A Serious Affair

photo by Erica Hustak

All done up with tiny paper lanterns on the ceiling and sheer white curtains behind the stage, the Media Club was just a slight bit prettier than its usually unpretentious, grungy self. Colour and texture were established as themes before the first note was played (cleverly, I suppose?), but the decor also foreshadowed something odd about the night. This wasn’t to be a stick-to-basics affair. It was decorative and stylized, and though it certainly looked nice, it didn’t seem to follow a particular form or have a strong purpose.

When local openers Blind Horses took the stage, their youth was probably the most obvious thing about them. Looking young, dressing young, and carrying themselves young, they displayed that sort of rookie innocence you expect to see in recent high school graduates: somewhere between charming and pitiful, depending on one’s outlook. However, they apparently had also had a mild altercation with a bouncer, which seemed to have shaken their confidence.

Their vocal style was likewise quite boyish – not inappropriate for their brand of quirky indie/dream-pop – but, like their stage presence, suffered from a degree of disengagedness and lack of conviction. Their songs were interesting enough in their own right, containing some enjoyable guitar work and rhythmic complexity. Rather than focusing on melody and structure, the emphasis seemed to be more on texture and unpredictability. This alternative approach to songwriting has worked well for some, but without the dynamic variation and precise musicianship which are required to make a style like this work, it all felt sort of aimless. Combine this with the jerky transitions and lyric-obfuscating echo effect on the vocal microphones, and you have… well, a bit of a mess. While one doesn’t want to expect opening bands to perform poorly, it’s an expectation which allows audiences to have some mercy on green bands like Blind Horses.

Next up was Mirror Lake, owning the stage with their intense, business-casual swagger. Their frontman and principal songwriter, Bryce Janssens, spoke intentionally few words, saying only, “This is the only song I’m going to introduce, and it doesn’t have a title. I was going to do a synthy intro to it but…” before launching into their otherwise uninterrupted set.

Now, as a critic, I have to be very, sometimes painfully, aware that there is a fine line between confidence and arrogance. Janssens’ comment has layered meaning: it sets up appropriate expectations, showing respect for the audience. It also could mean, “I’m doing things my way, and I don’t care what you expect.” Call me a cynic, but that puts me on my guard.

Perhaps such assertiveness is deserved, though. Mirror Lake is a tight group of musicians, and they unleashed their dead-serious indie-rock stylings with precision. The movements of their second guitarist/keyboardist were particularly entertaining to watch: his face remained stony, yet his body couldn’t help but move to the music. It reminded me of those inflatable air dancer decorations you’ll sometimes see outside of used car dealerships, all fluid and involuntarily flappy. However, I would have liked to hear more melody in the songs, because, while they displayed a lot more maturity than the openers, Mirror Lake’s set still was not a musically satisfying experience. And to cap their set off, they simply stopped playing, Janssens muttering something like, “That’s it. Have a good night.” It was a strong performance, but the basics (good songs played to a good audience by good people) were conspicuously absent.

Then, at last, came Exitmusic. Sound and image are both important elements of any concert experience, and the Brooklyn, NY-based trio know this. With their sparse stage setup, projection of pretty moving colours onto rippled sheer curtains in the background (a nice touch, and much better than a projector screen), and lead singer Aleksa Palladino’s dark, haunting beauty, they made a visual impression to perfectly suit the music. It’s quite plain why this band has been getting some attention. Their style is a rich and brooding blend of electronic beats and ambient instrumentation. Palladino’s affected, moaning tones clutching at something deep in your soul, and the use of big, shoegazing guitar noise is tasteful and appropriate. They seem to have a well-developed sense of too much, not enough, and just right, as evidenced by their skillful use of repetition. Every element in their songs is repeated enough times for the listener to digest and grow accustomed to it, but not enough to bore them. I’m impressed at what an evocative and well-produced sensory experience they were able to create.

The one disturbance was when guitarist Devon Church abruptly and obviously chewed out an audience member near his side of the stage, regarding some kind of distracting behaviour. I can’t speak to how called-for that response was in context, but for the audience’s sake it probably should have been let go. Other than that slight hiccup, though, I’m convinced that Exitmusic is a band worth your attention. They have two EPs out right now, and I look forward to see what they get up to in the future.