The Île Soniq report

Our Music Team comments on the acts, the people and the party of Île Soniq 2015.

This movement contains recycled materials. Photo by Cindy Lopez
The second edition of Île Soniq lit up Parc Jean-Drapeau on Friday, Aug. 14 and Saturday, Aug. 15. See reviews and commentary by members of our Music Team here:

EDM vs. techno

The EDM festival scene in North America is a few years old now. One of the very first articles ever published on this site was a review of Skrillex’s Full Express Express show on Île Notre Dame in 2012, and the influence of artists like Skrillex and the massive Electric Daisy Carnival events on the U.S. West Coast has now fully arrived in Quebec with Île Soniq, a two-day gathering where costumed teens and 20-somethings bask in the shrill build-ups, bombastic bass drops, blitzing light shows and cannon blasts of steam and confetti. It’s the full summer bloom of the kind of shows that happen year-round at venues like New City Gas and Metropolis, where superstar DJs like David Guetta roll in and get massive payouts for working the board and riling up the crowd.

These DJs get no respect from techno connoisseurs (other than on an audacious cash-grab level), and not just because the critics are old — the feeling that kids are getting swindled by overpaid hacks playing formulaic music isn’t wrong, but it’s also nothing new. As someone who once attended a “rave” at the Olympic Stadium (albeit a rave featuring Moby, the Chemical Brothers and Daft Punk, not exactly a shit line-up), I remember being bored by the music foist on us at commercial raves and afterhours clubs in the late ’90s, most of it generic house and techno past its expiry date.

(Rock music is not immune to this phenomenon, obviously. Artistic innovation followed by mainstream popularity always breeds a rash of mediocre followers — the shittening, if you will, hits every genre. Most of the DJs at Île Soniq wove bits of pop, rock and dance radio songs into their sets, everything from Queen and Fleetwood Mac to Oasis and Red Hot Chili Peppers to incessant snippets of “I’m in Love With the Coco,” driving home the fact that the sound of this movement is little more than a tapestry of uniform beats and blasts dotted with mainstream pap. It’s the musical equivalent of TV for toddlers or advertising for the elderly.)

In the late ’90s, raves became more about the experience (ie. the drugs) than the music, and very quickly that music died and slithered back underground. That will happen again, and the festival kids who flirted with EDM at events like Île Soniq will have hazy memories of good times and minor dramas that left their ears ringing and their brains lightly damaged, just like we all do, whether you’re talking about rave culture or (going back quite a few more years) disco.

For a quality, detailed look at how this music movement and party scene exploded in North America, check out this Guardian piece from 2012, the year techno broke. (Lorraine Carpenter)
Vic Mensa 2
Vic Mensa. Photo by Darcy MacDonald

Earl Sweatshirt and Vic Mensa

Smartly introducing a little more live rap to the Ile Soniq bill this year, promoters booked two of hip hop’s more promising young up-and-comers: Chicago-born Kanye protege and Roc-a-fella signee Vic Mensa, and ex-OFWGKTA mod-ball Earl Sweatshirt.

Mensa, a considerable vocal talent whether rapping or singing, has been knockin’ them out in live appearances alone and with Ye, their SNL live debut of “Wolves” standing as a notable example of Mensa’s dimension as a vocalist. Meanwhile, Earl’s latest, I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside is an exercise in experimental, nihilistic, off-kilter indie rap, capably self-produced and intricately laced with a flow and insight that ultimately won me over as a huge fan, despite my general misgivings about the authenticity of Odd Future’s cast of brats.

This was basically why I had attended day two of Île Soniq, for a back-to-back dose of the new. When it was announced that Earl wouldn’t be at the festival, a little dip went outta my groove for a moment, I must admit.

Anyways, Mensa tour mate Towkio took the chance to get the crowd live with a few cuts while the DJ did some party-rockin’, and before long Mensa bounced on stage to smoke cannons and the boom of signature single “Feel That,” backed by a tight live band. The early-evening performance was solid, if a little too safe. Vic Mensa is definitely an artist coming into his own right now, on the road and in the sphere of the business, so I get the feeling that one day I may look back on this show as a precursor to something greater. And on a funny note, I later saw him in the VIP lounge spazzing out to System of a Down, which was endearing.

Earl? Apparently not so much. He honoured his Saturday night Club Soda appearance (rescheduled from May) but by all accounts, did little more than drink, DJ, have his friends run around on stage, and then half-heartedly rap a few crowd requests. No one I know who attended left satisfied. Glad I didn’t dash over and grab a scalper ticket to the sold-out show, as I had briefly considered. Too bad. Hopefully he’ll figure out, like I finally did, that he’s better than that.  (Darcy MacDonald)
Yolandi and Ninja. Photo by Cindy Lopez

Die Antwoord and Kiesza

Amid the majority EDM sets at Île Soniq were some electronic acts that stood out, playing pop songs and pouring personality into their shows. Die Antwoord fans screamed for Yolandi and Ninja, but this wasn’t the graver crowd that packed Metropolis last time they were in town. A large portion of the audience seemed stunned by the freaky presence of this South African crew, with their big-screen infantile dick jokes, Ninja’s aggro mannerisms and psycho stare and Yolandi’s pixie voice and sex alien shimmying. I can appreciate the WTF reaction of the uninitiated, because Die Antwoord is absolutely a band you would expect to see playing in a post-apocalyptic sci-film (which is perhaps why they starred in a fucked up sci-fi film of their own this year, a movie everyone but myself and our film critic Roxane Hudon seemed to hate — again, not for the uninitiated). To me, their mutant techno rap, oversexed-inbred cartoonishness and boosting of a lifestyle that they branded zef is all pretty endearing.
Kiesza & co. Photo by Cindy Lopez
Shifting vibes almost completely, Prairie pop-star Kiesza came on like a Madonna for the 21st century though admittedly it was partly the mesh and back-up dancers that triggered nostalgia for Madonna’s “Lucky Star” era. She’s got a couple of quality dance-pop songs, and quite a few cheesy ones that padded the set, but she is a cooler and musically more promising pop star than most that Canada has managed to produce in recent years — let’s hope she keeps at it and grows.

In the meantime, a pop oasis at Île Soniq was more than welcome, and the crowd showed love, especially when she revealed that her best friend had died the previous week, and that there was no better place for her to heal and celebrate this person’s life than on stage singing and dancing in Montreal. It was a moment. (LC)
Azealia Banks. Photo by Cindy Lopez

Azealia Banks

As the outspoken Harlem-bred rapper and cultural commentator explained mid-set to an exuberant (if perhaps a little sparse) main stage crowd, Azaelia Banks got her start here in Montreal. “When no one would give me work in New York, Montreal gave me a chance,” Banks enthused, big-upping stagemate and former MTL-dweller DJ Cosmo, as the duo made their first-ever, pseudo-hometown big-ticket debut.

We’re talking about a fairly polarizing figure in the game right now, and so I write this with the caveat that I feel a lot of the chatter about Banks amounts to being on some side or another, which I am not. Studio debut Broke With Expensive Tastes was inconsistent, and yet ultimately engaging, relevant and not undeserving of the long-brewing hype, which I can attest began here in Montreal, when mutual friends were telling me she was the next shit some four or five years ago.

I actually surprised myself by how much I was looking forward to seeing this set. And it wasn’t without its payoffs. But I have to point out a few things.

First off, the sound was ridiculously out of sync. Short of any other excuse than the sound guy being completely dusted, it was apparent that Cosmo was faced with mixing between shitty, wavering MP3 files to stems that made the system quake. I much, much, much preferred every instance of the latter. Thankfully, the vocal mix at least remained clear and intact the see-sawing low-ends. But more boom is required to switch the stage presence from show to spectacle.

On that note — two dancers in black, against a black backdrop, occasionally running on to do little more than mesh with the fabric of the DJ booth? Maybe after dark it looks prettier, but under a mostly clear dusk sky it was a needless distraction added to the start-stop uncertainty of the performance as a whole.

But damn if Banks can’t spit hard and strut right. On this, I cannot front. The energy of her performance transcended its technical shortcomings. I make no bones about loving Nicki Minaj, and yet late last month she fully hot-dogged it up — and blew my ear drums out, in a bad-touch kinda way — with a breathless, largely soulless Bell Centre show that bummed me out. By contrast, I came away from the hype of the Banks machine way less of a skeptic, with higher expectations for the future rather than a judgment of the now. (DM)
Reggae Fest in the distance
Reggae Fest across the water. Photo by Darcy MacDonald

Reggae Fest

At some point late in the afternoon, walking from the media tent along a tree-lined path of dirt road parallel to the river’s edge facing downtown Montreal, a short instance of silence from the main stage gave way to deep, echoing reggae dub. It made no sense, acoustically, as neither of Île Soniq’s other stages are positioned to bounce sound to where I was standing. The moment was cut short by a renewed thumping from the main stage, and I thought little else of it — till it happened again later.

Only after sundown and with a clearer view, from nearer the Calder, across the St. Lawrence to the city, did I realize Reggae Fest was underway at Quai Jacques Cartier. And for a moment then, I was listening to Lady Saw. Later, I took as many chances as I could to even overhear headliner Shabba Ranks. I’ll fuck with EDM but damn, was Jah callin’ me to swim the mighty river. It was a nice touch to an all-around irie day of abandon. (DM)

“Eat, Sleep, Rave, Repeat”

I can’t profess to have been some kinda hardcore PLUR baby-raver in the ’90s but I was around the scene from a pretty young age and by my late teens I was regularly attending the legendary Sona afterhours club and mega-raves organized by 514 Productions. And if you have no idea what the hell I am talking about, that is kinda the point.

For all the t-shirts I saw at Île Soniq declaring “Eat, Sleep, Rave, Repeat” and other homages to the electronic dance movement, that shit is as dead as a doornail, kids. This isn’t raving. And it’s okay, all things must pass. Having now witnessed two seasons of Île Soniq, it’s occurred to me that rave culture was never properly co-modified in the first place. So to the old-schoolers complaining that the culture was sold out, I call bullshit. The culture ate itself, and I can’t think of an industry other than perhaps the glowstick manufacturers that cashed out on it.

What I see at Île Soniq is a generation of partiers who don’t give a fuck what you call it, they just love the vibe. And who can blame them? It’s fun to lose it and dance. The kids I saw losing their shit during Snails’ Saturday evening set of self-described “vomitstep” (and the closest thing to an “old-school” experience I felt all day) will attest to that. I think we can just call Île Soniq a gigantic party and move on from labels, yes? Because I’d rather just be partying than raving or vomit-stepping. (DM) ■
To see our Île Soniq style gallery, look here. See our Île Soniq artist & crowd gallery here.

Our report from Île Soniq 2014 can be found here.