At a moment when it seems like over-the-top deluxe packaging for labels of a certain stature is becoming de rigeur, Constellationâ€™s Musique Fragile series is a reminder that the Montreal-based label is a bit of an O.G. in this regard, having focused from the start on striking visuals as well as high ethical and musical standards. Far from being a mere power play, though, the series is a fitting reflection on Constellationâ€™s origins, made possible by its enviable position among independent labels. In short, itâ€™s a deluxe, limited-edition package done right.
Although Constellationâ€™s taste is no longer in question, its initial forays can be considered impressively ambitious. The initial idea was to stage, in the Montreal loft of eventual co-founders Ian Ilavsky and Don Wilkie, a concert series called Musique Fragile (literally, â€śfragile musicâ€ť) because the lack of a DIY scene in the city put certain bands at â€śa real disadvantage,â€ť Ilavsky told me. The form was similar to what is now the Musique Fragile box set: three diverse acts at a time that would both mutually inform each other and provide new angles for listeners. For logistical reasons, this series soon transformed into the label itself, and 15 years later, the Musique Fragile series looks both back at the labelâ€™s history and forward to its future, getting back to what Ilavsky says are â€śthe reasons we started doing this in the first place.â€ť
The set certainly looks good on paper: it compiles three LPs in a â€ślimited edition, artwork-intensiveâ€ť box set â€“ each album gets the heavyweight vinyl treatment, its own jacket, and a pull-out poster, and the whole box is housed in a gorgeous screen-printed slipcover box. Released in an edition of 500, itâ€™s a move that not many labels could make, one that simultaneously bolsters Constellationâ€™s sonic and visual cred and amply rewards devoted listeners.
Aware of the current landscape with respect to packaging, Ilavsky also sees the Musique Fragile series as â€śsomething to valorize the physical format,â€ť he says. â€śIt has to seduce people with packaging to some extent, but also assert that this kind of treatment can happen for unknown bands as well, and try and get people to discover new artists with the whole package.â€ť
Kanada 70â€™s Craig Dunsmuir is one such unknown, a Toronto-based artist with little Internet presence but rare quality. Culled from dozens of micro-releases heâ€™s given away since 2006, his prescient compilation, Vamp Ire, showcases an unusual, progressive blend of electronic and organic elements. Dunsmuir grazes many musical currents while retaining a clearly original vision. â€śMoelleâ€ť is built on fuzzed-out guitar loops, almost a cousin to My Bloody Valentine. Later tracks channel the angular, vintage African pop guitar rhythms of Dirty Projectors (â€śGnaer,â€ť â€śRedragâ€ť) and the percussive, building string loops present on Andrew Birdâ€™s Noble Beast (â€śChimuraâ€ť). â€śAnnoyoâ€ť is built on a strikingly dramatic cello line over a repeated bass figure. There are plenty of lo-fi electronic touchstones as well.
Vamp Ire was curated by the label, which Ilavsky says was â€śfun on its own merits as well,â€ť providing he and Wilkie another way to interact with the music. Since every song on the album is unlike the rest â€“ a series of sketches all fully formed â€“ it has the potential to be a bit of an exhausting listen. But the quality is there throughout in Dunsmuirâ€™s loop-based etudes, giving a deep glimpse into his exceptionally varied work.
On the other hand, in the beginning at least, it seems that Pachaâ€™s program is totally straightforward. The first couple of tracks are based around bombastic drumming in odd time signatures, over which distorted, low buzzing synths play repeated figures, usually using Eastern scales. The rhythms, drums and the scales remain throughout; the synths do not, augmented by various instrument patches, bass, and organ. â€śLa Gare de Podgoricaâ€ť is a super standout: a meandering organ drone with hand drumming underneath that, although it could be barely more than an exercise, works on all levels. â€śTunelâ€ť is more north African or Ethiopian in flavor, a trancy but jazzily stylish organ workout.
Things get even more percussion-drone-oriented, with distant chanting and guitar lines intertwining with hypnotic bass and layers of drumming cut with miniscule changes. The final track, â€śLe Soviet,â€ť comes back to Earth a bit, but is in the almost-too-subtle time signature of 15/8, retaining the exotic flavor. The work of percussionist Pierre-Guy Blanchard (whose musical journey is fascinating), this was released on a very limited CD-R in 2009, and has been gussied up by Constellation for its vinyl debut.
The Pacha album in particular exhibits a physicality that Ilavsky notes sets the second Musique Fragile apart from the series debut. But he says he and Wilkie didnâ€™t set out with that, or anything, as a criterion for the series. Instead, after focusing less on instrumental music, there were simply many instrumental releases â€śthat we found ourselves continually coming back to.â€ť As with the early Constellation concert series, pairing certain artists just made sense together, and the curators trusted their instincts. â€śThe first edition helped inform what we were listening for,â€ť says Ilavsky. â€śIt helped us think on a project basis the way we often have to think much more longform and long-term about the label curation.â€ť
Sonically, the third pick initially sticks out like a sore thumb, as projects involving Tony Conrad are prone to do. Along with the grand homme, this one also features Hangedup, the Montreal duo of Eric Craven and Gen Heistek. Hangedup is known for their high-energy instrumental punk, and collaborated with Conrad on shows and on these recordings back in 2004. Constellation was aware of the recordings, which they encouraged Hangedup to compile for the set.
The results are gleeful once things get rolling, which is pretty much right away. High-energy drumming links up with heavily detuned viola, impressionistic feedback screeds and Conradâ€™s violin (in stereo!), alternately rambling and witheringly precise. Conrad and Heistek are able to form a unique drone pairing that presents almost as proto-sludge at times. A couple of noise-drone jams roll on with flair, with Conrad masterfully riding dynamics via loop on â€śGentil the Unlucky Astronomer.â€ť â€śBright Arc of Lightâ€ť is a wistful, mellow moment, and the album winds down uneasily with the ambiguous â€śPanorama From Maxwell Montes.â€ť
Capping the box set is its silkscreen printing (by go-to Constellation collaborator Repetitive Press), which looks as striking as the rest of the labelâ€™s catalog. â€śConstellation has always encouraged artists supplying their own artwork ideas,â€ť says Ilavsky, and, true to form, the artists supplied the raw materials for the artwork, although Ilavsky admits he enjoyed doing the layout and designing the proprietary back cover, which he says will be consistent throughout the series.
How long the series lasts and how many Musique Fragile releases there will be is quite another question, though. Ilavsky says there are no plans for the next one, and that the first two installments basically presented themselves after the label decided to start the series. Although theyâ€™re committed to â€śno longer than eighteen monthsâ€ť between installments, the second one will stand for some time as a jewel in the labelâ€™s crown.
Musique Fragile Volume 02 (3xLP)
Kanada 70, â€śVamp Ireâ€ť
Pacha, â€śAffaires Ă‰trangĂ¨resâ€ť
Hangedup & Tony Conrad, â€śTransit of Venusâ€ť