Supersonic Festival: Birmingham – festival review

Supersonic Festival
Birmingham, Custard Factory
19th – 21st Oct

Louder Than War’s Adrian Bloxham returned to Supersonic Festival for the third time this year. As ever (and as anyone who’s ever been) he was utterly blown away. Here’s his review. All photo’s by Adrian too.

It’s Supersonic’s fault. It is, really, all it’s fault. Before Supersonic festival I was toddling along minding my own business listening to music that I loved and moaning about the lack of anything new and fresh. So my friend drags me to the festival in 2010, ironically to see a reformed Godflesh, and we see everything that we can, and it does my head right in. Where did all these bands come from? How did I miss them? What else is out there? I came away from that first weekend with a renewed lust to find and experience new and way leftfield music. I found it, on websites like the Quietus and Pitchfork, put on by promoters like Birmingham’s own Capsule and on the pages of Louderthanwar. I started listening to music again and feeling it again. I found myself at Supersonic a year later and came away with another handful of new favourite bands that I needed more from, I started to try and write about what I had found and I ended up on here. Then I got to review this year’s tenth anniversary of the Supersonic festival. So you see, it’s all Supersonic’s fault, really, it is completely to blame.

If you don’t know, the annual Supersonic Festival is put on by Capsule every October in the Custard Factory in Digbeth, Birmingham. It’s a collection of some of the most challenging, interesting and downright brilliant artists the world has to offer. You won’t have heard of at least a third of the line up and that’s not me being all superior…it’s the truth. You won’t have heard of them and you will come away loving new sounds, artists and performances.

Friday

The festival is spread from the entrance to the other side of the custard factory. There are four main venues. Boxxed is the smaller of the two warehouse spaces, The Warehouse is the larger, The Library is a smaller elegant space and the Theatre is a small seated space. On Friday it was just Boxxed and The Warehouse being used. The two venues are overshadowed and totaly dominated by a set of huge arches, black brick and stained with pollution and water. They are above you most of the time you walk around. Between the two is a bridge over the river that is lit with fairy lights. By The Warehouse is a large canvassed area with seats and in the next huge arch are the food stalls.

The first band on in The Warehouse was Free School (See pic above). A Birmingham duo that gave us a warm, wide- open synth heavy sound. They wear white lamb masks and they got really into the performance, moving, playing the drums and fiddling with knobs and buttons. The music was layered with electronics and had a lush polished sound. The vocalist wore a black lamb mask and added another layer to the music, he sang in a rich soulful voice and when you turned around he was dancing through the crowd with a pair of tambourines. The music echoed the richness of classic Giorgio Moroder, the dry humour of the Pet Shop Boys and the pure eighties pop of Erasure all mixed up into a sound that both echoes the past and welcomes the present.

As Free School finished we went back to Boxxed to watch the end of Devilman’s set in the Small But Hard Showcase going on all night. Devilman appeared to be some sort of Yakuza boss sitting on a sofa by his bodyguard as two minions made the most bass heavy massive beats I had heard so far this year. The beats made my whole body vibrate, a feeling I grew to feel more than once throughout the weekend. They sounded as dark as a moonless night…a moonless night deep underground.

Modified Toy Orchestra were in The Warehouse, They had a long table set up at the front of the stage on which are arranged a row of what looks like children’s plastic toys, except it looks like they have mutated into weird plastic sculptures and, in the case of the Barbie hairdressing head, downright creepy. The musicians are all dressed in suits and stand behind the table manipulating the modified toys to make music, they are also deadpan. The music is the tunes that the toys would have made distorted to hell and back. The sound is still plinky plonky toy noises but the result is dark and disturbing. The red eyed dolls head made me feel quite odd. Then they brought out a small toy drum and the noise it made vibrated my body. There is a lot of humour in the performance, one guy was taking pictures of the crowd with what looked like a fisher price plastic camera. They looked like a lunatic Kraftwerk and made a noise like I had never heard before.

Back in Boxxed the Small But Hard showcase had Kakawaka onstage. A man with a guitar wearing one inflatable armband and shorts. The music was layers of high pitched guitar interspersed with screaming, all distorted to hell. He was singing into some kind of plastic fork and rubbing balloons across it to make the disconnected noise attacking the audience.

We stayed in the Warehouse for the rest of the night, the next band were Hey Colossus, they were very heavy and very dark. The music is slow moving and quite unstoppable. They started with a relentless grind and this continued for the duration. The sprawling sound lost its way in the middle of the set and kind of lacked direction but it soon meandered back to the forward moving stoner rock. I think, however, that was the point, to move the sound around a bit and challenge the audience… not the last example of that this weekend by a long shot.

The next guy was the person who I’d been looking forward to the most. Justin Broderick set up a macbook, microphone and guitar, swapped his denim jacket and tee shirt for a black hooded top done up tight around his face and JK Flesh has arrived. The music is one part extreme drum and bass, one part grindcore riffage and one part pure noise terror. He takes the work from Techno Animal and mashes it hard into Godflesh and just plays. The drums are so loud that they make the room shake, the guitars sound like they have been created in the depths of the underworld and the singing is the deep stark roar that Mr Flesh does oh so well. The fact that it’s one man making this magnificent sound makes it all the harder to get your head around. It just blows me away. If at any point he plays anywhere near where you are.. get there.

They follow JK Flesh with PCM, another Birmingham based electronic music crew. They have a long table across the stage and kick out a fantastic drum and bass sound. The bass is crystal clear, the best I’ve heard at a night like this and the drums rattle your brain. A perfect foil to the darkness of JK Flesh. The sound is wide open and so shiny it hurts your eyes. The perfect end to the first night.

Saturday

Saturday starts with guitars, the trouble with Supersonic as is the trouble with any festival is that whatever you choose to go and see you have to choose not to see something else. So I did a lot of catching bands that I could and going on to where another was playing. I had some bands and artists I wanted to see and the rest, I just saw what I saw.

Sir Richard Bishop was on first on Boxxed, the sounds of classical guitar that he twisted around were a gentle start to the day, the sound echoed Ennio Morriconi in places, especially his spaghetti western soundtracks.

In the warehouse Lau Nau was spinning her Finnish folk into looped fantasy sounds. She used tiny bells and toys to make noises and then made them loop around her incredibly pretty voice to draw you into her world. Beautiful music, delicacy leading into power as she made the sound grow and then shrink again.

Next was Boxxed to see Dylan Carlson from Earth. His set echoed the feeling of Earth, very slowed down doom rock with his very distinctive guitar. Nothing is hurried or rushed, he has the air of a man doing exactly what he wants to do, in his own time. We left him and walked back to the warehouse to see Hookworms. They brought to mind a young Spacemen 3, all psych rock and drone, maybe with a pinch of Loop thrown in the mix. They were good enough. We left them playing and went to the Library to catch Jarboe.

The Library is a much smaller room with white pillars across the centre and a classic feel. Jarboe had filled the room, both with the crowd and with her presence. She sang torch songs that grabbed your heart and held it. She just sang, to quiet music and she made you feel what she was singing deep inside.

We wanted to catch most of Bohren & Der Club of Gore before Nicholas Bullen’s set but when we got to Boxxed it had been emptied in order to let the band soundcheck without an audience. We had by now seen numerous bands setup and soundcheck before their sets. It wasn’t unheard of at all. But we had to wait twenty minutes or so before we could go in and see the band. By the time they came on to a dry ice shrouded stage with tiny spotlights shining down we managed about two songs. The music was very drawnout, with a late night jazz feel. One bass note, then a pause, then another note, I imagine it would be brilliant late at night in a dark room with a glass of whiskey and a cigar, but it was wasted on me.

We left and walked to the theatre, a small seated room which in itself was a welcome break. We had come to see Nicholas Bullen, founder member of Napalm Death with a thirty year history of music making. What we got today was a composition of field recordings, all recorded either in his house or garden according to a Quietus interview, and an excerpt of his film The Inverse Heliograph which he made by overlaying and altering super eight footage all filmed by him over the years. This turned out to be a gentle soundtrack to a hazy film which gave you glimpses of the past and strange alien landscapes, the music got darker echoing the films feel. Holiday films of beaches and towns were interspersed with odd looking places, all manipulated both by how the film has been made and how the soundtrack made you feel. An interesting and worthwhile experience.

The thing about Supersonic is that some of the music, or sound, is stuff that I have never experienced or even though of experiencing anywhere else. I cannot imagine wanting to watch Merzbow anywhere but here, he just fits so very well. He is considered one of the most important figures in noise music. He is diminutive and the sound he makes feels like you are standing inside a jet engine as it is running, and then crashing into a mountain. It is immense. There are hints of Hawkwind’s space throb, but the overwhelming feeling is of complete and utter noise. He has a vocalist who seems to be as terrifying as the rest of the sound. It crashes into you and makes you wince, noise that gets inside you.

Drunk in Hell follow and they are like the bastard sons of punk and metal, who really can’t be bothered but put on a show anyway. It’s the most straightforward band I’ve seen all day and as they follow the utter sonic devastation of Merzbow they make my brain settle down a bit. Punk and Riffs and howling, what more can you ask for.

Following them is Zeni Gavi, our first glimpse at this years Supersonic of KK Null, sculptor of noise extraordinaire. Zena Gavi is his band that play somewhere between Motorhead and Hawkwind, but far louder and tighter than either of the aforementioned. It’s a very organic earthy sound and along with Drunk in Hell bring a loose punk thrash rhythm back to the night, they do however clash with the other act I want to see tonight so we leave them and make our way over the fairy light glowing bridge back to the Warehouse.

The Bug is the last act on in the Warehouse and the finishing act for us tonight. The first Supersonic festival I came to I saw Kevin Martin with King Midas Sound and they blew me away. One of his alter egos is The Bug. He takes a teeth rattling bass sound and twists it around the beats, with a rapper and a female singer sharing the vocal duties. The sound rolls out and around us like darkness. It’s a masterful show and the perfect end to another night. A hazy light across the stage echoes the dubby basslines and the sharp drum patterns which make the crowd move.

Sunday

Sunday starts in Sparkbrook with a balti. Just to set us up for the last day. Mothertrucker in Boxxed began the music. They are full on forward moving and unstoppable Sabbath drenched riffery. The kind of band that makes metal still sound fresh, alive and lurching forward.

Six Organs of Admittance in the Warehouse were a bit of a one sided argument. The rhythm section were outstanding, the bass and drums were understated and kept the tune moving, the drums were gentle and straightforward and the bass was just a repetitive few notes, over and over making the music make sense and giving it purpose. But the guitarist, whose band this is, played over this with discordance and heavy handed thrashing, throwing himself around the stage and breaking the feel of the rhythm.
In the library, we stood at the back to watch Ruins Alone, they consisted of a slight man on a drumkit playing short and very sharp hardcore jazz punk songs. Really really good hardcore jazz punk songs.

Following this was the main act for us today, I missed KK Null the last time he played Supersonic, that time it was a special performance vs Lash Frenzy, more of whom later, this time he was on twice, once on his own and then with Ore. I sat at the back of the space on the bar and watched him come onstage, he fiddled with the electronics in front of him and then the sound started, it actually made me jump when he began, it was like a hard slap to the face. The music has beats, but they seem to disappear, the noise fades into static and then back into noise, it feels like the grinding and clanking of some sort of dark machinery. It drags your mind to places it might not want to go. The sound goes on and when it stops, it feels like everything has stopped, your body has accepted it as part of what should be. Then Ore come on stage, Ore are two tuba players who take their places on the right side of the stage, they then produce a sound that turns into a long drawn out bass drone over which KK Null again starts to produce noise and sound, and yet again I jump when he starts to play. The tubas and the sound that KK Null produces comes together and rolls over you. But by this stage my mind has had enough of the sound and I go to find something a little more forgiving.

I catch the last couple of songs by Lichens who provides an organic, wide open electronic landscape. The music ebbs and flows like the tide lapping gently on a sun soaked beach. It sooths and relaxes.
I have been told to go and see various bands by various people since I have told people about the festival and Lash Frenzy is on the list. They are performing ‘Vir Heroicus Sublimis’. The Warehouse is completely full of dry ice, you can see about two feet in front of you. There appears to be amps and equipment set up around the floor as well as the stage, but due to the dry ice it’s quite hard to make out. On the stage you can see silhouettes of a string section and two drummers. As the music starts so do the strobe lights, and more dry ice, lots more dry ice. The sound is thrashing metal, the feel is of a juggernaut moving so fast that it is out of control and all you can see is dry ice and strobe lights everywhere. At this point a woman moves to stand in front of me next to my friend watching the stage, she watches for a minute and then walks away, it’s then that my brain realises that she is topless. I turn around to see if anyone else has reacted to this and realise that there is a bassist on the floor behind me playing, in the middle of the crowd is a drummer and guitarist and that yes, there is an almost naked woman walking around the crowd moving right next to people staring through everyone. Add to this the immense amount of dry ice and the disorientation of the barrage of strobe lights being carried through the crowd and you have a live music experience that is as close to taking drugs as I have ever seen. The whole experience was mind blowing.

Following that was Ufomammot, very heavy and very dark. A psychedelic rock band with great big Sabbath like riffs. I only caught a couple of their songs as they clashed with Tim Hecker in Boxxed.
Tim Hecker creates soundscapes of bass and noise. He sculpts the noise to huge throbbing sections that fade down to soothing small sounds to let them grow again. The feeling is of a gigantic alien landscape moving off all around, letting the music settle inside us.

Goat were another band that everybody had told me to go and see. A Swedish band heavy on percussion and dressed as, well, wizards and harem girls with a death metal masked bongo player. They make super bonkers folk rock music with a funky drummer backbeat which, although one of my friends said they were the nest thing on that day, left me cold. I watched three songs and didn’t like them at all. One for the others I think.

The last band on were Body/Head, Kim Gordon and Bill Nace. A combination of two guitars and Kim’s vocals. A gentle discordant sound with Kim singing over the top. If it’s a little self indulgent then I think that’s the point isn’t it? If people can’t be self indulgent at Supersonic then when can they be. The fact that it’s Kim Gordon on stage has drawn a crowd and I am among the people wanting to see what is next after Sonic Youth have seemingly been paused.
That was it, the Supersonic Tenth Anniversary Festival. I didn’t mention the vinyl rally with the racetrack made of old records and the remote control cars creating noise as they circled it. I didn’t mention one of my friends moaning at me about legroom in the car on the way over, I didn’t mention the guy shushing someone else in the theatre as Nicloas Bullen performed and I certainly didn’t mention several of us attempting to charge people a pound for an empty can at a defunct merchandise table.

The best performance was JK Flesh. The most insane thing I have ever seen was Lash Frenzy.

Noise is still for heroes.

See you at Supersonic 2013.

Curious about any of the acts? Here’s some YouTube links to listen to what Adrian’s been describing:

Free school http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z1UZw1NXRPA
Modified toy orchestra http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ViUZ7bg-13E
Hey Colossus http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-b7Ylc1Bz60
JK Flesh http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P3St3s_i2FI
Sir Richard Bishop http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w4AUbDiRB78
Dylan Carlson http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fhGuKkbNi6E
Jarboe http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x8tlnv9FTOg
Merzbow ank”>http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uot7QYHYf_8
Drunk In Hell http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vB7UT2hvc-U
Zeni Gavi http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hrNii9ziq_Y
The Bug http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GtgegGWueg8
Kk null http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PxyZk7J1yvs
Lichens http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QdRsoELoUtc
Lash Frenzy http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LrbCkpwBuVY
Ufomammut http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hLEOHz_Wh5c
Goat http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H7aerAfrd-Q
Body/Head http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=29zydIzkvIw

All words by Adrian Bloxham. More work by Adrian on Louder Than War can be found here.

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