Begin transmission: Supersonic is the probably the greatest festival or true music lovers in the UK, perhaps further afield. Stop.
21st to 24th October. Attending Supersonic 2011 felt like being transported to another world. Commonalities and clichés of festivals did not apply. Musical amazement bounced off every concrete wall and people connected with the base-level possibility of what a festival should offer. Economy.
Supersonic has brought the best underground music from around the world to the Birmingham Custard factory for a number of years and whilst this might seem like a flippant claim it is actually a reality. Proof positive of this was that a huge number of attendees testified that they felt this festival was made just for them; an event that brought together the wide ends of discerning record collection into a supremely loud elevation. Where else would Scorn and Secret Chiefs 3 share the same bill for £35?
an event that brought together the wide ends of discerning record collection into a supremely loud elevation
A festival solely for musical cognoscenti, people who avidly read IDMP (independently distributed music press), based in the post-industrial setting of a Birmingham custard factory, and featuring historical tributes to Napalm Death and the anarcho-punk scene of the 80s. For a fan of a serious fan of music there isn’t anywhere finer.
A festival like Supersonic is tiring. From around 4pm each day the loudest acts start an onslaught that rarely finishes before 2am. Moreover, every act is not only important, but is also comprised of consummate performers and is irresistible. If there is one act that summed up the emotional energy and unified vision of the festival it would have to be Dj Scotch Egg. At once a chiptune frenzied gabbacore DJ, and then equally at home in psychedelic noise outfit Drum Eyes. The transition seems more natural and relevant than one mono-genre band following another as they tend to do at larger festivals.
On Friday Dj Scotch Egg – a long haired and bearded Brighton resident (previously Japan), committed the crowd to his awesome brand of 8-bit mixing between two hotwired Gameboys, to create a wall of hip-rattling rhythms, shrill shrieks, rollicking rave chants and screamed megaphone vocalisations. As commercial dance music repeats itself into irrelevance, new genres and artists seek the edge that demarcates some semblance of vitality and reason. Tireless and inventive, Shigeru ‘Shige’ Ishihara, has been a very busy man. What he achieves with DJ Scotch Egg as a performance piece remains totally immersive and powerful. As is usual for a Friday night crowd, people were completely up for a party and Shige raised the bar for any act to follow. However, the following acts were Secret Chiefs 3, Mike Watt, and Scorn. Lord help us all.
Mike Watt is something of a musical legend, from his time in the experimental punk luminaries Minutemen, to his work with Firehose and beyond. With a recording career stretching from 1980 till now it would be normal for many artists to slink into clichés, something that seems never to have crossed his mind. In fact, in a weekend of eclectic music Mike Watt and the Missingmen stood out as being one of the more unique offerings. Beefheartish guitar structures, pounding subtleties, and melodic abstractions inspired by Hieronymus Bosch wrapped the audience in a strangely trancelike atmosphere of shock and awe.
Beefheartish guitar structures, pounding subtleties, and melodic abstractions inspired by Hieronymus Bosch
Sadly Friday was to end with the most horrible clash: Scorn and Secret Chiefs 3. Happily both stages were close together so I managed to catch a good amount of both acts. Secret Chiefs 3 played an exquisite set of brand x compositional extremism that many others might namecheck but none have managed to surpass. Mixing Arabic influences with surf, electronic and metal, their records are fertile fonts of inspiration for any artist. Live, they push the envelope, emphasising apocalyptic shifts in tempo and dynamics to lift the audience into heightened states of ecstasy. Understanding how Trey Spruance interprets concepts of harmony in his music is sometimes challenging, however when each of the players onstage emphasises a particular melodic phrase that interlocks with the larger piece, something amazing happens. As the set ran through peak after peak, audience members started to weave in and out of the music. Watching people exit, there was something about their eyes that suggested they had been cleansed in some way.
Scorn, in the other room, were pushing for a very different aesthetic: brooding, dark, textures and energies seemed at odds with themselves bubbling around in a sort of volcanic melange. This reviewer was soaking up the intense volume when a piece of the ceiling fell on him. Cue panic and a hasty exit. How many acts can say they literally brought the roof down?
Saturday started with me being slightly paranoid that a piece of concrete was lodged behind my eye and still reeling from the music of the previous night. What beginnings would launch the listener into the day?
Thankfully we were eased into proceedings by Berg Sans Nipple; a group that mixed elements of bass noise, live percussion, keys and seemingly whatever else was to hand. Quite indie-ish, I could imagine this band being used in a Sofia Coppola film. Despite a reasonably standard musical core the band added textures, tempo inflections and glitchesque squeaks and squeals to slowly arouse a response from the leaden crowd.
This reviewer was soaking up the intense volume when a piece of the ceiling fell on him
Looking over the running order of the day the general tide of music was guitar-led; including Teeth of the Sea, Bardo Pond, Wolves in the Throne Room, Pharaoh Overlord, Electric Wizard, right up to closing act Monarch. However, despite the acts falling easily into the Doom or Psychedelic moulds, each act had a unique take on immersive rock. Bardo Pond gave me the most beautiful experience at the festival. Referencing the static laced grooves of My Bloody Valentine with the rural mystique of Cowboy Junkies we allowed ourselves to be lost in the golden growth as elegiac Americana reigned supreme through drug laden lenses. Bardo Pond forcefully touch upon the sense of the spiritual that echoed throughout the majority of the acts playing at Supersonic 2011.
The final act on Saturday that changed my life, and they all did to some extent, was Zombi. Turning up the power, their electronics screeched, wailed and pounded people through an invigorating set that levelled the crowd. At various points listeners were sucked into the vortex of spiralling analogue tones and minutes became lost to an electronic trance that had nothing to do with glowsticks or ethnic tourism.
It is pretty clear that all the Supersonic acts are not careerists in the grand industrial sense. A few have been courted by major labels but for the main they get their records out through partnerships with independent record labels or more commonly release music themselves. The music then comes out pure. The artists present their work directly to the audience, there are no middle men and no VIP areas. What little sponsorship there was existed around the bar and by small breweries rather than large brands. That this was a festival catering for tastemakers far on the right side of the curve, you’d expect public relations peons to be clamouring over themselves to be involved. Thankfully it was not so, nor would it have gone down well with bands like Selfless.
The artists present their work directly to the audience, there are no middle men and no VIP areas.
Selfless are a Birmingham four piece who play brutual fantastic anarcho punk. Coming to Birmingham (home of bands like Napalm Death and crust punk galore) and not seeing Selfless would have been a crime. They are an earnest group of large lads who want to destroy your eardrums, put iron in your political resolve and the shake the shit out of your record collection. Blistering through one blast of guitar noise after another the crowd where right there with the band as they dripped blood onto the smaller Old Library stage. It was at this stage that the volume started to get beyond all reason and ear plugs became a necessity, for this journalist at least. Others seemed made of sterner stuff, kudos.
the volume started to get beyond all reason and ear plugs became a necessity
The final words on the festival have to go to the two acts that truly reigned supreme on the final day. Drum Eyes and Circle. As mentioned before, Drum Eyes is a psychedelic noise band that features Shige (Dj Scotch Egg) on bass. So much more than being simply a vehicle for the acclaimed electronic artist, Drum Eyes is a concise vision of chaos that swells and flows, pounding out jap-noise beats through twin drummers, a wild guitarist and an incredible performer in Kathy (K-power). Jaws dropped, hearts soared and eyes scorched the stage. Fans of The Boredoms, or psychedelic noise rock will miss seeing this band live at their peril. Happily they are based in Brighton so, touch wood, we can see them again soon.
Circle are an ostensibly stupid band, made up of extremely talented musicians and probably the best front man since Freddie Mercury. Dressed as glam rockers, the band shifts insanely between a number of genres (prog, punk, soul, ballads, metal) with extreme musical talent. They are however almost frightening in their weirdness. There is something truly wrong with this band. The worn glitter and amphetamine eyes is probably the most normal thing about them. Only two bands at the festival expressed any sort of sexuality onstage. Turbonegro did with a sort of jokey aggressive campness that might smash you in the face, and Circle. Circle are the sort of band that would seduce you with drugs and cultish promises and then fuck your couch with a mop yelling ‘I’m Rick James Bitch!’. Musically they are extremely disquieting. Where Secret Chiefs 3 meld disparate ingredients together seamlessly, Circle seem to go the opposite way. They are all seam. Captain Beefheart rock riffs are deconstructed and reconstructed as the band speed hellishly into the gaping maw of anachronistic oblivion. It’s a beautiful thing but I fled from the room, it’s something you turn your back on.
Supersonic 2011 is a gem. A flawless musical gem that should be attended at all costs. Small enough that everyone attending the festival felt like great friends, with whom you’ve shared the best sonic experiments the world has to offer. Without a doubt, when attendees meet each other at gigs over the coming year they’ll say hello to each other. Sounds like a small positive to end a festival review on, but probably the most important. Supersonic is a great friend to the UK and the world.