Liverpool Psych Fest 2015: The Review

Live Review by Simon Jay Catling | 30 Sep 2015

“Everywhere they played people would be asking them 'are you playing The Psych Fest this year?' It wasn't 'Liverpool' Psych Fest, it's almost like it got in early enough to be 'the legitimate one'”. A friend of ours recounts this anecdote from his brother, who was tour manager for Moon Duo as they toured through mainland Europe in the spring of 2013.

We're walking up the closed-off street adjacent to warehouse-cum-events space Camp and Furnace as he does. It’s early evening on the Saturday as we step over middle-aged men with beards down to their waste and pints clasped between their knees, tie-dye clad students sprawled out on the ground like Unicorn's vomit, and sweat-saturated casualties in leather jackets. Ahead in the fading light there's a fevered clamour to get inside for Jane Weaver, a belated BBC 6music darling at 43 years-old, seven albums into her career. Weaver's just one of dozens of examples who've ploughed away gamely at the periphery of leftfield rock music for a decade and more – bands like Bristol freak veterans The Heads, who headline the Camp stage this weekend, and local stalwarts Mugstar, some of whom appear with Sex Swing later on tonight – suddenly finding themselves in favour after a shift in the spotlight towards the loosely-defined but eagerly encouraged psychedelic revival.

Although Austin Psych Fest has been around since 2008, as far as Europe goes Liverpool Psych Fest got there first. It's debut event in 2012 took place a week before Tame Impala released the poppy but trippy Lonerism, far from the only (or best) catalyst for attention to turn back towards bands with phasers and wah pedals, but certainly a momentum boost; with a line-up featuring Richard Norris’ project Time Space Machine, whose track Indian Pill Party had piqued the interest of BBC 6music; Hookworms, months before they released their own acclaim-grabbing debut LP; and Palma Violets, then unofficial beneficiaries of the NME's latest next big thing status, the all-dayer managed to — by design or happy coincidence — muster a vague semblance of capturing a zeitgeist. A year later (with Moon Duo indeed playing) the organisers added an extra day and increased its capacity by a quarter in opening up the Camp alongside its two existing spaces Furnace and Blade Factory — promptly nearly selling out. As audiences increased, so too did the opinion pieces: “why is psych enjoying a revival? Are we seeing a truly international scene? What classes as psychedelic music anyway?”

The last of these questions has befallen subsequent rival events, many deferring to a heavily male-orientated, meat and potatoes, guitar-as-penis kind of reverb-Lad-en rock. Those elements have been in evidence at Liverpool Psych Fest too, while last year they ditched some of the curious electronic offerings that had crept up in 2013 to almost exclusively focus on two-note riffery and garage rock squall. This weekend, though, there seems to be a renewed effort to dodge the question of what psych is, recognising instead a broad church that allows anyone to get their mind-opening kicks — whether that's achieved by ear-splitting guitar volume, cyclical motorik or digital mutations.

Highight of the opening night is Karen Gwyer, who starts off with techno as a base before nudging and prodding her skeletal rhythms delicately this way and that through her hardware set-up, sending a packed District on a deeply immersive, body propulsive trip unrivalled all weekend. The Iowa producer has effortless control over her set, guiding it with a light touch and gliding between dreamlike trance states and more rigid techno shapes. It’s a stark contrast to Holovr beforehand in the Blade Factory's oppressive depths. Whereas Gwyer puts aside the nuances of the occasion, her one-time Opal Tapes label mate nervously makes a point of having no guitars, before fidgeting awkwardly over the dubby early 90’s-influenced ambient tech he’s set in motion, interjections to the basic tenor seeming random rather than considered.   

A few hours later in the same venue, around 50 people have shunned the caramel licks of Carlton Melton and the juddering techno of Factory Floor, for Bristol duo Giant Swan. Two tables worth of pedals and samplers face each other as the pair thrash about either side as through locked into the same electrical current powering their set. It's incredibly raw, with easy signposts pointing the way to early HEALTH or Black Dice, their sound a mind-frying pit of abrasive industrial squeals savaging each other. Those who are there fly around the room, hooked on it’s jerking tempo. It's reminiscent, in its way, of Factory Floor in fact – the pre DFA-signed Factory Floor who had to be dragged from the stage after getting locked into Gabriel Gurnsey's furious, yet always metronomic drumming, refusing to tear themselves away. Now a two-piece, Gurnsey's still there as we catch the final half of their own set in Furnace, but he now stands alongside bandmate Nik Void, working knobs and faders, his former primitive energy replaced by a furrowed brow and nod of the head. The coarsing viscera of their former selves is still ghosting somewhere between the relentless 4/4 of their set, but this is a slicker, and sadly more lacklustre display than of old.

Of the two big electronic acts to play the Furnace - bedecked with projection screens looming over the audience – Factory Floor fair better sound wise than Fuck Buttons man Blanck Mass, whose explosion from the drones that hallmarked his early material into the blockbuster IDM of his latest album Dumb Flesh becomes muddied beyond his banks of equipment, the hi-end lost. On the wrong side of Camp's unforgiving acoustics, meanwhile, are Russian shoegazers Pinkshinyultrablast who, in front of a large crowd, find that their already reverb-heavy blushed sound bounces out of control, their vocalist Lyubov the only one to cut through the careering tumble of guitars.

Liverpool Psych Fest’s refusal to set or meet any criteria regarding its line-up perhaps also lies in the sense that its responsibility, if you like, to Liverpool’s music community itself is becoming more important than the press-connected psychedelic scene it finds itself in. As with so many other cities in the UK, the pace of redevelopment is outstripping the movement of its artistic residents: vital venue the Kazimier is of course to close at the year, alongside veteran superclub Nation, themselves following MelloMello last year. Even out here, in the so-called Baltic Triangle to the south of the city where only a couple of years ago the council focused its efforts on encouraging a new creative hub, things are changing. New student flats loom over Camp and Furnace, which in 2012 hosted Psych Fest alongside numerous gigs and club events – a calendar now all but extinguished in lieu of street food weekenders and big match screenings. The ongoing existence of the event, which genuinely seems to unite generations and different walks of life in an environment that somehow in a busy urban area creates a bubble of freedom, feels far more important at this moment in time than any notions of what it should and shouldn’t be putting on.

Which brings us to Saturday and Menace Beach, a band whose scuzzy three-minute long pop songs sound – even allowing for relaxed perceptions of genre – like the antithesis of, well, pretty much everything else on the bill. Even with technical gremlins preventing co-songwriter Liza Violet’s keyboard from working until halfway through, the Leeds-based five-piece rip through a giddily discordant set, bouncing through five songs in the time that most of the audience have been getting used to taking in one. It’s a refreshing palate cleanser, while later on in District Virginia Wing also keep things comparatively light, although percussively they tread a line more similar to the bulk of the acts playing on the second day. With Hookworms' MB standing in on bass, last year’s debut LP Measures of Joy is brought to life in a matrix of shimmering Broadcast-inspired dreamlike structures, allayed by blistering kosmiche-inflected percussion, the imposing thunder and jutting bassline of Meshes a particular highlight.

Saturday in general bears far more resemblance to last year’s line-up, all big chugging riffs and lots of hair; but if psychedelic music is termed as something to challenge the mind then the set played by one-time The Congos collaborator and master of drone deconstruction Sun Araw in the biggest room of the festival is easily the most mind-altering thing of the weekend. A full Furnace empties rapidly as Cameron Stallones begins to cut up and reassemble minimalist slow jams, before settling into a queasy take on late-night jazz club improv. In contrast to what’s become before, Stallones adopts minimal lighting on stage, a neon light with a key sign and the word ‘Cut’ virtually his sole prop. Similarly to Karen Gwyer the night before, he refuses to let his surroundings affect his chosen, frequently disruptive path. Compared to Kandodo3, led by The Heads Simon Price, and their time-worn trudge towards crescendoing wig outs next door in Camp, it sounds as though it’s been beamed in from the future.    

Kogumaza opt for strength in volume to enact their desired trip, the Nottingham trio keeping things slow and methodic on the percussion side of things and allowing their riffs to rumble over their audience like great claps of thunder rolling down a mountainside. It’s a dense, pulverising smog of a thing, at one asphixiating and enticing, before the air suddenly clears, the three-piece cut short by the soundcrew while in their element. They’re furious – social media subsequently tells us that they were given different set times to those published, among other production issues – and they’re not the only ones as Hookworms grind to a halt following the billowing haze of Off Screen, just as they seem ready to deliver a knockout blow. Last year a lot was made of the crush of people trying to get into see Goat, and many think that tonight’s headliners Spiritualized will inspire similar chaos, but it’s the Leeds five-piece who have the venue at one-in-one-out as they power through an unremitting opening salvo, cutting through the Furnace’s unforgiving acoustics with their hyper-accelerated proto-punk sprawls.  

Spiritualized are the weekend headliners but they're not the most but they aren't on paper the most inspiring — with a selection ultimately of proficient session musicians around Jason Spaceman, and coming off the sort of tour schedule that reads like a band in need of money, expectations are low. Spaceman has spent a career fighting battles though and tonight he leads his cohorts confounds preconceptions with a set that's heavy on the hits (Shine A Light, Come Together) and early material, delivered — thanks largely to the two soul singers who chime with the front man's cracked tones beautifully — with what, were we able to see beyond his sunglasses, a fair amount of passion. Even the devout fans in attendance are surprised when they delve into not just Walkin' With Jesus from Spaceman 3's back catalogue, but also a gloriously serrated-edged rendition of Take Me To The Other Side, a reminder that, even if some of their more stately turn of the Millennium songs feel a step apart from those sharing a bill with them this weekend, they more than deserve to take their place in this rich glossary of what psychedelic music can be. 

• Liverpool Psych Fest took place at various venues, 25-26 September