Supersonic Festival 2014, Birmingham Custard Factory, 30-31 May

Festival programming at its most daring, Supersonic returns with Matmos, Swans, Evil Blizzard, Bill Drummond and Sly & the Family Drone leading the charge on Birmingham's Custard Factory

Feature by Colm McAuliffe | 04 Jun 2014

On the verge of absolute balls out nakedness and flinging the filthy remains of a pizza around Birmingham’s Custard Factory, a bearded man stands over a rapturous audience; his throaty exhortations are interrupted every couple of seconds by spraying electronics and the stray din of cracked cymbals. Like so much of the acts on display at the Supersonic Festival, Sly & the Family Drone are as conceptually and visually intense as they are sonically. The festival prides itself on multi-disciplinary approach to programming but this surely applies to the bands themselves as much as the staggering range of events on offer; almost every musical performance seesaws – often at ear-shattering levels – between some of the most high-altitude electronica and rock currently being imagineered, and some of the most aesthetically challenging on stage performances currently being thrummed out anywhere.

You see, this year’s Supersonic – a slim line version in comparison to previous years – succeeded due to the brevity of the event. The blood rush which was jumpstarted through Friday’s relatively late evening beginning, carried through to Saturday’s marginally more capricious assortment of freakouts and endurance tests and then, with the maniacal Michael Gira from Swans at the wheel, it clattered to a ferocious conclusion. This momentum ensured Supersonic was permanently immersed in the gush of its own kundalini, a very physical and fervent festival experience.

The two days hinged around the axis of Matmos and Swans but, scattered around these two totems, lay some sparkling competition. Evil Blizzard, replete with masks (more humorous than genuinely terrifying) and no less than four bass players, were the pick of the bunch from the Friday night, their mantric rhythms pummelled and ground the assembled throng into a pounding scorched earth groove. Over on the main stage, Stephen Bishop aka Basic House, proffered a pleasingly off-piste array of electronic diversions and perambulations and an ideal precursor to the arrival of Matmos.

Of course, the Baltimore-based duo have crafted an entire career out of concept-based electronica, often to the detriment of the music when their theory overshadows the execution. But for Supersonic, there was a little more pressure on messrs Schmidt and Daniel as they were not, by any means, the weirdest acts on the bill; in fact, they were comparatively normal amid the extremities on offer elsewhere. Accordingly, they project a giant image of M.C. Schmidt on to a screen to provide vocals before announcing that they are creating ‘a festival within a festival’ and temporarily depart halfway through their own set, leaving Jeff Carey to mangle minds with his hardcore digital noise workouts. The fact that Carey looks like an oversized kid engaged in a particularly gruelling flight simulator on a Commodore Amiga (he uses a joystick as his primary instrument) did add a certain mirth to the proceedings before Matmos returned to gabber about dog food while cranking out further improvisations.

Nottingham’s Sleaford Mods brought the Friday night to a close, possibly the most conventional musical offering of the weekend but the duo’s 8-bit revision of The Fall template was suitably vicious in tone to offer a rhetoric which matched the vituperative sounds elsewhere.

Saturday at Supersonic was initiated in grandiose terms by Liverpool’s Ex Easter Island Head Large Electric Ensemble; or, fourteen guitars playing modified ‘third bridge’ guitars from a graphic score, underpinned by steady percussive punctuation. For a score so rhythmically complex and abstruse, the ensemble display a startling amount of joyous vibes on stage – how rare is it to see an experimental band actually smiling at each other and the audiences? It was also an awesome live experience, an Evol-era wall of guitar noise and Reich-like rhythms, albeit one which never pushed the limits of one’s hearing. The same cannot be said for the majority of Saturday: take a bow Agathe Max, Karen Gwyer and the aforementioned Sly & the Family Drone, each of whom absolutely decimated acceptable sound levels. Gwyer in particular was mesmerising, her dampened synths extending off the scale and into infinity. And, aside from the histrionics, Sly and co. were truly amazing, shattering the fourth wall and electing to perform in the middle of the crowd, before getting the crowd to play for them. This was a journey through psychic and sonic demolition, descending – or ascending? – into complete and utter fucking abandon.

By this time, the low end on the main stage was becoming incredibly intense. A certain amount of particulate matter began to fall from the roof during Sly’s set. Not to matter though, as Swans are next on the main stage. And, after maybe a minute of dust particles and low-end intensity, the fuses blew. Michael Gira entertained in the dark with a brief jig but, once Swans got up and running again, any notion of whimsy was brutally dismissed. Their two-hour set heavily leaned upon their current release To Be Kind and the band’s rhythmic engines strutted and swaggered, fired up on the same brutal, vicious fuel which has engulfed Gira since the band's inception some thirty years ago.

What was The Skinny’s personal highlight then? Well, it was being part of a choir, under the dubious tutelage of Bill Drummond, re-enacting his visit to Haiti as part of the17 project, the great man’s antidote to the scourge of recorded music. His visit to Haiti ultimately resulted in a riot and – apparently – the catastrophic earthquake which followed some weeks later. Our choral expertise didn’t quite stretch to such lengths but, in such exalted company at Supersonic, did it really need to? A wonderful festival.