About halfway through the drive to Rouyn-Noranda, a sleepy mining town in northwestern Quebec that plays host to the FME (Festival de Musique Emergente), you’d be forgiven for wondering if there hasn’t been some mistake. Maybe you’ve made a wrong turn somewhere, or Google Maps is playing up on you. You haven’t seen anything but the jagged tips of Boreal forest pine and the shimmering surfaces of boatless lakes for nigh on two hours and it’s beginning to seem daft the idea that there’s anything beyond you but more forest, more lakes, certainly not a music festival.
Either that, or the FME would have to be one hell of a festival – and having made the 1250km roundtrip from Montreal this Labour Day weekend, we can wholeheartedly say that yes, it most certainly is. Indeed, any festival celebrating its 15th birthday could hardly be otherwise.
With an intriguing line-up of artists on offer, the FME caters to just about every taste of music imaginable: from hip-hop to folk, electro-pop to black metal and everything in between, the variety of genres catered for is not just abundant but well-balanced and at no point do you feel that any of the bands have been crowbarred into the programme as a token gesture to appeal to a particular crowd, without offering those fans anything else to enjoy.
The festival got off to a powerful start, with Kinshasa-born/Montreal-based Pierre Kwenders and Ottawa trio A Tribe Called Red headlining the main outdoor stage, before the action moved indoors to the Petit Theatre where talented youngsters Atsuko Chiba took us on a spaced-out voyage through prog-rock and experimental soundscapes at turns ominous and uplifting, before electro-punk stalwarts Duchess Says took things up a notch with a typically kinetic performance, lead-singer and keyboardist Annie-Claude Deschenes proving herself, as always, to be one of the most fearless and lunatic performers out there. Witnessing a singer so completely in her element, surfing the crowd and thrashing around in the pit, microphone in hand, belting out the lyrics with boundless energy, is almost worth the price of a ticket alone.
Friday night, things got even more raucous. Montreal psych-rockers Elephant Stone, led by sitar maestro Rishi Dhir, dazzled with their blend of ethereal Eastern sounds and dynamic, melodic arrangements – yet this was the calm before the storm. Their set was followed by one of the highlights of the weekend: New York noise-rock mavens A Place To Bury Strangers. If you’ve ever mused that the days of insane onstage antics that end in blood loss and broken instruments seem to be well and truly over, APTBS frontman Oliver Ackermann well and truly put that to rights. They were about three songs in when the first Fender Jaguar was smashed to smithereens and lay in a shattered heap of splintered wood and snapped strings for the remainder of the set. It’s a minor miracle the replacement guitar made it through the night, though in what state is hard to say, for the last ten minutes of the show saw Ackermann beat it and saw at it with a pulsating strobe light. At one point he and bassist Dion Lunadon faced-off and lunged at one another, instruments first, their guitars crashing together in much the way antelope lock horns in a fight for dominance. A cynic might accuse them of histrionics, but the sounds they produced were ballistic, deafening and magnificent.
It might be said the festival peaked at this point, but there was still much more in store. Fans of country and rockabilly were treated to back-to-back nights of performances by Deke Dickerson, The Wild Tones and Bloodshot Bill; if black metal happened to be your cup of tea, then Sunday night was your night, with shows by Black Empire, Abysmal Dawn, death metal heavyweights Incantation and allegedly “the most blasphemous band in the world”, fearsome Swedish quartet Marduk. (Disclosure: I gave that one a miss.)
Rounding off the festival was a grandiose homage to local legend Richard Desjardins, led by some of the province’s most respected performers, and while non-Quebeckers may have been left somewhat indifferent, it was hard not to be moved by the sight of the 12,000-strong crowd huddled together in the cold on the shores of Lake Kiwanis, a five-minute drive out of town, singing along to every song, not least at the end when Desjardins himself – a man born and raised in Rouyn, a true hometown hero – made a surprise appearance and took to the stage to play a couple of songs to bring the 15th FME to an emotional close.
By Stephen Deane