Liverpool International Festival of Psychedelia 2014 – Part One

by Elliot Davies.

Liverpool Psych FestThere’s a strange sound coming from the Mersey, and on the last weekend of September 2014, thousands of freaks, geeks, space cadets and nomadic wizards heard its call, and flocked to the heady confines of Liverpool’s Camp & Furnace.

“It’s nice to be a psychedelic band at a psychedelic festival,” says Scott Vitt of The Asteroid #4. He might well have added “in a psychedelic city”; for if ever there was a city more fitting a location for a psychedelic festival, you’d most likely have to look to the other side of The Atlantic. Second only to San Francisco, Liverpool can surely lay a claim to being the most psychedelic city in the world.

Now. What the hell am I talking about? How on earth can a city be “psychedelic”? In saying such a thing, am I suggesting that there’s something in the water; that all who drink it and subsequently take to guitar, keyboard or laptop suddenly find themselves capable of conjuring the cosmic? Perhaps, but to put it another way, a psychedelic city is a city that produces a lot of psychedelic bands, and in this respect, Liverpool has a stunning alumni. But it’s also in the attitude. This city is hedonistic without being nihilistic; spiritual without being overtly religious.

In the run up to the Liverpool International Festival of Psychedelia 2014, no small amount of tedious articles were written that attempted to pin down, once and for all, a clear and undeniable definition of “psychedelic”. All of these endeavours failed, and psychedelic music remains the sort of thing that you just sort of know when you hear it. Nonetheless, everyone seems to have their own definition, and for me, psychedelic music is any music that points in another direction, suggesting that, for better or worse, there is more to life than what is contained in your narrow philosophy.

The first band to instil such a feeling for me were Holy Wave. Hailing from El Paso, Texas, the most obvious point of reference is The 13th Floor Elevators. Though where Roky & co. were happy to rock, Holy Wave have a much greater tendency to let things swirl and hover. The effect is frequently beguiling, and the lava lamp and oil projection visuals in the Camp wing of Liverpool’s Camp & Furnace certainly helps matters. Indeed, as the weekend progresses, it soon becomes apparent that efforts have been made to create unique, signature visuals for most every band on the bill. It’s one of many touches that serves to make this festival feel truly special.

Case in point, Wolf People, who have been coaxed out of hibernation just for this gig, offer an earthy feel that’s perfectly complemented by woozy images of grass, mushrooms, and woodland. For me, Wolf People were the first of the weekend’s many revelations. I’m not too keen on their recorded sound. I find they sound a little too much like Idlewild, but with longer songs. Live, though, they’re tight, they’re crisp, and they rock. Indeed, during their set, one man was air guitaring so hard that he fell over.

Next, Amen Dunes takes to the stage, and he’s lovely. But after Wolf People, we’re feeling energised, so we leave in search of something a little less soporific. Unfortunately, we ended up falling asleep in the upstairs cinema, watching a terrifying Duchamp experiment, and Can’s 1972 Free Concert. Still, we awake feeling both refreshed and bleary, in that strange state of mind in which the day is new, colours are more vibrant, and sounds surge and dull in volume as if acting of their own free will. It’s more or less the perfect state of mind in which to watch Allah-Las.

This Californian four-piece enjoyed one of the most enthusiastic crowds of the weekend, quite possibly because their sound is a very Liverpool sort of sound. I know they’re drawing inspiration from a host of Laurel Canyon bands, but in terms of style and delivery, they sound a lot like local heroes The La’s, a band with whom they almost share a name. But they’re no copyists. They’ve an arsenal of groovy instrumentals, and they’re not afraid to use them. Once deployed, they succeed in transforming a packed Furnace into the party scene from a 1960s exploitation movie, called something like Surf Pirate Martian Murder Babes From Hell. As the crowd jives and nods, it feels as though the room is heaving with joy.

Up next for me is The Besnard Lakes. When they were first announced for this festival, I actually shouted “yes”. This is something that I never, ever, ever do, but The Besnard Lakes are the sort of band to inspire hyperbole. I don’t usually like to describe bands in terms of other bands, and I hate having to resort to impossible alternate universe situations in an attempt to capture the feel of a performance. But words fail me, so if either approach gets your goat, feel free to skip the next paragraph.

Imagine if the world were hours from ending. Science has failed us, so in a last-ditch attempt to stop the rot, the surviving members of Pink Floyd join forces with Sigur Ros to make a sound powerful enough to reverse the flow of destruction. But so as to make absolutely sure that their mission doesn’t fail, they also enlist the services of J. Mascis and Kevin Shields, giving their searing sonic onslaught a razor’s edge. They succeed in creating a desperate barrage of sound that’s potent enough to reignite the sun, and the world is saved.

Yeah, they’re incredible. A lot of bands use excessive volume as a weapon during their live shows, but often this is a move designed to hide the fact that the underlying material, shorn of its loudness, is weak and forgettable. The Besnard Lakes, though, use ear-bleeding volumes in order to render their already powerful songs utterly devastating. Miraculously, the strong melodies, driving rhythms and soaring choruses still enthrall beneath the screaming maelstrom. Watching them, it feels as though the world can be saved by music alone.

After which, there’s just time for the weekend’s second revelation, which this time comes in the form of Montreal’s Suuns. Their albums, though frequently thrilling, are often more than a little too reminiscent of Clinic. Live, though, Suuns create a pulsating dark disco, in which vocals are snarled and guitars are thrashed as the beat goes on and on and on. They play on a stage bathed in a sinister red light, to visuals depicting a rotten sun that’s bleeding to death before decaying VHS displays.

It’s compelling and hypnotic, but by this point, we’re more or less psyched out. I really wish we’d stuck around to watch Zombie Zombie, but the thought that we had another, even longer, even more punishingly loud day ahead of us made me realise that sleep was probably a good idea by that point.

Continue to Part Two.