Les Trans Musicales de Rennes 2015

Feature by Colm McAuliffe | 09 Dec 2015

Have 37 years of Transmusicales, Rennes’ premier music showcase, left the festival weary and complacent? Or is the Breton capital still reeling and revelling with flair and élan amid the notoriously unpredictable festivities? The Skinny hops on the Eurostar to find out.

The Proposition

Take a series of enormous airport hangars teetering around the edge of the incredibly vibrant Breton capital city of Rennes. Add one grey-haired and bloody-minded maverick of a festival director named Jean Louis Broussard who has crafted highly idiosyncratic music festivals every year in the region since the late 1970s, and hordes of (primarily) French music fans devotees whom display as much unbridled enthusiasm for a benign-looking gentleman playing Bulgarian and fado sounds from his CD deck (which we will come back to) as they do for their local pop superstars, and you have either an ill-focused mish-mash of musical eccentricity and audience exigency, or a celebratory triumph of creative music culture.

Thankfully, the always ambitious and ever-surprising Transmusicales festival is very much rooted within the latter and this is as much to do with the audience as anything else as the sheer open-mindedness of the assembled throng is a wonderful thing to witness. Accordingly, Broussard can get away with a near-reckless approach to sequencing; witness the hurdy-gurdy driven drone onslaught of those wonderfully named Gallic Futurists called France at 4am on a Sunday morning, if you dare.

The Sophistication

The opening night’s highlight came as Rennes duo Her – expanded into a full band for their live show – turned on a profoundly chiselled and sensual set of blue-eyed, sophisti-pop soul. The band managed to sound slicker live than they do on record, aligning the style and polish of early Style Council and later Frank Ocean with stadium sized moves and some magnificently sparse slap bass foundations. Any fears that Her will disappear amid their own ersatz triviality are negated by the intoxicating jouissance on display; the band revel in the voracious reception afforded to them by the hometown audience. The occasional blandness of the lyrics (‘I quite like your hair, I quite like your eyes’) suggest a wryness at play – are Her arch post-modernists? – but this is unadulterated highs from beginning to end.

Speaking of all things joyful, Clarence Clarity – the self-mythologizing Londoner who, somewhat ambitiously, intends to “be the greatest artist of all time, and not just because of my musical impact, but my societal impact as well, bolstering relations between nations and facilitating contact with extra-terrestrial life” – could do with injecting his performance with some of Her’s elegant finesse. Clarity is a buccaneering prog-funkateer but his attempts to get one airport hangar under a groove sporadically stumbled under the weight of his own perceived importance.

But when Clarity clicked, it was magical, harking back to Todd Rundgren’s mid-1970s freeform pop deconstructions. Clarity may not be a wizard, or even a true star just yet but once he manages to calibrate talent with ambition, his warped visions maybe become impossible to resist. But this re-appropriation of sophisti- (and unsophisti-) pop tropes didn’t always lead to riches. The triumvirate of Code, Superpoze and Dream Koala – an orchestral group with a DJ and classically-trained singer – promise an ambient hush to tenderly unfurl but the results are more soporific than somnambulistic. Meanwhile, Monika Christodoulou’s glossy pop anthems never really take flight despite her impressive vocal exhortations.

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The Provocation

Or should that be provocateur? Powell manages to sound both sloppy and brutal at the same time. His Saturday evening set is incandescent with feral beats, menacing bass lines and a glorious disregard for linearity, melody or anything resembling a conventional electronic tune. At his best – and this is surely peak Powell – the man concocts a sound which burns a lineage through early industrial techno and 21st century noise assaults and leaves the Transmusicales audience reeling with shock and awe.

The constant upheaval, the sudden shifts in momentum and the ostensibly arbitrary interruptions of vocal samples (one just repeats ‘Aphex Twin’ over and over again) result in a pure and ferocious torrent of subversive electronic music. At the other end of the provocation spectrum, you have Steve N’ Seagulls, a Finnish bluegrass band whose set is entirely comprised of heavy metal cover versions straight from the canon: AC/DC, Guns n’ Roses, Metallica, Pantera. And it's so wonderfully both reverent and irreverent that it actually works; the often monumental gravity of the originals is refracted through their joyously (in)authentic interpretations and given a wholly unexpected lightness of touch.

The Dedication

DJ Kosmo Pilot – he of the aforementioned cd spinning – is the first act witnessed by The Skinny on the Saturday evening. Kosmo performs to about five people on one of the larger stages and, with scant regard for the borders which are beginning to re-appear across Europe, plays a mesmerising set of ancient folk tunes, Afrobeat, polyphonic choirs which traverse rivers and oceans and history and memory. By the end of his set, the place is full with entranced punters, immersed in Kosmo’s otherworldly and unpredictable DJ-ing marvels. And Kosmo himself is devoid of any pretence; he simply presses play when necessary and smiles at the audience while each song plays. No filler, no frills, no problem.

This is the precursor to Imarhan, the Tuareg outfit from Tamanrasset in southern Algeria and The Skinny’s personal highlight of this year’s Transmusicales. The Tamanrasset city is where the Tuareg community ended their exile in early 1990s having been forced to flee their homes in northern Mali some thirty years beforehand. Accordingly, Imarhan’s sound is a heady, almost over-whelming symbiosis of traditional Tuareg, nomadic Saharan filtered through a restrained classic 1970s rock sound which becomes quite ambient sounding after a while; The Skinny finds its entire body re-calibrating its biorhythms in tune with the seductive groove laid down by these promising quintet who, unsurprisingly, have just signed to City Slang Records. The band are aided by an array of fractal visuals which seem to melt into their dark and brooding washes of warm and gently unfolding texture and tone.

Another band who dedicate themselves to near-psychedelic locked grooves are Khun Narin’s Electric Phin Band, straight from the Phetchabun Province of northern Thailand. Utilising the eponymous phin – like a Thai version of the lute – as the primary current driving their spiralling sounds, Narin and co. sprake through a startlingly fluid set replete with manic drum breaks and roving phin lines amid the unrelenting hypnotic ritual.

The Conclusion

In terms of actual conclusions, no band finishes better than TotorRo. These self-professed ‘post-everything’ Rennes natives work up a terrifically intense instrumental sweat without ever descending into overly complex algorhythms… until the very end of their set, which is a white-hot, scintillating equation of guitars, drums and the most righteous brass sounds this side of The Teardop Explodes.

This pursuit of sonic ecstasy is redolent of Transmusicales' entire raison d’être – despite the fact that the scale of the festival is staggering and clearly a vital part of the Rennes cultural calendar, the event never feels bloated or overwhelming, and is entirely devoid of pretence. Crucially, Transmusicales also appears to offer a fine rallying point and source of exposure for a local, primarily independent scene brimming with invention, style and certainly no little panache.