitable environment for the unpredictable. Even if you’re well acquainted with an act, they’re usually trying something new, or putting a weird spin on an old favourite.
This year’s MUTEK, held from May 29 to June 2 across multiple venues in Montreal’s transitional Quartier des Spectacles neighbourhood (mostly Lower Main to the locals), retained the mindset of previous iterations, meaning the music never failed to at least be interesting.
MUTEK is also about finding your beat or groove, wherever possible. That doesn’t necessarily mean a tight rhythm or trance-inducing set of textures; it could mean a moment where a combination of venue, sounds, lights, images, drinks, illicit substances and physicality join forces in a way that shakes you from the monotony of an endless parade of MacBook beatmakers. Everyone’s experiences are understandably different, but here are a few of my stand-out moments, both positive and negative.
The most memorable set of the week came from German producer Pantha du Prince, backed by Norwegian collective The Bell Laboratory. It was the type of performance that in a way could only have been done in Montreal, primarily due to the setting: the new Montreal Symphony House, built in 2011 specifically for the Montreal Symphony Orchestra. It’s an incredibly modern concert hall, from its geometrically distinct shape to every surface being covered in wood. The immaculate acoustics gave the toymaker-dressed, six-piece percussion-heavy band - including a marimba player and drummer - a chance to have every celestial carillon sound lithe while maintaining a ferocious low-end.
At one point during Pantha du Prince’s set, many in the crowd rose from their comfortable seats in unison and proceeded to dance in the aisles. Musically, it packed the visceral punch of a set designed for a cramped, dimly lit club, yet the percussion work was so intricate it felt refined enough for Montreal’s newest architectural marvel.
Story continues after these photos from MUTEK's Instagram.
The evening and night events were, as always, split into two camps: the sit-down, experimental A/Visions, and the more danceable Nocturne events, which on the Saturday continued well beyond last call. Veteran British producer Matthew Herbert dominated the former with a pair of Canadian premieres: One Pig and The End of Silence. One Pig was the more realized of the two - understandable since the album came out in 2011 - but also because the subject matter, a pig’s short life from birth to plate, allowed for more levity in the performance.
The highlight of the set was Herbert’s bandmate Yann Seznec. He swapped his butcher lab coat every time a month would pass in the pig’s life, and he gleefully pulled the strings of the Sty Harp - a sample-manipulating pig pen (complete with hay on the floor). Near the end of the set, local chef Martin Juneau fried pork at the back of the stage, filling the venue with the aroma of dead pig. Every crackle of the pan was amplified.
The Sty Harp was re-purposed for The End of Silence - detached to give each member of Herbert’s band the chance to stretch sounds taken from a brief sample of a bomb exploding in Libya - but the group stayed seated the whole time and mostly deferred to the emotional resonance of the sample. Herbert also included sounds taken live from the outside entrance of the venue, but only did so for a few brief moments.
MUTEK wouldn’t be complete without someone combining electronic instruments with traditional ones to sinister effect. German piano virtuoso Nils Frahm alternated between four types of pianos, playing in a menacing, hypnotic fashion, but he also included more acoustic sounds, such as when he was hitting parts of his grand piano with timpani mallets.
Experimental audiovisual performances are rarely comedic, so kudos to French duo 1024 Architecture for their absurd electronic take on cliché-ridden TED Talks, and for projecting images onto cardboard boxes.
In terms of the more direct Nocturne sets, Spanish producer John Talabot (an on-stage duo) merged warm electronic sounds with live percussion and vocals. Of all the sets at the spacious Metropolis, Talabot’s was the sweatiest and most tightly packed. It could be because the duo was playing accessible, M83-style pop songs, rather than extended instrumentals.
Highly gestural British producer Jon Hopkins - perhaps known more for his cinematic or atmospheric sides - showed no mercy during his club-ready set, his every analog twitch cutting like a surgical scythe while shifting from heavy to dreamy without losing a step. While other performers tried to settle on a single aesthetic, Hopkins was unafraid to brazenly mix moods.
The most aggressive, bass-heavy performance came from Japanese audiovisual artist Ryoichi Kurokawa. American Laurel Halo started off her set interestingly by pairing misshapen sounds together to create some interesting textures, but by the end she had seemingly reduced her sonic palette rather than expand upon it.
Ghislain Poirier, the Canadian king of bass, premiered his latest project, the very austere Boundary. While the live drummer mostly just stuck to Poirier’s militaristic stomping beats, Poirier’s clean, uncomplicated selection of sounds were uniformly original and catchy.
Popular online livestreaming program Boiler Room made its second Montreal appearance in a month, this time taking advantage of the Satosphere, a 15-metre high half-dome where visuals can be projected on the interior walls. It gave an opportunity for those unable to check out MUTEK a chance to watch live from the comfort of their own homes. It was an afternoon performance, and based on an online viewing, it didn’t quite capture the atmosphere of a Nocturne set.
The closest thing the festival had to a marquee pop star was Jamie Lidell, who made an interesting left turn by eschewing a full band for a simple two-piece. The early part of the set showed promise, when Lidell was belting out Motown vocals over hard, electronic beats. It was a nice contrast that found the two sides almost competing with each other to be heard, but the venue was nearly empty throughout and the energy waned in a hurry.
Although MUTEK is an electronic music festival, anyone expecting something in the realm of jock jam, Americanized EDM or brostep would have been deeply disappointed. The closest act to those styles would have been Los Angeles-based Nosaj Thing, and it would be a stretch to say he’s even remotely comparable.