Flip Out Sydney
Party balloons, state-hopping punters and divisive bands, RENÉ SCHAEFER reports from the Manning Bar, where the Flip Out festival made its memorable Sydney debut. Photos by JEZ HEYWOOD.
It’s a sign of an incredibly healthy local music scene when two small independent record labels can stage a successful festival in two capital cities. Initiated by Aarght! Records and Stained Circles, last year’s maiden Flip Out Festival at Melbourne’s Corner Hotel proved so successful, that the organisers decided to export the concept to Sydney in 2009. To this end they gathered together not only some of the Harbour City’s finest young groups, but a virtual smorgasbord of interstate acts and a smattering of American visitors.
Tantalised by some well-attended sideshows the previous evening, the cognoscenti gathered early outside Sydney University’s Manning Bar on a glorious sunny day. The atmosphere was festive from the get-go, even though the array of balloons and flags that greeted the black-clad and hung over habitués of warehouse parties and speakeasies actually belonged to the University’s Open Day. The unsuspecting preppies deciding whether to join the rowing team were probably wondering exactly what kind of secret society this skinny, bedraggled looking mob was signing up for, and wisely gave the huddled hipsters a wide berth on their way to a brilliant career.
As the Manning Bar’s doors opened, Melbourne’s kings and queens of noise Zond struck their first massed guitar chord on the huge main stage, and promptly held said chord for the next 20 minutes before finally launching into their trademark wall-of-sound onslaught. Used to seeing them at much smaller venues, hearing them play through a large, booming PA was a revelation. Their mixture of punk energy, incomprehensible vocals and dense guitar squalls was transformed into a monumental dream-like haze of layered distortion, held together by an unwavering, thunderous rhythm section. The effect was like getting hit in the head by a brick wrapped in velvet, over and over, until it felt like a caress.
Over on the small side stage, curiously cordoned off by a confusing system of metal hand rails, local heroes and Pitchfork favourites Royal Headache whipped up an entirely different storm. Manic frontman Shogun restlessly paced the small space allotted to him, while the band behind him cranked out one melodic punk nugget after another. While garage rock can hardly be regarded as the most exploratory music genre, what these guys do is so fresh, and so laden with infectious hooks, that even the most jaded scoffers couldn’t help falling in love with them. What truly sets them apart is Shogun’s vocal delivery, which is full of unexpected phrasing and roughly hewn energy, yet also possesses some of the melodic elements of 1960s soul, or even the tones of a young Van Morrison. Whatever it was, it worked a treat, and left me eager to hear more next week.
Whatever one’s opinion of Slug Guts’ music, their swamp-goth racket was certainly impactful and all-consuming when it boomed through the massive speaker stacks of the Manning Bar. It’s obvious that this band will continue to divide people into those who embrace their brand of lurching faux-menace, and those find their act just a tad too theatrical and lacking in substance. As a doubter, I could still appreciate elements of their sound. The floor tom-heavy drumming was just right to conjure up that leaden ‘Big Jesus Trashcan’ rumble, while the heavily reverbed barbed wire guitar parts fitted perfectly with bass lines that might have been ghost-written by Tracy Pew himself.
Relief from Slug Guts’ aural assault came in the form of The Ooga Boogas over on the little stage. It’s hard to pinpoint where these seasoned musicians, who include members of Eddy Current Suppression Ring and The Sailors, are taking their particular brand of garage-y party rock, but it looks like an interesting place. Their cover of ‘Eisbär’, a 1981 hit by Swiss new wave band Grauzone, might give a clue. Keyboards were more in evidence in this Ooga Boogas performance than ever before. At other times, drummer Per Byström and bassist Richard Stanley built up the tension with extended grooves before Mikey Young and frontman Stacky swooped back in again with their guitars to provide rocking resolution. This wasn’t just cookie-cutter garage rock, but showed some versatile intelligence while also being fun.
To my ears at least, Naked On The Vague were the only band that did not benefit from appearing on the main stage. It might also have had something to do with the fact that they recently expanded from a keyboard-led duo to a fully-fledged four-piece band, but I felt like a lot of the elements that have endeared their recordings and gigs to me in the past were ironed out on this occasion. The abrasive noises and regimented drum machine beats, which were so central to their appeal, went missing in action. Instead, I felt like I was watching just another rock band, which just happened to feature keyboards and some interestingly off-kilter female vocals. I understand that bands need to progress, especially once they reach a wider audience, so I am keen to see how they negotiate this territory in the future. As it was, I clearly was in the minority with my assessment of their performance, as NOTV elicited an ecstatic response from the crowd.
After the unhinged blues guitar tornado of Americans James Arthur’s Manhunt, Deaf Wish unleashed their full fury. It’s astounding just how much energy this Melbourne quartet can generate. As they flailed away maniacally at their instruments, their super-sized personalities seemed perfect for the big stage. Nick Pratt transformed from everybody’s favourite uncle into some kind of finger-picking bass monster, while either side of him Pete Seizure and Jensen Tjhung threw shapes and coaxed fractured, earsplitting noises from their long-suffering guitars. Their ability to strike a perfect balance between memorable songs with singalong choruses, an impossibly loose interpretation of their material and complete onstage chaos, made them one of the highlights of Flip Out.
The same could also be said for Melbourne trio The Stabs. Frequent visitors to Sydney, they have established a dedicated local following. It’s interesting that on cursory listening they might be mining similar scenes to bands like Slug Guts, who share some of the same influences. Unlike the Brisbane band, The Stabs transform these influences into a style that’s entirely their own. It’s due, in no small part, to the presence of bassist Mark Nelson, whose unique style is as much informed by experimental music as it is by the bottom-heavy style of Magic Dirt’s late great Dean Turner. Combined with the songwriting skills and unaffected vocals of Brendan Black and the larger-than-life personality of drummer Matt Gleeson, The Stabs mixed musical intensity with self-deprecating humour. Running through a greatest hits set, they climaxed with ‘No Hoper’, possibly their most fully realised songwriting effort so far.
During a well-deserved breather and a futile search for a vegetarian feast, I managed to miss most of US country rockers Goodnight Loving and all of The UV Race’s set. From all reports they put in a blinder of a set, moving away from their shambolic garage rock roots and edging closer (with the inclusion of sax) to the jazz/punk experimentalism of a band like The Laughing Clowns.
While another American band Pink Reason, left me underwhelmed with their pedestrian mid-paced rock (so different to their gleefully experimental lo-fi recordings), Super Wild Horses tried to make amends with their minimalist pop. Defiantly primitive, both in their writing and delivery, Amy Franz and Hayley McKee charmed the audience with two-chord guitar strums, stumbling drums, one finger keyboard lines and wonky singing. There is a deliberate and knowing method to all of this, but during a later discussion, a friend who plays in a band herself, raised an interesting point. Her feeling was that by playing deliberately primitive-sounding music, Super Wild Horses were reinforcing stereotypes of women as less skilled musicians than their male counterparts. While this argument has been around at least since the days of punk bands like The Slits and Raincoats, and I don’t necessarily agree with it, it’s still valid. What it goes to show is that even music conceived as the most innocent form of entertainment can still polarise audience reactions and stimulate debate, which is exactly as it should be.
The grand finale of the festival came with the appearance of Eddy Current Suppression Ring. The band clearly relished playing to an amiable audience, less intent on creating mayhem in the mosh pit than has been the case at many of their other headline shows. Where frontman Brendan Suppression has appeared almost reticent to incite the testosterone-heavy lads down the front at these outings and sometimes deliberately curtails his on-stage antics, on this night he clearly felt rejuvenated and comfortable enough to pull out all the stops. As the band plowed through old and new favourites, with guitarist Mikey Young calling the shots, Brendan put in one of his most wired and exuberant performances yet. At one stage he scaled one of the towering speaker stacks to deliver a song from atop, then leaped nine feet down, hitting the stage running and launching straight into the next number. His bandmates’ performance was just as energetic, albeit in a musical sense. Young is one of the most gifted guitarists around. His parts seem effortlessly simple, yet overflow with effective little flourishes and clever hooks that put him in a class alongside The Kinks’ Dave Davies. Not even the late appearance of some half-arsed crowd surfers and a couple of boorish slam dancers could mar this perfect end to a perfect day of fine rock bands.
Let’s hope this annual event can expand even further to include other capital cities in years to come.
The Melbourne leg of Flip Out will be held at the Corner Hotel on Saturday, September 5, from 2pm. Tickets here.