Ottawa Explosion: A blur of powerchords and fuzzy guitar tone

Over the past few days I attended the Ottawa Explosion festival, a marathon style festival being held in various venues in the downtown core of the nation’s capital. Taking place from June 19-23, it showcases some of the best underappreciated talent I have seen. I saw an onslaught of garage bands, power-pop bands, pop-punk bands, weirdo rock bands and everything inbetween. I saw so many bands this past weekend that my mind is a blur of powerchords and fuzzy guitar tone, but there are a few sets that I won’t be forgetting anytime soon.

On Thursday I saw Yellowteeth (Sackville, NB) and they completely dominated the stage. The songs often sat on the edge of melody only to be completely destroyed in the most beautiful way by sludgy walls of guitar. Watching guitarist Josée Caron dominate her guitar changing effortlessly between melodic pop-sensibilities and heavy punk rock riffs was a wondrous thing. The Ottawa Explosion guide billed Yellowteeth as “wanting to peel your skin off one layer at a time” and it seems that’s exactly what they wanted to do, in the most loving way possible.

The Mouthbreathers from Sackville, NB performing at Ottawa Explosion.
The Mouthbreathers from Sackville, NB performing at Ottawa Explosion.

Later that night I saw The Mouthbreathers, also from Sackville, NB. They brought forward a slow yet scrappy pop-punk sound. They reminded me of a more gritty version of The Thermals at times. The group featured three members of Yellowteeth, with the addition of the somewhat eccentric vocalist and guitarist Lucy Niles. What really got me with this band wasn’t the catchy tunes though, it was the amazingly clever and somewhat silly lyrics. As Lucy Niles sang the words “Sometimes we used the same words, but we pronounce them differently, because we’re from different parts of Canada”, it was very hard not to feel right at home as an Atlantic Canadian in a room full of people not from Atlantic Canada.

On Friday I saw THEE NODES whose singer came out in a suit with medical bandages wrapped around his head, yelling at the crowd to “shut up” in a high-pitched and joking tone whenever they would clap. The highlight of the day was Needles//Pins from Vancouver, BC. They played a set full of minimalist, stripped down and rough sounding pop-punk songs. The no-nonsense band played a bunch of amazingly catchy and hooky songs, before ending with their song “Drop It” which had a few people in the crowd singing along to the guitar riff that lines the entire song.

Always drunk, always partying. Ottawa's New Swears.
Always drunk, always partying. Ottawa’s New Swears.

Saturday I caught Ottawa-sweethearts, New Swears. They are known for drunken antics, partying and debauchery. Sitting somewhere between Black Lips and FIDLAR exists their version of garage-punk and power-pop. They’ve reached a somewhat legendary status in the Ottawa music scene and are well known for being constantly drunk and partying. They walked onto stage wrapped in white garbage bags and only wearing underwear. Before they started, a man dressed as a priest asked the audience if we would take their hand in marriage. We had no choice in the matter, because before we knew it New Swears were playing their first song and throwing various objects into the audience. They threw cheap wedding bands, blow-up plastic palm-trees and monkeys, confetti, and everyone was sprayed with silly string. With all this borderline gimmicky and silly activity going on, it’s insane that New Swears is one of the best bands in the entire city of Ottawa. They don’t rely on these antics to make up for a lack of musical ability, but use them as a way to amplify their already jaw-dropping songwriting abilities and pop sensibilities. Every song hits hard, filling your ears with catchy hooks and harmonious vocals being sung in unison by all four band members. I left their set amazed with what I had just seen, silently wondering to myself how a bunch of barely-functioning, drunk 20-somethings could write such smart music.

When you see thirty bands over five days, it’s ridiculously hard to narrow down all of the great things you saw. One thing is definite though and that is that Ottawa Explosion is one of Canada’s best festivals. Beautifully run and beautifully curated, this festival made a fan of me. I will be back again and again for this weekend of weird music and amazing talent.

– Michael McGrath


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