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MONTREAL: THE NEXT WAVE IS COMING!

Elsianecrop Whither the new Arcade Fire? That’s what the record industry wanted to know, so they set up a SXSW in Canada’s second city and invited some bands (including the promising Elsiane, pictured) to scrap it out for $5000 in tour support. MOJO’s Andy Fyfe attended the second M For Montreal to find that there may still be something in the water.

Click MORE for the winners and losers, in MOJO’s mind…

IF YOU LOVE CONCRETE, you really have to see Montreal. They love the stuff. Well, their architects do anyway. Perched in the middle of the river island city is its most iconic structure, the 1976 Olympic Stadium, a building that resembles an earthly version of the xenomorph spacecraft in Alien.

Though magnificent, it’s always been a problem child. The Olympic Games nearly bankrupted the city, exacerbated by labour strikes during construction of the stadium which delayed installation of its retractable Kevlar roof and the finishing of the tower until 1987. Even then, the roof couldn’t be retracted in winds over 25mph and actually ripped in higher winds. Elsewhere in the city is the swish and sleek Opus Hotel, the first building in North America to be constructed, in 1914, with poured concrete.

Such quirks are not surprising in Montreal, a city caught between two worlds but a member of neither. Its French roots, and those of its mother province Quebec, are so strong it still causes the rest of Canada to grudgingly pretend to be bilingual, while its native inhabitants are fiercely loyal to the city, province and country, strictly in that order.

Melissa Auf De Mar, lucky enough to be the bass player in two of the most dysfunctional bands of the ‘90s – Hole and Smashing Pumpkins – is one such native. Possibly the nicest woman in rock, how she survived alongside the egos of Courtney Love and Billy Corgan is one of the modern world’s great mysteries. But it means she qualifies as the perfect ambassador for M For Montreal, a music industry conference dedicated to finding the local acts most likely to succeed on the world’s stages and bringing the world to see them. In its inaugural year in 2006 it introduced Patrick Watson and The Besnard Lakes as Canada’s next big things, to follow in the footsteps of other recent Montreal finds The Arcade Fire and Malajube.

This year, in front of intrepid European media, representatives of the world’s biggest festivals – including Glastonbury and South By Southwest – and assorted industry bigwigs from Scandinavia, Spain, Austria, France, Holland, Germany, Australia and New Zealand, M For Montreal showcased the cream of the local talent. With a policy that nobly pushes none of the organisers’ agendas – who all also act as managers, bookers, PRs and agents in the local industry - the range of acts is surprisingly diverse, from metal to indie to trip hop to pop to (actually rather appalling) hip hop.

Split over two nights it’s a marathon of eight bands a night, the acts showing alternately at two adjacent venues. At a pint (and a crafty outside fag) per band, it becomes a gruelling, though far from unpleasant, piece of trans-global networking. In fact, I can now drunkenly gush “You’re my besht mate” in eight languages. At stake for the bands is a showcase at next year’s Great Escape festival in Brighton plus money for a European tour, voted for by the overseas delegates. There can be only one…

Chocolat

Chocolat manfully grasp the shitty opening act stick and risk being forgotten by the time number 16 rolls by. Quite simply, they are one of the highlights. Imagine Bob Dylan fronting The Yardbirds in 1964 at The Crawdaddy Club. The drawback – as with many Montreal acts – is their insistence on singing almost exclusively in French, but the quality of Jimmy Hunt’s vocals and Dale MacDonald’s modish guitar, not to mention his snappy black polo neck/suit combo, could transcend the snob element at any Northern Soul club.

If you like songs about fairies living in walls you may like Plants And Animals. The acoustic-ish three-piece play brilliantly, full of jazzy drum slides and exquisitely plucked and picked guitar, but there are no tunes and no focus.

Wearewolves

We Are Wolves are probably the nearest thing Montreal has to a successor to The Arcade Fire, a self-proclaimed “gang of three – four if you include rock”. If The Klaxons were French Canadian (although WAW are pragmatic enough to also sing in English), and had The Beta Band’s sense of drama, something of this artrock trio would be approached. With giant cut-out cardboard skulls attached to their backs by poles, they tear through a half hour set of exhilarating, pounding post-punk rock.

As you’d expect from the name, Priestess represent Montreal’s metal community. Drummer Vince Mudo is Ian Paice-quick around his kit – and sports magnificent Matt Sorum-like hair – but the rest of the band are caught somewhere between Black Sabbath and Pantera, but quite useless at both. Their inappropriate Pink Floyd T-shirts merely highlights the confusion.

Torngat, named for a dramatic range of mountains on the Labrador Peninsula (it means “spirits” in Inuktitut), are a very tasteful post-rock trio who prefer to call their gigs “spectacles”. The band base everything around a French horn, immediately reducing their music to a series of interludes which have as much trouble reaching a useful conclusion as a 14-year-old trying to wank while his mum knocks on the bathroom door.

Bloodshotbill

If MOJO Award winner Seasick Steve has ever floated your boat, meet his Elvis-inspired cousin Bloodshot Bill. Every country in the world seems to have a brimstone-breathing one-man band, but Bill’s hectic rockabilly, complete with “thangyoumam” and a quick comb of the quiff after each song are wonderfully singular, like a WWII sweater girl cartoon drawn by Robert Crumb.

Les Breastfeeders, are no cartoon, in spite of the name. Their nearest contemporaries would be The Hives, all angular, grinding garage punk, but they have two problems: an adherence to French and their tambourine player/dancer, the half-clad and disquieting figure of Johnny Maldoror. If you’re going to have a Bez in the band, have Bez. Happy Mondays need their talismanic drug Tardis to make up for the rest of the band’s static performance, but Les Breastfeeders have no such deficiencies and therefore no need of a man who makes The Childcatcher seem as disturbing as Pooh Bear.

Last of the night’s by now blurry acts is Numero. Let’s be honest here: not even the French can do French rap with any conviction, and Canada is hardly a gangsta concept. It just wouldn’t work, even if the beats or music were any good. And they’re not.

IF DAY ONE SUGGESTED MONTREAL was hardly awash with new talent, day two is an embarrassment of riches. For Krief, rock is a serious business. Mostly a vehicle for Patrick Krief, here unrestrained by the collective approach of his other band, The Dears, Krief rock out like punk never happened, his bass player the individual highlight of the festival, his facial expressions running the gamut from Derek Smalls to, well, Derek Smalls. Celestial keyboards fill the gaps between screaming Hendrix guitar, all heads tilted to the heavens, eyes closed, a Lenny Kravitz it’s very OK to like.

Shapesandsizes

Which makes the job for Shapes And Sizes even more difficult than their awful music already has. A haphazard-looking collection of boy-girl geeks with a superiority complex – like social workers retrained as librarians – their ramshackle indie music is supposed to be nimble and arch, but is more like a bad fourth form music class project.

Mainstream pop-rock is the territory occupied by Hot Springs an act viewed with some suspicion by their peers as a record company fake. It’s easy to see why. Giggling singer and songwriter Giselle Webber has all the hallmarks of a plastic pop princess – slightly dirty good looks, a quirky dress sense that could have been advised by a stylist and the impression that she might be “highly strung” – and will no doubt receive the lion’s share of the attention, but Hot Springs is a band effort. Drummer Anne Gauthier and looming bassist Frederic Suave are a dynamic rhythm section, while Webber’s performance, all manic warbling and foal-like stamping, justifiably takes centre stage. If it seems a little too much like a corporate idea of rock’n’roll danger well, get off your high horse Mr Indieboy.

Karkwa

Being tagged the “Canadian Radiohead” is a likely albatross for Karkwa. The five-piece make a stately, prog-ish sound not unlike their Oxford forebears, but have little of Thom Yorke’s nervy angst. Or, at least, they seem to have little of it: once again there’s that language barrier to overcome if they want to break out of their home country. But they may just leap that fence through the sheer atmosphere of their moving, melancholy sound.

Atmosphere is a major component of the extraordinary Elsianne. A duo named – sort of – after singer Elsieanne Caplette, their vaguely trip-hoppy music cradling Caplette’s riveting voice, part Björk, part Beth Gibbons, part Liz Fraser, part Bobby McFerrin. The way she wails through crescendo after crescendo and beats her body like it’s a kettle drum is as striking as her appearance, her tiny form wrapped in a diva dress, seemingly foot-long lashes and nails sparkling like miniature glitterballs. There’s something devastating waiting to happen here, but it may need a strong-willed producer to winkle it out of them.

The Stills, perhaps the best-known band on the bill outside of Canada, are a group out of time, a classic alt-rock act that could have shown The House Of Love a clean pair of heals in 1989. Not for them the whims of jerky, punky fashion, their harmonies and chiming guitars are either 15 years behind the beat or five years ahead – only time will tell. Seamless guitar rock, and by God they throw everything into it with exuberance and joie de vivre.

In a move that will make anyone who’s watched the Will Ferrell-Christopher Walken “More Cowbell” sketch on YouTube explode with an excited “plock”, Creature feature possibly the only twin-cow bell attack in rock. Creature come as a fully formed funk B-52’s, with sharp clothes, boy-girl harmonies, a punky-pop funk swagger and sense of fun combining to make a Kid Creole show look a bit narcoleptic.

Which leaves just Thunderheist, who, despite the name, aren’t the solo project of some forgotten Zodiac Mindwarp henchman but a severely limited digital hip-hop act. Sampling Eurythmics’ Sweet Dreams is hardly cutting edge, and moaning about how hard it is to get anywhere in the industry when you’re both female and black isn’t going to endear you to an industry audience. Even so, it’s unlikely they’ll be gatecrashing any dubstep night near you soon.

And that, finally, was it. Blurry of vision, wheezy of lung and confused of mind, the overseas delegation voted, by some margin, to grant We Are Wolves the coveted Great Escape slot and $5000 (that’s $5000 Canadian) in tour support.

Montreal had offered a rich tapestry over two days, but the most successful groups were the ones true to the fractured personality of their home city - We Are Wolves, Creature, Krief, Karkwa and maybe Elisiane – while those who grappled with imported concepts – Preistess, Numero, Thunderheist – struggled to impress the world at large.

M For Montreal is a bold concept – few cities in the world have such a heightened sense of individuality to dare be so hubristic, and even fewer have such a fertile breeding ground for music. A band like The Arcade Fire, who may not reinvent the rock wheel but have certainly modified its design, may come along only a few times in a generation, but the little brothers and sisters from their hometown are growing up fast.

More on M For Montreal at mformontreal.com

Posted by Danny Eccleston at 12:38PM | Categories: Opinion