With trees shedding leaves and skies casting a noticeably darker haze over the Custard Factory, Supersonic rolls into town for its latest instalment, this time casting a notably darker ambience across proceedings. With the festival shunting itself into October this time around, its acts seemingly followed suit into a realm of knowingly bleak approximation.
The opening act of the festival, NECRO DEATHMORT, were to set a trait that a multitude of those in their wake would follow, with an emphasis on pitch-black, knowingly depressive drones. The Old Library stage was a perfect setting for these two Londoners, who proceeded to envelope the swiftly increasing crowd with their ever-darkening soundscapes, taking cues from dub, techno and Black fucking Metal.
Despite only catching approximately ten minutes of their set – albeit discovering the cheapest bar on site – it was more than enough to inspire an illicit download of their ‘This Beat is Necrotonic’ record, and for that NDM are to applauded for inspiring one of the great, tried-and-tested Supersonic motifs, that of discovering, almost at your footsteps, yet another great fucking band.
FUKPIG ensured that as soon as the Deathmort finished proceedings, I was propelled to the outdoor stage (moved from Space 2 given concerns about the effects of Napalm Death upon the freshly laid cement holding up a new wall in that particular venue) in order to witness this fantastic new act. Granted, I’m the vocalist, so it would have made for a particularly bizarre performance in my absence, although I’m sure some of the crowd wouldn’t have given a flying Fuk about such matters.
Lest I sound like a self-loving narcissist, no review nor breakdown of setlist will appear here, although for the record let it be known that I had a total blast. At Supersonic I’m constantly reminded that this isn’t a pure metal festival (not that it has ever been publicised as one), and as such I was not expecting the crowd as a whole to be aware of such genre-specific terms as crust, D-Beat, grind or Black Metal, but I honestly couldn’t have been happier with the response.
We generated a decent-sized pit consisting of those who were aware of us, I entered into the crowd on a couple of occasions, and at least one skate shop owner was enamoured with the chorus of ‘they say that Britain’s got talent, it hasn’t, Britain’s Got Fucking AIDS’. So all in all, a great show personally speaking, and I hope those of you watching enjoyed it too.
Unfortunately, being sat backstage, frantically ransacking my gut for any traces of oxygen meant I missed most of Birminghams dark lords of D n’ B, PCM, although reports meant that their streak of concussive Supersonic performances is only comparable to the Undertakers 18-0 Wrestlemania winning streak.
Back over on the outdoor stage, Aaron Spectre, or DRUMCORPS, gave the boisterous crowd a real wake up call. With lank dreadlocks and cut-off sleeves, he gave the impression of stepping straight out of a mid-eighties stenchcore band, and indeed, the spirit of punk in its purest form was at play here. With just a laptop and sampler setup, he augmented his extreme gabba, techno and drum n’ bass with large swathes of samples cut mostly from American Hardcore bands, which in such a Supersonic way acted as a perfect filling between the grindcore of both Fukpig and Napalm Death.
The majority of crowd embraced this startling soundclash, and when Spectre saw fit to drop huge chunks of prime-era Botch into the set, myself and others just couldn’t avoid running into the pit and getting involved. I must admit that when Drumcorps plugged in a guitar to accompany his spastic electronica it didn’t have the same impact as his drum n’ core from earlier, although with the energy expelled by the man, he didn’t fail in winning a good couple of hundred new fans.
Supersonic has always flirted with extreme metal in the past (despite the occasional grumblings to the contrary from dyed-in-the-wool metallers), and this year was certainly no exception. Having been pushed as one of the main attractions in Capsule’s Home of Metal project, NAPALM DEATH finally made their debut at Supersonic and in tribute to their lasting appeal and influence, their stage was packed to the rafters with me peeping in through the side in the cold night and pouring rain.
Playing with a fire in their bellies that belied their advancing years, the spirit, aggression and outright fury that defines grind was all present and correct, and would have made for outright chaos if the sound had been up to scratch. Whether it was a case of the PA being primed for more bass-centric acts over the weekend, or my positioning just outside the tent, it really detracted from the performance as I’ve seen Napalm many times over the years and this had more energy that I’ve seen from them in a long time. Not that Napalm are a band to rest on their laurels, with vocalist Mark ‘Barney’ Greenway putting as much effort into explaining the background to certain tracks with as much genial enthusiasm as he did whilst screaming his famed socio-political lyrics. Bassist Shane Embury was also giving it some serious welly, slamming his knee into the back of his bass as if it had spent the entire set calling him names. This outpouring of righteous anger was vicariously lapped up by the crowd, generating a moshpit of serious intent.
As per their standing as the godfathers of grindcore, their back catalogue was exhaustively trawled, with a special place in my heart for tracks played from their first two albums — namely the genre-defining ‘Scum’ and arguably the quintessential grindcore album of all time, ‘From Enslavement To Obliteration’. I certainly wasn’t left wanting, with a closing stretch encompassing those two albums, with both title tracks, ‘Mass Appeal Madness’, ‘Deceiver’, Life?’ and a romp through their Dead Kennedys cover. ‘Nazi Punks Fuck Off’ aired amongst others. Sure, there were a few giggles when the sub-two-second ‘You Suffer’ was aired, but on the whole the set was an exercise in not only preaching to the converted, but in proudly displaying what they stand for and what they have given to the scene since the early eighties, and for that we should be thankful.
Having experienced Supersonic festival, Napalm Death, and some really atrociously shit weather, the final step was a curry on the way home just to complete the Birmingham top trumps list for the night. And let it go on the record that all of them were completely ace. Well, the really atrociously shit weather aside of course.
You could argue that Supersonic Saturday is where the festival kicks off proper, with the full gamut of multi-sensory experiences unveiled for all to encounter. This year festival-goers were treated to workshops, a film programme, the traditional marketplace and cake shop and a number of talks and roundtable discussions.
Given my unabashed love for the topic, my Saturday commenced in the theatre space to witness ‘SIRENS OF SPARKHILL’, a discussion centred around the formative years of Napalm Death, and by proxy, grindcore as a whole. Hosted by Kerrang! DJ Johnny Doom, this followed on from last years Home of Metal-centric chat with Sunn o))) and Nik Bullen focussing on the influence that Birminghams metal heritage had spread across the globe. This year we remained much closer to home, with present-day ND vocalist Barney Greenway joined by founder Nik Bullen and Justin Broadrick, who featured on side A of ‘Scum’ before leaving to join Head of David and most famously, Godflesh. We were transported back to the mid-eighties where Napalm found their feet and most importantly, their voice, in a Thatcherite Britain.
We were regaled with memories of the Mermaid pub in Sparkhill, which acted as the centrifugal venue for the anarcho and crust scene at the time, with Napalm rubbing shoulders with the likes of Amebix and Heresy over the years. It was interesting to note that whilst the Mermaid has always been known as the semi-official hub of the scene, it was actually a tape traders stall in Birmingham Rag Market that acted as the kind of birthplace of ND with Nik and Justin meeting there and bonding over a shared love of the nascent power-electronics scene, which with hindsight makes sense given their post-Napalm output.
The only noticeable omission was that of original drummer Mick Harris who I’ve always seen — and this was often alluded to by the panel – as the heart and soul of the early Napalm days, with his propulsive breakneck blastbeats. As was the case last year, the hour allotted seemed to fly by in a matter of minutes but I for one, would love to see this concept expand and develop into some kind of documentary, as I could easily spend a couple of hours in the company of Napalm Death and their early days in greater depth.
Moving from the darkened theatre auditorium, my eyes had just about time to adjust to the slate-grey sky before entering the Space 2 stage to witness GNAW, where my outlook would be swiftly darkened, in the most ominous of ways. Featuring Alan Dubin of Khanate infamy on vocals, Gnaw could best be described as a logical next step from Khanate, taking the darkness, evil and sheer abject creepiness of that band to new levels. Whilst Khanate could never be truly classed as a doom or sludge band, given that most of their power was formed from the spaces and pieces of quiet in their tunes, Gnaw have moved further away from the confines of that style and instead dove headfirst into a blackened abyss, bringing to mind the urban bleakness of Blut Aus Nord in places, and other cold, oppressive industrial acts.
Dubin’s voice is still front and centre, his enigmatic howl turning to an eerie whisper at the drop of a hat, with the fantastic light show jabbing criss-crossed needles of light throughout the stage like nails through flesh. Admittedly, Gnaw lose something in the slightly free-form nature of their material, which doesn’t have the same gravitational pull of Khanate, yet it was encouraging to see one of the absolute best voices in extreme music take to the stage again.
Next up on the Old Library was a special Supersonic performance, a collaboration between KK NULL of Zeni Geva fame and LASH FRENZY. For the uninitiated, Lash Frenzy are an experimental offshoot from the mind of Einstellung’s Andrew Parker, who over the years has seen everyone from Mick Kenney of Anaal Nathrakh to Babes In Toyland’s Kat Bjelland pass through its ranks, with their performances ranging from ear-bleeding white noise to drawn out drone.
Strange things were definitely afoot, with the venue closed until right before the act/s were due on stage, so upon opening, I hustled right to the front of the stage where a couple of laptops were positioned ready, alongside a few cabinets, although weirdly, no sign of Parker’s signature Green Matamp cabs. That was all I’d be able to see for the next few minutes as the room swiftly became filled with the thickest dry ice seen since Sunn o)))’s last appearance here, and the battle to see my hand in front of my face was a losing one.
Amongst the fog, the unassuming, bespectacled Null took to the stage and began processing dark, electronic atmospheres, at a volume that kept inching towards the uncomfortable. The oppressive pulsating throbs and amorphous squalls, coupled with the thick fog was one of the most disorientating musical experiences I’ve witnessed, feeling as if the sound wasn’t just rolling from the stage, but rather coming at me from all angles. An incessant, relentless strobe only added to the bewilderment. Yet still no sign of any of the Frenzy, save a second guy hunched over his laptop. About half an hour in, still reeling at the front of the stage, I deduced that this latest experiment was simply Null processing and manipulating a set of feedback and noise that Lash Frenzy had generated during the time the venue had been closed. Never trust Andy Parker, I thought.
Mercifully, the performance came to a close, and I staggered towards the exit, only to hear a yell of ‘Dunc!’ from behind me. I turned around, and there, tucked away in a corner was the green Matamp stack and the grinning face of Parker staring at me with all the glee of the deranged scientist from ‘The Human Centipede’. And hang about, is that a fucking tuba a few metres down? Yep, Lash Frenzy were all there, positioned around the room from the start, and I initially felt a bit of a berk if the truth be told. But in hindsight, I can’t work out whether my lack of awareness helped the performance as in a way it centred my experience of it. Multi-sensory is a word that’s often bandied about when describing Supersonic, yet with this one-off performance it was substantiated with one inspired idea. KK Null & Lash Frenzy — Three Hundred and Sixty Degrees of Nausea.
Another Birmingham-based trio, STINKY WIZZLETEAT were next to follow at the Library, although after a brief stroll through the fest, on my return to the venue it was rammed and near impossible to obtain a decent view. Not with vocalist James spending the majority of the set in the pit at least, anyway. This closeness to the audience helped their set, with their tightly-wound material making for a really intense sound — the tension building throughout the songs brings to mind AmRep bands as much as it does Southern Lord, as much Anodyne and Kiss It Goodbye as Neurosis.
Their obvious skill as a trio, honed by grotty, low-key gig after gig in the local scene made sure they didn’t look any way out of their depth on such a comparatively grand stage. Indeed, the step up in terms of audience size looked like a walk in the park to them, and the jam-packed crowd were really responsive. Class this as another important notch in their constantly upwards trajectory. Didn’t even mention the name once either.
With another musical appointment of my own to keep, namely a gig with my other band Selfless down the road at the Old Wharf, I made sure to be off stage and sprinting back up to Digbeth to catch the revered, reformed GODFLESH. Responsible for influencing swathe upon swathe of Industrial, despite hating the term – Post-Metal – and even Nu-Metal bands over the years; and if you don’t believe me on that last one, go listen to the middle eight of Korn’s ‘Clown’ and tell me that’s not half-inched from the ‘Flesh!
Having successfully kept himself in the public eye since the demise of Godflesh with his dalliances with Isis’s Aaron Turner and his acclaimed Jesu project, this was the one Justin Broadrick project everyone wanted to see live, and there was no more ideal setting than a vast warehouse inside an industrial estate with really atrociously shit weather outside. Tragically, the opening bombast of ‘Like Rats’ was sadly neutered by a volume level completely unbefitting of a band with volume at its very core. Broadrick and bassist Benny Green were tight, mechanical and precise and despite the laptop evoking a sense of dread given that many of Jesu’s past performances were hamstrung by technical gremlins — and their initial reunion show at France’s Hellfest this year was tragically cut to a mere four songs because of them — there were no technical issues here tonight.
The projections were suitably oppressive and apocalyptic and entirely appropriate, it was just a pity that the feeble levels created such a disconnect between band and audience, just watching the show rather than experiencing it.
It was a resounding relief, however, when the knobs were twiddled and the swelling in volume directly echoed a tangible increase in the elemental power of the band, with their cold, grey-streaked guitar repetitions thudding at your gut, the stark, militaristic rhythms created by bass and drums roughly clutching at your shoulders and rocking you back and forth. THIS is what it should be like. With a setlist that seemingly contained no low-points, the likes of ‘Spite’, ‘Christbait Rising’ and the absolutely immense ‘Crush My Soul’ were tossed out casually, and the sight of Broadrick attacking his guitar whilst the back projections burned the same fiery orange hue as on the ‘Streetcleaner’ cover was one of the highlights of the entire festival. By the end of their set, there was an unmistakable feeling of triumph throughout the room, one of a stirring victory snatched from the jaws of defeat.
By this time it had gone midnight, the weather was freezing and not even MELT BANANA could thaw the cold urban permafrost Godflesh had previously enshrouded me in. Not that the band were off-form by any stretch – more like the stoic, brow-furrowed sense of mind Godflesh had left me in was at odds with the breakneck schizo of Melt Banana, the aural equivalent of those multicoloured paint pots out of that telly advert going off in your face all at the same time.
Technically, they’re staggering with guitarist Ichirou Agata in particular wringing sounds from his guitar you’d think impossible to process. Their trademark high-speed bursts take in elements of grindcore, Japanese hardcore and the noise scene, with vocalist Yasuko Onuki screeching out quick-fire raps, spits and tics, making for a relentless, ADHD car-crash barrage that spawned a chaotic, yet good-natured dancefloor. However, in this reviewer’s case, it merely hammered home the exertions of the past couple of days, and as such, Saturday was done.
First act I managed to get hold of on Sunday were returning Japanese heroines NISSENMONDAI, who triumphed to such an extent at last years festival they were swiftly invited back. This time, arguably more people were there to catch them, and again they impressed the entire legion of attendees, with the repetitive beats echoing Krautrock as much as it did Mathrock last year, perpetually jabbing you in the ribs, threatening you to dance. It’s quite difficult to decide whether the performance last year was better in terms of surprise factor, or whether knowing what to expect made for a more enjoyable show. I guess it’s all down to opinion, but I’d bet everyone present here wouldn’t be averse to them being invited back for a third or even fourth appearance here.
Having learnt my lesson from the less-than-amazing positioning i left myself in for Wizzleteat yesterday, I got to the Old Library early and with plenty of time to nestle myself down the front to welcome the mighty CHROME HOOF. It was for the best as the room rapidly filled, and having conquered the fest previously in 2007 as well as a couple of amazing Birmingham headline dates since then, it seemed everyone wanted a slice of the cosmos’ premier discometalfunkateers. Opening with ‘Witches Instruments and Furnaces’ it was apparent that latest album ‘Crush Depth’ had managed to worm itself into the affections of most of the crowd, with a slow bounce spreading throughout during the quirky introduction before exploding into a frenetic metallic disco stomp. In fact, this opening ten-minute space-prog odyssey packed an albums worth of a lesser bands material into it, and despite it’s somewhat whacky aesthetic, showcased a commanding grasp of dynamics with the final five minutes or so a real treat in both its immediacy and dancability.
Lead single from the latest album ‘Crystalline’ followed swiftly in its wake that again saw rabid reaction from the crowd, yet it was ‘Sea Hornet’ that was a highlight of the set for me, an instant winner from when I first heard it back in May at the Hare & Hounds, and with five months of the albums company it has developed into one of my favourite Chrome Hoof tracks. Its opening gives the impression of an overly-dramatic science fiction theme from the seventies before mellowing into a softer, bass-and-moog-led passage. Of course, as is the ‘Oofs wont, there are all manner of off-kilter excursions knitted throughout the musical passages, not least the histrionic break halfway through that again lends itself to images of spaceships and glittering spacesuits. Its also testament to the skill of the artists that you don’t even notice that the enigmatic frontwoman Lola doesn’t make an appearance in the track until a good five minutes in.
The loose-limbed funk stylings of ‘Towards Zero’ make an appearance before being obliterated by the overtly metallic ‘Third Sun Descendant’ and it’s imminently headbangable rhythms. And with a mere two songs left, they knowingly drop their bombs before retreating back into outer space, namely ‘Tonyte’ — GUARANTEED to incite a dancefloor into spasmodic joy, and ‘Moss Covered Obelisk’ — a final, prog-drenched journey through Chrome Hoofs fabric of space and time. With the delirious cries of ‘OOF!’ yet again filling the air, there was no doubt that they’d pulled it off again, surely one of the country’s finest live bands, of any genre.
With a swift jog up to Space 2 to round off the evening, I arrived just into ZENI GEVA’s set, and strangely for me, headed straight down the front into the pit to experience a band I’d wanted to see for a long time. Making their name over ten years ago in the Japanese noise scene on the notable Skin Graft record label, the likes of ‘Freedom Bondage’ and ‘Desire For Agony’ were staples in my own musical development growing up, and yet again thanks to Capsule and Supersonic, there they were, not ten feet from me.
Bathed in minimal lighting, Nulls tightly-wound riffs and mathy structures bought a lot of joy to many down the front and when ‘Dead Sun Rising’ was played — incidentally where my first band got their name from — all was right with the world. Listening to Zeni Geva with hindsight, you can pick out hints of bands that have quite possibly lifted from them over the years — a hint of Keelhaul there, American Heritage over there, yet the whole package was unmistakably Zeni Geva, the true definition of a power trio. This was the one band I forgot to make mental notes for review purposes, so engrossed was I in their set, but let it be known that if you are a fan and missed this performance, oh, how I feel for you.
And so to SWANS. As much of a coup and as apt of a festival closer as Goblin were last year, Michael Gira and his NY noiseniks have undoubtedly influenced the vast majority of acts who have passed through the festival such are their ties to the seemingly disparate worlds of metal, art-rock, doom and post-rock. Having heard tales of their early shows, such as one at the Mermaid that saw cracks appear around the venue, I was really anticipating this performance, albeit with a hint of trepidation as to how my hearing would react. Thankfully, it wasn’t quite as destructive as I’d feared, although the sheer unnerving mass of sound expelled from the stage certainly lent itself to a tense, uncomfortable feeling.
Taking to the stage under the twinkle of xylophone and tubular bells, they droned out an extended into to ‘No Words/No Thoughts’, the opening track from comeback album ‘My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky’ that lasted almost twenty minutes. With Gira taking centre stage, his ominous, baritone voice brought to mind a version of the Bad Seeds, taking court over the end of the world, and this apocalyptic trait would continue throughout the duration of their set.
With classic-era tracks such as ‘Your Property’, ‘Sex God Sex’ and ‘I Crawled’ still sounding utterly contemporary in their power and darkly atmospheric, almost agonizing tension they nestled perfectly against the likes of ‘Jim’ from the latest canon of Swans material. There were no Zeni Geva-esque pits, nor the throng of people nestled against the barrier screaming the lyrics back like at Godflesh. In this case the audience were transfixed, spellbound at the quasi-religious seriousness of it all, heads bowed, some with eyes closed in reverence.
By the closing one-two of ‘Eden Prison’ and ‘Little Mouth’, aping the portentous closing of the comeback album, bodies slowly started to come around back to real life, as if locked in a trance for the past ninety minutes or so. Despite almost thirty years since the release of their first recordings, it was pleasing to see that Swans still have the power to compel, to change and to alter in exactly the way as they were back in their early days. Long may they live.
And with the final notes of Swans dying out, Supersonic had concluded for another year, and despite the odd issue here and there, it can only be described as yet another resounding success. It is always such an honour to visit the festival as either an artist or as a fan — not that there should be any distinction between them — as the festival is curated with such an obvious care and enthusiasm, you truly feel that the programme has been crafted with only the audience in mind. Yes, some metal fans could feel aggrieved that it’s not a whole weekend of blastbeats, yet the electronica fans could feel miffed that it’s not a whole weekend of breakbeats. It’s the music fans who get the best deal, as entering the festival with a closed mind, or with certain genre-centric blinkers on will only give you 50% of the overall experience. For Supersonic to move to exclusively one style would kill the spirit of the festival, as its adventurous and open-minded modus operandi is it’s greatest asset, and long may it be so.
Thanks again to Lisa and Jenny Capsule for the weekends festivities, was an honour.
Thanks to Katja & Steve @ Brumlive for their patience in waiting for this review during a busy period for me.
And thanks to those who came out to watch my band at the fest, it went much better than I could have hoped.
Review – Duncan Wilkins
Photos – Katja Ogrin