RBMA Weekender 2017: Day 1

By Stuart Oakes, Feature Photo (Pan Daijing) via RBMA/Bruno Destombes

I was terrified of using the Montreal metro system because of an irrational fear that it would be substantially different from the Toronto subway, and that I would embarrass myself trying and failing to figure out how it worked, until someone pointed out that I am, indeed, an adult pursuing an undergraduate degree at one of the most highly regarded institutions in the world and that I should absolutely be able to use a subway system without difficulty. Recognizing the truth of this, I decided that I would attempt my first subway trip to the Société des arts technologiques [SAT] for the first night of the Red Bull Music Acadamy’s (RBMA) Weekender electronic festival.

Of course, I couldn’t figure out how the door into the subway station worked and had to wait until someone let me in. Then I tried repeatedly to pull down what I imagined to be a folded subway seat, but which proved to be nothing but a blue railing, to the amusement of the men behind me.

So when Vince, the singer and guitarist of Montreal metal band Dopethrone, asked the crowd if we were ready for evil, I was in the right mind-set. Vince had a fairly broad conception of evil. Over the course of their set, he touched on the fentanyl epidemic, but also zombies, Rick and Morty, broken strings, and a second singer who never appeared—my metro misadventures were in good company.

I know almost nothing about metal—Dopethrone’s Bandcamp bio references black metal, New Orleans sludge, and doom; the best comparison I could do was AC/DC—but as an entirely neutral party, I found them to be both fun and interesting. Dopethrone’s deal seems to be that they’ve traded the intensity of more performative, method acting factions of metal for a relaxed, humorous vibe—they’re far more hard rock (think ZZ Top, who they covered) than they are Ghost. Songs were titled “Scuzzgasm” or “Scum Fuck Blues”; Vyk, the bassist, wore a “Bongzilla” tshirt; Vince loved to drop an evil laugh after any particularly vicious riff. There was something of a dad-vibe about them (I’m so sorry, Dopethrone)—Vince started doing Rick and Morty impressions half-way through, and didn’t stop. The silliness was offset by the power of their tone and their grinding, crushing grooves, but the juxtaposition made the set feel very welcoming, especially for a metal outsider. Perhaps it was the band’s way of dealing with the peculiarity of the situation: a metal band—”you wanna see evil?”—with a light show and a Red Bull logo hanging behind them, playing for a crowd of electronic fans. Regardless, they brought variety to the line-up, and were thoroughly enjoyable.

Pan Daijing, on next, was the highlight of my night. She’s a Chinese-born, Berlin-based performer and performance artist who works with noise and primal, non-verbal elements of the human voice, and emphasizes physical embodiment. Her set was loud: the shake started in my nose, and then shaped a rattling diamond from my shoulders, sternum, and throat. Part of what I liked so much about it was that, despite the intensity, it never felt like it was intent on hurting the audience; it was less a violence, and more a healing. The communal element stemmed, in part, from a steady pulse; the set was noise (with bits of industrial scattered throughout, I think! I’m still learning the genres), but rhythm was never far away, and the sounds would often shape themselves into a slow groove, sometimes letting it tick away beneath the chaos and sometimes strengthening the blows until my shirt shook with each beat.

Nadja 2 photo credit Karel Chladek Red Bull Content Pool.jpg

Nadja, taken by Karel Chladek/RBMA

Just as important to her work was her presence. Unlike a lot of noise performers, Daijing’s voice was frequently extricable from the chaos. What I found particularly interesting was that her vocalizations, despite only occasionally being verbal, weren’t primal. She didn’t appear to be mimicking (or channeling) really instinctual human experiences like fear, anger, or orgasm (sounds that are often used for the purpose of returning attention to the body and our experience of embodiment). Instead, she used syllables, like “la la la.” The effect was comforting rather than unsettling; you aren’t alone in the void, she seemed to be saying, if you stop and listen, you’ll hear that I’m here too. It was an exhilarating performance.

Toronto ambient/doom metal duo Nadja, who’ve been around since 2003, played next. Working with a guitar, a bass, bows, and some gear, they created an elemental, immersive ambient experience that was far better than my description suggests. Via my notes: “Wind, to waves, to heavenly voices, to ice, to gigantic fans [my shirt was getting blown around again].” When I opened my eyes, I found audience members sitting on the floor, heads bowed in reverence or mediation, or prostrate, letting the sound wash over them.

The penultimate performance was by Âmes Sanglantes, a Quebec power electronic producer. He was set on pushing the crowd: his set started without warning, causing me to scramble for my ear plugs, and used extremely effective soft-loud dynamics several times. Sanglantes played for roughly fifteen minutes, but made the most of it; he used the repetition of short noise phrases, like an alternate reality The Field gone aggro. Unlike Daijing’s performance, which had built up to it’s bone rattling, Sanglantes’ sound went right for the face and throat, a much more unsettling experience. His music was genuinely uncomfortable; he made high-pitched surgical sounds (like a saw or a drill) by rubbing the mic on the table or his pant leg, or by screaming and processing his voice. It was by far the harshest performance of the night, and although I’m not generally a fan of harsh sound, the diversity in the line-up and the briefness of the set made it engaging.

Finally, Orphx. The legendary Hamilton industrial/techno/EBM duo promised a much needed chance to dance—to shake out all the tension that I had been accumulating over the last couple sets. They began like a cold, imposing wind, and then, like a night train shuddering to life, brought the drums in. As the train made its way out of the station and began to pick up its pace, I could feel the creaks in my back and neck begin to unknot themselves. My warming muscles stretched to match the rhythm, and I felt looser than i had all evening. Then, the train hit some straight, open track, and we were off into the night.

Orphx photo credit Karel Chladek Red Bull Content Pool .jpg

Orphx, taken by Karel Chlandek/RBMA

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