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BRUCE LEE GALLANTER REVIEW of the 23rd ANNUAL INTERNATIONAL FESTIVAL MUSIQUE ACTUELLE VICTORIAVILLE!
This was certainly the strangest and most unpredictable of all Victo Festivals that I've attended since I started in 1988. I went up again with a diverse 6 member crew who didn't always see eye to eye, making for some interesting conversations and occasional arguments. My NYC-based crew included Len, Jason, Kurt, Nicole and our new guy, Eric Stern. We left early (10 am) from DMG so we would hopefully get to Montreal in time so see Fred Frith & Danielle Roger play at the La Scala Rossa. I'm finally finding my way more easily through Montreal, since going there more often and visiting my friend Luc from L'Oblique Records on Rivard. We got there in time to even catch most of the weird opening set by a local duo who played strange instruments made from wood and sawed a big log as their finale. The duo with Fred Frith on guitar and Danielle Roger on drums was pretty amazing. Fred would loop some eerie high-end feedback as Danielle played quiet, spacious drums. Although I've seen Fred play hundreds of times, he continues to come up with odd sounds that only he could find. It was a beautiful set to begin our journey with, perhaps better than most of the sets we were about to attend.
Weather-wise, this was the most dismal, rainy and overcast of any Victo Fest that I can remember with very little sunshine. Oh well. The theme of this year's Victo fest was to feature vocals and noise and very little jazz or progressive music. The opening set was Charming Hostess, an accapella trio of women from the bay area led by Jewlia Eisenberg. I thought their set was a great way to open this fest with strong singing, fresh harmonies, insightful intros by Jewlia and well executed by all three fine vocalists. The intros were in English, which has become rare for Victo, yet the lyrics were in Ladino, with some Yiddish or Russian phrases as well. I love the way this trio blends different cultures and perspectives.
Think Of One from Quebec and Belgium, were the beginning of a series of disappointing gigs, another unexpected part of the often consistently interesting Victo Fests. Think Of One is an electric sextet made from tenor sax, valve trombone, el. guitar, synth, el bass & drums. The overall music from this band was dull, mediocre sorta-prog. simple and plodding. Not that much different from the lame Plastic People set from a few years back. The one saving grace was the three cute Inuit female vocalists who did some unusual and riveting singing. If these singers did their own set, it would've been much better.
Barnyard Drama played the midnight set and were engaging at times, but overstayed their welcome by playing way too long. Their current line-up is this big, red-haired woman who sings in her own manor, with two guitarists and a drummer. Although they started off with spacious and mysterious sounds, it became too much when their melodramatic vocalist went on for too long. When the woman sang in English, it just didn't work, yet she also made some interesting sounds with her voice, which sounded fine when the improv wasn't too dark or dreary.
The first set on the second day was the first truly great one with Antoine Berthiaume on guitar, Quentin Sirjacq on piano and Norman Teale on electronics. I am friendly with their guitarist Antione, who has lived in NY on occasion and played at DMG twice. Check out any of his discs especially his first, which is duos with Fred Frith and Derek Bailey. Considering that this trio's set was at 1pm, it was pretty explosive right from the start. Quentin, their pianist, worked mostly inside the piano, rubbing the strings and banging on them with different objects. The music was often quite intense and occasionally scary. The blend of dark rumbling piano sounds, hypnotic electronic soundscapes and crafty guitar fragments had many on the edge on their seats.
The next set by two women, D. Kimm & Alexis O'Hara, was one of the worst sets I've encountered at Victo and certainly a low point for this fest. Two depressing women in wigs scooping out layers of torturous feedback doing spoken word in French and in English. Their guest guitarist, Bernard Falaise, looked a bit befuddled at times. Ms. O'Hara's long-winded diatribe and venomous description about the "loneliest guy in the world" was beyond sad, it was painful. This was a collections of nightmares that none of us should have had to endure. So thanks Michel, for putting us through an endurance test. It was moments like this that made me question why I keep coming back to Victo.
Things improved dramatically after this with an intense set from Rob Mazurek's Mandarin Movie. Mazurek, who plays jazz-like cornet in the Chicago Underground duo/trio/orchestra, has put together an explosive, over-the-top sextet with two of downtown best, Alan Licht on el. guitar & Steve Swell on trombone, plus two bassists (electric & acoustic) and an incredible drummer named Frank Rosaly. The music was a big blur of dense sounds, tight, yet on the verge of flying apart. Both bassists and drum wiz created a wall of sound as Rob's cornet and Steve Swell's trombone blasted out streams of notes. I can't recall ever hearing Steve Swell play more intensely than here, it sounded like a herd of screaming elephants. I thought his head would explode at times. Alan Licht also provided some strong noise/guitar textures, which added to the waves of sound. The set was a bit too long, but pretty exciting nonetheless.
KTU was the only band coming from a progressive background this year and they were a breath of fresh air. They feature Kimmo Pohjonen on accordion, his partner Samuli Kosiminen on electronics with the the recent rhythm team from King Crimson: Trey Gunn on the stick-like Warr guitar and Pat Mastelotto on drums and samples. Kimmo, who has played here at Victo twice before, solo & duo, can be a bit flamboyant, but here he mostly came to play. What I found most surprising was that KTU took many of the better elements of progressive rock and did away with much of the bombast. The one player here who shined the most was their drummer, Mastelotto, who has never sounded right for Crimson, as much as Fripp claims he is the right man. Here Pat often played the master of subtleties, bowing cymbals and playing mysterious samples in all the right places. He would occasionally get into tribal grooves, providing a strong undercurrent for a much of Kimmo's great orchestral keyboard solos (on accordion) and the few fine Frippish solos that Trey Gunn pulled off. Only on the very last tune did they approach that Crimson-like intensity, leaving us wanting more of that old-prog power.
The third day began with another unexpected delight and one of the finest sets of the fest. It featured Ingar Zach on percussion & electronics, Ivar Grydeland on acoustic guitar, banjo & steel guitar and Tonny Kluften on contrabass. Ingar Zach was the only name that I recognized here from his duo offering with Derek Bailey and strong solo disc on the Sofa label. This set was immensely beautiful and wonderfully charming. Ingar used just two snare drums, a small gong and a couple of drone devices. Their acoustic bassist did alot of bowing and used space wisely between his sounds. Their guitarist played exquisitely calm sounds on his acoustic and a small fan was used on an electric guitar as another drone tone. The set reminded me of the new disc by Town & Country, which is one of my favorite new CDs. This was another 1pm set and a perfect way to start day three.
It couldn't have been more different from the next set which featured another trio with K.K. Null on harsh electronics, Marino Pliakas on electric bass and Michael Wertmueller on drums. I recall seeing and hearing K.K. Null with Zeni Geva once at CBGB's and it was one of the loudest and most obnoxious punk/noise/rock sets that I can recall. I can also remember drummer Michael Wertmueller playing powerful drums behind Peter Brotzmann at a Vision Fest set at the Knit. This set was also loud and intense yet it was quite focused and tight. K.K. Null played thick Merzbow-like electronics, while the bassist played quick, tight lines with the drummer playing equally furious notes on his hi-hat. This is a rip-roaring power trio, with no guitarist, yet still tight and rocking hard. Even Null's electronics are quite percussive-sounding and work perfectly with this massive rhythm team. They finally lay back on the last piece with Michael playing some slow, suspenseful mallets as the electronics softly sizzle and the bassist takes a quick, impressive solo.
Another strange and wonderful set featured two of our homeboys, Ricardo Arias on balloons & Tatsuya Nakatani on percussion with Vic Rawlings (from Boston) on prepared cello and electronics. Although no-one but Mike Parker takes balloon-playing very seriously, Ricardo Arias is certainly a master of diverse sounds coaxed from his balloon set-up. Tatsuya Nakatani is also one of downtown's best and most distinctive percussionists, although he has recently moved to Pennsylvania. Rawlings is a member of BSC and also a master manipulator, bowing rods attached to his cello and selectively using eerie home-made electronics sound. None of these three play their instruments in any sort of traditional way, so they come up with a variety of odd sounds. Ricardo rubs his balloons with wet sponges and his hands, creating dark, tense sounds. Tatsuya, has found many ways to manipulate his percussion, rubbing and bowing cymbals and drums, tapping, banging and placing a variety of objects upon his other drums and cymbals. He must be seen to be believed, because many of his sounds are so difficult to figure out without a scorecard. The trio takes their time so that things unfold organically, ritualistic in nature. There are violent moments when things erupt with balloon snapping sounds. This trio evokes dark spirits which will haunt us for a long time after the set is over. For the end of the set, Tatsuya piles up all of his dozens of percussion things into one large mess/mass while the other two players take their instrument set-up apart piece by piece. The set is a bit too long, yet the ending is most befitting.
This set was followed by another strong trio, again with two homeys, Nels Cline on electric guitar with devices (from L.A. & currently in Wilco), Andrea Parkins on accordion & sampler and Tom Rainey on drums. This trio plays mostly long pieces which develop slowly with Nels and Andrea repeating fragments as they build and mutate their textures. Tom Rainey is the perfect man for this job as he weaves his percussive waves, helping to navigate the rapids that Nels and Andrea weave together. Their is an unexpected hard rocking punk explosion midset, which seems strange from Tom Rainey, yet not out of character from Nels who has worked with Mike Watt (from the Minutemen), Lydia Lunch & Geraldine Fibbers. What I dig about this trio is that there is no leader here, each member is an integral part of the sound and helps to determine the direction of each piece. They each seem to pass ideas back and forth and build upon each idea, turning it slowly into something else.
One of the most overwhelming double bills that I can remember from any previous Victo fest was the next one: Haino Keji solo and the dreaded Sunn O)))). Seeing and hearing the mighty shaman, Haino Keiji, is an experience that is impossible to forget. Love him or hate him, you can not be indifferent. I caught Haino for four of five nights at the Stone in December, playing in a different context each night and most often being blown away by this always intense extremist. I also caught Haino just a couple of weeks earlier at the Japan Society improvising with Eye, Makigami Koichi, Mike Patton, Ikue Mori, Jim O'Rourke & John Zorn. Still, none of the previous sets prepared me/us for Haino's explosive solo set on the big stage in the Colloseum at Victo. Haino pulled out all stops and pushed it as far as it could go. He began with a number of blood-curdling screams, which he looped and repeated and added even more screams on top. It was almost too much to deal with and I am sure that some folks wished they were somewhere safe. I am glad that my fiance, Huguette, wasn't there. Haino then picked up his electric guitar and let out the demons out again with a wall of feedback, sludge, metal power-chord communion. In the middle of the set, he actually moaned a soft ballad-like piece for his voice without words that was completely unexpected. When he picked up his electric guitar again, it was back to that Blue Cheer/Crazy Horse-like crunch. He would start looping his guitar parts and then his drum machine beats as well. The last section featured those three theremin-like mounds that he waves his hands over, to create more tortured spirits, that is just as fascinating to watch with his ritualistic moves, as it is to hear.
It is hard to believe that anyone (or anything) could follow this apocalyptic set, but I guess only Sunn O))) could still pulverize those brave enough to stick around. Before the set started, there was a discussion amongst my friends about the rumored "brown note", a loud, low frequency that allegedly forced certain members of the audience to poop in their pants. I am not kidding. We joked about selling diapers at the beer stand. Sunn O))) had a big wall of amps that resembled Stonehenge (shades of Spinal Tap) and consisted of four men in long black robes, one of whom looked alot like my old friend Oren Ambarchi. It was very much like a demonic ritual of slowly churning, super low-end drones. It went on for about an hour and was both painful, overwhelming and most effective. Everything slowed down to a snail-like pace and it felt like we were being covered in molasses. Waves upon waves, turning everything into dense, dark, sludge. Those earplugs helped a bit, but a butt-plug might have been put to better use. I missed the midnite set that night, which was My Cat is An Alien, because I was too burnt out to enjoy anything else but a good night of sleep after a double-header of demonic disturbance.
Day four began with the Mei Han Ensemble from Vancouver. It featured an old friend of mine Paul Plimley on piano, Ms. Mei Han on zheng, Randy Raine-Rusch on various ethnic instruments and Coat Cooke on flute & alto sax. Ms. Han grew up in China and plays the zheng, a koto-like many stringed instrument. Although, she played only traditional music when she was younger, she has become a strong improviser, since meeting and eventually marrying Randy. The set began with with everyone playing cautiously and spaciously. Paul playing inside the piano, Randy playing a cho-like (multi-pipes) instrument, Coat playing flute and Mei Han plucking nimbly. This was a fine blend of acoustic spirits, wit Randy playing this odd, big black, bong-like thing. There was some strong inter-action between all four players with some strong solos as well. It seemed like a good way to start the day.
Another unexpected delight was the duo of Mike Patton and Fennesz. Considering that this was the first performance together, it was a great meeting of two strong sonic sorcerers. They began with a slow rumble, slowly throwing ideas back and forth. Slowly globs of electronic clouds would erupt with a kraut-rock like space-grooves. Fennesz creates different textures, sounds and drones, as he builds and blends his sonic strata with Patton's twisted vocal antics. Fennesz also played some stunning, sustained guitar sounds with mellotron tones while Mike provided a pulse with his percussive vocal samples. Mike seemed to be sampling bird calls on one piece and then expanding their sound with an echo device. Some of this is much more melodic than one might think. The last piece moves in waves back and forth, building as the siren-like vocal starts to erupt. It is a grand conclusion to a great duo set.
Fieldwork are amongst downtown's best avant/jazz trios, their set was a most welcome change of pace. I could've done without Michel's introduction about how people complain that there is no jazz at Victo this year. This is a most justified complaint and to make light of it shows that Michel either doesn't know or doesn't care what the Victo audience really wants. Fieldwork is Vijay Iyer on piano, Steve Lehman on alto & sopranino sax and Tyshawn Sorey on drums. What this trio does so well is take a line and repeat it again and again, slowly mutating the line as it turns into something else. Usually two members of the trio are tightly connected playing their line together as the third member intersects and spins his notes around them. All three of these cats are leaders and composers on their own, yet here they combine their talents to evolve intricately together. I hear bits of Eric Dolphy and Jackie McLean in Lehman's sound, yet he has a distinctive tone of his own. He switches to sopranino on the third piece and which is slow and mysterious. He sputters and twists his notes inside-out, as the trio begin to quicken the pace and ascend higher and higher. There is no leader in this trio as they work so well as a tight-knit unit. They are completely exhilarating and have that great neurotic New York energy flowing. Is this the M-Base of the future?!?! They certainly rule in the present!
Japanese piano wiz and multi-bandleader, Satoko Fujii, always has a new project and/or a new CD every time I see or hear from her. She unveiled yet another new quartet for this fest with Curtis Hasselbring on trombone, Andrea Parkins on accordion, Natsuki Tamura on trumpet and Satoko on piano & compositions. It certainly is unique instrumentation-wise: piano, accordion,trombone & trumpet, two keyboards & two horns. It was nice to hear Andrea playing more melodic accordion, which worked well with Satoko's dreamy piano excursions. The muted trombone and eerie little trumpet sounds created a rich blend with more mysterious keyboard sounds. There were often a couple of different layers that crossed paths and shared thoughtful harmonies. For one of the stranger pieces, Satoko rubbed a bowl inside the piano as Andrea played scary sounds on her accordion. Another unexpected moment occurred when Satoko sang a traditional song, it was a first to hear her sing, it was a touching, sad piece with elegant harmonies from the other members of the quartet. This quartet recorded in NY the following week and I believe it will take some time to absorb this new music properly.
Back at the colosseum, it was another orgy of loud noise to savor with the combined forces of two legendary outfits: Borbetomagus (originally from Nyack, NY) and Hijokaidan from Japan. Borbetomagus are old friends of mine and I've seen/heard them on many occasions. I often dig what they do, but not everyone likes to deal with their gargantuan double distorto saxes and file-on-guitar insanity. Hijokaidan feature Jojo on el. guitar, Ms. Junko on vocals, Toshiji on electronics and Ms. Nao on drums. Although both of these extreme noise bands are no doubt great on their own, their combined noise onslaught was a bit too much. One problem was that the electric instruments were louder than the saxes, making it difficult to tell who was doing what. There were a number of cross-cultural interactions that stood out to watch. One saxist playing into the vocal mike of the singer, as well as the other saxist playing into Donald Miller's guitar pick-up. In some ways I was reminded of the battles between Godzilla and Rodan or the silliness of watching "professional wrestling." Japanese guitarist, Jojo, has a variety of punk-rock moves down (waving one hand in the air and making funny/serious faces), which added some humor to the proceedings. It was often fun to watch, but not as interesting to hear.
Fe-Mail are a lovely looking duo of women from Norway, Maja Rakte and Hild Sofie Tafjord. They played the midnite set on day four at the cegep (college) and were actually pretty great, although the loud volume and the fact that we were all pretty tired for the six and final set that day, did make it difficult to deal with. Both women are also in the noise quartet Spunk and Maja has a fine solo voice discs out, as well as a great duo disc with Jaap Blonk. Their set was explosive, yet very tight and well done. They both played a variety of electronic devices and sang and/or distorted their voices. Hild also plays some French horn, but nothing was as it seemed. I dug the way they sculpted their noise in focused ways. Maja also played a theremin, which she used most selectively, moving closer to it only when she wanted to accentuate certain explosive moments. It was surprising to watch two beautiful women make so much ugly yet tight noise.
The last day began perfectly with a wonderful set from Pierre Cartier's Sextet. Cartier is an excellent bassist and composer, his group a Quebecoise all-star band with Jean Derome on reeds, Tom Walsh on trombone, Bernard Falaise on guitar, Jean rene on violin, Cartier on electric bass & vocals and Pierre Tanguay on drums. I caught this same band at the Guelph fest last year, but they were even better at Victo. Mr. Cartier has taken the words from a number of great poets and put them to music. Cartier also sang these words and has a fine, lovely, warm and melancholy voice. His arrangements were elegant, crafty, subtle and well thought-out. The frontline of alto sax or flute, trombone, violin and guitar were excellent, with a number of short spirited solos. In especially fine form were Jean Derome and Bernard Falaise, both of whom took at least one amazing solo a piece.
Another much anticipated set was the collaboration of ZU from Italy and Mike Patton. ZU are an amazing out/jazz/rock power trio featuring baritone sax, electric bass and drums. ZU have a youthful exuberance and draw from a wealth of influences, from free/jazz to punk/rock. ZU are often chaotic, yet very tight. Their electric bassist seems to be the focal point of many of their pieces as he uses a screwdriver and cymbal to rub his strings. Even when they launch into free sections, the stop on-a-dime and jump into charted parts quickly. When they pushed things over-the-top, Patton became a perfect foil: screaming and using various noise devices to match their intense excursions. They have that spastic, stop and start type of twisted structure, so you never know where they go. They do not sound quite like anyone else, this is true punk/jazz at its best.
A big disappointment was Et Sans from Montreal. They are on the Constellation label, which is run by members of Godspeed You Black Emperor. Constellation is an influential label that has some dozen bands by now. Sadly, two of the worst sets from recent Victo fests were bands affiliated with Constellation: Fly Pam Am and the Sam Shalabi Fiasco. Et Sans consisted of 3 keyboards, el. bass, drums and assorted electronic gagetry. It reminded of bad Krautrock, played way too loud with some Kraftwerk-like robotic repetition. Way too predictable and too obnoxious. Perhaps the Black Ox Orkestar would have been a much better choice from the folks at Constellation. Also I heard an amazing prog/improv band from Quebec earlier this year called Rouge Ceil. They would've been a great choice over most of the bands on Constellation.
The final show began with an odd hip-hop from New Jersey called Dalek. Their set was short, yet interesting, considering they played their own version of hip-hop. I was impressed by their crafty use of samples and some of their spoken word pieces. The final set featured Mike Patton with Rahzel, who performs as a human beat-box. This was again a great collaboration, with Mike doing a variety of singing and knob-twisting shenanigans. Rahzel is the master of beats and samples, which is pretty phenomenal, considering he just uses his mouth. Speeding up and slowing down the beat, imitating a skipping record and just getting the groove going. Hilarious at times and very funky. Patton was a perfect match and showed how a good a singer and MC he really is. "Fucking cold in Canada tonight" he repeated at one point. This set was the perfect topping for the most ridiculous Victo set this week. Mike Patton, the only person to get three (very different) sets, turned out to be one of the highlights this years smorgasbord.
Overall, this year's schedule turned out to be better than anyone imagined. Although, there were a few more low-points than usual, there were enough great sets to keep many of us smiling. I get the feeling from talking to many folks that unless Michel comes up with a much better line-up next year, a number of us will think twice before we take another chance. Perhaps it is time to check another festival instead. The Edge Fest (Ann Arbor, Michigan) and Guelph fest (Ontario) look much better every year, so...
Here's my current list of wishes/suggestions for next year at Victo:
1. Rouge Ceil (Quebec-based prog/improv at its best & way better than most of the bands on Constellation)
2. Fell Clutch (Dave Tronzo/Ned Rothenberg/Stomu Takeishi/Tony Buck)
3. Mario Pavone Sextet (check out any of his CDs on Playscape)
4. Hamster Theatre or Thinking Plague
5. Rova's Ascension Project (they've only played the west coast & Europe)
6. Louis Moholo Ensemble (whichever version he chooses)
7. Miriodor (when was the last time they played Victo? 15 years ago?)
8. Julie Tippett/Soup Songs Robert Wyatt Tribute (Julie has never had a solo gig in North America, ever!?!?!?)
9. Rashied Ali/Louie Belogenis/Roy Campbell/Reggie Workman Trane Memorial Band!
10. Barry Guy New Orchestra or Evan Parker Octet