Blue Skies Turn Black: Ciel Noir at L’Olympia

by Nathan

Blue Skies Turn Black’s Ciel Noir festival at L’Olympia on Sunday March 30th was a line-up to remember. Thanks to the current shoegaze and slowcore renaissance occurring through different, yet overlapping channels of the internet, bands like Codeine and Duster are finding a massive audience in the younger generation – in fact, this show was Duster’s first time ever in Montreal! And, to the audience’s amusement, Codeine’s Steven Immerwahr quipped that the last time the band was in Montreal was to open for Pavement – almost exactly 30 years ago. The rest of the line-up, however, was intensely modern. Pelada, who followed Codeine and Duster, is a well-loved staple in the Montreal rave scene; Model/Actriz have just only expanded their fanbase within the past 18 months, following the critical acclaim for their 2023 LP Dogsbody; and Snow Strippers have been heralded as “Crystal Castles meets SALEM” (032c) following collaborations with Surf Gang and Lil Uzi Vert within just the past year.

Codeine started the night off, setting the tone for the next two hours – John Engle’s slow and reverb-drenched guitar, combined with Immerwar’s soft and heartfelt vocals washed over the audience with each of Chris Brakow’s cymbal crashes like a blissful and comforting wave. The performance was hypnotic, and with the striking green lights illuminating the band for almost their whole set, the crowd fell into an almost reverie, only to be broken by the singing of “Happy Birthday” – as it turned out, Immerwahr was celebrating it on stage with us.

Duster followed, and exactly on time, too. To be quite honest, I’ve never been to a show where each band was this punctual. And for most of Duster’s set, it felt as though this was typical of them: professional and well-rehearsed. Their performance was incredibly true to their studio recordings, but unfortunately, that’s not really what I want in a live show. Despite the soft and intimate vocals, as well as the spacey and atmospheric instrumentation, the band was very rigid for their whole performance, playing each song back to back without pause, only breaking to murmur a quiet “merci” once or twice the whole hour. The band lacked personality on stage, creating an awkward juxtaposition between the nothingness in front of us versus the tender atmosphere they were creating. As a huge fan of their music, I was unfortunately left quite disappointed.

Most of the audience left after Duster, which, while not surprising – Duster is significantly more popular than the rest of the line-up – was unfortunate, as they missed out on the best performances of the night. I wasn’t at all familiar with Pelada before then, but I haven’t been able to stop listening to them since. Chris Vargas’s electrifying stage presence and powerful vocals, along with Tobias Rochman’s pulsing beats broke the hypnosis induced by the two previous acts. The crowd was alive, and even more so after Vargas’s instructions for “all the bitches come to the front, all you cishet white men move back.” The charisma oozing off the stage was intense, and I really hope to see the two perform again soon.

Then, it was time for Model/Actriz. To put it bluntly, Model/Actriz is one of the best live acts I’ve ever seen. Vocalist Cole Haden was born to be on stage, without hyperbole. His control of the audience was that of a world-class magician, leaving the crowd constantly wondering what he’d pull off next. There’s no doubt in my mind that L’Olympia will never be inviting them back – even Haden apologised: “We do this for all of you [the audience], and to anyone working here tonight, I’m very very sorry.” From the acrobatic acts of scaling a ledge 10 feet off the ground, or weaving through the crowd like a prophet, to quite literally hiding from security, all with the pure physicality of the greatest absurdists, the sexuality of a Rocky Horror Picture Show from Hell, and an unparalleled vocal performance, there is no doubt in my mind that Haden is one of, if not the best, frontman in the world right now. That isn’t even to begin with the rest of the band, all who to each within their own right are extraordinary performers. Guitarist Jack Wetmore’s blisteringly noisy and cacophonous playing is executed all with the apparent struggle against premature rigor mortis, while bassist Aaron Shapiro’s wildly erratic and twitchy movements belong more to a demonic-possession B-movie than a musician, and percussionist Ruben Radlauer’s drumming is done with the frenzy of a rabid dog but the precision of the most technical of death metal bands. Bands like these are why it’s so worth it to see live music, and I know I’ll be first in line the next time they perform here.

Snow Strippers concluded the night, but I had to miss the last half of their performance – the metro is only open so late, and Uber gets more expensive every day -but, it was a fun way to end the night. The crowd knew many of the songs, singing along and dancing wildly. Both vocalist Tatiana Schwaninger and producer Graham Perez have an intensely fun stage presence, and it’s clear they both love their songs as much as the audience does. Their sound wasn’t exactly what I wanted following the piercing noise rock and homoerotic post-punk of Model/Actriz, but in a club setting, their songs would be my favourite.

Looking back, it’s almost hard to imagine how this show even came together considering the eclecticism in band selection, but I’m beyond glad it did – the variation was well-spaced, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who left as a fan of more than one new band.