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April 27, 2017

Hyperbole Feels Like an Understatement with of Montreal

Case in point: the band's endorphin-frying show at Thalia Hall last Saturday, which opened to a white-feathered hunchback wandering the stage with a butcher’s knife. There were sphynx cats (the hairless kind), cops stripping down to muscled bodysuits, the USSR and U.S.A. in a pas de deux—and all this before the confetti-spewing papier-mâché dragon and the half-hour rendition of “The Past is a Grotesque Animal.” In a time when lowercase on social media pretends to be casual, of Montreal exists in a permanent caps lock: the unlikely Jenny Holzer to the usual E.E. Cummings of indie. 

Of course, this isn’t news: In the two decades between the band’s 1997 debut and last month's Rune Husk EP, frontman Kevin Barnes and co. have carved out a reputation for the extreme. There's the gonzo album artwork, the Joyce-ian wordplay, and a workmanlike consistency behind it all, with LPs landing year after year like clockwork. Then, there are the live shows.

Like his disemvoweled Polyvinyl labelmates STRFKR and PWR BTTM, Barnes is known for performing in drag. Unlike his labelmates, Barnes’s band is unmistakably weird. If you squint hard enough during the quieter moments, they scan like Ziggy-era Bowie—but most of the time (e.g. when a leather-clad dominatrix pressed her heel on Barnes during “Let’s Relate”), they just feel like Animal Collective if they got laid more.

If nothing else, this is a band that gives you plenty to talk about: its onstage antics offer enough material for several concert reviews while the queer lyricism and synth forays of last year’s Innocence Reaches LP could make for a half-dozen think pieces. What’s left to ask, then, is whether a band that’s been speaking this long has anything new to say in 2017.

Whether the zigzags and pivots of the band’s last few LPs constitute growth or stasis depends on your perspective. The contemporary music scene is often portrayed as a “loudness war,” in which music is mastered right up to the point where it clips. Of Montreal doesn't literally suffer from this—all of their records are evenly produced—but the descriptor seems fitting for a band whose output can feel like a war of attrition.

Some of the songs from Saturday’s setlist delivered: “Empyrean Abattoir” (2015) locked into a motorik groove, “We Will Commit Wolf Murder” (2012) bobbed heads. Others, frankly, didn’t: the STRFKR-lite synths of “it’s different for girls” (2016) were shriller live than on wax; “fugitive air” (2013) and “ambassador bridge” (2016) really just ambled around.

There aren’t easy answers here. One man’s genius is another man’s lysergic burnout; what looks like choreography to my eyes might look like chores to a Pitchfork staff writer. But whether you’re enamored or inured with them, of Montreal remains a moving target—and Lord knows they’ve got more variety on stage than the critics do on the page.

2013’s lousy with sylvanbriar and 2015’s Aureate Gloom were each marketed as “back-to-basics” genre works—but you can’t “return to form” when there’s no form to return to. In an increasingly formulaic genre, that’s more blessing than curse.

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