Sugar Mountain - Victorian College of Arts, Melbourne

Written by Nick Adams

Sugar Mountain - Victorian College of Arts, Melbourne

The VCA feels like the perfect fit for Sugar Mountain. Walking in accompanied by the psychedelic sounds of King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard — they even get the flute out at one point! — a maze of classrooms, galleries and stages reveal themselves in a way that encourages discovery. Sugar Mountain isn’t just settling for world-class music, but embracing world-class festival culture as well.

Following a narrow walkway away from the main stage on Dodds St, I check out the Car Park stage. A huge, colourful, abstract mural by Ash Keating stretches towards the sky to the side of stage. It even gets added to throughout the day with an impressive spray guy, turning a hot, gravel-covered car park into a surprisingly special place.

Melbourne-based Banoffee starts her solo set on the tinsel covered stage with equal parts awkward and confidence. Her smooth vocals are paired with charming hip-hop beats, and an impressive mix of digital manipulation. She really shines with a gender-flipped, chills-inducing version of Drake’s Marvin’s Room, and again when closing her set with party track Let’s Go To The Beach. People are dancing and it’s still before 1pm.

People are dancing even harder at Chela’s energetic set. Her high-energy electro-pop inspires good-time vibes, with fuzzy synths and big bass, all carried by her impressive vocals. She’s even got back-up dancers for the first time, and you can tell that everyone’s having the best time on and off stage.

Unfortunately, How To Dress Well’s set starts late and is plagued by technical difficulties — he just needs more reverb! — but Tom Krell remains positive throughout. For the most part at least. “God is testing us,” he jokes while the band tries to get a violin to work.

Only able to tackle a few tracks amidst the deluge, his voice still manage to soar in a collection of alt RnB jams. He playfully adds the chorus of Rich Gang’s Lifestyle into one of his own songs, before closing the set with an impassioned Words I Don’t Remember. It’s an admirable effort from the US songwriter.

Back on the main stage, Twerps are busting out some well-written Aussie jangle pop. I’m impressed by how much the band has grown over the past few years, really carving out their own sound and style amongst a slew of similar guitar groups. They play sing-along tune Who Are You while I attempt to get some food.

After a kind-of-long wait, I’ve got a bahn mi and some sweet potato fries to keep festival fatigue at bay. Now it’s time to check out some art. The Warehouse gallery packs an unnerving installation by Nonotak. Utilising projectors, screens and sound to create an unsettling atmosphere, it’s hard not to be drawn into this hypnotic display.

Over at Gallery 1 there’s a range of visual pieces by Hisham Baroocha and Leif Podhajsky. Most impressive to the layman, aka me, is a set of automated kick-drums playing what appears to be a tribal beat. It’s hard to hear over the sound of the Boiler Room stage, though.

Back in the world of music, Oscar Key Sung x Cassius Select totally kill their set in the theatre. With duelling setups and dance moves, the pair bring an energy, confidence and kinesis often lacking in electronic music. Bass-heavy and sounding like the future, the pair seem like they’re battling it out over who can create the best noise, and who can pull off the sweetest moves. Behind them, dual screens flash up liquid visuals. In the tight confines of the theatre, the energy is electric.

Back outside Ariel Pink and band are performing his pastiche of pop. It’s completely competent, solid and just not that interesting, at least not from where I’m standing. Instead I grab a seat for Midnight Juggernauts, who today are playing under the moniker of MJX Pty LTD.

Turning their set into a fake, dystopian product launch, the trio perform on a rotating stage in the centre of the stage. Aesthetically it’s brilliant, but musically it feels like all build-up with little pay-off. The biggest hit with the crowd is a heavily reworked version of Tombstone. At least they’re not resting on their laurels.

Kirin J Callinan is next, performing his show Terrible Love. He’s as charming as ever as he bumbles through what I assume is a deliberately awkward piece of performance art. Chris Taylor from Grizzly Bear joins him on stage, as does Jack Ladder – via video call. Unfortunately I bail early as cannot miss the Sugar Mountain headliner.

Nas takes the main stage with gratitude and boldness. More people are packed into Dodds St than at any point in the day, all ready to see hip-hop classic Illmatic performed in full. N.Y State of Mind begins and hands shoot directly into the air. Nas is as precise as ever, deftly spitting rhymes with 20 years of history behind them.

Appearing genuinely thankful for all the attention he’s getting halfway around the world, the hip-hop icon exclaims he loves performing amongst all these “buildings and s**t”, and it’s just like “being in the streets”. After finishing off the pioneering album, he bursts into a career retrospective, with a medley spanning decades of material. Sugar Mountain is at a spectacular end, cementing its place as one of Australia’s premier arts events.

Photo: Nas / Credit: Michelle Pitiris

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