A lot of the bands at this year's M for Montreal festival seemed to have some sort of schtick, whether it was a wild lead singer who jumped into the crowd, guitarists prone to rock star posing, or an impressive audio-visual backdrop. Hamilton, Ontario five-piece Arkells had no schtick, but no other band at the fest had as many memorable songs to my virgin ears as them. Reminiscent of '80s blue collar heartland rock (be it The Boss or the Mats) Arkell's songs traded flash for big chords, bigger hooks and instantly catchy "hey hey hey" choruses. You'll be lucky to get half the songs on their debut, Jackson Square, out of your head after the first listen — even if that first listen is when you see them live. Good songs trump style anyday.
I remember thinking halfway through the M for Montreal festival, "None of these bands will ever play Market Hotel." So many of the bands exuded a professionalism/flash/showmanship that you just couldn't imagine them playing a semi-legal venue in Brooklyn without a real stage* where your only beverage option is PBR. Not that there's anything wrong with that. I like a little showmanship and the bands' technical abilities, but after seeing so many DIY bands at DIY venues, it was a bit of a shock to see bands trying so hard.
Then there was Red Mass who both tried hard but are the kind of band who, I'm going to guess, would clearly choose Death by Audio or Market Hotel (or Cake Shop) over Mercury Lounge or Bowery Ballroom as their NYC debut. Featuring members of infamous garage rock collective CPC Gangbangs, this was Red Mass' first-ever live show and clearly they wanted to make a statement. As their name would suggest, Red Mass were about 10 strong and all-clad in red… apart from the one dude who wore only a Speedo and gold paint.
The first thing I wrote down in my little notebook was "BJM." Band-leader Choyce looks a little like Anton Newcombe and his attitude toward rock n' roll (it is a lifestyle, not a genre) is the same. (And the gold dude is their Joel Gion.) However, unlike the druggy miasma of the BJM, Red Mass are straight from the garage: we're talking The Sonics, The Damned, MC5. (Albiet with obvious psych influences; I imagine they both love Roky Erikson.) Guitarists were on speakers, members spilled out onto the floor, and there was even a clarinet player. I will admit to spending a disproportionate amount of time watching guitarist Giselle Webber (veteran of many Montreal bands) but there was so much going on you could focus on any one member and be entertained. And oh yeah: great songs too. Look for them in a semi-legal venue (or house party) near you soon.
Red Mass have a singles out on Red Lounge and Psychic Handshake but I'm not exactly sure how you go about buying them. Red Mass are new. It will come.
*Yes I realize Market Hotel has an actual stage.
A girl was berating me, in a thick French accent that seemed to me to border on parody, for putting in earplugs. "You cannot wear zose for BEAST! You must hear her voice pure." I tried to explain the amount of shows I go to and how I already have ringing in my ears and don't need it to be any louder. She accepted my answer but continued her enthusiasm about BEAST singer Betty Bonifassi. "My English eez not so good but she has the best fucking voice you ever going to hear!"
I don't know if it was the best, but Bonifassi definitely has one of those voices that commands you to pay attention, big and brassy like Shirley Bassey or Roisin Murphy, capable of torchy ballads and even a little rapping. And this girl was not the only one in the audience who held that opinion. Though BEAST only performed live for the first time in March, the band (Bonifassi and drummer/producer Jean-Philippe Goncalves) have clearly gained quite a following since then — and if this night's crowd was any indication, most of them are females. They were going wild for her.
It should be said that Bonifassi is a veteran of the Paris and Montreal music scene and her pipes have a starring role in The Triplets of Belleville (she sang on the Oscars for it too). Goncalves too is a noted producer, and the two joined forces initially to work on music for a videogame and it turned into BEAST. Like a louder, more-aggressive update of '90s trip hop (Maybe trip hop meets big beat, with just a little industrial in there too), it's not the most current sound in the world but Bonifassi's voice and presence are enough to make you realize you are definitely here and now.
BEAST's self-titled debut is out now digitally via iTunes and will hopefully get a physical release outside of Canada soon. They are better live than on record though, so go see them if you can. For now that just a few dates across the border…
Dec 5 Transmission Vancouver
Dec 11 Live Lounge Ottawa, Ontario
Dec 13 La Forge Tremblant, Quebec
Dec 19 Mod Club Toronto, Ontario