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FME Fest 2019 Returns to Rouyn-Noranda, Quebec and Blows Both Speakers and Minds [Festival Review]

From The Young Gods, Miels, Barrdo, and Victime to …And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead, Archons, Necrotic Mutation, and Despised Icon, FME 2019 literally had music for everyone. And hot damn, this was a fantastic festival!



As your intrepid narrator, along with a rag-tag group of scribes and shutterbugs, descended upon the western Québec town of Rouyn-Noranda, it immediately became difficult to picture this former mining town as home to the largest musical festival/tourist attraction in the Abitibi-Témiscamingue region and the focal point for fans and industry tastemakers. From the sky, it looks little more than a clearing in a vast expanse of forest, but seventeen years in and FME – Festival de Musique Émergente – has become the place to be for those looking to experience something new in the worlds of indie rock, hip-hop, folk, electronica, wispy avant-garde experiments and quirky combinations of the aforementioned and beyond. Though curiously, despite its stellar history, jam-packed attendance (every single hotel room in town was booked solid), accolades from participants, attendees, sponsors and officials, yours truly hadn’t heard of it until six weeks before flying in on a plane with a seating area about half the size of my living room. (Read Kevin’s recent interview with fest founder and VP Jenny Thibault.)

Having PureGrainAudio as one of the faces in the crowd at FME 2019 begins, as all good things do, with The Young Gods. As a rabid fan of the industrial rock greybeard experimentalists since the release of their 1987 self-titled debut, one could consider me an obsessive who never fails to tap into an expression of fan-boy-ism when the trio from Fribourg, Switzerland is involved. Trouble is, the last time the band had any North American soil under their feet was back in the mid-‘90s. So, when a three-date Québec tour was announced, plans were afoot to dust off my ninja-like stalker skills in order to pay witness to as much of the short-term celebration of the band’s latest and eighth album, (or eleventh, depending on how you look at it), Data Mirage Tangram in the flesh. And if it just so happens that the weekend also includes …And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead busting out a front-to-back performance of the landmark Source Tags & Codes, the continued reunion of old-school death thrashers Necrotic Mutation, along with the opportunity to stumble across something new, fresh and otherwise unheard and eat stupid amounts of BBQ, then why not pack and bag and make a weekend of it, as the fogeys say.

The Young Gods need you to keep an eye out for the “Figure sans nom.”

Rouyn-Noranda’s musical history is as interesting and left-of-center as both the FME lineup and the history of the town itself. Back in the early 1900s, a gentleman named Edmund Horne found himself smitten by a lady who refused to take his hand in marriage unless he had a big ol’ wad of bucks in his pocket, more cash stuffed in a mattress somewhere and even more stored in a bank vault. Being prescient to the term “gold digger,” Horne culled his knowledge of geology, topography and prospecting and set out to make a quick fortune by finding untapped gold resources along the Quebec-Ontario border. Long story short, Horne found copper instead of gold on the shores of Lake Osisko, opened Canada’s first mine and was the spark that established and grew the Canadian mining industry. With operational mines came workers from around the country who ended up in R-N with wages burning holes in their pockets. As a result, local hoteliers and bar owners would team up with promoters to bring artists from across the country and continent to perform in the many juke joints and hotel/venues as entertainment for the miners.

As the legend of this tiny town with teeming with wealthy, music-obsessed miners made the rounds, the list of performers who plied their talents in town grew. Johnny Cash, Duke Ellington, Jimmy James, Richard Desjardins, and a countless host of Anglophone and Francophone musicians tread the boards in Rouyn-Noranda. Elvis’ manager, Colonel Tom Parker was known to skulk around town, scouting for talent. When The Ed Sullivan Show had its tribute to Canada episode in 1963, half the performers were R-N natives. The improbability goes on and on and continues today with FME ‘19 attracting a variety of artists performing at a number of venues around town, all within a ten-minute walk from the hotel organizers stowed the large contingent of journalists, scouts, A&R people and other industry movers and shakers. But enough with the history lesson…

Some grungy shots of the fabulous festival in all their grainy glory:

FME Festival (Festival de Musique Émergente) at Rouyn-Noranda, Quebec from 8/29-9/1, 2019

Miels is a hard-driving rock band, the sort of outfit that would warm the cockles of the hearts of those who miss the polite bluesy, bar fight rock – think thumb war instead of all-out donnybrook – of Alannah Myles and Sass Jordan’s hard rock moments filtered through the shaggy fuzz of The Sheepdogs. Their material was propelled by a solid-as-fuck, four-on-the-floor drummer and the raunchy vocals of Paige and would likely go over well on the summer fairground circuit and/or Clear Channel’s syndicate of classic rock radio stations. Ironically enough, however, the band’s melodic and riff-based thrust came at the behest of guitarist JF who eschewed a bass playing low-end counterpoint. Fine, bassless-ness is no longer taboo, but his tone is terribly transistorized, the rawkin’ fuzz coming across more like a limp splatter than electric excitement.

As noted above, The Young Gods were the primary reason for this trek to the land of not-so-fresh fresh air and a place where you can actually see the stars at night. Having seen the band in Montréal a couple of nights prior, I knew what to expect: the first half of their set was an airing of the majority of Data Mirage Tangram with upbeat rockers and the older, more familiar material comprising the back end and encores. Where the band faltered was in their failure to read the room and recognize that the majority of those assembled when they took the stage weren’t fans or very familiar with the band. Couple that with the fact that the new record is unusually mellow and steps away from pulsating post-industrial rock in favour of lush sonic experiments and tribal sound collages.

In and of itself this wouldn’t be an issue – and judging by the reaction of the folks expressly there to see the band in Montréal, it wasn’t – but when you add to the convivial industry vibe dripping with all manner of complimentary alcohol chasers after a long day of travel for most people, the comparatively subdued vibe of lengthy swells “Entre en Matière” and Bernard Trontin’s hypnotic drumming in “Figure Sans Nom” may have been wildly panoramic for fans, but seemed like tiring exercises for those unfamiliar. The show picked up pace with a couple of ear-searing ambient-prog workouts, an alteration of the arrangement to “About Time,” an earth-rumbling intro to “Envoyé,” and a simply incredible synchronized light show before blowing what minds remained in the venue with “Skinflowers.”

MIELS’ video for their single “Chaleur” is unavoidably hot!

One of the charming aspects of FME is the variety of venues in which shows took place. There was the big outdoor stage, clubs large and small and places designed for small intimate performances, if designed for live music at all. So, it was on a Friday afternoon in a hip restaurant setting packed to the nipples with as festival attendees, curious onlookers, and families with young kids enjoying their meals that I decided to catch Brazil’s Sessa. Having gone into his performance cold I can’t say how having the wild-maned vocalist/guitarist deliver a minimalist combination of tropicália, bossa nova, jazz and outsider pop accompanied by a three-woman choir and an entirely disposable drummer compares to when he’s not playing on cramped floor space in an even more cramped eatery. An exciting intimacy coloured the set at first, but the sparseness of his playing style and mumbly vocals quickly extinguished the lion’s share of that initial energy. The trio of ladies providing call-and-response, angelic washes and bouts of Latin percussion were the highlight, but there sometimes seemed to be a disconnect between them and their band leader in terms of projection and what key certain sequences were being sung in.

Another charming aspect of FME is because shows are being held throughout the day in the inordinate number of venues, one could be heading from point A to B and unwittingly and randomly stumble across a gig. This is how I ended up in what appeared to be a pizza joint watching Montréal’s Barrdo perform on a patio stage. From down the block, I heard rumbling, distorted guitars strangling out a crawling riff reminiscent of some Melvins-ish kaleidoscopic sustain which punched my personal ‘on’ button. Barrdo is one of the many projects of one Pierre Alexandre, a prolific musician and label owner, and here he leads an expansive and dynamic psychedelic quintet equally obsessed with Devo and no-wave as they are Battles, Redd Kross and massive sounds. Their set got less and less Melvins-ish (read: heavy) as it went on as they ventured towards quirky tie-dyed melodies, angular rhythms and Theremin-like space scraping propped up by excellent musicianship, uncanny interplay and four-and-five part vocal harmonies.

Keep the rock and roll dream alive and take in Barrdo’s “Tu Rêves” video:

It was a similar scenario the next day when I perched myself on the sidewalk outside Bar La Groove to check out The Flamingos Pink and avoid having pints spilt on my shoes and mistakenly having my thumb end up in someone’s pasta lunch. The duo from Montréal apparently flew into from a gig in Portugal that morning before setting up their two-piece guitar/drum presentation before a tightly packed collection of drinkers, diners, and rockers. The pair’s sound is heavily reliant on the quarter-note bounce of Grand Funk Railroad and, as if to summon the rock gods, two songs in the hirsute duo was as stripped-down, shirtless and sweaty as Mark Farner and Don Brewer cranking it out at the Hollywood Bowl in 1973. Rumours of the band arriving in a heavily carpeted shaggin’ wagon with air-brushed illustrations of open road desert scenes and pneumatically-breasted women are unfounded but absolutely true in the minds of many.

The buzz surrounding Quebec’s Victime was so loud and undeniable that I hauled myself away from a Roger Federer US Open night match on the boob tube – which, if you know me, is an absolute triumph – to scamper over to Cabaret de la Dernière Chance. A three-piece comprised of skittering noise rock beats and converging-diverging math-rock guitar parries held in place by a popping, almost funky bass groove, Victime is highly reminiscent of The Blood Brothers, The Plot to Blow up the Eiffel Tower, Q and Not U, and other purveyors of punky noise rock on a spastic tip. Their stage presence bristled with undulating energy and fret watchers delighted in staring down their guitarist’s unique, twisted chord voicings and otherworldly sounds he wrangled out of his effects pedal combinations. But, his horribly thin guitar tone was stunted by Laurence Gautier-Brown’s bass throb and resulted in their material coming across as uneven and unhealthily disjointed. The crowd, who didn’t know whether to mosh or swing their hips, reacted favourably nonetheless.

Don’t miss out on Victime’s newest release, Mi​-​tronc, mi​-​jambe:

In various conversations with various people on the topic of seeing The 5, 6, 7, 8’s at FME, I invariably found myself on the receiving end of incredulous stares and shocked looks that had me questioning if my long-deceased Siamese twin brother was growing out of my stomach or a “Make America Great Again” hat managed to perch itself on my chrome dome. The cause for this alarm was my explanation that my reference point for the Japanese surf/rockabilly/garage trio initially began in the pages of Flipside in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s and not Kill Bill, a movie which I’ve never seen. Either way, little has changed in the band’s world since being the apple of the punk rock press’ eye or given a rocket-propelled showcase via Tarantino; they’re still delivering sugar-coated helpings of classic American rock that sounds like Dick Dale sitting in with Bill Haley and the Comets and The Archies dressed up like your Aunt Mabel attending a 1950s sock hop. Despite the fact their performance in what is normally a billiards hall was hampered by the poorest sightlines in the history of vision and a “stage” maybe two inches in height, they were great fun and the source of some of the funniest shit of the weekend: watching near-blackout drunk French people do the twist and regularly fall over in the process.

Atsuko Chiba is a prime example of a band that hasn’t put all the parts together yet. The Montréal-based post-rock band, who was touring with …And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead, carted in enough instruments, stompboxes, pedalboards, modulators, and amps to make it look like a music store threw up all over the stage at Petit Théâtre du Vieux Noranda. This was in addition to a video screen projecting pseudo-psychedelic geometry and their own lighting rig. Where this band falters is that their valiant attempts at expanding upon post-rock standards are hindered by quizzical directional swings; one minute they’re squeaking by at the Neur-Isis school, the next they’re borrowing heavily from Rage Against the Machine’s first album. What especially rankled my ankles was the fact that even though their lineup housed three guitarists, not one of them had a guitar tone decent enough to be able to carry the monolithic warmth and thunderous pummel required for that wall of sound so vital to post-rock. A definite case of back to the drawing board.

Before you say you’ve never heard The 5, 6, 7, 8’s, check out their song “Woo Hoo:”

Inversely, Austin, TX’s …Trail of Dead took to the stage armed with a basic two-guitar/bass/drums set up and proceeded to separate the men from the boys, blowing everyone in attendance away in the process. That they were performing their 2002 classic Source Tags & Codes in its entirety didn’t hurt, as they blasted out of the gates with “It Was There That I Saw You” bolstered by an impeccably nuanced, yet raw, sound, bassist Autry Fulbright II holding down a sinister pocket and vocalist/guitarist Conrad Keely sweating like a Mexican at a Trump rally with his nasally-pitched vocals and six-string exchanges with Jamie Miller delivering more testicular fortitude to indie rock than at any point in the last five years, at least. As the set/album went on, the band locked in with one another during both the complex bits of “Another Morning Stoner” and the simpler attack of “Baudelaire,” displayed a cheeky humour with their stage raps and added an extra compelling push watching Keely and drummer Jason Reece switch instruments every couple of songs.

Sunday was metal night and, as far as this hack was concerned, it was where I felt most in my element and at home all weekend (The Young Gods show notwithstanding). There may have been other shows happening around town and other bands playing, but as more than one of my adventurous colleagues remarked upon seeing the packed house, fully stocked merch area and whirling dervish circle pit, “This is a proper gig!” Local heroes Archons greased the wheels and warmed up the engine with their crisp, but customary, melodic death metal that highlighted a certain amount of green-ness and ventured a little too closely to claustrophobic djent and nü-metal for my comfort. However, they were slick and tidy with a shredding lead guitarist and a firebrand frontman who did his best to play the 500 capacity room like it was a 50,000 seat Brazilian soccer stadium.

Behold Archons’ technical melodic death metal with a stream of the full album, The Consequences Of Silence:

The reunion of ‘90s Quebecois institution, Necrotic Mutation came back in full force with a performance at last year’s Heavy Montreal and now the band’s gristly old-school death metal groove finds itself punctuated by former Neuraxis axe-slinger, Yan Thiel contributing to the fray. It’s all about thick and incisive lumberjack riffs reminiscent of Obituary and early Death with vocalist Sébastian Croteau upping the entertainment factor by using a small collection of props and performing the first part of the set whilst fighting to unsheathe himself from a straight-jacket.

Headliners Despised Icon have found their fortunes and popularity on an upward trajectory ever since returning from a break-up in 2014. These days their approach is less about an obligation to release records and tour as it is doing things for the sheer fun of it all. And that good-natured feel emanates from the stage in heaping helpings. Wipe away the programmed light show, the dual smoke machines, the ego booster platforms and the perpetual motion of the frontline of dual vocals, dual guitars and bass and you can see the members sharing smiles and sidelong glances. Everyone in Despised Icon is clearly having the time of their lives playing death metal drizzled with hardcore, propelled by Alexandre Pelletier’s gravity blasts, agile yet obese riffing accented by pig grunt vocals and ridiculously ignorant breakdown addendums.

Despised Icon send concertgoers off on their long trek back to musical “Purgatory:”