I recently checked out a couple of major events on Montreal’s electronic music calendar: ÎleSoniq and MUTEK. On the surface the two have much in common: both bring techno to the masses with big budget, corporate-sponsored, multi-day festivals featuring world-class artists.
But the similarities end there. ÎleSoniq is basically an enormous “rave” with thousands of drunk twenty-somethings wearing backpacks and kandi bracelets, but MUTEK is a more subdued affair of experimental beats, “digital creativity, and electronic music.” Wearing all black is practically required, and it helps if you have a beard so you can stroke your chin while contemplating the fucked-up time signatures and avant-garde visuals.
For the festival’s 18th edition, MUTEK changed dates from spring to August and showcased some of the planet’s biggest techno cities with special theme nights. London was first in the spotlight, and a handful of forward-thinking artists from the UK capital were on hand. At the wonderful outdoor Experience Stage at Place des Festivals, house guru Bambooman lit up the night with deep and warm dance music that progressed from low key house to grime and funky beats. A London-themed drink, the “Londoneer,” was also on special.
Meanwhile at S.A.T., Graham Dunning put on a memorable performance using a DIY vinyl assemblage to create an unusual but strangely danceable music he calls “mechanical techno.” Dunning was a real mad genius who built tracks from loops created by stacking vinyl and dubplates on a turntable while electrical contacts triggered various instruments like synths and cowbells.
For those preferring more traditional dance grooves, Canadian producer Daphni, aka Caribou, rolled out an extended DJ set lasting over five hours at the newly rebranded M Telus. For MUTEK to have only one artist on the bill was extremely rare, as was the vintage-sounding disco and funk Daphni opened his set with. The music eventually progressed to harder and darker beats more suited to a techno night.
Thursday, Mexico City was in the spotlight, the drink special was a “Paloma,” and artists from south of the border dropped the modern sound of Mexican bass music. I started out at the Experience Stage where the Montreal’s Ouri played abstract and soulful beats, followed by the eclectic Mexico City producer Upgrayedd Smurphy, whose glitch and jungle rollers sounded fresh in the context of MUTEK’s usual techno selections. Smurphy, who released her second album HYPNOSYS earlier this year, ended with some fierce dub-grime and drum and bass.
MUTEK put a lot of effort into curating interesting events that explored different themes with artists whose styles complimented each other. Often, shows began with ambient or chill-out music and steadily built up the tension with progressively harder beats. At M Telus, Montreal’s France Jobin warmed up the crowd with a relaxing, minimalist ambient “sound sculpture.” I wanted to stick around for Norway’s dark ambient legend Deathprod, but the future sounds of Mexican bass were continuing at S.A.T. with Oly, who had the crowd on their feet dancing to an intense combination of techno, grime, and trap with some on-point Spanish vocals in the spirit of Mexico day.
Barcelona was in the spotlight on Friday, but my pick for the night was at M Telus with some deep and dark techno on the bill. After an opening set by Montréal-based duo Demora, Paris’ mysterious Polar Inertia played an intense, dark techno set so cold it sounded like it was from the North Pole. My pick of the evening was Brooklyn’s Aurora Halal, whose deep and acid-y techno sounded superb on the big system. The night ended with a highly anticipated live set by UK don Surgeon, an old school techno pioneer, collaborating with Lady Starlight, best known as Lady Gaga’s DJ and co-conspirator. The duo’s hard and upfront beats had the walls shaking, but I was still in awe of Halal, who I thought stole the evening.
With Berlin in the spotlight, Saturday was a big day. MUTEK typically books “live” electronic artists, as opposed to DJs, but when they do bring in a DJ-selector, you know it will be special. Berlin’s innovative DJ Sarah Farina took over the outdoor stage on a gorgeous late summer afternoon and delved into a deep and heavy dubwise sound she calls “rainbow bass.” Reggae’s modern German connection was on the soundsystem, and Farina dropped heavyweight jungle and dub, ending with a double shot of Mungo’s Hi Fi. I caught a few tracks by the Spanish-Norwegian duo N.M.O.’s live acid-house set, with their gear set up in the middle of the dancefloor so it seemed like they were right in the thick of the crowd.
The modern sounds of Berlin continued at S.A.T. where Driftmachine played a low-key set on analogue gear. But I was anticipating the return of Marie Davidson, half of the local duo Essaie Pas, who absolutely smashed it at last year’s MUTEK. The dark synth pop was sexy, and Davidson lit up the crowd by interacting with her fans overtop of the minimal beats.
Sunday was the big MUTEK takeover of Piknic Électronik. Although I was exhausted from five days of pounding techno, I wasn’t ready to throw in the towel. It was a beautiful, sunny day, and I was happy to be heading to Piknic’s outdoor venue rather than another night at an urban nightclub. And with U.S. tech house master Seth Troxler on the program, it was a memorable end to another great festival.
This being Bucketlist, I’ve focused on the music at MUTEK. But the event is much more than just a music festival. With innovative visual artists, art installations, and themed workshops, along with the musical performances, it’s more like a multidisciplinary event than a series of concerts. This year, the video and music artists were at different venues, meaning that I missed out on some stellar visual performances. On one hand, festival goers were probably disappointed that the music wasn’t always accompanied by creative visuals. But on the other hand, by focusing on music and ignoring the visuals I had the chance to appreciate the high quality programming without visual distractions.
Written by Rob Coles
*edited by Kate Erickson