noise, drone, beards and more: Supersonic is 10

Supersonic 2012 review

By Jason Wood | Published: Tue 30th Oct 2012

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Friday 19th to Sunday 21st October 2012
The Custard Factory, Gibb St, Birmingham, England MAP
Daily capacity: 2,500
Last updated: Thu 11th Oct 2012

Supersonic Festival celebrated its 10th anniversary this year with a typical boundary-pushing, out-of-the-mainstream, experimental line-up. What began is a single-day musical event has now blossomed to a full and varied 3 day programme. This includes much more than just the bands; hands-on workshops, stalls, exhibitions, theatre, film and a host of installations make for a packed weekend where you can't hope to see or do it all. The overall feel is friendly and laid-back, the mood matches the curators (Capsule) desire to join the boundaries between music and art for the more adventurous audience.

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The colourful venue for Supersonic is the art and media quarter that is the Custard Factory in Digbeth, Birmingham. This riverside sprawl of old Victorian warehouses and factories has been converted in recent decades to host a wealth of creative outlets that includes music venues/clubs, retro fashion outlets, art and record shops, theatre, dance studios, communal areas, restaurants and bars. As you might expect for the host site for Supersonic, the emphasis is on all things avant-garde, independent and alternative. The live music was held over four stages for the weekend (Warehouse, Boxxed, Theatre and Old library), easy to hop between stages to catch a bit of everyone if you so wished.

Friday evening showcased a reduced line-up with only half the site open, two of the four stages. Before a note had been played, most of us were drawn first to the rather amazing centrepiece installation that was Vinyl Rally. Within the arches of the viaduct that traverses the site was assembled a race-track constructed entirely of old Vinyl 33's, which suitably drew the crowds. 80's video arcade-style chassis were linked virtual reality fashion to remote-controlled model racing cars for festival attendees to pit their wits against each other.

Free School
Wearing sheep masks, local act Free School opened musical proceedings with a set of cosmic electronica on the main Warehouse Stage. Grand tunes that built slowly, complex layers to their sound, becoming heavy on drone. An amiable and relatively calm start for the line-up that was to follow over much of the weekend. The visually-impressive Modified Toy Orchestra later lined-up across Warehouse to perform their take on Krautrock. Comparable to seeing Kraftwerk, but complete with a stage invasion from the cast of Thunderbirds, Toy Story and more. The toys took front stage, five suited guys manipulating their (circuit-bending) limbs and heads to generate the sounds. Quirky seems like understatement though that shouldn't distract from the fact that the set/tunes were quality too.

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Over on the Boxxed stage I caught a couple of acts from the 'Small But Hard Showcase', featuring the first of the more heavy, bordering on brutal, sounds for which the festival is noted. Earthquake-intensity Dubstep first in the form of Supersonic regular Devilman. Pulsatingly loud, at times you didn't know whether to listen or simply soak up the tremors. From the photopit it was hard to breathe at times such was the vibration, songs for the deaf then. Berlin noise artist Kakawaka continued the racket in more light-hearted fashion, wielding his musical fork noisily and comically around the stage, bursting balloons on his travels. Back on warehouse, JK Flesh (Justin Broadwick, Godflesh) played out a typically bleak/dark set with crunching dark metal guitar riffs over the drum 'n bass from his Macbook.

A walk along the river to the Necrospective group exhibition at Grand Union proved worthwhile come Saturday. A group of works exploring theories in relation to violence and acting out, the suppression of our fear of mortality and how that embodies itself in technological man-made structure. Pause for thought. This and Vinyl Rally the only two installations I found time for, though others included Reverse Karaoke (Kim Gordon participatory rehearsal set-up/record sleeve decorating), Scratch 'n Phase (sound exploration), and Mortonunderwood's Noise Box exhibition.

Lau Nau
Finnish freak folk artiste Lau Nau opened Saturday with an entirely pleasant set on the Warehouse Stage, she employed vocal loops, guitar and electronica to build the layers to her tunes. Her haunting vocal arrangements quite charming. Sir Richard Bishop (Sun City Girls) made the first of two appearances and raised the bar of the weekend for me, the first quality guitar sounds of the weekend. Middle-eastern tinged riffs prominent in the mix, his skills always a delight to watch. 'Godfather of Doom' and Earth frontman Dylan Carlson continued the eminent guitar sounds on Boxxed with a new performance of songs inspired by English folklore traditions. A rendition of The Last Living Rose (PJ Harvey) a personal highlight of the set. Elsewhere, Chicago-based noise artist Kevin Drumm proved popular enough to bring the first long queue I'd seen of the weekend and a complete change in direction once again. Not noisy enough for many in the crowd.

New to me, Leeds guitar band Hookworms psych. rock/shoegaze was a very lively, enjoyable set that had me wanting to hear more, their sound along the lines of Spacemen 3 and Wooden Shjips. Rangda boast the fabulous trio of Chris Corsano, Ben Chasney (Six Organs of Admittance) and Sir Richard Bishop, and were the highlight performance of the weekend for me. Neat interplay on the long jams between Bishop and Chasney, with Corsano as precise and tireless as ever on drums. A hectic weekend of appearances in other guises for the trio over the 3 days.

A special collaborative performance by Mark Wagner/Sanna Charles (S&M), Conny Prantera and Emiliano Maggi (Estasy) to start the day Sunday. Titled Moon O))) the performance obviously took a nod to the drones and spectacle that are Sunn O))) shows, though lacked the usual dense fogbank. Billed as a 'mysterious voyage for the more intrepid listener', and one couldn't disagree. Opening Warehouse stage Sunday, Tomutonttu was soothing on the ears for a Sunday afternoon, an intriguing and unique electronic set that took you on a long, calm journey.

The set by Six Organs Of Admittance saw the return of Ben Chasney to the stage once again, a similarly immense set to his Rangda outing the previous day. Much improvised and seemingly effortless guitar solos and jams once more.

Psychedelic-drone krautrock from GNOD was another lively and well received affair over on Boxxed. Finnish drone/pop/psych. artiste Islaja put on a similarly enchanting set to that of Lau Nau the previous day to bring the mood down a few notches. Baltimore quartet Dope Body put on a lively pop-punk (and yes, noise) performance in the old library to up the ante once again, for another complete change of musical direction.

The most obscure and unusual set of the weekend (probably ever in my experience come to think of it. . . ) arrived in the form of noise provocateur Lash Frenzy (Ver Heroicus), performing a collaboration with Anaal Nathrakh, and Beestung Lip. An interval break on Warehouse had been used to fill the venue with such thick dry ice that you could only find your way around guardedly. A string quartet onstage started up what was one seriously loooong drone/noise/static/feedback set. The sound slowly built to be as immersive and dense as the dry ice that was continuously filling the venue. Intense strobe effects silhouetted band members. It wasn't until some way through the set that I actually realised much of action was occurring behind me in the audience, with multiple drummers, bassist and guitarist buried in a meandering, aimlessly-wandering audience.

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Chaotic mobile strobes moved around the room to silhouette the artists. Overall the effect was quite unsettling; one of claustrophobia and eeriness more suited to a Halloween bash. The textured noise slowly built to a high dB crescendo over a good 45 minutes. Concerned-looking, fluorescent-clad security wondering the place talking through their receivers, and a topless megaphone announcer only added to the surreal vibe. As much theatre as musical performance then; unique, weird and obscure certainly. Not the easiest of acts to follow then, Italian psychedelic metal band Ufomammut (performing Oro) managed to draw a suitably bewildered audience back from the edge of the abyss. Presumably not something they're used to doing all the time. A relentless, winding, powerful set against a backdrop of intense psychedelic visuals. . . all seemed relatively normal once again despite the sensory overload.

Another highlight of the weekend for me followed on Warehouse Stage in the form of Goat; this colourful 7-piece hails from an unlikely remote village in Sweden. Resplendently clad in Haitian voodoo-like attire they powered through a lively, melodic set that was enthusiastically received. Their debut, World Music, is aptly titled as their tunes draw on many different genres from around the world, Afrobeat and Psych. Rock being at the core. Lots of fun, perhaps not so much for noise/drone fans, and a little 'mainstream' (!) for others.

Body / Head saw the highly anticipated appearance of Kim Gordon, performing with experimental noise guitar artist Bill Nace as a duo. The Sonic Youth woman/icon raised the quality bar again with a typically pro performance on Boxxed. Reminiscent of the more experimental early Sonic Youth works to my ears, the harmonies/melodies of Goat soon a distant memory. The assembled mass of the Oxbow Orchestra closed the festival on Warehouse in impressive style, classical strings, woodwind and brass backing the charismatic Eugene Robinson on vocals.

Body Head (Kim Gordon and Bill Nace)

Overall, as a late-comer to Supersonic, the festival represented an interesting and fairly unique experience to anything I'd attended before. Particularly with regard to the diversity of contrasting acts, audience interaction, and arts crossover experience. Musically more suited to heavy/noise/drone-lovers perhaps, the more alternative electronic and guitar-based acts of the weekend more my thing usually, though the idea is to experience something new and different and discover new bands/genres. The music is definitely only half the story of this festival though, it was hard to find time over the weekend for many other parts of the programme that sounded appealing; notably the talks, theatre, historical walks and hands-on workshops.

The festival slogan 'Celebrating 10 years of adventurous music' was delivered with an eclectic line-up over diverse genres, ranging from soothing Scandinavian folk, heavy noise, Dubstep and doom-metal, through to the downright weird and obscure. Essential gear to take: Sunn O))) hoodie, industrial ear defenders, nightvision goggles, beard...
review by: Jason Wood

photos by: Jason Wood

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