Scenes from Austin Psych Fest, Day One
Photo courtesy Jonathan Patrick
Reptilian croaks -- guitars distended through echo effects -- tickle the ear; I've been offered a pharmacy's worth of chemicals and pot smoke is a potpourri that clots the air. I've arrived at Austin Psych Fest 2014. There's every shade of weird here, and every shape of fascination. Each person is clad in flowing dress or cut at eclectic angles. The sun peaks and sprays through tree branches, dust speckles each ray of golden light. Low-hanging planes roar overhead.
Light. That's a big part of what goes on here. It drapes every scene in a surreal sort of laminate. Walking through the Psych Fest grounds is a procession of scenes like stills from car commercials, with painterly backdrops ripped straight from pastoral '70s dramas. The sunlight paints everything a crisp hue of yellow, then the stage lights remake the landscape with phosphorescent streams of turquoise. Cosmetically, it's quite impossible to impart how portrait-like this place is today.
First big fish on the agenda is Peaking Lights and they are every bit as brilliant as I hoped. Their set starts early on the elevation stage -- a plane of Technicolor spotlights and billowing fog -- which seems to hover over Carson Creek. The background is a lush tree line that, tonight, doubles as a projection screen. It's a clever use of scenery that's downright majestic; the sense of walking through movie moments never lets up. Syrupy purples and phantom blues ooze offstage and spill into the crowd, casting the bouncing skulls stage side in glittery shadows. As the figures onstage swivel mechanically, the water and trees, like organic mirrors, come alive with reflections.
The sound is every bit the sights' equal. The trailing vocals of Indra Dunis and arpeggiated coding of her husband, Aaron Coyes, seem to shimmer in three dimensions. The sonics are at once crystalline and velvety. Like an ode to Oneohtrix Point Never -- whose set was, sadly, canceled earlier in the day -- peaking lights play through a left field gambit of glassy synthscapes that unfold not unlike OPN's early work. Geometric keyboard patterns marry to echo-chamber reverbs as the duo search sounds both spacey and aquatic.
The more angular cuts are fragile and vivid, like panes of stained glass writ in Kraftwerkian electronics. On record, the duo is uniformly lo-fi, but live, Peaking Lights are all HD sculptures and icy clarity. I miss the close of their set as I head over for the Zombies, but I glance back the scene, smeared with plumes of pot haze framed in ocean-green, is one of an audience utterly arrested with satisfaction.
Photo courtesy Jonathan Patrick
The first thing you notice about the Zombies (and it hits you hard) are the vocals. Colin Blunstone's voice is impossibly robust for a man of 68 -- even if his inflection is a bit exaggerated at times. There's a certain shock-and-awe that comes with seeing a band of this magnitude, thus, you can see euphoria streaked across every fan's face. As Blunstone reminds us, "This band's been playing together for 50 years."
The set lags a touch as keyboardist Rod Argent speaks after nearly every song, usually just to plug the band's many triumphs: "This was on our album Odessey and Oracle, one of Rolling Stone's 100 Greatest Records." "Tiger Woods played this at his dad's funeral." "People often play this track at weddings." "This song was featured on Mad Men." "Dave Grohl said this was the song that most influenced his career." In this regard, the set was exhausting. The stage is visually stunning, doused in buttery spotlights and a video screen that perpetually bleeds with pooling colors. (Imagine expired polaroids or runny eggs.)
"Time of the Season" was the obvious centerpiece. The audience reaction alone could tell you this; each lip mouthed the lyrics, each hip swayed to the fiery organ play. The audience was shoulder to shoulder for the entire track, then half the crowd scattered, AWOL, once it finished. For all intents and purposes this was the end of their set.
It's 1 A.M -- 15 minutes after Liars' scheduled start time -- and the group have yet to go on, the end result of an elaborate soundcheck. The night is brisk and a sheet of stars blanket the sky. For all their patience, the crowd is twitchy with anticipation, buzzing with chatter. In fact, alongside this low roar, the only other sound audible is the crinkle of beer cans underfoot. From what I overhear the crowd is chock full of diehard Liars' fans, though the size of the audience is much smaller than one would expect.
Before you know it, we're in song one. The crowd is one large mouth of celebrating howls. The stage is wrapped in white light, which makes a black figure out of frontman Angus Andrew, whose head is, for some reason, wrapped in paisley cloth. With power electronics and throbbing percussion, the trio sculpt their fuzzy dance bangers, which progress, aesthetically, like new wave re-imagined as techno. Dr. Seuss-like animations and eyeballs flicker on the backdrop projection screen. It's a music video in real time.
But the production doesn't sound right, and once the band pick up on this they abruptly halt proceedings. After a tasteful apology, the set resumes where it stopped. Amid stabs of impressionistic tones and jump-cut time changes, Andrew wriggles in frenzied jolts; his scorched blond hair makes a mop of his head. As usual, the Liars' sound is caustic and driving, but most of all musical. They always find a way to bury hooks and melodies under all that squelchy crunch and 12-bit shading.
Now neon greens engulf the stage and orange spheres circle the tent ceiling. Lipstick-red clouds of fog machine afterbirth hang in the air. Thanks to more backlighting, Andrew remains a vacuum devoid of human features, but, because the room radiates with volcanic colors, his face is a mask of blood.
Just as the set starts to boil, it's halted yet again, this time by cops. Andrew, perturbed, shouts, "Where are these cops? I want to see them!" He must have seen something because he whispered an "Okay, we're done" and slunk offstage. It was a most abrupt and anticlimactic ending to an otherwise gorgeous day of musical sights.
Photo courtesy Jonathan Patrick
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