Supersonic Festival 2017 arrived on the hottest weekend of the year so far. It’s subheading announced Not All Doom and Gloom referencing the stereotypical fraction of what experimental music can be and the larger political ecology of our times where those from above try to squeezed a cultural life source into submission and tick boxed, and those active in its generation digs deep to find the ways and means. The result was a serious kick back and a true coming together, saturated by a no holds barred exploration of the sonic and performative edges from a local, national and international scene.
Started by fans motivated to curate a festival that showed the diversity of experimental music instead of genre specific all-dyers, Supersonic started as a one day event featuring Coil and LCD Soundsystem and has been going and growing ever since, and this year saw guest curation by Khyam Allami, founder of Nawa recordings, who brought a host of beautifully diverse Arabic music to the Sunday program.
Hosting UK premiers of collaborations and inviting new works including a special performance by Nicholas Bullen to celebrate 30 years of Napalm Deaths seminal album Scum, and Connie Prantera’s multimedia performance The Seer, showed the festival makers total commitment to the artists on the line up.
Opening off-site for the lucky early bird tickets holders with AVH gothic embrace of the town halls sublime organ, the three main venues of Supersonic lined Birmingham’s Floodgate Street orbited by numerous satellite events – such as the Supersonic’s Kids Gig which introduced a bunch of lucky under 10’s to Melt Banana in Symphony Hall, workshops, films, conversations and installations.
Manned by an exceptional team of fans, volunteers, and super friendly security the vibe was ripe for heady and expansive play, to feed and feel the strength and love in community. Delicious food fairly priced catered for every palate from vegan, gluten free to full on carnivores. Bars were well stocked and situated in every venue promoting re-usable festival cups to cut waste, and the toilets of each space were undoubtedly the best of any festival I’d ever been to. Being city based, camping was out and hotels, hostels, coach surfing were in, with the website signposting links and generating discount codes, and the back-packers being literally around the corner hosted music lovers and makers alike.
Impossible to witness in the entirety – my Friday opened with an experimental hero, Charles Hayward and his solo project Zigzag and Swirl, which by collaborating with uncertainty, mixed heartfelt poetic’s and (machine gun) drumming with electronics, turning, entwining and unravelling to never be the same again.
The Wild Stage opened with local duo Mothwasp before heading into the cerebral and chimeric algrorave (aka live coding) produced in tandem with Vivid Projects. I dipped in and out and it worked as a midway ground between the embrace of the Crossing and the night of rip your face off grind core at BOXXED, which celebrated the 30th anniversary of Napalm Death’s seminal album SCUM. Followed by the explicit joy of Melt Banana and closing with another Birmingham local and Supersonic staple PCM’s tribute to Napalm Death’s Scum.
Dipping in to the brutal assault of visual and noise from both, I gravitated every time back to the Crossing, returning to musical entrancement. 2nd up were the astounding Xylouris White, a lutenist and a drummer that liken their music to meandering mountain goats, and weave spells with their inventive faints and thrills, whistling the entire melody of a parting song. The night ended climatically with Anonymous Bash, a collaboration born from Charles Hayward’s residency at Salford’s Islington Mill with over 20 musicians from GNOD, Tombed Visions and Negra Branca, and within the use of repetitive forms, the night seemed limitless: tribal and glorious.
Saturday was a scorcher, taking part in the Seer workshop was a perfect precursor to another day of intense sounds. We, the impromptu choir, began the day knocking rocks, droning blind, and transmitting a sound wave. As we broke away laughing, light headed and psyched to be part of Connie Praterat’s performative world the crowd outside had swelled, and the day began with the hypnotic and acclaimed UK collective Ex Easter Island Head, featuring 16 musicians each with a table top electric guitar and percussion, resulting in an almost tribal gathering cycle of rhythmic waves.
The day coasted, sounds surrounded, and Grey Hairs were the next band to raise the energy into the explosive – suffering in the heat served to exemplified the energy of screaming self distortion –as the front man threw himself foetal before a fan at the back of the stage between blasts of staggering intensity at the mica. Richard Dawson belted out his astoundingly poetic songs to an enraptured mass and I slipped away to join the secret choir at the front for The Seer.
Being part of Connie’s performance was a total honour – mesmerised by the architecture of her immersive performance, combining costume visuals sound and which bleed into the space through an installation before we turned our back on the performance to take part of it at the front of the stage and loose consciousness of the distinctions of audience and performer. The Seer in revisiting the story of Cassandra is ultimately political, positing a kind of radical inclusion and through this, responsibility for our actions in this time.
Jenny Hval took costume and her performance installation to her own oddly poignant playground – her voice moves effortlessly from spoken word to a disquietingly piercing pitch and the dream-like state of her sound is expanded through her performance troupe and set, plastic sheets wafted from ladders, and Hval in black, was adorned accessories like mammoth intestines’, that dripped like jewels about her as she bounces almost innocently in the midst of it all.
Pigs x 7 a heavy psych band with a modern and no need for theatrics demonic presence were still in the heat of Wired, stripped down and sweating to bring a full on onslaught through the ears to the body mind organs of everyone in the room and beyond. With a madman in total control for a front man extended primitive tracks a relentless storm on the senses, this was doom on speed and damn it was exhilarating!
London duo Raime carried the spirit into post-dub industrial super textural noise for clubbers dancing darkly ready to rave, and last up for the night, Zonal brought Saturday to a troubling techno climax, sparse yet hyper dense, it was like dancing within an auditory wall of dark matter.
Sunday began with a UK premier collaboration between Tomaga & Pierre Bastien, who’s intricate dada machines, are deceptively simple, ticking over and at times turning into self blowing pipes, and using the simplest means paper flapping rubber bands stretched to real poetry, percussion and electronics, mixing their darkness with light for a playful and psychedelic set. Next up Lone Taxidermist was a riot Leigh bowery meet lady gaga in the neon frat boy dressing up box for a food fight in the school canteen. Joyful and totally mental, Natalie Sharp’s finally saw the audience plastic wrapped as she climbed a ladder to manically crowd surf.
Mohammad couldn’t have been further from the custard pie chaos – a duo of elegant figures in black, each with a slender instrument making drones so incrementally precise the deep vibration moved around the resonant parts of the body, the feet the hands, face, organs, like a mesmerising, and somehow deadly, sonic massage.
Snapped ankles returned heavy dripping pagan inspired psych rock to the heat and more, woodland wild men coming out of the squat party scene to drag us back, deep into the speedy, synthy, shouty forest.
Birmingham quintet Dorcha were sublime, flying from sound to sound, darkly lyric and at times almost tormented – these are a group of serious psychedelic sirens with a complex structure and a willingness to jump into cosmic streams.
The much anticipated cosmic icon The Space Lady captivated the crowd, being so totally herself: at ease, conversational and completely uncontrived, she was Lo-Fi to the core! Possibly the simplest set of the whole festival, Space Lady played her songs, talked of deep depression post trump, and then returning life by keeping on with the simple good of doing the next best thing. Stepping away from her Casio to sing a new song with a guitar, the audience joined in with the chorus, hearts swelled and more than a few tears were shed.
In total contrast to her quiet trip came Casual Nun. This band can scream kraut rock inspired mantras until your very organs swell in the swampy sounds and whirl like dervishes.
Oxbow Choir was hyped, and for good reason. They had a great set up and had also brought in a choir, but after all the chaotic abandon so far witnessed in experimentation, it felt so very staged. As Eugene Robinson slowly undressed for the briefest of moments Birmingham was Vegas, and it all felt a bit wrong.
Princess Nokia brought my Supersonic to a close, if anyone was still coasting along with the tripped out hippie belief in love she brought the energy straight back to the present, entering at speed to bitch out her DJ and then the crowd. Prowling, angry, and energetic. She embodied self-determination and the reclaiming of space, and although some retreated most stayed with her, to embrace her as her bad ass and razor sharp songs flowed through and amassed movements, Nuyorican, African, Queer, Ghetto, Tomboy, Punk, House, Hip-Hop, Funk, Soul, Trap, and Drum and Bass ruled the night.
If Princess Nokia left reconciled to performing to a mostly white and male audience, is by the by. She’s strong and she rocked, active in the radical changes that mark our times, by closing the she stamped the festival with a special brand of fearlessness for all to embrace.
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