[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.
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.
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.