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Things Learned At: La Route Du Rock
Karl Smith , September 3rd, 2015 12:54

Karl Smith reflects on a weekend of sweat-filled rooms, faux foreboding, and architectural comeliness in Saint-Malo

Photo by Nicolas Joubard

Travelling by boat is ultimately more civilised than flying, but trains are still a shit show.

There are really only two things about air travel – the act of sitting astride a set of engines powerful enough to lift hundreds of people off the ground in what is essentially a roll of tinfoil with wings, stocked with warm white wine and literal and metaphorical shit sandwiches – that make it palatable. For obvious reasons the first of these is speed – the compression of a distance of hundreds of miles into a journey that takes less time than your standard commute. The second, and by all standard measurements the more important of the two, is that the very act of being in an airport in the early hours of the morning makes "Can I get a vodka and orange juice please?" a totally valid request. (See also: "A double, thanks.")

No, when it comes to flying, I'm not really onboard (sorry) and the first of many examples of Route Du Rock's superiority as a festival comes in their shipping us over on a 12-hour ferry with a bed to sleep in and a deck to sit on where we can enjoy the view, the fresh air, and – courtesy of a bar that has seemingly changed neither its décor nor its pricing in the last 30 years – some extremely cheap, fruit-adorned cocktails (as well as a bottle of Cava bought at Waterloo M&S that we were too embarrassed to open on the train).

When we arrive it is, as they say, "properly shitting it down", which coupled with a lack of sleep – at the hands of forgotten time zone changes, not exactly gentle oceanic motion (which is still better than turbulence) and some unexpected music, seemingly intended to somehow both rouse and relax us, being piped into the cabin in the early hours of the morning – sees our group looking a touch more ashen and grimly-determined than you'd expect of music journalists. But, having some time to kill before our rooms are ready, and even more before the start of Route Du Rock's 25th anniversary festival, Saint-Malo is a beautiful place and buckwheat pancakes and coffee are, if not a cure for most things, at least temporary panacea. C'est la vie.

The Thurston Moore Band have actual songs

Despite the undeniable cultural influence of the eponym himself, or the fact he's touring with members of Sonic Youth and My Bloody Valentine in his band, no one is actively excited by the prospect of watching Thurston Moore and his pals get deep, deep into the groove. I'm expecting something like the prison in The Dark Knight Rises but, as it turns out, the walls of said groove aren't that high: there's pop hooks and actual, memorable songs you could sing yourself if you were so inclined. It's a great lift for the late afternoon, tapering naturally into the evening rather than plateauing.

Girl Band belong in a dark, sweaty room

At some point on Thursday night - for various reasons, both self-administered and logistic, I'm not sure what time it is – I'm getting texts from friends in London telling me how good Girl Band were at The Lexington; how it's the first time they've "properly lost their shit" in years. This, obviously, is encouraging: I haven't lost my shit in a while either – the self-restraint I often apply at gigs can be a barrier to having anything like a good time.

Girl Band aren't even a little disappointing; their pedestalling of intensity and authenticity over melody is invigorating, comparable to a first watching of the scene in Pulp Fiction where John Travolta sticks Uma Thurman in the chest with a hypodermic full of adrenaline. It's not so much about the shot itself as the state of anxiety and anticipation one feels at waiting for and then actually seeing a needle penetrate the body of another human being. It's the proxy high of watching someone putting themselves on the line – near-overwhelming rage and melancholy absorbed by osmosis.

That being said, at the point where it should – and by all accounts apparently did the previous night – all kick off, their cover of 'Why They Hide the Bodies Under My Garage', sees the atmosphere (still charged and vicariously infectious) unchanged. The kind of music – the kind of energy – that Girl Band create is at its most effective when the epicentre and the periphery are a hair's breadth apart, delivered in a claustrophobic environment where perspiration drips not just from the back of your neck but from the walls too.

Algiers are just getting better

It may seem something of an oxymoron but one of the most pleasurable attributes music can possess is a certain sinister quality – a sense of dread that lifts your internal organs an inch or two closer to exiting your body via your throat – and Algiers have it in absolute truckloads. The doomy Southern Gothic vibe is palpably tense, merging gospel and out-and-out guitar music sensibilities; a proof that the idea of a culture clash based on irreconcilable differences (rich / the poor, black / white, religiosity / secularism) is nothing but a social construct self-imposed on a daily basis, perpetuating the myth of division as necessity.

What stands out with Algiers, though, is the sense it isn't faux foreboding (fauxboding, if you will) but an encapsulation of a mass feeling – a feeling that you don't necessarily always register day-to-day – in response to the bad machinery of the world we occupy.

Photo by Nicolas Joubard

RATATAT only have one song and Jeremy Clarkson probably fucking loves it

Two coinages are made during RATATAT's first-night headline set: the first, my own, 'Mediocore' is nothing if not accurate but admittedly lacks flair. The second, made by a learned colleague, has everything my own effort lacks – 'Top Gear Core' reflects not only the cheese-heavy riffing of the duo's oeuvre but the thinly-veiled Tory Dad-friendly appeal this kind of stadium-ready bullshit has inbuilt.

Kiasmos are a lot like Yodel

I've been listening to Kiasmos on record now for a while, having come to them via a longstanding love for Olafur Arnalds that stretched back to Eulogy For Evolution, but up until now I've failed – and perhaps the failing is on my part – to come away from their live shows with a sense that I've seen anything other than some nice boys playing with their gadgets. But, like Yodel, this time around Kiasmos deliver exactly what I've been waiting for them to deliver for ages — and not to my neighbour while I dare to have myself a five-minute shower.

The duo's signature brand of ebbing techno isn't as tailor-made for the nuclear bunker confines of the club as its doof-heavy kin and, taken out of that context, it's really something special: a perfect pairing for a sunset that seems reluctant to bring itself to an end, gifting us a lingering haze that seemingly illuminates the air around a reservoir – an ocean being too grandiose for the size of this crowd – of raised hands and moving bodies.

Being Dan Deacon is probably exhausting

Frankly, I don't think I could do it. The level of energy Deacon brings to the stage is borderline disorienting in and of itself — coupled with an attempted dance-off, some act-to-audience live action choreographing and a member of the crowd quite literally surfing a mattress over the heads of their peers the experience has a dreamlike quality difficult to manufacture.

Deacon's music, too, is possessing of that same phantasmagorical texture. What seems, on the surface, to be your standard – albeit very entertaining – dynamic pop-tronica is, on recollection, a heaving mass of micro-melodies bursting at the seams with ideas and with feeling.

The French hospitality game is strong

Saint-Malo is a handsome town; a marine fortress all but destroyed in the Second World War and painstakingly rebuilt with attention to the most minute of detail in its reconstruction. Like Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Sixth Day, should the original Saint-Malo somehow rise from the rubble its wife would already be going at it with the carbon copy.

But architectural comeliness – even in tandem with sunshine and a staggering coastal vista – does not necessarily make for a good time; as a serial misanthrope I've been plenty of beautiful places in my short life to date and had a terrible time of it. The staff at Route Du Rock absolutely are not going to let that happen and make a proper fist of making sure not only that they get us to the Church (or, more accurately the old fort wherein the festival takes places) on time but also that we see everything Saint-Malo and the surrounding area have to offer.

Cliff top panoramas, marina beers and some of the world's finest oysters aside what really sets it all off, the cherry on the top of Grade-A Bakewell of a trip, is the incomparable sonic and visual spectacle of a Frenchman (decked out in full Breton-stripe regalia) professing his love for and subsequently delivering lines from I'm Alan Partridge with veneration, encyclopaedic accuracy and aplomb. Jurassic Park.