SUPERSONIC FESTIVAL 2008 @ The Custard Factory, Birmingham – 11th-13th July 2008



You have to hand it to the lovely people from Capsule – They know how to throw one hell of a festival, but, perhaps more importantly, they know how to throw a festival unlike any other. Supersonic is unique for all kinds of reasons, but mainly due to the experimental diversity and adventurous eclecticism of its line-up. Over a 3-day weekend you are guaranteed to see many bands and artists you probably haven’t heard of before but all will undoubtedly get a reaction from you. In the festival program words such as “spazzy”, “doom” and “intense” crop up regularly when describing the bands playing throughout the weekend.


Friday night’s line-up includes the penultimate live appearance of Cutting Pink With Knives who go out in style bringing the party to the people and spending most of their short set rubbing sweaty shoulders with the crowd. They’re followed by the shocking wake-up call of Rolo Tomassi whose disjointed, edgy hardcore draws you in like an old friend before spitting venom in your eyes. Vocalist Eva Spence plays the psycho girl-next-door card to perfection and is mesmerizing to watch.


By complete contrast, local boys PCM bring some dark and heavy drum & bass to the table, climaxing with a guest appearance from Bolt Thrower‘s Karl Willetts who dubs the collaboration “the sound of death metal drum & bass”.


Dälek and his DJ, Oktopus finish the evening with the densest, darkest hip-hop you’re likely to hear in a long time. P Diddy would be running scared. Monstrous!



As I arrived at the Custard Factory, Cath and Phil Tyler were midway through a gentle set which, by it’s calmness, sounded quite at odds with most other bands I’d be hearing over the weekend. Nominally a folk duo but sounding as far from the nu/alt-folk movement as possible, Cath and Phil’s stubborn traditionalism and earthy themes of life, death and drama sat just fine at such an idiosyncratic festival.

The Owl Service complemented them and didn’t try to raise the roof much either. The band are a gentle, pastoral proposition who apparently believe that production methods peaked in 1969. I don’t know about that but they offered an inoffensive-enough set of folky songs. This is Supersonic though, and I was in the mood for some offence so I took myself off to the other stage.

Local band The Courtesy Group kicked up a Fall-ish ruckus while singer/poet Al Hutchins strode about looking angrier than a man in a floral shirt should do, proclaiming angry poetry between songs. From more knowledgeable souls than myself I heard that this was a bigger stage than the band would’ve been used to. Al in particular seemed to relish the space.

Magnetophone combine delicate, gently twinkling melodies with the occasional blast of pummeling bass notes. Mid-set a pounding bass beat jacked things up a gear or two before the duo settled things back down.

Next up, I squeezed into the packed Factory Club to catchJustice Yeldham . It’s hard to describe this guy. Well, it’s not – what’s hard is trying to explain why a man shouting and screaming into a piece of glass (hooked up to a belt of effects modules) is so compelling. The show ended after 15 wide-eyed, slack-jawed minutes the pane had been smashed and bitten into too small a piece to continue. Extraordinary.


I discovered Efterklang a week before the festival when I was trying to learn a little about the bands I’d be seeing. I fell hard for the glacial charms of their latest album, Parades, making this band the one I was most excited about seeing. I’m relieved to say they didn’t let me down. Sigur Ros, Arcade Fire and the Polyphonic Spree provide touchstones to their sound – their chorus of voices lends an uplifting quality to their imaginative, experimental indieness. They fully deserved the longest and warmest round of applause of the weekend.


After a brief sit-down in the Theatre to see some 7 Inch Cinema-curated films, including an innovative take on a live-performance of Sun Ra, I made my way over to see Oxbow. I’m not really sure I remember what they sounded like. I was concentrating too much on the mesmeric presence of frontman Eugene Robinson. Coming on stage in a suit, staring mad-eyed and lurching about performing a punch-drunk haka, the sense of awe in the room was palpable, even when he stripped down to vest and pants later on.


Fuck Buttons were up next – two guys facing each other across a table covered with an assortment of electrical items, any or all of which created a huge noise that wavered between distortion and melody. It took a second for me to get used to it but it was compelling and exciting stuff when I did.
Although I caught a little of Harvey Milk afterwards, my Saturday at Supersonic was capped by an impressive performance by Battles.


Their intricate sound left me a little cold at times – music for the head more than anything – but the times they clicked (especially on Atlas) were sensational. John Stanier is possibly the hardest working drummer I’ve ever seen and the others were no musical slouches either. However, bearing in mind the consideration and complexity Battles put into their songs, it was the aggression in their stage act took me aback.



Einstellung don’t do banter. They don’t even have microphones on stage. Instead they envelop their audiences with powerful waves of noise. There’s a hypnotic feel and a warmth to Einstellung which provides a great way of easing into the final day of Supersonic 2008.

Max Tundra started in fine style, asking ‘Any metallers in the house?’ Someone in the crowd: ‘YEAARGH! METAL!’ which Max took as his cue to kick off a set of fun electro-prog-pop. Samples a-plenty (including a Tim Westwood intro), lashings of bleeps, beats and bass and a charismatic stage presence made for a feel-good performance from probably the most accessible act on the bill.


Parts & Labor drew an impressive audience, with people being urged to squeeze up a little to make room for the people clustered outside the marquee. Their popularity was well deserved too – the Brooklyn quartet whipped up frantic drumming and squalling guitars into a surprisingly digestible mix.
After this I sat in on talks by Yukio Fujimoto and Brian Duffy. The former managing to conjure tiny and beautiful symphonies from three pocket calculators, the latter demonstrating a mind-blowing mix of childish glee and high intellect.
My musical horizons expanded somewhat, I wandered over to see Earth. However, their slow moving, low-end sounds weren’t what my fizzed-up head needed so I went to discover Red Sparowes instead. There was no shortage of low-end frequencies here either, but it was fired rather with rather more energy, resembling a post-rock sonic assault.


Speaking of assault, the prospect of a huge, topless Canadian guy hurling himself at you may not appeal but Fucked Up‘s singer Pink Eyes got up close and personal with a few enthusiastic fans and turned in some straight-up hardcore punk with gags, cartwheels and blood (crushing cans on your head will do that). I can’t be certain, but I think the ringing in my ears started around about here.


A complete change of pace followed, as I caught the last 30 minutes of a screening of classic vampire flick Nosferatu with a live score composed by Grandmaster Gareth of Misty’s Big Adventure and Matt Eaton of Pram. I only wish I’d seen it from the start as the music was fantastically evocative and leant extra depth to the legendary silent film.

Having seen Brian Duffy’s talk earlier I was looking forward to seeing his ZX Spectrum Orchestra perform. The time, effort and dedication that goes into tweaking and programming the very basic computer hardware for their shows is incredible – it took 6 weeks to make a certain tone of beep! Geek credentials were reinforced at every turn during a fun and remarkably varied set.
From knockabout fun to atmospheric rock – unfortunately Gravetemple started late and spent an awfully long time playing the same note whilst shrouded in dry ice. After 15 minutes I took my leave, as did several others. I appreciate this may not have been a slight on the band however, as a trio of legends were about to take to the other stage.


I know very little about krautrock. What I do know is that although Harmonia‘s last album was recorded in 1976, the sounds they were making wouldn’t have been out of place in a club in 2008. Starting with gently layered sounds and introducing stronger, more percussive beats later on, Harmonia’s set soothed at first before escalating stealthily into giddy space symphonies.

So an excellent and eclectic Supersonic drew to a close, leaving a satisfied and pleasantly-rattled audience to return to every day life. The organisers’ credentials as curators of the highest quality secured for another year.

Review – Steve Gerrard (Friday) and Chris Unitt (Saturday/Sunday)
All Photos – Steve Gerrard

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