In retrospect, it’s not all that surprising that Montreal became the hotbed of post-rock experimentalism and DIY discontent that it is today. With such a vibrant mix of English, French and immigrant cultures swirling around in all that bleak, chill air, you can just see envelope-pushing acts like Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Molasses popping up like coffee shops at a university. All those incestuous Constellation and Alien8 bands, with their harrowing apocalyptica and media-shy reputations, not to mention places like the Hotel2Tango, their performance/recording/living space in Montreal’s remote Mile-End neighborhood, provide an endearing mythology that’s rare these days in indie circles. It transcends the details of the movement’s development.
Existing firmly within that legend is Fly Pan Am, whose members, most notably guitarist Roger Tellier-Criag, hail from the scene’s most-recognized exports, Godspeed You! Black Emperor. But you won’t find any Wagnerian string arrangements here. Tellier-Criag’s quintet eschews languid melody for oftentimes rigid minimalism and sonic-collage fetishism. Their 1999 eponymous debut made musique concrete part of rock’s vocabulary as it repeated chiming guitar arpeggios and Krautrock rhythms into the stratosphere. With the band sometimes playing a single chord for minutes on end, listener patience was a premium.
After an EP and another full-length, Fly Pan Am has released its most accessible (and mature) work to date, the towering N’ecoutez Pas. Records that alternated between inscrutable sound collages and the aural equivalent of a Mondrian painting left little room for the kind of melodrama that made Godspeed and sister band A Silver Mt. Zion so moving. But tracks like “Autant Zig-Zag” and opener “Brulez, Suivant Suivante!” add song structure, vocals and a healthy dose of shoegazer guitar — a tactic that gives a sorely-needed emotive substance to the music.
An opening salvo of delayed bass guitar on the epic “Tres Tres ‘Retro’ ” gives way to a delicious new-wave march replete with punchy six-strings, bleating organs and hushed French vocals. A Television-esque bass line enters, wrapped in sinuous, Purgatorial moans — a groove that suddenly and inexplicably gives way to a lonely repeating percussive slap, which could be anything from someone packing their cigarettes to a good ass-spanking — before the opening arrangement returns for a final go around. Part of N’ecoutez Pas‘s appeal is precisely this sense of mystery, often in the form of indescribable sound pieces, unpredictable song structures and a sublimely creative use of vocals that go from whisper, to banshee scream, to hallelujah chorus in a single track.
N’ecoutez Pas isn’t pop music in the traditional sense, but it’s a far cry from the kind of straightjacket minimalism Fly Pan Am has made their calling card. Instead, it’s a fascinatingly dense urban song cycle filled with enough hooks to keep you interested and enough sonic ambiguity to root it firmly in Montreal’s experimental tradition.