by Elliot Davies
Kiss me with apocalypse! Here we are again at the Liverpool International Festival of Psychedelia. The 2016 event is the biggest yet, but thankfully, this pagan love drone commune has lost absolutely none of its charms.
The giant celestial heart has beat its annual beat again! Now everything makes sense, and everything will continue to make sense until something happens that makes us question everything again.
Something 4 The Weekend (The Gift That Keeps Giving)
In the biggest coup since that time they got Spiritualized to play, this year Liverpool Psych Fest had the genius idea of booking Super Furry Animals as a Friday night headliner.
PROS – They’re one of the finest bands Britain’s ever produced – ever – and I’d still not seen them since they returned last year from an unexplained hiatus of more than five years. Plus, that they can secure a band of this calibre seems to suggest that the festival is in quite a strong position now. This is A Good Thing.
CONS – There’s that unfortunate thing that happens when one of your very favourite bands is playing a festival, whereby the day of their performance becomes all about their performance. For me it felt less like Day One of the 2016 Liverpool Psych Fest and more like a long-awaited SFA gig with a VERY strong support lineup and a TERRIFIC aftershow. Oh, and the unmissable nature of the SFA meant missing a number of performances that I had previously considered unmissable, including Dungen and Silver Apples. Boo!
But as I’m sure you’ll agree, that the only complaint I have about the whole weekend is that one of their headliners was a little too good is quite a good position to be in. And besides. SFA more than lived up to expectations.
From the opening one-two punch of Slow Life/(Drawing) Rings Around The World onward, this was ceaseless joy, with their impossibly lovely songs played at ear-bleeding volumes with eye-searing visuals to match.
They’ve been at it for 20 years now. One reason they’ve been able to last so long is that they clearly put a huge amount of effort into absolutely everything they do. Their albums are endlessly inventive – wild and hairy yet meticulously arranged, mixed, and sequenced. And their live shows always feel like huge events, with the band playing the part of stoic scientists in the midst of a vital experiment, in space.
So whether they’re swooning through a gorgeous Run! Christian, Run!, or improvising a strange pair of songs about Earth and Mars to see the audience through a technical hitch, you always get the impression that they’re fully invested in their deeds and totally committed to making things as good as they can possibly be.
They don’t let The Man Don’t Give A Fuck descend (or ascend) into 20 minutes of wonky glitch techno anymore. But they do return to the stage in yeti form for a magnificent acid rock finale. Hey hey SFA – why did you ever go away? We love you lots, so please stay.
Here be dragons – another magical Welsh export took to the stage immediately before SFA. We last saw Gwenno opening for Gruff Rhys when he took his American interior show to Nottingham. Since then she’s reissued her album on Heavenly Recordings (Y Dydd Olaf!), and beefed up her live sound with the addition of a living, breathing rhythm section!
Yes, whereas Gwenno used to be content to stand behind a sequencer, now her songs have the sort of propulsive edge that makes her sound like a dreamier version of Broadcast (if such a thing is possible). I didn’t catch her bassists name – soz – but her drummer’s unmistakable. It’s Kliph Scurlock! The ex-Flaming Lip who was last seen drumming for Gruff Rhys when he took his American Interior show to Nottingham!
Kliph is a formidable powerhouse of a drummer. His gut-busting beats combined beautifully with Gwenno’s gorgeous vocals and lush electronics to create a genuinely compelling sound. And like me, Kliph’s a Super Furry Superfan. He could be seen stood enthralled at the side of the stage throughout the headline act’s performance.
Putting on a live electronics show is definitely much harder than it looks. So thank you Gwenno, for showing us how it should be done. Because when this isn’t done right, things can quickly get boring.
Witchy mysterions Demdike Stare had a late night slot in the PZYK Colony, a warped version of the Camp stage that’s been specially adapted for deep contemplation in the small hours. They had a glorious 360-degree screen to play with, onto which were projected various white lines and wave patterns.
Impressive… for a few minutes at least. But unfortunately, Demdike Stare are of the “press play on a sequencer and stand completely still” class of electronic performers. On record, few can match their insidious doom. But live their beats felt flat, resulting in a totally unengaging experience that left me feeling cold in the worst possible way.
Much more appealing were Flamingods on the District stage. In terms of both the size of the crowd they attracted and the sheer number of musicians and instruments crammed into such a tight performance space, these guys clearly deserve to be on a much bigger stage. To me, their beguiling drones and infectious polyrhythms attain that perfect middle-ground between Caribou at their most ecstatic and Animal Collective at their least disciplined. It’s the sort of perfect sound I didn’t even know I needed. It had a wonderful cleansing effect, like taking in a green tea and mango breakfast after showering under a waterfall.
Crystal Rainbow Pyramid/Electric Psilocybin Flashback
For a while, Acid Mothers Temple insist that they won’t play a single note until somebody turns the lights on. “We play real psychedelic music,” they say; the implication being that all the strobes and projections are superfluous to requirements when their music’s so trippy.
But the lights aren’t forthcoming, so they decide to press on regardless. What follows is more than 40 minutes of mind-melting sonic assault. They play at a volume that feels dangerous, with head-wizard Kawabata Makoto calmly conjuring lethal electronic swoops that seem specifically designed to deafen.
Oh, the pace relents now and then. Twice, to be exact – once for a beautiful close-harmony performance of La Novia, a traditional French folk chant, and again for a strange sexy dance from a flamboyant guitarist set to a harmonica solo. But the rest of the time this is a punishing aural attack… and I loved it so much that I haven’t really been able to listen to any other band since.
AMT don’t really have songs. They have riffs. And as any aficionado will tell you (you will know us by our distance), their most beautiful riff is the Pink Lady Lemonade riff. Tonight it comes out of nowhere, effortlessly settling atop a propulsive motorik groove. We instantly feel as though we’re floating several feet above our bodies. But they’re just getting started. It builds and builds and builds, a godly crescendo that’s both transcendent and cathartic.
But they’re not done yet. They’ve still got four minutes of their allocated set time. For a band with songs that average at about 15 minutes, this is a problem. So they do what any one of us would do, and savagely eviscerate their instruments until their time runs out.
A guitar is smashed to pieces, and wooden shards are casually tossed into the crowd. There’s a very real danger that somebody could get brained, blinded, or impaled. Miraculously not a single drop of blood is spilled, and the lucky viking who caught the guitar neck holds it aloft like a sword he’s just pulled from the corpse of his slain enemy. Oh yes.
AMT were one of many Asian bands on the bill. A large slice of Friday was given to Japanese label Guruguru Brain, who hand-picked some otherworldly delights from Taiwan and Japan. They even brought their own craft beer!
Unfortunately, we were only able to catch the set by Guruguru Brain’s house band, Kikagaku Moyo. Their mossy prog-folk is EXACTLY the type of music I NEED to hear most of the time. They summoned an enchanted forest out of thin air in which we were happy to lose ourselves.
As ever, the upstairs of Camp and Furnace acted as the pulsating brain of this strange glowing organism. It was here where the more cerebral psychedelic experiences could be had – with crate diggers and mixologists always on-hand to make the trips as pleasant and prolonged as possible.
In the PZYK Prism, Pierce Warnecke and Matthew Biederman presented PERSPECTION, a giant screen that ceaselessly displayed shifting shapes and colours to a constant soundtrack of foreboding (yet oddly comforting) drones. The display invites deep thought, and a nearby pyramid of soft surfaces provides the perfect spot to contemplate everything in the universe for a spell.
You could also choose from a number of immersive VR experiences created by a number of visionaries, including Pete Fowler, PsychFi, and Michael England. Regrettably we only had time to try DIONYSIA, an experience created in-house with music by Bonnacons of Doom. It was a chance to wander around a murky dreamscape where strange spores emerged from the ground to become towering organic skyscrapers.
Meanwhile in the PZYK Cinema… a looping transmission of Mark Leckey’s Dream English Kid. This film was created for the 2016 Liverpool Biennial festival, and it’s intended to record all of the “significant events” from the artist’s life from the 1970s to the 1990s.
It’s a montage of archival footage – Joy Division onstage at Eric’s, the woman wetting herself in Threads, concrete underpasses, VHS porn, well-stocked record racks… the churning droning soundtrack occasionally picks up elements of radio chatter, and a snippet from There Goes Concord Again by And The Native Hipsters… all of which combines to make An Important Point.
& The Beat Goes On
German synth pioneer Harald Grosskopf is another major coup for the festival. I simply couldn’t believe it when he was first added to the bill. I’ve listened to his Synthesist album countless times, and I never dreamed I’d ever see that robotic silver face staring back from a giant screen at the back of a stage while the maestro himself does his thing. What a treat.
Harald’s a percussionist, and he’s the happiest I’ve ever seen anyone play a synth pad. He almost never stops grinning, and at times he seems utterly delighted by the noises he’s creating and the reaction he’s getting. He’s flanked by two younger synthesists. Unfortunately he didn’t bring a mic, so he can only address the crowd by bellowing through cupped hands. As a result, I didn’t catch the names of his backing band, so I can only assume that they’re his two sons.
His songs are have been stretched and remixed to the point that they now sound quite a lot like Orbital. It would have been nice to hear some live new age music, but that might have been a bit too much for this audience to handle. They’re as open-minded a crowd as you’re ever likely to find, but it’s Saturday night. Who can blame them for wanting to dance? And Harald seems more than happy to provide the soundtrack.
And it’s back to the PZYK Colony for another late night electronic act. This time it’s Tim Gane’s Cavern of Anti-Matter, who sound exactly like you’d want Tim Gane’s post-Stereolab band to sound. This time the immersive 360 projection works, and this time the beats don’t fall flat. Instead they compel you to move, while chiming guitars and sparkling synths evoke optimistic visions of the future.
…darn, I can’t believe Liverpool Psych Fest is already over for another year. Let’s all go next year! We’ll have a party.
Sorry about the blurry images in this review, and a special thank you to all YouTubers who upped the embedded videos.