From this week's Earplug:
For years, Montreal's MUTEK festival felt like an upstart — an isolated outpost for experimental electronic music and the kind of more populist (but hardly popular) club fare that's perpetually struggled to convince North Americans of its relevance. But, after eight annual installments and numerous satellite projects (in Mexico, Chile, Argentina, India, China, Berlin, and elsewhere), this year's event reached a sort of critical mass, boasting both the smoothest delivery and most diverse offerings in the history of the event.
A case in point, Underground Resistance supergroup Interstellar Fugitives are far from the MUTEK norm: their opening-night performance integrated smoke machines, angry political sloganeering, dystopian sci-fi projections, masks, and five men clothed in all black. For nearly 90 minutes, the group kept a small throng stage-front at the warehouse-like SAT space, covering material from 2006 UR label compilation Interstellar Fugitives 2, a stylistic hodgepodge that runs from brooding downtempo to kicked-up Detroit techno. Special mention goes to MIA, on drum pads, and hypeman Atlantis (we think — they were masked with blindfolds for much of the time). We were definitely feeling the rejection of personality and injection of politics into dance music that UR represents. Put against something as flashy and indulgent as Modeselektor's set two nights later, it gave the five-night MUTEK party some gravity.
More so than in recent years, dub, breaks, and digi-crunk were also on prominent display. Friday's Nocturne offered a reprieve from the 4/4 techno onslaught with performances from hometown turntablist-done-well Kid Koala as well as Megasoid and Knifehandchop. Fresh from the success of Happy Birthday! and seemingly nonstop global touring, Modeselektor grabbed the headline spot. While the act may have lacked the playful, on-the-fly spontaneity and jump-up/ragga stylings of earlier incarnations, the duo made up for it by the sheer size and impact of the performance, packing extra punch courtesy of larger-than-life visuals from Bpitch's in-house design team, Pfadfinderei.
Elsewhere, Flying Lotus made up for a rained-out Piknic Électronik with a stunningly powerful indoor set, focusing largely on improvised selections from his Reset EP and recently released Los Angeles LP. The set blurred the line between live performance and DJ set at times, as Lotus cut up and dropped in familiar breaks and bass lines from other artists' releases (he earned a significant crowd reaction to the razor-sharp hi-hats and familiar wood-block percussion of Burial).
Representing the full-on dubstep side of the equation, Kode9 and Spaceape played after a sleepy-yet-psychedelic run through the new Quiet Village record on !K7. Their performance had power, messianic incantations, and more than enough raw bass intensity to convert a completely new audience to the sound (it was apparent from the steady stream of people entering the room that word-of-mouth raves were working their way around).
Sometimes relegated to the daytime periphery of the festival (read: slept through by exhausted ravers), this year's experimental and ambient installments — which went under the rubric of "audio/visual" fusions — were particularly strong. On Thursday, Freida Abtan warped and melted artfully captured videos of classic and modern dance, while Thrill Jockey's Németh and Hess constructed a cinematic dialogue between analogue synthesizer and live jazz kit. The following evening, two boldfaced names in experimental electronic music catapulted MUTEK's audio/visual daytime sessions into a must-attend event. The sold-out performances emphasized so-called "post-guitar," with Canadian Tim Hecker playing the warm, radiant sounds of his latest LP, Harmony in Ultraviolet, while later, Christian Fennesz dropped processed, crystalline guitar textures in front of a cinema-sized backdrop of beautifully moody visuals.
Of course, there was plenty of "proper" dance music as well, ranging from the techno onslaught of Danton Eeprom and Radio Slave — the latter pulled off a two-hour set on borrowed CDs after the airline lost his record bags — to more intimate post-minimal from Half Hawaii (Bruno Pronsato and Perlon's Sammy Dee) and Dave Aju. For a laptop performer, Aju is a treat to watch, grinning, bopping, and chanting along to oddball minimal tracks heavy on jazz sax samples, off-kilter, organic beats, and big, pillowy synth lines. Aju's forte is rubbery, funky songs that recall Kit Clayton when he's being floaty. The Savoy, a small, carpeted side room adjacent to Metropolis' bi-level space, was immediately thrumming with bodies and, soon enough, sprouted a queue that wouldn't abate all weekend.
Sunday dawned grey, but it wasn't enough to deter several hundred celebrants from flocking to a riverside park, umbrellas and all, to dance beneath an enormous Calder stabile during sets from Nôze, Ernesto Ferreyra, Onur Özer, and Mathias Kaden. No matter that the lineup had been programmed with sun in mind; Ózer and Kaden's three-hour tag-team set closed out the festival like a rain dance in reverse, with congas and African chants raised like invocations for the precipitation to abate. By nightfall, it mostly had.
-Michael Byrne, Colin J. Nagy, and Philip Sherburne