The first thing that gets your attention at MUTEK, even before you experience the music, is its clockwork efficiency. Drivers, merchandisers, sound and lighting technicians, curators, paid staff and volunteers are all wonderfully in sync. And all incredibly nice. The venues, nearly all central and walkable, are perfectly matched to human-scale Montreal urbanism. The only stage that takes an effort to get to is also the prettiest: the picnic grounds at Parc Jean-Drapeau on Isle Ste-Helene on the St. Lawrence River, accessible by boat, subway, and motorized or pedestrian bridges.
It was there that hundreds danced beneath a huge Alexander Calder sculpture, just down the path from the even more massive Biosphere designed by Buckminster Fuller for the 1967 World Expo. Sweden's Minilogue was on stage, live-jamming exquisite techno from the word go, as fans arrived from all directions, ducking raindrops in between trees and lovely architecture.
Minilogue is a versatile group on record, moving from acid trance to minimal to ambient with ease. But seeing them perform in this location, with the city's skyline at their backs, was sublime. They seemed to love it, too, feeding off the energy of the bodies gathering up front. Big ups for playing a crazy version of "My Teenager Gang."
This was Saturday, which began with a light mist, turned into a downpour, and opened up briefly with blue skies before the rains came again. The following day's picnic was a washout: the party was moved to the midtown club Metropolis.
Launched in 2000, MUTEK is a five-day festival held in seven locations, which means you can't see it all. Though it's not for lack of trying. In one notable instance, I had to choose either Demdike Stare or Actress, both going off at exactly the same time. I picked Demdike Stare—Manchester's Miles Whittaker and Sean Canty—making its North American debut. The group's music might be best described as autumnal ambient with elements of post-industrial noise. Whiffs of Basic Channel and Detroit dub techno (think Deepchord/Echospace/Mike Huckaby) lurk just below the surface. The shambolic program started patiently, tumbling forward as it went deeper, swirling with effects, all made coherent by buzzing bassline vibrations. Nasty stuff; all good.
King Midas Sound (in another North American premiere) jumped on stage only minutes later. Kevin Martin, appropriately wearing a Sun Ra Research t-shirt, performed in front of a huge mixing board, surrounded by a laptop, controllers, and other gear. Stage right, vocalists Roger Robinson and Hitomi joined him on mics, guitar, and keyboard.
King Midas Sound's Roger Robinson
The sound was immense, tracks from last year's stellar Hyperdub full-length Waiting for You making up a large portion of the set. This is hardly a large complaint, but the set worked more like a stage production by The Bug, Martin's ragga/dancehall project, rather than the more subtle soul-jazz vibe of the newer group. The voices had a tough time cutting through the thickening din, however tasty it was.
King Midas Sound's Kevin "The Bug" Martin
Ikonika finished the night with a DJ set that started on a UK ravy tip and remained there until I left. She was good, but the job following a live-wire techno animal like Martin is thankless. It's doubtful anyone can do it.
Other highlights included an improvisational set by the Moritz von Oswald Trio, which featured a dapper von Oswald decked out in a suit, flanked by Max Loderbauer (Sun Electric, nsi) and Sasu Ripatti (a.k.a. Vladislav Delay) on drums. The group borrowed phrases from its 2009 LP, Vertical Ascent, but altered them in a way that made them sound entirely new—more dub jazz than dub techno. It was a cool performance, maybe too cool for a hopped-up closing-night crowd prone to nervous chatter, bursting at the seams, ready to dance.
And dance they did from the first drop of Theo Parrish's needle to the last. It was an amazing performance by a vital DJ-artist in his prime. He played vinyl exclusively, no computers or Serato digital-mapping gear in sight, including records from his own Sound Signature catalog and other Detroit, Chicago, and New Wave hits (never thought "Bed's Too Big Without You" by The Police would ever sound so good again).
It was a stunning weekend of electronic music and electric people, the best combination there is for a winning series of parties, never mind the damn rain.
**Walter Wasacz's Nospectacle project also performed at this year's MUTEK.