For 2015, Melbourne’s Sugar Mountain festival embraced its high art pretensions and relocated to the spacious, labyrinthine surrounds of the Victorian College of Art, a vast improvement on the pokey, ad hoc spaces of 2013’s the Forum. Improvement yes, and certainly in that sound art played a more direct if still largely ignorable, role (Robin Fox’s thrillingly interactive light organ excepted), but the space was not without its share of issues. Traversing stages was lengthy and initially confusing (latterly too, depending on one’s sobriety), and for much of the day the burning sun was inescapable, with shade a precious commodity. Aerial time lapse photography would have revealed some interesting group behaviour, clumps of figures hugging the fringes in the shape of South Melbourne’s wider buildings, gradually branching out as the sun set. On the plus side, it made for some euphoric moments when the sun was finally swallowed by towers, particularly in the two dance stages.
Dodds Street was the festival’s central strip, a closed off road overlooked by the main stage at one end, decorated in fluorescent spine-like forms, flapping about like colourful seaweed. Food and beer tents, ATMs, and merchandise (a lonely, sorry looking stall, I didn’t see a single customer) lined the back. I say ‘main’ stage because here were all the guitar bands, still the bread and butter of Australian festivals, and not just referring to its central location, streets branching off to the other stages. These included the Theatre, a small, dark, sit down venue, the most appealing throughout the hotter parts of the day; the Car Park, a large, exposed gravel strewn car park, home to more crowd pleasing dance acts; and the Boiler Room, broadcast live on boileroom.tv, in a pleasant secluded corner with its own food and beer kiosks, adjacent the art spaces.
Raucous squealing guitar from four black clad long haired rockers greeted my arrival, Bo Ningen locked in a devotional outpouring of metal-tinged psychedelia. Each player was entranced, with Taigen Kawabe’s voice a Keiji Haino-esque shriek, only more aligned with traditional, erm, Japanese freak metal noise. When not singing he’d scrawl away at his headless bass, one-handed behind his head Hendrix style, his free hand twisting demented Tai Chi moves. The others were no less crazed, particularly guitarist Kohhei Matsuda, windmilling his guitar by the neck, nearly beheading his bandmates, before falling to his knees for similar spirit-summoning. The choreographed finale, with the three guitarists leaping from amps on cue to the final cymbal splash, was preposterously histrionic, with Bo Ningen an early standout.
How to Dress Well in the Car Park weren’t quite as successful. Sound issues were partly to blame, but placing icy, naked RnB in a vast sandy heat trap was a disaster of scheduling. Tom Krell’s impressive croon was heard only in snatches, his pithy backing swaying and melting before reaching the ears. Krell’s witty putdown of one audience hipster, “Guy’s got a cardigan and a beard. You’re a sick dog! Get it together!”, was alas his most memorable moment, and he had a point. Hence The 2 Bears eschewed their furry suits, but with their big, cuddly frames they epitomised a more sensual kind of bear. The name suits their warming, populist ‘pop-hip-house’ sound, a beefy, almost proggy disco house for the most part, between Hot Chip styled tunes and the odd broken detour. Rather cloying for my tastes but well pitched for the time slot, and clearly pleasing the sweaty crowd. At that hour the burning space needed all the help it could get.
The dark and cool Theatre offered a pleasant escape, and a surprise discovery in Rat & Co (had it the capacity, it would have made the ideal space for How to Dress Well). Get past the shabby name and you find a creative and interesting band, shoegaze guitars and subtle synth pads creating a kind of bleepy and reduced Sigur Ros, but rendered more Pink Floyd by the splashy drums and cosmic visuals. The size constraints sadly meant that getting back in was tricky, meaning we missed Oskar Key Sung x Cassius Select, among others, but festivals with this much choice are always a case of compromise.
Harder to miss was anything on Dodds Street. The Twerps have hardly updated their take on post-Velvets-Dunedin twee jangle, nor indeed the originals to which they’re indebted, but however lightweight – and indeed sunny – their sound, it was hard to dismiss in peak daytime heat. Kim Gordon’s Body/Head project with Bill Nace was tougher in all senses, jarring dissonant feedback, squeals of distortion, shifting from droning guitar tone to – lengthy – periods of socket buzz. Gordon’s voice gave it some direction, almost functioning like a set of directions, and married closer to the music than the players did to each other. Better were the jovial jamboree rhythms of NO ZU, already a brash multi-percussive troupe with a peripheral debt to the kookier strains of New York disco, joined here by Sal P from Big Apple post-punk disco pioneers Liquid Liquid. At their best, they settled into shuffling Motorik grooves with limber Caribbean touches, but all too often these were compromised by kooky vocal call outs and incongruous instrumental flourishes.
With their sense of play however NO ZU had the right pitch for the setting and, as usual, the dance stages seemed to be having all the fun. Even early on, the Boiler Room seemed the wisest bet, with Wax O Paradiso’s mix of brass and samba rhythms wooing early crowds. A later visit and Noise in My Head’s pitched down house veered from retro Chicago bleeps through gloomier Hamburg deep house. Come sunset, London’s FunkinEven proved the undisputed festival highlight, an all-too-short hour of driving machine funk, heady Detroit surge with slamming Bristolian kinks, mixed with a considerable sense of adventure, stunning. From there we ran to catch the tail end of Horse Meat Disco, the Car Park finally palatably shaded, and a gleeful crowd loving it. A couple of firmly housey disco tunes in though and it was all over, great music but out with a distinct fizz.
Back to the guitars, and Ariel Pink’s set, a big drawcard for many, seemed to lack much of the curveball punch that his albums deliver in spades. With Pink in heels and pigtails, and drummer Don Bolles of Germs in bra and knickers, this clichéd glam silliness seemed contrived, and their sound comparably so. Nonetheless, a sun kissed Beach Boys aura prevailed, slathered over all like suntan oil, yet real inspiration came in gasps within songs (mostly taken from Pom Pom) rather than through whole performances. Swans’ granite drone rock meanwhile was formidable, and considerably disorienting, their monolithic dissonance a stark, yet welcome contrast to their festival comrades. Recognisable phrases would appear, mostly from recent albums, only to shift direction – subtly and slowly, either a result of new versions of old songs, or new songs altogether.
The downcast mood continued, in a different form, with Nas doing Illmatic in its entirety. Frequently cited as hip hop’s greatest album, this was a major draw for a festival of this scale. Nas seemed genuinely thrilled to be here, and particularly proud – nay, ecstatic – to be revisiting his masterpiece. The recent trend for landmark-album revisitation concerts can frequently veer into lazy nostalgia exercises, carelessly following well worn footsteps, but Nas was thrillingly present, his delivery impassioned, his anger as sharp as ever. Most despairingly, the racism and political injustice that forms such a part of Illmatic has, in 21 years, only gotten much worse, highlighted particularly by recent spates of racist police violence, and their seeming invincibility. This was a strong conclusion to a patchy but enjoyable festival that, nonetheless, I look forward to revisiting.
Photos by Daniel Erickson and Joshua Meggitt