Austin Psych Fest is an experience that's hard to take measure of. I camped there for three days and saw well over a dozen acts. In other words, I ate and breathed this festival for 72 consecutive hours. I came back to my tent each night with a sweat-drenched notebook, most of the words muddled and bled-out like watercolors. A stack of crumpled sheets with helplessly vivid notes like "the lights swirled pink, like cotton candy pinwheels," scratched across them lay in heaps, pushed to the corners of my cot. APF is a sensual blast that's all but impossible to unwind -- knots within knots of irrevocably jumbled sensory information.
Fittingly, APF emulates the very psychedelic experience the music it offers hopes to enhance, or duplicate. Within the course of each day you have experiential plateaus and then, inevitably, a freefall mental/physical crash. Mornings begin with that sweet-and-sour smell of marijuana; nights end with a half-remembered collapse into the tent, coupled with the rumble of herded patrons exiting APF's Carson Creek Ranch.
The organizers do an excellent, and at times eerie, job of selling an experience. Trees are lit narcotic colors at night, hammocks hang from limbs, blissed-out concertgoers sway from swings fitted to branches. The audience, in their carefree decadence, does their part as well. Each patron is more eager than the last to jump headfirst into the dreamy, peaceable environment APF perpetuates. The crowd is a maze of record shop geeks in band T-shirts and women dressed ornately.
For days two and three, there were simply too many highlights to recount in full. Acid Mothers Temple roared through a sci-fi-goes-metal set of spacey knob-twiddling and mad-scientist guitar play. Of Montreal, one of the most consistently pleasing live acts on the planet, beamed with all the glam-pop theatrics they've become famous for. Loop delivered on the impossible promise of hype that's followed them since they announced their reunion. And Panda Bear, whose stage productions created the illusion that he performed in actual, licking fire, put together a collection of languid, slow-burners that seemed to stretch out into forever.
But even when compared to these big name performances, three acts soared above the rest. The artists in question -- Mark McGuire, Mind Over Mirrors and Toy -- quite unexpectedly, outperformed and outclassed the whole of APF's lineup.
Mark McGuire's set took place at 1:30 on Saturday afternoon. Given the necessary sleep pattern adjustments demanded by festival scheduling, this equates to roughly 6 a.m. normal time. Which is why it was no surprise to see less than 50 people in attendance at the start of the performance. The formal Emeralds' guitarist cuts an usual figure: His stature is muscled and wiry, motions effeminate, and his face, ivory and sunken, is doll-like.
McGuire was entirely alone on stage. This was solo music in the truest meaning of the term. Equipped with only a guitar, synth board and a row of pedals, McGuire can paint vast sonic landscapes. While his aesthetic is intentionally monochromatic, it astonishes with each new re-shaping. The nuance with which he navigates his own style is like viewing a single object from varying perspectives. Musically, McGuire's long-form guitar drones bring to mind '80s post-punkers Durutti Column at their most bucolic. Conceptually, McGuire's music unfolds like new age passed through serious, metaphysical inquiry. Each extended loop of his guitar is rich and reverent, underpinned with a forceful, but vague emotional longing. The effect is at turns breathtaking and heartbreaking.
Mind Over Mirrors, aka Jamie Fennelly, filled the 1:30 slot on Sunday. I knew very little about this artist going in, other than that he's proficient in, and unusual because of, his use of Indian pedal harmonium. Right on time, an unassuming gentleman appeared, took off his shoes and mounted a rig of effects tools alongside the harmonium. Mind you, his setup left the stage empty; he'd opted to perform in the audience section of the amphitheater with his back to the crowd. It was an ideal placement for his performance because we were afforded a glimpse at the way he manipulates the keys and pedals.
At first, a few tones began to emerge from his music boxes. Even then, you could hear his devices shake and resist as he drew the sounds up out of them. The structures slowly evolved/devolved into a massive wall of sound, all hisses, moans and groans. They recalled the dronier ends of minimalism (think La Monte Young), but throbbed like a highly complex, lurching take on Indian electronic ragas music. His four-foot by four-foot nest of processors were capable of shaking the ground. And they did. The sensation was primal and devastating. Most impressive of all, unlike many of the acts this weekend, Fennelly's music was not reducible to the sum of its influences.
Toy performed at Psych Fest's only (semi) indoor stage: the Levitation Tent. If you're unfamiliar with Toy, they're a massive sounding neo-psych-rock outfit from London. Imagine a more venomous, and frankly better, the Horrors and you're most of the way there. Amid mountains of delay and a hypnotic swirl of echo, the quintet meld the lusty flush of My Bloody Valentine to the carnal noise-pop savvy of acts like The Jesus and Mary Chain. Toy's set was sonically enormous, yet interspersed with ghostly instrumental breakdowns that always seemed to fall just where they should. As Toy made believers of everyone in the audience, their backdrop projections churned with Rorschach images -- the apt visual equivalent to the band's elegant hallucinatory bent.
By the end of Austin Psych Fest, I was spent. I lost a few pounds and some brain cells. A couple hundred particles of eardrum are missing, too. I think that, more than anything, Psych Fest reminded me, all over again, about the power of live music. Records I'd long since shelved took on new life. Bands became more than people with recorded music, they became artists capable of that profound gift to create moments. I saw, and believed again, that musicians can write memories on your mind with the force of their art.
Let me leave you with this. Given the wide aesthetic variations in the Psych Fest lineup this year, it's never been more obvious than now that "psych" is a less of a genre and more of an ethos. In light of this, we thought it might be interesting to see what the artists themselves took "psych" to mean. We caught up with a few of the acts behind the scenes, and they shared their thoughts on the subject. The question was simple: "What is psychedelic music to you?" What follows are their responses:
Golden Dawn Arkestra's Zapot Mgwana: "Psychedelic music to me is anything that moves your consciousness into other dimensions and beyond."
Loop's Robert Hampson: "Psychedelic music can be anything that can create a sense of other worldliness. It does not have to fit a stereotype of musical clichés and certainly does not have to be related to a drug experience."
Arrington de Dionyso: "Psychedelic music is that which should aim to give us a portal through sound into unseen (and unsee-able!) worlds"
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Moon Duo's Ripley Johnson: "To me psychedelic music is any music that really takes one to another place, another mind set, but especially causes one to perceive things in a different way through sound. So it really is less a genre than an effect or maybe even a goal. It probably helps to ingest some sort of hallucinogenic substance. A lot of psychedelic music mimics some of those effects, so I'm not sure what it sounds like to someone who hasn't had that type of experience."
The Zombies: "A style of music that allows the musician to push the boundaries by experimenting with sounds."
Mark McGuire: "To me, psychedelic music means music that explores the nature of the human psyche, which is, ultimately, consciousness-expanding music"
Chris Catalena: "The common trait between artists, that've (sic) come to be known as "psychedelic," has everything to do with the artist's state of mind, and very little to do with much else. Everything else is just for show."