Supersonic festival brings together some of the biggest acts in the musical counterculture every October over a weekend in Birmingham. Previous years have featured Sunn O))), Coil, Merzbow, Battles, Psychic TV, and Wolf Eyes, to name just a few. Alongside the music there's art exhibitions, installations, markets, and independent cinema.
This year's line-up was typically mixed. In one sense the watchword was diversity: many stylistic traditions were represented, from theatrical punk to 1960s electronica, industrial noise to contemporary lyre. But in another sense, the festival had palpable continuity: in the common exploratory attitude of the performers, as well as the ubiquity of drone in different genre contexts – drone metal, drone jazz, drone electronica.
The first act I saw on Friday was Part Chimp, active on the south London experimental scene for a few years but who have decided to break up at the end of this year. The band's set was built on guitar riffs low enough to be antipodean. Scotch Egg, a Supersonic stalwart and a person who always seems to be doing something new, put in a rousing set of pounding beats and bizarre childish melodies coming from a circuit-bent Gameboy, with the performer screaming into the microphone and dancing around the stage.
Supersonic is billed as a music and art festival, and one of the most notable aspects of the weekend was the excellence throughout of the visuals being projected behind the musicians onstage. For almost every act the visuals were a perfect complement to the music – from Paul Klee-like patchwork to swirling geometric patterns to stock nature footage – the visuals and music cross-interrogating and mutually enhancing each other.
Standing outside the Space 2 venue at the end of Friday night, whose duration ran into the wee hours with sets of dark electronic beats from Scorn and Cloaks, and earlier on the prog-rock of Secret Chiefs 3, I stared up at the massive old viaduct straddling the festival site, whose stonework was lit up with green and purple light. The music, in its endlessly strange shapes and forms, seemed to have grown out of the physical surroundings – concrete and post-industrial, pregnant with secret life.
On Saturday I saw some of the art installations on-site. One on the theme of chaos featured a ramifying collection of white poles spreading across a huge room's space. Another had bronze mannequins hanging from a ceiling gesturing towards the viewer like a three dimensional trompe l'oeil.
The first act I caught on Saturday was Agatha Max, who played loops on solo violin before a background of swirling black and white spirals. Bardot Pond sounded like a heavier-than-normal grunge band fronted by Hope Sandoval; the quality of the songs proportionate to the slowness of the tempo (slower meaning better). Wolves in the Throne Room, a hot act at the moment, was one of the best attended gigs of the festival, though I found their mix of 80s metal self-seriousness and Khanate-esque doom a bit boring.
Saturday's predominance of metal acts climaxed with Electric Wizard, one of the main draws of the festival. The band hurled out hypnotic de-tuned riffs in front of visuals showing old shlock-horror vampire movies. Elsewhere Klaus Kinski literally traded blows with the audience during a set of frenetic avant-punk, and Skull Defekts, a band whose longevity puts them alongside Sonic Youth and The Ex, were impressively stark and entrancing. Pharaoh Overlord had tunes based on playing two chords for ten minutes in the style of Spacemen 3 or the Thirteenth Floor Elevators. Zombi finished the night with sequencer-based space-rock played to brilliant effect.
Sunday featured the best line-up. Indeed, the amount of good music heard in such quick succession was beguiling. Cut Hands is the new project of Whitehouse's William Bennet, whose set in the Old Library venue featured a mix of West-African beats overlaid on layers of coruscating noise (like a hundred out of control typewriters) before disturbing visuals showing vintage footage of a mental institution in an unnamed West African country. Fire!'s set with guest guitarist Oren Ambarchi grooved the body and pummelled the senses through a mix of brute noise and free jazz. Tony Conrad's set, though not highly attended, was one of the highlights of the festival, Conrad's solo violin mixing just-intoned drones with gratingly horrible scraping noises, deconstructing the violin with a creative reimagining of the figure of virtuoso. Late in the evening Alva Noto rounded things off with a deliciously abrasive set of industrial techno in a Pan Sonic vein. His disorienting visuals sliced the background screen into a million shards of colour; the tune 'Uni Acronym' is a multimedia experience that has to be experienced to be believed.
It was a pleasure and vivifying to witness over the course of the weekend what flowered out of the concrete spaces and dereliction. An excellent festival, and long may it continue.
By Liam Cagney
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