Live Review: Sugar Mountain 2015
Neika Lehman headed to summer’s sweetest one-day treat – Melbourne festival, Sugar Mountain:
After a one-year hiatus, Melbourne music and arts festival Sugar Mountain reared amorphously from its new CBD location: the Victorian College of Arts. “No teachers, no rules!” I heard one punter exclaim whilst in line, and indeed, a university hosting such a regarded Melbourne festival felt exciting and unique. Down a streamer, tinsel and vine spangled walkway we roamed, for a ten-hour joy ride into the Sugary Mountain.
It’d be short of labyrinthian, but the winding school setting paid off well. It was like you’d imagine: ambiguous paths, surprise niche stages and doors to converted classrooms. Amongst the laneways were bars and food stands which more or less did their job: the drinks were not exorbitant, and the food a reflection of (if a little outdated) accessible Melbourne trends: banh mi, fried chicken, seafood and bbq in rolls. A couple of places offered vegetarian bites, but for vegans, hot chips were the only offer. This was strange for such a progressive cultural event, and a 10-hour party with no pass outs made for audibly rumbling tums. On the plus side, however, were great local beers, not terrible lines nor clashes, and of course what we’re there for in the end: some really excellent music, consistently throughout the day.
Melbourne-born King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard (pictured, above) opened their city’s festival, and was a near perfect first act. Through the fuzz, psychedelic yawls snaked outward, and dirty rock thumped through the ground. People’s shirts were stained with sweat when it was just shy of twelve. If you’re yet to catch the band making big waves of late, they make for a brilliant show. Focused and textured, their music is dense and fine crafted, and paired with the long haired, head-banging, seven dude slacker aesthetic, both visually and audibly, Gizzard is the complete live package.
Iceage were up next, throwing the amped up crowd a totally different cut of meat. Suddenly the psychedelic projections seemed ill-fitted, and as the darkly dressed, pale faced Danes scowled out at the seething summer sun, a new feeling sank through the audience. Was Iceage suited for a 1pm slot on an Australian festival’s outdoor stage in summer? Probably not. But perhaps that’s what made this performance so memorable. Intense, morbidly sexual and riddled with something more disconcerting than what could be deemed as angst, frontman RØnnenfelt and crew left a quieted crowd nodding their heads in confused approval.
Bo Ningen (pictured, above) were as good as ever, and a standout for the day. Their unique explosion of hair-thrashing acid punk is truly something to behold. Whilst technically tight, they still have a way of keeping audience members on their feet with lightening fast, sharply flayed improvisational body and facial movements. They make one feel like anything could happen next, and with this performance, it meant bass player Kawabe’s crotch to your face whilst distorting and manipulating his bass with the enclave of his stomach.
Running from the main stage for the first time, the toilet line adjacent to the Boiler Room stage was a funk-laden, disco dancing delight, thanks to the tail end of the awesome vinyl spinning Wax’o Paradiso. Twerps played one of their less enigmatic performances of late, but those folk have got busy fast, so perhaps that can be excused for now. At this point in the mid afternoon, the beating sun throbbed down, and the lack of shade surrounding the main stage meant flesh lined walls the whole way down the lane. If Sugar Mountain chooses VCA as a venue again, ample sunshades should be added to the To Do’s.
Like Iceage, Body/Head (pictured, above) were another strange fit for the design and subsequent mood of the main stage. But really, where else could you fit a crowd eager to experience alt rock royalty? Kim Gordon and Bill Nace’s set was wonderful to experience (their on-stage collaborative energy in itself a sight to behold), but in parts a tad lacklustre. A largely improvised performance, it was curious to ponder how much a space and venue affects the subject that forms from the improvised set. Amusingly, the accompanying video piece of a tasteful, Western domestic interior reminded me of Gordon’s cameo in Gossip Girl season 3.
Between the sets, it was easy poking around the visual arts side of the Mountain, largely hidden in the converted classrooms. This took little time, as a fair chunk of the work was underwhelming and mediocre, with the 2D pieces feeling more like commercial design than contemporary art suitable for a festival. Although this unfortunate trend of visual arts being trumped in both space and quality by the music is common at festivals, the visual art at Sugar Mountain just didn’t stand up to the music. Somewhat ironically, the most interesting video pieces were difficult to engage with, largely because of surrounding festival noise. Nonetheless, the art and it’s occupying spaces were a pleasant break from the ever-growing crowds that grew with the close of daylight, and were far better than ‘arts’ components seen at other music and arts festivals.
Now early eve was upon the festival, new cohorts poured in. A testament to the organisers and space, the Mountain never felt overly packed, and with a cushy 5000-person capacity, the festival continued to have a relatively personal vibe; never falling into frantic, push and pull wildness of other one day festival events. There was ample room to dance to tropical Greco-Oz house pop darlings No Zu, who did a fantastically cheesy set with Sal P from infamous 1980s post-punk, post-disco NYC band Liquid Liquid. So much bongo. It’ll be interesting to see where these guys go from here. A little less enthralling was following set by Ariel Pink (pictured, below). Due to sound complications, it was a shortened and understandably irritated set that was saved by the undeniable mastery of Ariel’s sonic world. Wet and psychedelic, bouncy yet indifferent, the music felt like a 1960s teenage girl’s lucid half nightmare, sweet and scary in a lace-ruffled room in the dark.
The music continued to prove high quality over the evening, with SWANS hypnotising guests into swaying, primal states, and Kirin J Callinan (pictured, top) providing a warm-hearted alternative for those not interested in seeing headline act NAS. Kirin welcomed us into the theatre stage, a darkened room of limited capacity and tiered seating, greeting the crowds with the dry and somewhat detached warmness of your favourite eccentric uncle. It was storytime for the misfits, and he gathered the crowd close around him, alluding to a special evening he and Chris Taylor (Grizzly Bear, CANT, Terrible Records) had planned for their guests. After playing personal favourite “Embracism” from 2013 release of the same name, a Skype party was revealed, with friends from all over the world. Callinan dialled up mates such as Jack Ladder, Dev Hynes of current project Blood Orange, Neil Finn, Mac DeMarco’s testicles (and was it Seekae’s Alex Cameron?) to play collab tracks varying from MJ to Willie Nelson.
Between some glorious technical glitches, flipping between on-stage to on-screen presence and bizarre heckling from the crowd (most likely an organised part of the performance), Kirin, Tex and that guy with the Wii made it clear that pushing the boundaries of a festival goer’s expectations was absurdly good fun. When we were told things had to come to an end (somehow now the festival was near a close), it was genuinely disappointing. The surreal, voyeuristic world that Kirin and Chris Taylor had conjured was one I didn’t want to leave. Kirin J Callinan’s uniquely raw-whilst-performative presence always seems to create a sense of mild post-electrocution in his wake, one walk away with heightened senses, internally vibrating and aware. Sugar Mountain’s mantra is to be a “natural meeting point” for contemporary music, visual art and new media in a one-day festival setting, and Kirin J Callinan’s Terrible Love performance encapsulated the spirit of this perfectly.
Sugar Mountain 2015 proved to be a successful new evolution to the once smaller and more contained event that started four years before. Despite the major headline acts it’s now able to pull, unlike other music and arts festivals, the Mountain still stands out as a highly individual event that hasn’t bent to mainstream concern.
Words by Neika Lehman. For photo credits, click individual pictures.