supernormal 2017

‘Pink twine binds the urinal bales’

What words can you find to contain Supernormal? As this year’s amazing festival recedes into the past a near constant stream of photo sets, reviews and youtube clips (here’s a great one) reveal incredible experiences that seem to only slightly overlap with mine or each other. It begins with the gazebo police, has stage diving children, a solstice’s worth of semi-naked cathartic rituals and culminates in a drunken Godzilla Vs Rodan brawl outside the bar. For such a small scale festival they sure pack in a lot more than you can ever hope to see. How to make something coherent of a pocketful of disjointed impressions. With glue? Here instead is a list of thoughts about bands I saw . . .

Friday – In a turn of events so inevitable we may as well start referring to it as a tradition I miss the opening band, the aptly named Not Sorry. So the first band I catch is No Form, who are led by an angry young chap, bordering on the furious. The band behind him make a fittingly ill tempered and formless racket, storms of noise and belligerence billow from the stage in the scorching sunshine. They are wonderfully at odds with the prevailing mood of relaxed and convivial expectation, conjuring the dark simmer of a crowded bus, stuck in traffic in filthy weather. “hi, everybody!”

The first performance I’m really looking forward to is R.E.E.L. in the cosy but spectacular AV space ‘The Vortex’. Putting the ‘group’ into supergroup R.E.E.L. are a boyband of veteran/inveterate electronic psych knob twiddlers bringing their experience to bear on some improvised soundscapes. Or they will be shortly, Matt Saunders (Magnetophone/Assembled Minds) and Farmer Glitch (pHarmerz, Hacker Farm) are struggling to get their lorry load of kit up and running while Saxon Roach (IX Tab) gloats in the shadows having successfully opened and plugged in his laptop. This gives the impression he’s just responsible for the visuals, and he is, but I’m later assured he was behind the vocal samples and various other stuff too. I guess we might call it hauntology, a lot of the signifiers are there (and later they’ll reprise last year’s SuperParanormal search for sound spirits in the woods) but improvisation is very much in the moment, while hauntology hides in the shadows of unreliable memory. Does it matter? “thank you for coming”. They layer up textures and sounds, it’s warm and inviting without ever being too comfortable.

For what it’s worth Howlround is definitely hauntology, building up drones using the chunky old reel to reel tape machines the English department used to put radio plays on at school when they fancied spending half the lesson smoking in the staff room. The ‘radio ham tinkering in his shed’ vibes are strong. Almost as much installation as performance he stakes a claim to the middle of the floor with a couple of poles supporting wildy extended tape loops running back to a reel to reel on stage. Atmospheric wooziness fills the space. While we’re all stood watching the tape go round and around it’s a curiously static experience. (yeah, I know).

Closing out Friday on the main stage, international headliners Wolf Eyes dick about underwhelming us and trying to get in the mood. Someone steps up and hands them a bottle. A confused “What the fuck’s Buckfast?” is met with a cheer by the crowd. Without doubt the rest of their set is much improved for the refreshments. I also find that imagining them as a wasted country band in a desolate bar in the middle of nowhere helps make the experience more entertaining. They’re more fun than last time I saw them anyway. Buckfast makes things better. At least for a little while. The evening ends with one of the Cosmic Dead splitting the crowd with a DJ set of near unparalleled awfulness – the drunker, more care free among us are in the bar shaking it to ‘Ebeneezer Goode’, Darude, and worse, meanwhile out on the hay bales there’s more than considerable discontent and threats of actual violence towards his person, which doesn’t seem the spirit at all.

Saturday

The clearly shifting moods of the rain gods are stirring a tangible panic amongst the townsfolk. I take shelter in the bar where an unprepossessing guy is steadily working through a list of unrealised ideas for the festival. It starts a bit monotone Partridge but builds in eccentricity and interest via printer orchestras and cold calling choirs to dying fly techno to become one of the best things all weekend, he ends by playing 40 types of birdsong at once. No one wants to follow him so he encores the birdsong causing PJ from Bad Guys to headbang so enthusiastically he almost falls over. Beat that.

The band with the girl in the pink wig turn out not to be Tirikilatops, who I missed due to the rain, but The Wargs. They play a sweet and charming indie pop elevated by softly swooning pedal steel becoming the first band this weekend to play any actual songs. Their set is interrupted by a downpour but by that point they’ve charmed us enough that we seek shelter and cheer extra loud to cover the distance to the stage. Keeping things on the fuzzily familiar nostalgia tip St Deluxe are basically a baby Teenage Fanclub. The Fannies’ ‘Songs From Northern Britain’ turned 20 last week apparently so I gave it a spin. Great songs and lovely harmonies but it marked the death, or at least middle age, of the band I’d loved. St Deluxe are much more like that earlier version of the band, the one open to experiments and blasts of hardcore riffing, who took three attempts to start a song, more in love with Dinosaur Jr than The Byrds, that band. How charming you find another bunch of young scots doing that kind of thing now probably depends on how much you loved it then or being too young to remember. They kill an amp and finish with a wonderfully ragged version of the Modern Lovers’ ‘She Cracked’. Back in the bar Lord Of Lords feature Jason Stoll off of out of all the bands and play a kind of meditative drone jazz. Could go either way this sort of thing (and perhaps sometimes does) but as their name suggests they are on the righteous path.

Not all experiments work out of course. This year the reusable cups are black. Very goth, very metal. Also great for attracting heat and wasps to your cold and delicious beverage. If only wasps were delicious. In the heady, sometimes bewildering, cultural onslaught of something like Supernormal you try to stay open minded don’t you? To be reasonable and such. But some people just aren’t having it. Evil Usses appear to have a ladybird book of annoying stuff bands could do that they’re working through with giddy vigour. Hideous jerky time signatures and awful synth and guitar sounds abound. I think it’s safe to say that some of them listen to too much Zappa. It’s not for me then.

Gee Driver, Bruxa Maria

In the bar, Beards are a welcome relief and surprise. I’d almost call them ‘fun’ but I know some of us fear and mistrust the f-word. They’re exhilarating and bright and hectic in an abstract early 80’s kind of way. Putting the fun in the post-punk funk, if you will.

Now then, Bruxa Maria arrive full force and very definitely elevate the intensity of things a notch or two. As a special Supernormal two fer one deal they’ve got both Matt Cargill and Mark Dicker twistin’ the knobs of dirty electronic rage. It’s fierce and brilliant. And SO loud. Bruxa have managed to come up with a unique take on the familiar hardcore/metal/noise rock blend that has both a reassuring ‘rightness’ about it but still has room for surprises. My God! they absolutely killed it.

As you may have heard, Big Lad have recently changed their name from the more troublesome Shit Wife. You’d probably be surprised at just how much amusement can be got from rearranging those four words by a bunch of drunk idiots in a field. They bleep and clatter at a ferocious pace. Their set is an exhilarating, party starting joy spasm, a roar of pounding rhythm and giddily spiralling electronics. Whatever, they’re upstaged completely by the first appearance of the crowd surfing kids who’ve become a rare constant in reports of the weekend.

Big Lad whacks drums

Of course it has, the sight of kids being carried aloft by the crowd to the sound of Big Lad‘s demented battery captures everything that is special about this festival in a perfect moment. But they’ll be back.

My only succesful trip over to the barn to see anyone play this year is to catch Joanne Robertson who plays in near total darkness lit only by a table lamp at her feet. It perfectly focusses our hushed attention on her delicate vocals floating over her gentle guitar. She sighs and strums and breathes out mysteries, the songs dissolve on your tongue. It’s like a dream, like going to watch a ghost perform, extraordinary.

There had been some on specific excitement about the appearance of Jaxson Payne going into the festival, I can’t recall where from now, but I find myself a little underwhelmed. He’s impressive to watch if you’re aware that it’s all live as he nimbly summons sounds from his MIDI kit, no backing tracks or loops just good old fashioned real time electronic cunning. But technical prowess and modified gear are one thing, the result is another and if you’re sat further up the hill paying less than thoroughgoing attention well, it sort of sounds like an old trip hop record more than a dazzling high wire run towards the future. As Saturday night festival headliners go, you know going in that Bong are not going to bring the non stop party jams. Not even if the magic Buckfast fairy returns. Which is a shame, we could all do with a little headbanging or butt shaking on a Saturday night. They come out and play their chord. It’s a good chord, it deserves 40 minutes. I’m sure it’s not as easy as you think to play it for that long either. If you can sink into it, dissolve your ego and become one with the universal mind and so on then what they do is pretty cool. I’m drifting in and out though. Has the drummer fallen asleep on his snare? They’re joined this evening by Bridgit Hayden who brings an extra layer to things. It grinds on. And then it stops.

 

Sunday

Manchester’s three horsemen of the apocalyse Aggressive Perfector are named after an obscure-ish Slayer song and their E.P. is called ‘Satan’s Heavy Metal’ and if that doesn’t tell you all you need to know then you’re probably one of the more puzzled folks standing amongst the otherwise grinning crowd. They seem aware of the essential stupidity of their venture but never stoop to playing it for laughs. A time capsule of a band, worshipping at the feet of the big four and taking us back to a time before the kind of drone/doom epic weight of last night’s Bong set arrived. Wonderfully they have a song that starts with the ‘Be My Baby’ beat, the guitarist even throwing in the first line with a grin.

Giddy with our thrash metal kickstart we retire to the bar where I’m reminded of my dear old uncle testily exclaiming “I can’t watch a man play a desk”. Left Hand Cuts Off The Right is a bunch of droning hauntology table top tinkering in the now familiar fashion. Amongst other little treats he appears to assault a small stringed instrument of traditional provenance with a battery powered cappucino whisk. If that’s not a strident metaphor for our broken culture then I’m possibly sleep deprived and still too sober.

Hooray for Death Pedals! No nonsense, double down stroke riffing in a Quo via hardcore vein and perfect for a sunny Sunday afternoon. It’s something of a worn old truism that any decent band has a good drummer and with bands of this propulsive, breakneck ilk I often miss just how good until I catch them live. So it proves again today, nothing flashy but the man’s a beast. Had I remembered to protect my overheating brains with a sun hat I’d be tipping it with vigour. Meanwhile, as if to throw doubt on my drum musings, bass lad Wayne is sporting a Metallica T shirt with mischievous glee. It’s the band shot off the back of ‘Load’ too. I liked ‘Load’ actually, even the ridiculous country song, what about it? They don’t sound like Metallica, they sound like Hot Snakes even throwing in a cover of ‘Plenty For All’ to help you out. If you don’t have any Hot Snakes handy you can safely substitute some over-caffeinated Mudhoney for similar results. They’re less chaotically overexcitable in person than I expected, more wryly amused and relaxed but they’re still great.

I was really looking forward to seeing Cattle and they do not let me down, coming out the gate raging from the get go. With two drummers and no guitarist it’s percussive, bass heavy, noise rock. There’s electronics and even some surprisingly tuneful sax in there too. It has that perversely cleansing feel that huge waves of filthy distorted sound sometimes do, odd bits of Palehorse, No Means No or even Killing Joke pop up but they’re really getting into their own grimy, shouty, noise groove. About half way in there’s a pause in the screaming rage and the singer makes a sweet little speech about how moved he was to see the kids crowdsurfing to Big Lad yesterday. No sooner has he said this than dangerously drunk and unfit adults are once again trying to keep a procession of flying children from faceplanting. It’s wonderful.

We recover from all this excitement by starting a lengthy queue outside the Vortex to wait for UKAEA which is a new-ish project from Dan (Guncleaner, Sly & The Family Drone). At this point I am, for whatever reason, expecting Dan and Cargill to face each other on stage and make a bunch of abstract electronic squiggles for our entertainment/confusement. I am much mistaken about this. When we’re finally allowed in they and a range of accomplices are gathered in various states of undress and caked in clay body paint and straw. They have bowls of this at the front with which to annoint anyone foolhardy enough to join in. There are queasy, swirling drones and the folk horror/wicker man vibes are strong. I guess we’re in for something much more theatrical. The visual/ritual aspect is so arresting you only gradually become aware of Dan, over in the corner, slowly and masterfully building an absolutely mind blowing set of live hardware techno. It’s completely banging, an outstanding set. 

 

Probably the biggest and almost certainly the longest running name on the bill Zoviet*France are nonetheless still a very fringe concern. You can’t really be sure what you’ll get but they bring a subtle and assured half hour or so of textured industrial ambience. It’s absolutely lovely and yet I can’t quite relax into it, my fidgety brain still half expecting a lopsided clanking rhythm to pick up at any moment and take us somewhere else. I’m away back to The Vortex for more body paint and ritual catharsis. What everyone will tell you about AJA is she rolls about on the floor in her pants screaming, which is true but, inevitably, far from the whole truth. Firstly, there are the layered looping vocals and the huge wonky distorted beats, and the noise. It’s a lurid, visceral sound that’s almost as much of a physical presence as she is. After all, she’s tiny and she’s on the floor over there somewhere in the middle of the crowd. Most of the time you can’t see her but you can hear her scream. There’s costume and face paint and so on and it’s very much a performance in that sense but getting down into the crowd for a lot of it has the effect of making it a shared catharsis rather than just a spectacle. It’s clear by the end that she gets a lot out of doing it and is delighted and moved by the incredibly positive response – she later tells a friend around the fire that she often plays to small crowds who have no idea how to respond.

The final set comes from Container, a perfect way to close out the weekend I would have thought. A slender, studious looking chap in a tasteful jumper tinkers with a laptop, a drum machine and a four track to produce glorious rough hewn lumps of noise techno. What more do you want? I’m pretty delighted with it but there are mutterings from others which I think are along the lines of expecting a techno DJ set that gradually builds in intensity and has a bit more variety or something. Picky. My mate Dave stage dives because it’s so good. I’m with him on this. Whole thing and many more besides are still slowly being uploaded by the good people of IMPA TV . . .

Lastly, when you think it’s been as brilliant as it possibly can a Godzilla costume appears and pitched battles begin in the hay bales outside the bar. Then there’s Rodan too. Does it get any better than that?

It does not.

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