Now in its seventh year, M For Montreal is still one of Canada's best-kept secrets. The annual music festival showcases the country's best up-and-coming bands -- with a special focus on Montreal's homegrown acts, of course -- and highlights select acts from the United States, Iceland and France, among other places.

The festival has expanded its reach and scope thanks to partnerships with established events such as CMJ, SXSW, Iceland Airwaves and Seattle's Bumbershoot Festival -- transcontinental (and transatlantic) associations that match Montreal's cosmopolitan atmosphere.

This year's M For Montreal kicked off Wednesday night (Nov. 14) at the upstairs club La Sala Rossa with two bands full of familiar faces. The instrumental group Esmerine features ex-Godspeed You! Black Emperor percussionist Bruce Cawdron and ex-Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra cellist Beckie Foon.

The players' former groups are well known in indie circles for their immersive, transcendental orchestral music, and unsurprisingly, Esmerine's set shared these traits. As abstract videos filled with nature imagery cycled behind them, the band ran through several songs driven by stern strings and vibrant percussion. Esmerine's music hewed closer to the cinematic tranquility of Silver Mt. Zion, however; their all-too-brief, affecting set drew on gentle crescendos and nuanced arrangements to convey deep melancholy.

Eight and a Half -- a trio boasting former members of the Stills and Broken Social Scene -- were next, and they couldn't have been more different. The group's self-titled debut, which came out earlier this year in the U.S. via Arts & Crafts, is diverse, ranging from electro-pop to straight-up shambling indie rock.

Eight and a Half's set also displayed this variety. A rainbow of colorful lights flashed as the band ran through keyboard-perforated tunes such as 'Go Ego.' Live, soulful vocalist Dave Hamelin is far more forceful than he is in the studio or was with the Stills. That's a good thing for the band's music, which on Wednesday benefited from the extra confidence.

On Thursday (Nov. 15), La Sala Rossa was again packed as Montreal's own No Joy opened the night with a phenomenal set. The quartet's influences were obvious -- noise-punk, '90s grunge, feedback-laden shoegaze and Sonic Youth -- but its performance had a feral heart and snarling attitude that transcended these inspirations. (And the episode of 'Degrassi Junior High' projected behind them was a nice nostalgic touch.)

The ladies in the band -- including Jasamine White-Gluz and Laura Lloyd  -- stood unified at the front of the stage, their long hair hanging in their faces like teenage metalheads. White-Gluz's burnt-sugar vocals rose above the feedback tornadoes like an alluring siren's call, which only added to the music's doomsday exuberance.

PS I Love You equaled No Joy's ferocity -- and volume -- with their ear-splitting set of punk-steeped rock 'n' roll. The band's closest kin might be notoriously loud and jagged rockers Dinosaur Jr., although it only takes two people -- vocalist/guitarist Paul Saulnier and drummer Benjamin Nelson -- to accomplish this raucous aggression.

Everything about PS I Love You was unselfconscious and larger than life. Sauliner began his set using a double-necked guitar, through which he coaxed out scuzzy, snaky riffs. At one point, he ended up playing a regular electric guitar behind his head. Still, his demeanor was almost shy; throughout the set, he unleashed a guttural falsetto howl even as his chin-length hair obscured his face.

Drummer Nelson, meanwhile, pounded out steady, punk-driven rhythms like a metronome, oblivious to anything but the beat. Taken as a whole, PS I Love You's set was life-affirming.

But Thursday's most pleasant surprise was Young Galaxy. In the last few years, the group has shuffled its lineup quite a bit, but these changes have seemingly been for the better. The band's mesmerizing, taut set touched on New Order-tinged dance-rock (in particular the interplay between electronic drums and keyboards), swooning New Romantic pop and the burbling electro weirdness practiced by groups such as the Knife.

Glammy, theatrical rock was also an influence. Frontwoman Catherine McCandless strutted like (and sartorially resembled) dapper late-'70s David Bowie (fitting, since the band recently covered his “Hang On to Yourself”), often with a tambourine or shaker in hand.

Young Galaxy's set ended all too soon with a signature tune, the bustling, neon-hued 'We Have Everything.'