20 Jan, Melbourne Arts Precinct

If there’s one thing you cannot deny Melbourne of being, it’s eclectic. It seems there are always new and interesting ways to present live music within the city. So, as I found myself at yet another location I’d never have picked out for live music, you could say I was pleasantly surprised.
“A festival held in an already tailor-made arts precinct?” I asked myself. Well yeah, Harry. “World-renowned house broadcaster Boiler Room?” You got it. “An interesting and genre-spanning line-up?” It’s all there on paper.

Sugar Mountain was set to burst out the gates in the 100m sprint. But in fact, I found it more like finding your groove in a long-distance event.

I arrived bang on 12pm. Maybe a tad early, but every artist deserves a chance to be heard and with the layout of the festival grounds, Sugar Mountain made sure everyone had their time centre-stage. The main Dodd Street stage and Boiler Room stage were less than a minute away from the central meeting hub, and set times meant that you could experience bits and pieces of almost everything.

Stella Donnelly began the day with a striking falsetto that rang out across the compound. Cuts like Mechanical Bull had rhythm and energy in bags with Stella’s purposeful guitar technique paving the way. But for me, it was the striking Boys Will Be Boys that forced you to listen; a confronting but extremely necessary critique of victim blaming around sexual assault. Not a word was glossed over, mumbled or forgotten. Instead, we had something cohesive and purposefully upsetting.

It’s important to note that along with Donnelly, many of the early acts could be seen sporting the recent violence against woman shirts made popular by Camp Cope’s campaign after Falls Festival. The unfortunately ever-relevant topic played a part in showing Sugar Mountain as a festival in transition, having to seriously adapt to some of the disgusting behaviours we see within our mosh pits far too often.

The topic remained consistent throughout the early afternoon, but due to a pretty poor quality mix on the Dodd Street stage, I thought I’d go check out the hyped British producer Actress. What followed felt like a dream to me. A disinteresting, muffled version of a dream. The Merlyn Theatre was bathed in an ominous red glow, but it felt like you could find more atmosphere literally anywhere else at that moment. When Actress did finally take to the stage, his visually stunning backdrops were met with extremely slow, subby beats that seemed to divide the crowd instantly. My friend and I quickly agreed with a group in front of us that, though the visuals were great, the act saw the many promptly leave. The straw the broke the camel’s back for me came from a bleached blonde man next to me, furiously muzzing to the ambling beats as if desperately trying to convince himself he liked what he heard. As I looked around the room trading stares with strangers as if to ask “do you actually even like this?” it was clear this was an act of endurance rather than enjoyment.

After feeling a bit disappointed with the day’s slow start, I felt sure something had to give. And it did, in the form of one huge Boiler Room. I arrived luckily on the one-two punch of Fantastic Man into The Pablo Project. Honestly, for a lack of better word, it was fantastic. The positioning of the DJ booth in the middle of a sunken stage made for a miniature Colosseum of funk. There would have been easily 500 people formed around the genre-spanning sets, with Fantastic Man dropping elements of French house and Project Pablo complimenting the jazz history of his hometown Montréal with some swinging rhythms. The consistent ripple of the crowd was amazing, and you couldn’t see a single punter without a smile on their face.

After such a high, I shuffled back to the Dodds Street stage to witness the fusion of smooth beats and spoken word in language from Kardajala Kirridarra. Hailing from the NT, these four women had beautiful control and pace through their phrasings, sung in the Mudbura dialect native to where they called home. The track Warmala (Young Girls Song) brought the biggest attention with its silky melodies, but again, a muddy sounding mix and microphone problems prevented the group from fully presenting what they had to offer.

Mercifully, the muffled audio clouds parted and out blazed A.B. Original with their high-octane bars and relentless energy. Brigg and Trials brought the heat through tracks like 2 Black 2 Strong and Firing Squad. The combination of live instrumentation and the duo’s on-stage antics truly was a force to be reckoned with. The final one-two punch of Dumb Things and January 26th were delivered with gusto by special guest Dan Sultan and the duo made sure you didn’t leave Dodds Street without reflecting on just how important an issue Indigenous rights and respect is within the Australian landscape.

I raced back over to The Boiler Room to catch German deck wizard Gerd Janson work his magic. This time I let the music do the talking, for the fact I literally couldn’t see a single bit of man behind his decks. The Colosseum of funk had officially packed by then and it was everyone for themselves. Thankfully the waves of crisp pounding bass found my ears quite easily, and I was blown away by the amazing textures Janson was able to conjure up in just one short hour. The dancefloor was well and truly claimed now, but I didn’t mind. These rhythms moved everyone. I even saw that same blonde guy in the crowd again, but this time furiously muzzing to what truly was a banger.

Once again dashing back to Dodds Street, I noticed a storm was brewing as punters piled into the open, as a certain Badass was about to take the stage. But from what was presented, Joey Bada$$’ set was not a lot more than earth-shattering bass and a slew of repetitive crowd interactions that really took away from the performance. As the extremely subby mix rattled my foundations and uncomfortable looking people were pressed against each other, I couldn’t help but feel that the initially thought-provoking tone set by the festival was swallowed up in all that bloody bass. Admittedly though, people do just wanna let loose sometimes, and Temptations was a highlight, with the whole crowd singing in some shape or form to the rhythm.

Finally, after a whirlwind day of ups, downs and body shaking bass, cut/copy took to the stage to close out the festival with the return of that tight knit community feel all mosh pits deserve. Heart’s On Fire broke the crowd into a jam, and that lush floor-filler of a song was a definite set highlight for the masses. Something about having dance floor anthems played on live instruments really just upped the atmosphere and energy in the crowd. Frontman Dan Whitford certainly knew it. His frantic stage presence coupled with equally crazy lead guitarist Tim Hoey relentlessly enticed the people to let go just that little bit more. Oddly though, the crowd were more than happy to let the music cleanse them like a palette that had tasted too much in one evening, and as the set came to a close, I saw more people discussing the journey home than watching Hoey pounce on drummer Mitchell Scot’s kit, dismantling it completely.

Sugar Mountain was a celebration of music and culture, a place where the misses mixed in with the hits. A place where the crowd was divided into those there for the music, and there for appearances. A place where the short back and sides, unironic sunglasses and rolled cigarette reigned supreme. And even if you weren’t sure of something in the moment, you were at least happy to be there figuring it all out. Ultimately, Sugar Mountain was an endurance event where I stumbled, found my rhythm and crossed the finish line feeling pretty chuffed with the result.