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Blog Club Review

Trans:Musicales – The biggest music festival you’ve never heard of

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To the Paris-centric attitudes of many UK Festival goers in regards to what is musically happening in France, it might surprise you that one of the biggest events in the Gallic calendar is one situated in the rather sleepy city of Rennes, capital of Brittany. What may surprise you even more is that this musical extravaganza occurs in December, a time when French weather, much like ours rules out more ‘traditional’ festival garb with summer attire replaced by wrapping up warm for the transition between stages and the notion of hosting open air performances preposterous.

So with the weather in mind this sounds like a terrible idea, right? Wrong. Firstly, the city of Rennes is captivating, with its quaint medieval streets awash with Christmas fare at that time of year and its varied multitude of record shops, bars, restaurants and cafes seeking to please even the most demanding of tourists. Secondly, this year’s edition of Trans Musicales marked the 35th year that the festival had taken place, so far from being an ill-conceived flash in the plan and rather a French musical institution I arrived in the city via a train from Paris with high hopes for the weekend ahead of me.

Throughout its storied history the festival has prided itself on showcasing new talent, again shunning conventional wisdom and with it established stadium filling artists in favor of continually blooding the next generation of potential stars, shining a spotlight on more unconventional world acts that otherwise the good people of Rennes would probably be unlikely to see. This, is both Trans Musicales greatest asset and also its biggest weakness as any intrepid festival attendee will realize very soon after arrival.

After wandering the city for several hours to check out my picturesque surroundings – and inadvertently interrupting a memorial service whilst attempting to check out the architecture of the city’s cathedral – I headed over to the bustling Village pro Liberté arts centre. After attaining accreditation it was then I was struck by the welcoming nature of the festival and indeed the city. I had been there only a few hours and been warmly greeted not only by the festival organisers but the people of Rennes themselves with my funeral mishap the case in point: where else would the attendees of a family memorial service invite an over-zealous tourist who’d accidentally gate-crashed their family’s event to lunch with them?

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Arriving at the actual festival on the opening day was one of the least enjoyable things about my entire trip as having not been long in town I had yet to find the time to get myself a few drinks and immerse myself in the festival vibe. Thus the bus journey from the city centre wherein my fellow passengers had clearly been enjoying the hospitality of the local bars (a key feature of Trans is the bar scene that precedes the festival action with a series of events taking place amongst them across the city) was a memorable one if not the most pleasant.

Having recruited some English speaking friends to form a super-group of journalists more akin to a wildly varied 90’s boy band who had all grown up, we set about exploring the industrial Parc Expo to find despite the maverick nature of the bookings for the site management to be run with nigh on military precision. Yes, the series of hangars can be slightly maze like upon arrival but navigating the halls quickly becomes second nature with no two stages more than a 5 minute walk away. The first act we were to check out were Canadian quirksters Chic Gamine, who with a make up of four girls and one guy had an interesting dynamic in which the women interchange both instruments and vocals whilst the man, unable to multi-task, stuck to percussion. The result is a mixture of relaxed Motown inspired vibes with each song almost feeling like seeing a new act with members switching roles to give different songs entirely different aesthetics. Like Transformers, there was more to Chic Gamine than first met the eye. The did sometimes stray to close too Eurovision for my liking (something that would keep cropping up as a theme for English as bands were introduced in French) but the overall cinematic feel of their productions served as an enjoyable welcome to the party with a more electronic infused number reminiscent of shoegaze outfit M83’s ‘Oblivion’ serving as a particular highlight with forceful drums punctuating a distinctly Eighties synth line.

Following this gentle introduction we then gravitated towards the pink neon light emanating from Hall 3 with Moodoïd  set to play. Pablo Padovani’s soundscapes quickly divided opinion; with our group unable to collectively decide whether or not they had enjoyed his instrumental assault. Personally I think there is potential there but it is all within context. This type of experimental performance seems perfectly valid there at Trans or at an art installation but would be hard to imagine working in many other environments. ‘Je suis la Montagne’ serves as the highpoint of the performance but also a timely reminder to shimmy across back to Hall 4 to see London Grammar deliver their final performance of 2013. After having a stellar 2013 that saw them break into the public consciousness back in the UK it was nice to see them generate such a buzz across the Channel with young Breton’s excitedly filling up the hangar in anticipation of their arrival.

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The crowd clearly enjoyed the contemporary trio’s take on tripped out beats with fevered versions of ‘Wasting My Young Years’ and ‘Strong’ being particularly well received. The highlight of the set however was undoubtedly their cover of Kavinsky’s conceptual modern classic ‘Nightcall’ which whilst receiving heavy exposure in the UK seemed to have yet to arrive in Brittany with the crowd seemingly as surprised as impressed at this slickly delivered version of the track. An encore sees a rather tame ‘Wicked Game’ bring a slightly disappointing end to proceedings and highlights London Grammar’s only real flaw: their lack of variety. One can’t help but think that in the near future that both vocalist Hannah Reid and Dan Rothman and Dominic ‘Dot’ Major now firmly established, might have their own interests furthered by collaborating with other artists. Luminaries such as Massive Attack retain interest and distinction between their tracks by employing different vocalists to lend different vibes to each piece and it would be refreshing to hear what they could produce with other singers at the forefront. This said it would be equally refreshing to hear the talented Reid over the sounds of different musicians to maximize her potential and show the currently undiscovered facets her talents may possess.

Friday’s line-up looked like the strongest on paper, and so it proved with several of the festivals highlights all coming at the start of the weekend. After recovering from a late opening night, refueling on the cities famous galletes, crepes and cider we made our way back to the Parc Expo to greeted by the gloomy sounds of glum Berlin outfit Oum Shatt, who resemble a band much like the fictional bands in the background of the narrative in sit-coms such as Nathan Barley and The Mighty Boosh; their generically assembled group of black skinny jean clad twenty-somethings boring their way through a medley of monotony in which we can only think an aging executive at a large label would think to be ‘edgy’ and ‘cool’.

Luckily our moods were swiftly lifted by the pulsating sounds of DJ Les Gordon in Hall 9 to a packed house, complete with hastily assembled scaffolding like grandstand. Having not being familiar with the amusingly named Les Gordon (to immature English speakers like myself anyway) it was hard to imagine how I’d managed to miss an act capable of drawing such a crowd and deliver an accomplished set full of big room sounds that wouldn’t have been amiss in a tent in Creamfields over the summer. The generous gathering of people for old Les however, had flattered to deceive with the vast majority of those in Hall 9 booking their place early to catch Belgian electro-pop misery muse Stromae. This was evidently a big deal. Before the festival, I was barely aware of Paul Van Haver, the Flemish-Rwandan singer and rapper now taking to the stage under cover of darkness to a ferocious roar from the crowd, despite him having previously scored 19 number ones across Europe and having nearly 700,000 Twitter followers. Upon his appearance on stage the crowd went absolutely ballistic. I mean, this was screaming teen Beatle fans hysteria with people so happy they were hugging each other to express their excitement.

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Struggling to fathom the surrounding delight of my fellow Trans-Musicalers I watched with great interest as Stromae – French for maestro – cavorted around on stage delivering his set in French in front of Modeselektor-esque visuals. The crowd loved every second of it, lapping up the call backs to his more upbeat hits with great enthusiasm. My French being incredibly poor, I was warned by a French speaking counterpart it’ll be difficult for me to appreciate Stromae as much of his appeal lies within his lyrics that have seen him compared to Smiths frontman Morrisey. His  songs apparently chronicle the existential crisis of a lost generation. Well I have no idea about that but what I can tell you is, if this is the Belgian attitude towards doom and gloom I’m more than a little perplexed as Calvin Harris-esque synth lines rained down over forcefully delivered French prose. If Calvin decided to hook up with The Streets’ Mike Skinner for his next single it might sound a little like Stromae.

Following immersing myself with the youth of Rennes for Stromae I headed over to Hall 9 which during the set of New York based disco outfit Escort. A friend described the scene as the nearest we’ll ever get to attending legendary disco nightclub Studio 54 and I’m inclined to agree. The next hour saw the ten piece disco cartel raise the roof with a series of energeticly performed numbers, that whilst paying homage to Nile Rodgers and co. didn’t fall into the trap of being a clichéd tribute act, instead bringing a contemporary edge to a classic genre. For those of you who love disco who are inexplicably not yet familiar Escort I can’t recommend seeing them enough.

The schedule of the weekends action is not for the faint-hearted and again the festival breaks with convention by running until 6am.  Testing our stamina on the Friday was none other than Public Service Broadcasting who arrived complete with two stacks of retro televisions ordered in range of size; huge antennae looming behind them as they began their performance. Having previously seen PBS at Secret Garden Party I think it’s fair to say the following about them; firstly they are great the first time you see them and their ‘repurposing of archive material to music’ concept is one you’re unlikely to forget but equally unlikely to enjoy as much the second time around. In essence it’s much like an art installation. Secondly as an act it literally only works in a festival environment with the idea that someone would want to listen to their music in a different environment seeming decidedly comic. Definitely check them out if you get the chance to see them as it’s a fun experience that unfortunately just lacks shelf life.

Saturday saw me drift through a variety of rock bands in a series of performances that lacked any real note and whilst some no doubt have interesting careers ahead of them at this point I really was looking to enjoy something more on the electronic spectrum. Luckily this had been provided by the ever on point Joris Delacroix who pumped out hard hitting house complete with a few sneak peeks at some of his own material and meteorically rising young German Konstantin Sibold who kept the dancefloor moving with his muscular brand of techno. There has been a great deal of hype surrounding Konstatin in his homeland and on this evidence it is easy to see why. Big things surely lie ahead for the young producer and DJ. Rounding out my weekend the small hours type booking of Parisian duo Acid Arab who took to the stage at 5am. Inspired by the sounds of the middle east and how they can be incorporated into modern techno and house, I found their story of collecting oud samples whilst crate digging in Tunisia fascinating. Having interviewed them earlier in the day they don’t disappoint behind the decks with the hype behind them keeping flagging festival goers going despite the late hour. I hope to see them develop this sound further.

In conclusion Trans Musicales is a festival that is as quirky and welcoming as it is French. And it is very French. For the more adventurous festival goer seeking fresh talent from around the world then Trans is most certainly worth a look as it provides an open minded attendee with plenty to think about and enjoy. I would have preferred a slightly larger emphasis on quality over quantity with fewer acts of perhaps a higher profile booked. This however is the one of the key factors in what gives Trans Musicales it’s charm, it is an event with a firm focus on giving new acts a chance so to change that dynamic may well cause the ruination of the whole event. So whilst you’ll no doubt uncover gems you would have been unlikely to stumble upon yourself otherwise you may have to sit through the likes of the incomprehensively bad Midnight Beast to unearth them. C’est la vie!

Words: Reiss Bruin

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Grahame Farmer

Grahame Farmer’s love affair with electronic music goes back to the mid-90s when he first began to venture into the UK’s beloved rave culture, finding himself interlaced with some of the country’s most seminal club spaces. A trip to dance music’s anointed holy ground of Ibiza in 1997 then cemented his sense of purpose and laid the foundations for what was to come over the next few decades of his marriage to the music industry.

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