Touch The Cold Air: Gazelle Twin Live In Montreal

A journey across the Atlantic to witness Quietus album of the year, Unflesh, in all its sinuous glory, as Gazelle Twin plays M For Montreal

Photo by Tom Nielsen

I almost don’t make it past the border. At the airport immigration desk, an unsmiling Canadian official looks at my passport as he thumbs through its pages. His chest bulges through his shirt. "This is clean. Why don’t you have any stamps?" he asks. "I’m a writer," I reply. "I only really travel when people pay me to." He raises his eyebrows and glances over his wooden booth at me sternly, holding up the little burgundy book open at a gaunt portrait of myself at seventeen; purple lips, barely-there eyebrows and a cold stare perfected over the course of five years. "Do you have any other form of identification?" He flicks my teenage face with a fingernail. "This doesn’t look anything like you." "That’s quite reassuring," I say, because it is. My purse is empty but for a debit card and an empty packet of chewing gum. I show him. There’s an intake of breath. He sucks in lips and scribbles angry hieroglyphics over my declaration card. My mind is swimming from the seven-hour flight on three hours sleep, and I can’t remember the name of the hotel where I’m staying for the next five days, or the names of any of the other people I’m on this trip with. I watch as they all disappear past the booths into the baggage reclaim hall beyond. Eventually he shrugs, lets out a pained, deliberated sigh and slams the stamp down on my passport begrudgingly. "Welcome to Canada," he says in monotone directed over my shoulder.

Montreal is a city built upon of a grid of freezing grey concrete, heavily populated by strip clubs and colossal, supermarket-sized pharmacies; aisle upon aisle of drugs for every possible scenario of debilitation. On Saturday afternoon I watch as crowds of children stand in front of a shop window on Rue Sainte-Catherine, a display of giant glass butt plugs behind them as they wave at a float of gingerbread men slowly driving past as part of the city’s annual Christmas parade. The police seem to show up at the end of every party. "No-one here complains about the weather, however cold it gets," says a stranger to me outside a bar on Thursday night while Ben UFO and Joy Orbison play to the warmth inside. I go to see Richard Mosse’s The Enclave in a small gallery tucked away behind the Notre-Dame Basilica. I sit against a wall in the darkness crying into my scarf while the glowing pink screens flicker. Outside, my phone tells me there’s going to be a wind-chill of -13°C. I complain about the weather a lot.

Divan Orange sits halfway up Saint Laurent Boulevard, a street that both socio-economically and linguistically slices the city in half. Head north, away from the dizzying towers of the business district and the boutique shopping region of Rue Sainte-Catherine, and the incline brings you to a strip of bars, restaurants and clubs where large groups of locals coalesce outside in the evenings; swathed in fur-lined coats that do nothing to comfort raised goosebumps on exposed legs below. Inside the tiny venue, a large boiler pipe runs the length of the ceiling, and a sizeable portion of wall space is pasted with posters of Elizabeth Bernholz wearing a familiar blue hoody and snarling, her face hidden but for the mouth by a pair of flesh covered tights. Tonight Bernholz’ Gazelle Twin project has been booked to play in the city alongside an endless string of imperious local indie bands as part of the week-long M For Montreal festival.

If you’ve been reading the Quietus this week, you may have noticed Gazelle Twin’s Unflesh made it to the top of our end of year albums list, in what, if I recall correctly, was a near unanimous vote. I can’t speak for my colleagues, but the album remained at the top of my own personal list predominantly because it was something I simply could not stop listening to. It lingered, it invaded my day-to-day meanderings, and it didn’t feel quite like anything else that had slipped into my inbox over the course of the year. So much music these days seems to cling to meaning as a tagged on afterthought; for overwrought press releases, for trends, for whatever other ulterior motive, but with Unflesh, these ideas; of the torments of adolescence, of body anxiety, of death, of miscarriage and illness, they seemed to permeate every inch of the album with pure, unashamed and unadulterated honesty. It doesn’t feel forced or uninformed: take a look through Bernholz’ own Tumblr and you’ll find pages of images threading these ideas together: from Julia Fullerton-Batten’s series of photos exploring the behavioural patterns of teenage girls; to Jake and Dinos Chapman’s Two Faced Cunt; to Sonya Kelliher-Combs’ thimbles made of walrus stomach stitched together with human hair.

Unflesh is guttural and inevitable, like sentences spilled out into moments of silence to penetrate the stillness hanging in the air. Bernholz’ lyrics are powerful in every form: spoken, sung, screamed. I can identify with her words, both as the fractious 14-year-old I once was, and now eight years later, in a more comfortable body and more rational of mind, but still haunted in many ways by years gone by. Bernholz understands what it is to be a woman, of course – she is one – but her sentiments don’t adhere to the domesticated, polished view of womanhood we find so often in the lyrics of mainstream feminist pop stars these days – for Bernholz they’re not even always necessarily female. It’s a visceral, violent reality of the body, of flesh and guts and epidermis, to be taken for better or worse: loved; hated; fought; defeated by.

At Divan Orange, two familiar hooded figures stride through the crowd – one red, one blue – and despite the sound of the mildly irritable music that is still blasting over the venue’s soundsystem, an uneasy sense of presence surges through the audience. Once onstage, Bernholz crouches down over an effects pedal, before leaping up for the opening scream of ‘Unflesh’, which hits the back of the throat harder than any inhalation of sub-zero temperature has all week. As the repeated refrain of "coming at me" begins, a man in a red Berghaus anorak jolts forward and begins rolling his shoulders, mirroring Bernholz’ every move but somehow never quite managing to keep up.

Gazelle Twin’s implementation of antithesis feels even more powerful in the flesh; the way Bernholz’ vocals transition from beautiful to terrifying within mere moments; the way she moves delicately across the stage before swaggering with towering physical aggression. As she works her way through Unflesh tonight, the heat inside the venue rises sharply. The man at the front removes his Berghaus jacket without so much as pausing for breath. On ‘Belly Of The Beast’ Bernholz’ own pronounced breaths become overwhelming; layered on top of one another, climaxing over supermarket till bloops and skeletal percussion. As the final track ‘Exorcise’ snarls and recoils over familiar arpeggios before the two figures onstage charge back into the crowd and disappear through a back door, I feel overcome with something that feels midway between catharsis and helplessness. It suddenly feels overwhelmingly striking to have witnessed such a performance of such an album, in a city so apparently dominated by commodifying body and mind-altering pharmaceuticals and the naked female form; a place that seemingly resents anyone who doesn’t look anything like the physical self they inhabited as a teenager. Of course, Montreal is not the only city of its kind in the world, but tonight its cold air feels particularly potent.

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