Quebec underground: A fresh take on progressive rock
If the progressive rockers who briefly dominated the cultural landscape in the 1970s were just getting started today, how would they sound? Perhaps like the band Atsuko Chiba.
The Montreal-based group played on the final night of the 50th anniversary edition of Quebec City’s summer festival, which featured massive acts from Metallica to the Backstreet Boys but also aimed to give space to emerging artists.
Atsuko Chiba takes inspiration from prog rock, the movement that gained force in the early 1970s and treated music more as classical symphonies than as radio-friendly jingles.
But prog rock, as Atsuko Chiba’s guitarist and synthesizer player Kevin McDonald noted, was itself an amalgamation of influences, and the Montreal group casts its net wide.
Wasabi Hands, the opening track off its latest EP, The Memory Empire, is dominated by a heavy bass as a whirl of guitar effects builds and the tempo switches gears.
In a clear departure from classic prog rock, Karim Lakhdar’s vocals on the song take their cue from hip-hop and punk, delivering punches in a style reminiscent of Rage Against the Machine’s Zack de la Rocha. Damonsta Titillates, another track off The Memory Em- pire, floats with sci-fi electronica over ten minutes before exploding into furious guitars and screams. “For me, prog rock has always been about pushing boundaries and trying to do something a little bit different - bringing a tasteful amount of technicality while also trying to write very interesting and evolv- ing musical numbers,” McDonald said.
All five members of Atsuko Chiba grew up listening to King Crimson, one of the pioneering prog rock bands.
“We are fans of prog rock for sure - we will wear that influence pretty proudly,” McDonald said with a laugh.
“But we’re also fans of a whole bunch of other things, too, like hip-hop and punk and rock music and electronic music.”
Atsuko Chiba, which sounds like the name of a Japanese woman, has no connection to Japan. McDonald chose the moniker on a whim as the band formed six years ago after watching the anime film Paprika.
The group, which released two separate EPs last year, strives for flexibility in form and often lets its songs segue into one another. Atsuko Chiba designed its own studio in a remote industrial area of Montreal where the band jams at night.
“We really wanted to build a space that would allow us to be creative and to do our own music and record it and release it on our own,” McDonald said.
Marie-Renèe Grondin performs during Quebec City Summer Festival
Damon Albarn of the English band Gorillaz