Splendour XR Was Ambitious And Mind-Boggling – But Ultimately Bittersweet
From fantastic performances to phoned-in disappointments - there was plenty to love, and dislike, about Splendour's first virtual runaround.
When punters filed out of Splendour in the Grass in July of 2019 — on a high from three days of muddy, dusty and certifiably packed live music — literally no-one could have predicted that there maybe wouldn’t be a ‘next time.’
The Byron Bay festival was one of the first on the chopping block when the pandemic hit, and its attempts to reboot for a 2021 run at the end of the year are not looking promising for a variety of reasons. Even an attempt to bring a live concert series to Sydney fell through, leaving festival organisers more or less entirely out of options — and let the record show that they are far from the only ones.
From the day-out cancellation of Bluesfest, to the heavily-policed Yours & Owls, to the constant shifts and postponements affecting newcomers like Full Tilt and Spring Loaded, no festivals have properly managed to get on the good foot throughout 2021. It has been said time and time again, but bears repeating that those in charge are doing absolutely nothing to help — and giving free passes to football teams and private schoolboys all the while.
Most of the country can’t leave the house for a ‘non-essential’ reason, a fumbled vaccine rollout leaves many jobs and industries in jeopardy and a weekend is unfurling where literal neo-Nazis have organised anti-lockdown rallies that will only serve to extend lockdown again. Splendour XR, then, arrives at an interesting time on the final weekend of July — and, truthfully, couldn’t have come at a better one.
So, What Is It Exactly?
Billed as a ‘limited edition virtual festival,’ Splendour XR is a two-day online event where you can watch performances by a variety of artists that were filmed especially for the festival. Teaming with gaming platform Sansar means that beyond simply watching the sets, there is also an option of exploring a faithfully-recreated digital version of the Splendour grounds using an avatar of your own custom design.
You can keep a teary eye on Phoebe Bridgers with your phone, for example, while Denzel Curry is blowing up your television.
Between watching on your phone, connecting via your computer, casting to your television and even rigging up a VR headset to explore, a variety of options are given for experiencing the festival on your own terms.
This, from the outset alone, deserved kudos. Some people thrive in the highly social aspects of music festivals, others find large crowds intimidating and opt out entirely. Creating something that is accessible to introverts and extroverts alike is worth celebrating. The knowingly-kitschy graphics of the in-world festival grounds, too — reminiscent of open-world environments like Minecraft — add their own charm to proceedings.
Making the festival available across multiple platforms also assists with some of the more difficult clashes on offer over the weekend — you can keep a teary eye on Phoebe Bridgers with your phone, for example, while Denzel Curry is blowing up your television. Whereas a real-life festival would force a Sophie’s choice, Splendour XR offers an otherwise-impossible opportunity to literally be in two places at once.
Reviewing something like Splendour XR presents challenges that aren’t present in your usual live review. You can’t gauge audience reaction — in reality, there isn’t one. You can’t judge the sound mix — everything is pre-shot. The framework at hand, then, leaves you exploring two different options: How much does the performance you’re watching fit with what you’d expect with real-life Splendour, and how much does it take advantage of being part of a virtual festival? More to the point, is what the artist is doing, regardless of approach, worth not changing the proverbial channel for?
Of all the acts to play over the weekend, perhaps only Scottish synthpop heroes CHVRCHES really play up to the surrealist side of being part of such an event. Presented as 2D figures against a background of static TVs, flames and Windows 98 graphics, the band have gone all out to present something wholly unique to the environment — or, indeed, lack thereof. It helps that the group saw out the 2010s as one of the most-improved live acts, as well — the once-shy Lauren Mayberry, in particular, truly coming out of her shell as a frontwoman. The set provides plenty of well-loved singles, but also sees some of the band’s forthcoming Screen Violence LP performed live for the first time. Okay, ‘live,’ but still — it’s the principle of the thing.
On the local front, The Jungle Giants and Vera Blue offer up similarly pristine pop that nails the look simultaneously via stellar lighting and festival-ready energy. The former are shaded by bisexual lighting for their electric indie bangers, while the latter colourfully twirls and sparkles against a black backdrop. Plus, if you can get songs like the Giants’ ‘Send Me Ur Loving’ or Blue’s ‘All the Pretty Girls’ out of your head, you are a masterclass in mental restraint.
Special mention, too, goes to the festival’s WA contingent, delivering impressive all-rounders over the weekend. Methyl Ethel have bulked up to a seven-piece, turning a warehouse space into their own indie-pop odyssey — particularly with the closing hat trick of ‘Ruiner,’ ‘Scream Whole’ and the ubiquitous ‘Ubu.’ Later, Pond threaten to steal the show for the entire weekend with their vibrant, colourful and highly-danceable set — the perfect mix of weird and wonderful. Then, of course, there’s Spacey Jane. The Hottest 100 silver medalists give a spotless abridged run-through of their Sunlight tour set, with oceanic visuals adding their own distinctive flair.
A Proving Ground
What other acts on the line-up may lack in terms of flashy or more outlandish visuals, they more than made up for with their actual performances. For proof of this, you needn’t look further than Sunday’s performances from Ziggy Ramo and Amyl & The Sniffers.
Both are among the most hyped artists in the country right now — the former for being the new progressive mouthpiece of the Australian music scene, the latter for crossing over from Melbourne’s underground punk scene and disrupting the mainstream. There’s a lot of discourse around both acts, but when it comes to their live shows none of it matters: They mean business.
Ramo gives an impassioned performance of songs from his Black Thoughts album, accentuated by a stellar backing band that features Milan Ring on lead guitar. His message is important, yes, but don’t lose sight of the medium here — Ramo is a thoroughly inventive MC, energetically bounding through tracks like ‘Empire’ and ‘Stand for Something’ with a seemingly-endless supply of aplomb and conviction. Not only do you hang on every word, you believe them as well.
As for the Sniffers, don’t let any bogan slacker schtick deceive you — this is a band that doesn’t half-arse a thing. From the second they roll into opener ‘Guided By Angels,’ there’s absolutely no downtime to speak of. Amy Taylor is a prowling, volatile beast — at one point she literally lashes out and swats a camera away. Her rough-and-tumble bandmates are perfect folly, rolling with the punches and piercing through the speakers. Highlights include ‘Some Mutts (Can’t Be Muzzled)’ and a rousing ‘I’m Not a Loser,’ as well as a surprise run at Patrick Hernandez’s sole disco hit ‘Born to Be Alive.’ It’s a world away from his ’70s camp, but the joie de vivre remains very much the same.
Also of note in this department were Arnhem Land’s finest sons King Stingray and freshly-minted pop starlet Gretta Ray. With deep ties to Aussie pub rock history, Stingray have become one of the strongest contenders to the Australian rock throne within less than a year of being together. Their kinetic live energy translates here, particularly on their exceptional singles ‘Get Me Out’ and ‘Hey Wanahka.’ In several song introductions, frontman Yirrŋa Yunupiŋu says “this is a great song.” You believe him every time.
Ray, fresh from an impressive Like a Version, takes to the early Sunday slot perfectly to showcase how far she’s come as a performer — not only nailing new tracks like ‘Cherish’ and ‘Bigger Than Me’, but revisiting her early material like ‘Unwind’ and signature song ‘Drive’ with both fondness and a deep-running connection. With Japanese Wallpaper’s Gab Strum overseeing her airtight new band, expect this star to continue shining in the lead-up to her debut album next month.
From The Screen To Your Stereo
Elsewhere, several acts have implemented the used of a green screen to appear as though they were actually performing on the virtual stage itself. This works for the saloon-band charm of Band Of Horses late on Saturday night, as well as the effortlessly-charming Norwegian nymph Aurora. After all, they’re able to make their presence felt otherwise, and the songs largely speak for themselves – especially when you have the Horses’ ‘No-One’s Gonna Love You’ and Aurora’s ‘Wolves’ in your arsenal.
For psych-rockers King Gizzard and hyperpop starlet Charli XCX, however, this approach felt visually lacking despite both sets being sonically compelling. Each act has strong aesthetic visions creatively — look at how King Gizzard’s recent Chunky Shrapnel was filmed in particular – so it would have been nice to see both acts go for something a bit more high-concept here. On the note of both performances, however, this is where watching the performances from ‘in the crowd’ adds a bit of much-needed flavour.
King Gizzard’s set has a dancing dolphin, stage-invading aliens and a dozen beachballs flying around the amphitheatre to the beat of their jammed-out grooves and snarling guitars. Charli, meanwhile, has some VIP guests in attendance — Pacman and a Lego man — who were certifiably cutting sick to tracks like ‘I Don’t Care’ and ‘Unlock It.’
Canadian DJ Kaytranada and nu-folk survivors Of Monsters And Men didn’t quite pull off the visuals either. Both provide pleasant aesthetics — the former plays his set at a house party, the latter plays an acoustic set in a colourful room. Where they fall short, however, is making it feel like part of the festival. They end up feeling more like NPR’s recent Tiny Desk (At Home) Concerts than anything — which is fine if that’s the brief, but the mark for Splendour XR missed here. The Avalanches, too, have used footage from a recent stint at the Enmore Theatre for their slot — which, while incredible to relive, ultimately feels a bit like cheating.
The Avalanches used footage from a recent stint at the Enmore Theatre for their slot — which, while incredible to relive, ultimately feels a bit like cheating.
Sydney trio Crooked Colours and pop wunderkind Khalid end up with the inverse problem, provided dazzling visuals for their sets. The former had one of the coolest setups of the entire weekend, playing underneath a rainbow of shipping containers – quite literally, crooked colours. The latter, meanwhile, had booked out an arena to give viewers all of the lights and showmanship of a Splendour headliner.
Neither, however, quite had the songs to carry interest beyond simply being nice to look at. Crooked Colours continue to live in the shadow of RÜFÜS DU SOL insofar as emotive Australian dance is concerned, while Khalid’s performance sagged in the middle while waiting around for the payoff of big hits like ‘Love Lies’, ‘Silence’ and ‘Young Dumb & Broke’.
All Killer, No Filler
If you want to see how a festival headliner does it, look no further than The Killers. They’ve been doing since their debut album, after all, and their audiences have never waned in the intervening years despite not blowing up radio the same way they used to. Why do we keep coming back to these Las Vegas showmen? Simple: You genuinely forget how many smashes this band has until they’re knocking them out back to back to back.
‘When You Were Young’? ‘Spaceman’? ‘Somebody Told Me’? ‘The Man’? ‘Mr. Brightside’ and ‘All These Things That I’ve Done’ to close? Most of the acts on this line-up would kill to have even one of these songs in their arsenal. The fact that The Killers can deliver a knockout and then keep going is wholly testament to their collective strength.
On a more sentimental note, it’s also just great to see the original line-up of the band back together — guitarist Dave Keunig and bassist Mark Stoermer have sat out the last few records and tours, so to see them back in the fold with irrepressible frontman Brandon Flowers and drummer Ronnie Vanucci, Jr. is an absolute treat. While we’re on the subject of Vanucci, let it be known: We’d pay extra to just have a camera exclusively tracking him for the whole set. There is no pop drummer that goes harder.
Leaving The Uncanny Valley
Splendour XR has frustrating timetable clashes — just like a real festival. It has the occasional technical difficulties — just like a real festival. It offers up an impressive mix of national and international artists — just like a real festival. This is all well and good, but it’s worth remembering that the tagline of Splendour XR was “it’s unreal” — ie. it’s not a real festival.
It’s an experiment; a leap of faith at a time where the rug has been pulled out from under the Australian festival circuit.
There are moments across the weekend that make you feel as close as you’ve probably gotten to a festival in a while — dancing to Pond, singing along to ‘Mr. Brightside’, banging your head to Amyl or The Chats. There are also moments, however, where reality kicks in. Skegss, for example, are one of the most fun live acts in Australia — and that’s on account of thriving on the back of rowdy audiences and big sing-alongs.
Here’s the conundrum, though: When the final line of ‘Got On My Skateboard”s chorus hits and no-one is there to sing it back to them, does it make a sound? Watching the band play to no-one makes them feel naked. The same can be said for when it’s time for Spacey Jane to play ‘Booster Seat’ or Denzel Curry to play ‘RICKY’. These are mates-on-shoulders songs — hand-crafted festival moments — so it’s bittersweet to see them unfurl with no real-time reactions.
What does Splendour XR want to be? Does it want to be real or unreal? Should the artists involved delve a little deeper to create something out of the ordinary to reflect the environment at hand, or should they closely mirror their own live shows to give people a reminder of the outside world?
Truthfully, it’s a little too soon to say. It’s an experiment; a leap of faith at a time where the rug has been pulled out from under the Australian festival circuit. At worst, it’s a “better than nothing” alternative. At its best, though, Splendour XR offers up unbridled potential for openly accessible, barrier-breaking and ivory tower-knocking festival experiences. That’s something worth pursuing, regardless of what happens when the quote-unquote real thing returns.
David James Young is a writer and podcaster who has attended more real-life festivals than basically anyone out there. Perhaps more virtual ones as well. Find out more about his work on his website.
Photo Credit: Splendour