Supersonic baby…

Matt, Oakley and I spent three hours trying to get out of London as we embarked on our trip up to Birmingham for Supersonic – three hours of frustrations, amusement and lots of music. Leaving a city swelled to saturation with musical and artistic events of all kinds; feeling the buzz of a pilgrimage. Our Mecca was not a centralised structural godhead but, in fact, an environment of musical diversity that genuinely connects you with the strangers around you – the bearded, the tattoed, the strange loners who don’t need friends when they can buy records. There is a culture that surrounds this festival that eludes crystallisation, it flexes and morphs naturally under the sonic identity of its benevolent overlords.

Checking into the hostel, still thrown by the (actual) pint of coffee extracted from that ubiquitous haven of drabness – the motorway service station – and things already feel right. There’s that dreaded (as in dreadlocks) man with the beard and some doom band I forget emblazoned on the back of his hoodie, who I believe I met at an Oceansize gig in Brighton. Ah, not two minutes in the city, the birthplace of British metal, and one of the family has already presented himself.

First on the main stage is Basic House, the electronically orientated solo project from Stephen Bishop of the pretty horribly brilliant Drunk in Hell. Swapping menacing vocal gushes for rhythms and electronic textures, the opening is somewhat understated but, given what is to come, clearly is the initial stage of a build up into a frenzy. And that build up is actually completely shortcut by ANTA, who are just about to inject some dazzling prog into the second stage. Swapping vocals for layered instrumental wizardry, this three piece manage to tease out a full spectrum of colourful psyche groove and thunderous doom, moving between them with grace. Kind of like a less flatulent Morkobot or perhaps Goblin without the emphatic nods towards a 70s Euro-horror aesthetic. Even that An Albatross thing emerges from time to time but without anything particularly metallic.

A little after I find myself thinking about Red Dwarf. That might sound a little odd but, forgive me, there was a disembodied head emitting vaguely amusing incantations to the audience and overlaying cosmos. “Pot not foxtrot” – the humour is oblique, thick and tight. This twisted sermon continues and becomes ever more glitched and indiscernible, and eventually Matmos segue into a set of fizzy Merz-techre in the Emerald City, and the face of our digital priest projects ritual torture footage through its exposed skull. The torture but might have been in my own head, it’s hard to tell. Heroically breaking the audience / performer barrier with close cams and direct audience address, part way through they announce a ‘festival within a festival’, meaning they’ve brought along a separate act to play in the middle of their set, and that he does, in a twenty or so minute noise cacophony that, jarring to some perhaps, is a complete delight. I notice most of the photographers ignoring this apparently less photogenic spectacle and then, in a particularly animated crescendo, suddenly they’re all reaching… for the same photograph. Matmos come back to continue hunting rhythms in a sea of chaos and end in a rather beautiful fashion – a psychedelic drift that’s like Boards of Canada and Natural Snow Buildings falling through rusted circuits.

After being vaguely amused to hear Yourcodenameis:milo playing in the bar, Opium Lord bring about a sludgey doom murk to the second stage. Taking full advantage of bass and volume, it is satisfying and so far the most ‘Birmingham’ bit about the night. Sadly New York industrial noise artist Pharmakon is cancelled due to her missing her flight or something, which is a real shame. Hopefully she’ll be over this way again sometime soon.

Where to go from here then? I know what would be good: just get a laptop, get some guy to stick some repetitive, pre-made breakbeats on Media Player whilst wobbling around, grinning, and drinking a Tyskie like it’s 2002. Stick a microphone on the stage and have it abused by a kind of lairy, pissed off Mancunian, who paces around the stage telling you what’s troubling him, making sure most sentences are concluded with the words ‘fuck off’. Sleaford Mods, then. Perfect. As ridiculous as it sounds, this is pretty much what they do, and it is brilliant. It’s fun, but makes you feel kind of uneasy. It’s punk, but kind of feels new and fresh, and real – something punk hasn’t been for ages. Though most of the crowd seem kind of baffled into stasis by this odd spectacle (it really is exactly as described above), I get the sense that there is a collective sense of wonder and amusement pervading the atmosphere. How can there not be? This is mad and feels, I don’t know, somehow important. It’s definitely fun with a touch of hedonistic abandon but this voice from the silenced, disenfranchised public has been ignored for too long – let’s just hope that with success Sleaford Mods don’t forget the people that they appear to represent.

Day two begins with the ‘large ensemble’ version of Ex-Easter Island Head, a group who use numerous guitars (in this case 14) to create wonderfully hypnotic compositions in rhythm, drone and texture, along with a single drummer. It’s a chiming resonance that’s quite beautiful, each tiny part played through unconventional means – taps, scrapes, rubs – to contribute to a heavenly, amorphous whole that can sound like the American school of minimalists have been listening to Battles and Neu. The daylight streaming through the top of this East London warehouse looking space in Supersonic’s home, the multi-media arts space of The Custard Factory, illuminates faces that so far have been shadow-clad. It’s hard to be a distant, serious heavy music misanthrope right now. Ex-Easter Island Head is rather deliriously positive and even the most doomed of us can appreciate a bit of light from time to time.

Agathe Max takes violin looping into no untouched territories but still, she has a knack for tension and intensity – that pay-off will never stagnate but is hard to retain interest in when delivered with such patience in a set that long. The woozy, squealing string tension and prepared percussive elements break up the drones effectively enough and this morose, subtly furious performance gains an accidental cymatic partnering as water caught in a drip bucket next my feet in the stage outskirts shimmers in response. Most impressive in Max’s deluge is the warmth and power of the bass tones she coaxes out of her instrument through corresponding pitch shifts – tectonic movements grumbled underneath.

Rattle reminded me a lot of another female duo, Sick Bees – a brilliant Seattle two piece that disbanded quite some time ago. What Rattle do is a little sweeter, a little poppier and with no screaming. But the patchwork rhythms and great mismatch of anarchy and innocence make this an incredibly enjoyable set, charming the onlookers with childlike mantras. There is something very dry and direct about the sound and I think it’s to do with the prominence of the two drum kits that are always in command of the mix – the only other sound source being the pair’s layered and intertwined vocals. Without any distracting processing the signal path comes straight at you, unaffected and natural.

Similarly, Youth Man have a sense of simplicity that goes hand in hand with their punkish rawness, vaguely operatic screams and occasional dips into Play Fast Or Don’t fastcore and blackened metal. Proof that you can entertain a room full of assumed music aficionados with the simple tools much more ‘forward thinking’ and ‘abstract’ music is based on; the place of the amped up three piece is, and forever will be, and important fixture in our scenes.

Possibly one of the most anticipated underground acts of this festival also happens to be one of the most bizarre. Sly and The Family Drone have developed a reputation for their completely mad live show which is cathartic, brutal and kind of disgusting. The latter point need not be taken too seriously if having alcohol rain down on you from the air (spat from the vocalists mouth), catching sight of a real life penis through ripped boxer shorts and generally existing in close proximity to sweat, skin and a greasy mess of overused equipment appeals to you. If it doesn’t, hopefully the incredible freedom of expression on display will. Sly typically set up in the middle of the crowd and over a drawn out set of crunching synth noise, battering rhythms and toxic screams, proceed to turn themselves inside out, dismantling much of their gear and the polarised dynamic of them (the band) and us (the audience). Stand close enough and you’ll most likely be presented with a cymbal or snare and a drum stick, and actively encouraged to make as much noise as you possibly can. Often audience members can be a little taken aback by this offer of involvement. But just a little teething perhaps, and you’re in. You can’t exactly do anything wrong. In this particular performance it was a pleasure to see at least a couple of people really going for it, long standing personal issues perhaps fuelling a carefree expression of aggression rarely permitted at this volume and in such a public setting. Every time I’ve seen them I’ve ended up bleeding from at least one injury – this time it was two. Quite the gentleman, Matt (the unofficial spokesman of this loose group which has ties to some of London’s best loved underground bands like Nitkowski, Shield Your Eyes and Silent Front) is always keen to thank the audience. This time is no different and to seal his appreciation he even lovingly chucks a piece of pizza into the applauding throng. Bless him.

Ryan Jordon was kicking the walls of the second stage down a little later, escalating pulsing kick drum BPMs into overwhelming electronic screams and thoroughly destroying everyone inside. This was a ridiculously intense, yet minimal presentation of sound and light that was impossible to exist within unless you completely succumbed to it. Ryan’s focus is on achieving altered states and mysterious mental realms through such ritualistic onslaughts – this is reliant on the predisposition of the encounterer of course, which is maybe asking a lot of some people, but there’s no problem at all with the delivery of this manic shaman. Somewhere between noise, gabber and industrial, and taking cues from early Moby’s brilliant ‘Thousand’ (minus the clear rave overtones) this set was a particularly unique, utterly enthralling event.

The next part of the festival I’ve come to view as a kind of pre-Swans restlessness, and was fraught with sporadic trips into various parts of the programme. The final third or so of Jenny Hval’s set brought her atmospheric, storytelling alt-rock compositions to a stunningly gorgeous conclusion that, seriously, had me and at least one other person deeply affected for some time afterwards. In the cinema Graham Dunning built up a hypnotic rhythmn-centric outing with revolving objects and electronics syncing up into mechanical techno. Whilst some looked on, infatuated with the rarely seen physicality of a music so often shrouded in the removed framework of the traditional DJ set up, others danced in their chairs. Following this, a video compilation of recorded performances provided a brief glimpse of Supersonic events of the past, a lovely addition to the programme and further encouraging the family atmosphere.

At this point, the anticipation had made a home in every decibel, every word shared around the shining water in the central courtyard and every second that skittered past in the night. The centrepiece was imminent. Swans have, over the last few years, become something of a monster. It seems odd to think that they once held a relatively obscure place in leftfield rock circles – now they are being touted as one of the best live bands in the world… THE best even. A combination of elements that seem very current, important and impossible to properly categorise have come together and, somehow, fit into a world of volume, religious fervour and uniting brutality. You know the feeling of seeing a band and feeling like part of an actual congregation? Swans provide font-fulls of that, and it isn’t even much to do with the lyrical content of the tracks. Michael Gira’s imposing but inviting frame stands on the brow of a snarling beast sent to a) protect you from the evils of the world; b) cleanse and purify you of your ills; c) remind you that you are nothing. Sound familiar? Except this God does it with guitars, bass, possessed sermons and a museum of rattling, chiming, driving percussion. Despite this pedestalled hierarchy Gira and the rest seem to have an inclusive energy that brings you into this experience WITH them, doing away with whatever social effect a raised stage behind a metre deep photography pit normally has. Part of this is down to Gira’s actually really friendly stage presence, calmly addressing the audience members as friends. At other times he’s focused in a seething hunch that only really opens up when the music invokes movement or rapture – one particular stance I’ve heard amusingly referred to as his ‘rave fingers’. At times during the set the repetitions, drawing you in like instrumental chants, build up a sort of grim kraut-rock. Other elements bring you into industrial, post-punk worlds, switching to an ethereal incantation… and just when you think that maybe Coil should have formed a heavy rock side project, some full on, undulating drone rhythm crosses paths with imposing sludge and you forget the comparisons in favour of something much simpler, and closer to the truth: Swans are Swans.

And that’s pretty much that. The stages close but the bars stay open and over the next few hours the attendance drops until a handful of cackling survivors are wobbling around to the last songs played by the last DJ, the last cigarettes being smoked as the sun starts to blue the sky. The success built up in the last ten or so years of events continues and Supersonic, and their parent organisation Capsule, can chalk another great event onto the board. It is genuinely sad to see members of the Supersonic family, those you know directly, by proxy or just by seeing them around over the two days of this cut down version of the festival (it’s normally a whole weekend) disappear into their normal lives. Supersonic is so well loved by its fans and with good reason – this is a festival that should return every year until we’re all dead. And beyond… I’m sure there’s a loud enough venue in hell.

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