Monday, May 2, 2011


Over 11 hours, three artspaces and two stages, the inaugural Sugar Mountain Festival saw multimedia get equal billing with some fresh international acts and local bands on a stage they’d rarely get the chance to play.

With a relatively short time between announcement and event, a lineup and publicity which expounds ideas over big names and pulling power, the unusual characteristics of Sugar Mountain only begin there. Installations, galleries, rampant cross-pollination of media, copious and literally awesome projections, floating bubbles, hissing dry ice and a stunning locale, it initially runs like a well-funded Steiner school concert only with more floor toms. A LOT more.

Kicking off, fitting openers Oscar + Martin seem a little at sea on the massive stage in the sparsely populated room but this doesn't stop them getting a red hot reception from the mingling early-comers. Lazy floor tom breakdowns, the meek boyish yelping and favoring texture over structure seems not to matter as O+M move from cheesy white boy rapping to James Blake gentleness and a glitchy breakdown within a song. With all the embellishments mentioned above debuting for their set, they seem like distracting overkill for a band whose core still seems to be forming despite having seemingly mastered the studio on their debut LP.

With the crowd now numbering several hundred, Otouto take the school concert vibe up another level with carefully constructed show featuring the frankly bizarre No Lights No Lycra, precision percussion and pitch-perfect harmonies. Playing most of their album Pip, Otouto ‘s music is so fragile and detailed that it seems one missed beat or stray harmony could derail an entire song, so it’s a testament to their talents that even in the cavernous Forum their spell still works. A little dissonance in their new songs gives some extra depth to their almost impossibly clean signature sound, which goes down a treat with the crowd who seem to be already converts.

Upstairs, No Zu make every band who settle for a floor tom as rhythm enhancement seem like lightweights with their funky timbales and dynamite post punk party intensity. The venue’s seats don't stop punters dancing and the demonically pitch-shifted vocals keep everything rough and unpredictable. Clearly a lot of people are impressed with No Zu, who themselves mention that they’re far more used to house parties than on a stage in front of five meter high projections. Despite their consistent manic exuberance, most of the audience disappear for Collarbones mid-set which dampens their spirit not one iota.

With more hyperbolic blog posts gushing about their mp3s than gigs, Collarbones are, fortunately, a revelation live. Despite having the combined age of a typical M+N reader, they’re comfortable on stage and exude a cockiness that quickly becomes essential part of their show. Instead of taking the obvious tropes of hip-hop, they take the confidence and throw it over some glitchy beats. They’re easy and woozy with the BPM and imaginative with their sounds. A song introduced as ‘a hate anthem for microphone stands’ brings some welcome unpredictability and edge to the main room as well as eliciting some stellar dance moves both from the duo and the crowd, but then outdo themselves with a 90s hip-hop cover, or as one punter puts it ‘motherfuckers dropped some J-Lo!’ To close they press play on ‘some 90s dance shit’ before leaving their gear to dance and strike poses which the typically solemn security guards have to crack up at. Cult fandom or massive success awaits.

Back upstairs, the film program kicks in with The Creative Lives, a documentary in which American artists talk about the creative process, only the sound is off and Talking Heads 77 is playing. Everyone is happy to chill and chat, as they do around the art exhibition happening outside the upstairs bar and around the live painting from Thomas Campbell and by the front doors where people scull their cider before stepping outside.

On the main stage, Texans YellowFever’s technical problems delay the start of their show but can't stop a successful conversion of curious onlookers. Their ragged and spellbinding set of sparse, wiry songs is a welcome burst of unprocessed, unfiltered rawness and communicates more directly as a result. New songs Bermuda Triangle and Horse promise much beyond their EP-compiling sole album and Jennifer Moore’s voice is a remarkably effective tool.

Red curtains part, a lone figure strides out, and soon there is only one thing we’re conscious of. Static. Static on the screen, static in the air, static in our heads, Qua on the stage. Soon, seismic pulses of bass radiate and beats appear, so clipped they almost become tones as he builds his set toward the guest appearances The Ritmo Giallo Ensemble, featuring Gray Taylor (Flying Scribble) on a sparkling Lapsang Souchong and Mat Watson (Magic Silver White) for the surprise appearance of his My Disco remix, Young. A stellar set that no doubt wins him new fans.

Meanwhile, Kiwis Coolies are burning up the rulebook by which others are playing with a lack of musicianship that can only be described as spectacular for a band who began in the mid-90s (recently recruited drummer Stefan notwithstanding). Coolies near disregard for ‘songs’ and music as entertainment are compelling. Mumbled verses disappear under one-handed guitar thrashing, songs are seemingly composed on the fly, the apathy so authentic it becomes hilarious, but then a sneered catchphrase will burst forth and everything comes together in a blinding flash of punk brilliance. ‘I’m bored with this song,’ says singer Tina to bassist Sjolin, slouched against the back of the stage, before the song, possibly called Work in Progress, peters out.

Though Virgo Four, the American electro-house duo who have been around now since 1989, may be unknown to most of those in the room, the hallmarks of the Chicago house movement in which they were born are disarmingly familiar. 303 bass sounds, a breakdown from industrial, repetitive drum machine to clean piano chops and sparse vocals the elements are there, the creation something totally fresh. The songs segue smoothly, most of them featuring some fluid guitar from Merwyn Sandars, and their ‘classics’ In a Vision and Ride fill the room with clusters of dancers getting their hands in the air, making Oscar + Martin’s set seem like another gig altogether.

Back from their SXSW showcase and American tour and closing the upstairs room are Twerps. Bringing new songs and sound more coalesced and honed than ever, yet in a way that doesn’t detract from the shambling brilliance of their earlier work, the band put on a rousing show. It’s odd, hearing confidence sneak in to some of the new songs, but it’s not unwelcome, perhaps some of America rubbed off on them? Despite unusually annoying visuals (showing the ‘crazy dance scene’ from Beetlejuice on a loop in 4-screen is only ever going to detract from songs like You Give Me The Chills) the new songs are brilliant and the album can’t come soon enough.

Back downstairs and now half an hour after their scheduled time, Aa explode onstage with a set that would keep Battles and RATM fans happy and bring memories back for anyone who caught the Boredoms last year (in fact, Aa were part of Boadrum 77). Loud as all hell and with the effect of being repeatedly punched in the ear by an orc, Aa are clearly very into hitting drums hard and do it in a way that gets all of your attention. Once they’ve got it though, there is no real trajectory or purpose revealed, unlike Crass, the band they took their name from. On record there are shifts and subtleties, but they’re subsumed tonight. Bells and cymbals are used to give some dynamic depth and when the synth lines break through it’s a welcome reprieve.

Overall the mix of art and music makes for a unique festival, one that could only happen here and now. Punters seem upbeat, fashion contributes as much as the installations to the festival-as-art and the turnout leaves the Forum busy without being packed solid. With any luck more festivals that rely on ideas over big names will take note.

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