Montreal’s MUTEK Festival (which partnered with the Elektra festival for this year’s EM15 presentation) is nothing if not inspiring. Whether through its scores of experimental A/Visions performances, its workshops with cutting-edge music-gear and software manufacturers, its star-packed panels and lectures, or its late-night gigs from dance music’s most respected names, there is much to get jazzed about. On our trip there last week, we caught a slew of performances, and, as is always the case, some really rose to the top. Here’s what inspired us the most.
Some stage shows rely on a truckload of gear; others require as little as a laptop. Heatsick (aka Steven Warwick) has yet another approach: use just a busted old Casio from the ‘80s. He’ll start by tapping out some rudimentary rhythm on the keyboards hexagonal drum pads and then just launch into weird chords and funky lo-fi riffs, looping everything as he goes.
It can sound tropical, Balearic—heck, even West African—but whatever the case, the effect is transformative and trance-inducing, especially when Warwick goes on multi-hour journeys. The imperfections are what drives this show forward, to a certain degree—like a DJ who struggles to mix seamlessly (clearly not Warwick’s intent), but has the most impeccable track selection. Heatsick’s performance style just goes to show that limiting yourself to one or two pieces of gear can bring out the best in both the equipment and your creativity. We wish we had Warwick’s actual MUTEK performance to show you, but since we don’t, have a gander at a recent Boiler Room set and be amazed.
AUDION (AKA MATTHEW DEAR)
Matthew Dear’s Audion guise is now 10 years old, and it’s grown up considerably—from a straight-ahead techno show to an all-out stage performance entitled Subverticul, whose set was designed by Vita Motus’ Heather Shaw (also responsible for Amon Tobin’s groundbreaking ISAM show). Dear told us in an interview (which you’ll see on DJ TechTools in the weeks to come) that he’s toned down his Audion sound, and that came across to a small degree in the live set. But you couldn’t help but focus on that immense Shaw-designed set: a sphere of connected Audion “A”s made of LED-stripped material that reflected some amazing projections that were, of course, synched with Dear’s booming techno.
Audion is no longer the small club production it once was. It’s poised and presented for larger audiences (in this case at Montreal’s Metropolis venue), but its scaled-up presentation, which hits Barcelona’s Sonar Festival next, is one for the books. Rarely do “underground” artists step out from the darkened stage quite like this, and Dear’s foray into large-scale stage performance was triumphant.
Brooklyn trio Archie Pelago has the added performative bonus of being three moving bodies onstage—which naturally makes for a pretty animated live show, no matter the setting. Hirshi runs the trumpet and turntables, Cosmo D kills on the cello and Ableton programming, and Kroba soothes with some crazy sax solos. These guys clearly come from classical and jazz instrument training, but where they take those instruments is another world entirely. A pastiche-y FlyLo approach takes them in all sorts of new beat directions, all skittering drum patterns, syncopated rhythms, and gorgeously treated samples, both pre-recorded and made on-the-fly for an at-times ravey experience. Sure, it’s three young guys doing a whole lot on stage, but that laptop plays just as central a role in this top-notch performance.
When MUTEK started 15 years ago, much of the underground dance world was focused dub- and minimal techno. And around that time, Greece’s Fluxion, who comes from the Basic Channel/Chain Reaction camp of thoughtful techno, was making some of the best deep, spatial sounds on earth. Fittingly, his set at the Musee d’Art Contemporain during this year’s MUTEK reflected those origins; he pummeled the crowd with deep yet slinky dubbed-out techno and ambient for a throwback mix that had the dancefloor packed.
MUTEK has a history of bringing the high-art and dance-music worlds together, particularly through complex—and complicatedly executed—stage productions. Their A/Visions series of early-evening events find folks like Ricardo Villalobos not rocking a dancefloor, but quietly performing a lush soundscape in an auditorium while thrilling visuals rush behind him—in other words, this is techo for the sit-down crowd. Montreal’s Tim Hecker, though, provided one of the most exhilarating A/V shows, but not in the way one might expect. Rather than the usual little fog machines that spew a poof here and there, Hecker’s Fog Works set filled the entire basement of the city’s contemporary art museum so that you literally couldn’t see more than a foot in front of you—and yes, wayfinding was a challenge. But while attendees (who mostly sat on the floor to avoid tripping over one another) were quite literally shrouded in fog, they were aurally assaulted by Hecker’s abrasive but enthralling noise/ambient sounds. It was a multisensory experience unlike any other.
Check out more from Audion, Heatsick, Archie Pelago, Fluxion, and Tim Hecker.
(Photos by Caroline Hayeur and Jean Seb Roux)