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Montreal Dances Across Borders Vol. 2: Everything works

One of the great joys that Independent Clauses brings me is the ability to wander around musically and figure out what’s good in lots of different genres. In 2019, I got into the deep, dark techno of Traversable Wormhole. (Because I could.) That discovery took me down a path which led to the Montréal Dances Across Borders series. I reviewed the first collection of heavy, dark dance music in the series very favorably, and thus I am thrilled to hear the second collection in the series today.

Jean Grünewald, one of the curators of the project, explained that MDAB is “a series of solidarity compilations bringing together artists of ‘underground dance music’ in Montreal (originally Tiotia:ke in the language of Kanien’kehá:ka people). This project is to remind that this music, embodied in spaces, is above all political – and made to unite across all types of physical or abstract borders.” The solidarity aspect has a practical aspect: all profits of the compilations are donated to Solidarity Across Borders — a non-profit organization that works to protect human rights, active in Montreal since 2003, whose action has been intensified during the pandemic.

Intense is a good entry point into the music: these pieces are all in their own ways intense (except the closer). The genres here span straight-ahead techno, industrial, hardstyle and more; the throughline is that these are all nighttime pieces, primarily in minor keys. Opener “Irion (Live)” by HRT opens with an ominous blast of distortion cut through by complex bass kick patterns. Sounds reminiscent of hi-hats, various zaps, synths, and (eventually) snares slowly accrete to unexpectedly turn this into a banger of a techno cut–without ever losing the distortion undergirding it all. Follow-up “Rinçage” by LE SERVICE HUMAIN goes in the other direction, going minimalist–almost brutalist–in its stripped down core of polyrhythmic bass kick, buzz, and occasional other bits. These two show the wide range of the sounds on the comp.

Yet while these tracks are dark and intense, they only rarely dabble in machine-sounding industrial work. The closest is in the heavily reverbed percussive hits and distorted vocals of PULSUM’s “Demonic Nature, Depressive Misery.” Yet the four-on-the-floor bass gives it away as a techno track dabbling in industrial vibes and not the other way around.(The bio of LE SERVICE HUMAIN also references industrial, although their track here does not evoke as many sonic monikers of the genre as PULSUM’s.) “Red Wine (Live)” by AN_NA similarly dabbles in industrial vocal styles with dour, distorted contralto vocals, but the insistent hardstyle-esque backbeat and singable chorus again yank the sounds back into techno territory.

Given my fascination with the deep techno cuts of Traversable Wormhole, the standout for me is “Walk With Me” by s.talbot. This techno cut is sleek, punchy, and vibrant. The pace is quick without feeling chaotic, as the round tones of the leading synths and the distinctly chosen percussive sounds temper what could otherwise feel like a breakneck, out-of-control piece. Instead, it’s a demonstration of tight control of mood via subtle tonal choices. “Loki’s Flyting” by Inside Blur has a similar vibe, but with the restrictor plate taken off: this one relishes its existence as a techno cut and goes for it full bore.

Some more experimental cuts populate the back end of the record. “POLICE STORY (FEATURING SERIEU X) by HUMAN JUNGLE merges some warped ’90s big beat vibes with ominous, mumbled, distorted spoken word vocals for an unexpected experience. “10 Pixels” by K draws heavily from ’80s noir synthpop for its concept then merges it with Tron for fun. (It is a lot of fun!) “After” by Remote Access is a deconstructed techno cut reliant heavily on polyrhtyhmic snare programming and meticulously constructed atmosphere; bass hits come in sparingly, for release. Its unique approach is distinctive on the record; it’s a late highlight.

Closer “De L’Inconvénient D’Être Né” by DBY is the only track on the compilation that could be called dreamy, and the only one that even flirts with bright sounds key. (Is that … a major key?) As a result, the sounds evoke a heavier Ulrich Schnauss or Teen Daze. This track punches my buttons pretty strongly; I’m ready to hear a lot more DBY after this. It’s an excellent closer to segue the listener out.

Montréal Dances Across Borders Vol. 2 is an extremely well-curated collection. It displays a wide variety of sounds and approaches that all work together; nothing on this record sounds out of place or forced. Everything fits into the vibe of the overall set. This record has captured the energy and vibe of a great DJ set and turned it into a great album. Highly recommended.