scar Peterson once lamented the decline of Montreal’s jazz scene: titty bars trumping music joints, artists fighting to stifle one giant, poutine-stinking yawn, a wicked form of deneigement carrying away the city’s soul. “Before long, there was nothing to hear,” the piano virtuoso and native opined.
During the summer of 2005, music scribes exhausted similar imagery, dedicating endless lines of copy to Montreal’s “phoenix-like” rising: its pop landscape the most recent in a long line of be-here-now scenes outside the Los Angeles-New York-London axis. “Once mired in ‘My Heart Will Go On’-induced torpor,” read the dispatches from artsy locales such as the Plateau Mont-Royal, “this most frigid of cities is now a music hotbed.” (Sometimes an exclamation point was tossed in for emphasis, sometimes it wasn’t.) Enthusiasm bubbled over for Besnard Lakes’ droning ruminations, Wolf Parade’s spastic vigor, the jocular galumphing of the Unicorns / Islands, and, of course, the turbid pop overkill of Arcade Fire, the real catalysts behind all this.
Nearly two years later, Montreal A.F. (After Funeral) is returning to normalcy, the media feeding frenzy moving on to another carcass named The Next Big Thing. “We banded together to protect ourselves,” said Nick Robinson, organizer of the Pop Montreal International Music Festival, resulting in a scene that maintained its purity and pulse; riveting, new artists continue to join the fray: the Lovely Feathers, Young Galaxy, and Sunset Rubdown, and Francophones like Les Breastfeeders.
Miracle Fortress is another, the project of multi-instrumentalist Graham Van Pelt, a studio engineer and frequent contributor to Montreal’s rather incestuous band scene (he’s been a member of both Magnus and Think About Life). Five Roses is a true solo project, composed, recorded, and mixed entirely by Van Pelt. And though records monopolized by one personality are often casualties of a linear vision—no continuous state of flux, no creative entanglements—Van Pelt teases enough sonic frontiers and has enough madcap charisma to mildly triumph where others would have failed.
Brian Eno once explained how he spread out compositions in a kind of fan: the avant-garde side over here, as he put it, and the rock side somewhere over there, and a freedom to move to either side whenever he chose. Van Pelt, a noted apostle of Enomusic, exhibits such mobility on Five Roses, as his echo-chamber sensibilities lull the listener into a sonically warmed trance before quickly rousing them – and back again. The opening song, “Whirrs,” shifts between the relentless, energetic guitars of Spacemen 3 to the feral anguish of a white-throated sparrow having its wings pulled off. On the title track, Van Pelt brilliantly drifts from an angelic, guitar melody to the eerie bobbing of a flying saucer over the Eastern Townships’ vast plains. And “Have You Seen in Your Dreams” is light shoegaze fare tangled with Van Pelt dropping a four track into the St. Lawrence River, and capturing the squeals and squawks from children riding the amusements on St. Helen’s Island.
“I made a truce with my fascination,” Van Pelt sings on “Next Train”; well, this work is the product of its creator finally surrendering to his piquancy. The flickering “Maybe Lately” finds Van Pelt mimicking the vocals found on the Beach Boys’ “Don’t Worry Baby,” while a wind chime fashioned from razor blades jingles in the background. The muffled, nostalgic opening to “Beach Baby” is a crib mobile’s lullaby playing through a baby monitor—though the presence of subtle, peculiar sonance in the background mutes some of its cuddly prowess. Van Pelt’s “sound ideas” never dominate a song’s meticulous, layered construction. The technological trickery only enhances the album’s bipolar mood: from twitchy, refractory crunches akin to Clinic’s “Internal Wrangler” to a pastoral-with-skinned-knees quality found in Galaxie 500 or My Bloody Valentine’s Isn’t Everything.
Van Pelt certainly doesn’t approach the heights attained by fellow Montreal scenesters. But his ability to graft disparate, foreign elements into effecting, avant-pop soundscapes is indeed unique.