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Putting the Art in Party

Montreal's annual Mutek festival is a sensory experience all of its own

Mutek is not Movement in Montreal. Nor is it Coachella in Canada. In fact, it’s unlike any other festival you know. So too is Montreal unlike any other North American city you will have been to. It’s unmistakably European in feel and all but detached from the rest of Canada(except in governmental terms) thanks to the French beaver hunters of the 17th century who claimed it as their own fur-trading post. Maybe because of said European heritage, so too is the city one of the most culturally unique on the whole continent. The government are very much aware of this, and are keen to keep it that way for posterity. It means they allow an inordinate amount of festivals to take over the city all year round, as well as doing things like prescribing how much of the Metro’s income must be spent on art in its stations. From jazz to dance to film to comedy, every niche is well represented, with Mutek standing for avant-garde electronic experimentalism, cutting-edge visual art and, where possible, North American debuts. Though that might sound grandiose, the festival doesn’t seem out of place in this city. It’s hugely progressive, despite the heritage on every corner. One moment you’ll be walking past a mock Parisian metro sign, the next a statue of Queen Victoria, all in the shadow of the financial district’s glass skyscrapers. There are leafy suburbs right next to trendy and arty quarters, a red light district, a Formula 1 track, high-end eateries, on-point record shops, theatre halls, wide open performance spaces right in the centre of the city, many huge basilicas, inordinate art initiatives, the very bike hire scheme that was sold to Boris Johnson, scant traces of any fast food chains and plenty of brave projects like The Phi Centre. Only opening for the first time during Mutek, it is a multi-functional event and recording space, cinema room, bar, studio and much more. It hopes to host all sorts of music and film events, screenings and interactive art installations and has been a work in progress for the last four years. It’s unlike anything you’ll find in, say, London, and is where Mutek opens a few days before DJ Mag arrives.

The music itself is loosely split between experimental electronica, such as Brooklyn duoBlondes or the latest band incarnation of Apparat, and more straight-up clubbing. A number of different venues are employed across the city, none more impressive than the huge old church used by Tim Hecker and Stephen O’Malley for their show. Whilst layering drone guitar on analogue pads and other dark noises, slowly shifting visuals are projected across every wall and across the huge dome above. It’s mesmerising, razor sharp and like nothing DJ Mag has ever seen. Same story in SAT's Satosphere, where more people are looking upward to the vertigo-inducing projections and intricate patterns — which appear to be changing the shape of the very building around them — than they are toward Keith Fullerton Whitman who is performing a modular synth set right in front of them. 
Elsewhere you can take your pick from Jeff Mills banging his 909 backed only by a massive projection of the moon, BNJMN making an impressive Canadian debut or Shackleton doing his dark and involved drum thing. Alex Smoke also debuts his new live show; Nautiluss owns his home city with a powerful performance and Kink gives one of his expressive and loveably showy live sets, followed by German house head Jacob Korn. So too are there a raft of names you’ll likely be unfamiliar with re-constructing Bach on synths; performing dark choral songs in churches and DJing on an island man-made with the earth dug out when the Metro was built. On top of that, there are panels, presentations, discussions, workshops and things like a 10-screen Cinelab which allows for panoramic audio-visual performances that, frankly, fry your brain, they are so technologically impressive.

The highlight, though, is an evening in the company of Deniz Kurtel and Nicolas Jaar. Playing in a vast old theatre, as great as the performers themselves is the sound; the ceiling arched way above us, at the back you're 50 yards from the stage yet you're still able to feel the bass in the floor: warm, rich, inviting. Kurtel weaves together a typically heart-wrenching and hypnotic set of roughshod house and tech, bleeding in subtle hooks, electro basslines and melodic riffs from her laptop. But it is Jaar who causes the audience to swell most. Flanked by a guitarist and saxophonist, the three of them create a swelling, sensuous and slo-mo soundtrack that is wholly non-linear. It goes up then down, round and round, teases yet never succumbs to the crowd’s wishes for a more regular beat. An experiment for sure, it mirrorsMutek as an experience overall — unusual, memorable, and right from the musical and visual vanguard.

Words: Kristan J Caryl