After taking a year off, Sugar Mountain Festival emerged bigger and better than ever with fresh new digs at Melbourne’s VCA and a slew of mind-blowing sonic and visual treats for consumption. Split across four stages and a trio of gallery spaces, the curation was endlessly diverse. The whole day moving with great flow and a choose-your-own-pace attitude.
Beginning the day with a quick look around the visual art galleries, I was most struck by colourful collages of Leif Podhajsky. His fondness for found images and psychedelic palettes has previously earned him work designing album covers for the likes of Tame Impala.
Things kick off on the main stage housed at the end of Dodd Street with a driving set from the prolific and gleefully titled local seven-piece, King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard. Beginning with the fifteen minute psych rock epic ‘Head On/Pill’, complete with flute solo, the boys gave their San Franciscan contemporaries a run for their money. Distorted harmonicas, pace changes and twin drummers kept the brief set playfully rollicking. While it’s entirely possible for this music to have taken place with half as many members on stage, the bustle and build are part of The Wizard’s charm. The boys finish up playing the entire first half of last year’s fantastic ‘I’m In Your Mind Fuzz’ in medley fashion as it appears on the LP.
King Gizzard’s lighthearted romp is followed by genuinely frightening Danish post-punks, Iceage. These guys have perfected the thousand-yard stare, and they use it with relish. Their set is short and intense, coming off somewhere between early Stooges and The Birthday Party covering country tunes. Frontman Elias Bender Rønnenfelt howled and moaned while clasping the mic stand. At times he recalls the spirit of Jim Morrison, always oozing with confrontation and daring you to look away.
London-based Japanese quartet Bo Ningen emerged shortly afterwards, sporting flowing black dresses, waist-length black hair and a penchant for fingers. Their brand of acid-punk was delightfully raucous and they make mean show-men and women. Flying hair, swinging instruments and washes of feedback had the crowd in raptures as the afternoon sun belted mercilessly down. Seeking shade became a priority for many, leaving Dodd Street looking somewhat lopsided.
Local slacker pop act Twerps strummed their way into the 3pm slot, attracting a large, affectionate crowd. Touching on the freshly released ‘Range Anxiety’ and some old favourites, Twerps were the perfect summery reprieve, giving punters a chance to regroup with jangling guitars and simple harmonies. Those in need of a little darkness found solace in the Warehouse Gallery where Nonotak Studio had set up a series of light boxes entitled ‘DAYDREAM V.4’. These boxes responded to the ambient electronic soundtrack with shifting grid-like projections. Many sat transfixed in their mesmerising glow.
Ex-Sonic Youth mistress Kim Gordon, with Bill Nace in tow, unleashed her experimental noise project Body/Head to a sizeable audience. Performing with only a pair of guitars and a mic stand, while a subtitled film played silently in super slomo behind them, the duo bent distortion for minutes on end. While initially jarring, the set built to a point of hypnosis that become appealingly atmospheric. For 40 minutes there was not a melodic line or tune to be heard, the whole thing culminating with Gordon dragging the strings of her guitar across the fold-back speakers while staring down the front row.
Those more interested in discernible beats and dancing spent large portions of the day at the Car Park stage, nestled in behind the MTC. The shimmering stage - complete with resplendent glittering boxes hanging from the rig - hosted a bevy of electronic, dance acts and DJs. The 2 Bears proved more than up to the task of keeping the crowd grooving despite seriously hot conditions and full sunlight. Meanwhile, a brand new piece from painter Ash Keating was debuted to the left of the stage. Spanning the entire length of the back of the VCA, Keating’s work with colour gradients has left a stunning mark on the building that will endure long after the festival moves on.
Back at the main stage, the spirit of jazz and dance returned to Dodd Street with NO ZU and Sal P tearing through a set of horn-infected, percussive funk. Tribal rhythms and brass brought the party and kept feet moving before Ariel Pink’s strange alt-pop set provided the dinner time soundtrack.
The business end of the Festival was ushered in at 7pm with the arrival of U.S. noise merchants, Swans. The band that began terrorising New York in the early 80s came out of hiatus a few years ago, and a have been releasing lengthy and critically acclaimed records ever since, including last year’s masterful ‘To Be Kind’. Michael Gira and his collection of ageing conspirators powered through their set with a focus and intensity that has to be seen to be believed. All eyes were all Gira, who acted as conductor, guiding the sprawling compositions from birth to death. Rather than simply touring tracks from their recorded output, Swans prefer to improvise and craft material in a live setting so that a live performance becomes an exact representation of where the the band is at that point in time. With any luck we can expect to hear aspects of this set in the group’s future records. Swans pummelled the awestruck crowd with receptive patterns, holding the pressure by droning on a single chord before tightening the screws and exploding into a pace shift minutes later. A pair of girls, who looked like they might have snagged a barrier spot anticipating Nas, were almost reduced to tears by the onslaught and unrelenting force of the set. It was awesome.
Equal parts elated and rattled, I dashed into the VCA’s internal Theatre stage for the festival’s most intriguing and mysterious performance. Kirin J Callinan has a colourful history with Sugar Mountain following 2013’s contentious performance stunt, and the space quickly packed out to see what kind of treats or madness he had in store. The show was called Terrible Love; billed as collaboration between Callinan and his U.S. label, Terrible Records. What we got was more along the lines of a series of “Skype” calls with Callinan’s musical friends from around the globe that yielded strange duets. Jack Ladder, Dev Hynes, Alex Cameron, Jay Watson and Neil Finn all provided vocals while Callinan and his band jammed out classic love songs and power ballads like ‘Don’t Dream It’s Over’ and MJ’s ‘Black Or White’. All the while hecklers and overtly forward stage invaders kept the whole thing on wobbly wheels. Callinan has always been an excellent cultivator of mood, and tonight he reached for the uncomfortable while keeping away from the offensive (if you don’t count Liam Finn’s penis or Mac DeMarco’s testicles as offensive). “I’m sorry you’re missing Nas for this” laments Callinan, heaping on the stressed star routine, “this is... Terrible love”. Kitsch and creative, he always satisfies.
Back on the streets, Nas is halfway through his classic 1994 rap opus ‘Illmatic’ and the crowd is lapping it up. Tunes like ‘Represent’ and ‘Memory Lane’ are devoured with relish. Nas himself is in excellent spirits, frequently telling us how happy he feels to be with us, literally in the streets of our city. And he’s right. Sugar Mountain has succeeded in delivering a festival that thrives on the diversity of its bill and the ethos of its delivery. The small capacity kept it intimate and removed unpleasant congestion. Rap, noise, punk, dance, pop, psych and anything else you can think of had an airing without any loss of cohesion or feel. I can’t wait to see what they serve up next time.
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