(photos: Miguel Legault)

MUTEK 2006
Montreal, May 31-June 4, 2006

Every MUTEK has been a middling mix of highs and lows and the seventh incarnation was no exception—how could it be otherwise when the Montréal festival's range of programming is so broad? So rather than futilely attempt to catalogue everything—a Sisyphean undertaking if there ever was one—what follows is one veteran attendee's reductionist take on the good, the bad, and the ugly.

The Good

Thankfully, the most heavily populated of the three categories. Starting with the two Ex-Centris shows, the formal concert setting became a playful science lab in the hands of Artificiel (a mildly interesting but gimmicky performance with the Montréal trio using Rubik's Cubes to generate streaming masses of electronic sound) and Sensors_Sonics_Sights (Cécile Babiole, Laurent Dailleau, and Atau Tanaka hypnotically adjusting body movements in Theremin-like manner to manipulate real-time, sensor receptor-based sound, with delicate movements generating ghostly rumbles and violent writhing generating tumultuous slabs of noise). The next night, 5mm (Marc Leclair and Gabriel Coutu-Dumont) distilled Leclair's Musique pour 3 femmes enceintes into a seamless sound-image presentation (foreboding imagery of micro-biotic structures and wire-frame armatures offered a stark contrast to the sunnier ambiance of the pregnancy-themed album) that had my attention wandering during its overlong ambient passages, and Ryoichi Kurokawa open his double-screen 'time-based sculptures' with a brutalizing roar, then followed it with restrained ambient episodes and punchy, Alva.Noto-styled micro-funk. The most riveting Ex-Centris act, Pierre Bastien, was also the least electronic and most anachronistic. Having assembled hand-made and found objects into an erector set table-top display, Bastien enticed rickety and lo-fi sounds from his automated mechanical orchestra and overlaid them with saw-bowing and muted pocket trumpet soloing. The France-based eccentric came across as a lost candidate for Fast, Cheap and Out of Control, Errol Morris's affectionate homage to like-minded creative oddities.

An early club peak arrived from an unexpected corner. Modeselektor's infectious mix of electro-dancehall, tribal-funk, acid-house, and ragga set kicked in with triumphant, frenzied force from its first moment, with charismatic group members Gernot Bronsert and Sebastian Szary reveling in their music's contagious euphoria as ecstatically as the audience. Other strong club showings included Pheek's locomotive broil, Poker Flat denizen Guido Schneider's mix of schaffel and vaporous techno, and Henrik Schwarz's refreshing samplings of electro-soul and Chain Reaction techno. Sonja Moonear's swinging set of microhouse, tribal bangers, and clockwork grooves pumped with a fine-tuned ferocity, while Spanish prodigy Alex Under stoked noose-tightening grooves to deranged states of fanatical obsessiveness (Under also deserves a 'Best Festival Video' award, as film footage of women lunatically dragging their hands across their faces created a perfectly dizzying analogue to his equally vertiginous music). Perlon genius came from Dimbiman's propulsive set of fluid, perpetually morphing house, and Dandy Jack's percolating juju of bright synth stabs and crystalline sound design.

The festival's finest collective peaks arrived on the final day, with an Minus label showcase at Sunday afternoon's Piknic Electronik and a spectacular ~scape presentation in the evening. The final min2MAX North American tour stop occurred under the massive Alexander Calder Stabile in Parc Jean-Drapeau on the Île Sainte-Hélène. An early-afternoon set by Magda and Troy Pierce functioned as more of a mutating background for arriving attendees and a prelude to Marc Houle's sometimes acidy hour of techno bounce and the main event, a thunderous metallic maelstrom of epic swing and humongous, bulbous bass lines by tag-team members Richie Hawtin and Ricardo Villalobos.

Scant hours later, Mike Shannon presented a 35-minute sampling of tracks from Possible Conclusions To Stories That Never End. Props to Shannon for attempting a risky laptop-singer-drummer merger which—notwithstanding a second song computer glitch—generally succeeded, even if Anaïs's singing functioned better as atmospheric enhancement than lead vocalizing. Those familiar with Kosmischer Pitch knew Jan Jelinek would eschew the granular chug of Farben microhouse for swollen psychotropic textures and hypnotic lurch. His deafening set emphasized just how great the divide can be between recorded and live performance as the album's material assumed a crushing force in concert barely hinted at on record. Swooning hypnotically, Jelinek appeared hell-bent on drawing listeners into his disorienting vortex of droning psychedelia. Though hard to imagine, the brutalizing intensity of Jelinek's set was exceeded by Pole's. Stefan Betke, accompanied by bassist Zeitblom and drummer Hanno Leichtmann, generated an incendiary caterwaul of spacey dub-funk so overwhelming it verged on abrasive. Gradually toning down the thrash, Pole's shockingly loud noise trio offered a comparatively docile bit of uptempo dub skank in the encore. Coming after such tumult and perhaps inspired by the preceding sets, Deadbeat's oceanic dub, thunderous dancehall, and sneaky reggaeton turned out to be the note-perfect way to end the festival. Would that all such MUTEK evenings could be so musically challenging and audacious.

The Bad

Almost a misnomer, given the modest number of 'bad' things about the 2006 edition. A few, though, bear mention. Pity poor Simon Pyke, for example, whose Freeform set was handcuffed by a choice of venue: his buoyant Afro-dance material was better suited for the club where its seductive pull could have come into play, rather than in the seated Ex-Centris setting.

Many artists (5mm, Ryoichi Kurokawa, etc.) posed ambitious solutions to the 'laptop' problem that has dogged past MUTEKs—the painfully dull sight of an onstage 'performer' isolated behind a laptop—by adding an onscreen complement. Unfortunately, the visual-aural scenario introduces a different set of problems. Notwithstanding the fact that an engrossing display can camouflage musical mediocrity, a 'performance' now becomes even more pre-programmed than before and spontaneity is even further removed from the equation. Finally, many such presentations favour a rapid-fire montage of abstract imagery (the endless permutations of geometric shapes and patterns already a hoary cliché) that quickly grows tedious; video creators might consider screening a Werner Herzog film or two to be reminded of the power of a single sustained image.

Muddy sound quality plagued a number of sets. Tracks from Eliot Lipp's Tacoma Mockingbird predictably dominated his SAT appearance but the mix almost buried synths that blaze so brightly on disc, and similar problems afflicted concerts at MUTEK's new home, Fonderie Darling. Near stage front, sound quality was decent enough but, elsewhere, it verged on monolithic sludge. Consequently, the relentless 'boom-boom' began to sound generic, the sound gradually melding into one long uninterrupted and indistinguishable mass.

It's inevitable for an event of such magnitude (the seventh edition featured over 70 artists in 40-odd performances) to settle into a formula but MUTEK's programming (experimental and dance splits, panels, and workshops) has become too predictable—which doesn't mean stagnant, necessarily, just that the element of surprise has gone missing. Having said that, any organization that arranges for workshop attendees to learn about mastering from Stefan Betke and be introduced to Ableton Live deserves whatever applause comes its way.

The 2006 model did, however, appear to refashion itself as more of a dance than experimental music festival, an imbalance somewhat corrected by the closing night's ~scape showcase. Even so, the 2003 turntable set that included Philip Jack and Marina Rosenfeld seemed par for the MUTEK course at the time, merely one of any number of experimental offerings; in 2006, such a set would seem anomalous. Is it the case that the supposedly experimentally-disposed electronic genre has settled into a dance rut, with MUTEK's programming merely a reflection of that change? Or has MUTEK strayed from (or revised) its originating vision in order to more easily satisfy an audience—pandering to the techno masses, in other words? The obligatory Ex-Centris nights start to seem like token nods to experimentalism since, without them, the festival increasingly resembles a conventional electronic music dance festival (not counting the INTER_ACT sets which, while experimental, are relegated from the main series' stages to the sidelines). Or is it simply the case that, this year, there was nothing as unusual as “Studies For Thunder”?

The Ugly

Really only one thing to speak of here (though the time-wasting inclusion of provocateur 1-Speed Bike comes close) but the absolute horror of the thing more than compensates for its singular status: Detroit Grand Pubahs, an execrable singer-guitar-laptop outfit that followed Lawrence and Mossa on Saturday night's Metropolis bill. Why MUTEK would stain its reputation by including an act so astonishingly bad is mystifying. Witnessing the 'vocalist' barking offensive Neanderthal drivel and the guitarist's raunchy guitar soloing was almost unendurable. The acts that followed, electro-primitive noise duo Nôze and techno, house, and funk clinician Thomas Brinkmann, sounded all the better for coming after such a travesty.


Whatever the caveats, ultimately it's MUTEK's community spirit that makes it a bona fide experience instead of a mere concert series. Listeners and artists mingle freely, a casual spirit reigns, and crowd totals are never so large that suffocation or claustrophobia sets in. People dance, talk, drift in and out, while the music rolls relentlessly on with only the briefest of interruptions between sets, the music an endless, hours-long stream that sometimes becomes a mere backdrop to the social interaction. The city's warm spirit contributes to the vibe—that 'one nation under a groove' mentality fleetingly brought to fruition. Beyond all that, any festival that can convene the talents of Pierre Bastien, Modeselektor, Jelinek, and Dandy Jack earns it accolades.

November 2006