Rolling slowly downhill into the city, I find myself surrounded by bright sunbeams, cool air, food trucks, scuttling children with sauntering parents, translucent orange beach balls. This is the bustle swirling in and around the State of The Art festival: a part free-to-the-public, part pay-to-enter congregation of well-regarded acts who hail from Western Australia. Despite the peaceful, breezy flurry of people and colour, there doesn’t seem to be too much going on just yet, so I fetch myself a tasty beverage and by the time I return I encounter DECIBEL’s STUART JAMES playing the “Infinity Machine” on that wooden pontoon in the middle of the Cultural Centre wetlands. What IS the infinity machine, I wonder? Suddenly local music wunderbrain Adam Trainer appears and explains that it’s an innovation of local composer Alan Lamb: a kind of small table which sends continuous electronic currents through stretched wires and uses magnets to extrude sound frequencies. The mild-mannered James sits and patiently draws out these sounds, which ring out like whale song through the amphitheatre, forming a beautiful duet with the trickle of the nearby waterfall.
I keep wandering, catching some of the swaggering swampy bohemia of MOANA, who offsets the Perth psych-rock cliché with substantial incursions into grunge, folk-prog and noise rock; and heart-on-sleeve rap poet MARKSMAN LLOYD in the Theatre Courtyard tent, who summons some endearing audience participation despite the meagre early-afternoon crowd.
On the same stage, LILT sail bravely through an initial squall of technical difficulties to deliver a remarkably intricate, dramatic and deftly delivered set of dark electronic pop. We get freeform cinematic swells, intense leftfield house and post-dubstep beats, lush beds of synth and Louise Penman’s emotive vocals, all amounting to a bloody dynamic ride. It’s sufficiently compelling that I forget to grip my phone, drop it on the bricks and smash its screen. “Phone-screen-smashingly good” – put that on yer bios, mates.
Back out in the sunshiney open, DAVID CRAFT and his new band deliver a fresh set of originals which have partly metamorphosed from their original folky forms into synth-laden art-pop constructions. A pretty faithful cover of Don Henley’s ‘Boys of Summer’ baffles me slightly, but sounds impressive nonetheless, and the rest of the musical outings settle smoothly on the ears, with electronic inclusions sounding like a pretty natural progression rather than a forced contrivance.
The same could be said of KATY STEELE, aka Little Birdy’s former frontperson, who appears over at the Museum stage with a new band comprising just drum kit and synth (and plenty of laptop backing, natch). Given that Little Birdy moved away from their twangy rock and roll pretty quickly and began digesting plenty of other influences, it’s hardly surprising to hear Steele’s voice crooning over hefty beats, subby oscillations and pretty a la mode arrangements in general. Which is not to say Steele’s just trendmongering: her depth of songwriting remains, her performance schtick is audacious and fun, her pipes are as distinctive and self-assured as ever.
The sun is fading and DREAM RIMMY are on the pontoon, chugging out blissful summery space-garage: beautifully crafted songs where everything melds into a sort of sandpapery goo and hurtles through time, anchored by the meditative pedal point of Ali Flintoff and George Foster’s deadpan vocal harmonies.
I catch an earful of BRAD HALL’s cheering earnest country, and ENSEMBLE FORMIDABLE’s elaborate carnival-groove inventions, before pinning myself to a good vantage point back in the State Theatre tent for GARETH LIDDIARD. It’s hard to believe it’s been half a decade since the Drones frontman released his solo record “Strange Tourist,” an album that quickly became one of my favourite Australian releases ever. In the time since, there have been several new Drones albums but no more solo outings and indeed, his set tonight still mainly plumbs that batch of songs (with a Lou Reed cover and a Drones track thrown in for good measure). Liddiard seems a bit more weary playing these tunes than he did the last couple of times he was in town; one wonders if he’s got the itch to expel them and churn out the next cycle. Or maybe I’m just extra-sensitive to his jaded vibes tonight, which would make sense, as he spends plenty of the set half-jokingly lambasting his state of origin, a state that’s being so earnestly celebrated this weekend. At any rate, it seems apt that Liddiard with be the thorn in the festival’s self-congratulatory side – he’s never been one for niceties.
Back over near PICA, on the other side of the coin, are the ebullient confetti-core stalwarts BOYS BOYS BOYS! sounding punchier than ever with souped-up synth bass and a vigorous new guitarist (new, at least, since I last saw them – ages ago). I catch the end of BEN WITT’s alleyway set, a brain-bending cacophony of dark bluesy vocals, harmonica and warped looping guitar that churns in every direction, including backwards and at half-speed. I see a bit of YOU AM I, not enough to comment meaningfully, but enough to enjoy their tight-as-nails riffery, their never-ending swagger, and Tim Rogers’ tight blouse/ridiculously oversized scarf.
KOI CHILD are doing aural burnouts in the Tent: impossibly slick live jazz-hop explorations which turn out to be carefully composed backdrops for some world-class emcee work. Why in D’Angelo’s name aren’t these guys being frothed upon in international press and getting signed to trendy labels? Wait – they are! Which is just as it should be.
THE WEAPON IS SOUND are massaging the air with minimal, synth-squiggly dub pulsations over in the pond, while the leather-clad girls of LEGS ELECTRIC are firing up their ridiculously textbook (but totally entertaining and over-the-top and great) capital-R Rock music. The reformed 1978 lineup of THE SCIENTISTS play no-nonsense rock music, too, but represent a diametrically opposed cultural position: they’re enshrined in history (“pioneering punk,” and “inspiring grunge” etc), their performance is proudly sloppy rather than razor-sharp, and to this day they wear a staunch demeanour of subversion/alternativity (while Legs Electric boast that “you might have heard this next song on 96 fm.”) Not to mention the relationship between gender and reception: Legs Electric will never be taken seriously by the alternative music scene (I promise), while the Scientists are subcultural demigods, and I can’t help but suspect that part of that comes down to the structural sexism that’s ingrained in the archetype of a “credible” rock band. And look, I get it: The Scientists were important, they were a revelation, they’ve never sold out, their music has meant a lot to a lot of people. Legs Electric, for all their talent, are piggybacking on the widespread appeal of a cookie-cutter aesthetic. All I mean to say is that, when you peel away the bullshit, The Scientists were no more entertaining than Legs Electric tonight – if anything, the former’s songs sounded a little like they’d rather be left stewing in the haze of the late ’70s. Sorry, I was excited, I tried hard to love it, I did.
ODETTE MERCY and her SOUL ATOMICS perk me up a little on the PICA stage with their impeccable horn-laden funk smoothness, and SABLE induces some grins in the lightly-populated tent, with a chameleon set spanning alien electronica, trap and oddball club thump. At last it’s time to roll back up the slope and crash. It was an undeniably beautiful day, full of utterly disparate music, amounting to a truly bizarre and dizzying collage of ideas and worldviews all within a few hundred square metres. Is WA uniquely great at making music? Nah. Is there “something in the water?” Nope – except fluoride, which helps fight tooth decay (they don’t get fluoride water in Finland, Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Sweden, or Japan, so we’ve got one up on those guys). But given that our entire state’s population is exceeded by that of Minneapolis, I’d say we’re punching above our weight, and at any rate we have more great music to celebrate than we could possibly hope to cram into one day. SOTA 2015 was a valiant attempt though. Western Australia. Great teeth. Great tunes.