It would be more than fair to say that Canada has offered a lot to popular and alternative music over the last couple decades, consistently showing it as a country that can not only hang with its bigger brother to the south but also all the weird intricacies that comes from being in the U.K Commonwealth and at one end, almost entirely French speaking. This is in no small part due to Canada's relentless promotion of the arts, funding promising bands and artists to get to an internationally renowned level (for example, Broken Social Scene) even during times of supposed austerity and economic downturn. No more, it seems, has this been keenly shown and felt than in Calgary, Alberta, home of Sled Island Festival.
However, it wasn't always like this. For many years, Canada's 4th biggest city was more interested in preserving its most well known commodities, namely: oil rigs, Wild West Rodeos, and Bret "The Hitman" Hart. Calgary (and Alberta as a whole) was for years seen as uninterested in "contemporary" culture because it didn't need to. Traditionally any city or area that is oil rich and, in North America especially, makes most of its tourism money from more traditional means such as The Rockie Mountains National Parks, The Calgary Stampede Rodeo and of course, Canada's national pastime, ice hockey, tend to not feel the need to diversify. However, that all changed a decade ago when the stock markets crashed and Calgary, forever playing catch-up with its bigger peers in Vancouver, Toronto, and Montreal, realised modernising may not be the worst idea for the city.
In Calgary's defence, it’s still a relatively young city. While it discovered oil at the beginning of the 20th Century, it's boom-time came in the 1970's, with the completion of the Calgary Tower (which ironically doesn't tower that much anymore amongst all the skyscrapers) and a rapid expansion in population due to jobs created in the oil business. The city's big coup came with the 1988 Winter Olympics (famous mostly for the film Cool Runnings) and kept growing throughout the 90s and most of the 00s.
Due to its relative youth, Calgary has a fairly young population compared to many other major cities, with this generation looking outwards to more contemporary arts as well as a desire to keep young professionals graduating out of the city's University and Art College. Hence, Sled Island was one of many festivals created in the mid-to-late 00s in an effort to promote the arts as a valuable asset to the city's ever rapidly expanding growth. Starting in 2007, Sled started off small but with big ambitions, choosing Mark Hamilton of Woodpigeon as its inaugural curator (a title that has since been held by Fucked Up, Kathleen Hanna, Peaches, Godspeed You Black Emperor!, Thee Oh Sees and Andrew W.K, to name a few) and the first edition attracted Boredoms, Spoon, Cat Power and The Walkmen as its initial headliners.
Over the decade, however, the festival has gone from strength to strength, and this year, with Flying Lotus as its guest curator, Sled Island now has a view to becoming a truly international festival. There’s a strong balance between notable headliners, an eclectic line-up in terms of genre (as well as FlyLo, DJ Quik, Converge, and Low are all given equal billing as headliners) and a strong undercard built on Canada's best and brightest smaller acts, giving them a platform to play amongst the festival's more renowned acts. Drowned in Sound spent a glorious week exploring Calgary's myriad venues, eateries, and drinking dens – all in the relatively compact Downtown Core – and here's the best of what we saw over the festival's four full days.
The first proper music programme kicks off on Wednesday evening at the Central United Church, right in the heart of downtown Calgary, which will become a key venue as the week goes on. The Church is a beautiful venue on the inside, all hardback pews and stuffy temperature; with a high roof, the sound really carries for anyone lucky enough to play there. Opening up proceedings are nearby Edmonton, Alberta's Faith Healer the psych-pop act led by the very talented Jessica Jalbert. Jalbert is a cool character on stage, full of wit and charm at a festival she has played and supported more than most over the years, though she can't help but admit being intimidated by the church venue – it’s her first time performing there – half-jokingly apologising for her band's "blasphemous name". Musically, Faith Healer are a well-oiled machine, with each of five members bringing something exciting and interesting to the mix without ever overstating themselves, bustling away behind Jalbert's sultry voice and endearing stage presence. The band switch easily between psychedelic rock, pop and gospelesque country music, with the band's keyboards particularly shimmering into the church's rafters.
Next up is California-based Weyes Blood, also known as Natalie Mering. Mering has garnered a large following thanks to her recent collaborations with Perfume Genius and Ariel Pink, but her solo material has equally made her one of the festival's most talked about artists. Last year's Front Row Seat To Earth was a critically acclaimed masterpiece, even though it remains a fairly underrated prospect outside of North America (though an upcoming European tour supporting Father John Misty is sure to change that). Mering's steely cool in the face of some tough song-matter makes her an instant hit with the crowd. She opens with the stunning 'Seven Words', using a tape machine as her sampler, which sees organ samples blown up through the P.A despite her performing in front of a massive real life church organ. Mering switches between ambient 60s pop to folk seamlessly (often timing her samples and guitar switches so there an overlay between the two) playing mostly new material here. Her samples rumble so heavily that the stain-glass windows actually shake under the sheer might of her performance, before eventually leading to a stunning cover of Lou Reed's 'Perfect Day'. What elevates her over simple karaoke is the pure, untapped melancholy in her voice and, seemingly, her soul, which means both her voice and her samples are at a familiar but distinct register from the original. It’s a breath-taking performance.
Headlining this portion of the night are Minnesotan legends Low who once again suit their surroundings perfectly. There’s something about the church venue that makes audiences sit in reverent silence while acts are playing, but Low especially command the room with their simple force. Their setup has always been deceivingly simple – guitar, drum, bass, male/female vocals and "minimalism" - so it's pretty incredible how a band who have been going 25 years can maintain such consistency and never lose their allure when they've made such subtle changes over their career. Low mostly lean on their 2015 album Ones And Sixes, opening with the funky yet creepy 'No Comprende' and just grow from there. Older songs 'Especially Me' and 'Pissing' please the band's older fans in attendance, but the entire crowd are enraptured from the get-go. Just as you thought the band couldn't push themselves or their beautiful surroundings any further, they close with most recent fan-favourite 'Landslide' before an encore performance of Drums And Guns’ 'Murderer' leaving an exhausted but thrilled crowd screaming into the rafters with a standing ovation.
A needed change of venue and pace to keep the night going next, as we take the C-Train down to the West End to Dickens' Pub and a completely different setting. Dickens is a charming dive bar that will be another key venue as the week goes on, but after coming out of the splendour of Low in a church, it's a bit of a crash back to reality. No matter though, because playing here is the one and only Silver Apples in one of the most fun sets of the whole week. There's unlikely to be anyone like Silver Apples again, the duo who in the late 60s played a huge part in innovating electronic and dance music. Part of the charm is Simeon Coxe's humility; he’s here because he enjoys it and has finally found a generation and crowd who fully appreciate his work, after decades in the wilderness. Coxe's set, built entirely from oscillators and drum samples from his now deceased brethren Danny Taylor, is impressive because while he's not playing traditional instruments, he still very much has to play "live" to get all his sequencing, frequencies and vocals right, which he manages through pure joy and experience. What is startling is how one can hear how Coxe's methods have both aged greatly and simultaneously remained contemporary, and can be enjoyed by a crowd who dance along but also listen intently to what Coxe is creating. It is a truly inspiring set and 50-year long success story.
Capping off a very successful first night is London's Actress, one of Flying Lotus' key picks in his curatorship. In many people's eyes, Darren Cunningham can do no wrong, and his late night set here, one of his first after a three-year hiatus, is exactly what it needs to be. His dark and dank beats mixed with an almost psychedelic synthetic melody makes him the perfect choice for any night-owl beat seeker. Over the course of five exquisite albums, Actress has maintained an incredible hot streak which translates easily to the crowd at Commonwealth, despite being one of the tiny amount of artists travelling across the pond. On his stage, a golden robot statue (think Oscars) stands before him, moving only every now and then which on top of his set and other visuals, keeps the crowd on their toes as a blink-and-you'll-miss-it "Wait-did-that-statue-just-move?!" moment. Cunningham's deep cuts keep the crowd happy and moving and off into the night searching for the next thing, but after a packed first full day, DiS heads to bed.
DiS wakes up in a pleasant daze on a sunny Thursday and takes a leisurely stroll down to the famous "Red Mile" on 17th Avenue (so called for its trendy bars and restaurants which turned completely red in support of their Calgary Flames march to the 2004 Stanley Cup Finals. They lost in Game 7, but no one talks about that) to Sloth Records, one of the city's pre-eminent record stores. There, we find a packed upstairs room – above an excellent Burger joint – despite, or perhaps because of, the mid-afternoon sun.
On arrival, we find the dissonant sounds of Portland, Oregon's Mujahedeen, a post-hardcore band of clear Discord distraction. However, this wasn't always the case as frontman Ali Muhareb originally started the project as solo electro-jazz – which literally translates as "in Jihad" – and while that's mostly absent now, Muhareb still grabs from a wide variety of sources. Mujahedeen play an impressive, tight set which eventually has the vibe of a heavier Pavement or Wilco in their final outings.
Shortly after local punks Leather Jacuzzi take the "stage" for a rip-roaring set of punk-rock done right. Every now and then, it's refreshing to have a palate-cleanser with something so pure as a band like this who, behind their wall-of-noise, espouse the altruisms of hating cops and the cause of feminist politics. It's pretty easy to see that the band are fairly beloved in their hometown as they get a sizeable reaction and sing-a-long to many of their numbers, including their mission statement 'Don't Touch Me (I'm a Punk)' which sends the small room into a frenzy.
As the evening draws in, it's back to the Central United Church, this time for Waxahatchee AKA Katie Crutchfield. Crutchfield is sans backing band tonight, and the simple image of her, her guitar, and the church altar is a powerful one. Crutchfield mostly plays songs off her upcoming album Out Into The Storm, reportedly a break-up album, and lets all her emo-meets-folk-music vibe let rip in a highly emotional performance. On the basis of new songs 'Silver' and 'Never Been Wrong' her latest album is going to be one to look out for, though Crutchfield makes time to enamour her older fans by playing her breakout hit 'La Loose'.
Next up is Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith playing at the beautiful, recently opened National Music Centre in Downtown Calgary's West End. Smith, from the Orcas Islands just over the border in Washington State, is this year's artist in residence at the NMC, meaning she has an entire museum's worth of toys to play with to create her synthesised, oscillating soundscapes. Smith gave a workshop earlier in the day at the same venue talking about her process which, honestly, was more engaging than this performance. This isn't any fault of her own; as much as the NMC is a beautiful venue, the performance hall isn't closed off from the rest of the museum, so the sound has a tendency to drift off into the hall. While what Smith does is beautiful, this particular venue does her no favours, and while her modulated vocals are an interesting effect, they are a bit too close to Karin Dreijer Andersson of The Knife/Fever Ray's for comfort.
Finishing the night are Boston Hardcore legends Converge, playing to a vociferous crowd which is expected wherever they go. Converge recently celebrated their 25th birthday as a band, and while they are (quite rightly) regarded as one of, if not the, most respected band in the genre, it's nice to see the band enjoying themselves in 2017. Converge very recently finished recording their upcoming 9th album, due later this year, and they play a set which mostly leans on their two most recent releases Axe To Fall (2009) and All We Love We Leave Behind (2012) and looks forward to their new material. While this is a reliably excellent set, there's nothing like hearing the band's older classics and Converge duly oblige, closing with 'Eagles Become Vultures', 'Concubine', and their epic masterpiece, 'Jane Doe'. While the band don't tend to do encores, the crowd's participation and loud demand for one (plus having a few minutes left before curfew) mean the band return... only to play the one and a half minute 'Concubine' two more times. For almost any other band, this would be a cheeky move, but Converge have earned it, and it is a genuinely fun moment to cap off another great night.
After spending a day checking out the local craft breweries (of which there are many in Calgary due to a recent law change) DiS is just about ready for sleep by the time the music commences. Luckily Mono wake us up from our slumber and back into the mood for music. The legendary Japanese post-rock band are in fine form tonight in the church (oh the church!) filling the space perhaps better than anyone else who has played in that remarkable venue. They mostly play material from their recent album Requiem For Hell, and while Mono’s music may have become a tad predictable over the years, live they are still a phenomenal force that cannot be questioned. Songs such as ‘Death In Rebirth’ and the new album’s title track are so loud it practically has the audience rattling in the pews in complete shock and awe. The quiet-loud dynamic may have been done to death, but none do it much better than Mono.
Over at #1 Legion, a veteran’s run place with a slightly off-putting obsession with the Queen’s Lodge (well, we are in the Commonwealth), Detroit post-punk heroes Tyvek take the stage. Their blend of reverent, off-kilter jams leads to a real fun set that has most of the crowd shaking their bodies. There have been many incarnations of the line-up behind frontman Kevin Boyer, but the current one is really on point with everything Boyer stands for. Given the similarities to, say, Parquet Courts, despite being around for much longer, it seems a crime that Tyvek remain such a small, underground operation. That said, this probably suits Boyer just fine.
Upstairs, Edmonton’s Feed Dogs play a strong and stable emo/indie set, while downstairs Meatbodies follow, who bring a more psychedelic feel to proceedings. The latter is the brainchild of Chad Ubovich, former band mate of Ty Segall and Mikal Cronin, who channels a young Ozzie Osborne and mixes Black Sabbath and Thee Oh Sees. It’s a very enjoyable set from the San Franciscans who have the crowd in a bit of a frenzy throughout their set. DiS sends our apologies to Shonen Knife; the veteran Japanese pop-punk band were marked as a high priority, but Meatbodies were a difficult band to tear ourselves away from after such a strong opener.
However, a change of venue and pace is needed, and starting shortly after are the black metal legends Wolves In The Throne Room which was, luckily, a safe choice. While the Olympia, Washingtonians took a surprising turn with 2014’s ambient companion album to Celestial Lineage, Celestite, it was only a natural evolution of a band who have played just as much with shoegazey atmospherics as they have in heaviness. Thankfully, WITTR are back to their metal leanings, with a healthy dose of reverb droning in the background, and they are all the better for it. New song ‘The Old Ones Are With Us’ from upcoming album Thrice Woven show just how much the band are back on form. This is a pretty special set from the Weaver Brothers & Co. who seem rejuvenated after their short diversion away from “metal”. The band spend the first five minutes chiming out drone and blowing incense, creating atmosphere and masking genuine mic issues for the drummer (and other smells), but once they get going they prove themselves to be one of the most beautiful bands in the genre. While that may seem like juxtaposition, and in some aspects, it is, what bands like WITTR, Deafheaven, and Oathbreaker have proven is that metal can be a transcendent experience, beyond mere cathartic head-banging (though there is plenty of opportunity for that too for those who seek it) taking what the Norwegians created all those years ago and showing that there’s real art to heavy music.
DiS wakes up on Saturday not really believing that it’s the final day of the festival; how time flies. Never mind, for there is plenty to be experienced still. While DiS doesn’t end up sticking around to see any bands (external forces, etc.) the block party out in Inglewood (no, not that one) has a fun-spirited vibe that entertains the locals with music, food, and drink.
The first band of the day comes away from the afternoon sun in the Ship & Anchor, an association football (“Soccer”) infatuated pub. One has to admit it’s pleasant to have a slice of home away from home, even if the positioning of some of the scarfs hanging above the bar are a little confused. Regardless, Winnipeg, Manitoba’s Figure Walking are the de facto headliners of this matinee show, and immediately prove why they’ve been given such a slot. While there are a slightly annoying abundance of two-piece, guitar and drums (and samples) bands around right now, Figure Walking stand out purely for their intensity. Drummer Rob Gardiner is an absolute machine behind the skins, and while on first glance frontman Greg MacPherson seems calm and collected, he has the nervous energy of a man who could turn violent at any minute (in a good way). Figure Walking have all the traits of a “trendy” band right now as their sound sits between hard rock and highly danceable, yet their performance and inventiveness sets them apart from a worrying trend, suggesting that they’re in it for the right reasons. Either way, this is a mighty hard-hitting set.
Further down 17th into the depths of the West End sits Tubby Dog, a great place to grab a stacked hot dog and play a vintage arcade game or two, so that’s exactly what DiS does while waiting for the next act. They are the idiosyncratic Saxsyndrum who, as the name suggests, have an interesting set up of saxophone, synthesisers and drums. This would probably immediately worry most readers as some rather pretentious arty-jazz project, and while not exactly wrong, it’s not as bad as it seems. Montreal, Quebec is, in fairness, known for its strange line-ups and artistic spirit, so Saxsyndrum aren’t exactly a bolt out of the blue. However, they create a surprising yet exquisitely crafted set of inventive post-rock that really enamours the small crowd gathered in the tiny hot dog shop.
After some dinner, it's time for the reason most of us are all here, Flying Lotus. FlyLo (or, Steven Ellison) is fresh off a European tour complete with a brand new stage show and set for a promised upcoming album this year. Indeed, bar a few cuts from 2014’s You’re Dead! Ellison is largely playing new material tonight, which, while very exciting, means there a good chunk of unfamiliar music for people to get adjusted to. This isn’t necessarily a problem; Ellison is such a master beats-maker that he could make table tennis into an inspiring track. All the same, there is a slightly alienating feeling from a set of almost entirely first-time material, however exciting it is to be getting new Flying Lotus music. Either way, Ellison drops in a few fun remixes to keep the crowd on his side, including the Twin Peaks theme, songs from Final Fantasy and Ghost In The Shell, and ‘Antidote’ by Travis Scott. He also casually drops a few Kendrick Lamar songs here and there, including their collaboration ‘Never Gonna Catch Me’, which the crowd lap up. Regardless, Ellison’s 3D stage show is truly the star here. Just through the simple means of performing in front of one screen and behind another, Ellison has created an immersive, trippy, beautiful experience that compliments his music perfectly which as a result, saves any potential hostility towards playing a largely unknown set.
Finishing the night and the festival, DiS makes one last trip on the C-train down to Dickens’ Pub to see Daughters. After a few years away, it is very exciting to have the Providence, Rhode Island noiseniks back as they completely tear down their stage and effectively, the whole festival. Daughters chaotic riffs and relentless drumming is an absolute joy for anyone who loves their music LOUD and unpredictable. The band still clearly enjoy their ironic “hit” ‘The Hit’ but also make time to play older songs such as ‘Daughters Spelled Wrong’ and appropriately enough, Canada Songs’ ‘Fur Beach’. Frontman Alexis Marshall puts on one hell of a show, getting in the crowd’s faces who are only too happy to reciprocate his antics, the carnage a suitable, barnstorming close to a fantastic festival.
Overall, Sled Island is a huge success on every front. It’s deliverance of an eclectic line-up, thanks in part to Flying Lotus himself, and of showcasing Canada’s young talent works without a hitch. Logistically sound, Sled Island is a great festival to check out bands established and new, and Calgary is a perfectly welcoming and upcoming city in which to host. If one gets a chance to leave the city and head out towards the nearby Rocky Mountains, then even better, but even so, this is a great festival for anyone wishing to explore a little further afield without breaking the bank or being surrounded by thousands of people in a desert somewhere.
DiS was in Calgary as a guest of Sled Island and Tourism Calgary. For more information about the festival, including 2018 dates, please visit their oficial website.