by Elliot Davies
Here comes the sound of confusion! The Liverpool International Festival of Psychedelia is back and better than ever. We’re ready to have our minds blown once more.
A certain global spiritual collective believes that the holy grail is a sort of giant celestial heart that beats once a year. Upon beating, it invigorates the whole world with healthy and nutritious Godjuice – just enough to keep everyone going until the next beat.
For those with an interest in drone, texture, colour, volume, outsider art, altered states of consciousness and alternative ways of seeing the world, the Liverpool International Festival of Psychedelia is fast becoming that big beating grail in the sky. Once a year we attend in our thousands to receive our annual dose of warming positivity, and we leave with enough good ideas to sustain us for the year ahead.
And the year ahead is dark and unknown – it’s only when the last weekend of September rolls round that things start to make sense again.
Global Pagan Love Fest
The Liverpool International Festival of Psychedelia always has an incredible lineup, but they really outdid themselves this year. The festival has always delivered on the psychedelia, but never before have things felt more international. There were bands here from all over the world, many of whom rarely, if ever, play in the UK. Apart from anything else, the weekend offered an unmissable chance to take in the sort of sounds and styles that are seldom heard on these shores.
Dengue Fever combine Cambodian pop with the sort of frantic beat music that soundtracks high speed chases in 60s spy films. Staying still during their set is quite impossible. At a festival where the default crowd reaction is to sway gently with closed eyes and clutched pint, that’s no mean feat.
The Ganjas sound exactly like you’d imagine a band called The Ganjas to sound – they’re essentially a Chilean jam band who let searing guitars sweep over exotic reggae rhythms. Swaying ensued: eyes were closed, pints were clutched.
Russian shoegaze, French shoegaze, Finnish techno, Italian disco, American hardcore, Danish punk, take your pick! I did! Above all I favoured the heady rhythms of Portugal’s Gala Drop. Their fuggy sound was spellbinding, like downing an entire jug of sangria, fruit and all, before staring directly into the sun. Never have I seen a crowd shuffle with such devotion.
Monty Got Araw Deal
Cameron Stallones, alias Sun Araw, was a welcome late addition to the bill. His music perfectly captures that groggy state of mind experienced when you’ve walked for miles on a punishingly hot day. The album he did with M. Geddes Gangras and The Congos is still the trippiest album I’ve ever heard, and it will likely always be my go-to answer whenever anyone asks me for recommendations.
This festival is famed for the epic visuals they put on for every performance, but Sun Araw insisted upon playing in near darkness. They used the bare minimum of stage lighting, but they were good enough to bring their own LED rig. It was a tiny one, advertising a key-cutting service.
Playing as part of a trio, Sun Araw threw together three extremely loose sci-fi dub improvisations. Every sound was treated like a beat, with few sounds sticking around for longer than a second. Even the vocals were reduced to clipped bleats. The result was a busy sound collage that never quite coalesced, but which nonetheless achieved a strange unity. It was like drifting through a neon cloudscape armed only with a tropical cocktail – woozy, disjointed, but ultimately delicious.
Never Underestimate the Power of a Home Crowd
Jane Weaver isn’t just a master of infectious cosmic pop – she’s our master of infectious cosmic pop. She hails from Liverpool, so the crowd greets her as a returning hero. Sounding like Broadcast reimagined for a space disco, her set would have been a triumphant party regardless; But the actions of one young man served to make things truly unforgettable.
This glitter-faced cheerleader was dancing front and centre, but as he danced, he appeared to be scanning the crowd around him. Whenever he spotted anyone who was dancing as wildly as he was, he’d beckon them over, often with the use of an imaginary fishing rod. By the time Weaver reached her third song or so, he’d assembled a heaving party posse at the front of the stage. And their dancing was so enthusiastic that it spread outwards. Before long, the whole room was grooving – all thanks to the determination of one superfan.
She closed with her latest single, I Need A Connection, which has been stuck in my head – and likely the heads of many others – ever since.
Ghost In The Machine
Fever The Ghost are a funny one. On record they do a sort of queasy pop that suggests they’ve been drinking from the same tap as of Montreal and MGMT. Live, though, they’re the complete package: homemade electronic instruments; a wardrobe that looks like it was designed by Richard O’Brian in the midst of a Starlight Express phase; tight songs that nonetheless sounded as though they were being held together by frayed DayGlo duct tape; and ever-shifting techniclour visuals that resembled the nauseating dreams of a seapunk/vaporware love child.
The entire festival was plagued by sound problems, but no band dealt with the issues better than Fever the Ghost. The guitar cut out during their opening song, but rather than letting the show grind to a halt, the band instead swerved seamlessly into a brilliant Moog funk jam. Even though the aural effect was like blending Herbie Hancock into Ween, it was so expertly done as to sound like a natural progression. And the moment the guitar was fixed, the shift back into the original song again sounded like a perfect resolution.
This happened less than five minutes into their set. But from that point onwards, I was theirs. Unfortunately, their melting prog funk wasn’t for everyone. Even though this was probably one of the most open-minded audiences the band’s ever faced, the crowd had noticeably thinned by the end of their set. Never mind. This just means that we can add “underrated” and “not appreciated in their own time” to the list of Fever The Ghost’s virtues.
Who Won The Volume Wars?
There are many ways to make psychedelic music, but such a discussion would be in grave danger of descending into yet another “what is psychedelia” debate, and nobody wants that. But in any case, I think we can all agree that repetitive droning music, if played at an INCREDIBLY LOUD VOLUME, probably qualifies as “psychedelic”.
Many bands on this year’s bill peddled this caustic brand of psychedelia. I heard great things about Hey Colossus! but I unfortunately missed their set. And so large was the crowd for Crows, and so small the room in which they played, that I didn’t exactly see them. I heard them though. And even sat round the corner, their music was so aggressive as to be perfectly audible. Tense and threatening, being upfront and centre for those guys must be quite an unnerving experience.
But I did manage to see Hookworms. Having played and even headlined this festival in the past, they might be described as the house band. They’re dead mysterious. We know little of the five members, not even their names – they go by their initials. Unfortunately, it’s hard to maintain an air of mystery when you’re getting visibly stroppy before and after your set. Yes, those pesky sound problems reared their head again.
It’s OK, guys. We all have our Spinal Tap moments. And for the 40 minutes or so during which Hookworms played, they were a force of nature. It’s like listening to Sister Ray in a wind tunnel – at once utterly engaging yet totally inscrutable. Their vocalist deals in pained, impassioned yelps, and throughout the set subtly performed a series of magic tricks. When singing, he was bespectacled. When hunched over his keyboard, he was not. The thing is, at no point did he ever seem to remove his glasses.
Hookworms are certainly one of the most genuinely exciting bands currently operating in Britain. But though they played at ear-bleeding volumes, they didn’t win the weekend’s loudness wars.
Instead, the prize goes to Arizona’s Destruction Unit, who were, well… you know how almost every rock band ever ends their set through allowing things to descend into loose chaos? You know how the strobes go mad, and how everyone stalks offstage having applied their guitars to their amps, leaving the crowd to the mercy of the feedback until some roadie sheepishly cuts the sound?
Destruction Unit’s set started with such an onslaught – except it took place at twice the volume and thrice the speed. This is the sort of space rock that knows the truth – that space is terrifying. Their punishing sonic attack was the unfeeling roar of your ship’s rocket engines as it leaves the asteroid without you. It’s the last sound you’ll ever hear before you drift off into your cold and lonely grave of infinite emptiness.
Upstairs at the Camp & Furnace is where the films are screened, the discussions are held, the cocktails are mixed, the records are bought, and the artists and residence are given free reign to let their minds be manifest. It’s up here where you can really expose yourself to the sort of ideas and experiences that can kickstart a new life dedicated to exploring the outer-limits and inner-reaches.
The Pzyk Cinema Chrome Sugar Shack put together a beautiful selection of experimental visual treats. David O’Reilly’s RGB XYZ is an 8-bit bildungsroman about a young boy’s big city adventures, in which all the voices are provided by computer programmes. Rachel Maclean’s Over The Rainbow drew its dialogue from a number of sources, applying all of your favourite memes to strange new contexts to create a saccharine fairy tale nightmare. Between such narrative epics were mind-melting abstract acid trips from around the world, the cumulative effect being an engaging slideshow of woozy fascination that some might say would be worth the price of admission alone.
Next door in the Pzyk Pryzm, all manner of strange experiments were taking place. Magpahi rescored The Moomins, adding an air of apocalyptic menace to visuals which were disconcerting enough when shorn of their context. XAM, a Hookworms side project, paid tribute to his kosmiche heroes, and Ex-Easter Island Head struck electric guitars with mallets to create some haunting sounds that made the visuals in the cinema next door feel even more otherworldly.
Yet in a disused DJ booth sat waiting the purest psychedelic experience I’ve ever had to date. RNL-Cinechamber’s THORIUM-232 makes use of Oculus Rift technology to instantly transport your mind to another place – a huge chamber with neither floor nor ceiling, in which the walls were constantly mutating collages of colourful shapes and symbols, and in which ecstatic temple drones accompanied your every movement.
The second the headset and headphones were supplied I was transported. I was only in there for five minutes or so, but I could happily have spent hours in that impossible headspace. And that, perhaps, is how music might be sold to us in the future: You might ultimately be able to buy Oculus Rift editions of albums, getting an immersive AV experience to go with the music. Most bands will place you at the side of stages, or up close and personal in their rehearsal spaces, and that will be good enough. But the best bands will implement something similar to THORIUM-232 – total sensory overload in an unknowable alien world.
Did I Just See The Spaceman Smile?
Getting Spiritualized to headline was an inspired choice that feels like a major step forward for this festival. In my review of last year’s event, I worried about how the festival might grow. I worried that filling the lineup with “bigger” bands might dilute whatever it is that makes the festival feel so special.
But a band like Spiritualized feels like less of a populist choice, and more like a tip of the hat to a true pioneer of the scene. It’s like a “legends slot”, an opportunity for the trailblazers to show us how things are done, and to inspire yet another generation. It worked – Spiritualized’s set was the perfect close to the whole weekend, and endless fun can now be had wondering which other veterans might subsequently fill this slot. I mean, Jesus, might The 13th Floor Elevators be persuaded to pay Liverpool a visit for one last gig? Imagine that!
Spiritualized were due to play for 90 minutes, and for 90 minutes they provided a gorgeous masterclass in widescreen kaleidoscopic rock. Though they’ve been imitated by many, their unique vision of acid-gospel-chemical-blues remains peerless. The monumental Born Never Asked/Electric Mainline jam has never sounded so transcendent, and a huge cheer erupted during the sudden segue into Shine A Light from a scorching Electricity. Somebody even punched the air in triumph, and that somebody might well have been me.
But it was during the final third of their set – they played for 30 minutes longer than scheduled! – that things really got interesting.
Given that almost every band on the bill cites Spacemen 3 as an influence, is it fair to say that chunks of the lineup would not exist were it not for Jason Pierce’s former band? With that in mind, you can imagine the palpable surge of joy that’s unleashed once the band subtly glides into the graceful opening chords of Spacemen 3 classic Walking With Jesus.
This is followed by an intense Come Together, during which the crowd bellows back every single word. It must be strange for Jason to hear his brutal ode to chemical dependency sung with such glee, but he looks every bit as into it as anyone in the crowd.
Fantastic, but somewhat standard for a Spiritualized show in 2015. This is how they usually close their set, you see. Oh well, it’s been fun. But wait, what’s this? That chugging riff…could that be? Could they… possibly be playing Take Me To The Other Side?
Argh, they only bloody are! And the room is electrified in a way that’s seldom seen as Spiritualized shows. This is the quintessential pint-clutched-eyes-closed-and-swaying sort of band. People go to their shows and drift! To be in the middle of such an active, joyous crowd at a Spiritualized show is really quite wonderful.
And they’re not even done with that! There’s just room for one last treat, and as if to confirm that this is a special show for the band too, it’s a deep cut, an old favourite from Lazer Guided Melodies. Take Your Time is a sublime classic that, though building to a blistering emotional peak, starts off slow and serene. But this crowd has by now been taken to the other side. From the opening note, they’re ecstatic.
I wonder how long it’s been since the band played to such an overwhelmingly warm reception? They must be feeling the love. They’re surely feeding off our energy and channeling it right back into their grooves. The room is a feedback loop! Band and audience are united as one and creating live Metal Machine Music! It’s pure musical alchemy and…my word, did I just see the Spaceman smile?
This felt like more than a mere rock show, and it provided the perfect conclusion to a weekend that felt like more than a mere music festival. I leave feeling filled with the positivity and the energy I need to bring my ideas to life!
The celestial heart has beat once more. All who felt its pulse now understand what must be done. But the love must never be allowed to wane. The beat must beat again in 2016.
Ahem. Long may The Liverpool International Festival of Psychedelia be a thing. Please.