MISE EN SCENE @ THE FOX CABARET, VANCOUVER
April 7, 2017
by Chloe Sjuberg
Friday’s show at the Fox celebrated up-and-coming rockers Mise en Scene’s recent signing to Light Organ Records. They and the opening acts each had a distinct energy, but they complemented each other well and provided a cool sampling of new and exciting music across Canada. We moved eastward through the night, from Vancouver locals Douse to Calgary’s Bad Animal to Mise en Scene, who hail from Winnipeg. Sadly, there seemed to be some sound issues at the Fox: in all three bands' sets, the vocals were muddled and the lyrics got lost, so, unfortunately, I barely caught any of the lyrics or the names of the songs.
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Our night began with Douse, a dreamy art-rock group from Vancouver who released their debut full-length album, The Light in You Has Left, in October. Their songs slid along a melancholy spectrum from shoegazey dream pop to moody prog rock. Guitarists Alea Clark (also the lead vocalist) and Patrick Farrugia blended different guitar sounds — deep reverb and high silvery notes — to a neat effect.
Douse’s sound is reflected in their name: to me it felt like they were playing up from beneath water, their hypnotic instrumental waves striving to wash over and soak the crowd. They layered guitars, bass and drums with roars of feedback. It was loose and atmospheric, with a controlled dissonance, like a rainstorm hammering on metal. Sometimes this sound got a little messy, but when it was cohesive it was really cool, and reminded me a little of the rich, dark soundscapes you’d hear from The National.
Clark sings in lovely low tones, with a distant, lo-fi echo that still feels close and intimate, but, coupled with the sound quality issues I mentioned above, it often felt like her vocals were fighting for the stage with the big waves of instrumentals.
Douse could benefit from a dash more confidence and clarity in their sound, but they felt fresh and unconventional, and, as one of the Georgia Straight’s top five Vancouver bands to watch in 2017, I’ll be doing just that.
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Next up were Bad Animal, five guys from Calgary who went from zero to 60 before you could say “BAD” (which was emblazoned on their drum kit in black electrical tape). They exploded with garage rock energy — pummelling drums, gritty rock-and-roll guitars — and didn’t let up for their whole set. These guys weren’t messing around — or, perhaps I could say that all they were doing was messing around. There was no question they were bent on having fun and keeping the audience moving.
Bad Animal has previously opened for Mother Mother and Blink-182, and I can definitely see those influences in the Ryan Guldemond-inspired showmanship from guitarist Marek Skiba and lead singer Ben Painter’s growly punk rock vocals.
The group was working hard to cultivate a persona, and their showboaty confidence was pretty over the top. They were getting in each others’ faces, tramping all around the stage, strutting right up to the edge and even sitting on it.
Bad Animal could benefit from coming maybe a foot back down toward the earth, but all in all, their fun, escapist garage punk was a hit.
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To finish off the night, we got to experience Winnipeg’s Mise en Scene. Where Bad Animal’s energy was fired out with gleeful abandon in all directions, Mise en Scene focused theirs like a magnifying glass in the light through frontwoman Stefanie Blondal Johnson. Wow. I can’t say enough about her inimitable presence: fierce, raw and sexy. She crows, screeches and croons; she breaks from sweet, breathy vocals into headbanging yells. And she plays guitar too! “You want it?” she snarls into the mic before a mid-set song, and the crowd goes wild.
Mise en Scene is the project of Johnson and drummer Jodi Dunlop, supported by bassist/keyboardist Cory Hykawy and a second guitarist. Although at times the rest of the band felt like background support for Johnson, they provided a super-strong base for her to work her magic.
The band combined a scrappy, vintage garage sound with big, synthy, stadium-ready rock. Although their synth-pop sounds and infectious choruses kept heads bobbing and knees swaying, it was their raw, ‘70s- and garage-rock intensity that defined the show for me.
Dreamier songs were kept lucid by grungy momentum, big drums and Johnson’s bewitching gaze. The band deftly infuses that sexy rock and roll bravado with notes from other genres — from reflective ‘90s alt-rock, Alanis Morissette-style, to orchestral pop along the lines of Florence Welch or the Quin sisters.
After Douse’s dreamy soundscapes and Bad Animal’s fun, all-out energy, Mise en Scene’s sound struck a perfect balance between the two. The band’s energy is wild but grounded, larger than life but down to earth. Johnson never lets you doubt that Mise en Scene is in control. If you ask me, she’s a bona fide rockstar.
I’d been excited to see Mise en Scene since checking out their first album, Desire’s Despair, but it’s cleaner and more understated than what they brought to this show, which felt totally powerful and unique. I’m looking forward to their new offering, Still Life on Fire, out June 30, and I hope to hear more of this wild, confident, raw energy on it!