Is it a cosmic coincidence that the two best festivals in the land have super at the start of their name or is it some kind of nominative determinist neuro-linguistic progamming voodoo going on? Or is it, as recent research would indicate, just plain fact? Supernormal is a tiny festival in the country and that’s the way we like it. It’s grown considerably in the last few years but it’s still small and that really helps to give it an easy charm that bigger affairs start to lack. It’s nice to drive a couple of hours out into the country and roll up to the carparking field, get out and find your mates unloading the car and drinking already when you pull up. There’s a good deal of freeform nonsense going on, like this performance at the top by phantombstrds which involved a bunch of grinding noise and the throwing of plastic bags by people in costumes made of rubbish, here as elsewhere over the weekend the line between punters and performers is smudged to the point of invisibility. Still…
After a solid faff about Blood Sport are the first band we get it together to see. They’re kind of twitchy, fidgety, Talking Heads/vaguely african groove thing, the guitars clean and clanky. There’s an amusing outburst as a wasp panics the guitarist but overall they’re not as funky as they need to be and not as interesting as beer at this stage of the day. It’s no great crime. Last year it rained a good deal and the old nest stage was washed away in the torrent so the new ‘Vortex’ probably seemed a champion idea all round. A blackout marquee to replace the cinema and second stage and feature AV performances and film, brilliant. Happily this year the sun has returned to Braziers Park, unfortunately this means the Vortex is swelteringly hot and the poor sods in Snapped Ankles are regretting their impressive green man style outfits. Three of them huddle centre stage between two screens skipping between different films, it seems that whoever is playing loudest controls which film is running, creating constant surprise and new connections. It is a little like a fever dream, maybe it’s the heat. There’s a new set of three films for each new tune, which may or may not be entirely improvised it’s hard to tell. It’s impressive stuff but it’s also too damn hot to stay in here. We’re missing Asparagus Piss Raindrop, everyone’s favourite name of the weekend, so I’m afraid I can’t enlighten you on what it involved, the name paints a picture though I feel. Elsewhere there is jelly on a plinth. I’m really enjoying Trash Kit until someone points out they’ve not arrived yet and this is Lower Slaughter who have swapped slots. They are absolutely brilliant. A proper old school hardcore band with a deliciously camp singer who leaps and wails like a furious child with a mischievous glint in his eye and a bassist with an unlikely moustache that becomes the cult star of the weekend. I am not alone in drunkenly, and repeatedly, hassling him about it. Night is drawing in, we’re excitedly getting ready to capital letters ROCK! for the return of Ten Benson. They do that smart/dumb thing that doesn’t seem to work for everyone but if you choose to go with it, and we do, they’re magnificent. Chris is wearing a stars and stripes t-shirt and, as Reelfoot points out, the new bassist looks like a cartoon of a girl in a band. This is perfect of course as they’ve always been partly a cartoon of a rock band, somewhere between ZZ Top and The Ramones and like more recent miners of the same seam Bad Guys they appreciate what they do is ridiculous and choose to amplify the stupid rather than run from it. Ear to ear grinning rock fun then. I wasn’t expecting any of the scratchier early stuff but they’re so good I’m not even that outraged they don’t play their masterpiece ‘Rock Cottage’. Challenged on it later, in the woods appropriately enough, they claim it’s because Chris forgets the words. Really? Anyway, having kind of sputtered slowly out of existence a few years back it seems they’re properly back, new single ‘Mud Man’ and other delights at their site.
Over to the barn to catch one man sun-ra Paddy Steer in full cosmic flight. A joyous, gloriously demented racket lurches out of his ramshackle pile of machines and kit. It’s a bit like Wallace and Gromit’s spaceship, a futuristic vision knocked up from stuff found in the shed. The barn is packed and happy and he’s gained a dancer who models his space helmet when he’s not wearing it. Seemingly constrained more by his number of limbs than by his set up there’s an air of manic spontaneity about the music and a splendid set of back projected slides to welcome you further into his odd world
In contrast to Paddy’s one man thing Charles Hayward is happy to welcome the whole world into his band. The unofficial king of Supernormal this year, making at least three appearances in different guises and being visible all over the site in between Hayward is something of a fatherly, even grandfatherly, figure to proceedings. Anonymous Bash grew out of a residency at Islington mill that featured well over 20 musicians, I’d guess there’s about 8 on stage tonight, hard to tell. That Hayward is a phenomenal drummer should go without saying but he brings a discipline and experience to the band that really elevate it. Experimental collaborations of this kind can sometimes be like watching an argument about directions in a carpark but, while it’s clear who’s leading, they’re like a murmuration of starlings gracefully twisting and turning in unexpected directions. It’s remarkable music, natural and immediate but hard to pin down. It’s prog and jazz and post punk and improv yet transcends all those labels with ease banishing beard stroking pseudery in a life affirming roar. The pace builds to ecstatic, the crowd are going bananas. Too right. The Fall v Sabbath Karaoke is something of a let down by comparison.
Getting up and at it on a Saturday to see a man play improv harp is not something that’s ever previously been high on my ‘to do’ list if I’m honest but here we are. Rhodri Davies has started as we approach the barn and he’s clearly in no mood to ease anyone in gently, cranking out an angular distorted blast of notes. He’s on scorching form although not as all out confrontational as the recent set at Supersonic. The louder, harsher pieces are tempered by more dreamy, melodic ones perhaps more inkeeping with the bucolic setting but incase we drift off he switches back to the distortion. By the end he’s lost most of the strings in the middle of his harp, it’s great. Seriously, get up, see the man play his harp. Broken DC have a name like a hardcore band but are more on a proto grunge type tip. Whatever that means, you know all those post hardcore bands on SST, the american underground before Nirvana – that sort of thing. There’s some Sonic Youth in there but not too much. They sound like a lot of old records I like, they just don’t seem to be bringing anything new to it for me. I’m confused and disappointed by that. I think a drink will help, I appear to be correct.
English Heretic is on in the Vortex but I’m afraid to go in, not because of the eerie, eldritch, electro-magick he’s working but just because it’s too hot in there. There may well be a wonderful supporting video show but I expect that would be a familiar roll call of Brit-occult horror a bit like all the visual stuff he uses and when you’ve seen one nerdy guy with a table full of boxes with switches…. Still, it sounds good from out here in the pagan English countryside y’know? I’m expecting a different vision of the English pastoral from Trembling Bells. I saw some of their set with Mike Heron at Lunar and have generally being telling people today that they’re good at what they do but it’s not entirely for me. Having watched them play their own set it’s still a bit like that, only now I hate them. Like all the worst bits of Fairport Convention and Fleetwood Mac baked in a vile folk-prog quiche. If you told me they were a Matt Berry spoof I would have believed you. Velvet capes? Bastards.
It might be around now that Bonnacons Of Doom are playing in the woods, I’m not sure, time is dissolving in the sunshine, y’know? Anyway they’re another band of noise psyche doom monkeys featuring a mugstar and some other repeat offenders, big mirror masks and robes and exactly like you expect them to be. Good at it though. A bonnacon is a mythic beast, obviously. Like a european bison that sprays acidic dung. You can watch their set on the youtubes if you want. Relive the moment or judge for yourselves, la.
Two of Teeth Of The Sea are playing in the bar as Hirvikolari, it’s trumpet and electronics and floating and pleasant enough but also kind of just there, washing about. The general comings and goings of the bar and chatter on the hay bales outside detract from what they’re doing. It makes for pleasant background music but I feel like that’s selling them short
We’re very excited about Karen Gwyer, why wouldn’t you be? Outside the barn this morning I managed to stop myself from telling her I loved her, like a pre-teen one direction fan, by telling everyone else instead. This is mostly about her music but also because she so obviously enjoys what she’s doing – smiling broadly back at us, swaying around lost in the sound. In honesty we’re saturday-night-pumped-let’s-go! and the set takes quite a long slow route as it builds up. Gentle layers and subtle shifts, there’s something pleasingly organic about they way it unfolds. Her music is in a sweet spot between kosmische and techno. It’s dreamy and hypnotic, there’s nothing as crass as a drop but the rhythm is now banging and you aren’t even sure how it got there. By the end there’s a stage full of people, paddy gnod sat behind the drum kit grinning, she’s been so lost in it she doesn’t seem to have noticed and, as ever, seems genuinely touched by the rapturous response.
As far as reformed bands for headliners go AR Kane could hardly be further away from Ten Benson. Arty, effete, adventurous, almost every cliché about 4AD bands come to life. Obscure back in their day despite critical acclaim, they even managed to stay obscure when they had a massive game changing hit record (as part of M.A.R.R.S). I tried back then, I really did, and I was curious about seeing them but I was nostalgically underwhelmed by them once more. Sod this, let’s go and see Oscilanz (Charles Hayward, Bass Clef, Laura Cannell) in the barn. An experimental electronic artist to his right, an experimental folk artist to his left Charles Hayward is again leading proceedings. It’s an unusual mix but they might be the one act that most embodies the spirit and ideas of the festival. Well maybe. The sound is sparser and looser than Anonymous Bash but still centred around Hayward’s wonderful shifting rhythmic pulse (and occasional melodica). Once again they prove that experimental music doesn’t have to be hard work.
ugh. what? go away. I don’t even like bloody marys. Why would someone want to drink gazpacho when they’re dehydrated? I hate you.
so I miss ILL because I am asleep. They are highly rated by all who saw them and I’m slightly annoyed about it but sleep is good. I like the sleep, I need the sleep. sacrifices have to be made.
Having at least physically roused myself as best I can recall Check!!! were annoying but dull. Apparently they are a ‘self styled electronic jam band’ and they have three exclamation marks in their name so I can see why I would think that. Elsewhere someone has had the sense to open up the side walls of The Vortex and an amazing thing called playpen is unfolding in there. It’s like a microcosm of the festival. There are three or four performance spaces set up around the tent and one act fades into another starting up elsewhere creating a constant flow. Klein is doing some kind of existential childrens entertainer thing and then Neil Campbell starts up on a table of electronics behind my head. Splendid stuff, toward the end of his bit a ‘massed astral choir’ stands and gathers to sing a single note. People join in, his machines fade away. It’s a lovely moment sustained just long enough and the Trash Kit join it from the corner and it drains away into their set. They seem to be working a similar three piece fidgety funky thing to Blood Sport. I may be feeling better disposed toward it at this point, or they might just be better at it, I’m going with the latter.
We stop by the bar to check out Hoofus who is playing some pleasingly wayward electronica that builds and deconstructs and rolls about the brain. Never really gets so enthusiastic you’d get up and actually dance but isn’t calming ambience either, it recalls that ‘braindance’ stuff on rephlex in form and occasionally in actual sounds that bleep through. Best of all his biggest fan appears to be a toddler who is constantly thwarted by a parent in his attempts to rush the stage and pull out some of those shiny looking wires. Down at the main Shed stage one of the weekends more striking performances is unfolding. Sturle Dagsland is an insane Norwegian forest troll-child, leaping about squawking and rattling odd bits of percussion. It is hilarious and compelling in equal measure, none of us appear able to move away even though we aren’t exactly digging it, man. Maybe we’re just worn out, unlike the insanely battered hippy dancers who’ve been fully embracing the day.
We were marginally concerned to see them in the bar doing shots earlier but BLOWN OUT are suitably immense. One of the innumerable Newcastle psych-noise teams to feature Mike Vest, and one of the best, they play a fierce space rock that’s more like the sound of the rocket engines needed to launch than any zero gravity noodling nonsense. On paper it might not make much sense, they play 3 tunes in 45 minutes, doesn’t really matter what they’re called because they all pretty much sound alike – no words, not even really any riffs, no quiet loud dynamics either just a relentless, crushing wall of sound. It’s like a stuck groove on a sabbath record, melting. This is fantastic obviously. Listening to them previously I’ve never noticed Mat’s drumming particularly before but he is a demon. Driving everything along from the back he beats all holy hell out of his kit by the end he’s standing up to hit ’em harder. Ferocious.
Necro Deathmort are a bit disappointing after that, they aren’t loud enough for a start. It’s only a small stage but somehow they don’t fill it, lost behind kit and smoke and a huge black hole of a beard. This wouldn’t matter if the anticipated storm of sound rained down out of that cloud but somewhere the bite and crunch of their recordings gets lost. Which is a shame.
Finishing up the weekend in the barn Woven Skull are a curious and magical thing. A three piece using fairly minimal folk instrumentation to create huge post-rock soundscapes. Quite how they’re managing to make such a noise I’m not sure, there’s no clanking machinery in it, it’s a sound of the woods and weather, the drone coming out of a remote cave. Again, there’s a complete ‘rightness’ about them, as much as their sound is unique everything within it seems to happen just as it should, ebbing and flowing in a completely natural way. It’s absolutely brilliant, somehow ancient sounding but fresh and vital at the same time.
So Supernormal – excellent stuff, come next year, just not too many of you okay?