Irreverent quartet Absolutely Free puts their own intergalactic spin on the classic MuchMusic Video Dance Party.
If you’re a Canadian who came of age in the ’90s, MuchMusic Video Dance parties likely occupy a particular place in your psyche. In the pre-internet heyday of the CHUMCity empire, these branded events were a sort of school-dance roadshow. By the grace of MuchMusic and “your bottler of Coca-Cola Classic” you—yes, you!—could arrange for a video dance party to show up at your school (or office, or community organization) simply by calling a toll-free number and they’d “do the rest.” (At least, according to a Much ad from 1990.)
The gymnasium was transformed into some kind of PG-rated nightclub, complete with flashing lights and a “live onscreen VJ” playing chart-topping video hits for a gaggle of awkward 12-year-olds. The result elicited moments of pure pubescent elation (House of Pain! Snow! Color Me Badd!) tempered by the sweaty palm–inducing anxiety of slow-dance pair-ups.
But arguably, one of the most compelling aspects of a Much dance party was the prospect of a fleet of outsiders, equipped with high-tech A/V gear, invading a familiar space and transforming it—and you—into something…well, magical. Call it an alien encounter on home turf.
Mainstream dance-pop isn’t an obvious reference point for Absolutely Free, whose name was originally inspired by a Frank Zappa album. The band formed in the ashes of DD/MM/YYYY, a cult T.O. quintet that split up in the fall of 2011 after earning global accolades for their spasmodic sound and circuitous arrangements. (Ironically, the members felt their anything-goes approach had become too formulaic.) Almost as soon as DD/MM/YYYY’s final shows were announced, four-fifths of the group reformed as Absolutely Free.
To launch the UFO/Glass Tassel EP—their first proper release—they’ve organized a multimedia, outer space–themed takeover of several venues in Kensington Market on Jan. 12. Like a crew of urban intergalactic explorers, they hope to lead audience members on a trek up and down Augusta Avenue, with the evening culiminating in a retro-tinged throwdown—their own skewed version of a video dance party.
“I love the idea of an excursion,” says drummer/keyboardist Moshe Rozenberg. “A unity, like a bunch of astronauts on a journey together.”
On a recent weekend, Rozenberg huddled with bandmates Jordan Holmes and Mike Claxton over a table of vintage Moog synths in a downtown recording studio, pondering the speed of the song they were working on. Drummer/vocalist Matt King tried out a creeping 4/4 beat. Soon, three synthesizers joined in, producing percussive, angular krautrock punctuated by the major-key flourish of a classic Nintendo game. The Absolutely Free aesthetic incorporates everything from African rhythms to dance music, but that hardly describes their spirit of creative irreverence and experimentation.
That spirit is reflected in their space quest, which kicks off with an improvised set at The Electric Theatre—chosen, King says, for its giant airbrushed alien mural—where the band will perform a live score during a screening of the classic sci-fi film The Day the Earth Stood Still, in collaboration with local musician Carl Didur. They’ll travel south on Augusta, where a proper Absolutely Free performance will take place at Double Double Land, tricked out “to look like the moon or something crazy like that,” says Rozenberg. Finally, the intrepid voyagers will return to The Electric Theatre to unleash four different out-there clips for their track “UFO,” screened simultaneously for maximum effect.
“This video dance party is influenced by how we grew up and the music that we listened to when we were young,” says King. “Like Dance Mix ’93.”
For the cross-section of 20- and 30-somethings who remember pre-millennial video dance parties with a strange blend of wistfulness, horror, and irrational jealousy (like, who actually got a Much crew to show up at their school?), Absolutely Free is offering an opportunity to finally, blissfully, participate. While there’s a novelty factor in their lunar-themed extravaganza, King and Rozenberg hope to pull off something that’s not only transformative, but truly celebratory.
“We don’t have a lot of money, but we’ve got a lot of heart and we’ve got a lot of time,” says Rozenberg. That’s worth more than anything Moses Znaimer, a live onscreen VJ, and your local Coca-Cola bottler could come up with on their best day.
Absolutely Free launch their UFO/Glass Tassel EP on Jan. 12 at The Electric Theatre (299 Augusta Ave.) and Double Double Land (209 Augusta Ave.), absolutelyfree.ca.