Saturday, 23 February 2013

Propofol at Quai des Brumes

Propofol at Quai des Brumes


In Propofol’s piece Le chêne (The Oak), lead singer and bassist Marie-Anne Arseneault paints a vivid picture of an oak tree being shaken and severely damaged by a storm of epic proportions. Meanwhile, a rose manages to hang on at its foot. The images are soaked with moving poetry, they evoke a gray, melancholic tableau. “It’s a song about my grandfather who died of cancer,” Arseneault confides. “His last name was Deschênes, and my grandmother’s first name is Rose. My grandmother remained after the fact. They had been together for 60 years. So, it’s a song about that, about the cancer eating away at him, about him tottering in the wind.”
If that imagery embedded with Rimbaud-like symbolism would fit perfectly with ethereal acoustic guitar riffs in a folk-type song, that’s not what Propofol decided to do with them. Rather, the trio laid a fat layer of synths and a steady, hefty beat underneath, thus coating the words with a dark, gloomy atmosphere. As for the vocals, they mainly rely on Arseneault’s theatrical delivery and on heavy-hearted harmonies. “It’s among the first lyrics I wrote about which I was truly satisfied,” says the author about the piece, one that was put together early in Propofol’s existence.

That’s for the “deep and blue” end of the spectrum. The other extremity of it could be labeled “dirty and hectic”, and the trio is very keen on getting close to it. Perhaps the reason Propofol won the “Pop Rock Revelation” award at the 2011 edition of MEG festival, is their turbulent edge. Indeed, songs like Il pleut, Objets étranges, or Hey hey hey are filthy and mean without sacrificing an ounce of poetry. The two latter are even spiced with a splash of punk. Fun, very fun stuff.
Above all else, Propofol’s sound is characterized by a full, wholesome quality. It comes from choosing thick synths as their primary melodic element. Citing influences such as TV On the Radio and MGMT, Gagné explains that the band’s aim from the get-go was to incorporate dirty synths into their music: “Although these are keyboard sounds they have a dirty edge that blends very well with guitars. Even if we don’t have guitars ourselves, the influence comes from those keyboard tones that are typically mixed up with traditional guitars.” Arseneault concurs: “Indeed, [when it comes to our music] what's most important for us are the drums, the bass, the rock, and bringing the synths as a chosen new approach, and that’s what we worked on a lot. We researched sounds and styles prior to adding Anh to the lineup.”

I don’t seem to be the only one who’s enthusiastic about these three characters’ material. Indeed, they’re enjoying quite a bit of success at the moment. After playing at high-calibre festival such as Coups de coeur francophones and Osheaga last year, they’re now residents at iconic bar Quai des Brumes until May, playing every third Tuesday of the month. When I
saw them there on February 19th, they made their 25-song-or-so repertoire come to life in the most eloquent of ways.
As good as Propofol’s debut self-title EP might be, it’s when its members perform live that they have the potential to truly rock your socks off. Arseneault and drummer Jonathan Gagné both come from a rock background, while keyboardist, flutist and gadgetist Anh Phung was classically trained back in her native British Columbia. Thus, being on stage really seems to be their thing and their viscerally dynamic set was a great demonstration of just that.

Where to begin? Most of the low-frequency grooves were handled by Phung on the keys, and punctuated by grimy bass riffs here and there, usually during the choruses. Meanwhile, Gagné displayed tremendous drumming abilities, as he frantically gave birth to tight, frenzied rhythms, both on his classic drum set and on his digital interface. It’s actually largely because of his contribution that the trio’s songs were often infused with a progressive edge. Indeed, super quick drum patterns shifts and inventive wild beats made sure the pieces evolved in a surprisingly complex fashion from their raucous beginning to their just-as-noisy ends. As Arseneault’s stunningly poetic lyrics were vehemently sung on top of it all, a touch of glitchy, pitch-bendy effects were thrown in her bass riffs for good measure.

The cherry on top really was Phung’s flute moments. When she played it in a smooth-as-a-peach manner, it added a touch of ethereal to the otherwise stumpy sound, and when she got a bit crazy, it gave a funky, Jethro-Tull-like quality to the whole thing. Phung, whose back vocals throughout the show were stunningly on-the-money, also took the lead singer’s place at one point to sing Louve-Garou with a delicious accent in her blooming French. “She kicks my ass in terms of cuteness with that accent,” Arseneault had warned. I must admit she was utterly right.

For anyone who is pleased by that electro-rock movement which is taking the city by storm, for any fan of bands such as Plaster, NOIA, Galaxie, or We Are Wolves, Propofol deserves careful attention. Besides their regular gig at Quai des Brumes, the band is going to be featured at Francouvertes on April 1st. Then, they're off to Europe to tour Switzerland,
France and Belgium at the end of April and they’re playing in Mexico sometime in May. There were also vague, uncertain talks of an album at the end of the year.

Fingers crossed.
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