by Max Freedman (@anticlimaxwell)
Duchess Says puts on an unparalleled live show. The past several decades of popular music have seen various performers light instruments on fire, destroy venues with bulldozers, and play arena-sized sets verging on three hours long, and yet Duchess Says provides an unforgettable live experience that no one else can hold a candle to. Vocalist Annie-Claude Deschênes walks on audience members’ heads, shoots massive plastic balls at 30-foot high venue ceilings, screams directly into audience members’ faces, invites show goers to crowd surf onstage – the list of live ferocities that Duchess Says routinely commits is nearly endless.
It’s not an experience that can be conveyed on a record, but past Duchess Says albums have tried. The last LP this Montreal outfit of underground live music legends released, 2011’s oddly titled In a Fung Day T!, was a loud, unrelenting charge of hissing kraut-punk that often felt like it was recorded in one take, right in front of the listener’s very eyes and ears. It remains a great entry point into the band’s relatively small, yet nearly decade-spanning, discography, and stands in stark contrast to Sciences Nouvelles, the band’s newest LP. Sciences Nouvelles arrives just a year after a split 7” with Le Prince Harry, from which two tracks make the cut here, yet it shows a completely unexpected organization of the band’s ceaseless chaos and spastic production. A mere surface comparison of the Sciences and 7” versions of “Travaillez” and “I Give A Fuck” instantly reveals how much Duchess Says has tightened its grip; indeed Sciences has so much more to offer than just its hi-fi glisten.
Sciences Nouvelles is Duchess Says’ art rock album. Instrumental noise rock jams (“Inertia Part II” and “Poubelle”) and ambient synth experiments (“Talk in Shapes”) wouldn’t have fit well with the lo-fi pummel of Duchess Says’ past works, but in the narrative of Sciences, they’re effective transitions between high-intensity moments of kraut-dashed punk attacks. A smooth slide from the hip-swinging punk of “Inertia” and the synth-laden jog of “I Repeat Myself” might come off less naturally without “Inertia Part II” in the mix, and the ghastly strangeness of “Talk in Shapes” feels appropriate to pregame “I’m an Idea,” which is just about the softest Duchess Says has ever sounded while remaining firmly in the punk world.
That’s Sciences Nouvelles for you: tame by Duchess Says’ standards, yet firmly abrasive in the grand scheme of things. “I Give a Fuck” is the only connection to the Duchess Says of past times; in place of beloved live slappers like Fung’s “Time to Reiterate” and especially the fury of “L'Ordre Des Secteurs” are more nuanced punk statements like “The Family Physicians” and “Negative Thoughts.” The latter track might even qualify as post-punk, its bass line pulled straight from the highest highs of the Joy Division catalog; it’s also Sciences’ most riveting song. Six-and-a-half-minutes of sheer anxiety form this triumphant anthem about not putting up with anybody or anything’s shit; an escalating chant of “Watch your step, I’m turning my back!” would never feel so riotous in anyone else’s hands.
If there’s anything not to latch onto on Sciences Nouvelles, it’s the album’s lyrics, a trend that makes “Negative Thoughts” all the more compelling. But who needs lyrics when you can just be shouted at? Annie-Claude Deschênes’ hair-raising shouts directly into fans’ faces have helped make Duchess Says a live staple in the Montreal underground, and her terrifying yet utterly gripping stage presence converts as many newbies to Duchess lovers as it does to complete naysayers. Those scared away by the nearly violent live show should find something to enjoy in the relative cool down that Sciences Nouvelles represents, and longtime fans will likely remain invested in Duchess Says as well. Appealing to more people than ever before on Sciences Nouvelles, Duchess Says is poised to find itself in more peoples’ ears – and hearts – than ever before.