SYN Goes To Sugar Mountain 2012

Having missed last year’s inaugural event, I had been keenly awaiting the second instalment of Sugar Mountain at The Forum. Most of the accounts I heard and read from last year’s event praised the user-friendly nature of the festival, a factor that seems to have gained even greater prominence in the minds of festival goers in recent times. With the volatile festival market in Australia at the moment, Sugar Mountain stands out on two key counts: for its (relatively) brief running time (thanks to a early evening start time) and the more eclectic programming of its organisers. It also incorporates installation art; admittedly not a unique feature to this festival but certainly a key one in terms of making this the sort of comfortable and open-minded event that it is no doubt intended to be.

Arriving a bit late, I strolled down to The Forum’s main stage, dubbed ‘The Womb’ for the night’s purposes, to find Minnesotan synth-pop maniac John Maus already in full swing. Sporting impressive sweat patches despite having been on stage for what could have only been a few minutes, Maus proceeded to power his way through a set which made up in theatrics for what it lacked it variety. Alone on stage, the performance consisted entirely of Maus alternating between singing and shouting heavily treated vocals over the top of his pre-recorded sounds. Playing primarily (perhaps exclusively?) material from last year’s fantastic We Must Become The Pitiless Censors Of Ourselves, Maus seemed to be giving everything to the performance without getting much back from the audience. At times his contorted facial features struck me as resembling a young Arnie Schwarzenegger, a likeness which seemed all the more fitting in the moments in which he would bash his microphone against his skull like a demented caveman. Lurching from one song to the next without pausing to let any of the onstage energy dissipate, Maus succeeded in maintaining the attention of the audience right up until the end of his set, if not their engagement.

From The Womb I next headed to The Forum’s mezzanine where the smallest of the three stages, the Mess + Noise stage, was located. Straight Arrows seemed to have some technical difficulties which delayed their start but once they got going they seemed likely to batter the packed crowd who had gathered on the balcony into submission. Perilously loud, they sounded tight for the few songs I watched before heading up The Summit for a change of pace in the form of Julianna Barwick. The top stage at Sugar Mountain promised perhaps the most consistent programming content-wise, something which proved fortuitous considering the dynamics of the space with its steep seating and smaller performance area. With the lights dimmed, Barwick proceeded to deploy her brand of looped a cappella sounds against a background of projected visuals. The effect was impressive without being spectacular, with Barwick receiving a warm response from a duly attentive audience.

Heading back down to the main stage I managed to get in a quick dance to DJ Yamantaka Eye (of Boredoms fame) on the balcony. I would have loved to have stayed longer but the knowledge that both tUnE-yArDs was about to start and that Eye had just settled in for his two-hour set hurried me on my way. Perhaps one of the most critically acclaimed acts of last year, tUnE-yArDs (aka Merrill Garbus) proved that her undeniable songwriting and recording talents translated fantastically well to the stage. With her face colourfully painted and wielding a beaten-up ukulele, Garbus, backed by a bass player and dual saxophonists, got an immediate response from the large crowd with a thumping performance of “Gangsta”, one of the best cuts from her second album. Like Barwick, tUnE-yArDs utilizes looped sounds but unlike Barwick, this performance was all about movement and rhythm. The set only got stronger as it went on, Garbus obviously enjoying her first appearance on our shores. Let’s hope there are many more to come.

After another brief sojourn to the mezzanine dance floor where DJ Yamantake Eye was only getting deeper into his trance, it was time for the set I’d most been looking forward to: Thee Oh Sees. Having missed them on their last few jaunts to Australia, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect from John Dwyer and Co. What they delivered was easily the set of the festival; forty-five minutes of frenzied, rhythm-driven garage bliss. With the dual drum attack of Lars Finburg and Lars Shoun providing a motorik groove which would serve as a platform for all of the group’s lengthy jams, Dwyer and keyboardist/co-vocalist Brigid Dawson led the audience through a hypnotic set which never dipped in either quality or intensity. Adding an extra degree of delight was guitarist Petey Dammit!, whose ceaseless elated expression said all that needed to be said about this set. By the end of it I emerged sweaty, buzzing, and craving more.

After the high of Thee Oh Sees, I wasn’t sure how Prince Rama’s variety of tribal freak-out would go down, particularly on the more subdued Summit stage. I needn’t have worried as the sister act of Taraka and Nimai Larson provided another highlight of the evening. Already a good way into their set when I arrived, the duo had just reached the point where they seemed to have had enough of the more formal setting of their seated surroundings, and thus promptly invited the audience to join them on stage. A sizable amount did just that (including your faithful reviewer) and enjoyed a dance before a sheepish looking festival official informed the band of the OH&S risk such salacious activity posed. After being shooed from the stage, most people stayed standing up the front for the rest of the set which simply continued to enchant. Great stuff.

Having made the executive decision to skip Deerhoof long before festival day (for whatever reason I never really got into them), I decided to check out a couple of local acts on the Mess + Noise stage. Lost Animal were almost done by the time I arrived and seemed to be having some sound issues. Still, the dedicated audience who saw them seemed particularly receptive and the strong hooks from last year’s Ex Tropical really shone through the murky mix. Next up were The Harpoons, a fresh-faced group yet to release their debut album but who already are making waves in Melbourne’s burgeoning indie-pop-R&B-whatever scene. What I saw of their set I liked with vocalist Rebecca Rigby thriving out front.

Up last on the main stage were Seattle hip-hop outfit Shabazz Palaces. When I first heard they would be on at The Womb, I had trepidations about how they would go in such a large venue. However, while seeing the crowd they drew left me in little doubt that getting them on board was great programming by the organisers, I still thought their sound was a bit thin for the venue and, as a result, their performance a bit stilted. The bass was there but the sparseness of the arrangements that were so effective on Black Up were a bit exposed in all that open air of The Forum. That said, I was watching them from up near the back of the cavernous venue and the crowd did seem to be getting into it. Plus their visual projections were easily the best of the festival, perfectly matching the tripped-out beats and flow of the duo. Much more of a complete experience than a performance enjoyed track by track, Shabazz Palaces provided a pleasing end to a festival which seems destined to go from strength to strength; that is, until it grows beyond the confines of its current home.

by Michael Stanisic

January 19th 2012
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