Supersonic Festival 2017 Review – Saturday Hightlights

[Originally written for The World is Listening]

Despite celebrating its 14th year, Birmingham’s Supersonic Festival is still a bit of an anomaly on the UK festival circuit. Maybe that’s down to its small size, its location, or the esoteric line-up it puts on each year, that has few headliners most people would recognise. And maybe it’s no bad thing either: commercial considerations are largely left aside, leaving space to explore some of the most forward-thinking, experimental and plain weird new sounds from the UK and beyond in the company of others who genuinely appreciate doing the same.

Curated by Lisa Meyer and the team at Capsule – who promote alternative sonic and visual arts from their base in the Custard Factory – Supersonic has long championed independent artists in the fields of metal, noise, electronica, alternative folk and hip hop, as well as sounds that transcend genre boundaries altogether. Its open-mindedness is also reflected in the relatively gender-balanced line up, which features a significant number of pioneering female artists.

The first of these that I see as I enter Wild (one of the three venues for the festival, along with adjacent Boxxed and The Crossing) is Jessica Moss, a member of Canadian post-punk band Thee Silver Mt Zion Memorial Orchestra, who has branched out on her own with the aid of her violin, a loop pedal and a bunch of effects. The drones and harmonies she creates feel orchestral and ominous; her violin playing is stunning, weaving a gothic tapestry which is occasionally overlaid by her gentler vocals. Her set also introduces two themes that run throughout the festival: unorthodox uses of instruments, and an emphasis on drone and texture rather than on ‘songs’ in the normal sense.

After that I get to see Big Joanie, a self-described Black feminist punk band, and a welcome interjection into a festival space that, despite its open-mindedness, is still predominantly white. Big Joanie bring an overtly radical political stance to the event, a consciousness of the need raise the profile of marginalised groups within the punk scene. But rather than the loud, confrontational sound I was expecting, their sound is a lot warmer, drawing just as much from grunge as from hardcore punk.

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In a lull between performances, I wander around the main hub of the festival and have a peek at the Black Metal Life Drawing class that’s taking place. People are earnestly sat at tables, sketching a model posing in an Alice Cooper grimace. This feels like a hint towards the festival’s early days where metal bands were a central component. But it also shows the light-hearted and friendly side of the festival, where there’s none of the hedonistic excess you’d find at a lot of similar events. Despite some of the extreme music, overall it’s a very civilised affair.

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The weirder sounds that were hinted at by Jessica Moss come into full force during the The Seer, a collaborative multimedia performance orchestrated by film-maker Conny Prantera which features several other visual artists and musicians. The piece is centred on the mythological figure of Cassandra, and while frantic violin playing, wailing and the clattering of drums emerges from the stage, several cloaked figures creep through the audience, leaving offerings at a makeshift shrine at the front.

But I only catch the first 15 or so minutes of this, as I’m drawn by the gnarlier, more violent sounds emerging from Boxxed, as Italian avant-metal noise renegades Zu make their way on stage. Their ferocious set is an incredibly precise and intricate lesson in sonic destruction, which brazenly tramples over genre boundaries and time signatures. Bassist and electronics wizard Massimo Pupillo does things I’ve never heard anyone do with a bass. For several minutes, he induces ear-drum rattling blasts of noise, some of which he summons by taking out his jack lead and whipping it. This is the festival at its most intense, and for the unprepared, probably its most alienating, but it’s the peak performance of the weekend for me.

The theme of using instruments in unpredictable ways is taken up again shortly afterwards by monstrously talented saxophonist Colin Stetson. Using a mixture of circular breathing, multiphonics (producing more than one tone at the same time) and mic-ing up the keys of his sax to project their percussive sound, he transforms the main auditorium of The Crossing into a hypnotic, trance-inducing reverie of cyclical rhythms and undulating melodies.

Saturday’s final act is Zonal, A collaboration between Kevin Martin (better known as The Bug) and Birmingham’s own Justin Broadrick of Godflesh, it’s a coming together of noise, mutant dub and metal. I’ve been to enough of The Bug’s shows to know ear plugs are an absolute necessity, and it doesn’t surprise me when the bass emanating from the speaker stack sends plastic cups jumping an inch off the bar. It’s another bruising sonic adventure, of sludgy beats rumbling beneath sheets of distortion, and at time it feels like the room has been paused in the start/stop motion of strobe lighting.

At this point, I bump into a Mancunian record store owner who’s down from Glasgow. She’s maybe had a few, and she’s berating the ‘white sausage fest’ of an audience for not dancing. She’s got a point: the audience, at this gig at least, is predominantly white and male, and not moving very much. While there’s definitely truth in what my intoxicated friend is saying, I wouldn’t write the festival off completely: in terms of its lineup and its dedication to exploring music at the fringes, the whole event is of a very high quality and one of the most sonically interesting festivals I’ve been to in a long time.

 

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African Hacker

 

[Thoughts on Saul Williams, Martyr Loser King, hacking & scavenger culture]

Saul Williams appears in a black bird’s mask and black jacket, crouching down on stage in a kind of bow, before stepping up to the mic. He’s alone on stage, without a backing band or DJ, musical support coming via the sound booth from collaborator Thavius Beck. His vulnerability becomes all the more real when, just a few minutes in, he trips over one of the monitors and falls head first into the crowd. The tumble only slows him down for a few seconds though. He keeps singing from the floor, rising victoriously a few moments later. A couple of tracks in and he’s back in the middle of the floor, mic raised towards the ceiling, surrounded by bouncing fans.

 

Visuals flashing across a screen are transmitting signals just as important as his lyrics: they convey some of the reference points for his new album Martyr Loser King. Figures from across the African-American artistic pantheon – Jean-Michel Basquiat, Nina Simone, James Baldwin, Octavia Butler – appear and disappear like spectres or deities, bearing messages, cryptic clues.

The album was born out of the constantly fluctuating memes of social media, but also from field recordings he made during a trip to Central Africa – a region whose polyrhythms he sees as precursors to digital drum programming. In a podcast for NPR radio, Williams stated that part of his creative process was to “take all the stuff I’m thinking about, all the stuff that’s in the news, all the stuff that people share on social media, all the interesting finds and kinda dump it in my drum machine and create a thinly-veiled fiction where I can talk about all the stuff that is of interest to me”.

The album – which charts the adventures of a hacker living in Burundi, and the stunts he is able to pull before being targeted by the authorities – is also based on scenarios he encountered on his journeys in that region of the world. As he mentions in the NPR broadcast, Africa has one of the world’s youngest populations, one which is increasingly connected to the internet. While in the West, Africa’s role as a node in the information economy tends to be dismissed, it is actually central to it in many ways.

For a start, Central Africa, and Congo in particular, is where the majority of the world’s coltan – used in the production of capacitors in electronic devices, especially mobile phones – is mined. Secondly, much of the rest of the world’s E-waste (old phones, monitors, motherboards etc) is dumped in Africa. In fact the world’s largest e-waste site is in Agbogbloshie, Ghana. In his travels, Williams came across instances of ‘scavenger culture’ where people use these discarded objects, and rework them in ingenious ways (by building a 3-D printer, for instance). Africa then, can be seen as a central nexus of information and technology, and of a shape-shifting hacker culture.

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Kid standing on a monitor, Agbogbloshie, Ghana.

So the album is in part an exploration, in sonic/science fiction form, of the material origins of online culture, a reimagining of what the world might look like according to those whose lives are built around the off-casts of the richer world’s decadence. It’s also an exploration of what the powers of those people might be. But he uses the idea of ‘hacking’ in a broader sense than rupturing information systems. For Williams, hacking becomes a tool for deconstructing and subverting words, symbols, images, media narratives and systems of thought, especially those surrounding race, gender, class or immigration status. As he puts it:

hack into comfort and compliance / hack into the rebellious gene / hack into doctrine, capitalism and the relation of free labour and slavery / hack into desperation and loneliness, the history of community and the marketplace

We can all become hackers then. Using our own codes, building our own worlds, manipulating the images and messages that are broadcast at us, and turning them to our own ends.

Sounds and visions

[Ancestral Voices, ASC, Presha & Sam KDC @ Corsica Studios, 4 December]

I feel as though I’ve been submerged in a cavern full of bass; low frequencies swimming around my legs like swirling, sentient murk. I fear the bass is going to sneak up my spine and explode out of my forehead; a demonic entity seeking a passageway through the human bodies in its path. This is not the reassuring bass of dub or reggae, bass that caresses and soothes you, despite its volume. These sounds are menacing and otherworldly.

I’m at Corsica Studios, in a room hosted by Samurai Horo, a label dedicated to experimental 170bpm electronica. Three of the artists playing tonight – ASC, Presha & Sam KDC – recently released a podcast exploring some of the label’s sonic territories, what they describe as a Grey Area, genreless music that owes its tempos to drum n bass, its textures to techno, but its overall aesthetic to neither. It is music that sets uneasily on the threshold between soundsystem culture and experimental soundscapes, full of cyclical, triplet rhythms that are difficult for the body to sync with.

The set by Ancestral Voices – Manchester-based Liam Blackburn, formerly drum n bass producer Indigo – is the most unsettling. His new album, Night of Visions, is a sonic reproduction of experiences he underwent during an Ayahuasca ceremony in the Peruvian Amazon.

It’s a troubling auditory experience, full of dread and awe, and heavily informed by a knowledge of waveforms and sonic frequencies designed with specific emotional outcomes in mind.

Maybe sound is one of the few ways to attempt to communicate experiences – such as confrontation with death and with the darkest parts of the pysche – that are inadequately expressed through language. Sound has always been pivotal to shamanic cultures as a means of transitioning between the seen and unseen worlds: Ayahuasca visions are induced through the singing of icaros – songs uttered by shamans to communicate with plant spirits.

While most electronic music has an indirect relationship to altered or visionary states, it’s interesting to come across an album that has at its core a drive to explore both the transformational potential of plant medicines, and the idea of sound as a healing mechanism; a weird meeting point between ancient indigenous wisdom and experimental electronic music.

Header image: Night of Visions album cover

Trickster rhythms

[Sons of Kemet @ The Cube, 18 Nov 2015]

The way a lot of modern jazz music is talked about and consumed, it sometimes feels as though it has been stripped of its origins as an African-American art form, birthed in the music halls of New Orleans and the streets of Harlem, to be made palatable for respectable European audiences. When I first turn up at The Cube late on Wednesday and stick my head through the door to see an entirely seated crowd, I fear that it’s going to be a night of sedate chin-scratching. But luckily, the energy of the band is far too powerful to be constrained for long, and by the end of the night, the vibe has shifted radically.

Formed by sax player Shabaka Hutchings, who plays alongside two drummers and a tuba player, Sons of Kemet concoct rhythms and melodies that feel deeply hypnotic, almost as though as they are designed to induce religious intoxication. Their new album Lest we forget what we came here to do draws overt influence from Afrofuturist themes and ideas, such as referencing African-American science fiction writer Octavia Butler, who authored the post-apocalyptic Parable of the Sower series.

These are clues to the way the album functions as what the band’s website refers to as ‘a meditation on the Caribbean diaspora in Britain’. This political subtext is reflected sonically in restless polyrhythms which clatter in multiple directions from the two drum kits, drawing on traditional rhythms from Barbados (Hutchings was raised in between Birmingham and the Caribbean), as well as West African and marching band rhythms. These beats create a sense of constant, almost desperate movement: in their video for Play Mass, Hutchings runs ceaselessly through countryside and city, wielding his sax like some kind of trickster-alien, guided by golden animal-headed deities.

Their performance at the cube is guided by this same unceasing momentum. Tuba player Theon Cross alternates between dubby basslines, subtle, polyphonic drones and spluttering, almost beatboxed rhythms. I can’t remember ever feeling so impressed by the tuba, a beast of an instrument. This, combined with the ferocious drumming of Tom Skinner and Sebastian Rochford, leads to a faction of the audience (including me) forming an unruly rabble next to the stage, unable to keep still, as the intensity of the band’s ritual reaches its peak.

Extreme elements

[Senyawa @ Old Market Music Festival, 5 September 2015]

I’ve found myself seeking heightened sensory experiences lately. Maybe it’s to cope with the tedium of working life, or to jolt myself out of rigid patterns of thought, but going down the pub for a quiet pint just won’t cut it right now.

On Saturday I ended up at Old Market Music Festival, a free all-day event hosted by The Exchange and Stag and Hounds, two adjacent venues with a reputation for hosting alternative live acts from Bristol and beyond, with the former in particular putting on shows which lean towards the experimental and/or extreme.

While I saw a couple of interesting acts, they were all blown out of the water by Indonesian duo Senyawa, who were performing in the UK for the very first time. With no preparation and no context to place them in, hearing them was like being slapped round the face by a howling stranger in the street, and then for some reason feeling euphoric about it afterwards.

Hailing from Yogyakarta, the cultural capital of Indonesia’s most populous island, Java, the band produce music embracing some of the weirdest sonic juxtapositions I’ve ever heard. Both members of the group – Vocalist Rully Shabara and instrumentalist/instrument-builder Wukir Suryadi – grew up listening to heavy metal. Together they fuse Javanese folk traditions with elements of metal and drone, and genre-defying experimentation, all approached with a kind of punk ferocity.

Senyawa playing on the road in Yogyakarta.

Part of the reason they sound like nothing else is their use of homemade instruments, designed and assembled by Suryadi. One of these, a menacing bamboo instrument called a Bambuwukir, is fitted with steel strings, producing timbres that sit somewhere in between thrash-metal guitar and harp. In addition, he has built a smaller two/three string instrument that is relayed through a set of loop and effects pedals to create hypnotic riffs, as well as a percussion instrument producing heavy bass tones that looks as though it is built from arrows placed through a resonator.

Attempting to describe what transpired feels a bit futile, as they are a band that really need to be experienced live. But their set could be explained in terms of contrasts: between the plaintive, melancholic tones generated by Suryadi, who stays calm and composed throughout, and Shabara, a totally uninhibited and incredibly intense performer, who moves effortlessly between falsetto warbles, death metal groans, ear-piercing screams and garbling vocal leaps. He is also aided by impeccable comic timing and a theatrical physicality. At one point in between tracks, Shabara interjects: ‘that one was about the sea, this one is about a volcano’, going on to describe how their village was destroyed by a volcanic eruption in 2010. Drawing inspiration from the extremes of the elements might go some way to explaining their approach to music-making.

Throughout, all energy in the room feels hyper-focused. The reactions of the crowd vary from stunned and rooted to the spot to laughing hysterically and head-banging in a trance, all understandable reactions. It is a participatory experience as well: during the final track the audience are invited to howl, shake and scream in call and response with the singer, a necessary catharsis after the creative madness we have all just witnessed.

Glimpsing the Ra Ship

[Sun Ra Arkestra @ Cafe Oto, London. 18/08/15]

I’m having a pint by myself in the Wetherspoons on Brixton Road, scribbling to-do lists on the back of a gas bill envelope when I get a call from one of my friends. She says she has a free ticket to see the Sun Ra Arkestra and that the show starts in half an hour. I hop on to the Victoria Line and back out into the late-summer drizzle, arriving at Dalston’s Cafe Oto damp and flustered, the lady at the door eventually letting me in after spending several minutes unable to find my name on the list. I buy a beer from the bar and immediately spill half of it down my leg when a woman bashes into me.

I was hoping the first time I witnessed the Arkestra would be a transformative experience, lifting me out of myself and delivering me to alternate realms. Instead, I’m drenched and dying for a piss, getting dirty looks from everyone I stumble past on my way to the toilet in the furthest corner of the venue, which is crammed with people, clouds of sweat condensing over their heads.

I’ve arrived just before the interval, but as the Arkestra retake the stage, my mind is in the way of the music. I have trouble deciphering the sounds I hear and can’t find any words to describe them. I sometimes find that is a problem with jazz music in general, and with the timbres of the saxophone in particular. It is almost too pure an instrument. It is as though the player spits their soul through it, and into the ears of the listener. It is, at first, a jarring and bewildering experience. But then perhaps that is the point of the music of the Arkestra, deriving from Sun Ra‘s intention half a century ago to uproot us from Earthly consciousness and to take us somewhere altogether different, utilising whatever frequencies are necessary.

Much as I try and get lost in the music, my frazzled mind can’t help but get distracted by my surroundings and the reactions of the crowd around me, which my friend later describes as ‘a mixture of Afropunks and conservative jazz farts’. I start to wonder: if Sun Ra were still with us on Planet Earth, what would he make of all this? What would he make of this trendy venue, nestled amongst the social contractions and violent juxtapositions of gentrified East London? What hope would he offer beleaguered citizens living under the corporate junta of modern Britain? What would he make of rent rises and benefit cuts? Of smart phones and dating apps? Of civil wars and migrant crises? I imagine he would laugh it off. That he would tell me I’m looking at it all wrong; that there’s other way of perceiving it if I would just listen.

Two hours later and the band, led by the magnificent 91 year-old saxophonist Marshall Allen, is still playing. Not only are they still playing, but they are slowly dismantling the expectations of the audience: members of the brass section keep breaking away from the stage and snaking through the crowd, arriving in the middle of huddles of listeners, wielding trombones and trumpets like alter-dimensional weapons, blaring snippets of riffs before carrying on. The energy and stamina of the band, all dressed head to toe in Afrofuturistic reds and greens, is breathtaking. And slowly the logic of the music starts resonating with my jangled brain waves: the music is a life force in and of itself, simultaneously euphoric and peculiar. In tunnelling through the crowd it is almost as thought they are tunnelling through our perceptions, reminding us that there is always another way of looking at things.

…..

For my previous post on Sun Ra, Space is The Place and Afrofuturism, click here.

Modern classical

[Goldie & The Heritage Orchestra @ Bristol Harbourside Amphitheatre, 25/07/15].

I was standing in the VIP section of Bristol’s Harbourside Amphitheatre, pouring out shots from a bottle of rum smuggled in past security. I’d managed to blag a press pass to cover the event for a local events magazine, and was scanning the faces of the crowd, feeling slightly dazed and out of place among the media types, waiting for the gig to start.

It was the only event outside of London in which Metalheadz founder Goldie would see his 1995 album Timeless performed live by the Heritage Orchestra, one of the most progressive and innovative orchestras in the UK, who have played with acts such as Aphex Twin, Amon Tobin, Bjork.

Watching the crowd of veteran ravers, largely in their 30s and 40s, fill the venue, there was a discernible buzz, partly due to the oddity of the occasion; awaiting an orchestral rendition of one of the defining albums of drum n bass, one which expanded its parameters in previously unexplored ways, and undoubtedly marked the younger lives of many of those in attendance.

I started pondering how a form of music that emerged with such furious energy in the early 90s, bringing an unprecedented intensity to sampled breakbeats, had 20 years later found an acceptance in a relatively mainstream music event. Was it evidence of the gentrification of drum n bass? The commodification of a once threatening and otherwordly sound that was born bouncing off the pirate radio antennas of tower blocks? Was Goldie merely another co-opted figure of the underground, now palatable enough to appear on the BBC and talk to your mum about?

Actually, the answer seemed like no. The gig was a magnificent experiment of the possibilities of a electronic music transposed to a live setting. Created by a live string section, bass, brass, choir vocalist Vanessa Haynes and a superb rhythm section focused on the prodigious talents of drummer Adam Betts – who also drums for noise/Mathrock outfit Three Trapped Tigers – it was, at times, an overwhelming experience. At certain points it felt the audience didn’t quite know how to respond, whether to try and rave it down or stand there in awe. One guy next to me, tall, bald and dressed all in black, turned to me during a pause between songs, and said, wide-eyed ‘it’s almost as though this was how it was supposed to be played’.

I wonder whether, in another 20 years, the same cohort, by then in in their ’50s and ’60s, will still be busting out their best skanking moves. Will drum n bass be considered a venerated form of modern classical music by that point?