Now in its 17th year, Montreal's MUTEK is one of the most well-regarded and carefully curated electronic music festivals worldwide, with each edition having a different vibe than the previous one. The 2016 version—which ran June 1-5 in several downtown venues across the city—was no exception, with a lineup of dark and challenging techno, drone, and out-there experimentalism. Stacked with established Canadian and international artists, including a slew of up-and-coming acts, this year's MUTEK tended to dwell on the dark and brooding.
Still, there were plenty of straight up party sets, including Galcher Lustwerk, Jlin, Powell's nutty "chavstep," and Sunday's all-star Boiler Room. From experimental A/V sets to veteran performers at the top of their game, here's some the best things we saw over the five days.
Day 1 – Wednesday
The opening night got off to a flying start with Montreal A/V collective susy.technology, which includes Milo Reinhardt and Xavier Léon, best known for their previous work as the duo Sibian & Faun. Serving up an immersive audiovisual experience, they made full use of the projections that filled the walls of the main room at the Musée d'art Contemporain (MAC). Their dark, grinding atmospherics drew influence from a wide range of artists, including Erik Satie, Roly Porter, and Emptyset. The music was augmented by a highly textural visual backdrop, consisting of fragments of cut-up text that created a paranoiac diorama suggesting a sinister interference, hacking, and alien technologies.
Aïsha Devi, Atom™, and Lee Gamble kept the evening running, before ending with a luscious DJ set by veteran German producer Moritz von Oswald, who was called in at the last minute to replace Ash Koosha. Opening with subterranean dub and trance, the Basic Channel co-founder threaded unlikely combinations together that brought to mind some freak music taxidermy, like a dog head sewn onto the body of a bear. Letting woozy strains of piano house creep in, his selections got slowly more claustrophobic as the set went on.
Day 2 – Thursday
The second day of MUTEK began on the outside stage with notable acts including Alexander Cowan of Canadian duo Blue Hawaii and Frits Wentink of Amsterdam's Will & Ink, the latter keeping the sunny afternoon buzz going with a chill house set.
In the MAC main room, Mexican audiovisual artist Laura Luna started off the nighttime programming by weaving some incredibly hypnotic loop-based electroacoustic bliss. Sarah Davachi's resonant circular ambient drone tones filled the space wall-to-wall, creating an immersive bath of sound that was seductively meditative, akin to a Tibetan singing bowl. Canadian composer and frequent Tim Hecker collaborator Kara-Lis Coverdale followed with a New Age-leaning performance full of breathy vocal samples, Eastern scales, and strings.
One of the highlights of the night, at least in terms of spectacle, was trance veteran Lorenzo Senni. Launching his set with bombastic air raid sirens, it was if he built a rave sample pack of breakdowns and builds, and then decided to play the whole thing end-to-end. Sitting motionless while swigging copious amounts of Red Bull, he seemed to enjoy trolling the crowd with isolated fragments of every cliché of electronic music histrionics. After an hour, Senni stood, grinned, and walked off stage as ceiling-mounted fog machines noisily filled the venue for several minutes to the alternately bemused and amused audience.
Whether the descending fog was deliberately part of the Italian artist's "fuck you" set or it was merely the A/V technicians eager to set the mood for Tim Hecker, the room quickly packed with people and smoke. The Canadian sound artist appeared centre stage in a barely perceptible silhouette as blue and red LEDs cut through the fog. Drawing on material from his latest album Love Streams, Hecker's new songs trade the dynamism and power of 2011's Ravedeath, 1972, in favour of baroque musicality. Time appeared to collapse into itself as the drone and subtle MFO light show cut through the mist, enveloping the crowd.
Day 3 – Friday
Starting off the night at Métropolis, veteran Hamilton, Ontario duo Orphx warmed up the room with a well-received set. Building discordance into banging techno, they made it easy for Lakker to carry the crowd with their dubby, dark yet hook-laden techno.
Back over at MAC, Jlin had bodies moving to her fractured footwork beats, flashing an infectious grin and pumping her fist. With a sub-bass so intense I thought my phone was going off in my pocket while it was in my hand, the Indiana producer started the party at 10, and kept it dialled there.
Closing out the main room at Métropolis was New York DJ and producer Function. Relying heavily on material from his eerie 2013 album Incubation, Dave Sumner's set was surprisingly funky, with welcomes touches of acid creeping in and some nice percussive work on the Roland towards the end. The only artist at the festival without the Apple logo on his laptop crossed out with black tape, he's clearly less into negation and this positivity came across in his set.
Day 4 – Saturday
A big part of MUTEK has always been the theatre-based A/V programming, with one standout of Saturday evening's presentation being Paul Jebanasam and Tarrik Barri's Continuum. Sounding something like William Basinski's Disintegration Loops on steroids, Barri's beautifully abstract images were like red hot iron filings under a spot welder, full of implosions, sparks, and meteors.
From the first second of the first piece in the suite, it felt like traveling down a wormhole at a billion miles per hour, with a violence that was at once moving and thrilling. Evoking the awe-inspiring feeling of being present for a singularity, perhaps the birth of the universe, there was a unnameable sadness at its core, evoking simultaneous destruction and creation.
Following Montreal husband-and-wife duo Essai Pas, Powell walked out wearing a chav uniform of white cap and white t-shirt to begin a demented set of post-modern rave. Hunched over his gear, he mashed up hip-hop beats and raw guitar riffs, zany spoken word samples, and more. Like his buddy and Hot Shotz collaborator Lorenzo Senni, the Diagonal label boss was clearly taking the piss, but the crowd was on his side regardless.
The highlight of the evening without a doubt though was Galcher Lustwerk's two-and-a-half hour DJ set. Beginning more experimentally, he hit a beautiful techno groove and kept steady. Heavily percussive, the White Material Records torchbearer kept it in the pocket for an impressive duration, mindful of the crowd. Incorporating Latin rhythms and judicious use of 808 claps, keeping everybody moving, he held back on the multi-genre craziness and MC-ing for this particular set. He continued until 3 AM, long after the venue locked the doors, leaving anyone that popped out for a smoke or fresh air stranded outside.
Day 5 – Sunday
As is MUTEK tradition, it rained on the final day, forcing the cancellation of the outdoor Piknic Electronik at Parc Jean-Drapeau. For those lucky enough to get in, help was at hand in the Satosphere—the Société des Arts Technologiques' modular dome— for Boiler Room's daytime event. Shigeto opened with a stunning performance, a mixture of his own material, a DJ set, and of course some live drumming and keyboard work. Sepalcure, local lads Iron Galaxy, and Martyn followed, keeping the crowd moving, and providing a more than acceptable way to avoid the incessant rain. All it needed to make it perfect was a side room of ambient chill out. Why does nobody do chill out rooms anymore?
As the Boiler Room crowd filtered into the MAC, nighttime proceedings were initiated by Canadian cellist Julia Kent. Shoeless and sitting with her cello in a dimly lit room with simple projections of smoke behind, her sombre yet beautiful music felt relaxing, freeing and a welcome break from all the partying. After the first track, Kent told the crowd, "Feel free to dance or nap, as you wish," as she triggered and recorded loops by playing her controller with her right foot.
The most unique and impressive set of the night was Flanger, a collaboration between Germany's Atom™ and Burnt Friedman. With a mess of modular synths, laptops, and mixers set up on a plinth that was wheeled to in the middle of the room, they made full use of the quadrophonic speakers by bouncing their refreshingly organic and uncompressed sounds around the room. Staccato samples of individually picked strings, rising ride cymbals and percussive textures made it feel super jazzy.
Bringing the festival to a close was Montreal's current hot property, Project Pablo, who played a live set of warm and fuzzy slow jams, going back between the keyboard and the mixer with a natural fluidity. The simplicity, warmth and Balearic dreaminess combined to make it the perfect Sunday soundtrack bringing MUTEK to a comforting and safe landing.
Vincent Pollard is on Twitter.