Backed with his a mid-1980s Canon loaded with film, a low ISO rating with long exposure times and colour flash, and a notepad, Liam Moody stepped into the psychedelic world of Manchester Psych Fest.
“Psychedelia” is one of those terms that for the most part has not aged well- the immediate image that comes to mind is that of the aged hippy still decked out in paisley and corduroy, brain synapses fried from overuse of hallucinogenics. However, over the past few years, the style and idea of psychedelic has had something of a reevaluation and rebirth, with several nascent acts taking cues from all points within the psyche spectrum. The Manchester Psych Festival is a celebration of this, taking places across 3 venues within the Northern Quarter.
(Note- the perils of undertaking a multi-venue festival job solo. Not every band could be seen- some sacrifices had to be made, unfortunately, and the main idea was to keep relatively balanced between the three venues- it was a shame, as I would have liked to have seen Flamingods but they clashed with the main stage headline act.)
1st Element- Night & Day Cafe
Legendary indie venue, able to shrug off even the most strongly-worded neighbour noise complaints, is where the day begins.
Venue DJs- Bleached (who receive 10 points for playing “The Seeming And The Meaning” by Stereolab, and a further 10 for The Byrds “Feel A Whole Lot Better“)
The festival openers are an almost perfect encapsulation of the new wave of psyche acts at the moment, Freakout Honey. With a mixture of jangling 12-string guitars, powerful Joplin-esque vocals and warm analogue keys, Freakout Honey had the crowd on-side from the very start with a mixture of late 60s pop- hitting many of the genre’s cornerstones on the way. fuzzed-out spacey jams spiralling ever outwards, a two-chord structure built on the continuous tension and release. The set, while short, was eaten up by the crowd- everything one would want to set the scene for the day.
A guitarist wearing a shining white monk’s robe and headdress. A singer clad in torn-apart, reappropriated scraps of cloth. A bass guitarist obscured by a headscarf and mirrored sunglasses. On appearance alone, it would seen that with new band, Mother, we have entered the more avant-garde end of the psyche spectrum.
Opening with nothing more than a soft synthetic drone and gentle voice, Mother initially seem to inhabit the same plane of existence as Velvet Underground’s ‘Sunday Morning’. The otherworldly calmness doesn’t last as electronically-assisted tribal drumming and sound manipulations swirling underneath plaintive vocals and vaguely Eastern guitar figures shine through the sea of noise, like a distant tribe’s temple hidden within a jungle, abandoning civilisation with nothing more than a supply of LSD and musical instruments. A little bit of audience participation came about with the use of bubbles, which added to the freewheeling spirit of Mother- behind the claustrophobic sound collages and dark tribal patterns, there was a sense of innocence and playfulness.
Night & Day started off strong and seemed to get even busier during the second half of Mother’s set, but at this time, we head underground…
2nd Element- Soup Kitchen
A venue literally underground, underneath it’s namesake, Soup Kitchen already had a different atmosphere to Night & Day. Perhaps it was the lack of natural light, but the acts here were louder, more brazen, more aggressive than before.
Venue DJs- Beat Chics (who receive minus 15 points for playing the awful 1991 remix of “Think“. Sorry, but no.)
Taking the stage as were riot grrrl act Pink Kink were not a type of artist that would be associated with a psychedelia festival. A fired-up, propulsive outfit doling out sub-2-minute bursts of razor-sharp kinetic energy- garage punk backed with Chicano and surf styles (lots of Dick Dale-style guitar workouts and clattering surf-rock beats), the band were pretty much non-stop on stage.
The word of the day for the would be ‘tight’- close harmonies occasionally descending into shouting and wiry guitar riffs needling through their songs, Pink Kink may not have been psych, but far more important than any stylistic viewpoint, they were fun.
Evil Blizzard have established themselves as something of a cult act, with fans such as Mark E. Smith and John Robb, they took to the stage with a huge support. The drum-and-bass act (literally- they are a band composed of 5 bass guitarists and a drummer) took to the stage, masked and costumed, to venomous boos and fingers from the crowd- and of course, they gave back. What can only been described as a sonic onslaught followed- two of the bass’ taking the place of severely downtuned guitars, Evil Blizzard are a mixture of heavy stoner rock with dub reggae influences- think Kyuss covering Hawkwind after a night of listening to PiL’s Metal Box on repeat.
Underneath the aggression (both musically and as a theatrical act), there’s a keen sense of melody and countermelody as the twin leads intertwine with one another to an almost liquid degree. The use of a customised theremin made from a doll’s head- yet another gimmick within the band’s arsenal of gimmicks- allowed even more crowd interaction as it was passed through the front row, by now a state of complete chaos- a whirling frenzied mass of humanity- as the music gradually devolved into pure noise. Intense. Very intense. The perfect antithesis to the preconceived notions that psychedelic is a peace-and-love style and mentality.
3rd Element- Band On The Wall
The main stage for the Psych Fest, Band On The Wall has had a long, varied history as a live music venue in the city. A much larger stage and capacity than either Night & Day or Soup Kitchen, but still just as intimate.
Venue DJs- Electric Jug (who receive 10 points for playing “Ghost Rider” by Suicide…but minus 20 points for playing a snippet of “V-2 Schneider” by David Bowie for only the briefest of moments as a transition between two songs. Don’t dangle the carrot, guys!)
The Telescopes are an interesting band- the halfway point between Cocteau Twins-style dreampop and harder-edged shoegazing. Building up from the get-go via a looped piece of feedback and effect-laded guitar, encircling and melting into itself.
Repetitive propulsive drums accompany layers of noise, washing over and around the crowd, as wordless vocals slowly mutate from sighs and whispers into screams, echoing into the infinite and growing to face-melting volume…or more accurately, face-splitting, as singer Stephen Lawrie accidentally pulled the microphone stand apart and smashing the mic into his mouth, losing the tooth and a little blood in the process but never missing a step.
As well as tracks from their first two classic albums, The Telescopes played material from their latest LP, As Light Return, which showed than even after 30 years, they are still a force to be reckoned with- with hypnotic drones that almost cause mind to start picking out melodies that are not there, and Kevin Shields-inspired feedback assaults eventually forgoing anything even remotely resembling a song- paring down to cymbals, looping white noise and the deeply-buried screams of a soul trapped in music, yearning to be free.
The stage was set for the main event of the festival, the angular art-pop of Teleman, playing deceptively simple danceable indiepop with hidden depths courtesy of electronic elements- robotic pulses augmenting post-disco four-to-the-floor drums underneath crystalline guitars- each element working with machinelike precision, designed for dancefloors.
The psychedelia elements kept to a relative minimum, at times manifesting itself in extended jam sequences (such as in the song “Dropout“), stretching out like an empty desert highway for miles. The audience- possibly still somewhat frazzled by The Telescopes blistering set- lapped up this change of pace and style, and made Teleman incredibly welcome- so much that during their finale, “Not In Control“, singer/guitarist Thomas Sanders couldn’t help himself from leaping into the crowd, still playing guitar, while the rest of band looked on, grinning all the while. A perfect, upbeat end to the day.
Words and photography by Liam Moody. You can see more of Liam‘s work here.