XLR8R Does Mutek 2008: Part 1

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For most visitors returning to Montreal’s MUTEK Festival this year, there’s an overwhelming sense that what was once a small annual gathering of chin-stroking glitch-techno aesthetes has now become an entirely different beast, not only in scale but in scope as well. That attempt to step out from behind the blue glare of laptops and break down any conventional definitions of electronic music was hardly an accident, MUTEK’s Artistic Director Alain Mongeau told us, and it’s led to a noticeable uptick in attendance and overall party atmosphere–no doubt a smart move for the festival, moving into its 10th year.

Case in point: MUTEK has been criticized in the past for ignoring its debt to Detroit techno. They’ve hosted the likes of Matthew Dear and Richie Hawtin (technically not a Detroiter) before, sure, but the style’s early innovators haven’t received much of a nod, until this year when both Carl Craig (who had to cancel his set late in the game) and Underground Resistance’s Interstellar Fugitives were booked to perform. The latter, we’re told by our moles on the inside, tore up the opening night party on Wednesday at Societé des Arts Technologique, with “Mad” Mike Banks and DJ Skurge augmenting their small, bandanna-masked crew with a vocalist, who chanted good old-fashioned Detroit techno-futurism rhetoric the way only descendants of Alvin Toffler and post-industrial cities can.

Night two’s main event at SAT paired Martin Tétrault’s high-art turntablism with crunchy, at times undanceable 4/4 techno from Chile’s Cristian Vogel, who debuted his The Never Engine live project with mixed results before Berlin’s Sleeparchive’s dense abstractions sent the thick crowd out into the darkness. Earlier in the evening, we caught more enlivening experimentalism at the Sonic Playground event at the University of Quebec’s Coeur des Sciences, where local Ben Shemie conducted an electro-acoustic performance for strings and laptop, and Martin Messier and Jacques Poulin-Denis took the idea of found-sound-meets-Office Space to the stage, outfitting themselves in bean-counter garb while mic-ing the scratches of pencils on paper and fingers on calculators.

Friday’s Nocturne evening at Metropolis brought even bigger surprises, not only for the fact that Montreal’s own scratch-master Kid Koala and turbo-crunk bass crew Megasoid drew folks from all spectra of city’s hip (and hip-hop) club scenes, but also because scalpers were selling off tickets at a premium out front. Yes, scalpers making bank at an abstract electronic music festival–hardly what the organizers might have guessed would come of their brainchild some nine years ago. Of course, headliners Modeselektor should be partly to blame, too, as they had the extremely sold-out crowd heaving and jerking until the dawning hours, with pal Pfadfinderei showering the LED walls with intense visuals and techno-simians Gernod and Szary showering the crowd with bottles of champagne. If there’s anything to take away from MUTEK 08’s first couple days it’s to forget everything you thought about MUTEK up to this moment–and start making plans for next year’s 10th-anniversary edition.