Trans Musicales: The review

A recap of the Rennes-based festival from the end of the year, which proved to be an incubator for some of 2017's hottest festival acts

Feature by Tallah Brash | 17 Mar 2017

With the summer festival season announcements in full flow, we take a look back at one of the most forward-thinking festivals we’ve been to; Trans Musicales in northwest France. Teaching us to be more adventurous when deciding which festivals to go to this year, Trans proves that knowing everyone on the bill isn’t the be all and end all. There’s so much music out there not getting the support it should, and Trans Musicales is a great way to discover amazing new music.

Thursday at Trans Musicales

We arrive in Rennes on a December evening, and don’t really know what to expect from Trans Musicales – we only know a handful of acts on the line-up after all – but it very quickly becomes apparent that it is something very special indeed. We take the bus into the city from the airport and there’s a real buzz from those of us just landed in the city and locals alike. Festival bookers and agents are here scouting for new talent, and the thing which really stands out is how proud the locals are about this festival.

A lovely lady on the bus overheard a few of us chatting about it so joined in on our conversation, excitedly telling us that Nirvana played the festival in 1991 (the year that Nevermind was released), and Bjork played in 1993 (the year Debut hit the streets). Two iconic albums by two iconic artists; both relatively unknown at the time of playing the festival. We ask if she’s going to the festival herself and without hesitation she replies: “I’ve been going on the Friday every year for twenty years.”

After picking up our wristbands and a quick crepe dinner – after all, when in France – we make our way into the city for Bars en Trans. It runs in tandem with Trans Musicales, although it isn’t officially linked to the festival, and is a smaller affair which takes place across some of the city’s nightspots – what better way to start our musical adventure? We arrive at the Gatsby Club and are pleasantly surprised by the excellent and bewitching Laura Cahen – dressed in a black jumpsuit, with a black stripe painted across her eyes like a superhero mask, she's mesmerising and her band are excellent.

Shortly after Cahen’s set finishes, we jump on a bus and make our way out of the city. There is a real air of excitement on our 20 minute journey, but we still don’t know much about what to expect. Arriving at Parc Expo we’re in shock; this thing is enormous. Far bigger than we’d anticipated, the main site is like several airplane hangars all connected to one another. 

We hurriedly make our way to Hall 3 to catch HMLTD, fka Happy Meal Ltd, who play high-energy, punk-fuelled glam-rock. The capacity must be around 2000, if not more, and the actual production of the show is quite something – for a band who at this point in their career have only released a couple of 7” singles, it’s a pretty big stage for them to find themselves on but it becomes quickly apparent that this is what Trans Musicales is about.

As HMLTD are finishing their set, we sneak out and rush to Hall 8 – this one even bigger than the last – and the quality of Trans really hits us. We’ve seen Glasgow's own Anna Meredith before, but never quite like this. Launching into Varmints’ opener Nautilus we’re taken aback, quite literally, at just how powerful and huge it sounds. We're literally vibrating and a man in front of us falls to the floor under the weight of the sound. After briefly administering some first aid (seriously), we’re sucked back into this massive beast Meredith and her band are making, and cursing having not brought our earplugs. Wild stuff.

Shortly after, Dublin MC Rejjie Snow treats us to some Irish-tinged hip-hop, and after a quick bite we catch the second half of excellent French electronic producer Yuksek, who treats Trans revellers to a huge Juan Maclean-esque live disco set which proves to be the perfect ending to our first night at Trans.

Catch HMLTD at the following festivals in 2017: Handmade, Leicester, 28 Apr; Live at Leeds, Leeds, 29 Apr; Stag & Dagger, Glasgow, 30 April; Sounds from the Other City, Salford, 30 Apr; The Great Escape, Brighton, 17-20 May; London Calling, Amsterdam, 26-27 May; This is Not a Love Song, Nimes, France, 9-11 June; End of the Road, Salisbury, 31 Aug-3 Sept

Catch Anna Meredith at Big Ears, Knoxville, TN, 23-26 Mar; BBC 6 Music Festival, Glasgow, 24-26 Mar; Save As Milk, Prestatyn, 21-23 Apr; World Island, Leeds, 28 May; Body & Soul, Meath, Ireland, 23-25 Jun; Bluedot, Macclesfield, 7-9 Jul; Valkhof, Nijmegen, Netherlands, 15-21 Jul; Green Man, Brecon Beacons, 17-20 Aug

Catch Rejjie Snow at Broccoli Festival, Washington, DC, 6 May; Les 3 Elephants Festival, Laval, France, 19-21 May; Parklife, Manchester, 10-11 Jun; Secret Garden Party, Huntingdon, 20-23 Jun; Reading & Leeds Festival, 25-27 Aug

Friday at Trans Musicales

On our second day we start proceedings with a wander into town, treating ourselves to some warm Kouign-amann (a Breton delicacy that's all buttery pastry goodness) on our way to Théâtre du Vieux Saint-Étienne for some afternoon festival action. Walking through the city shouldn’t have taken as long as it did, but Rennes is one of the most beautiful places we’ve been and the streets are so wonky, with buildings leaning in every direction, that we can’t help but get side-tracked every few minutes to investigate the next street over.

Arriving at the venue, we can’t believe the setting for our afternoon entertainment – a repurposed gothic chapel, now operating as a performing arts space, it’s stunning. We catch the exceptional talents of Barbagallo – aka Tame Impala’s drummer and backing vocalist Julien Barbagallo – with his shuffling French pop. Delightfully dreamy, and Trans provides the perfect venue for his sound.

After Barbagallo, and a quick caffeine hit, we make our way to another city centre venue, this time to live music venue Ubu which also doubles up as a rehearsal space. Here we enjoy a set from the superb Hyperculte, an art-noise-pop band from Switzerland featuring drums, double bass and vocals – an unusual line-up which really works.

A quick nap, followed by a delicious couscous dinner, and we’re fighting fit again and find ourselves back at the Parc Expo. We thought Friday was busy, but tonight is on a whole other level and we’ve never seen anything quite like it. People of all ages are absolutely everywhere and every single person is wide-eyed and beyond excited to be there – there’s an indescribable sense of excitement in the air and we can tell that for most people this is a big night in their annual calendar. “Have you been to Hall 9 yet?” someone asks before we hurriedly make our way there through the hoards of people – arriving at the Hall we’re completely overwhelmed. Tiggs Da Author is playing to what must be around 8000 people – it’s enormous, and everyone in there is going crazy to his unique blend of soul and hip-hop.

After Tiggs, we stumble upon an impromptu set from German techno marching-band Meute, a sort of flash mob taking place in one of the Parc Expo bars with an unscheduled performance of a couple of their impressive tunes. It’s genuinely exciting to witness and they whip everyone in the bar into a frenzy – mobile phones are out in force, everyone filming their unconventional take on dance music. They did a few flash mobs throughout the course of the weekend including the below on the metro in Rennes.

We then find ourselves watching Londoners Nova Twins, who kick things up a notch with their grime-meets-Deap Vally sound; commanding the huge Hall 3 stage, which for just two people is impressive. Similarly Melbourne-based NO ZU take control over everyone in the massive Hall 9 later on with their 16-legged, laidback, afrobeat-disco rhythms.

We rush back to Hall 3 for New York-based duo PWR BTTM. The hall slowly fills up as they rattle through their inimitable queer-punk-pop songs – lyrics include ‘I’m not exactly a boy in a dress / But thank you, I know what you mean,’ dressed in, well, um, dresses. With their set finishing at an eye-watering 3.40am we call it a night, even though the party goes on until 6:30am – we could definitely learn a thing or two about stamina from the Trans Musicales festival-goers, that’s for sure!

Catch No Zu at Primavera Sound Festival in Barcelona, Spain, 31 May to 4 Jun

Catch Barbagallo at Printemps de Bourges, Bourges, 20 Apr; MOFO Festival, Saint-Ouen, 23 Apr; Les 3 Elephants Festival, Laval, 20 May; Festival Yeah!, Lourmarin, 3 June

PWR BTTM tour the UK in April (catch them at Manchester’s Deaf Institute on 11 Apr and at Glasgow’s CCA on 15 Apr). The band also play Printemps de Bourges, Bourges, 20 Apr; Bled Fest, Howell, MI, US, 27 May; Wichita River Festival, Wichita, KS, US, 3 Jun

Saturday at Trans Musicales

Saturday begins with a walking tour through the city followed by a trip to an amazing outdoor food market – Marché des Lices – one of the oldest and biggest in Europe. The smells, sights and sounds are just wonderful – our senses are in overload – and seconds after arriving we stumble upon, you guessed it, another flash mob from our brass-techno pals Meute.

Heading back to Théâtre du Vieux Saint-Étienne we see French electro-pop band Cliché who are glorious, making the kind of music that makes you feel all floaty. Aquaserge then deliver a flawless lesson in time signatures, tickled with flecks of jazz, pop, experimentalism and psychedelia.

The early evening finds us at a venue called Aire Libre, more of a theatre space with built-in seating for around 300 people. We’re here to see Fishbach, playing a special performance every night of the festival – it’s not just a live show, but rather a theatre production which sees the stage back-dropped with window blinds, acting as a pretty pleasing platform for lighting; a vintage armchair where Fishbach finds herself on numerous occasions, often with or without a cigarette in her hand… it’s over the top, but we leave feeling invigorated. Fishbach’s voice is rich, deep and full of emotion, lifted by the eighties-inspired electronica that makes up her sound – she is unique, and this is wonderful pop music.

We leave Aire Libre feeling exhilarated and head to Parc Expo for our final night at Trans, arriving just in time to see a Sowetan band called BCUC, which stands for Bantu Continua Uhuru Consciousness – layered over African beats, with chanting, spoken word and singing, BCUC are effortlessly cool and their music is truly uplifting.

We then stumble upon the incredible Super Parquet while on our way to get a drink, but that drink can wait! This appears to have happened to a lot of people, as we realise everyone is doing pretty much the same as us – tentatively entering the hall out of pure intrigue, as outside their noise is huge. We’ve just found the French Fuck Buttons. Upon closer inspection, the instrumentation is in no way what you’d think: bagpipes (or something similar), banjo and masses of electronics. Live, their sound is massive.

And we finish our night watching one of our favourite acts of the year; Reykjavíkurdætur, which translates quite literally as daughters of Reykjavík. We stumbled upon them earlier in the year at Iceland Airwaves festival and became instant fans – they’re an all female rap collective from, you guessed right, Reykjavík. “We can wear what we want, we can drink as much as we want, and it still doesn’t mean we can be raped,” states one of the members confidently before launching into a song about the SlutWalks, feminist marches which takes place worldwide. They’re a few members down tonight and their set isn’t completely flawless but it doesn’t stop us ending our Trans Musicales adventure with a sense of pride and feeling well and truly empowered.

With no defined or obvious headliners, it really feels like everyone is given equal opportunity and treated the same at Trans Musicales. Every artist we see throughout our trip has incredible lighting, staging and sound, each with a receptive audience. The whole thing is just very welcoming and inclusive, continuing the legacy of a festival a lot of others could learn a thing or two about. If you want to get away this December and fancy trying something different, you could do far worse than give Trans Musicales a chance.

Catch NOVA TWINS at Festival Zakifo, Durban, South Africa, 27 May; Festival Sakifo, La Reunion, France, 2 June; Wonk Fest, London, 1 July; Festival L’Ete Pau, Pau, France, 18 July

Trans Musicales runs from 6-10 Dec 2017