Son Raw was in attendance with blessings.
You couldn’t choose two more diametrically opposed visions of underground techno if you tried. In the red corner, headliner Nicolas Jaar’s stage show reimagined Depeche Mode for the Berghain set, transforming the Chilean wunderkind’s songs into expansive, Moog-powered jams punctuated by reverb-soaked vocals and the occasional dembow. In the blue corner, opener Actress…not that anyone at Montreal’s Olympia caught a glimpse of the man. Instead, as a cycle of ambient gurgles, pounding beats, and bubbling melodies shifted in abrupt segues, a silver mannequin stood in front of a Korg keyboard, surrounded by screens diffusing face-melting projections. No performer, only the performance.
This confused more than a few punters in the room but to be honest, I knew the score: the first time I saw Actress at Mutek, he DJ’d eyes low, covered by a hoodie. A few years later at Plastic People, he literally hid underneath the DJ booth while playing drone sounds out of his laptop. With this in mind, replacing himself with a plastic stand-in while he performed out of sight felt like a logical conclusion: The guy does not like attention.
It made for a striking contrast to Jaar, a showman at heart even as he cloaked his crooner warbling in a Lynchian veil of darkness. Five years removed from America’s EDM boom, America has made room for subtler strands of dance music, but it remains enthralled by the easily Instagrammable pull of dance music as #fun #youth #culture, embracing drug fueled hedonism without ever mentioning said drugs, lest it lead to a loss of sponsorships.
Actress, however, is the perfect encapsulation of angular, European intellectualism—deconstructing the very idea of fun into an art exhibit to contemplate and absorb. It’s the kind of music that thrives best in boutique festivals and MoMA PS1 Warm Ups, but placed before Jaar’s smooth, easily rolling dance-psychedelia, it must have made for more than a few awkward come ups, judging by the amount of saucer eyed pupils I witnessed by the end of the night. I’m almost certain Actress relished it, even if his own music didn’t invite chemical alteration.
Ultimately, however, Actress’ set easily proved the more substantive of the two. Though smaller scale, particularly in the cavernous Olympia, its infiltration into the North American dance circuit was a victory in and of itself, particularly given more than a few fans rushed the stage, there to see his arty IDM rather than the main event. They may have been left scratching their heads, but that’s an impact all the same.