Saturday, April 16, 2011

Canada's Radiant Sounds

When you think of the world’s most vital and interesting “bass music,” certain hotspots are bound to come to mind: London, Bristol, San Francisco, LA, New York, Moscow, and hell, a case could even be made for Poland with its weird UK Funky/garage hybrids.  But does anyone think of Canada? Always in the shadow of its bigger neighbour, it seems almost inevitable that Canada’s contributions would be ignored in favour of America’s, or simply subsumed into one North American post-dubstep-diaspora (to borrow Michaelangelo Matos’ wonderful phrase that I will continue to borrow for many years to come), but given the extreme amount of exciting music that seems to be oozing from the country’s pores (after, arguably, a long incubation period of local infamy), it’s about time Canada got some recognition on its own. (There's a mix inside for you people not so oriented towards words, just to be clear.)

Why? Well, for one, there are two specific centres of activity, with rich, deep histories and suddenly bustling, internationally-visible scenes.  On the West Coast, you’ve got Vancouver (this writer’s hometown, for what it’s worth), immersed in dub and with a seemingly natural penchant for dubstep, and more recently, indefinable hip-hop-oriented dancefloor styles championed by the likes of Prison Garde and newcomer Monolithium.  Back East, Toronto has a junglist/dnb heritage that continues strong today, fostering a bass music scene perhaps most obviously represented by the hardcore-continuum-mangling Egyptrixx, XI, and now Kevin McPhee, a producer just featured on this blog who evokes dingy dubstep and Burialesque garage melancholia in his stunning breakbeat house.  We can't forget Montreal, which suddenly finds itself at the centre of the new wave of UK house’s obsession with R&B and hip-hop, as producers like Lunice and Jacques Greene find themselves signed to labels in London and Glasgow, in high demand across the pond -- Greene even recently hosted a session on Rinse FM.  And of course, there are less visible local scenes -- Calgary, Regina, Victoria, god knows where else, and even the small interior towns of BC, from whence Excision and Datsik, some of the biggest names in, um, “filthy dubstep” (we’ll save epithets for another time) hail.
2011 has been an incredible year for Vancouver in these first four months alone, seemingly stacked with interesting shows and raves -- both legal and illegal -- every single weekend. What’s most impressive is how easily and capably Vancouver local acts, typically opening for bigger DJs and performers, can stand up to their headliners: rare is it when you actually want to sit through the opening acts.  You’ve got the blackened skeletal stuff from Max Ulis, exploring house and techno and dubstep with its spidery limbs, the spiritual dubstep meditations of Daega Sound who find their own footing somewhere in between Scuba and Digital Mystikz, the post-Joker g-funk twitch of Calamalka, the crunk-cum-dubstep-via Brainfeeder of Monolithiummm, and the indefinable wisps of filtered bassweight from scene lynchpin Michael Red aka souns.
Overwhelmed yet?  Red has handily put together a podcast in anticipation of Vancouver’s New Forms Festival stage at the MUTEK Festival in Montreal.  Blending together over thirty local tunes from all the above mentioned artists (as well as Warp-signed laptop maestro Babe Rainbow), Red assembles a striking hour of music that jumps from no-frills dubstep to hip-hop to ambient to broken beat and some styles that probably haven’t been invented yet.  Forget associations and the fact that most of these are “unknown” (to the rest of the world) producers: a more inspiring hour of somewhat danceable electronic music you’re rarely to find in 2011.  It’s a common trend for electronic dance music producers to move somewhere more ‘active’ once they get some outside attention, but it’s pieces like this podcast that make the case for Vancouver as a standalone scene with its own merits, idiosyncrasies, and sounds.  Though it obviously cribs from sounds located internationally, the weird mix of IDM and hip-hop that tints these tunes is entirely unique, Vancouver’s own many-limbed and sprawling approximation of electronic music, and it sounds like absolutely nothing else out there.  Local scenes like this are no longer a homemade imitation of London or Bristol or Berlin or wherever else you want to point: Vancouver is Vancouver and doesn’t need to aspire to be anything else.  A link to the podcast w/ tracklist is provided below.

That’s just one part of what inspired me to finally write this kind of post, but last night was also my first experience of the new Radiant Sounds concept at local, expensive sometimes-kinda-gay club 560 (Five Sixty), a series of nights curated by Vancouver’s Very Own promoter Andishae Akhavan that brings Vancouver’s underground music from its usual assortment of dingy bars, gallery spaces and other makeshift venues (though it must be said that this tide is gradually turning anyway) into a trendy environment otherwise associated with er, “mainstream” clubbing.  The first night was a local showcase -- Max Ulis, Taal Mala, Babe Rainbow -- while the second night featured Chicago/NYC house don Brenmar, and last night was an all-Canada showcase.  It’s heartening to see such a prominently displayed, well-attended night of all-Canadian talent: there was no need for a big name DJ from the UK or the US to bring in the crowd.  One of the most visible faces in Vancouver’s growing techno/house crowd, Derek Duncan, opened the night with an agreeable selection of catchy, melodic house, while fellow Vancouverite Prison Garde laid down a set of his typically unclassifiable dancefloor styles, kicking off with his violently spastic 808 edit of The Weeknd's "What You Need" and later peaking with luscious vocoder jam "Drama," a tune from the Canadian supergroup (you heard right) Nouveau Palais consisting of Prison Garde, Ango, and Lunice.

The latter producer/DJ was next up, and the Montrealer's energy was infectious as he laid down a set of his own like-minded productions and lurching hip-hop tracks lit up with neon filaments that nicely connected the harsher, thuggier aesthetic with the more, dare I say feminine styles of Jacques Greene and Mr. Garde.  Lunice's exaggerated, animated dancing and MCing was almost as essential as the music he played, and if his set was a little oddly placed in between the slightly faster Prison Garde and Jacques Greene material, it seemed like he won the crowd over regardless.  By the time Jacques Greene came on, the crowd had started to thin out -- at only 1:30, a rare example of Vancouver crowds apparently not wanting to party well past the legally mandated partying hours -- but everyone that remained was in for a real treat as Jacques Greene proffered a pleasure overload, pulling out nearly every single perfect dub you could hope for.  It's funny to think that Jacques Greene's R&B-flecked house sound can seem rather gentle in comparison to a lot of his UK peers, but not after hearing this set, where his chunky house grooves sounded as massive as any dubstep drop.  He played a set heavy on his own material -- "Tell Me," "The Look," "Another Girl" -- and tunes from the likes of James Fox's "New Jack Swing" (first time I've heard that excellent soon-to-finally-be-rescued-from-dubplate-purgatory UK jam in Vancouver) and what sounded like Machinedrum, mixing up rhythms and turning from smoothly caressing to slamming and screeching on a dime.

What made this Montrealer's set so inspiring was that it felt like one of those fabled watershed sets in London or Bristol that those of us stranded on this side of the Atlantic are often told of in hushed tones, yet it was in Vancouver by a Canadian DJ.  Greene's set was not only totally concurrent with the ongoing cannibalization of R&B tropes into UK house and bass music, but was arguably ahead of the curve in the way he mashed North American sounds with UK, taking a much more honest angle with the "urban" music he pilfers than some of his English counterparts.  Slowly being built up as Night Slugs' secret weapon -- the most fully realized of that label's decadent rhythm'n'rave dimension -- and going off of two flat-out amazing EPs on Glaswegian LuckyMe, the rapidly popularizing UK house sound championed by the likes of those labels, Local Action, Silverback, Well Rounded, etc -- finds itself a prominent and capable figurehead in a Canadian producer.  Who the hell knew? 

International audience -- I know you exist -- check this shit out:

Michael Red's "New Forms Festival" MUTEK Preview Podcast
(All Vancouver all the time.  Highly recommended.)

babe rainbow – greed
michael red – the haarp
villalobos – easy lee (monolithium recrunk)
calamalka – say it
babe rainbow – stax
monolithium – selfish lil’ crunk
calamalka – dominoes
monolithium – lancashire hammer
monolithium & hrdvsion – too many y chromosomes
calamalka – new directions, aka 8th dime
calamalka – goey
calamalka – 7 foot 2
babe rainbow – combed
wildbirds and peacedrums – fight for me (michael red’s minimal dub)
you say party – dark days (babe rainbow remix)
michael red – o
michael red – mwah
babe rainbow – enoanco
grimes – crystal ball (babe rainbow remix)
calamalka – avisura
daega sound – forest floor
max ulis – chill houston
michael red – some sleep
monolithium & hrdvsion – windextrous
michael red – change
max ulis – stroke of the pen
daega sound – regenerate
max ulis – special
daega sound – afterlife
michael red – sequential
daega sound – 11c
max ulis – d.i.y.
michael red – care
hrdvsion – captivated heart (monolithium remix)
max ulis – thrill
daega sound – the key

DOWNLOAD (from MUTEK website)

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