Friday, February 21, 2014

Currente calamo: Wavelength FOURTEEN Festival (Night 3)

FOURTEEN: The Wavelength 14th Anniversary Festival

While it's all fresh in my mind, a few notes from this year's WL Fest. Longer, more comprehensive reviews will follow down the road a piece in some far, theoretical future.

Wavelength's annual February festival was a window to the change and continuity from the evolving institution, whose adolescent years are seeing it shift from volunteer collective to professional non-profit organization. The months following last summer's final ALL CAPS! festival saw some long-time organizers stepping back from the group while co-founder Jonny Dovercourt (thanks to a grant from the Ontario Trillium Foundation) remains to steer the ship in a full-time capacity.

The extra resources mean that the festival was a smooth-running affair, though at a few points I missed the rough-around-the edges scrappy spirit of the series' DIY days. (Where have you gone, Doc Pickles? Wavelength nation turns its lonely eyes to you, ooh-woo-woo.) But this was still an essential weekend of presenting some of the city's best emerging talent to a larger audience.

Night 3 — Saturday, February 15, 2014

SPK Polish Combatants Hall — feat. Colin Stetson / US Girls / Biblical / Petra Glynt / Gambletron

The Venue & the vibe: After the vague discomfort I'd felt throughout the night before down in the club district, the concrete bunker at Beverley Street felt like a sweet homecoming. There's just something comforting about a place where you can tell old men gather together to drink. And though there was a full house, it never felt crowded, with little nooks and crannies that people could retreat to to hang out if they didn't want to be near the stage. Without a PA system of its own (though Wavelength set up an excellent one for the night), this is probably fated to remain an underused venue, which is just too damn bad — this was my favourite night of the festival.

The show:

I came in without having done any research on Montréal's Gambletron, so I pleased to get something a bit weirder than I was expecting. Taking over a semi-circle on the floor in front of the stage was a table full of electronic gear, plus radios, antennas extended to the sky. More radios littered the floor, and as the set started, Gamble walked around, turning them on and unleashing a humming drone as she chatted through a mic hooked to a portable radio slung over her shoulder. The set would consist of noise from motion-activated sensors (one concealed in a crocheted statue near the audience), something that sounded like a colecovision in its death throes, those radios on the table converted to homemade theremins, and occasional distorted beats. All of which was joined by Johnny Fever's video installation, with images (a shimmying woman; the full moon; twisting yarn) that hinted at themes without needing to connect the dots too explicitly. All told, it was experimental, arty and abrasive — maybe not entirely user-friendly to those uninitiated to this sort of stuff, but I'm glad that there's room for noise at Wavelength.

Listen to a song from this set here.

Alexandra MacKenzie, who performs as Petra Glynt also brought a strong visual element to her set, thanks to Steve Reaume's generative visuals. Beaming up on her from below, they not only created intricate features on her face and dress, but created striking giant silhouettes on the screen behind her. MacKenzie, meanwhile, sounded as good as I've ever heard her, presenting the tunes from her Of This Land tape with casual ease. There was even the début of an ace new song that augurs well for her forthcoming album.

Listen to a song from this set here.

House visualist General Chaos finally took centre stage behind Biblical, and his abstract swirling light painting projections fit right in with the quartet's hard rock psych choogles. It's fairly amusing to note that at Wavelength a band channelling classic rock is the outsiders — but even if the band (whose forthcoming Monsoon Season album seems destined for big things) is keeping different company lately (they've been playing with Death From Above 1979 and Monster Truck, for example), these guys are all Wavelength vets many times over.

Listen to a track from this set here.

I was expecting that it would be a ninety-degree musical turn from Biblical to U.S. Girls, but Meg Remy defied expectations by bringing a new incarnation of her live unit and a sound laced with unexpected heaviousity. (Simone TB's drums and Tim Westberg's driving bass were the main ingredients there.) Organized around the theme of "love songs", Remy performed an all-new set of covers, but pretty much none of it was obvious selections. (Wings' album track "Nineteen Hundred and Eighty-Five" was maybe the least obscure thing here.) The set might have lacked the "hits" from Remy's own catalogue, but the set certainly showed off the creative restlessness that's going to keep pushing her forward.

Listen to a song from this set here.

When Colin Stetson took the stage and picked up his bass saxophone, there were a few audible gasps in the crowd. That thing is so massive, it really does take one by surprise the first time around. The sheer physical fact of his live presentation, with its marathons of circular breathing driving the continuous wall of sound, generates a sense of spectacle that almost distracts from the actual music. But close your eyes and feel it pulse over you and it remains powerful stuff. Stetson occupies a place similar to the night's opener (and, it turns out him and Gamble have played together) in that he's perceived as far too weird for the pop crowd while experimental musicians look at his stuff like some sort of lowest common denominator party trick, too reliant on conventional melodic song structures to be truly interesting. But this stuff has the capability to expand people's perceptions of what music can be — and if one person out a hundred who is hearing Stetson becomes curious enough to explore music at the further fringes, then that's a net victory, and the exact sort of thing that Wavelength is all about.

Listen to a song from this set here.

Bonus! Check out some more photos from the festival over at the MFS Facebook page.

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