Festival Diary: Supersonic – Custard Factory, Birmingham 21-23/10/11

Birmingham-based alterno-noise-dance-avant-garde-rock-fest Supersonic is now in its ninth year. Based once again in the Custard Factory – a collection of spaces from Zellig’s art galleries and sound-installation rooms to The Old Library with its vaulted ceilings, the Theatre complete with heating and comfy seats and the two warehouse-style larger stages (Boxxed and Space 2) – organisers Capsule have once again conspired to put together a programme that every bit as much of an assault on the senses as on the ears, with a selection of music that’s inspiring, challenging, entertaining and baffling in equal parts. Jude Clarke reports.
Friday

The first two bands alone served as a neat summary of the extremes that lay in store for the rest of the festival. a.P.A.t.T., as daft and confusing as their name, appear on stage in all-white garb, complete with their own crest on bright-white blazers and proceed to befuddle us with the rag-bag mix of taut kraut, gypsy-polka-punk and heavy riffing guitars that ensues. Very much playing to the crowd, with a sense of theatre that incorporated “hand-jive” movements and an extensive range of different faces being exaggeratedly pulled, we classified them under “unclassifiable”, and moved on to Slabdragger. This band, too, were a neat reflection of their name, being a huge slab of sludgy, swampy metal, boggy and luxuriating in its own sheer volume. As remorseless as the horrifying, massively magnified spider attacking a fly that provided the projected backdrop (as last year, each band that played was accompanied by an excellent, appropriate, array of visuals), this arachnophobe could soon take no more and had to duck out before the set’s end.

Part Chimp were always going to be one of the first day’s main draws, and most certainly didn’t disappoint. Like a beefed up, augmented college-rock band, this was an exhilarating blast of always coherent noise. The sweet, distant quality to the vocal – singer Tim Cedar dapper and overdressed against the so-far-not-manifesting-itself Birmingham chill – competed with the blast and crunch of the guitar and bass, lending it much of its appeal, along with a sense that this is a band always very much in control of their music. With a grunge-like edge to their noise, and the occasional snarl, the band nevertheless maintained a very human, emotionally-continent feel throughout their set. This is a band (currently doing the rounds of their “farewell tour”) that will leave a great hole when they go, as they did in Space 2 when their set ended.

DJ Scotch Egg, though, more than filled that gap. Friday’s second highlight, his driving noise-electronica, manic beats and astringent light show were a welcome visual and auditory assault to the senses. Chanelling everything from arcade games to machine guns, and weaving patterns as he went, the artist also known as Shigeru Isahara was as maniacally entertaining to watch – leaping onto speakers to lead the audience like a crazed conductor – as his music was to listen to.

The evening ended with the impressive and frequently forbidding wall-of-bass rumble from Cloaks. Beats this deep and murky made for a dark and mysterious set, if a little slow-moving for this stage of the night. Our hotel beckoned, we responded to its call.

Saturday

Before the bands started on Saturday was the best time to take in some of the festivals many other activities and offerings. The Grindcore Cut ‘n’ Paste exhibition was a fascinating, nostalgic yet often still frighteningly relevant, collection of fanzine memorabilia from Nicholas Bullen and Miles ‘Rat’ Ratledge of Napalm Death; much of it angry and political from the early 80s (Class War, anyone?). The SOUNDkitchen collective brought their “cinema for the ears” installation to the Custard Factory. Running all day on both the Saturday and Sunday, the part that we dipped into had a pervasive, soothing, watery feel, cleansing to the ears and restful for the body, particularly if you were able to bag a space on one of the beanbags provided.

The first live music of the day beckoned, though, so it was off to Berg Sans Nipple, whose echoey, queasy and desultory vocals layered over bassy judders and skittering synths conjured up a mystical and intriguing world. The occasional live drum rhythms added drama, and overall the band came through as a much more appealing prospect live than they did on record with their slightly underwhelming Built With Erosion release of earlier this year. Next, we caught Nathan Bell, for an extraordinary set of one-man-band style banjo, harmonica and rattling Heath Robinson-style percussive rig-up. With cyclical, repeating banjo melodies and the harmonica almost serving as a drone backing, this was an engaging, intricate and nicely complementing collection of sounds with a feel that was somehow both timeless and old-fashioned.

Band-of-the-weekend contenders Teeth of the Sea were next. One of those bands whose members don’t look like they’re in the same band, and who, collectively, don’t look the way they sound (both of which are always promising indicators) the set opened with a melancholy trumpet refrain over musical chatter-and-drone, soon launching into stabs of noise that jabbed and retreated, ramping up as they went along. This is a band that perform as well as simply play their music, which is a full, rich rhythmic mix of apocalyptic drumming, synths like sirens, and big big guitar noise. Dramatic and uncategorisable, this was a gripping, unmissable performance.

Moody, grave and dark psychedelic rock from Bardo Pond followed, managing to even somehow make the flute sound heavy, Isobel Sollenberger’s alto, echoed vocal melding with the stoned guitars to mesmerising, murky, haunted effect. Kogumaza’s song patterns were also hypnotic, in a different yet no less entrancing way; with long yet still urgent and to-the-point rhythms, rumbling, barrelling percussion and guitars like angry wasps.

Lucky Dragon brought some interactive fun to proceedings, with a – literally – “hands on” approach that saw them invite audience members to create sounds by pulling a piece of lined musical sheeting across a mic-ed up board, generating different noises as different interlinking patterns were made by the intersections of the black and white lines. Playful and entertaining, this resembled a kind of less-serious musical Ouija board ritual and was one of the festival’s more enjoyably “light” moments.

…. which is certainly not how anyone could describe the set from Wolves in the Throne Room: a great impenetrable slab of heavy that nevertheless gradually deconstructs in the listening until it begins to make some kind of magnificent sense, mid set. With Electric Wizzard not quite living up to the programme’s claim for them being “perhaps the heaviest band in the world”, or even in Birmingham this weekend, it was left to the brilliant Skull Defekts to round of Supersonic’s first full day with a flourish. One of the finds of the festival, this Swedish post-punk(ish) outfit were gloriously ebullient, with danceable spiky rhythms, taut but funky, quirky and with a lovely lightness of touch to counterbalance the heavy-precise-math-rock moments. Sometimes recalling Shellac, sometimes The Fall, they provided a real sense of occasion, with admirably daft jerky stage dancing and between-song banter to further endear them to the crowd. This was a wonderful, invigorating performance with which to end (our) Saturday.

Sunday

The festival’s final day had the most promising-looking line up of all, so it was with some relish that we started our day to the doom-tuba sounds of Ore! The “doompah” two-piece created some authentically unusual sounds from the deep, resonant depths of their instruments, almost pulsing at times as they generated a marvellous, foghorn-deep drone, punctuated by snatched breaths, like hissing gas or the wind’s whistle. The primordial noises were somehow more impressive for being organic in nature and all the more so when you consider that this was the duo’s first public performance.

Pekko Kappi deployed his Finnish-Karelian bowed lyre to intense effect, telling folk tales (helpfully explained in English before being sung in their original Finnish) of demonic wives being consigned to hell and “beating up” all the demons on arrival. The sawing, almost grinding sounds wrought from his instrument augmented the impact of this tortured wyrd folk music, although something of the storytelling element, clearly key, was definitely lost to those of us who don’t understand Finnish. The Mike Hurley Ensemble, lead by one of the co-founders of the Birmingham Improvisers’ Orchestra, were a collection of 10 free-jazz musicians who brought their cross-generational improvisations to the Old Library stage. Thought the music generally melded and intertwined freely, it seemed nevertheless a little bit like cheating when Hurley took to the front to “direct” its ebb and flow for the last number. This was a stage crammed full of clearly crazy-talented musicians, from saxophones to keyboards to percussionists, bass clarinettists, melodicas, double-bass players and more, so it was a shame that this was the only act not credited in the festival programme.

The mystical, spell-weaving Eternal Tapestry, another of the festival’s best performances, entranced us, next. With their extended flights of fantastical guitar playing, repeating motifs and occasionally showcasing solos; the mournful echoes and flight-of-fancy solos of the saxophone (once it was sufficiently amped up, after an inaudible start to the show); the consistent sense of melody around which all the riffs and improvisations were anchored, this was psychedelic music with a grace and delicacy, despite the occasionally shredding guitar breaks: more a delightfully buzzy trip than a dark, morphine-drenched nod. Front man Nick Bindeman (also guitarist with Jackie O Motherfucker) solicitously asks, at one point if it’s okay to play a slow track now: “Can you guys handle it? It won’t, like, bum you out?” To which the answer can only be the two-part: “Yeah, bring it on” and “I’m sure it won’t, dude”.

Barn Owl were a much heavier drone-soaked proposition this year than in 2010′s gentle performance in the Theatre. Their performance, in the harsher surroundings of the warehouse-like Space 2 was cacophonous and intense, but with humanity and heart very much still layered in between the drones, hums and auditory scree with which their set was dominated. The gradual, stately way that the pieces evolved, evoking a wind-blasted post- (or even mid-?) apocalyptic landscape of big skies and blasted deserts out of noise, rumble, throb and twang was quite something to behold.

Cut Hands combined loud, percussive, rhythmic music with an aggressive, threatening edge and disturbing visuals seemingly documenting scenes of ritualistic intoxication and madness in an unspecified African country from colonial times. These ran on a loop, interspersed with large, gnomic phrases that ran across the screen: STABBERS CONSPIRACY, or SHUT UP AND BLEED or RAIN WASHES OVER CHAFF. The impact of the music here was definitely augmented and lent an even stronger “edge” by the visuals – something that repeatedly happened through the course of this multi-media weekend.

Cult act Silver Apples, now just featuring “The Oscillation Man”, Simeon, brought a gentle oddness to their Boxxed Stage set, with gentle pulsations, unassuming (yet strangely reminiscent of Jim Morrison) vocals – deadpan and declamatory, and quirky half-beat “skips” in the rhythm to playfully unsettle and disconcert.

All this was a beautiful contrast with ENVY, who followed. Masters of eliciting gently delicate emotions with soul-aching post-rock, then WALLOPING the listener with intense hardcore riffs and vocalist Tetsuya Fukagawa’s terrifying, visceral roar, this is a trick that never gets less impressive or genuinely gut-wrenching. One of the truly astonishing live bands of our day, to witness an ENVY set it to experience extremes not only of volume but of feeling as well; the sweet interludes genuinely hooking you in each time so completely that every ascent into hardcore noise seems like a fresh surprise, a thump in the face, a cathartic wake-up call of the most dramatic kind.

Alva Noto’s smart electronica, the clicks and hisses sounding both electronic and mechanical, the beats strong and murky again brought brilliant visuals to his incisive deconstruction of branding, logos and acronyms. While Hills closed our evening with a glam take on a big sound; with touches of psych throb but a mainly driving, hard rock set.

The festival once again this year more than fulfilled its remit, bringing ample big, wild, serious noises to the “Home of Heavy Metal” but also much much more. It is this inventiveness in the programming, this mixing of the avant-garde with the joyfully mindless, the arty with the grungy, that genuinely makes Supersonic one of the most accessible ways to experience one of the most diverse range of music that you could hope to encounter of the course of a weekend.