20 June 2017

Festival Review – Supersonic, Digbeth 16th – 18th June 2017

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I love Supersonic Festival. I have been present for nearly all iterations of the festival and the content convolutes, evolves and challenges at every turn. The festival attracts attendees that are absolutely open to rising to such challenges and they are more often than not richly rewarded with a feast of sonic, visual and even sometimes physical content. Every iteration as contained something unique, never to be repeated, a myriad of special treats. This year is no exception with a number of festival exclusive performances and collaborations. In particular, this year links in nicely with the Home of Metal exhibition once again and specifically the 30th anniversary of release of Napalm Death’s debut ‘Scum’. Reverence is therefore afforded to this Birmingham classic by Friday night regulars PCM who include specially recorded fragments within their rabble rousing breaks and beats, and a set from original ND member Nicholas Bullen using ‘Scum’ as source material for his abrasive set.

This year, as for previous Supersonic events, it is not just about the noise. Their are a host of ancillary events and workshops including visual coding, synth building (courtesy of Farmer Glitch) and other art techniques. There is even a gig specifically for kids, headed up by Melt Banana. They key word here is ‘inclusive’. There really is something here for anyone with a passing interest in sound and art. Even the planning of such an event is an achievement is worthy of a medal (made of heavy metal of course) but the fact that it all comes together in a glorious explosion of creative expression further hammers home just how special the event is and how much we should value the work put in by the Supersonic team led by the ever enthusiastic and delightful Lisa Meyer.

Friday night should have kicked into gear with ART OF BURNING WATER but on arrival at the stage it became apparent that a band member had suffered an injury rumored to be a broken hip. Best wishes for a speedy recovery. I think everyone then had the same thought as me as we crowded into the room where CHARLES HAYWARD was teasing and bullying a series of complex outburst from his drum kit. This renowned ‘This Heat’ and ‘Camberwell Now’ hero easily held the attention of the crowd with his mind bending percussion and electronic maelstrom. I was fortunate to then catch the last ten minutes or so of MOTHWASP who were doing very noisy and rhythmic things with drums, guitars and other sounds. It seems that this duo exist only in the live realm so I will make an effort to catch a full show in the future.

NICHOLAS BULLEN was busy blowing things up at the beginning of his set, which seems somehow appropriate given the abrasive nature of tonight’s set. This was a special performance piece entitled ‘Universal Detention Centre’ and included within the source material some very early Napalm Death recordings, which he has every right to abuse given that he was there at the conception. Hardly easy on the ears but entirely appropriate in its intensity. After popping the ever popular guide dog JJ our for a ‘comfort break’ I settled in nice and comfortably to witness once again the sonic and bedazzlement of MELT BANANA. The Tokyo duo, ever popular with the Birmingham crowd, are on fine form, grinding through their set of buzz saw guitars, sequenced blast beats and frantic vocalisations, all illuminated by retina puzzling laser visuals. Great fun.

CHARLES HAYWARD returns to the stage once more to head up the bewildering spectacle that is ANONYMOUS BASH who also include members of Gnod, Tombed Visions and Negra Branca. Charles displays the hugest grin while beholding the musical gymnastics and displays of oddness that occur seemingly at his behest. The result is a swirling and bemusing mix of sax, guitar, bass, pitch shifted vocals and a few other things besides. Falling somewhere between the orchestrated and the improvised, their set was rather entertaining both sonically and visually.

Birmingham had already worked up quite a sweat in the midst of a rare and superb heatwave before the doors even opened for day two of Supersonic. My expectations are high today as I am familiar with and fond of quite a few acts on the bill. EX EASTER ISLAND HEAD are the first band on my list and they set the bar really high for the remainder of the day. The assembled witnessed a special one off performance as the Large Electric Ensemble, which in a nutshell was an expanded line up playing 16 tunes electric guitars placed on table tops along with assorted percussion, bells and handclaps. What could have been an indulgent exercise in creating walls of sound was instead deftly executed, poised, elegant and bold. A central player assumed the role of conductor, controlling the quite/loud dynamic and rhythmic interplay of the musicians. Not a beat was dropped and the overall experience was uplifting and quite awe inspiring. I feel privileged to have witnessed this performance.

HARESS offered a slightly darker and more sombre experience, atmospheric sliding overdriven guitars, pensive beat out rhythms and deep characterful vocals combine to create an audio vista invoking images of wide open spaces, a shimmering heat haze and lonely figures on the sky line. I caught a little of LAURA CANNELL who was showing

her unique and charming take on fiddling and dual recorder playing before heading on over to catch BIG JOANIE, a London based act who describe themselves as ‘The Ronettes filtered through 80s DIY’. On this sweltering evening they remind me more than just a little bit of The Stooges, were they an all Black feminist band.They have an earnest unfussy approach which easily won over the audience.

KURO MAGA are meanwhile elsewhere showing a different crowd very clever things indeed with a hefty collision of violin, bass, drums and sax. Leaping from heavy brassy drones one minute to staccato rhythms and jazzy stabs the next, they create a sound that hits harder than you’d expect during this, another one off, Supersonic performance. LANIAKEA are one of the acts I have been most eagerly awaiting. Anything DANIEL O’SULLIVAN puts his mind to tends to strike a chord with me, and combining with members of Zu and A Silver Mt Zion is enough to intrigue further. Their debut release ‘A Pot of Powdered Nettles’ already nestles comfortably in my collection and I find myself enjoying their live performance too. Atmospheric and a little restrained, the trio take their time to weave their creation, textures layering atop of one another to create a greater thing, dueling violins and voices augmented by warm washes of bass create something ethereal without quite exploding into the vastness of the galaxy cluster from which they take their name. Entirely pleasant. Regretfully, another guide dog excursion means that I miss Grey Hairs but I return in time for another band I am fond of ARBOURETUM. I have a previous Supersonic festival to thank for introducing me to this band and I gladly return to their familiar sound of heavy Americana, as solid as ever. Heavy enough for the riffs to have an impact and fluid enough to transport you to sepia drenched landscapes, they are indeed a treat. It was then nigh on impossible to squeeze into the venue that was hosting RICHARD DAWSON but I was able to bend my neck around the door to see him charming the audience with his poetic off kilter folk for a couple of songs. I had considerably more luck with ZU but not before catching the last ten minutes of THE SEER, a multi media Supersonic exclusive performance centred around a modern re imagining of the Cassandra mythology. Even this last ten minutes was transfixing, with mysterious figures evoking a ritualistic fever of dense sound and visuals. I can but hope that there is another opportunity to see this spectacle in full. Anyway, the prospect of ZU playing always elicits a great deal of excitement in these parts, and it is easy to see why. I have seen Zu play live before and they always impress with their musical dexterity but I was never truly a convert until tonight’s performance. Their trademark genre schizophrenia is hammered home with utmost conviction and aplomb. Up close and personal their blend of noise rock, jazz and complex time signatures truly astounds. JENNY HVAL is another name thoroughly circled on my timetable so I am glad to be able to shuffle my clumsy way into the venue for her performance. Her most recent album ‘Blood Bitch’ seduced me to her cause and her live performance any further entrances me. She and her cohorts are visually striking and add a strong element of performance to her rich and majestic dark electronic pop artistry. She is able to whip up a sense of magic before spinning it away in strange almost disturbing directions. She is a truly captivating and engaging performer that anyone who appreciates dark electronic music should open their ears and eyes to. Those said people might find PIGS PIGS PIGS PIGS PIGS PIGS PIGS to be rather noisy. I saw PIGx7, to give them their shortened name, at Fat Out Fest earlier this year and they were mightily impressive. It is no different tonight as they bash out their lengthy compositions. They don’t feel sprawling however, they go straight for the jugular with their extremely loud and ferocious heaviness. These Pigs create mammoth and interesting rock of the most primal sort. The next artist I witness turns the tables almost completely. COLIN STETSON has to be seen to be believed. One man, a family of saxophones and two hands full of fingers about to work very hard indeed. Colin plays the sax in not just a traditional sense, but also includes the use of contact mics to capture aspects of the generated sounds usually ignored. One such contact mic is fastened against his voice box. As his compositions progress it is truly hard to conceive that all of this sound is coming from one instrument/player. Arpeggiated and soaring progressions are as baffling as they are compelling as his fluid compositions ebb and flow. Most impressive of course is the moment he lifts up the daddy of the saxophone family, and instrument that has an awesome and almost industrial presence. The deeper tones hammer home his performance with even greater might, imprinting a memory in mind that will not fade soon at all. I cannot help but smile as I make my way past some Black Sabbath karaoke on my way to see ELECTRONICA WIZZARD. As if you couldn’t have guessed, this band play Electric Wizard and Sabbath tunes with synths. No brainer. I’m no stranger to sticking synthesizers through endless amounts of fuzz and distortion so the resultant sound doesn’t surprise me at all, though it has to be said it is enormous fun. Enough said really which just leaves me to talk about the moment I have been drooling about all weekend. ZONAL features Brummie noise legends Justin Broadrick (Godflesh, Jesu, Final) and Kevin Martin (The Bug). These two are no strangers to working together with Techno Animal and Sidewinder just two of the projects alongside ZONAL that these two have collaborated on. Anticipation is high and quickly fulfilled when waves of sub-sonics and harsh noise pour forth from the smoke filled red lit stage. I suspect many punters would have been happy to bask in this noise for hours and go home happy but there is more to come as a stupendously massive break beat saunters from the speakers and rattles the teeth of those too close to the front. This audio onslaught could be Techno Animal and Ice on collision course. Thais means, of course, that I am delighted. I stay to get my teeth loosened and internal organs stirred up as it is the perfect ending to my Supersonic experience. I am somewhat sad to be missing day three, but my pop is waiting for some quality father son time and that is not to be missed for the world.

See more of my pictures here.