Approaching Lewes on the rickety old train with that lovely calm-before-the-storm feeling that often precedes a festival leads to much philosophical musing about the meaning of psychedelia. Easy drug references aside, it can often be a tricky one to define when it comes to music and so as we clack and clatter into Lewes station, what lies ahead could be termed as much an investigation as a review. What actually is psychedelic music?
Co-hosted by Brighton’s very own Melting Vinyl and audio-visual artists Innerstrings, the Lewes Psychedelic Festival has been running annually for over a decade. This year’s sold-out happening is headquartered in the portentous, ecclesiastical surroundings of the 15th century All Saints Church. It immediately fits the echoing temple narrative of acid rock, one of the cornerstone origins of the psychedelic movement. But before the main event lifts off, a few lysergic morsels are offered up in two much smaller venues…
It’s always splendid walking into an independent music shop and Union Records is no exception. Surrounded by all manner of vinyl rarities the suitably named Ellis.D are the first to drop. An unplugged two-piece with a curious vibrato vocal, a nice line in stripped down acoustic garage and the most fabulous pair of trousers. The tiny shop is completely packed by the time Eliza Skelton arrives. She has a rich, haunting choral voice and plays the ukulele as though it were a classical instrument. It is wonderfully gothic stuff.
Meanwhile, back at the church, an ante room has been drenched wall to wall in a kaleidoscope of bubbling oil projections set up by Innerstrings and the result is something akin to a crimson womb. It really distorts the senses. Ideal preparation then for the otherwordly sounds that permeate the space with the arrival of Plinth, who win the award for the first (and sadly last) hurdy-gurdy of the day. They could be described as forest bath heritage dronecore and as their curiously subtle synthscapes envelop everyone in the room it feels like they could wash away your Saturday night sins at dawn on Sunday morning. Maybe they should have headlined the whole show. Johanna Bramli’s delicate voice and intricate arpeggiations are a great companion piece, delighting and then completely hypnotizing a rapt audience who are, in the best way possible, sent near horizontal.
As the smaller festival offerings come to a close, the scene for what’s in store in the main hall is well and truly set. More importantly, the audio-visual notion of psychedelia is, through the disorientating sonic and optical performances thus far imbibed, ironically, becoming a little clearer.
Along with the swelling crowd, Innerstrings have now decamped to the main hall and there are countless projectors and stage-sampling cameras perched at every angle imaginable, creating floor to ceiling animations so fluid it gives the illusion that the entire building is melting. Either that or the pints of locally brewed Harvey’s ale being served up by the incredibly hard-working bar staff have been spiked.
School Disco are a cardigan-chic three-piece with easily the coolest bass player on this or any other planet. The early Sabbath influences can be heard loud and clear as the band stomp through a thumping set that crescendos Jimi-style with the frontman playing guitar with his teeth. The main hall is filling up nicely and it feels like the festival is stood at the edge of the ramp, ready to board the mothership.
Codex Serafini are be-robed, thunderous, portentous and more than a little menacing. The banshee yips and wails that emanate from a lead singer who resolutely refuses to face the audience crash into a parping saxophone and heavy riffs Iommi would be proud of. It is brutal and discordant and intense. And it is only 7pm. Everything heard on the mainstage so far has had a 70s rock sensibility and so, maybe, it isn’t actually the presumed Syd, but Ozzy that’s watching over us all…
Melt Plastic Group employ a slowly building harmonica as Sonic Youth-a-like walls of sound swirl around the hall where a palpably jacked up audience are really starting to lean into the proceedings. Up to this point psychedelia has appeared as a very serious, almost sombre caper, but Melt Plastic Group bring something warmer and perhaps friendlier to the proceedings. It is most welcome.
ĠENN are an oblique turn to something more angular, focused and specific. Savages and War Paint spring to the increasingly addled mind and guitarist Janelle Borg, whether intentional or not, has a sound very adjacent to The Edge. Lead singer Leona Farrugia is blessed with an almighty voice and the loping band around her are wired very tight. The show has real urgency and these guys are stars in the making.
Headliners The Lucid Dream could be The Cooper Temple Clause and early Kasabian if soaked in a cocktail of Ryder and Burgess. As the wall projections become ever more hallucinogenic the band deliver a huge slab of the mightiest, muscular electro psych rock that sends the ale-soaked crowd silly. It is a monolithic performance and the perfect crescendo to a monumental day. Who knew psychedelia could be so exhausting! Staggering towards the station through the very atmospheric church graveyard seems like an appropriate way to end the evening and it is tempting to lay amongst the ancient stones, perhaps in a robe borrowed from Codex Serafini, assess the damage and contemplate what just happened.
The 2022 Lewes Psychedelic Festival is a triumph that has served up more than a few musical surprises along the way. What is clear is that psychedelia takes on many stylistic forms and the visual experience is just as important as the sonic. When combined, they are often intensely rich, always disorientating and they pulsate with creativity. The train ticket for 2023 is already booked.
Lewes All Saints Centre, Saturday 29th January 2022
Words and photos by Jason Warner/Fyrefly Studios