Supersonic Festival: review, what we learned and the best bands from Digbeth

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Apostille performs in the mouth of the monster

Supersonic returns for its 15 edition proving there’s a real appetite for boundary pushing art and music, Getintothis’ Peter Goodbody explores those at the fringe.

For it’s 15th edition, Supersonic Festival kicked off with Godflesh and Neurosis playing in Birmingham Town Hall.

Let that sink in for a moment.

And while you do, imagine us on a journey that will end with the more familiar Pigsx7 but has very few known stopping points along the way.

It’s a big leap to sign up for a festival where we will admit to knowing little about any of the artists on the bill and absolutely nothing about most of them. But we are here, and ready to dive in.

The main hall in Birmingham Town Hall is all imposing pillars and ornate plasterwork on the ceiling. It is home to an impressively large pipe organ – 6,000 pipes, some of which are more than 10 metres tall. The perfect place for an organ recital or a symphony orchestra.

It’s the most unlikely of places for a gathering of people with beards, mostly dressed in black. But here we are and Godflesh are ripping holes in the floor from the off.

Lots of bands engage with the sound engineer during a set, asking for a bit more bass in the monitor or a bit less snare drum.

Godflesh address the lighting engineer. “No spots, just blue on stage. We want it dark”. And dark they got. And heavy we got. It was glorious. If the rest of the weekend is this good then we’ll be just fine.

But let’s just backtrack a bit.

Although Friday night was a full on noise assault, Supersonic is not a one trick event. It embraces the experimental in whatever form, whether metal, jazz, dance or rock.

It’s for anyone who is keen to have a look away from whatever is playing on the radio, who wishes to be entertained and have their eyes and ears opened to something different. The festival strap line is “For Curious Audiences“.

We hope that applies to us. We’re intrigued.

As we write these notes, we have no idea how the weekend will pan out. There are many acts on the bill of whom we have never heard. Although regular readers will know the fact that Sunday will close out with Pigsx7 is likely to make us very happy indeed. But there’s much here to discover.

We arrived early Friday afternoon and after checking into the hotel we went for a wander. We had a beer and realised there was an entertaining game to be played (we’re easily amused) of spot the Supersonic attendee. It wasn’t that tricky to be fair. Tatts and black t-shirts were a pretty reliable give away. We claim a 100% success rate.

We still had time to kill before the Town Hall gig, so we quizzed Google for a decent record shop and ended up in The Diskery. You could spend hours in here.

There are thousands upon thousands of records, only some of which are in racks. Others are in boxes piled on the floor, some labelled some not.

There’s a note on the wall telling us that not all the stock is out front – there’s plenty more out back. It’s very Black Books, but with vinyl instead. There’s no smoking ban in here either. How very Dylan Moran.

The Diskery – England’s oldest record shop

We gather there’s a band playing in here tomorrow at about 3pm. The Dead Finks. Sounds like a plan. There’s nothing doing at Supersonic before about 4.30pm anyway.

But now we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Back at the Town Hall for the main event and the reason most people are here tonight.

For 30 years Neurosis have been bucking the norms, even of how you might think of heavy metal. It’s loud and uncompromising, but that doesn’t mean it’s done without thought or skill.

The main room is full to the back by now for Mogwai’s angrier brother. For an hour and a half the band power through a set of massive numbers, each one more banging than the last.

But there’s a surprising intricacy going on here too. There’s more to this than thumping bass and screaming guitars.

There are pauses for breath and a really intelligent use of synths that gives layers to the songs. It’s really quite special. And we’re only two bands in for this weekend.

There’s enough time to get to the main festival hub at the Custard Factory to catch Hey Colossus do their kind of what The Fall might have sounded like if they had been psych band thing. We could Insert more superlatives but it was just excellent.

We finished the night being shouted at by Savage Realm over in the Warehouse. We’re on a steep learning curve here, but it’s starting to make sense.

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In the meantime, there’s a chicken fried rice in Chinatown with our name in it and a chance to take stock before tomorrow‘s assault.

We did indeed pay a return visit to The Diskery on Saturday to see The Dead Finks and store owner, Liam, passed a couple of beers our way as a thanks for coming. The sight of a full four piece band, drums, bass, guitar and singer squeezed into a corner of the shop was remarkable enough.

Add in black velvet cowboy hats, purple satin shirts and Lone Ranger masks and you’ll get a feel for how bizarre the whole thing was. But in a good way.

It put big grins on our faces as we reluctantly said our goodbyes and headed back to Digbeth for the business end of the trip.

The Dead Finks

A bit of messing about and a lack of forward planning (such as reading the programme) meant we missed a couple of the early acts. So we started off with Blackpool’s Blanket in the Warehouse.

The band create undulating landscapes with their guitars in the same way that, say, Sigur Ros can do. But this version has more aggression and power. If it’s not a contradiction, as the name suggests it’s quite comforting.

CZN were creating a different kind of soundscape with their drums, cymbals and bells. It was hypnotic and primal. It had the audience, if not quite hypnotised, certainly giving it their full attention.

The stage splits are (mostly) intelligently staggered so it’s easy enough alternate between them and catch a bit of pretty much everything on the bill.

Big Joanie are also bashing out a punk style beat over in the Warehouse. Self proclaimed feminists and riot grrrls the trio rattle off a cracking set of three minute bangers, with the drums taking, literally, centre stage.

There’s time to pause for a mango curry from Sri Licious. The food offerings here are excellent.

One of the main sponsors of the event is local brewery, Purity, who had a couple of bars on site with good quality lager, IPA and cider.

There was Beet The System who are a vegan collective, Masa doing Mexican street food and Green Pizza, doing wood fired oven pizzas with locally sourced, organic ingredients. All good.

Faten Kanaan‘s looping swirling synth compositions had the air of a church organ at times.

The NY artist builds layer upon layer of sound creating loops and patterns that grow and develop over the course of her performance. It’s effect is subtle, but it’s easy to get drawn in. We could have stayed here much longer.

In The Warehouse instrumental trio, Matters are also putting their synths through their paces, although with guitar and drums to add to the mix. Nevertheless there’s a darkness to the feel.

It’s music you could dance to, but that might feel a bit wrong. As with Godflesh, this a Birmingham based band and it’s good to see Supersonic supporting local talent.

The stage times mean we get to see all of this set before we’re required elsewhere. And we’re glad we did. It was a real highlight.

HHY and the Macumbas seemingly play just the one track, albeit with discernible changes of pace and rhythm as we go along.

Duelling drums to the fore and a synth at the back, it’s a set up much like Barberos, but with band leader Saldanha standing front of stage, with his back to the audience. A castanet in each hand and a mask on the back of his head, he twitches and gyrates as the drums vie for supremacy over each other.

HHY and the Macumbas

Repetitive rhythms over and over again set against the trumpet sounding synth, punctuated by the castanets. It’s like a Portuguese version of voodoo, or a rain dance. It’s utterly compelling; it feels like it will never let up, that it could go on all night and into tomorrow.

And we’d still be here, transfixed. In the event, though, after about 40 minutes it does come to an end, abruptly and without warning. They get one of the biggest cheers of the weekend. The crowd loved that.

As we wandered back to the main hub, we happened across the Black Sabbath karaoke. We kid you not.

This was going down a storm as well and found a few pretty good challengers to the Ozzy crown. It was apparently only down as a bit of a fill in, but the quality was such it was allowed to run over. But we move on.

We close out Saturday with a clash and the first time we’ve really had to make a choice of who to see.

We go for The Body. They redefine the definition of heavy.

There is no way this lot could be lifted from the floor. In the studio, they’re a duo, drums and guitar. Tonight there’s a third on stage who could only be described as a noise maker.

He doesn’t have a keyboard or synth. He plays around with effects boards, slides sliders, turns dials up to 12 and gives this band a colossal sound.

The vocals are so distorted as to be unintelligible and the drums hit so hard we are genuinely surprised they survive the first number, let alone a full set.

In contrast to last night’s noise heavy agenda, Saturday has mostly laid off that style, with more subtle journeys into a more experimental, rhythmic and gentler kind of vibe.

Until now. And in spades. What a band.

Closing a thrilling Saturday night, The Bug collaborate with Moor Mother and Miss Red with devastating results – dedicating their set to Grenfell and ‘the city of the missing‘ before pulverising the senses with industrial textures, rafts of titanic vocal and pounding dub. It’s heroically triumphant.

The Body

A new day dawns and with it are Air Loom playing all manner of old analog instruments, bells, a theremin, some pieces of metal that aren’t really an instrument and a rotary dial telephone.

It’s haunting and eerie. Many people are lounging on large cushions on the floor of The Crossing Stage and this is ideal hangover cure fare. A gentle introduction to what we know will become a much more full on day as it goes on.

So too, Haress (the second s is silent) over in The Warehouse are easing us in gently. It’s a more conventional band looking line up, but the addition of tape loops adds another dimension to this thoughtful, meandering and largely instrumental set.

We head over to the Eastside Project for the first time this weekend. We’re keen to see the Turner Prize nominee’s Monster Chetwynd stage and it doesn’t disappoint.

A wide open mouth seemingly about to swallow any band playing there. We were lucky enough to catch a quick chat with Monster, too. She seemed genuinely surprised at what she’d created, especially when compared with traditional stage set ups in the other venues. It’s fair comment. It’s a pretty outlandish thing.

But it’s all good fun. We watch a bit of Victim getting swallowed into the artwork – seems appropriate given their name.

Monster Chetwynd

Sly and the Family Drone have set up in the middle of the floor in The Warehouse. We’re all invited to gather round. And then a bit closer.

It was apparently a new piece written for Supersonic and we’d guess the ones who stayed to watch were grabbed. We weren’t and this seemed to have crossed a line from the interesting and experimental into something that just didn’t work quite so well as most of the other acts we’ve seen thus far.

World Zero were keeping us waiting outside the room in The Crossing while they “set up”. That struck us an odd explanation – most bands aren’t coy about people being around during a sound check.

However when we did get in, we realised why. Set on a platform in the middle of the room, bathed in darkness, save for a single strobe was a hooded monster. Dotted around the room were various other characters dressed in black with white hoods.

A thumping beat from the stage provided the soundtrack to this most audacious piece of performance art. It was quite something to see.

World Zero

But it was running late and we were keen to see Japanese outfit Mono over in The Warehouse. We’d heard good things about them and our sources weren’t wrong.

This was both beautiful and heavy at the same time. The guitars created pictures in our head while the bass and drums tried to chase them away.

This is a band who fits right in to the Supersonic ethos. They’re playing around with sound, rhythm, texture, layers and emotions. It was utterly superb and it may have been the set of the weekend.

We’d thought on Friday that the Neurosis gig would be difficult to beat, especially with Godflesh as the support, but Mono have just got over the line, albeit with a photo finish.

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Anna von Hausswolff has packed out The Warehouse with a one out, one in policy. And it’s easy to see why.

Her infectious, gothic version of Kate Bush does noise is loud, very loud. The drums take a punishing round and the synths blast out loops as Anna von Hausswolff’s gorgeous voice drives it on. Standing centre stage, she’s the Queen of her domain.

It’s pure psych and it’s wonderful. And, we got the perennial question at the end of the set: Is there time for one more? Of course there is.

The last band of the weekend for us will be Pigs x7. There’s been a change of venue, for reasons we don’t understand, but without any competition from any other stage we know this will be rammed, so we head over early.

Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs were a fine band to close out the weekend. Matt Baty seems to have grown in confidence since the first time we saw the band a couple of years ago. It feels like a full on glam rock out, with songs long enough to let them develop themes and stories.

There is no band quite like Pigs x 7, but then again, the same could have been said about pretty much every other band we saw this weekend.

That’s what makes such a brilliant event.

That it was a huge learning curve made it all the better. Birmingham may be the home of metal and that makes it the ideal city in which to host this event.

For sure there were noise merchants – Neurosis, The Body, Victim. But with very few exceptions, what we take away from this festival is that the bands who were booked to play were there for a reason.

There is no point just picking up a guitar and bashing the living daylights out of it – that’s not very interesting. Neither is idle noodling with a synth.

It needs to be done for a purpose and with reason.

These are bands who want to be different in their chosen field. They want to test boundaries, to experiment and see what happens. That’s a special skill and not everyone can do it.

Same time next year?

Getintothis’ nine best bands Supersonic 2019

Godflesh

Godflesh: Birmingham Town Hall, Friday

Our introduction to the festival and an indication of what we were likely to see over the course of the weekend. It laid down a marker and we knew right from the off this weekend was to be something special. – Peter Goodbody

Neurosis

NeurosisBirmingham Town Hall, Friday

We have to go with the obvious. It was by some stretch the stand out performance of the weekend for most people. Full of power and venom, but controlled and reigned in when necessary. Neurosis know exactly what they are doing and how to do it.

There’s a reason they’ve been doing it for 30 years and why 2,000 people packed into Birmingham Town Hall to see them and that’s because they are so damn good. – Peter Goodbody

Big Lad

Big Lad: The Crossing, Friday

Henri Grimes (ex-Shield Your Eyes) and Wayne Adams (ex-Death Pedals) combine for perhaps the funnest yet brutal display of power the weekend can provide.

It’s relentless kick to the groin, punch to the gut rip-roaring rhythms and ferocious stabbing synths which sees the front rows of The Crossing an oozing mess of bodies and flailing hair. The best kind of basement noise-rock imaginable. – Peter Guy

Matters

MattersThe Warehouse, Saturday

Digbeth based trio Matters are one of our finds of the weekend. Melding dark and propulsive textures with undulating driving rhythms they’re the perfect synthesis of krautrock, death disco and something verging on pop to add much needed diversity to proceedings. Power and intriguing – they’re ones to keep an eye on in the future.  – Peter Guy

The Body

The Body: The Crossing, Saturday

A more full on assault we could not imagine and it took us completely by surprise having no prior knowledge nor experience of the band. Genre defying and refusing to be packed up into any particular box.

Even describing them as “heavy” feels a bit wrong, because even though that gives the reader an idea of what we are trying to describe, it doesn’t really do justice to this absolute mammoth of a band. – Peter Goodbody

World Zero

WORLD ZERO: The Crossing, Sunday

Of all the extremes and far out experiences Supersonic has to offer for it’s 15th edition nothing came close to matching WORLD ZERO.

A collaboration between Welsh electronic performer UKAEA aka Dan Jones, artist and filmaker The Seer aka Conny Pranter and IMPATV – an underground and experimental DIY video platform.

After a substantial wait in the corridors of the main building what evolves is nothing short of mesmerising.

We enter the Crossings to viciously intense white strobe light amid droning industrial dissonance and thick white smoke. We’re immediately reminded of Kurt Hentschläger‘s ZEE installation which caused controversy around the world and spun our heads into oblivion at FACT in Liverpool.

What plays out is a lone cyberpunk accordion player atop of a plinth singing disquieting operatic vocals while on the main stage there’s a complete assault of the senses as dizzying droning techno blends into a mantra-chanting semi-naked singer, a woman frantically tearing up a book and something straight out of Hellraiser playing a drum kit. To add to the mania the assorted cast then lash chain hard and fast into the stage while maniacally laughing.

It’s sexual, sensual, enthralling and an overload both visually and sonically – and there’s a few moments we find ourselves steadying our feet should be fall over amid the blanket of white smoke and fizzing lights.

Part theatre, part performance art and yet still musically involving, WORLD ZERO needs to be seen to be believed – and we hope it’ll be taken on a UK tour. This demands and deserves a much wider audience. – Peter Guy

Guttersnipe

Guttersnipe: Eastside Projects, Sunday

With stage names Urocerus Gigas and Tipula Confusa you’d be correct in thinking Guttersnipe aren’t your typical kind of live act. They’re quite unlike anything we’ve ever witnessed.

From shredding guitar histrionics to devastating drum solos and banshee howls they make a racket which is borderline white noise – yet imbue such fun, wit, intricacy and humility it’s quite an astonishing thing to witness.

Better yet is a moment two thirds of the way through when the duo cease playing and instead seem paralysed while attempting to play their instruments and revert to child-like moaning and operating in complete bewildering dysfunction. It is utterly compelling and if there’s a more thrilling duo in the UK right now, we’ve yet to see them. – Peter Guy

Mono

Mono: The Warehouse, Sunday

An absolute behemoth of a set that started off fairly slow, but finished on a stratospheric high. Difficult to see how anything here could have been much better. Our stand out set of the weekend. – Peter Goodbody

Pigs x 7

Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs: The Crossing, Sunday

They would seem to be a proper grown up band now. There’s a swagger and a confidence that has always been present, but it’s developed into a well constructed body of work and a superb stage performance. An almost perfect way to close out the weekend.

Images by Getintothis’ Peter Goodbody and Peter Guy

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