POP Montreal is a difficult thing to describe concisely. Now entering its 15th season, the five-day independent music festival features a staggeringly diverse line up of over 400 acts touching every sub-genre of music, even the ones you make up on the fly in order to seem both hip and/or with it during conversations on the internet. If there is one thread that ties the disparate acts of POP Montreal together, it is a sense of musical exploration. Regardless of genre, weird, challenging, and innovative win over shiny, new, and easily digestible. So it was no surprise that one of POP Montreal’s heavier shows featured three bands who revel in dodging easy classification.
Despite some pre-set amp issues that briefly delayed their start time, Montreal’s Dark Circles potent opening salvo gripped the audience by the throat and refused to let go until all of the head bangs been extracted. I have seen Dark Circles in concert on many occasions, and each time the band seems to further hone its ferocious intensity to an even more lethal sharpness. While the main components of Dark Circles’ sound are firmly rooted in epic, Tragedy-style d-beat that marries stampeding percussive fury with grandiose harmonic chord progressions, the group also incorporates subtle dashes of black metal, crust, and “dark” hardcore. The group took few breaks during their forty-minute set. “We don’t talk much,” joked lead singer/guitarist Jaime Thomas while thanking the audience, before diving into the remainder of their performance.
After a fairly lengthy change over, an eerie intro track that sounded like broken glass being sucked through a straw emanated from the house speakers before Michigan’s Cloud Rat began their set. Similar to Dark Circles, Cloud Rat don’t fit neatly into a singular sub-genre; grindcore acts as the band’s starting point, but the songs often pull from a wide swath of influences including crust punk, black metal, and powerviolence. The opening tune’s blistering speed quickly gave way to a satisfyingly sludgy riff that provoked the initially inert crowd into motion (Read: people went ape shit). Fundamental to Cloud Rat’s crushing attack was the masterclass performance from drummer Brandon Hill, whose seemingly effortless technical playing weaved truly Byzantine complexity into the music without taking any pressure off the gas pedal. The songs also felt incredibly full for a three-piece group , especially considering Rorik Brooks was the only person on stage with a stringed instrument. But what stood out most to me about Cloud Rat’s performance was the emotional complexity of the music. Driven by singer Madison Marshall’s tortured screams, Cloud Rat deftly marry grind’s typical hate and anger with notes of sorrow and melancholy. As the band finished their last song, I ran to their merch table and quickly filled a gap in my music library.
As the evening’s headlining act Wolves in The Throne Room took the stage, smoke machines enveloped the now massive audience in a thick haze, creating the perfect conditions for WITTR’s atmospheric black-metal assault. The audience pushed towards the stage as Nathan Weaver’s guitar rang out a lone, sustained note before the band launched into “Queen of Borrowed Light,” the title track from their newly remastered first album Diadem of 12 Stars. Eschewing traditional black metal’s Satanic accouterments, WITTR’s music is ethereal, complicated, and contemplative, while retaining the genre’s familiar tremolo-picked guitar riffs and blasting drums. The band also does a great job of balancing hypnotic atmosphere with powerful bravado. The opening austere frostiness of “Vastness and Sorrow” gave way to a legitimately gnarly riff that sent all three guitarists’ beautiful locks into spin cycle mode. These tonal shifts also kept the music from feeling stale or repetitive, which was especially impressive considering WITTR’s song’s regularly clock in past the twelve-minute mark. This may seem like a minor point, but I was actually impressed with the band’s collective endurance level. They played incredibly lengthy songs for over an hour with minimal breaks; Weaver used the sporadic pauses between songs to blow a billowing plume of incense smoke over the audience, further intensifying the room’s haziness. It takes a tonne of stamina, but the band remained in fine form throughout the show.
While the YouTube comments section may have a decidedly different opinion, it is always refreshing to hear extreme music that challenges convention and pushes boundaries. Thankfully, there’s only 362 days till POP Montreal 2017!
Written by Jesse Gainer
Photography by Nathan Hum
*edited by Kate Erickson