Revel in the past, present and future of noise: Supersonic 2017 festival review
Nostalgia features heavily in the live music industry these days. Heritage acts dominate the circuit, performing with scant regard for the real estate they hog from younger artists. Tribute and cheap water trampoline cover bands fill the pubs and pavilions. News of ever-more-unlikely reformations fill our Facebook feeds on a near-weekly basis, talked-up before the summer festival season and forgotten again in autumn.
Even Birmingham’s Supersonic doesn’t shy away from nostalgia. Its promoters, Capsule, are the producers of the Home of Metal archive – a treasure trove of memorabilia and stories about the city’s rightful claim boasted in its title. From Black Sabbath to Napalm Death to Godflesh, there’s a lot of nostalgia to mine here, but Supersonic succeeds with quite a miraculous balancing act: never letting the past overshadow the sounds that are current and that will make waves in the future.
The festival’s opening concert is testament to that. Birmingham’s grand Town Hall, a building with significant musical heritage owing to its almighty Hill & Sons pipe organ, plays host to Khyam Allami and Anna von Hausswolff – two certifiably contemporary acts. Syrian-born Allami, armed with his Arabic oud, sends loops of the instrument out into the vast space and reconnects with them via droning lines and quick interplay. Hausswolff’s set makes use of the hall’s incredible organ, providing swelling chordal workouts which veer between folk and prog in a satisfyingly moving way. Her vocal is incredibly powerful too and I leave the venue wanting to hear more of her voice and more of those stately organ pipes. I wonder if those keys and stops have ever been played in such a way before.
The next show on my itinerary, however, is quite a different proposition and I head on down to Boxxed in Digbeth. Melt-Banana are legends from Tokyo who have been fusing noise, grindcore and a multicoloured approach to electronics since 1992. Today the band are stripped down to a duo, with vocalist Yasuko Onuki triggering the bass and drum backing tracks with what looks like a Sega gamepad while guitarist Ichirou Agata flails wildly with his Gibson guitar and numerous effects pedals. The twosome M-B makes sense. They create a noise which remains so detached from what one would associate with a ‘band’ – particularly thanks to Agata’s ridiculous guitar technique – that it’s kind of easier to process knowing there’s some electronic assistance. It’s a stunning show; as electrifying as they were when I first heard them nearly 20 years ago.
The venue next door – Wild – is given over to an “algorave” for the last portion of Friday night. Live coding, algorithms, electronica and glitched visuals is the vibe. I’m not sure of the artist who I catch in the proceedings but the set is cool – jerky micro-songs, beats and grooves with a sort of uncanny desktop PC sound palette set against a backdrop of warped animé. It’s a good close to a fun day.
Ex-Easter Island Head open things on Saturday in The Crossing – the live room belonging to South & City College. They perform with an expanded line-up for this special performance, cramming the stage with guitars placed on tables which are struck, plucked and strummed with harmonic reverberance.
Afterwards, I catch Big Joanie, London-based feminist band who mix punkiness and pop tenderness in an emotive way. Then Birmingham’s alternative rock group Grey Hairs follow, reintroducing some heaviness into the day.
There’s a weight of expectation for Richard Dawson back in The Crossing on Saturday evening. He performs mostly cuts from his new record Peasant and featuring a backing band made up of Angharad Davies and members of Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs. The tracks from the new LP are surprisingly accessible, with singalong refrains and radio-friendly song lengths. There is still great dynamic to the set too – which is something I thought might be lost with more band members – but there is room maintained for Dawson’s use of quietness before the group jump in behind his more booming moments. There’s plenty of weirdness in the new songs too, and the lyrics are no less important and no less captivating.
I swing by performances from Seer and Jenny Hval, who both touch upon unsettling theatricality and interesting electronica-scapes, before finding myself back at Wild for Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs who share more than passing resemblance to My War-era Black Flag with sludgy riffs and strained howls from a man in shorts. It’s a strong format though, and they do well to bring it up-to-date with occasional squalls of synth and challenging song structures which rattle the walls of this old Digbeth warehouse most sufficiently.
Colin Stetson closes Saturday’s shows over in The Crossing. Famed for his superhuman lung-power and expansive saxophone pieces, he not only manages to lay down tonal beds via the sax reed, on top of this you can make out his vocal chords singing within the noise. His instruments are also mic’d up making a feature of the clicks of the valves while he plays too. It’s a performance which is profoundly moving and physically incredible.
The opening concert on Sunday features one of my most anticipated artists of the weekend: Pierre Bastien. Bastien is quite a rare live performer who literally constructs his music on a tiny box-top construction incorporating cogs, pulleys, fans, revolving pipes, elastic bands and a small trumpet covered in tin foil. For this show, he is joined by the excellent London duo Tomaga who take pride in locking into the micro-grooves established by Bastien and sometimes accentuate more of his tuneful moments with Moog and bass. It’s a combination that works, with all involved appearing inspired by the juxtaposition of sounds coming from the smallest means up against the more expansive psychedelia afforded by Tomaga’s synths and drum kit.
Over in Boxxed, guest curator Khyam Allami is responsible for the program during Sunday afternoon. I catch Nadah El Shazly, an artist hailing from Cairo who uses keyboard, oud and samples to underpin her incredible voice. Her songs veer from dense layers to sparse moments with great skill, often taking surprising turns from sharp vocal to hazy hinterlands drawing on Egyptian traditional music and field recordings. Again, she plays with time somewhat, reprocessing the past and occupying the gap between the illusion of memory and the tangible now.
Back in The Crossing, I catch a young but frighteningly accomplished group from Birmingham: Dorcha. This five piece use synths, strings, as well as electronic and analogue beats to create an exciting proggy racket. Again they are very much built around the vocal which, like Hausswolff and Shazly, is another tremendously powerful voice. Fans of fine vocals have really been treated this weekend.
The next act to grace The Crossing stage is The Space Lady. I’m surprised Supersonic have chosen to program her in the biggest venue here, unsure that her small Casio organ and fragile reverbed voice will carry. But I needn’t have worried, The Space Lady (real name Susan Dietrich Sneider) hits the ground running with her interpretation of The Beatles’ Strawberry Fields Forever. She then takes us on something of a self-reflective journey from her youth obsessed with the psychedelic sounds of the 60s (covering The Electric Prunes as well as the aforementioned fab four), to her discovery of electronic sounds (Synthesize Me) right up until her response to the recent election of Donald Trump: “I was in a depression for months, but I thought, I’ve gotta turn this into something positive!”
Sneider is a wonder of inspiration and positivity, spinning jokes and philosophical asides in-between tracks. By the end of the set more than a few people are in tears, moved by the independent strength she exudes and her lo-sci-fi sounds. Some call out to her: “Will you be our prime minister?!” “Space Lady for PM!” It’s certainly one of the more special performances I’ve seen at a music festival in recent years.
The band with the challenge of having to follow The Space Lady is Oxbow. The San Franciscan four-piece lay on a special performance which includes a choir of Birmingham natives and are playing in support of their new record: The Thin Black Duke. The core Oxbow sound is a sort of hard-edged deconstructed alternative rock which flits between noisy riffs and the dominant dynamic vocal stylings of frontman Eugene S. Robinson. It’s hard to really see how a choir can fit into that. Robinson is such a presence in his own right – the juxtaposition between his character and the solemnity of those at the back of the stage is clear. But, perhaps unsurprisingly (this has been a weekend of juxtapositions after all), it works. Robinson’s anguished story songs are well-embellished by the choir, which draws out the religiosity hinted at in the content and lends a depth to the seediness of their general vibe in a truly effective way.
Oxbow are something of a Supersonic favourite, performing a number of times at the festival over the years. And they’re something of a consummate Supersonic band. Blending the simple sexuality of rock ‘n’ roll with challenging experimentalism. Robinson is a frontman who lays bare his lived experience in an uncompromising way and the band are always keen to explore a new avenue through which Robinson can present his lyrics. The use of a choir is bold for such a band. And to book Oxbow with a choir to headline the main stage of a festival is bold for any promoter. But you can tell from looking around at those in attendance, that it is these kind of risks that keep them coming back to Supersonic. Back to Birmingham: Home of Metal. To revel in the history of extreme and risky music and to gaze into the crystal ball of what kind of sounds the global underground promises for the future.
Photos by Scott Noskills.