Calgary, Canada’s annual Sled Island festival celebrated its tenth year last weekend. The four-day, multi-venue musical summit’s organizers flew headliners including ‘90s lo-fi legends Guided by Voices, new-school folk favorite Angel Olsen and Tacoma garage-rock granddads The Sonics into Canada’s interior.
But the bigger name acts shared stages with punk and post-punk bands on the verge from both sides of the border — Detroit’s Protomartyr, Seattle’s Darto and Vancouver’s Sightlines and Supermoon (both new projects of musicians interviewed for this 2013 Globalist Vancouver scene report) among them.
I arrived Wednesday aiming to mix-and-match from the above, but early on, after hearing second-hand that one of the headliners, playing to a capacity crowd, kind of phoned it in — and seeing a pair of locals, power-popsters Lab Coast and grunge revivalists Empty Heads, really turn it up in less-crowded environs — I figured my time there would be better spent checking out as many of the staggering 250-band bill’s undercards as I could, most of whom have yet to tour the States.
By Sunday morning, when I headed home, I’d caught nearly three dozen performances, arguably the most interesting-sounding coming from smaller Western Canadian burgs few Americans could even pinpoint on a map, let alone know have music scenes.
To be clear, the host city Calgary is no small town, with lots to offer music-loving denizens and visitors. There’s a college radio station , a vinyl-pressing plant, a record store I’d been hearing about for years, tons of venues within manageable walking distance from one another, and a futuristic new multi-purpose complex called the National Music Centre opening next month, featuring collections of obscure instruments and an ephemera-filled Canadian rock’n’roll hall of fame, plus interactive displays à la the EMP and spaces intended for eventual long-term artist residencies.
What it doesn’t have, though, is much of a history as a hub for original music — at least not beyond Nickelback, Loverboy and Tegan and Sara (and yes, I had to Google that).
But in the context of new Canadiana, that’s changed considerably in the last decade with the brief but pronounced reign of Women, a young but wise-beyond-its-years four-piece that intrepidly melded ‘60s pop and psych stylings to post-punk and found-sound experimentation.
The band’s run was tragically cut short just two albums in by the death of guitarist, songwriter and co-founder Christopher Reimer in 2012. (Two of the three surviving members now play in the more refined — but also more divisive — Calgary band Viet Cong, recently renamed Preoccupations.)
On Saturday, the festival’s final day, I was treated to a remarkable string of sets that affirmed that Women has indeed been something of a game-changer for Canada’s indie scene, or at least its western half’s. I heard and saw the band’s hallmarks everywhere — emotionally distant vocals, dissonant harmonies, lockstep rhythm sections, cool-looking, wonky-sounding old thrifted guitars.
Yet this latest crop of bands went beyond that, showcasing the wonderful new ways in which that influence is germinating.
Fountain, from Victoria, B.C., played four shows over the course of the weekend, the buzz around them seeming to grow as they went. “You must see them,” I was told numerous times, and reminded by the ubiquity of their shirts on showgoers — far and away the fest’s must-have merch item.
After missing the first three due to all the other great stuff going on, I finally learned why after braving a torrential midday rainstorm (one of many — Calgary’s weather is crazy) to catch the fourth and final one.
Fountain are post-punk par excellence. Working with a wide variety of tempos and moods, with killer angular guitar tones and virtuosic drumming — even putting their own spin on a Devo deep cut, “Auto Modown.” They’re everything you’d want in a punk band, the frantic, tightly-wound, gotta-get-it-all-out-now urgency of their set Saturday earning a much-deserved standing ovation once it was done. Apparently they’ll be touring down to Seattle this fall — keep an ear to the ground.
Then I saw MASKS, hailing from Medicine Hat, Alberta, whose internet footprint is nil and who didn’t bring any music or merch to sell. They’re more of a work in progress but nonetheless offered up a promising mix of clanging, atonal guitar, mechanical grooves, weird mathy bits and a downcast, stationary frontman with plenty of angst, whose indecipherable howls left me wondering — what does he sing about?
The Avulsions, from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, meanwhile, left me speechless. With two guitars, bass, synths, drums and, most notably, three Electro-Harmonix Freeze pedals — a versatile device that allows for endless sustain of any note or chord — the foursome took the couple dozen of us in attendance away for an ecstatic half-hourlong sonic head-trip that was at once bright, bleak, physical, fiercely unpredictable and entirely its own thing.
Watching and listening, I knew I not only had my story, but might’ve just stumbled into what could be one of the next great bands, post-punk, Canadian or otherwise.