Montreal, as just about anyone will tell you, is a special city. You feel it walking the streets, where the signs are in French and the attitude is Canadian but the cultures are from everywhere. You can get a hint of it from the local cuisines—the poutine and the bagels. You hear about it, with a quiet pride, from the residents, who will tell you about Montreal's unique street art or that the city is home to Canada's largest craft beer festival (as well as to some decidedly shitty non-craft beers).
Yet what really makes Montreal feel special is that it is a place where artistic opportunity seems so easily within reach. Not only can you point to the lineage of great artists who have come out of the city in recent years—Arcade Fire, Wolf Parade, Grimes, Mac DeMarco, Kaytranada—but connections to them are all over. Here's the building where Arcade Fire recorded Funeral! Here is the bar and restaurant that they opened just earlier this year (the DJs are excellent). The sidewalk in front of the late Leonard Cohen's house is now a gigantic memorial, filled with candles, flowers, cards, and a boom box playing music on loop. Beyond the big names, though, is a sense of some of what Cohen stood for, the idea of art as a calling. Montreal is more livable, less unforgiving than other large North American cities. It fosters its culture, and it makes the idea of being creatively involved seem imperative. Everyone seems to have a recording studio or an art space or a punk band—at least everyone I met through M for Montreal, the celebration of the city's music now celebrating its 11th year.
M is a venue for discovering great new music precisely because it embraces this understanding of the city as a gathering place for ideas, and it presents music from all over Canada and the world—although mostly Quebec itself—with an open mind. This year's installment was slimmer on big names than some past, but that meant that there were some welcome surprises hidden in the ranks. These were some of the highlights from this year's installment:
In an environment that involves watching lots of bands for days on end, there's a limit to how much jangly garage rock a person can take, or at least approach with any kind of excitement. So when I walked into FRIGS' show to the sound of relatively restrained guitars, I was less than enthused. Then singer Bria Salmela opened her mouth and let out something close to a death metal growl: Whoa. I was all in. This disjuncture makes FRIGS one of the most unique bands I've seen in a while. It's rare to find a similar vocal energy outside of the metal world; conversely, the backing, which soon swelled into a livelier psychedelia, was a welcome relief from the heavy monotony that constant riffs can sometimes engender. What FRIGS offered instead was a boil of anger and aggression with just the right amount of restraint to pull it back and give it a satisfying depth. Salmela ended the performance walking over the tables near the stage and into the crowd, but it didn't feel like unearned pandering for energy; it was the only logical conclusion for music that knows just how to get in your face in a way that makes you want to join the team and fight all your fights together. We've been talking this band up for a while now on Noisey; allow me to join the chorus of recommendation.
Almost certainly the week's most talked-about performer was Bernardino Femminielli, which says, well, something. I'm still not even sure I enjoyed his performance, but I didn't not enjoy it, either. Femminielli took the stage with two male musicians in Little Red Riding Hood drag behind him playing music off of iPads and a lone synthesizer, while he wore an open-chested tan suit and a cowboy hat and spent the performance mostly groaning into the microphone. It was, in the loosest sense, somewhere in the realm of a new wave or darkwave sound, but the music was almost beside the point. Femminielli pulled out a suitcase full of clothes and threw them around, blew up a blow-up doll, gestured wildly with a dildo, and ultimately enacted an uncomfortably forceful seduction with one of the Red Riding Hoods. What did it mean? Who the fuck knows. But it was riveting to watch.
It's always a good sign, in my eyes, when people get up to leave the room the instant a band starts playing, and with the first heavy notes of Greys' set, that's exactly what happened. Several tables of people at Café Cleopatre—which is a strip club and had previously played host to the decidedly off-putting Bernardino Femminielli, so not exactly home to a schoolmarm-ish crowd—cleared out, scared by the loudness of it. Me, meanwhile? I was pinned to the wall as if I'd been pushed back there by the waves of noise, which in a sense I was. I woke up the next morning ears still pounding. Between the loudness driving stragglers away and the fact that the band played at 2 AM, the audience was decidedly small, but Greys tore into the set like they were playing a stadium nonetheless—also always a good sign in my eyes.
I expected Greys to be intense, but I was expecting a more traditional hardcore approach—I clearly didn't take the noise part of the noise-punk label they are often given seriously enough. Instead it was an exercise in guitar tones, with the band wringing more sound out of their spare setup than seemed possible. If you've ever thought you were kinda punk, that you liked the bratty onstage energy of emo, but that you wanted to feel like you were being clubbed in the face with a guitar while it was being performed, I can't recommend this band enough. Go see Greys fucking immediately.
Camille Poliquin of Milk & Bone has a hell of a voice, and in that group, with its minimalist electronic palette, it is always front and center. In her recorded output as KROY so far, Poliquin hasn't necessarily indicated a huge departure from that approach—one of her first releases was a cover of Adele's "Hello"—but in her live show she becomes transformed, an avatar of a bigger sound. KROY takes on a surprisingly expansive tone live, swelling in huge melodic synth crashes and lingering on basslines. Poliquin's voice keeps pace with them, but it doesn't have to be the main attraction. With so many festival organizers in attendance at M, festival booking was on my mind, and I imagine KROY would be a hit in that setting, a perfect union for the kids looking for fist-pumping bass and the ones looking for an introspective vocalist. Poliquin likes to tout her goth instincts, but KROY is too high energy for that label in a strictly historical sense. If the new new wave sounds like this, we're in good shape, though: Black clothes would look pretty cool with some glowsticks as accent pieces.
I first met some of the members of Zen Bamboo, Simon and Xavier, two nights before their show. We were all waiting to see Greys upstairs at Café Cleopatre, the aforementioned strip club, and they seemed to be just about the only guys in the room still full of energy at 2 AM. They excitedly cornered me and told me about their band—"it's a great story, some young French Canadian guys!"—before diving into the mosh pit for Greys when the set started. Let me rephrase that: They were, the two of them and later their band manager, the entirety of the mosh pit, headbanging and pushing at each other in the space between two tables at the front of the tiny crowd. You couldn't help but admire the enthusiasm.
Two days later, I caught their set, which was by far the most charming of the festival. Simon stepped up to the mic and introduced the band by saying, "We're 19 years old and, yes, we still live with our parents." Then they ripped into a set of blistering garage rock with such goofy joy that watching them felt like rediscovering the sound. Between songs, Simon offered endearing explanations, describing one song as a story of what would happen to Jesus if he came to America in 2016 (racial profiling at the border) and another as the band's "feminist anthem." He explained some songwriting philosophy by invoking a coffee table book of rock star tips from the lead singer of Simple Plan: "the first trick is you end the song with a 'yeah.' So that's what we did." He shouted out the drummer as just "Chaos." By the time they got the last song—about "World of Warcraft et le vrai amour" (World of Warcraft and true love)—the entire audience, including at least a few of the band members' parents, was practically in tears. Rock with a complete lack of cynicism is a beautiful thing, and that's exactly what this show was.
Photos by Vivien Gaumand, courtesy of M for Montreal
Kyle Kramer's keyboard is littered with sesame seeds from Fairmount Bagel. Follow him on Twitter.