tue 21/05/2024

Supersonic Festival, Birmingham | reviews, news & interviews

Supersonic Festival, Birmingham

Supersonic Festival, Birmingham

A fine weekend from Birmingham’s annual celebration of music from off the beaten track

Gazelle Twin: electronic music as physical theatre

The Supersonic Festival of the weird and the wonderful may now be in its 12th year but it is still more than living up to its long-running tag-line, “For curious audiences”. This year, an eager audience was treated to sets by both the Will Gregory Moog Ensemble and post-metalists Liturgy, as well as most points in between.

In fact, for those who like their sounds drawn from beyond the mainstream, Supersonic was again a gold mine of tasty treats – and, as usual, there were also plenty of sights and delights that didn’t involve any music at all. Performance art, audience participation and lectures from the likes of Six Organs of Admittance’s Ben Chasny on the Hexadic System of musical composition, not to mention author Rob Chapman reading from his soon-to-be-published tome Psychedelia and Other Colours also provided plenty to see and soak up.

Thursday evening saw the Festival launched at Birmingham’s Town Hall with performances from electric guitar and violin instrumental duo, Fains and the Will Gregory Moog Ensemble. Fains were an unexpected delight of laidback and atmospheric tunes that brought to mind the spirit of Ry Cooder’s soundtrack to Paris, Texas and provided a perfect show to ease those present into the strangeness that was to follow. A cinematic influence also loomed large with the Will Gregory Moog Ensemble’s set. The eleven-piece ensemble took on the likes of Handel, Gabrieli, Bach and Messiaen, as well as some of their own compositions, like the Tim Henman-inspired “Evil Eyes” and “English Country Dancing”, and twisted them into new shapes using a vast array of ancient synthesizers. It was a fascinating performance accompanied by a variety of projections that put the gloss on a melting pot of very unlikely influences.

Selvhenter may have looked genuinely surprised by the warm response to their fiery set but they were certainly one of the unlikely gems of the weekend

Friday’s Day Two meant that the action moved to the Boxxed and Crossing venues in nearby Digbeth and saw a significant increase in volume. Local disco-funksters Free School were the first band to get things really going. Dressed in boiler suits and lamb masks, they played a set of joyous, epic disco that brought to mind French groove prankster Sébastien Tellier and certainly pulled a crowd, even if it didn’t get them moving their feet much. Maybe this was down to the relatively early hour of their performance, though.

The big name pull of the evening was post-punk veterans The Pop Group. Mark Stewart strode onto the stage in Boxxed, dwarfing all around him, and the band launched into a set of abstract funk and occasional dubby sounds drawn from recent album Citizen Zombie, as well as older fare like “She Is Beyond Good and Evil” and “We Are All Prostitutes”. However, it was a blinding version of final tune “We Are Time” that really blew the roof off the building.

Nevertheless, the Friday evening highlight was unexpectedly provided by Brighton’s Gazelle Twin, whose electronic music as physical theatre approach caused quite a stir. Harsh grooves with occasional mis-heard choral and treated and looped vocals on tunes like “I Feel Blood” from recent album Unflesh grabbed the audience’s attention before heaping on confusion and finally demanding further exploration. They were not the headliners though, and the evening was brought to a close by the mighty Sex Swing, whose free jazz was married to creeping, malevolent textures propelled by a sluggish groove before building up into a motorik monster that stamped a distinct impression on the proceedings.

Saturday’s Day Three also saw plenty of unusual turns taking to the stage where they confused and delighted in equal measure. Circuit Des Yeux appeared behind a curtain of hair that brought to mind the Addams Family’s Cousin It, armed only with an acoustic guitar, some effects boxes and an other-worldly singing voice. Maudlin songs from her In Plain Speech album filled the room with folk-ish flavours that alternated between the Leonard Cohen-esque and acoustic grunge with operatic vocals but reaching an apex with the beautiful “Fantasize the Scene”.

SelvhenterOther highlights included Danish all-female quartet Selvhenter (pictured above), with their John Zorn-ish gumbo of instrumental free jazz and punk sounds played on saxophone, trombone, violin and drums. They may have looked genuinely surprised by the warm response to their fiery set but they were certainly one of the unlikely gems of the weekend. Similarly, Eternal Tapestry played a mind-blowing psychedelic set of spaced-out drone music with bursts of feedback, assorted weirdery and even hints of folk music, while Six Organs of Admittance turned up the volume for a set of their sluggish psych-metal that drew on both their new hexadic-powered tunes and older more Neil Young-influenced material. Holly Herndon also turned lots of heads with her sample-heavy electro-experimentalism. However, as she never settled into a groove for very long, preferring to concentrate on soundscapes of random noises and strange vocalisations, it was a performance that might have been better suited to an art gallery than a concert hall. Still, it was an art installation that certainly pulled quite a crowd.

Saturday’s headline performance came from the debut live outing of Kevin Martin and Dylan Carlson’s The Bug vs Earth project and it proved something special. Initially, a sluggish groove accompanied by portentous, droning guitar sounds developed within a tsunami of dry ice, with the pounding beat dropping in and out of the mix of a drawn-out atmospheric cathedral of sound that built on “Boa” and “Cold” from last year’s The Bug vs Earth EP. After about 20 minutes of digi-drone, however, Dylan Carlson left the stage to be replaced by Flow Dan (pictured below) of UK Grime merchants Roll Deep, yelling “These are the evilest hours” and getting the party seriously rocking. Beats were dropped like cluster bombs as industrial dub sounds and souped-up versions of “Fuck N Bitch”, “Skeng”, “Function” and an incendiary “Dirty” got the crowd skanking away well into the early hours until the end of final tune, the mighty “Badman City”.

The BugSupersonic’s final day saw the energy dialled down considerably for a relaxing Sunday afternoon of folk and world music curated by Geordie singer-songwriter Richard Dawson, who himself played a set of the traditional and neo-traditional, the instrumental and the accapella. That’s not to say it was an afternoon that might be described as easy listening by any means.

Phil Tyler kicked off sounding like a one-man Unthanks, with a set of traditional banjo-driven tunes, but things got very weird from there on. Angharad Davies managed to get a variety of sounds out of her violin without conforming to melodic expectations, while Rhodri Davies had a harp that was rigged up like an electric guitar and made sounds that, at best, were reminiscent of a one-man version of the Velvet Underground’s “Sister Ray”. However, his set did also occasionally drift into territory that will be familiar to those with experience of young children and irritatingly noisy toys.

The highlights of Sunday’s performances, however, proved to be world music sensations Jiri Wehle from the Czech Republic and Ethiopia’s Afework Negussie. Wehle played an entertaining set alternately on his harp and hurdy-gurdy, backing Czech songs about elves, trolls, forests, poets and the joys of drinking wine – all with an impish sense of humour. Negussie, on the other hand, made other-worldly sounds with a bowed one-stringed guitar-violin hybrid and sang and danced with a huge smile that proved infectious to everyone present. It was the perfect ending to a festival that has become an annual highlight to many whose tastes extend further than the mainstream and don’t mind if they’ve never heard of the band performing on the stage before them.

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