I guess we should probably begin at the beginning, making it sometime early-ish Thursday afternoon. We’ve just arrived in France and, after jumping on a delightfully cosy train from Paris, we spy armed guards roaming the relatively modest battlefields of Montparnasse railway station. A shame, yes. But such is the rigid fear that infects these shaky times, like a bad smell in a warm carriage, and you know, no one likes a whinger.
So yeah, we carry on, and a second astonishingly comfy and punctual vessel later find ourselves sallying triumphantly into the utopia of Brittany’s Rennes, rounding off a thirteen hour trip that really just flew by.
Now, looking around, Les Trans is actually a fairly big deal here: billboards and festival flyers abound and our first breaths of fresh air are met with a smug poster for the thing, mounted grandly amid a busy square. Further on, trees are wrapped up in Christmas, stretching down a determined road and away into the distance. Past prolific bounlangeries, where slovenly croissants mingle with pillowy, lusty-sweet pain au chocolats. Past the UBU venue, where, dancing like a 3D flickbook, likable arty type Mein Sohn William will later perform his profoundly odd hagiography of the current American president (sample lyric: “Black! / Brown! / American! / Naked!”). And past our weekend’s residence, Hotel Victoria, where I will, apparently, be mistaken for a cocaine salesman by a trio of majestically shitfaced French boys. Ah, hello, Rennes.
Slightly further afield is a close-knit set of aircraft hangars - Parc Expo - which are quite something. These big, stern, metal sheds out on the outskirts of Rennes; they welcome not, nor do they charm. And it takes a juttering, battering musical prospect of the sturdiest stock, such as Kennington’s Breton, such as the underground’s Zomby, such as the future’s Factory Floor, to scrape out its cold, formidable potential.
And yes, all the above deliver, in their own, unique ways, but no, first let’s talk about THURSDAY.
Tonight, Parc Expo is closed for business (Les Trans runs Thursday through Saturday, hangar gates open Friday), and it’s fair to suggest the opening night of Bars En Trans, a Camden Crawl kinda deal which runs alongside the main event, lags by comparison. That said, after briefly setting up camp outside a packed basement for dead-eyed, cabaret-inflected new wave from adored nineteeners La Femme, a startling discovery blossoms before us. Bolshy, bouncy and bracing, Bordeaux collective Crane Angels graciously win top prize for Thursday fun, with six-part harmonies and spurting guitars combining to cook up a strangely delicious influence-souffle of beansprouts (Radiohead), beef (Weezer) and bags of Happy Shoppers (Islet).
The first thing you notice as you step into La Liberté is the smell of souls burning, as Capacocha, a depressingly hyperactive, grinning disco-man, who seems bewildered by his prominent billing, bothers a huge hall bustling with weirdly unappalled grown-ups via shit tunes and shit-eating grins.
But it’s worth noting that while the qualities of music on show are as disparate as the styles of the stuff, no one cares much. Rennes emits a genuine, untouchable glow; the architecturally delighting city seems to thrive on the attention, firing on all cylinders, flaunting its well-rounded nuances, and we, the peculiar foreigners, are seeping and peeking in at the grand crescendo of its end-of-year party. That said, the general ambience is very much a fluid, interchangeable beast - that’s part of the appeal, actually - and so we find the atmosphere, like the evening wind, is aptly chilly for Breton on FRIDAY.
Charged with grinding this cranky opening night into gear, the sound/visual artists’ industrially blackened indie soars across the arched ceiling of Hall 9. And while the singing man wears his hood up, pacing about stage with the enthusiasm of a stoned factory-line worker, what makes the performance captivating is their glisteningly bleak versatility. Obsession-worthy recent single ’Edward the Confessor’ is a tight, strutting, wonderful thing, strobe lights and serrated strings assailing like fists, before an elegiac comedown of ’Governing Correctly’ twinkles eminently where others might implode.
One singular fact of the Parc Expo leg is that, due to the savvy employment of varyingly competent DJs, you never find yourself among the music-pumping hangars without live sounds to jive around to any longer than a couple of breath-catching minutes. And while nowt spectacular, the fact is an act like Souleyance, all lapping, groan-laden foot-movers, represent an exceptional alternative to the usually flaccid, compilation-playlist filler.
Next - seeking a discreet alcove in which to swig the violently inexpensive rum inhabiting my hip-flask - we head blindly to Hall 3. What’s found instead is a jostling army of nitwits baying at the altar of a French Mick Hucknall lookalike; a charmer fading into popular oblivion. The band, Kakkmaddafakka, is performing the worst reggae I think I’ve ever heard, and as if this weren’t punishment enough, two weekend B-boys on backing vox buoyantly make streaking bell-ends of themselves by dancing like pretty cool guys to the least viable racket this side of last night’s hamster-touching chauvinist Capacocha. Still, everyone loves this (anything to do with the fingers of weed smoke in attendance?) and FAIR PLAY TO ’EM, I say.
Us, we leave in search of... yeah, anything, really, and before long a thunderous, motorcycle-churning squelch has yanked us from bar to speaker-pummeling Spaniards Za!, whose ranting murk-rock faithfully endears a moment or two but quickly crystallises into so much lucid gibberish. Which affords us occasion to explore elsewhere. Indeed, we find much to celebrate: there’s an abundance of well-preserved men’s toilets with nary a queue to be grumbled upon. There’s a man with a large cut across his forehead, pathetically inarticulate on ’shrooms and MDMA and whiffing incessant cigarettes, with whom I converse for a healthy half hour. There is a nice bloke in the VIP area confidently proclaiming that Arsenal are the Sonic Youth of football (“It’s not about winning, it’s just about being beautiful,” he reflects). And there is the Green Room, for those chronically brave souls willing to offer up their feet to the gods of rhythm and party like a Sheffield Hallam fresher.
Ever the professionals, it’s back to hawt modern soundz for us, and while the straight, warm rum is becoming increasingly hard to swallow, for others, Hall 4’s following act proves yet moreso. If you didn’t know, Colin Stetson is basically all the good bits of Philip Glass being ‘Harrumph!’ed into a saxophone the size of a small elephant. It’s marvellous. ‘That’s the single!’ my mind yells as we wander into one of the sax-machine’s ostensibly more populist doodles. The Polaris-nominee concludes: “That was so FUN! Thank you guys so much. I have one more song. This is a LOVE song,” in un-fakeably charming fashion. The thing he does now is a clipped sky-flyer, all tar-flecked wings and hyper-erratic flutters and skitters, all passionate sea-captain clearing out the ship’s chimney with his unwieldy brass organ, as a lethargic purple pinpoints the unfortunates possessed to call it a day.
We arrive at Hall 9 early for potentially the biggest name of the festival, and if the place was well-populated for Breton, it’s positively brimming for SBTRKT. Their sub-aqeuous something-step puts one vaguely in mind of Burial-if-you-could-actually-dance-to-Burial, but at the same time, we lose something of the best urban foot-moving music’s concrete vividness. The rhythms go doubletime and the offbeat snare happens exactly where it should, and that’s what bothers me. Not much, mind. When the ticklish beats transcend all simple genre boundaries, in skittish finales and effervescent, interstellar explosions, all bets are off; SBTRKT come up trumps and roses in a technicolour bouquet.
Zombie-like by comparison, it’s 2am by the time Alexander Tucker conquers a sparse crowd with his strand of harsh, almost-clunky ambience. The man might look like an avant-rock magazine editor, but he drawls, drunken and nondescript, like some weird, depraved messenger from beneath. To borrow verbatim from my notes: 'Solar beams issue forth from behind the guy, his movements take on magical qualities, altering the course of light with a heavenly grandeur that visually alleviates the uprising tenements of noise, soaring and crashing skywards with an altogether ribcage-juddering superiority...' So like, really genuinely pretty good, yeah!
Back to the main hall to sniff out a central spot for Factory Floor, we’re hardly surprised to stumble upon a middle-aged man performing in only red pants, bare-arsed, purveying dangerously shite electro while implicitly threatening to curl one out on his own keyboard. Bizarrely there’s a sward of apparently sober-ish people merrily dancing their tits off. (Novelty is fine, but the guy could get booed of a Dingwalls toilet seat). The man in question is, we later discover, cross-cultural Mexican hip-hopster Silverio. Do with that information what you will.
Factory Floor’s crowd is less than half SBTRKT’s. Unperturbed, a trio of royally-ratfinked teens thrust rambunctiously into the centre circle to begin channeling minimal dance into maximal dancing, as those first iron-fist beats meet photosynthetic synth and soily, ground-up vocals. Three songs in a charming Frenchman is already stroking our faces, and the feeling is that Factory Floor have to be admired for finding the furthest, most perilous of extremes, and yet somehow dragging the ordinary with them.
Over in Hall 4 Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs, aka Orlando Higgingbottom, is alive and well, with a more beat-derived but nonetheless thrilling theatre of dance than the folks across the lane. At times it gets a bit Epicurean E4, and at times it sounds like basically a load of ringtones coupling up with phat basslines as scale-ily clad ladies pull sexy shapes onstage. But when an imperious voice comically bellows “Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs!” mid-song, one is reminded that any grim thoughts are but poorly cast ingredients in this peculiar and enrapturing play.
By 5am closing time, the French are lined up in rows, ultimately destroyed in twos and threes, dead-eyed and slack-necked, drugs and cigarettes, powerful alcohol, some keeled over entirely; TEED and Les Trans have made a fine job of it. We depart for the hotel on the night bus - packed with Europeans who are communally inebriated, and yet entirely civil, amiable - with ears and bellies hungrily anticipating tomorrow almost as much as our faces and limbs anticipate warmth, pillows and beds.
Saturday is market day and market day means handing over lots of money to obsequious Frenchers in exchange for unnecessary cheese and olives. This is a rare experience, but when your bag is quite so much heavier (and wallet so much lighter), it’s logical to conclude the effects of last night’s alcoholic consumption were yet to fully dissipate on arrival.
We dart off to UBU for some French music. After the aforementioned Mein Sohn William - whose skittish loop-pedal madness sputters, drops and occasionally erupts in dangling cacophonies, and whose startling quirks suggest forced kook, but whose eyes shine with bare, genuine-article madness - we gather at the sweetly named Le Papier Timbre bar, for parisian singer-songwriter Mina Tindle. Her angel-voiced coos reflect the oft-overlooked valleys of a Feist LP, arduously wringing out airy melodies before punctuating with delicate affectations; delightful, albeit distant. A power cut draws an audible communal groan and we exeunt like the pathetically impatient Englishfolk we are, to eat posh pizzas made of the best cheese.
Zomby, then, is billed for 9pm, despite tonight’s festivities continuing on into the rosy realms of 06:30. Not the ideal placing; perhaps intended to draw punters to Parc Expo early for accelerated consumption of expensive alcohol. But anyway, as much as you wonder whether this is the ideal, future-conquering format for live music - blah blah laptop and blah blah stage presence &c. - masked mysterio Zomby makes absolutely no bones about the situation, by simply hitting play, swigging champagne and er, making lots of bones, mid-performance. A lad to our left, who can’t be long into puberty, is having a right old time of it, flinging limbs awkwardly here, there and back again. Try telling him about stage presence. The thing is, one has to be quite good to get away with, you know, wearing a mask and banning photographers and sticking one’s righteous fingers up at the bastard man, but Zomby possesses a skill set all his own - nonchalant, likable, hypnotic, unfuckwithable, unmovingly cool and caked in mystery - which, if anything, kind of enhances the fantastic intensity of the occasion.
The same cannot be said for the evening’s remainder: Saturday functions effectively as the Dance Night, and is subsequently top larks with dwindling objective critical merit. Only one performance can approach yesterday’s rapidfire musical peaks: looking and strutting like Fresh Princes of fucking-Jupiter-or-something, Seattle’s Shabazz Palaces are something singular. Unsurprisingly, Hall 4 is packed with upwards of two-thousand people, a dense second-stage crowd only bettered - bafflingly - by Spank Rock a short while later, whose annoying, dim and potently trendy package has the whiff of the awful blighters your dad might namedrop to prove he’s Definitely a Real Chill Guy. Rather, Ishmael Butler and Tendai Maraire, sporting understated shades and synchronised dance moves, exude the potentially shy nattiness of renegade students who’ve just finished a particularly successful school presentation. It’s danceably dark, futurist suburban hip-hop that makes a temporary dystopia of the hangar, now predictably heavy with ostensibly forbidden cigarette smoke. What makes Shabazz Palaces notable is that their rejection of the familiar path is inclusive; they want us to understand, without having the point rammed down our throats. In fact, this proves a prevailing sticking point, as adventurous vocal contortions courtesy of a tankful of flanger often serve to erase the artist entirely, leaving a drifting audience impressed but far from in love.
Finally settling down in the magnetic hangar possessing both bar and the infamous Green Room, things happen that certainly need not be recounted here, even if they accurately could be. And as wallets gradually empty, and as our companions smugly jiggle successfully smuggled spirits around in their cheap pints of Coca-Cola, I sit in a pleasant reverie, preoccupied mainly with selfish thoughts of my (confiscated) hip-flask and the loaded bus journey home... pfft, just kidding! Like everyone else I consumed gallons of expensive Heineken, in spite of which, it is true that weekends scarcely come more memorable.