Supersonic Festival 2012
Once again Birmingham’s Supersonic Festival proves itself to be “the very best place to discover and celebrate pioneering experimental music,” as James Self explains…
This year marks the 10th anniversary of Supersonic Festival and the weekend more than lives up to high expectations as a glorious celebration of experimental and adventurous music.
Curated by Capsule duo Lisa Meyer and Jenny Moore, the festival has developed an exceptional talent for bringing together legendry figures of the avant garde and unfamiliar, surprising new acts, alongside a full programme of art events, special performances, installations, screenings and talks, and has a genuine engagement with its locality through history walks and exhibitions exploring the musical heritage of Birmingham and the Midlands.
The festival is held in the beautiful post-industrial surroundings of the Custard Factory in Digbeth, complete with warehouse venues, a gothic library, crumbling Victorian railway arches and a canal oozing through the centre of the complex, all contributing to the bewitching autumnal atmosphere. There are three main stages – the Warehouse, Boxxed and the Old Library – along with a theatre, market place and various exhibition spaces.
Opening proceedings at the Warehouse are Free School, their funky techno disco and disturbing animal masks providing an early dose off energy and enthusiasm. We pop over to the Boxxed stage – the first of many mad dashes over the canal and under the railway arches to catch each overlapping and unmissable act that characterise the weekend – to the heavily dubby throb of Devilman, who is playing as part of the Small But Hard Showcase which takes over the stage for the evening. The showcase includes the astonishing, ear-bending fork antics of Kakawaka along with the dark and addictive beats of C_C. Later DJ Scotch Bonnet is joined by Koyxen and Sensational for a late night mash-up session.
Back at the Warehouse the Modified Toy Orchestra are playing on their reclaimed and reanimated children’s toys amongst a tangle of wires and modules. The suited, Karaftwerkesque orchestra is followed by the enjoyably filthy riffs of Hey Colossus.
Pausing for a moment to enjoy a ride on the Vinyl Rally – an inventive large-scale installation under the arches involving arcade car seats, remote control rally cars and a huge speedway built out of beer crates and paved with vinyl records – we are then treated to one of the festival highlights, JK Flesh. Justin Broadrick’s set is an awesome wall of distorted guitar, screams, shrieks and brain-rattling bass. Brilliant.
Friday evening wraps up with some deliciously dark drum and bass from Supersonic stalwarts PCM and then we stumble through the streets of Birmingham city centre to tumble into our beds, eagerly anticipating the next day’s music.
A busy Saturday line-up starts off with Stian Westerhaus who blows away the hangover cobwebs with his powerful, aching guitar distortion under the vaulted ceiling of the Old Library. The thrilling plaintive wails Westerhaus bends out of the instrument contrast quite sharply with the enchanting solo set from Sir Richard Bishop over at Boxxed; his Middle Eastern and surf-tinged tunes are an intense yet mellow affair.
After revisiting the Old Library to enjoy a blast of noise merchant Kevin Drumm and the haunting piano-accompanied vocals of Jarboe, and having devoured a warming bowl of chilli, we settle in front of the Boxxed stage for an evening of mouth-watering music.
The atmosphere turns dark for Bohren & Der Club of Gore, after which the legendary Merzbow performs a simply astounding set of caustic, atonal, ear-bleeding noise.
Drunk in Hell were one of the best bands of last year’s Supersonic, and they fulfil the same role this year. The Teeside troupe pummels the heavily-bearded mosh pit with a slab of gritty rock and roll - it’s angry, loathing, sleazy, sweaty and grinding - and it’s absolutely fantastic.
The theme of hard, heavy and supreme high quality continues as Zeni Geva take to the stage. The Japanese prog-hardcore pioneers produce a ferocious racket; frontman KK Null’s demure politeness between songs at odds with the angered battle cries he barks over the band’s angle-grinder riffs and thrash beats.
Saturday night’s festivities conclude with bouncing bass, deathly dancehall rhythms and seizure-inducing strobes as Kevin Martin, AKA The Bug, is joined by Daddy Freddy, Flow Dan and Miss Read. The volume has been set at ‘nosebleed’ for most of the evening, but the soundman seems to have found a secret dial that goes well beyond eleven during the finale. Our ear drums are still out partying long after we’re tucked up in bed.
Sunday afternoon begins gently as we peruse the tempting stalls of vinyl, books, comics, clothing and oddball gadgets in the Market Place, meet Savage Pencil and indulge in a spot of art therapy in the form of the Wildman Life Drawing session. A semi-tamed Wildman prances behind a screen as happy scribblers record his likeness, the surprisingly diverse results are exhibited on the market’s wall.
Over at Boxxed Mothertrucker are rolling out huge noise-rock riffs and seem to be having great fun while at it – bantering and joking between tunes and merrily swapping instruments before diving headlong into the next thunderous dirge.
Manchester kraut-psych-rockers Gnod perform a blistering set of hypnotic stompers, another revelatory high point of the festival. Their sound is hard to pinpoint, shifting from Krautish space rock, psychedlica, grungy mischief and funky grooves, but consistently gripping with the potent stage presence of wiry frontman Neil Francis, who comes across as the bastard lovechild of Mark E Smith and Brett Anderson, if you can imagine such a creature.
We head over to the Old Library where Zeni Geva frontman KK Null is performing a solo set of blinding white noise; halfway through the set he is joined by doom-drone tuba specialists ORE, the collaborative performance becoming an enthralling fusion of classical brass, noise and sheer metallic meltdown.
Next up on the Warehouse stage is the awesome Italian power trio Ufomammut who play their latest album Oro in its entirety. It would have been nice to hear more of their back catalogue, but nevertheless the onslaught of deep space drone and doom is breathtaking. The psychedelic visuals that accompany the band’s monster riffs are equally mesmerising.
Highly-anticipated Swedish folk-pop-rockers Goat appear in full-on fancy dress voodoo regalia and play a collection of jubilant, hippyish tunes. The band tread a fine line between the sublime and the ridiculous, but you get the feeling that if you ever found yourself being burnt alive in a wicker man, Goat are the people you’d want there providing the soundtrack and cheering up the occasion.
One of the innovations of this year’s festival is the introduction of paying a deposit and having your own personal Supersonic pint pot that you hold on to and get topped up throughout the day. This is a great idea for cutting down on waste, and also provided the perfect excuse for downing pints as we dash between the various venues since we’re not allowed to carry drinks between the Old Library and the other stages.
However, the debilitating effects of sinking so much ale and spiced rum start to take hold of your reporter and his accomplice, and our recollections of the final chapter of the festival are somewhat hazy.
We manage to catch a glimpse of each of the three headliners including the brutal, hypnotic and utterly compelling riffs of Australian art-rockers My Disco. We were very excited by the prospect of Kim Gordon’s Body/Head project, a collaboration with noise artist Bill Nace, and the freeform, experimental feel of their music is certainly intriguing but also feels somehow anticlimactic at the end of a weekend of such joyous music - although this is probably due in part to the aforementioned overindulgence in rum.
Hitting a more celebratory note is the special headlining performance of the Oxbow Orchestra, a full orchestra (many of the musicians are from the Birmingham region) accompanying the San Francisco avant-jazz-rockers as they perform a selection of their works.
At the end of the evening, over in the ‘quiet’ seated tent near the food stalls, someone whips out a bongo and the tent is suddenly full of euphoric punters using their plastic pint pots as percussion instruments to bang and rattle on the tables and scaffolding, producing an improvised, cacophonous, deafening, tribal racket – the perfect end to what has been a perfect weekend.
Capsule and the rest of the team, along with the volunteers who help facilitate the day-to-day running of the festival, must be congratulated on a triumphant Supersonic, and for ten remarkable years of musical adventures. There are hints that next year’s festival could see a new format, and possibly a different venue, but whatever shape Supersonic takes we are confident it will remain the very best place to discover and celebrate pioneering experimental music.