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LIVE REPORT: M For Montreal
Karl Smith , December 5th, 2015 18:59

Karl Smith journeys to Canada, where Grimes performs as a "triumphant figurehead", following the release of Art Angels. (Photographs by Bruno Destombes)

I don't believe in auras, in chakras, in vibes or in the power of the universe; I don't believe in the notion of a unifying cosmic energy or the power of the stars and planets to determine the future. I believe in the agency of people to do good and bad things and for those things to have a knock-on effect on the lives of the people around them, the zeitgeist, and perhaps even the Anthropocene in macrocosm – like shimmering dominoes or a violent pyroclastic flow of the most wretched shit, respectively. It's a longstanding worldview and not one I expect to have challenged, even briefly, at a four-day showcase festival in Montreal. But, hey, maybe the Universe really does move in mysterious ways. Or something.

In 2015, "Ballardian" – being now so comprehensively ubiquitous – has lost more or less all of whatever meaning it once had. We've reached peak Ballard. Ballardian singularity. So many things are casually (correctly) placed under the marquee of the Sultan of Shepreth that it's now easier to say that things Just Are. With that in mind, riding from the non-space of the airport to the non-space of our hotel, it's hard not to be struck by a sense that things Very Much Are.

Setting aside the knowledge that we will later be bussed around the city to watch live music especially, and exclusively, curated for the media while the fog of tiredness creeps in around the peripheries of consciousness, the calm before the storm of jetlag – a notion which Very Much Is – visually, the slew of half-finished concrete spaghetti junctions seem to coalesce, suspended in the pre-twilight, forming a kind of anaesthetised rainbow above our slow-moving vehicle. It's a moment of dull clarity and one that, in its absence of anything in particular, provides a blank canvas for the days ahead, triggering – without invitation or intention – a quality of receptiveness to the days ahead.

This is M for Montreal's 10th year. Its expansion is impressive, but not unwieldy or beyond its means and the feeling, as a result, is not just one of instant familiarity but also something more like familial. Yes, there are enough journalists and other media personnel here to pack the dinner hall of Hotel 10 every night – switching tangibly from the Appolonian to the Dyonisian mode after the first bottle of wine – but not so many that we're not all on first-name terms with the small festival staff (who remain powerfully concerned for our enjoyment levels for the duration). And, as it often does with city festivals – with showcase festivals in particular – that fraternity drips from the top down: from the festival programmers, to the PRs, to the media and the artists. If there's one thing to take from M for Montreal, in that sense, it's that it is, very much, for Montreal; a gift to and a celebration of a city in which four days simply is not enough.

A mix of quasi-Parisian sleaze and American planning formality, Montreal is a city of intense juxtaposition; of strip clubs, of porn theatres only open during the day, of diners where coffee refills are considered a given and portion sizes alone are enough to cause a seizure – of linguistic divisions and occasional tension. (Of calling every hip-hop act the new, better version of Drake because Drake is from Toronto and – well – fuck that, right?) And so it goes with M itself. The line-up is eclectic, occasionally even confused – never unsteady, but occasionally unsure where exactly it sits within the larger mesh of things.

But what at first seems like it might be a ragged collage, something of a cut-and-paste job, quickly proves itself instead to be frenetic – possessing of effervescence. M for Montreal, essentially, is Berocca: you may not be immediately drawn to it in the palm of your hand, in its static state, but it's never long before the joy of the fizz takes an aesthetic and biological hold.

Rap, indie, electronic and potentially ill-advised cock rock artists nestle together on the bill: Dilly Dally give the first night absolutely what for in the basement room of the Rialto on the final night of their tour, Wasiu and Jazz Cartier (the latter another New, Better, Drake and the former very much tinted with ever looming shadow of UK Grime) are the definitive highlights of the hip-hop showcase at Café Cléopatre – which is actually a strip club and is either inadvertently or extremely sharply referencing Frank Ocean's 'Pyramids' in its becoming a venue for the night; and Lunice flawlessly executes a DJ set that swings between Kanye West and some proper thumping techno at a charity party for Win and Regine Butler's Haiti fund.

And then, of course, there's the main event. There's Claire Boucher. There's Grimes.

It's not that other shows have been empty or devoid of atmosphere – far from it, even. But this evening – this single period of time, which hangs suspended, somehow both isolated from and simultaneously the triumphant figurehead of the rest of the festival – is sold out. Where, on other evenings, the crowd has not unreasonably (but also out of necessity) looked to the artist to create a feeling, to release an energy powered by the momentum of their performance, Boucher sits at the helm of a perpetual motion machine. In keeping with the worldbuilding quality of Art Angels – its narrative complexity and its intraplay – she arrives, as we all do, not into a vacuum but into a breathtakingly vast and already infinitely expanding universe; to an atmosphere pre-charged with positive tension.

She's flanked by a set of dancers who seem not so much to articulate the music through a choreographed regime as to respond to it, fluidly, instinctively in the moment, as Boucher herself body-pops around the stage as though made of ever more vigorously exploding bubbles. Clad in something close to the uniform of the Health Goth subculture and backed only by a camo net, it's a lo-fi setup and better for it. People aren't here for theatrics – they're here on the strength of the entire Grimes catalogue, to see that played out in front of them and to lose themselves, however briefly, in the world that they cumulatively create; a world in which Boucher, however reluctantly, is the focal point. The shy axis.

It's very much a reverse "shut up and play the hits" affair. The hits are being pumped out with venom, abandon, joy and the full emotional spectrum in-between and, if anything, Boucher is too restrained in her conversation: 'Kill V. Maim', 'Scream' and 'Venus Fly' are drilled out emphatically alongside 'Be a Body' and 'Go'.

But, joined onstage by friends from the Montreal creative community – who dance with neither precision nor particular flair, but nonetheless empathically, heartwarmingly, with a palpable love – it's the pure joy of 'Phone Sex' (if you'll forgive the expression) and 'REALiTi' that finally square the circle and unify the audience once and for all, emboldening them, despite assurances that it will not arrive, to demand an impossible encore rather than give up the notion of another, all-consuming reality that has so possessed them.

Sure enough, it never comes. But, rather than separating and disappearing, the edges simply blur and two worlds merge into one. And, for a split second, it's almost possible that some grand unifier – some collective something – does exist.

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