Report: Sugar Mountain 2012
DOUG WALLEN reports on the second Sugar Mountain festival at Melbourne’s The Forum on Saturday (January 14), which saw last year’s kinks ironed out, a welcome reprieve of floor-tom action, and performances by Deerhoof, Thee Oh Sees, Shabazz Palaces, Lost Animal and Pets With Pets. Photos by MICHAEL BAINBRIDGE. Full gallery here)
It was always going to be an interesting idea, marrying live music and art in the grand space of Melbourne’s Forum Theatre. But where last year’s inaugural Sugar Mountain fell prey to sound issues, obtrusive placement of art and beginners’ disorganisation, its second incarnation improved in every facet. The art was gracefully integrated into the festival experience – whether luminous clouds emitting fog or a band of makeshift robots banging out music – and the downstairs “womb” stage sounded much better than last year. It helped that this year sold out: the sound of the Forum’s main room suffers when it’s half-empty.
That said, there will always be issues faced by an evolving festival, from packed toilets and a similar logjam of people in the upstairs “summit” to getting the sound right on the new, Mess + Noise mezzanine stage. But with apologies to performances I missed (World’s End Press, The Harpoons, Prince Rama, This Thing), everything coalesced. The acts didn’t fall into any one neat category, either, which proved key: it was a night of splashy contrasts. And finally, the spate of floor toms seems to have subsided – not a moment too soon.
Pets With Pets opened the evening, punctuating a monumental drone with screeches and tempo shifts early on. Here a quartet led by mainstay Zayd Thring and including Witch Hats’ Ash Buscombe on bass, the band achieved scalding, haunted-house psych with much straighter drumming than under previous member Jonox Edmonds. One song’s wobbly melody brought it dangerously close to synth-pop, but for the most part the set stayed weird – even if Thring’s vocal palpitations didn’t add much to the vast sphere of sound. For whatever reason, the first and last songs were my favourite; maybe because I focused more instead of letting my mind wander, something the music absolutely encouraged.
Kicking off the Mess+Noise stage, the local duo of beatmaker Andras Fox and singer/bassist Sui Zhen worked modest wonders as Fox & Sui. Their glitch-happy pop neared both trip-hop and bedroom beats, with tropical touches like bird sounds and a lei around Zhen’s neck. It was all faintly twee, but Zhen’s vocals proved surprisingly varied. The combination of an R&B sample in the midst of their upcoming single and Fox tapping out beats on a pad made it feel of-the-moment, but it was their unassuming quality I found most appealing.
Karaoke or performance art: how to take US auteur John Maus live? The studied synth-scapes of his albums became a mere backdrop to him pacing the stage, flailing limbs and shouting in a neutered rage. At moments I saw it as a radioactive pop grotesque, but it was too shtick-y to shock or alienate. His vocals got echoed beyond coherence and Maus played no instruments as his canned music pulsed behind him. Only when his approach truly scraped up against the glossy ’80s-pop elements of his music did it feel as exciting as it should have.
The first act in the seated theatre of the Summit, Absolute Boys streaked their post-punk with gauzy effects and rhythms by turns gripping and lethargic. (The drummer nonchalantly played one-handed at times.) There were also fleeting dub and shoegaze bits to the trio, while the bassist-singer’s delayed vocals recalled Panda Bear. In part for its unpredictability, this set had me transfixed.
One of several bands that would start slightly late in the mezzanine, Straight Arrows buried their juddering garage-punk in a sea of noise and volume. They hit their stride at about the fourth song. One could detect catchy and kinetic anthems, but only ever at a vast remove. Still, as counter-programming it ruled.
Julianna Barwick played, appropriately, to a large, quiet crowd upstairs. The nebulous, choral-like ambience she fostered with electronics and her looped vocals-as-instrument maintained the healing warmth of her breakthrough album The Magic Place. Yet outside the hermetically sealed setting of headphones, the pieces didn’t penetrate in quite the same way for me. Soon, too, they began to feel almost formulaic. Later, after seizing upon some terrific bass throbs operating beneath one song, I realised it was actually DJ Yamantaka Eye (of Boredoms fame) doing some uniformly thrilling work on the level below.
The manic junkyard racket of tUnE-yArDs is bound to be divisive, especially with its overtures to hippie funk and tribal percussion loops (cue the face paint). But as on her albums, Merrill Garbus unearthed barb-like hooks that were all too convincing. Armed with a small guitar while flanked with a bassist and two beautifully erratic saxophonists, Garbus won me over even when cutting sharply against the grain and indulging hairpin stylistic turns. You could even dance to it.
Their name may be eerily close to Sun Ra, but California’s Sun Araw were committed as much to exploring deep psych as cosmic jazz. The trio – guitars, synths, saxophone – were exceedingly slow, repetitious and deconstructive, which suited me just fine in the seated space. On the other hand, the spontaneous on-stage painting of Ben Barretto was a cool idea but stumbled in its execution. There were interesting elements of moving parts and it was all being filmed and projected as he worked on it, and yet it never felt as open or free as the music.
Thee Oh Sees: set of the festival. I’d call it set of the year, except that doesn’t mean much in mid-January. But it was definitely the rare case of a band doing everything right, and playing so tightly and confidently that they were able to act all loose and hammy at the same time. Far from the lurid garage-rock I was expecting, these songs manifested as gripping Krautrock jams that were so deceptively protracted, the first half-hour passed in what felt like 10 minutes. Everything was worth watching: the two locked-in drummers (including the stoic one who jumped on guitar for the final song), the clearly happy keyboardist Brigid Dawson and the instruments-held-high enthusiasm of bass-plundering guitarist Petey Dammit and singer-guitarist John Dwyer. Like many bands at the festival, lyrics couldn’t be quite discerned, but here it didn’t matter. The songs were both hooky and epic, defined by Dwyer’s madcap presence. Also: loud.
Lost Animal didn’t sound great on the mezzanine, between the harsh effect on Jarrod Quarrell’s vocals and the tinny feeling of the pre-recorded beats. Shags Chamberlain supplied bass, and later Love of Diagrams’ Luke Horton guitar and another guy congas. That said, the well-trodden songs from last year’s Ex Tropical held up nonetheless and Quarrell has an intensity to him that can only be felt live.
Playing a sort of godfather role to the art-pop acts beloved by Sugar Mountain, Deerhoof did what Deerhoof do: broke and reassembled fizzy pop songs until they were all jagged edges and fumbling chaos. Call it noise candy. This set didn’t blow me away, but it was consistently inconsistent and suitably fun.
My most anticipated act of the night, Seattle hip-hop phenomenon Shabazz Palaces didn’t disappoint, although playing for a solid hour did challenge my stamina after six previous hours of music. Still, the duo managed everything great about last year’s Black Up without seeming beholden to it. The beats were more minimal techno than rap, while addictive refrains peeked out from the spidery murk. One newer refrain from frontman Ishmael Butler went something like: “One thousand styles per hour.” It was far better than most live hip-hop – which isn’t the faint praise it might sound like – and like Beans once did on the same stage, Shabazz didn’t resort to commands to “make some noise” or “put your hands in the air”. The songs may have actually felt overly similar without that kind of punctuation, but this is certainly the method I prefer. There also couldn’t have been a better choice for closing song of the night: ‘Recollections of the Wraith’, with its Zen-like mantra, “Clear some space out so we can space out.”
For all their invention, Shabazz Palaces are all about vibe. And this year, beyond just choosing adventurous bands and heeding last year’s lessons to execute the whole thing so much more smoothly, Sugar Mountain got its vibe precisely right.
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