Supersonic festival then, what a truly magnificent thing it is. About 18 months ago Supersonic celebrated 10 years of music and madness in fine style here at the custard factory but since then a period of apparent self doubt about what to do next, or where, has followed. So, no festival proper last year, a smaller event ‘Bring To Light’ helped mark the opening of Birmingham’s impressive new central library and now here we are with a 2 rather than 3 day Supersonic billed as a ltd edition version. We could now engage in some baseless conjecture as to what has being going on and what might be next for the festival but, as my disturbing old geography teacher always used to say, baseless conjecture, much like self abasement, is best kept a private matter.
A sensibly late start on the friday night means everyone ought to be able to roll up in time, even off a train from a fair distance, or perhaps from a warm up pint in a Digbeth hostelry. Sadly, it appears that the whole festival has arrived at once and the queue snakes out and down Digbeth. High spirited and impatient we pop in the Old Crown pub for a quick drink instead and an amusing anecdote about how Evil Blizzard’s ringleader Filthy Dirty was thrown out of his own gig at The Lexington the other night. As a result, we miss Basic House, which is a little galling but spirits remain high. Matmos are the first big hitters of the weekend. M.C. Schmidt warning at the start of the set ‘we talk a lot about doing experimental music but tonight we are going to be experimenting. So be warned…it may suck’. The first piece features vocals from a film of Schmidt reciting a spoken word piece that just about retains a grip on sense while being essentially a sustained series of repeated vowel sounds. It’s incredible. They pause half way through the set and let their mate come on and make a terrific free-form noise barrage using a joystick controller. He leaps about like the boy who ate all the sweets and the sheer, mindless glee in sound is a stark contrast to Matmos’ own more scientific approach, and yet, at the same time, contained within it. Hmmm? I jut out my chin at this point so that those few attendees not appropriately blessed might also engage in some thoughtful beard stroking. The theory driven approach Matmos have taken in the past has sometimes led to music that’s more admirable than enjoyable but last year’s ‘A True Marriage Of Minds’ achieved a brilliant mix of both. I wish they could have played for slightly longer and maybe thrown in a crowd pleaser off it to close but a full set of new music, still at the experimental stage, that nonetheless seems all too short is a pretty good omen for their next record.
Having listened to ‘Heroin Swirls’ a fair bit in the past week or so I was quite looking forward to a bit of the black/death/sludge business with Opium Lord as well. Perhaps their set was also short, the constant stream of people leaving as we try to get in has me worried they might be awful when actually they’re just finished. Bah. We miss Felix Kubin and his one man comedy kraftwerk thing somehow as well, probably because Princess Reelfoot is checking out all the record stalls and such. The guy at the Cold Spring table was not amused by our request for ‘something folky but without tunes and, y’know, more fascism?’ Happily you can buy a tote bag off them in black and red to go with your armband and dubious take on Nietzschean philosophy. Twats.
Friday’s two headliners are both firm favourites here at Hickeysonic, both played last year’s Bring To Light event and have seen their profile rise in the time since. They’re going to be playing some shows together later in the year as well. Despite which, and the efforts of a broadsheet newspaper to lump them into a spurious ‘shock of the new’ type thing they have very little in common. They are both brilliant tonight in their own ways and do themselves justice in front of the larger crowds, although in fairness I’ve seen both of them play better gigs in the past year.
Evil Blizzard’s ritual opener ‘Sacrifice’ is possesed of a bass riff so elemental that before you’ve even finished checking out their outfits they’ve got their hooks in you and your head nodding. Blizzard get a lot of good press out of having four masked bass players and a b-movie horror vibe, a schtick they generally manage to walk along the fine line between ridiculous and menacing. It does however lend itself to a bit of the old hyperbole, and I think we all know how much yer rock press loves a bit of that. So while it’s fun to paint them as the zombie pig-men of the apocalypse, here to eat your face off and drink your women their music isn’t really all that extreme. Not in the context of an event like Supersonic anyway, although it might have scared the horses at Strummercamp recently. They are not grindingly slow, nor furiously fast, they aren’t even especially bass heavy, using the four basses and odd electic gizmos to create a suprisingly wide range of sound. They play a kind of doom/ psych/ punk hybrid they’ve distilled from arcane sources and can just about call their own but nobody’s re-inventing the sonic wheel here, that’s not really the point. Stop stroking yer beard mate and shake your arse for fuck’s sake. Blizzard are the pure dumb joy of loud rock ‘n’ roll, remember that?
Sadly, due to the slight overlap in sets we bail out about 10 minutes into ‘Whalebomb’ missing the Blizzpig/baby theremin madness of the end of their set and managing to miss the Mods’ ‘Tweet, tweet, tweet’ as well. Can’t win ’em all. It was only just over a year ago myself and The Prince Reelfoot were travelling through south London by nightbus, penniless and weary from a long and particularly drunken weekend, when he asked if I’d heard Sleaford Mods yet. I replied that I hadn’t, so he played me ‘Don’t Wanna Disco Or Two’. The album was called ‘Wank’ and just had a picture of chips on the cover. It was kind of a perfect introduction. This is the fourth time I’ve seen them since and I still don’t know what to write to do them any justice. Punk as fuck. So, it’s an angry drunk shouting over a bunch of laptop beats then. It’s not a laptop set, Andrew Fearn makes no pretence of doing anything but pushing play and dancing with his can of Red Stripe and yet Williamson somehow makes them an electrifying live act by pulling faces, pacing the stage and working himself into a rage. They may look like they just wandered on and started but it’s no accident, even the beautiful anti-choreography of them stood next to each other nodding along to a backing tape, the way they present it is as much of a ‘fuck you’ as the words are. And his words are remarkable, he has a keen eye and a poet’s economy to go with that limitless fury and still seems to be sharpening his weapons. The tunes come at a pace, short sharp stabs that have you nodding and laughing. Driven on taut Fall basslines but packed with odd sounds and weird hooks Fearn’s music rarely seems to get the credit it deserves, perhaps because he looks such a grinning happy drunk on stage but there’s real breadth and imagination in it. The past year has seen them go from strength to strength, new album ‘Divide & Exit’ pulling off the neat trick of following the remarkable ‘Austerity Dogs’ without diminishing returns and now they seem poised on the edge of something or other. What happens when they support The Specials later in the year? Could go either way I guess but it makes sense to me and might see them reach a much wider audience. Anyway yeah, they’re brilliant, go and see them now before you can’t get near enough to the stage.
We head into the night with a shifty Scottish chap who invites us back to his squat and creep home in the pale dawn accompanied by birdsong through the park. Prince Reelfoot is probably still moaning about the dew making his trainers wet…
So, we get a shaky start to Saturday. Regrettably we miss Ex Easter Island Head‘s amazing 15 piece prepared guitar thing. I guess they were first on due to the complexity of the set up or something because otherwise why? Anyway, after moaning and breakfasting and fighting the beer gods we make it along in time for Rattle. They’re a new name to us but are Katharine Eira Brown from Kogumaza and another drummer Theresa J Wrigley. They have a few tracks up on bandcamp which had convinced me I wanted to see them (one of them kicks of tonight’s Panic & Carousels) but live they are properly brilliant. They play facing each other, just drums and voices and watching it done hammers home just how remarkably complex and subtle their music is. Click on the pic of them to watch a great clip of the gig.
Thanks to the joyfulness of Rattle‘s performance and the universal panacea that is vodka and tonic we’re now on the verge of being all smiles. Alien Whale have a guy playing keytar, which is certainly worth a smile and they’re making a right old racket. Obviously there are beards all round, worryingly the guitarist is wearing a hideous tie-dye t-shirt and plays in an overdriven vaguely Santana/Hendrix type vein. It’s impressive, but also very quickly tedious and my long years of experience tell me that hanging around much longer would have dimmed my mood and stalled my recovery. Another drink please nurse. Oh, and a sofa. Youth Man are starting up on the second stage. They too are pleasingly noisy but turn out to be an indie band with a bit more gusto and ideas than usual. Not enough to win my heart though. It’s also possible that the still receeding hangover makes their youthful ebullience seem repulsive and upsetting to me. As Prince Reelfoot remarked to me about that time “young people are so willowy aren’t they? Bastards.” Anyway, we’ve about calmed our nerves and gathered our limbs in time for things to really take off with Sly & The Family Drone. They’re set up on the floor in the main room in the centre of an impressively large and curious crowd trying to work out what’s going on in the middle there, is there a band? It seems to be a short beardy guy shouting at a folding picnic table. While their recorded stuff is interesting and repays some attention Sly & the Family Drone is primarily a live thing. A part improvised, participatory and ecstatic kind of a thing. Perhaps when you were younger you, like us, like a lot of the crowd at Supersonic I expect, used to go to hardcore gigs in sweaty upstairs rooms of pubs and dingy basement clubs. The sort where half the band ended up in the crowd and half the crowd on the stage all in a righteous soup of beer and sweat and noise and the cathartic release of pent up emotion. They bring some of that chaos to a warehouse floor in daylight in the middle of a festival that goes long on cerebral beard stroking appreciation and they win. The music is a slowly building, shifting noise groove that deepens and grows until it reaches a kind of prolonged crescendo and they start passing out drums and cymbals into the crowd and yer main man strips down to his tattered boxers, climbs up onto the pa stack spitting beer, hitting the ceiling with a drumstick and beating hell out of an effects pedal. They’re truly awesome and hands down I’d say they walk away having won more new fans than any other act of the weekend.
We sit out Ryan Jordan‘s set on the second stage because it’s packed, it’s also so very loud it shakes the windows across the courtyard and the relentless strobe can be seen blinking off them too. Even from outside it’s intense. And exactly the sort of ridiculous nonsense I’d love on another occasion I don’t doubt.
I was expecting Wolf Eyes to be an impressive live proposition. Depressingly they come across as a bunch of scruffy try hard hipster wankers without the balls to be a proper metal band and we shuffle off to catch Karen Gwyer next door. I doubt we’re alone either because by the end of her set the place is packed out. Quite right too. In marked contrast to Wolf Eyes she smiles sweetly and looks like a kindly primary school teacher before disappearing into clouds of pink red smoke and sending out soaringly beautiful electronic dronescapes. I’ve liked the stuff I’ve heard by her before but this set is a leap forwards, beats turn up from time to time and then wander off, even getting a cheer at one point but generally it’s just wave on wave of lovely warm synth sounds. Absolutely wonderful.
Back in the main room Jenny Hval has been touring in support of Swans and makes a singular and mis-shaped music of her own, comparisons to other eccentric female artists probably do her a disservice, so we’ll avoid that. It’s intriguing stuff but I don’t allow myself to be seduced by it because I want to catch Backwards. Bullen was supposed to turn up as the extra bassist with Evil Blizzard the previous night but didn’t make it for some reason. His own new(ish) venture only has two bass players plus drums and electrical gizmos and are a lot less fun. Not that that’s a bad thing you understand, fun really isn’t the point here at all. Backwards are slow, grinding, repetitive hate sludge. The songs are long, unfolding in subtle shifts for the most part and what vocals there are are processed into another wash of noise. Just when you think the riff is about to change… it doesn’t. Just as you think you’re about to be bored, you find you’re being lulled into an odd calm by it. Maybe that’s just me. I loved it and it proved an ideal warm up for the festivals big closing act.
Helpfully stoking their fearsome legend, just as SWANS are about to get swinging they blow the power and it all goes black. For a split second I think ‘man that was slick’, we kick our heels, Gira clog dances and makes shadow patterns. Then they play and to be honest they don’t seem all that loud despite causing a rain of dust and paint to fall from the ceiling throughout. In contrast to the recent tours it’s possible to work out some of what they’re playing rather than a bunch of lengthy noise/groove things they’re still working on (although obviously there’s plenty of that too). They play ‘Just a Little Boy’ off the new album pretty much straight and it’s completely fantastic. If you’ve seen them in this recent form you’ll know, and if you haven’t you’ll probably have read, about how imperious they are right now, they sweep all before them. Closing out with a new and pretty uptempo tune ‘Black Hole Man’ slightly gives the lie to Gira’s earlier claim ‘We do not rock’. It’s probably the best I’ve ever seen them, an excellent end to an excellent weekend.
all photos and beard envy – His Crashing Majesty the Prince Reelfoot
all beard stroking words and Mikey/Thor pic – Thee Monkeys Claw
I was lucky enough to make it to Foghorn Requiem on Saturday, out on Souter Point near South Shields. An insanely ambitious commission for Festival of The North East involving brass bands, ships at sea and the massive Souter Lighthouse foghorn. It was moving, unique and powerful (and, I must confess, comic in places, watching a small woman grapple with a massive bass drum and the string section using pegs to keep their rain-sodden sheet music in place).