Search The Line of Best Fit
Search The Line of Best Fit

Supersonic Festival – The Custard Factory, Birmingham 22/10 – 24/10/2010

03 November 2010, 13:47 | Written by


Now in its 8th year, Supersonic is more than simply a music festival. Set in Birmingham’s Custard Factory (a collection of indoor venues and outbuildings, with one tented open stage), the schedule also includes a programme of impressive and frankly awesome-sounding extra events like the Noise Boxes Workshop where you can literally build your own “3 oscillator screaming, light-controlled, Noise Box instrument“; or the God’s White Noise performance, running for 7 hours throughout the Saturday of the festival; or the range of talks, films, and even the art exhibition, running across the course of the weekend.

Undoubtedly amazing though all this is – and way above and beyond the call of duty or expected series of events for your more common-or-garden festie – it was the music that we were primarily here to partake of. And oh boy, did we partake the merry hell out of it.


The festival opened on Friday with the unpromisingly-named Necro Deathmort. Like so much that was to come over the course of the weekend though, they produced a wonderful musical revelation. No simple doomy harbingers of death (mort) here: instead a set that combined its quotient of ire-filled noise and reverb, sombre grinding and rumbling bass with gloriously uptempo, trippy, hypnotic synth breaks; and beats that were closer to disco than anything from the “dark side”. This was our first introduction, as well, to the brilliantly appropriate backing visuals that accompanied every band over the course of the weekend. Here is was all eyeballs: Dali/Un Chien Andalou-referencing, perhaps, but certainly compelling and adding an extra layer to the band’s set.

Following on from this terrific start, the music from Demons with Sick Llama (a.k.a. Nate Young from Wolf Eyes) was perhaps more impressive than enjoyable. The animal groans and wails of torture or distress wrung from their instruments evoked a formless, abstract sense of anguish: one minute harsh hisses and buzzes, the next minute crashes, the next a chest rumbling, visceral bass line.

Then Devilman made us all feel alright again. To a rammed room, the stop/start, deeply rhythmic and deeply deep basslines of their surreal dub was at times bleak and aggressive (the Mortal Kombat visuals, the harsh sirens), at others lazy and hypnotic.

Drumcorps‘ mix of D&B and speedcore didn’t quite hit the mark, but P.C.M. – Supersonic festival mainstays – certainly did. In what was turning into “the night of the bassline” in Brum, their speedy energy, chants-and-beats, dramatic and exhilarating set was both nasty and compulsive – the kind of music that makes you want to simultaneously dance and riot. The crowd – going batshit – seemed to concur.

The words Napalm Death and “too quiet” are not a combination that I would have ever expected to have been typing. Disappointingly, though, their headlining set in the Custard Factory’s tented “outside” space was, from the off, curiously dampened: as if every instrument and amp needed to be dramatically cranked up. All sense of intensity that had been anticipated was lost, and after staying for a couple of numbers of what sounded like an anonymous metal band playing in a tent half a mile down the road, we admitted defeat and headed back to The Darkest Hotel Room In England ™ for the night.


The confusingly-named Part Wild Horses Mane On Both Sides were a beguiling way to start Saturday in cold, grey Digbeth. With gentle electric static and guitar crackles, the sparse clatter of drums, clanging gongs, taps and rattles, whooshes and fuzz was at times ghostly, at others wonderfully lulling. The half-articulated, muttered incantations that echoed through the music gave the impression of a Grimm’s fairy tale in musical form: all goblins, fairies and undercurrents of danger. If at times a little too flute-heavy, this was nevertheless an absorbing, entrancing musical experience.

After that, Eagle Twin were just a bit too leaden, with their chuggy, riff-led metal. Better were Blue Sabbath Black Fiji: a robot-screaming Japanese duo bringing the noise with a side-order of lunacy. Unpolished, self-indulgent, this scattergun performance was nonetheless quite a blast, despite the outside stage once more falling down sound-wise (at one point the vocal mike lost sound altogether).

Back indoors to the atmospheric surroundings of the Old Library next, for what was one of the weekend’s most wonderful sets. Starting with a single note, behind a screen showing a small single red dot, Lichens‘ music and visuals slowly, gently, delicately grew in tandem; adding layer after layer of lush and lovely sound nearly imperceptibly as the dot became a circle, then different coloured rings, clouds and bursts of technicolour pattern. At one point, the moving visual resembles nothing more than Kaa the snake’s evil hypnotic eyes from The Jungle Book – an appropriate metaphor for the almost narcotic, spellbinding music that it is accompanying. Moments of heart-crunching and harmonious beauty are followed by eastern-tinged calls-to-prayer; sounds flicker and vibrate. By the end the intensity has been ramped up to such an extent that when it all ends (just a few beats after the screen goes, shockingly, suddenly black) you emerge, blinking, with a discernable wrench. This was a terrific audio-visual experience, that both moved me and took me out of and beyond myself.

Then Gnaw‘s dark static squall, clangs, evil chants and whispered curses was grumbly, mumbly, throbbing and dark; often coming across like all the component parts of a black metal track, deconstructed.

The day’s second outstanding moment came next, in the brutal form of Lash Frenzy vs KK Null. Billed in the programme as a “special performance” this was as much an art-noise-terror happening as a musical set. The room was dark and dense with dry ice, occasionally illuminated with a strobe light carried around through the crowd. It took a few disorientating minutes to notice that at least one, probably more, guitarist was wreaking noises of havoc and full-on assault from the side of the room. What was happening on stage is frankly anyone’s guess, but this was such an intense, astonishing musical attack – remorseless, confusing, confrontational and Very Very Loud – that you could only submit. Genuinely transcendent.

OvO were kind of fun: his and hers masks, intense drumming from him, screamo-style vocals from her, angry and propulsive, then it was the turn of King Midas Sound to once more bring the bass. Deep and laconic at first, the intensity somewhat dissipated by the barn-like setting of “Space 2″ (think small aircraft hangar, or disused car park), there was nevertheless much joy to be had in the soulful vocals and increasingly-frenetic and ravey beats that rose up as the show went on.

Gnod played a blinder back in the Old Library next. Their space/kraut rock was compelling – packed full of great extended jams and repeated riffs, with a distinct groove that put the “trance” into entranc(e)ing. Think Sunburned Hand of the Man collaborating with Brian Jonestown Massacre, say, and you’d be part way there. Warming.

Day two ended for us with Cave, whose scuffed-up prog and drawn-out numbers felt just a bit too elongated, with just a bit too little development and variation for the end of a day that had been graced with such a large haul of both.


On paper, the final day of the festival had all along looked like being both the most exciting, and the most fraught with potential clashes. In practice, any single day of any festival would have struggled to top the highs of Saturday, but Sunday certainly gave it a good run for its money.

Another gentle opener courtesy of Health and Efficiency ushered us affably into the day with one of the festival’s most accessible, open-hearted and quietly charming sets. Next it was swiftly on to watch Pierre Bastien, whose mechanised clockwork cogs and boxes, rotating rubber-banded discs, tiny video cameras and wobbling deck were less “evil genius scientist”, more “hobbyist pottering in garden shed”. Anyone who makes music in this way, clearly with the chief motivation of nothing more than the sheer experimental enjoyment of it, and who also just simply has the sheer inspiration to rig up an old cornet with a long plastic tube and a tub of water at one end, to produce bubbling tunes from, is someone to be admired, and enjoyed.

Peter Broderick, next, made inventive use of loops to accompany himself, both with his vocal and assorted instruments (guitar, violin, keyboard, bowed saw), all of which he deployed with impressive proficiency. At its best, this was moving, melodious stuff, endearingly delivered by the engaging Mr B.

Voice of the Seven Thunders were replete with space jams but not, for me, of lasting impact or sustained interest, so it was on to Jailbreak – a duo comprising Chris Corsano on drums and the glamorous Heather Leigh on steel pedal guitar and vocals. Notably not sounding how you might expect them to at a superficial glance, Leigh’s guitar was certainly no harbinger of mellow alt-country vibes. To Corsano’s hyperactive, virtuoso, remorseless and exuberant percussion, she added a screeching, squalling twist and wail, psychedelic yet atonal. With a singing voice ranging from a keening howl to a vampish siren’s alto, this was surprising, impressive music, but music that nevertheless engaged the ear and eye more than the emotions. As such it almost felt like a relief when it ended.

Ruins Alone (in the form of Yoshida Tatsuya) gave us more expert drumming next, this time in elaborate, florid, clever fashion: jazzy and improvisatory. This was showmanship with a healthy side-order of ebullience, and a flamboyant sense of fun and entertainment. A long, cold wait before the start of Khyam Allami‘s collaborative performance – Bosphorean – with Master Musicians of Bukkake took its toll on our attention span, but Allami’s plaintive and tuneful oud, combined with background drones and shimmering cymbals from the Master Musicians (all the time swathed in scarves and hidden behind shades) was a nicely theatrical spectacle. At times possessed of a mysterious, exotic beauty, the long continuous piece transported you to a place far away from the prosaic surroundings and kept you there.

The performance by the Barn Owl duo to a seated audience in the theatre – in front of a screen showing black and white sylvan scenes that somehow perfectly matched the bucolic, organic, gentle yet intense music it accompanied – was one of the day’s best. Softer and gentler than on record, yet losing nothing of their intricacy and glistening wonder, these were impressive and memory-searing sounds from ostensibly unassuming musicians.

Disappointingly unable to catch more than the tail-end of the last track of Factory Floor due to their scheduling clash with Barn Owl, it was nevertheless apparent that their dystopian-rave had gone down a storm. Chrome Hoof were as befuddling as ever, a crazed pick-and-mix assortment of musical styles, tunes and pace/rhythms. At times chanelling Sun Ra, at others making like Janelle Monae‘s mental older sister, this was a set that was exhausting in it diverse, chopping/changing energy and stridency.

Michael Rother seemed to be having every bit as good a time with Hallogallo as his audience, and that was one hell of a good time. The revelation of this set was the sheer euphoria that this updated take on Neu‘s classic Krautrock could induce. This was big, open-hearted and uplifting music, warm and human, rather than anything coldly “teutonic”. Wonderful.

Rounding off the weekend, were Michael Gira‘s resurrected Swans. After a quite remarkable 10 minute introduction of gradually building menace, complete with clanging chimes, it was – as expected – a grimacing snarl of a set, as edgy and gaunt as guitarist Norman Westberg; as angry and dramatic as Gira himself.

It was a fitting end point to a festival that challenged the senses and intellect in so many ways. Not for the casual music imbiber, this is the perfect, in fact the only place to be if you want to be challenged, inspired, and even occasionally shocked as well as amused and entertained. Cerebral and visceral – this could just be the ideal music festival experience.

Photos courtesy of Stuart Green and Maria Jefferis //

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