As any fool know, the sun always shines on the Rotunda, but it doesn’t often beat down quite as hard as it does this weekend. Limp Pink Whinging Brits are a late addition to the weekend’s eclectic and extensive bill. Today’s line up is one of the most amazing I think I’ve ever seen but even without the heat it looks set to be an exhausting marathon of musical greatness. Buckle up buttercup, there’s a lot to get through. Kicking off with an expanded Ex Easter Island Head (their Large Electric Ensemble drawing to some extent on the same pool of Islington Mill musicians as Anonymous Bash). 16 treated guitars laid on table tops and played with mallets. Conducted by one of their number, the band are still and focussed. They dress uniformly in black. It’s very much at the point of a bunch of experimental rock musicians becoming an avant garde chamber orchestra. It would be easy to mock the precious fastidiousness of the performance were it anything but a practical necessity and the resulting music less beautiful. They play a glowing minimalism that nods to Nyman and Reich. Regarding a conversation yesterday, you could probably build something similar out of loops on a phone app and yet the subtle flam and shifts of having a large group perform it give it a breathing organic quality that would be missing. It’s a fine way to start the day
Haress play a slowly unfolding atmospheric set suited to the muggy warmth in the room. Shimmering, interlocking guitars unwind leisurely through the haze. Makes you wish you were sat on a porch staring out at the blazing sun beat down as the day slides by, rather than standing watching a group of seated, motionless musicians. The desert blues from the welsh borders, lovely stuff. More evocative of starkly british landscapes, Laura Cannell‘s music pitches me into a lone, melancholy walk through windswept cliffs and rainwashed hills to the shore of a deep still lake to watch the sunlight moving down the side of the valley. The birds that crowd her tracklists make only scarce appearances. Maybe that’s the point. It’s impressive if sometimes hard to love, I’m ok with watching a woman switch between playing the violin and two recorders but I can see why it’s not everyone’s cup of tea.
Saturday evening and I finally venture into Wild and see what’s going on there. “We’re a black femininst punk band, that’s kind of our thing.” Big Joanie draw on a lineage from The Slits up through C86 and riot grrl and play a pleasing post punk rumble. It’s more lo-fi and communal than in-yer-face-identity-politics, thoughful more than furious. “Are you dancing?”, “No, I’m staying in and reading Bell Hooks”. I don’t mean that as a bad thing either. Although it might explain why their closing cover of TLC’s ‘No Scrubs’ is a genius idea that falls just slightly flat in reality. Or it might be the heat in here.
Grey Hairs are melting before our eyes. Supersonic, as you are aware, is an amazingly eclectic, wide ranging festival with acts from all over the world playing all manner of adventurous sounds. Ironic then that one of the bands we are most excited about seeing this weekend are a garage band from just 50 miles up the road. So it goes. Things can be mysterious that way, like why is “I thought it was a line, but it’s a circle” such a fantastic lyric? What does it even mean? Grey Hairs might appear to be a fairly standard issue punk/garage band but the key thing to note is that they are really, really good at it. The songs are tightly wound and bursting with tension. By Supersonic standards they’re practically non stop pop smashes. I can quote you lyrics for a start. Despite the heat they play an complete blinder. Doubters are converted, believers are thrilled, sweat flows. Chris appears to be playing two guitar parts at once which is quietly impressive rather than vulgarly flashy. Even right at the close as they hammer down on that last riff there’s a little showbiz wrong footing as ‘The Chin pt 2’ features an unexpected bass/ vocals switch over. Absolutely killer.
Scarcely a moment to bask in the joy of that it’s off to see Richard Dawson. Turns out he’s one of those marmite appeal artists, hard to believe but there are people who don’t love him. Not many here though as he packs out the hall. Such doubters might be pleased that he’s got himself a shiny new red guitar, perhaps imagining he might ring a more gently tuneful sound from it. Mightily, he manages to get pretty much the same abrasive, randomly squeaking and buzzing sound as he did before. Launching his remarkable new record ‘Peasant’ he’s playing with a band, who all appear to be having a fine time. Except Jonnie. Jonnie broke Richard’s beloved old guitar and his fall from grace makes up most of the set’s comedy interludes. I reckon they get through about half of the new album tonight. If Dawson seems slightly ill at ease with leading a band he shouldn’t worry, it works wonderfully. ‘Soldier’ is particularly glorious and its anxious refrain plays in my head for days after. The band takes a break for a solo vocal reading of ‘The Cruel Ship’s Carpenter’ an old murder ballad he says he got from Mike Waterson. As usual it’s an emotionally powerful moment and simultaneously ties him to deep tradition and illuminates the quality of the originals it sits perfectly alongside. He drags a gaggle choir from the crowd to join in with the amazing ‘Ogre’ and then tops that with a widescreen stomp through ‘The Vile Stuff’. By turns moving, hilarious, hallucinatory and confounding it’s an absolute tour de force of a song, a great close to a brilliant set.
The overlapping, clashing sets are really coming thick and fast by this point in the evening, sending us scurrying back and forth from one stage to another. Their recent record is two giant slabs of swoony ambience and subtle atmospherics but Italian power trio Zu are raging full force onstage. Blaring, skronking, squawking amazingness exactly as you’d have hoped. Excellent. Meanwhile back in The Crossing Jenny Hval and her band are engaging in some rough and ready prop based theatrics and dressing up. There’s a step ladder on stage. No horse head goth up it eurovision style though. Jenny wanders the stage with bulbous textile offal draped across her shoulders and wonders aloud about venues and property prices in a stream of conciousness monologue. Amazingly she gets away with it. She has a calm and charming voice, speaks slowly without affectation, she probably could start reading the phone book and that’d be just fine. It’s unclear how scripted and how free form it is but she concedes as she wraps it up that “it could probably use some editing”. They go into ‘The Secret Touch’ and you have to agree little more focus on the great songs she has to draw on would be nice, but it’s a minor quibble.
Wild is packed to the back and probably hotter than it’s been all day for Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs. They’re on fire. Huge pile driving Sabbath riffs on a wave of roaring noise, their particular thing is quite narrow but it’s a good thing and they do it well, stretching it into twisted shapes over crushing repetition. Reckoning the chance to see them again will be ’round sooner I head off to catch a bit of Raime. They’re a good deal less spartan than on record, which is probably for the best. Still recognisably them but rougher, looser and more rocking. It’s still pretty unapproachable though, uneasy and dystopian.
Colin Stetson playing the saxophone is hell of a thing to witness. It must surely be the most physically demanding musical performance I’ve ever seen. He seems drained by the end of every number, shaking out his hands and talking to the crowd to regain his breath and strength. The spectacle of a man wrestling an instrument almost as big as him is one thing but close your eyes and the music he’s playing is much less adversarial. Largely leaving aside the sort of full frontal skronk Zu were pushing through earlier Stetson’s playing is often remarkably delicate and supple for such a beast of an instrument. Droning and clanking a bit, but really a thing of tough beauty. From the sublime to the ridiculous then. Black clad and wearing sunglasses after dark Electronica Wizard might very well be a joke that got out of hand – yep, Electric Wizard and Sabbath covers on electronic gear – but they are doubling down on it, pushing it to work instead of playing for laughs and the result is both fun and convincing. Great slabs of filthy distorted sounds plus a pounding live drummer, electro doom could in fact have legs. Robot ‘Iron Man’ legs. I’m completely exhausted and really very drunk by the end of their set but I think they finished on ‘Children Of The Grave’. It was amazing
By the time we get to Zonal I’m about dead on my feet (where’s those robot legs?) and it’s all I can do to stand up in the face of the ridiculous bass warfare coming at me. Zonal is Kevin Martin and Justin Broadrick’s new post Techno Animal Project. A fun game to play this weekend has been a kind of Zonal bingo – which of Kev and Justin’s many projects does the band you’re watching sound most like? It’s not as easy as you’d think. Also, what Zonal were going to be like, apart from tremendously loud, was an open ended question. To which the answer is – they’re going to be very much like Techno Animal might be if they started it now. Sluggish hip hop beats, massive amounts of bass and a bunch of industrial drones and clangs over the top. Mix together the recent Bug Vs Earth and JK Flesh records and you’re close. It doesn’t offer much in the way of surprises then, even while being of a reassuringly high quality. Justin seems to be having a great time, swigging on cans and lurching about, bending over to crank a knob round sending another wave of noise crashing over the waves of bass. I can’t help imaging him chuckling ‘snoochie boochies’ to himself as Kev expressionlessly mans the controls. I’d be enjoying it more myself were we not at the ragged end of a long, long day. The dragging downbeats are pushing me into the arms of Morpheus. Night kids.