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Festival report [2011-11-03]

For its ninth year the Supersonic Festival returned to Birmingham’s Custard Factory, an urban industrial network of long-neglected, now redeveloped warehouse space that each year seems that bit more reconstituted, like the powder from the packets it produced until the original Factory closed in 1964. And it is something about this place, both the venue and its city, which makes Supersonic so unique, relevant and seriously stimulating.

At the end of the sixties Birmingham’s industrial heritage could be argued to have forged a new sound – heavy metal – from the real metalwork industries that gave Black Sabbath’s Tony Iommi the industrial accident that led to him developing his unique way of playing. Such social history has recently been highlighted in a major exhibition created by Capsule, the curators and producers of Supersonic, as a clever way of branding the city ‘the Home of Metal’. But, while they always ensure that Supersonic emphasises this claim, they also encourage those operating way beyond the genre to perform, cultivating a healthier, more positive attitude towards experiencing experimental music than might be expected from the metal diehard archetype. And so, techno from Germany, jazz from Sweden, noise from Japan, hip hop from the States and the ambient folk of a yeti from Kent all converged this year alongside all manner of guitar-based rockers, to perform away from the mud and fields of the more populist festivals in a dystopian setting better suited to the modern, angular noises reverberating through its dusty aluminium and concrete structures.

Such an eclectic and extensive bill of around fifty acts can seem overwhelming at first as initial plans to navigate through the weekend indicate you’re going to miss more than you’ll catch. But what a great problem to have.

Indeed, the opening night presented a bewildering array of opposites. At first, a.P.A.t.T. seemed to be making a horrible din as the four players, all dressed in white, took turns on their many instruments to produce wacky juxtapositions of scat singing with doom riffage or German oompah with Country hoe-down, in what could be a community theatre adaptation of Zappa’s Uncle Meat. It was almost as if all musical styles had been lost in a nuclear war with a.P.A.t.T. as the post-apocalyptic survivors trying, with difficulty, to translate scant evidence of musical history.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Factory, London’s charmingly-named DrumCunt made the most minimal and primitive dubstep, the exact same snare sound snapping on the third beat of every bar for the entire set like the steady revolutions of a lighthouse. Their acidic echoes and treated vocals projected little colour on their otherwise monochromatic track as it obstinately extended beyond its limits.
Mike Watt and his two Missingmen couldn’t have provided a more contrasting set with their self-confessed “one 45-minute song in 30 parts” that jerked, shook and wound its drum, guitar and bass vignettes in a jazzy, Beefheartian hardcore mode. Seeming to play their latest album, “Hyphenated-Man” in its entirety, with an ease as natural as breathing, each “part” rarely reached the two minute mark yet contained that indefinable spirit only found in the most learned of musicians at one with their muse. So, somehow it made perfect sense for Watt to hail the crowd with one name, “John Coltrane”, upon exiting the stage.
As if to confuse us more, the five Secret Chiefs 3, formed by Mr Bungle’s Trey Spruance, were up next bedecked in customary robes and firing out their stop-start prog metal interplay whose Eastern vibes and Morricone stylings feel a little straight-jacketed by the ubiquitous rock template. However, this doesn’t stop them from delivering a seriously rocking version of the theme from John Carpenter’s Halloween before returning to their fiddly fusion.
Consequently, Birmingham’s own Scorn was just the tonic to close the first night by brutally massaging the senses back to life and into line with his homegrown industrial dub. The deep, twisting sub-bass is as much a physical presence as an aural one, imposing its steady, stubborn tempo on the chests and nose-tips of the audience as stark beats rattle into life like Ray Harryhausen’s skeletons, creating moody, evolving structures haunted by sines, sirens and sci-fi synths.

Despite its broad church, the ensuing weekend proclaimed space rock to be alive and well, strongly influencing most of the sets by the many guitar-based acts. While stalwarts like Philadelphia’s Bardo Pond could feel a bit drab and spun out, younger acts like Eternal Tapestry, whose gentle psychedelic drift of soaring guitars and chirruping synth was thoughtfully scheduled for Sunday afternoon, and White Hills’ groovier Loop meets Stooges stomp at the other end of the day, were both much more seductive and charming.
But most surprising of all were Teeth of the Sea: four young, stylish men from London (including two well-groomed moustaches) who delivered the weekend’s most potent psychedelic energies. And they seemed to know it too, as their largely instrumental set travelled through an initial multi-climactic sprawl involving synth, FX, trumpet, bass, guitar, drums and keys into more tribal fare thanks to the stand-up drumming centre-stage, punctuated by knowing looks, smiles and winks to each other. Their enjoyment was as infectious as their sound which had the epic qualities of the most pompous prog yet was somehow counterbalanced by boss-level battle phases of free noise and cyclonic rhythms.
Equally infectious was a rare Zombi horror show from Pittsburgh’s Steve Moore and Anthony Pantera, whose Goblin-inspired analogue arpeggiations and rock-opera drumming literally shook the metal walls of the warehouse. They confidently marched through ominous drones, travelling bass, jazz rhythms and Moroder-ish refrains to create a soundtrack of psychedelic suspense far greater than the sum of its parts.

Reminding us that we’re in the home of metal, though, Wolves in the Throne Room brought their brand of the blackest metal to Saturday night’s main stage. They had, perhaps, the biggest buzz about them on the bill, partly due to confirming their recent album, Celestial Lineage, as their last (or at least the final chapter with their current sound and set-up), preferring a return to focus on their farms and families in the Pacific Northwest. While their set wasn’t expanded to incorporate the more ambient and choral surprises from this last album, they delivered a full-on aural assault immersed in dry ice and ultra-violet light, alternating between furious pummelling and broodier, loping passages to describe an intense and terrifying chase through a very dark forest.
But possibly pushing metal as ‘out there’ as its current ‘avant’ precursor implies was Sunday’s mid-afternoon set from San Francisco’s Barn Owl. While taking a similar path to Sunn O))) and Earth before them (both previous Supersonic headliners), their expansive dual guitar drone was stretched to the full hour of their slot as waves of throbbing ebowed strings were gradually and tenderly laced with nimble, Paris Texas pickings. This recurring mid-Western soloing never failed to drown in the other’s reverberations, like fauna under a lava flow, as the intense soaring spilled out steadily yet with elegant, organic qualities to captivate its audience.

A similarly ritualistic, hypnotic experience was expected of Circle, Finland’s longstanding experimental rock group, but instead we were treated to what can only be described as a Judas Priest tribute, replete with studded leather and spandex. Confusingly, but with excitement undiminished, the audience checked their timetables to ensure that this wasn’t Pharaoh Overlord, an offshoot of Circle (that had played the previous day) whose sound isn’t shy of dipping back into the New Wave of British Heavy Metal catalogue. Acting like a stadium rock act, lead singer and keyboardist Mika Rättö charmed the audience with his camp, Freddy Mercury posturing. He could barely conceal his deep grin and sparkling eyes as he taunted his bandmates, at one point baptising each one theatrically from a Volvic bottle. The music, though, was authentically hell bent for leather, with occasional detours into jazzier and folkier pastures before returning to its unexpected tribute to the home of metal.

Perhaps unsurprisingly though, the most spellbinding acts were those who played without recourse to the standard six-string arsenal. This is where Supersonic plays an invaluable role in signposting truly innovative acts that would, otherwise, be nowhere near the rock radar, however far into “post-rock” it may reach. A case in point is the awkwardly-named The Berg Sans Nipple, a cross-Atlantic duo, one from Nebraska, the other France, that focus on the polyrhythmic possibilities of live and programmed beats combined with on-the-fly looping and singing along to old synth noises and echoing dub shots. The process seems not unlike the one-man-funk-shop of Warp’s Jamie Liddell but the result is far more endearing and expansive. By the set’s third track they really hit their stride with some dangerous analogue frequencies and a beguiling live drumming that somehow managed to mimic the dancefloor dynamics of chopped breakbeat samples. With the likes of melodica and thumb piano casually thrown into the mix, the duo came on like a new age junk-shop hip hop unit suitable for Björk to poach.
Later, in the theatre space, Alexander Tucker elected to pare his performance down to just his voice and a selection of tape loops to create a new interpretation of his latest instrument-rich album, Dorwytch. The result is a hazy selection of cycled refrains and textures accompanied by Tucker’s voice, the only evidence that he was there in person, adorned as he was in a full length yeti costume. While the hunger to hear his enchanting English folk songs with a full band remained, the performance effortlessly provided surrealistic qualities not felt elsewhere across the weekend while allowing some people the chance to drift off and dream.

Dreaming would have been inadvisable during William Bennett’s afro noise set as Cut Hands, though. From behind a couple of laptops Bennett presented his new album that pitches complex African rhythms with searing sinewaves and noise textures against a perplexing backdrop of footage of African villagers involved in what is supposedly voodoo ceremonies. The result is the most extraordinary and affecting set of the festival. Forgetting the visuals for a moment, the sound is all encompassing with seductive rhythms that require much more than a nodding head and tapping foot to follow. Meanwhile, treated electronic shards weave through the beats to build a formidable mood that suggests higher powers are at play as Bennett wriggles like a post-colonial witch doctor. But the visuals make the experience even more striking - one in which you feel perpetually on the verge of witnessing something you’d rather avoid (especially given the myths and controversy surrounding Bennett’s Whitehouse legacy). While we were thankfully spared too many glimpses of animal sacrifice, the scenes of people shaking with possession or foaming heavily at the mouth inspired guilty pleas of both prurience and ignorance and yet accompanied the music so perfectly in its portrayal of abandoning the familiar.
Only something very special could have followed Cut Hands’ set and remained firmly in the memory, and Fire! did just that. The Swedish trio comprised of Mats Gustafsson on Rhodes and sax, Johan Berthling on bass and Wildbirds & Peacedrum’s Andreas Werlin on drums were for this short tour joined by Oren Ambarchi on treated guitar and effects. Their set was a feral and darkly dramatic series of improvisations that placed Berthling and Werlin’s extraordinarily powerful rhythm section central to the proceedings, creating an ominous, throbbing core around which Gustafsson and Ambarchi wound their extended, deep waivering tones. It’s quite startling to find out later that the band had not only never played with Oren Ambarchi before, but, neither had they rehearsed together prior to the festival, this being the first day of the tour with Ambarchi arriving in Birmingham straight off the plane from Australia! Regardless of preparations, the concentrated power they created, especially when Gustafsson reached for his sax spraying the proceedings with molten munitions, visibly moved the amps at the back of the stage and threatened to break the drum kit apart, but miraculously all held together in a quaking performance that artfully brought together free jazz and kosmische grooves with magical minimalism.

 It is both a privilege and a pleasure to spend a weekend letting yourself be guided by Supersonic and its expert juxtapositions from the world of metal, psychedelia, electronics and beyond, which gladly seem to get more experimental and esoteric each year. And that’s not to speak of the numerous workshops, exhibitions, sound art installations and cakes all awaiting your assimilation. It leaves you feeling exhausted from over-stimulation but well-nourished and whole-heartedly optimistic that innovation and experimentation in modern music continues to flourish, however it’s classified, wherever it’s from.


Photography: Justine Bleasdale

Russell Cuzner
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