X marks the spot

Toronto’s X Avant new music festival gives praise to generations of experimental sounds

Words: Jesse Locke // Photos and Video: Jesse Locke and Landon Speers

The legendary Nihilist Spasm Band (photo: Jesse Locke)

For his sixth annual X Avant as exiting artistic director of Toronto’s famed Music Gallery, festival founder Jonathan Bunce (a.k.a. Jonny Dovercourt) aimed to go out with a blowout. From high-profile opener Lee Ranaldo to composers-in-residence Tim Brady, Markus Popp and Michael Gordon plus a riotous closing performance by Canadian noise legends the Nihilist Spasm Band, 2011’s proceedings pulled out all the stops.

If Brian Wilson’s Smile is a teenage symphony to God, Ranaldo’s “Contre Jour” could be described as a radical adult’s concerto to the netherworld. Reprising the guitar swinging action he previously showed off at this summer’s Sled Island, the famed Sonic Youth axe-man strung his weathered Jazzmaster from a steel-wire noose, gleefully flinging it around the performance space at the Polish Combatants Hall. Creating a dreamlike wash of effects from a daisy chain of pedals, drumsticks and bow, the result was akin to the most ear-pleasing instrumental moments of Daydream Nation, ringing out like ecstatic church bells in purgatory. Combined with the gorgeous visuals of Leah Singer’s video projections on a massive wall-sized screen and a clattering mid-set pow wow from volunteer percussionists, Ranaldo provided a killer kick-off to the fest.

Back at the Music Gallery, Montreal’s Tim Brady took the stage for a solo performance of his own. Though his rapid-fire fretwork and metallic tonal explorations undoubtedly showed off some virtuosic skills (with several awe-inspiring moments) the slightly overlong set couldn’t help but pale in comparison to Ranaldo. Brady’s Branca-esque “20 Quarter Inch Jacks”, on the other hand, was a ton of fun, as he conducted (you guessed it) 20 electric guitar players through 30 swelling, squealing minutes. To give an example of the overall “tone” of the piece, one passage found Brady’s guitarmada chanting an alphabetical list of inspirations from B.B. King to James Blood Ulmer, with Jimi Hendrix filling in for X.

Glitch technocrat Oval (photo: Landon Speers)

The menacing Tim Hecker (photo: Landon Speers)

Night number two promised a powerful 1-2 punch with glitch pioneer Markus Popp (a.k.a. Oval) teamed with Montreal’s bad boy of drone, Tim Hecker. Local hip-hop/fusion quartet the Global Cities Ensemble started the show, yet the less said about them, the better. Popp’s performance marked his first in Canada in more than 15 years, with an excited, sold-out crowd gathered for the occasion. The abilities on display here were undeniable as the German technocrat cut and spliced sputtering samples through a countless array of rapid-paced permutations. Wailing guitars and crashing rock drums twitched alongside synthetic saw blades in a lengthy set as exhausting as it was exhaustive. From here, Hecker was perfectly set up to liquidate the room with his cortex-rumbling low end, processing sounds from the church’s pipe organ into a menacing wave of auditory magma.

Contact perform Michael Gordon's "Trance" (photo: Jesse Locke)

The Music Gallery’s pews were once again the place to be on Sunday night as the Contact ensemble swelled to 22 members for an epic rendering of Michael Gordon’s “Trance.” The Bang On A Can founder has produced a massively impressive body of work in the past quarter century, but this hour-long piece from 1995 might just take the cake in terms of breathless, mind-splitting sonic stimulation. Anchored by a herky jerky five-string bass heartbeat, the symphonic squadron added layer upon layer of off-kilter notes to a complex web of keyboards, accordion drone and eerily disembodied vocal samples, drifting from passages of sparse, pastoral beauty into rapturous intensity at the drop of a hat. Listen to an excerpt to experience it for yourself.

Disguises' damaged noise (photo: Jesse Locke)

The NSB get cooking (photo: Jesse Locke)

Toronto’s Disguises stormed the stage for a chaotic assault of skin-peeling noise damage, not slowing for a second even when animalistic stick-man Randy Gagne’s drumkit tumbled into disarray. The unrelenting trio represent the new generation of circuit-overloading ear torture and were canny programming on the festival’s part, providing an ideal lead-in for London, Ontario’s legendary Nihilist Spasm Band.

Since 1965, the NSB has mirthfully dismantled the notions of what music is supposed to sound like with a buzzing beehive of homebrewed instruments, noise-makers and vocalist Bill Exley’s booming foghorn monologues. Here at X Avant, the elder statesmen and permanently adopted member Aya Onishi sounded as spastic as ever, plowing through a selection of crowd favourites plus a cut from their upcoming album (!) on Wintage Records, closing it all off with the classic “No Canada”. Truly a national treasure if there ever was one, and a glorious finale for the fest.