Editor’s note: Due to unforeseen illness, one of our contributors covering the festival was unable to make it, so we apologise for the sparse coverage in places.
Hometown heroes Godflesh might initially seem to be swallowed by the lofty space of the Birmingham Town Hall, the duo of G. C. Green and Justin Broadrick looking a touch vulnerable alone on stage, but from the opening strains of ‘Sterile Prophet’ it’s clear that they intend to fill every single inch of the room with their bleak industrial onslaught.
Punishing, mechanised kicks grind mercilessly as metallic cymbals cascade like foundry sparks. Glass-sharp riffs move with a broken-footed, lumbering gait as Broadrick’s guttural bellows arc aloft. Swaggering one moment, then sucker-punching with jarring atonality as the drum machine attempts to tear itself apart with stuttering kicks. Godflesh are truly commanding; yowling, bend-heavy guitar riffs snake around Green’s rumbling, cast-iron bass as he nails down the grooves, uniting to create a murderous tone, massively chugging with a dour, sneering edge. Broadrick’s occasional bouts of clean, near-sighted vocals sit at odds with the crushing instrumentation, piercing through the dense murk with needling, distorted melodies before loping into more striding palm-muting. Rhythms heave like a steel press, tolling muscular bass powering snaking grooves. Elements of dark electronica and dub suffuse some of the darkly jumping rhythms, the duo’s hypnotic command of groove seamlessly blends and eclipses genre constraint. Although a shame that no cuts from formative classic Streetcleaner were aired (where should they be, if not where it all began?) dwelling on newer material from 2017’s Post Self makes sense, though the band do give a decent account of a wide range of newer and older material. Their dense, clinical, and near overwhelming performance is, as ever, a true spectacle, enhanced by their rarity.
If Godflesh seemed a tad lost in the space (at least initially) post-metal progenitors Neurosis occupy it from the outset with sheer weight of numbers. The sparse, spasmodic and moody intro of ‘A Sun That Never Sets’ starts off tentatively before evolving into the band’s signature full-throated, strident roar. Few bands harness the dappled, ethereal lightness vs. crushing, world-spanning riffing dichotomy as Neurosis do, and the anatomy of the venue transmutes things further; despite the vaulting space, there’s something keenly intimate about their turn tonight, bolstered by a fucking stellar sound mix that carries things across with crystal clarity.
Dispensing lurching, groaning riffs that lumber with a towering majesty, Neurosis are unhurried as they move through cuts from what can be fittingly described as their Albini-era material. Steve von Till and Scott Kelly stand as twin gatekeepers before the henge of amps, each delivering a different performative style; von Till is in full rockstar mode, prowling the stage, contorted by riffs, unfurling to deliver either his confiding, smoky croon or scalded howl as the moment demands. Kelly is stoic, more static and introspective, before unleashing his signature gravel-throated, atavistic scream, though bassist Dave Edwardson competes during his brief snatches of inhumanly low infrasound growl.
Featuring a relatively even split across records from the last fifteen years of their career, newer cuts like the apocalyptic ‘Reach’ and the beautiful, achingly lush ‘My Heart For Deliverance’ stand shoulder to shoulder with modern classics like the explosive ‘Given To The Rising’ and a now rare airing of Times Of Grace-era ‘End Of The Harvest’, the jagged stomp and pounding chords of which are evidence enough of the path the Californians have forged over the last two decades. Jason Roeder nails the bands’ shifting dynamics fast with rolling, intuitive and mesmerising drum work, skittering in a hissing creep of barely noticeable cymbals one moment and coming down in cavernous, tribal tom work the next. Their stage show itself contributes to the dynamic shifts; between songs the lights go out, mirroring the dark/light dichotomy of their sounds, Noah Landis building hypnotic, droning soundscapes between songs behind his lectern of synths. Their live show is a force of nature – world-striding riffs executed with the masterful touch of practice and imbued with the twin spark of genius and conviction. As the last moments of closer ‘Stones From The Sky’ ring out with crushing finality, and the band leave the stage to uproarious appreciation, their absence is immediately and keenly felt. Their own words are the best description of bearing witness to them in person; “feeling their rhythm wash over me”. Wash over you they do, with lasting, affirming effect.
It’s no small feat to follow what would, in normal circumstances, be the end of a fantastic evening. But Supersonic ain’t no normal circumstances, and Londoners Hey Colossus don’t seem cowed in the slightest at the prospect. Stepping onto The Crossing stage that had been looping images of festivals past, the sextet (bolstered by no less than three six-stringers, because why limit yourself to just rhythm and lead?) lay into their bouncy post-punk tinged rock’n’roll. Filled out with big, scuzzy bass their rhythmically interesting take is deceptively simplistic, ambling along in a sea of twanging guitar lines, dreamy strumming and squealing, jagged, freaked-out drives. They’re full of pop pomp and swaggering, bluesy licks, toying with structured and expectations like felid with rodentia, like a stripped-back (and less chaotic) Circle. Enjoyable, especially at a stage in the evening where many will be in full inebriated revelry, but deflated slightly by the caterwauling of their “drunk, sleazy uncle at a wedding reception” vocalist who doesn’t quite fit the bill live.
Over on the aptly named Warehouse Stage are the even more aptly-named Savage Realm. The Brum five-piece execute (another apt-as-fuck word) a brutal blend of Finnish-influenced death metal and heaving crusty grindcore. Born of the ashes of now-defunct sludge unit Lich, there’s not a shred of mid-pace or down-tuned blues in the Savage Realm sound – filthy, d-beat peppered grindcore smashes headlong into roots-worshipping death metal that spasms like corpse muscle contractions. Vocally running the gamut from wretchedly guttural to throat-ruining shrieks, it’s hard to see Savage Realm onstage because 1) it’s dark and 2) you’re pulling the scrunched up “metal gurn” throughout whether you want to or not. Whining guitar overlays raise heads from the murk and quickly devolve into lances of feedback, frantic, foam-mouthed tempos assaulting the senses as readily as the blinding, explosive strobes. As dark as the hour they took the stage, gloriously old-school in sound and effect, this is the sort of hellish racket that springs to mind when you tell your manager at work that you “like metal”, and the sort of flaying noise your mum tried to warn you off when she begrudgingly bought you that first Discharge CD.
Words: Jay Hampshire
Former Lungfish frontman and Supersonic veteran Daniel Higgs provides the perfect wake-up call for Saturday, holding a rapt and hungover audience in The Crossing armed with only an acoustic guitar, a notebook, and his trademark stream-of-consciousness poetry. Even at his most whimsical and tangential Higgs remains a master storyteller, imbuing his rustic campfire bonhomie with wide-eyed psychedelia and blurring the lines between spoken-word performance, folk music, and avant-garde soundscapes. It’s all held together by Higgs’ down-to-earth sense of humour; “…a sudden bout of amnesia!” he intones at one point, before stopping dead in his tracks and staring awe-struck at his guitar as if it were some kind of never-before-seen alien device. Unfortunately, Blanket’s rather tepid post-rock is a relatively lacklustre follow-up in The Warehouse. Performed competently, the quartet’s admittedly impressive cinematic sound feels trapped by predictable song structures, and too often falls into overwrought schmaltz rather than soaring melancholy.
Back at The Crossing percussive duo Joao Pais Filipe and Valentina Magaletti, aka CZN, lead us through a minimal rhythmic workout, with a variety of drums, gongs, and bells. Whilst the steady, enveloping groove they spend the first half constructing is certainly hypnotic, the pair are at their most exciting when they break into sparse, free jazz style clusters of broken rhythms, bursting out of the silence seemingly at random, but played with far too much precision and control to be so. Meanwhile, self-proclaimed black feminist punk band Big Joanie rail against the global spread of fascism, racism, and homophobia at The Warehouse, with simple yet infectious rhythms, angular riffs, and an almost Throwing Muses-esque sense of witty, heartfelt song craft. Whilst capturing the feel of urban isolation and paranoia, their bristling post-punk stompers are surprisingly joyous, eschewing nihilistic despair for bright yet faintly haunting compositions that never lose hope that one day things could be better. Afterwards Japanese one-man band ICHI showcases his whimsical array of homemade instruments at the Market Place Stage, his childlike and playful compositions proving a stark contrast to last night’s crushing riff worship, but making for a perfect palette-cleanser whilst you grab a cake and a cup of tea and browse the festival’s numerous vinyl stalls.
Over at the fantastically decked out Eastside Projects (featuring a stage made to look like it’s resting in the mouth of a big green goblin and bar staff dressed as spiders, hot water bottles and fairies), Glaswegian synth-punk solo artist Apostille soldiers on through a set that’s either an absolute shambles or a perfectly executed slice of cynical performance art – and it’s pretty hard to tell which. Clad in a leather jacket and black corpsepaint, pitched somewhere between Beherit and Alice Cooper, Michael Kasparis begins by screaming a hook at the crowd, before letting a harsh, pounding techno beat drop. A few minutes in however, the sound dies completely, and Kasparis is left screaming at the audience alone without any backing or amplification. He throws himself into it, before eventually running out of steam, resting down and regaling us with a rambling tale about buying his face makeup in Tesco shortly before the set instead. Just as he’s reaching the punchline, the sound intermittently cuts back in and out, interrupting him with such deft comic timing that it’s difficult to know whether this is intentional or not. Either way, Kasparis’ weathered charisma makes it an entertaining experience nonetheless. The Crossing is temporarily transformed into a grand, dream-like chapel for Faten Kanaan, a Brooklyn-based artist who builds similarly grandiose compositions out of live loops and cyclical patterns, allowing gentle synths to blossom into vast, rich tapestries of sound every bit as stately, imposing, and devotional as her visual backdrop.
Nottingham noise artist AJA takes the visuals one step further, seeming right at home on Eastside Projects’ vivid goblin stage with the first truly extraordinary set of the day. With her eyes painted to look like single, beady pupils and decked out in a flowing, squid-like purple cape and yellow udder-clad jumpsuit, AJA commands the crowd like some sort of interdimensional insectoid queen, howling with terrifying passion during harsh blasts of raw noise before belting out thumping, dance-floor ready beats and using her voice and a host of effects to conjure all manner of unsettling, hallucinogenic sonics. She’s greeted by the most visceral crowd response of the afternoon so far, to the point that when something breaks and a thick, distorted electronic snare gets stuck on a loop with machine gun-like force, the crowd go absolutely wild. After a brief panic sets in on AJA’s face, she notices the audience’s fervour and just goes with it, building the happy accident into a colossal, skin-flaying wall of noise before landing into a bowel-shudderingly heavy rhythmic bludgeon once the problem’s finally fixed.
Back at The Crossing, Richmond duo Prison Religion launch into a surprisingly sparse but hair-raisingly effective ambient set, largely dropping a lot of the more rhythmic, trap-influenced elements of their sound in favour of punishing great slabs of seething, Whitehouse-esque noise, with some seriously harsh and tortured vocals atop. It’s gripping stuff, and when they eventually unleash some speaker-blowing 808s and jittery hi-hats towards the end of their set, it’s all the more powerful by comparison, jolting the audience out of their feedback induced stupor with riotous effect. After a quick spot of Black Sabbath karaoke in the Market Place (with, erm, mixed results, let’s say, but nevertheless a joyous celebration of the city’s finest export), The Body unleash a full-on aural assault at The Crossing. Bolstered by the addition of noise artist Dustyn Astbury, the now-trio tear through a set of older, riff-driven songs with jaw-dropping intensity and perfect sound, bringing out every filthy nuance of Chip King’s aggressively overdriven guitar tone and making the kick drum sound like a bomb detonating. It’s amazing not only how oppressively heavy The Body manage to sound, but also just how much more inventive they are than many of their slow’n’low contemporaries; the interplay between their pounding no-nonsense rhythms, eerie, almost black metal style tremolo, waves of white noise and smothering bass frequencies is incredible, and allows them to build a significantly more nightmarish atmosphere than most of their doomy peers. Not to discredit their more electronically driven (and increasingly fresh and imaginative) studio output, but there’s something about the band in this stripped down form which is absolutely electrifying – a live album would certainly not go amiss!
After an agonising wait, The Bug’s eagerly awaited collab with Philadelphia based poet, musician, and activist Moor Mother gets off to an unexpected start due to technical problems, with a partially concussed Kevin Martin having to hastily download new drivers for malfunctioning hardware on the fly – but actually holds together incredibly well considering! Following a heartfelt and immensely powerful spoken-word dedication to the victims of Grenfell Tower from King Midas Sound’s Roger Robinson, Kevin improvises a loose, airy soundscape whilst struggling to get his equipment back in check as Moor Mother repeats a few phrases, mantra-like, until they build into a cacophonous and aggressive chant. Honestly, knowing nothing of the behind-the-scenes problems until afterwards, this seems like an impressively bold and uncompromising way to begin a headline set, with the duo building a sinister and palpably anxious ambience, Moor Mother in particular seeming to revel in the sense of discomfort as she stares down the crowd and stalks the stage with wraith-like grace. Once Martin finally sorts out the technical problems, the preceding stretch of ambient foreplay makes his brash, grimy dancehall beats hit even harder, whipping the crowd into a frenzy as Moor Mother raps atop them with ravenous ferocity and impeccable precision, fitting all manner of verbose and off-the-wall flows over The Bug’s brutal low-end with wild, unrestrained energy.
It’s a thrilling and fittingly unpredictable end to a day that has treated us to a host of delights from across the musical spectrum, and testament to the benefits of Supersonic’s eclectic approach to booking festivals, and the similarly open-minded crowd it attracts. There are few festivals in the world, let alone the UK, that manage to be this consistently surprising and unconventional, and it’s an absolute joy to see Supersonic return in such fine form this year. Here’s to many more years of mind-blowing, genre-hopping, cake-scoffing fun in the murky back alleys of Digbeth!
Words: Kez Whelan
After waiting in the hallway for what seems like 30 minutes, the eager audience are finally allowed in to see Body/Vice – the brainchild of Natalie Sharp (Lone Taxidermist). The set starts off with John Dorian donning a hospital gown reading a dystopian poem alluding to the theme that would encompass Body/Vice’s performance.
Calling this a performance is very apt, as it involves and focuses on performance and choreography as much as it does anything musical. Three members, two of whom are clad in wearable and playable spinal sculptures whilst a third plays a flute, the zany theatrical performance, combined with interactive projections and harmonious vocal effects really go to show what can be achieved with imagination and merging of avant-garde minds. Although the set is cut short it’s a tell-tale sign of what’s to come for the rest of the Sunday.
Over at the The Crossing World Zero – a new collaboration between THE SEER, UKAEA and IMPATV – is a large-scale operation featuring many members, and takes attendees on a multi-faceted adventure through the use of video, noise/power electronics, poetry, accordion and musique concrete methodology. The collective’s performance feels like stumbling into an abandoned theatre after the apocalypse – as absurd as it is tantalising. Acts like World Zero and Body/Vice are entities that highlight the direction of UK experimental music in 2019.
Guttersnipe seem to be in their natural habitat at a festival like Supersonic, with a mad coming together of vocals, spazzy disjointed guitar and drums through a slurge of different pedals giving the two-piece their self-professed “bizarro” sound, throwing any sort of rhythm or time signatures out the window to a room full of applause and cheers.
Guttersnipe are doing what they want to do on their own terms, genre-bending throughout the set, fusing d-beat, spazz, punk and noise to create something all their own, all the while encapsulating their own sonic ethos as well as that of Supersonic as a whole.
Like a force to be reckoned with, captivating the audience with her very first breath, Swedish goth songstress Anna von Hausswolff leads the audience through an otherworldly purge of a performance. A cacophony of synth organ sounds, layers of instrumental accompaniment and the raw urgency of her beckoning voice, presenting music to drag you deep into the darkness and then throw you to the light. As a performer Anna Von Hausswolff proves incredibly powerful, her voice wavering and hanging in the air as she stands poised above the audience, softly obscured from view whether she’s knelt on the floor, pounding a drum with a hammer or under the soft blue glow sitting at the edge of the stage, as if singing a lullaby. Purity amongst the void. As well as the incredible sound of Anna von Hausswolff, the lighting is instrumental to creating such ambience, flashing between stark white lighting into dark hues of blue, the most powerful being a soft glow of pink and green-hued lighting on each of the band members, as if they are holograms projected from a rip in space and time. Using sampled sounds from Copenhagen Cathedral’s organ they play through last year’s Dead Magic, proving awe-inspiring and incredibly empowering as von Hausswolff calls and repeats “he wants to have my glorious,” though it is readily apparent from this performance that no one can have it.
Words: Tom Kirby, Kate Woodward
Photos: Tom Kirby
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