I’ve been to Liverpool International Festival of Psychedelia four times now. My first, in 2014, was at a time where psych was in the midst of a resurgence, with the line-up spearheaded by the globe-trotting Swedish voodoo titans Goat, then surfing an accelerating avalanche of popular acclaim. That set has since gone down in Scouse music history for its brilliance, but what was really magnificent about Psych Fest was the peripheries – the lashings of outliers in their cosmic fields dotted among the line-up. Four years later, things have changed in this parallel world. Like all genres and subgenres, psychedelia has had its moment in the sun of mainstream attention and begun retreating back to the underground. Back in 2014, the forerunners of the style were the most motoric, those blending the ceaselessness of krautrock and the stupefying sonics of space rock, and the bill was replete with brilliant practitioners, like Les Big Byrd. However, as is always the way, in the years since psych’s last peak there have been a host of copycats trying to replicate that success to diminishing, and less original returns.
Psych Fest, then, has had to pick from more quantity, but less quality in the last few years. It is to their immense credit that they’ve kept it challenging. The real outliers now lie at the heaviest end of the spectrum – the most furious, hard-hitting, and downright nasty acts, who are well represented across the two day assault. Gnod, for example, whose new album Just Say No To The Psycho Right-Wing Capitalist Fascist Industrial Death machine is one of the greatest things released in 2017, make a good example. Playing unlit in the dark, dingy District space, away from the larger warehouses, their set is bedlam and confrontation twisted into something cathartic and sublime. It lasts only half an hour, but by the time a closing blast of Bodies For Money with its manic seizure of a riff spins into view like a careening truck, it’s genuinely difficult to breathe, such is the brute force of one of the best bands in Britain today. District, it seems, is conducive to such brilliant batterings, for Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs, who perform there the following day. Theirs is a set that’s similarly brutal, but unlike Gnod’s all-consuming opacity undercut with a twisted sense of grotesque fun. Frontman Matt Baty is a tight, bristling unit of blunt, concentrated energy, roaring over riff upon riff of repugnantly heavy guitars. Swigging Buckfast straight from the bottle as he goes, clambering around the amps and donning a shiny pink cowboy hat (“the most psychedelic thing I could think of,”) – he grips the gig with both hands, roaring through a titanic set that leaves a neck, still sore from Gnod, cricked into complete agony.
Away from District, Sex Swing, who play the much larger Camp Stage in the main warehouse, are the third in this trilogy of heavy hitters. The punch that this sextet packs is of a more brooding, building kind than Gnod and Pigsx7, but no less stomach-churningly intense once it reaches its peak. Blasts of baritone saxophone honk with manic intent over a twisted, hypnotic electronic beat and hellish yowls of vocal as they drag the crowd with them through a wormhole into a rabid parallel universe. The commitment to the heavy ends of psych is evidenced too by the biggest band of the weekend, The Black Angels, who unleash titanic, relentless noise as Saturday night headliners. With that said, however, there’s room at Psych Fest for other, less neck-risking forms of kaleidoscopic dalliance. Two African outfits, for example are among the weekend’s biggest draws. Such a big draw are the legendary Zambian outfit WITCH, in fact, that it’s impossible for this reviewer to even get close to the venue, such is the surge of demand. Second-hand we hear that their set was nothing short of incredible, just to rub it in.
We have better luck with Songhoy Blues at the same stage, the Furnace, the weekend’s largest. Though the hardships they’ve had to overcome as a band – fleeing their homes during the Malian civil war and forming to entertain their fellow refugees – their set is the most defiantly joyful of the weekend, with long, snaking grooves and a kick of garage rock helmed with poise by their frontman Garba Touré, who helms the foursome’s sound with charming poise and a restless groove. It’s a blast of light compared to the darkness of the aforementioned Gnod, Pigs, Sex Swing et al, but the contrast only makes for these two sides of the psych coin to burn more powerfully.
In between the darkness and light, however, there’s many more strings to Psych Fest’s cosmic bow. As with every year, a mention must go to the weekend’s visuals, led by Liverpool-based artist Sam Wiehl. Whether on the front row, face to face with a band backed by enormous blasts of kaleidoscopic visual assault, or at the very back, surveying a legion of fans illuminated by rows of suspended screens that hang from the ceiling, there’s always something to catch the gaze. Even in the middle of the crowd at the Camp stage, there’s the so-called ‘/// PSYK COLONY ///’, a rectangular curtain that descends on the punters, within which all sorts of manic experiences unfold.
We’re within its walls for The Comet Is Coming, the supreme closing act of our Saturday night. Their set in many ways is the perfect representation of the state of modern psych. They are, for all intents and purposes, a jazz band, albeit pumped through with a blistering core of powerful electronica, but in the surroundings of Psych Fest become imbued with something additional, an added spice of raw, yet kaleidoscopically beautiful power. Their set is superb, and a righteous closer to what’s easily among Europe’s finest small festivals, let alone Liverpool.