“Look at me, I’m a plane!”

Shellac, Iona Fortune            Oct 6th The Asylum, Birmingham

Alt-rock’s own Professor Yaffle brings his hobby band The Shellacs to town and gives a comprehensive demonstration of how it is done.

Steve Albini is wearing a T-shirt with a charming, folksy illustration of a squirrel on it. He is screaming about riding bikes. Or surveyors, or something, I’ll come back to that. As no doubt mentioned previously The Asylum is a pretty weird venue, devoutly old-school ‘rock’ in style, a bare bones warehouse in a no-man’s land at the jewellery quarter’s edge grim enough to scare the living shit out of those Supersonic visitors who moan about Digbeth being bleak. The corrugated ceiling is draped in Jagermeister and Jack Daniels flags, they make the staff dress in blood spattered white coats as vaguely ‘sexy’ psychiatric nurses and sell lewdly named frozen cocktails from repurposed slush puppie machines. It seems an odd venue to see Albini deliver his learned treatise on the meticulous workings of rock music. On the other hand, a band as long in the tooth as Shellac have played plenty of similar places in their time and we should, in fact, be grateful for a decent sized live venue that’s not a soulless corporate money machine sponsored by Carling or O2. Long may it’s dubious charms persist. I thought we arrived pretty early but Iona Fortune is already on stage and slightly spooky, icy bell sounds float over the crowd. There’s just the vaguest hint of The Exorcist/Tubular Bells to it. Is that her real name? Sat at a stand with an electric organ and something that appears to be a theremin but which she either doesn’t play or isn’t she sends out bone shaking waves of bass beneath that twinkling high end. It’s great, the sounds across the top seem to be downtuned and distorted samples of a harpsicord or dulcimer or similar. It’s calming but absorbing music. She does not ruin it by singing. She has waist length hair cut in a Betty Page fringe and what looks to be a black leather skirt – I’m getting a “Wednesday, building on what Lurch taught her but trying to leave all that behind me now” vibe but I’m sure it’s incidental, there’s nothing camp about it and it’d be lazy and unfair to pin her as a spooky goth. It turns out she’s from Glasgow, her record came out on Optimo and is the first of an eight album run based on the I Ching. Which makes it sound imposingly dour and worthy. It’s not though. Have a listen.

Shellac come on and do their thing. They are incredible at their thing that they do, not unique perhaps but certainly singular. Their minimalist rock strips everything right back until there are just three sparse parts to their sound, each one a joy to listen to, recombined in an inventive variety of ways. Shellac is a hermetic system, an often contradictory and confounding set of elegantly expressed elements. Live it can be an exhilarating and simultaneously frustrating experience. So it goes. If you’ve ever seen Shellac then you know what they were like, the outline is set, the specifics shift but the final result is consistent. They play their songs, the light show is static, Bob takes questions and wears orange trousers, they pretend to be planes and they take Todd’s drums away while he tries to keep playing at the end of the set. As much as this is a deconstruction of rock show cliché it’s also a showbiz sleight of hand that switches one card for another while our attention is diverted. Despite the audience questions, the improvisation and the changing setlists you’d be hard pressed to imagine ever being surprised at a Shellac gig wouldn’t you? ‘Steady As She Goes’, ‘Wingwalker’ and ‘Copper’ are all highlights. Is it just me that finds ‘Copper’s final pay off “you’ll never be gold” oddly moving? There are two or three new songs which will eventually end up in some form on the next album. Shellac have been together 25 years, it’s ten since ‘Excellent Italian Greyhound’ in which time they’ve managed just one other album featuring more songs about surveyors than you’ll ever need. The pace of their output is glacial and whether that’s the cause or consequence of their refinement and mastery of their material has become a zen riddle at this point. Two songs in and Todd, looking thinner than ever, has broken his bass pedal. The first round of questions are disappointing. Someone asks why they don’t have the cool amps they tour with in the states. Bob assures them that they sound the same as what’s on stage. I mention this in passing because only one of us has seen Shellac play with those amps, the other one is a desperate fanboy and I’m a bad person. Steve Albini is hiding behind the speaker stack or screaming about being a plane. He is wearing a T-shirt with a squirrel on it. You know, I don’t actually remember if they did ‘Squirrel Song’ or not.

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Hey Colossus Live In Birmingham

Hey Colossus, Bruxa Maria, Aja, Rainbow Grave, Squalor Fan, HAQ123               Wagon & Horses, Sep 29


Ack! Ack! Ack! get an eyeful of that fantastic ‘monsters of rock’ promo artwork would you. A couple of local promoters combine to put this juggernaut dream bill together, a loud and joyous farewell kiss to summer, and it does not disappoint. Squeezing this much greatness in takes both stages and an early kick off but there’s already a decent size crowd and a good atmosphere for the hot sound of young Birmingham – HAQ 123. Having made their debut and charmed us all on the imposingly big stage at Supersonic at the start of the summer, it’s fair to say they’ve got better already. The first thing anyone’s going to tell you about HAQ is that two thirds of the band are little kids. Warm encouraging smiles and appreciative nods spread through the crowd and there’s a small group of fans their own age down the front. It’s brilliant, life affirming stuff. They’re better than “hey, not bad for kids” and thankfully the furthest thing imaginable from over competent, hot-housed, stage school brats. Their songs are like mysterious kids’ drawings you can’t quite decipher so you ask and get a great story that rests on its own curious logic and leaves you both more impressed and more confused. Because the mental codes and structures you have for this stuff don’t apply here. So it goes with their songs, open ended and rough at the edges, peopled by strange characters. Dave, the ‘grown up’ one on bass (and tonight sporting a pair of flared jeans so capacious he might have smuggled the rest of the band in under them) does an admirable job sitting back and letting them lead it while making no concessions to their tender ears with his filthy sludgy riffs. Only their teenage years can stop them now.

Tough act to follow. In a more traditional opening act scenario I miss most of Squalor Fan in the bar but do make it upstairs before they’re done. One plays bass and grins another mans the table full of electronic whizz-bang gadgets. There’s some drones and some beats, some vocal samples and all sorts. I’m briefly minded of ‘Love Missile F1-11’, I’m briefly minded of both Suicide and OMD at different points. In some ways not all that far to travel but your mileage may vary.

Back downstairs it’s party time with Rainbow Grave, truly the most grindingly bleak and yet hilarious band you could hope for. Rainbow Grave’s relentless churning riffs of doom are a world where even working yourself into a rage about the appalling state of things and/or your own pitiful soul is just one more embarrassing charade, one more tired and stupid pose of disaffection. It’s thirty years now since Bullen made his name with Napalm Death’s ‘Scum’, even then sensing it was a dead end he couldn’t be bothered to walk down. Now he wears the futility of it all about his shoulders like a practical yet comfy car coat and dances an obscenely mocking parody of existential pain. Figuratively speaking of course, he actually plays guitar and yells at us. Previously the dark humour that undercuts the brutal unpleasantness of the lyrics gave an impression the band was not entirely a serious undertaking but tonight completely dispels that idea. Like their idols HAQ123 it’s clear Rainbow Grave have been practicing, they’re harder, meaner, uglier than before. They’ve even been making records. Although I suspect they’ll hate you for buying them.

Keeping things fierce Bruxa Maria come out swinging. Once again in a different configuration but still ruthlessly drilled and almost suffocatingly intense. Matt Cargill’s electro noise contributions are clearer in the mix tonight which is all to the good. Bruxa pull noise rock, hardcore, sludge and more into songs that twist and turn in unexpected ways but do it with such an impressive lightness of touch you never see the join. That said, the pounding bass in ‘Human Condition’ shows its roots in Gill’s love of techno a little more than it ever has before. They may have played new stuff, I’m not sure, with Bruxa I recognise riffs and sections more than songs and they do seem to run together into one gigantic beast laying waste like Godzilla stamping on your pathetic matchstick houses. Monster. You should have their album ‘Human Condition’ because it’s A) great and B) cheap as chips – but if not here’s a free download tune that came close to the end of the set and was crushing.

Although it’s fairly warm out for the end of September AJA is doing her thing in the more comfortable confines of upstairs because no-one wants to roll around in their pants on the cobbles of a pub courtyard. I suppose I expected something similar to the performance at Supernormal. Not just from her but from the audience too and ultimately that just isn’t the case tonight. It’s confrontational and feral and it does sort of make the rock bands playing in the courtyard seem quite conventional but I think she loses the battle this time. I’m over in the corner with my mate who’s working one of the strobe lights so perhaps not in the best place to judge but she doesn’t seem to succeed in binding the crowd together to exorcise the pain, eliciting more of a typically brummie shrug of “steady there, love”. A couple of people later admit that they enjoyed it to start with but felt it descended into something voyeuristic that made them uncomfortable. That’s obviously a risk with this sort of performance, it may even be partly the point of it and I’m certain she’s played to smaller less appreciative audiences numerous times but it was disappointing. It has to be an exhausting and utterly draining thing to actually do, and ultimately unsustainable. Maybe in ten years time she’ll be onstage in elaborate headgear doing something more measured and we’ll cast our fading minds nostalgically back to when she used to scream in her pants and climb the pa.

The night has already proved a runaway success but the best is yet to come. It is an absolute joy to see Hey Colossus again. Tiny doubts that they might, despite the evidence of ‘The Guillotine’, miss Jonathon’s sparkling guitar parts or that maybe the full force noise of the evening’s entertainments thus far might make their shorter, more melodic songs, that now even have audible lyrics, seem a bit timid are immediately and comprehensively steamrollered by ‘Honest To God’ and a massive, rattling ‘Back In The Room’. They are ferociously loud and exhilarating, a tremendous amount of love flows back towards the stage. Sykes is in boisterous form, even managing to break a mic stand. As always I’m struck by how the separate parts combine with such elegance to build the colossus and set it stomping around the room. There’s complexity and richness in the texture of their roaring noise. The set draws heavily on ‘The Guillotine’ but stretches back across the last few remarkable albums (not quite back to the recently re-issued ‘Happy Birthday’), finishing on a punishingly great ‘Okktave Dokktor’ by the end of which I’m convinced it’s the best show I’ve ever seen them play. Honest To God.

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.

Bad Seed

Did you watch any of that Glastonbury there on your tellybox? As is our wont around here we were reminiscing about the last time we went, just four short years ago, and the last thing we saw there was Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds’ absolutely amazing set on the Sunday evening. Much has changed since then and as they head back out on tour you’re either in the “I’m not paying that much to see them play a sports barn” camp or the  “I really wish I hadn’t paid that much and they weren’t playing a sports barn” camp. Visions of watching a tiny little Nick in the far distance having paid £6 for shoddy beer sinking hearts across the board. Inevitably a fair amount of shaky clips have popped up from the current US dates. Mostly pretty poor sound and so on. Still, check this out – incredible quality, up close footage from the third row in Pittsburgh last month. There’s a few short clips throughout the show and three full length songs, both the image and sound quality is brilliant, Cave at several points singing pretty much straight into the camera. It might be pushing it to read too much into the clip but it’s hard not to think of that story he himself tells about watching Nina Simone’s performance transform her, he seems light, set free by the music. The band are predictably great, perhaps a little looser – there are a couple of slightly comic confusions – and Barry Adamson seems to have left his seat at the organ for Ed Balls to unexpectedly step in, in all honesty though it could just as easily be footage from four years ago . . .

Compositions For The Young & Old : Supersonic Sunday

“Supersonic, are you ready to Rock?” Yes bab, yes we are. The atmosphere in Boxxed for today’s first set is pretty electric. Local youngsters HAQ123 are playing their first gig to a pretty full and expectant room. They’re so young two of the band are still at primary school. People have brought their own youngsters down to the show and Supersonic’s generally warm sense of communality has tweaked up a notch or two. They’ve an elderly bass player as well but it’s clearly a classic case of ‘in the band ‘cos they’ve got a van’. They’re brilliant. ‘Sabbath super charged on haribo’ is a fair enough description of their feisty punk doom. The faintest glimmers of any stage fright are soon banished by some foot on the monitors, pointing into the crowd, rock ‘n’ roll shape throwing. Their confidence can only grow and what we might see them bring to this stage in years to come is anyone’s guess but for now they’re huge fun and, as I’m told the youngsters say, they smashed it.

Later on The Space Lady, who is older than all of HAQ123 put together, will also charm us with all the warm feels over in The Crossing. Essentially a drug battered old cosmic hippy with an equally aged and charming casio keyboard wheezes through a selection of covers and a few originals. On paper it has ‘kitsch fun’ and ‘outsider art’ scribbled in all the margins but that’s to underplay the sweetness of her voice and miss her personal warmth on stage. By about midway through only the most embittered cynic would not have wanted to hug her or adopt her as their mom/grandma. ‘Born To Be Wild’ and “psychedelic cowboy song” ‘Ghostriders In The Sky’ are the highlights for me. At one point she even sets aside her keyboard picks up a guitar and leads us through a sing along about healing the earth. So throughly won over is the crowd that we do it. It’s like a magic trick, the song deals in the most naive and simplistic of hippy eco platitudes and yet she sings it with such openhearted sincerity, so free of the usual earnest, preachy tone that comes with that stuff that you have to go along with her. Everyone’s having such a great time that we let her do another song and she goes and spoils everything by doing ‘Imagine’. “Damn it Grandma, take yer medicine!”

Still buzzin’ from my haribo-HAQ-high I make it into the shed to see what grampa’s been building in there. Pierre Bastien creates his own amazing mechanical musical machines and teases some unique sounds out of them. The pairing with Tomaga is a genius one because the results are often not that far from their own explorations. It’s a gently captiviating set. For all that they’re machines he gets some remarkably organic sounds from them. The general feel is of a soundtrack to a lost Oliver Postgate series, maybe an aborted spin off show for The Clangers’ Iron Chicken. Lovely stuff.

The market place has a small stage tucked in the corner and flanked by shimmering cabaret curtains. It’s an oddly ineffectual performance space, a transient audience using the tea room, mooching the merch stalls or heading past to elsewhere but it hosts DJ sets and talks and such over the weekend if you grab a table near enough to pay attention. we’re gathered around debating whether it’s too soon to start drinking and listening to The Sunken Hum Tape Splice, which is Natalia of Woven Skull mixing four tape decks of found sounds and field recordings. It’s a multi-coloured ambient patchwork, there’s sounds of nature, a gloriously feisty american evangelist and a sweetly burbling child that turns out to be Natalia herself. It could do with being a bit louder but then, as the name insists, it works beautifully as an always changing, surprising, background of sunken hum. As I cave to the call of the bar I catch Mohammad finishing one monolithic slab of drone and leaning into another. En route to my frosty refreshment I pass a patron remarking “If they were playing anywhere but here they’d get fucking bottled”. He may have a point. I do love a bit of drone but, perhaps aware of the lack of onstage drama in their performance, they’ve taken to wearing cowls and wizard hats that seem to undercut rather than underline the weight of their sound. It’s like a poundshop Sunn O))). I’m also curious as to how the name has failed to cause them any grief yet. Essentially though Mohammad is not for arms folded, back of the room, ‘impress me then’ types or dilettantes popping to the bar, it requires commitment. Get in there and get lost in that giant sound or don’t. There’ll be no hooks to pull you in.

To be honest Snapped Ankles are wearing even more ridiculous stage outfits, although happily not quite as much as last time I saw them, when it was even hotter and I feared they would collapse from the heat at any moment. By rights their ‘Jack In The Green makes pulsing electro out of logs and moss’ stick-schtick should make me really want to throw bricks at them for being useless hipster twats but their music’s not bad. On today’s evidence it’s not captivatingly great either though, so let’s call it a score draw.

Casual Nun are a strikingly hirsute, double drummer powered, heavy psych-punk beast of a band. They’ve only been around two or three years but they’re really getting into their stride now. They claim inspiration from the hairier, freakier end of krautrock and similarly wild Japanese sonic warriors but the double drum churn still makes me think of The Butthole Surfers. Not the pantomime clowning and parody songs but the deranged heavy psych freak outs of stuff like ‘Jimi’. Since I saw them last summer they’ve put out a couple of records and obviously spent time honing and sharpening their sonic weapons because they are SO much better now, and they were pretty good then. About a third of the way into the set they shift up a couple of gears and from there on in it’s just immense. They’re a highlight in a festival of highlights and leave having secured themselves a raft of new fans.

Which sadly you can’t say for Princess Nokia. Beforehand excitement is tempered by a worry that hip hop artists have, well, a bit of a history of taking a half assed approach to live performance. With heart sinking, head shaking recognition we realise this turns out to be the case. She hasn’t brought a DJ, a local one is doing her best with no rehearsal playing Nokia’s recordings for her to rap over. Not working with backing tracks or loops, just straight up playing the records vocals and all. It gives weird sibilance on the S sounds and Nokia a chance to drop out on some lines although she’s bang on it, to be fair. The flipside of that is there’s no room to stretch, move or freestyle anything when you’re constantly hitting the same flow as the record. Karaoke has more room for expression. Princess has other ways to express herself though. ‘Tomboy’ is fierce and we’re collectively shrugging and rolling with it but a couple of tunes in she decides that what the programme calls an ” ambitious artist who creates a universal language that will talk to all kinds of people” is not so keen on the age range and ethnicity of the crowd she can see from the stage, that we don’t know what she’s talking about. A little hissy fit sours the mood and pointlessly gives away all her power as a performer. It’s possible she’s feeling as tired as we are, she picks a fight with the DJ, she doesn’t want to be here. Those among the crowd who stick with her try to warm the mood as things wear on but Nokia eventually leaves mid song and someone has to come on and let the DJ know she won’t be back.

Back in the big room with the grown ups Oxbow have found a way for noise rock to age gracefully. It’s no small achievement. For tonight’s show they have pulled together a local choir, with conductor, who range across the back of the stage as Eugene prowls its lip shedding his dapper outfit and rolling his shoulders. Ten years in the making ‘Thin Black Duke’ sees them add classical nods, strings, piano and allsorts to their dense, literary rock swagger. You can almost feel the dread hand of prog itching to get in but they’ve shut its fingers firmly in the door. There is no indulgent bloat, the songs are taut and keenly crafted, and the choir is beautifully integrated into the music making it all the more effective. It’s a masterful performance, not a note out of place but still living and breathing and dynamic. All this and fronted by the most authoritative, take no prisoners stage presence of the weekend. Seriously, you wouldn’t mess would you? Even some of the choir look astonished/nervous to see him in full flight. Incredible end to another incredible Supersonic weekend. Let’s not leave it so long this time.

Is it hot in here, or is it me? : Supersonic Saturday

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.

 

Screaming Into The Void : Supersonic Friday

We leave the calm and cultured atmosphere of the Town Hall behind and wander down to Digbeth for the start of the festival proper. Sadly we are denied a satisfying blast of Art Of Burning Water’s face melting power violence because one of them has hurt his hip loading in their gear, invoking the ‘we might be getting too old for this’ theme again. AOBW have been around a while but they are still one of the younger bands on the bill. So, it’s over to The Crossing to catch Charles Hayward who is certainly getting up there at the top end of the age range and is enjoying an incredible creative period of benign grandfatherly influence on a lot of younger musicians not merely through the records he made decades back but through his physical presence and hands on collaborations with them. For this set he’s on his own though, his remarkable drumming augmented by machines and his own occasional vocals. Watching Hayward play the drums is a wonder and a joy, complete mastery in the service of restless invention. Cheering on virtuosity for its own sake is pretty tiresome but he never does anything just to be flash, alongside the constant forward motion he maintains a sense things could go off in any direction at any moment but not collapse into chaos. Everything is free but he’s in control. The vocals are less awe inspiring and occasionally the songs tip the ‘dread hand of prog’ but then, that’s where he started out. The acts on the Boxxed stage tonight are threaded along one of this year’s strands, a celebration of the 30th anniversary of Napalm Death’s surprisingly enduring and influential masterpiece ‘Scum’. I say surprising as one of those grey beardy types who saw them play The Mermaid down the road all those years ago. While Napalm were prime movers on that scene and kind of the most fun, certainly the most extreme of the bands; it seemed like a musical dead end, pushing a strand of an already inward looking scene to an absurdist conclusion. They recorded ‘Scum’ for a split LP that didn’t happen, left it under the bed and two of its main architects had moved on before a new line up even recorded the second side. When you consider the work they all went on to do later it’s easy to see why they might have felt it had run its course. All three of the trio on side one are here this weekend one way or another. Nicholas Bullen is producing a special performance called ‘Universal Detention Centre’ that feeds samples of early Napalm Death recordings into his boxes of switches and electronic gadgetry and spews huge waves of filthy noise out into the crowd. It is suitably full on and abrasive from the start and, even with apparent technical glitches, does not let up until he’s done. He’s screaming away into a mic for a good deal of it although heaven knows what about as even that’s being processed and added to the roaring maelstrom. It is, I have to say, absolutely magnificent. I’m grinning from ear to ear like an idiot for the entire thing. This is not just any old racket, not the callow teen punk ranting of Nik Napalm. This is the full grown, multi-faceted, shifting and relentless racket of 30 years of disappointment.

Back in the big room Xylouris White look to be turning slowly into each other and by extension some sort of art-folk chuckle brothers although their stage presence is much less grating. Jim White is another captivatingly capable drummer who stares and smiles into the crowd, all the while playing fluid, rolling drums like he doesn’t even have to think about it. Has anyone started calling this post-folk yet? Let’s hope not, that sort of thing requires a slap. There’s something elemental about the music they make, it’s ancient and modern, wide screen but very human.

I have long been wary/terrified of Melt Banana. Their records often seeming like a screeching, insistent punishment for some unclear transgression. The fact they are playing the kids’ gig tomorrow, while making a small degree of sense, has also caused me some disquiet. Last year they toured and released a split with Napalm Death  although sadly they missed out on the fun to be had from a full on collaboration. What would be your choice of duet for Yasuko and Barney? ‘Something Stupid’ maybe? ‘Islands In The Stream’? It could work, check out their pleasing, if slighty too gentle, take on ‘We Will Rock You’. All my long held concerns about them are blasted away by the hyperactively thrilling onslaught of the live experience. Through a roaring pa, shaking the air around you, they sound so much bigger, the patchwork of noises so much richer and more complex. To be brutally honest Yasuko also sounds less gratingly chipmunk like. She bounces around the stage gleefully waving an illuminated multi-coloured chaos pad that looks like those old ‘Simon Says’ games. Tapping it sets off all manner of alarms, explosions and waves of noise. Simon says…Kawaii Grindcore Go!

A pattern is developing of uncontrollable grinning in the face of teeth rattling noise in a gutted warehouse alternating with more cerebral beard stroking delights in the comfortable fully equipped environs of The Crossing. This year there’s a third venue (Wild) squeezed in between them but I don’t actually make it in there tonight at all. Not just an extra stage but a fuller programme means there’s a lot more overlapping and clashing than before, there is always something to be watching and no way to do it all, leading to the familiar festival trade offs. So as we return to The Crossing Charles Hayward is back on stage, this time leading rag tag improv crew Anonymous Bash. Featuring bits of Gnod and grown out of a residency in their Islington Mill lab they’re a kind of limitless experimental multi genre sprawl held together by Hayward’s amazing percussion and experienced guiding hand. This can go either way I guess, last time I saw them they were a fantastic, joyous, communal party and everyone on and off stage was having an absolute whale of a time. But the ‘dread hand of prog’ has not been banished. Wearily conceding that tonight they sound quite a lot like Gong, we bail out and head elsewhere. In other circumstances we may have given them longer to pull it together but there’s all the fun happening elsewhere.

Not to worry because over in Boxxed local drum & bass monkeys PCM are closing things out with the usual assault of clattering beats and weird noises. Exhilarating and punishing in equal measure it puts that big dumb grin straight back on my face. As their part of the ‘Scum’ celebrations they’re throwing in some bonus grindcore samples and have got Mick Harris (inventor of the term ‘blast beat’ if not quite the actual beat) to record some new drum parts for them to work with. The last five to ten minutes of their set pushes this ferocious drum battery to glorious heights and forms a perfect end to the first day. Saturday is looking both incredible and really, really long.

A few days later, former Labour Party leader Ed Miliband will interview the current Napalm Death line-up on BBC Radio 2 and confess himself a huge fan. The world, or at very least the UK, is melting.