Supersonic 2015: The Review
Digbeth sits within Birmingham’s Eastside development. Originally planned around the turn of the millennium, the regeneration scheme set out bold plans to clean the slate of the post-industrial decay caused by a previous 60 years that saw first heavy bombing during World War II, a central government re-distribution of industry to other areas of the country and the economic collapse in the 80’s.
However, as our taxi winds its way through abandoned warehouses, boarded up broken windows and buildings that lie as a dystopian museum to the city’s past, it's as though a state of flux has been frozen in time. Bright, beaming new education buildings and futuristic hubs like Millennium Point – housing the Birmingham Museum of Science and Discovery – soon give way to urban wilderness and dereliction. It’s here where Supersonic Festival has long made a home for itself, in part to ‘introduce emerging cultural spaces’ as they state on their website. Certainly they made good use of the Custard Factory until recently, just round the corner from this weekend’s hosting venues and now filled with boutique shops and eateries. There’s also a poetry to a festival that prides itself on pushing the underground peripheries of experimental music taking place in such forgotten surroundings, in a city that, unlike a Manchester, Leeds or Liverpool, has culturally not had the same cocky, self-promoting voice of recent years and so — although locals can doubtless tell us otherwise — in itself feels like an outsider.
The café area of The Crossing – situated in the South & City College and one of two main performance spaces over the weekend – bustles with a sense of community. Various labels from Upset The Rhythm to Night School and other pop-up record stores snake past the entrance doors of the performance hall within the building. Most people seem to know each other — Supersonic really do seem to have a created an extended family of leftfield disciples, one of the few festivals remaining where you know what you’re going to get simply because of the audience there.
The atmosphere within the hall itself, however, is one of subdued, stern concentration. It’s totally apt for someone like Ela Orleans, whose one-person analogue ambience feels best induced by simply allowing it to wash all over you; for her Glaswegian-based counterparts Happy Meals, though, you feel that the furrowed brows of the crowd are searching so hard for something to interpret that the’yre missing what’s right in front of them. There’s no lack of depth in the dubby synth disco of collaborative and life partners Lewis Cook and Suzanne Rodden; as cuts from their debut LP Apero, prove, they’ve quickly become experts at emitting a sense of pop simplicity atop warmly immersive textural nuance. Yet Rodden’s delivery, shouting her bilingual mix of French and Scottish while pirouetting and snaking around the stage (Cook’s head bobs loosely over his hardware), indicates that live Happy Meals are a force to be enjoyed physically. A few people down front seem to get that, but it’s an otherwise disappointingly studious crowd, giving the exuberant Scots too little to work with.
Maybe everyone’s just here tonight for The Pop Group, tonight’s headliners. The veteran post-punkers can’t be faulted for a lack of energy: Mark Stewart’s giving it what for on stage, shirt sagging with sweat, sitting raggedly on his restless frame. The newer material off Citizen Zombie isn’t hitting home though, even as the front man gamely barks “assume nothing! Deny everything!” on S.O.P.H.I.A. It’s hard to pinpoint why, the group seemingly doing as they ever did in mapping out chaotic post-punk patterns. Maybe it’s that such simple sloganeering feels out of place amidst a weekend that will variously feature things like Six Organs of Admittance’s Ben Chasney describe a new compositional method, the Hexadic Structure, or Holly Herndon’s brilliant visual representation of our open book online culture (more on which later). Ultimately it feels like, unlike peers Wire, they’ve simply not quite managed to keep pace with evolution.
That’s placed in stark light next to Gazelle Twin who hides her face behind a skin-coloured mask and again meets a still crowd acting as though studying an artefact as opposed a body-jerking industrial-hip-hop hybrid with beats reverberating into your tendons and a voice capable of pulling the heavens themselves down. Given how wrapped up Elizabeth Bernholz’ project is in its concept of body dualism, self-perception and surveillance, though, maybe a more contemplative reaction is understandable We'd certainly agree in part with Jon Davies, who recently reviewed her Liverpool show, that there’s a certain pensiveness and autonomy to her routine, sometimes riding along the gridlines of choreographed performance piece. There's plenty of evidence to suggest that Bernholz is truly in the moment here however — and when she breaks free of her self-made constraints, as on rattling shots of Anti-Body, she presents a viscera which is lacking elsewhere.
How refreshing then to have Sex Swing close the Friday with a performance that seems to run on pure instinct. Composed of parts-Mugstar, Part Chimp and Dethscalator, the group offer a corrosive form of tar black psychedelia. At the core of it are Dethscalator vocalist Dan Chandler and drummer Stu Bell, the two threading a line through Jason Stoll’s typically souped-up riff repetition and Tim Cedar’s flailing organ licks. The money shot comes with Colin Webster on sax, providing deep, penetrative drones that result in an atmosphere of utter dread. They only really crank up the tempo in the last third of the set — finishing with one of their few current studio recordings Night-Time Worker — but that’s more than enough, acting as a darkly euphoric release from the previous bone-grinding menace.
It’s already busy for Tomaga, second act on in The Crossing, as we arrive bleary-eyed on Saturday. Driven by the nuanced but propulsive drumming of Valentina Magaletti (The Oscillation/Raime), the duo make good on the watertight yet inventive motorik showcased on last year’s debut LP, Futura Grotesk. Sure, they’re from a wave of artists currently mining the discographies of Can, Tangerine Dream et al, but Tomaga’s strength comes in manipulating the feel of such hypnotic kosmiche rather than attempting to replicate the methodology of it.
A short trip down the road, Circuit des Yeux, moniker of 23 year-old solo Thrill Jockey artist Haley Fohr, is almost motionless under her dark fringe, save the strumming of her guitar. Taking the already stripped back sound of her latest record In Plain Speech and reducing it even further to just two elements sometimes suffers in a warehouse space less than half full; at her peak though — the stirring Fantasize the Scene for instacen — the twin attack of her rich, mid-range vocal register and fuzzy squall of her guitar, hammered thunderously until squealing like it can bear no more is stunning, particularly when she so quickly reverts to little more than a murmur.
Meanwhile a range of talks are taking place within The Auditorium, a lecture theatre that instantly reminds us of so many we failed stay awake in an increasing amount of years ago. We never had lecturers like The Quietus co-founder John Doran though who, aside from presenting readings of his debut book, Jolly Lad, announces his intention to hypnotise us despite “never having seen a hypnotist live or on TV before”. His enthusiastic attempt results in a tingling of the fingers perhaps, which he should take as a pretty good result. More importantly though, as one of the few music writers you’d even consider saving in a nuclear war alongside the politicians, his book — a by-turns darkly humourous, heartbreaking and analytical account of his battles with alcoholism and depression — is far from merely an exercise in establishing his own tastes.
This evening Doran pushes that point home by telling a room full of people more at home discussing the merits of Stephen O'Malley side-projects about the time he bought The Joshua Tree by U2, linking it to his relationship with his father and how a Doran Snr demanded to know of his son what the point of buying music was anyway. In a thoughtful, self-analytical — yet never self-indulgent — spiel, he arrives at the conclusion that music organises time, moments inexplicably linked to the vinyl on his shelf and it's a highly comforting theory. The first time we saw Doran was last December in Salford, where the band Gnod helped carry him through an enjoyable but nervous set. After a spring of 31 dates around the UK though, he's now a master in holding a room, even shorn of any supporting cast.
There’s a back-to-back of sludgy riffery in The Crossing, as first Eternal Tapestry and then Six Organs of Admittance take their turn at various forms of heavy guitar psychedelia. The former take a while to warm up, their muddy textures and slowed-down Wooden Shjips-reminiscent riffs struggling to take hold until the end, when the cyclical revolutions spin faster and some much-needed energy is injected. That's something Chasney and co aren’t lacking however, the early folk mutations that first made his name the previous decade wilting in the face of the scorched riffs of his recent Hexadic-created fire.
Flamingods are backed by some of the most dazzling visuals seen all weekend, all Saharan and Middle Eastern imagery turned into the sort of technicolored dream worlds you could imagine Sonic spinning about in. They look to turn the third-eye through multiple-percussionists, equatorial rhythms and gamelan influences and at their best they’re irresistible, although tonight unfortunately a couple of technical problems derail them. Still, they have people dancing, something we’re learning is no mean feat at this festival.
They also had the unenviable task of following Holly Herndon. The Tennessee producer is enjoying something of a breakthrough having signed to 4AD, but her explorations around narratives to do with our relationship with social networking and the emotional connection possible with them have been important for years now. Tonight her deconstructed techno is spellbinding, as is her visual presentation, the Supersonic Facebook event page opened up at the beginning of the show on the screen behind her, before clicking through attendees profiles. It’s a wondrously simple way of opening people’s eyes to the unquestioning way we’ve allowed our lives to be intruded, and there’s nervous laughter in the crowd as faces are recognised. Herndon then takes us off on a set that veers between non-linear passages of glottal textural sandboxing, and more progressive strands of techno beat-making, fluidly moving between each without ever taking her eyes off her laptop, raised above her a though on a pedestal. Mesmerising.
All of which sets things up The Bug and Dylan Carlson’s much-anticipated live collaboration. Originally intended to take place at last year’s ATP Jabberwocky before the event got cancelled, tonight is a coming together of two behemoths in the field of noise. As we discovered when speaking to them both the other month, the two share a lot in common despite walking in very separate circles, and here that union’s made clear. Barely visible in a smokey red light, the duo face each other as the layers of their Ninja Tune studio collaboration Boa begin to unravel; it’s thunderous and yet strangely stoic, the pair very much marching forwards in unity rather than playing off each other. Carlson’s great slabs of six-string drone grip tightly to The Bug’s beats, which give a nod to the influence of industrial music on a young Kevin Martin at the turn of the 90s.
As The Skinny reports back, Martin has posted his thoughts on Supersonic and what he says is pretty much true. As Carlson walks off, so does the crowd. The sense of urbanity of Angels & Devils perhaps suits Birmingham far better than any other artist here this weekend and yet as Inge Copeland’s recorded vocal from the brooding Fall slink over the PA, numbers noticeably thin. The couple of hundred hardcore who remain are treated to a white hot set that feels in danger of raizing the rickety warehouse to the ground. Long-term collaborator Flow Dan bursts onto the stage and in a moment transforms a largely static bunch of onlookers into a seething mess of limbs and sweat. There’s no doubt Carlson and Martin together on stage was a special moment, but in truth there has been no one in the latter’s long career to ignite such passion within him than the Roll Deep man. Versions of Skeng, Function and Dirty are fired through, the pair bouncing off the delirium that seemed so unlikely less than an hour previous. It’s not been the typical reaction to a Supersonic 2015 performance, but it feels one of the most justified.
And now breathe. The final day brings about a marked change of pace. At the Minerva Works, two runs of industrial units that lead up to the canal, a series of audio visual installations, film screenings and talks take place, from John Robb chatting about the artwork of counter-cultural punk, to John Cage’s Variations VII. At Boxxed meanwhile, Richard Dawson has curated an afternoon of solo performances that take in street music from Prague (Jiří Wehle) to Ethiopian Azmari courtesy of Afework Nigussie. Dawson is the star of his own show though as, playing to a crowd perched on bean bags and cushions, he provokes a rapt silence with his wandering folk and acapella storytelling. A breakthrough year for the singer has yielded a lot more shows and a new slickness to his set, but even so this is still a gloriously idiosyncratic display, one that’s capable of bringing the audience to laughter one moment and heartache the next, while his guitar playing is ruggedly unique, meandering hither and thither, Dawson jumping almost in surprise at the noises he’s springing from it. Joe The Quiltmaker is the highlight, a painful, heart-wrenching tale of his demise, but indeed his whole performance connects, challenges and inspires — everything that this proudly off-kilter festival who asked him to play strive to do.