Live Review

Trans Musicales De Rennes 2012: Day One

The scope and sheer number of artists performing is mightily impressive, if a little difficult to plan for.

France. Land of culture and revolution, the last refuge of the hopeless romantic. Home to Baudelaire and Balzac, haunted free spirits whose genius lit the path of turmoil and tragedy. But there’s precious little of Les Fleurs du Mal’s decadence and passion on view as our train trundles slowly through Paris’ north-eastern suburbs. In its place, the cold grey morning lends a inhuman sheen to the gritty, industrial decay – endless sidings, abandoned factories, and a vast urban wasteland that says much about the current state of Western Europe and our beloved capitalism.

Such distracting thoughts are an inauspicious start to a weekend of musical discovery, for our destination is Rennes, and the 34th edition of the Trans Musicales festival. Founded in 1979 by Jean-Louis Brossard and Béatrice Macé, its history is that of the outsider; solace for the weird, the wonderful and the avant garde, a defiant outpost of individuality. Much like Postcard Records and their most famous alumni, Orange Juice, their ethos was simple – why go to Paris, when Paris can come to us? With Coca Cola and MTV among this year’s sponsors it’s clear that reality and time has tempered such idealism. But, as we head east, the view changes as the miles and hours pass – the rolling, bucolic landscapes of Brittany unfurl before our eyes, concrete giving way to cute towns and pastoral simplicity. Even the sun makes an appearance, piercing the gloom and the fug of tiredness as we contemplate our assault.

Photo: Ph. Remond 2012

Spread out across the city and eleven different venues, it’s by no means a boutique festival. On the contrary, the scope and sheer number of artists performing is mightily impressive, if a little difficult to plan for. We begin with Goldwave, a much-touted French New-Wave five piece, and we’re not disappointed. Recent EP ‘Night Lights’ provides a neat snapshot of their influences and preferred sound; dark, sinister guitars with a healthy dose of synths, a Gallic Interpol without the aggressive unhappiness. It’s a rich heritage they’re following in the footsteps of, but they seem completely unperturbed and full of confidence performing to an enthusiastic crowd. They certainly have the tunes to justify the turnout; the spectral synths of ‘Soft Silk, the building crescendo of ‘Snow’, and the angular, burning guitar that gives ‘Sunshine’ its nervous edge display a level of accomplishment that’s rare in young bands, and only once, with ‘8th of November’, do they topple into copycat territory. Determined to build on the legacy of such illustrious forebears rather than just cherry pick the highlights, they’ve made an auspicious start and are certainly worth watching.

Photo: Ph. Remond 2012

From the centre to the suburbs, we move on to the Parc Expo, a sprawling hanger complex within Rennes airport and the setting for late night revelry. It’s a familiar setup for anyone acquainted with Barcelona’s Sonar, albeit minus the pill pushers and Red Bull sellers. In fact, the paucity of revellers – the Thursday is traditionally quieter we’re told – coupled with the presence of a champagne bar, oyster stand, and even a tea room lend a bizarre, genteel air to the muffled beats that greet our arrival. That pretence is soon blasted away by Berlin-based trio Camera, who seem intent on pushing the formidable sound system to its outer limits. Dubbed “Krautrock Guerilla”, their meandering drones pull in elements from math rock, new wave, and jam bands of yore, with songs bleeding into each other and stretched out beyond their normal limits. Imagine the bastard love child of Can, NEU!, and Battles, and you’re halfway there. Feedback, distortion, and a never-ending motorik groove drive everything forward, the ebb and flow of focus from guitar to synth mirroring the waves of noise that wash over us. It’s powerful, sweaty stuff, and having already performed with – and been acclaimed by – Michael Rother and Dieter Moebius, it’s easy to see why they are so highly regarded in their homeland.

It’s often difficult to take stock of the shifting musical sands in foreign lands, particularly as it’s so easy to just focus on the twin behemoths of London and New York. With so many French acts on the bill – to be expected, naturally – its possible to build a picture of the styles and genres that currently have the most traction and fans this side of the channel. And here, it’s dark, introspective swirls that pay homage to shoegaze and coldwave, a sound that seems to wrap you up and envelop the senses; as protection against uncertain times, or a remedy to the honesty and truth of the music itself.

Photo: Ph. Remond 2012

It’s also a sound that Parisians Team Ghost have attempted to make their own. Formed by Nicola Fromageau – one-time co-founder of M83 – they have the pedigree, and it’s interesting to see them meld the sky-high synth rush of his former band to expansive guitars, but they just about pull it off. Taking various visual queues from the likes of the Hives – black shirts and trousers, skinny ties, their name writ large in the background – they also seem beset by the same dilemma that has plagued Pelle Almqvist & co. Torn between two paths, their material veers between the commercial and the challenging, as if they can’t decide whether to push for radio airplay or stay true to their roots. It’s a tough stick-or-twist decision, but it’s when the opt for the latter that they truly shine; tracks like ‘A Glorious Time’ and ‘High Hopes’ are dissonant, modern anthems that channel raw power and render some of their newer material, such as recent single ‘Dead Film Star’, positively anaemic by comparison.

Photo: Philippe Remond 2012

Despite the industrial setting, the Expo doesn’t just cater to DJs, electronica, or the heavier end of the spectrum, something we have confirmed a little before 11pm when Nick Waterhouse strides on stage. Boasting not just one but two sax players, he’s gone to a lot of trouble to recreate his beloved 1950s R’n’B, soul and surf guitar; music that makes you want to grab the pomade, throw on a slick suit, and start knocking back Manhattans. Nothing here is particularly original, but his mastery of the craft and obvious love for the source material raises everything above mere homage; there’s a respect and sincerity at play that’s sadly all too rare. Most impressively of all, he even nails the casual confidence and cock-sure swagger of the era – see ‘Say I Wanna Know’ and ‘(If) You Want Trouble’ for proof – when the USA was still great and the American Dream had yet to be exposed as a nefarious sham. The impromptu lindy-hopping down the front sums it up neatly; old fashioned, good time rockin’.

Photo: NiCom,

And so to wonderkid Hugo Pierre Leclerq, the French DJ and producer better known as Madeon. He’s the night’s biggest draw – by the time he takes the stage, the hall is packed with tipsy teenagers – and has the setup to match. Perched behind a translucent, glowing lectern, the light show is nothing short of spectacular; huge gantries dangling directly over the crowd blast strobes and lasers in all directions, creating some mind-bending 3D effects, while his desk, laden with just a few, twinkling boxes, pulses and changes in time to the beat. A mass of bodies writhe and bounce down the front, responding in kind every time he raises his hands or thumps the air, like some eerie, late night disco cult. And, like most cults, blind worship is the order of the day; the music is a generic mush of the beats and basslines that Justice got so much mileage from back in 2007, but minus the hooks, the heart, and the humour. It’s two steps away from Ibiza club music and, if he continues his rapid ascent, next summer I’m sure it will be. There’s no doubt his is an impressive command of the tech and the dancefloor for someone so young, but such populist proficiency is a poor substitute for originality; gimmicks such as a looping sample of Blur’s ‘Song 2’ and fragments of Madonna’s ‘Ray of Light’ do nothing but highlight commercial EDM’s ongoing race to the bottom and leave a familiar, dull ringing in our ears as we step out into the freezing night and head for home.

Tags: Madeon, Features

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