More than most Canadian cities, Montreal’s music scene seems to be in constant flux—thanks to world-class festivals, a music scene that subdivides into micro-genres, and loads of accessible performance spaces, the Quebec city’s among the most fascinating music cities in the world. Thanks to the ever-exploding music scene (and, let’s be honest, totally cheap rent), the city also attracts bands from all over Canada—lest we forget, Braids hail from Calgary. Grimes came from Vancouver. Mac DeMarco came from Edmonton, with a stopover in B.C. And plenty more are migrating to the city all the time.
Among the musical emigres is Sheer Agony, a fast-rising, jangled-out power pop outfit. Call them an east-west hybrid: members Jackson MacIntosh, Christian Simmons, and Greg Napier initially converged in Halifax’s shapeshifting pop scene, while drummer Markus Lake hails from Calgary. Yet indisputably, the bands members have made Montreal home: they’re active members of the city’s forward-thinking music community, with Sheer Agony members playing with acts like Each Other, Jef Barbara, Think About Life, and Silver Dapple. Napier, for his part, co-runs the excellent Plastic Factory imprint.
The best part about Montreal? The band has found emmersing themselves in Montreal’s music scene to be actually sustainable. “I DJ for a living outside of the band, and everyone else does similar stuff to scrape by,” explains MacIntosh. “We’re sort of living the Montreal dream—none of us have had a real job in a while.”
So, on the eve of a Sheer Agony performance in Toronto—they’re headlining a stacked No Visible Means bill on Labour Day weekend—we asked them for a window into Montreal’s diverse music scene. Here’s a list of eight underrated Montreal locals according to Sheer Agony—and if you’re in Toronto, make sure to catch the band playing alongside Blonde Elvis (featuring Young Mother’s Jesse James Laderoute), Elrichman (featuring Gay’s Paul Erlichman), and local experimenters Milk Lines on Saturday, August 30.
“A lot of bands in Montreal are adequately rated,” says Simmons, but that doesn’t stop him from naming Freelove Fenner as one of his favourite locals. It’s not hard to see why: Their Does Not Affect a Breezy Manner debut LP, released via Fixture Records, was an alarmingly good slice on jangled-out pop. Check the mind-warping video for “In the Sound,” which we premiered last November.
Simmons also singles out Gashrat—who contributed a track to a just-released Plastic Factory comp—as one of the city’s best. Listen to Downz, above, and their appeal becomes evident: While their songs anchor themselves around a riff or bassline, vocals, detuned guitars, and off-time cymbal crashes make the band a sloppily wonderful experience.
MacIntosh and Simmons both list Brave Radar as a personal fave, and like Freelove Fenner, the band recently cut a release with Fixture Records. The longstanding band’s Message Centre, their first release in five years, is essential listening: It’s a piece of striking pop that balances ’60s-inspired vocal harmonies, angular guitars, and laissez-faire melodies.
Speaking of angular bands, Special Noise—a project that includes Napier—are a perfect blend of pop and post-punk. Merging head-nodding earworms with off-kilter tempo changes, this band would feel at home in Halifax: Specifically, their caffeinated approach to music recalls the work of North of America, The Plan, and, more recently, an act like York Redoubt. Which is our way of saying that we love ’em, too.
Lake weighs in with his first pick on this list: Vibe Wrecker, who trade in frenetic, pissed-off hardcore punk. The band’s demo, released in July, shows what the band’s all about: Straightforward speed, occasional RNR guitar leads, and a chaotic penchant that makes Vibe Wrecker feel like they’re ready to fall apart.
The second of Lake’s picks is Bataille Solaire, the spaced-out synth project of Asaël Robitaille. Robitaille plays in countless other Montreal bands, but this project’s all about blurring boundaries: It’s part proggy experimentation, part new age healing, and fully dancefloor ready.
MacIntosh selected the Marlees for inclusion on this list, and it’s a tough project to pin down: While the band paints with a familiar palette—garage, punk psych, girl-group era R&B—all of Marlees World is painted over with a layer of unsettling weirdness. It’s an enchanting mix—a track like “Just Think About It,” for instance, sounds like a high-school dance ballad played on a scuzzed-out Value Village keyboard.
MacIntosh plays bass in Paula, but they deserve a mention, too. It’s led by Tops member David Carriere, and in a way, it’s a continuation of his other band’s pastel-hued explorations. Carriere takes ’80s, ’90s, and contemporary synth-pop elements and throws them in a blender, and results vary—a track like “Even If It’s True” is as yacht-ready as the Pet Shop Boys ’80s fare, but elsewhere, a track like “Black Acura” trades in Brit-inspired post-punk. Relaxed Fit is available via Arbutus.
Sheer Agony didn’t nominate themselves for this list, obviously. But we’re going to suggest their inclusion: They’re prepping a new album, and we’re hoping that it’s a continuation of the Sheer Agony 7-inch and the Unruly Sisters EP. Both releases displayed a penchant for guitar-pop perfection, adding flecks of psychedelia to music that draws favourable comparisons to Todd Rundgren, the dBs at their jangliest, and even Canadian acts like the Pursuit of Happiness. It isn’t played straight, though—tracks like “She’s an Artist” or “Theme from Tortoise and the Hare” still display a penchant for off-kilter rhythms, perhaps hinting at the band’s Haligonian roots.