Supersonic Festival @ Custard Factory, Birmingham, 21-23 October 2011

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In its commendable ninth year now, the Capsule-curated Supersonic festival goes from strength to strength with its latest installment. The usual mix of bands from within the spheres of doom, electronica, post-rock and straight-up barminess were all present and correct, but a few slight changes were made. The outside pool stage had gone, now filled given that the experience of standing outside there last October in the wind and rain was quite literally horrible – so kudos for Capsule for recognising this. A new venue – Boxxed – replaced it to stand alongside the usual Space 2, Old Library and Theatre Space areas; and the pristine, brilliant white Zellig complex housed exhibitions and the odd performance here and there.

But as most of the venues weren’t open til the Saturday, let’s go check out some horrid doom in a delapidated warehouse, in true Supersonic fashion?

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SLABDRAGGER opened proceedings at Boxxed, but the queue of eager punters meant that I only caught their last song. Given that this trio drink heavily from the well of Burning Witch, Electric Wizard and Weedeater, I still managed a good ten minutes or so of downtuned, doomy stodge.

The UK has always provided a high-quality conveyor belt of top-drawer heaviness since the days of Black Sabbath themselves and Slabdragger are yet another addition to this lineage. They’re making a swift return to Brum in early November so if you missed out, there’s a timely chance to redeem yourself.

Having impressed at the Torche show last year, London noiseniks PART CHIMP made a welcome return to a Capsule stage over at Space 2, albeit one tinged with melancholy given that this appearance was one of a handful before hanging up their guitars for good. And so, once more into the breach they dove, monstrous heaviness and angular rhythms the order of the day.

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They made a solid impression upon the hearty crowd that had gathered, partly from frontman Tim’s guitar-string destroying attack, and partly from the sonic mass emanating from onstage. This is doom, yet not. The type of music peddled by Melvins and ‘Bleach’-era Nirvana in the days prior to when making a claustrophobic, lead-heavy racket didn’t automatically necessitate a knowledge of the Southern Lord back catalogue and a wardrobe consisting solely of Pentagram T-shirts.

The huge warehouse that houses Space 2 did detract a little from the awesome power the band possess, certainly when compared to that show at the Hare & Hounds, but Part Chimp’s first-person eulogy was a success and every ounce Supersonic-worthy.

Talking of Supersonic-worthy, Shigeru Ishihara, better known as DJ SCOTCH EGG has been a long-term favourite of Capsule and punter alike, and as such made another appearance at the fest. Plying a gleefully demented brand of breakcore mainly through a circuit-bent Gameboy, the crowd at Boxxed were immediately taken in by his lunacy.

My experience of this style is pretty much limited to Irish nutter Drugzilla so comparisons will be a little thin on the ground, although for such a relatively out-there act it was suprisingly accessible. With random 8-bit melodies hacked up and spun around, it felt like an 80’s amusement arcade condensed into a washing machine with you trapped inside.

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Once the set had concluded, I felt a little aggrieved at having missed his previous appearances but glad that I had finally made acquaintance with him. As much fun as Super Marioland 2 and as addictive as Tetris.

Having served time in 80’s luminaries Minutemen, as well as passing through the likes of the Stooges over the years, MIKE WATT is a bona fide icon and a real coup for the festival. Playing with his latest Missingmen project, he was warmly welcomed and then proceeded to blow our collective minds with his impossibly dextrous bass skills.

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They played a rapid-fire set touching on both proto-hardcore and garage rock underpinned with Watt’s idiosynchratic technique. His ever-so-nimble fingers darted up and down the fretboard with the greatest of ease, continuing to hammer-on and finger tap even when on vocal duties. The definition of a power trio, all three members brought equal amounts of individuality to their respective instruments with skewed rhythms clashing against random shards of atonal guitar noise and feedback.

It didn’t long for my tastes to demand something a little darker though. As good as the Missingmen were, I left, looking for something that rather than impressing me, would instead move me.

I walked over the bridge in the damp, autumn night into yet another cold, austere warehouse where CLOAKS where doing their best to turn its foundations into powder with their claustrophobic, oppressive bass assault. It bled a sense of crawling menace, and inner-city alienation from every pore, it’s dubstep-acknowledging starkness reflecting the depressing, rain-flecked city streets outside in innumerable respects.

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Highlights in a set like this are redundant. Its throbbing, pulsating dirge hid many peaks and troughs within, but was best experienced as a continuous battle between the soundwaves and your eardrums that only ended when the set concluded. In such a perfect environment, the comparison that sprung to mind most strongly was this would be the type of music that Justin Broadrick would have created had he been a teenager in the year 2011, and that’s about as lofty as praise can get for anyone performing at Supersonic.

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With the concussive frequencies of Cloaks still reverberating round our collective skulls, one of extreme music’s greats was up next to level us once and for all. Since his departure from the Napalm Death drumstool in the early nineties, Micky Harris has thrown himself into the realms of electronica ever since, with SCORN his most notable of projects.

With the impressive sound system of Boxxed working overtime, colossal slabs of dub bass shifted tectonically through the air and reverberated against our faces. The aggressive subsonics were at odds with the delicate, trance-like tempos, but slow increases and manipulations in pitch built tension that suggested that Swans were still an influence buried somewhere within Scorn, certainly live at least.

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It was at polar opposites to the clattering, violent tempos of early Napalm yet shared a similar endurance test parallel. There was a perspective argued in the early days of the genre that ‘grind’ was less a descripition on the percussive attributes of the sound, and instead of the slow, churning way the riffs ground against each other. So in a sense, as the forceful waves of sound pulsed repeatedly throughout you, you could argue that Mr Harris has never stopped grinding. This was one of the highlights of the whole festival.

Saturday proved to be the biggest attraction for the dyed-in-the-wool metal fan with the double bill of Wolves in the Throne Room and Electric Wizard leading to a rush for day tickets. That said, if you were only looking for traditional, metallically inclined heaviness then you’d be missing an embarrassment of riches, today or at the festival as a whole.

BARDO POND were a name I’d heard thrown around a few times over the years, and was intrigued to check them out, or at least discover what they even sounded like. I certainly didn’t expect them to be as heavy as they were with as thick a guitar tone as Slabdragger possessed the previous night. This was no mean-spirited sludge band however, and despite the ominous rumble of the guitar, the distinct vocals of frontwoman Isobel Sollenberger offset the whole deal and added both balance and a human, spirited anchor to their sound.

Her flute-wielding skills invited unwelcome and unwarranted comparisons to Blood Ceremony but Bardo Pand were worlds away from the woodsy, ritualistic BC, instead drawing comparisons with a much more contemporary style – shoegaze – with their deft use of layering sound and psychedelic effects.

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This did lead to a sense of similarity throughout their set, and there were bands throughout the festival that moved me a lot more. But one of Supersonic’s greatest strengths is the opportunity to catch bands you’ve only heard of but never listened to, or bands you’ve never even heard of at all, and gives you the opportunity to see what it is that they’re all about.

One band who I didn’t need a primer on were WOLVES IN THE THRONE ROOM, making a swift return to Birmingham, albeit a debut appearance at Supersonic, this time on the back of their sublime fourth studio album, ‘Celestial Lineage’. The rumours that this may be the last chance to see WITTR in their current incarnation had ensured a suitably packed room for this eagerly-awaited performance.

Retaining the banners that adorned the stage at the Hare and Hounds yet twice as impressive hung from such a larger stage, it immediately gave the sense of a similar ritual being performed but at a much larger scale. And opening with ‘Thuja Magus Imperium’, the first track from their latest, they immediately began their distinct blend of frost-bitten black metal menace and slow-building, insiduous melody.

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One thing that was telling was that without a live bassist, the sound did come across as much thinner than they’ve boasted in the past, meaning that their widescreen, expansive sound didn’t quite engulf you to its true capabilities. Besides which, a Black Metal fan moaning about a thin guitar sound is pretty oxymoronic anyway.

This refusal to clasp to all the tried-and-tested BM cliches is one of the many factors that enable this entity to stand away from the pack. Rather than preaching hymns of nihilism and low-budget, grindhouse Satanism, they instead ruminate on nature from an ecologically responsible viewpoint. Their signature ‘Cascadian Black Metal’ sound makes reference to the forests and mountain ranges of the region they call home, and the constant whiff of ritualistically-burning sage brought to mind Watain, if they chose to shop at Laura Ashley for their stage props rather than rummaging through the bins of their local butcher.

This spiritual undercurrent was best exemplified by the third of their four-song set, ‘I Will Lay My Body Down Amongst the Rocks and Roots’, which is undoubtedly the most spellbinding twenty minutes of the career. It also led me to leave after this one was played, reasons twofold.

Firstly, its my favourite track by the band, and if rumours are to be believed and this is the last chance I’ll get to see them in this form, then I couldn’t have asked for a more apt closer, both in terms of atmosphere and personal preferences. If the rumours are to be believed, then thanks go out to Wolves In The Throne Room for a career of consistent high quality, and in whatever form or under whatever name they choose to return as, I just hope its half as exciting as they are at the moment.

The second reason for the WITTR runner was that it enabled me a further twenty minutes or so with BACKWARDS, who were at the shitty end of the only real clash that affected me throughout the festival timetable. With the party already in full swing, the Old Library was encouragingly busy although I did manage to obtain a decent spot at the front of the stage after some jostling.

With a lineup having previously done time in local acts as disparate as Napalm Death, Una Corda, deadsunrising and Beestung Lips, they had a pedigree to match their unique and imposing sound. Taking inspiration from Brainbombs with their stripped down, riff-centric sound, they added washes of atmosphere atop its foundations and the performance leant itself an edge-of-the-seat feeling of barely controlled aggression from start to finish.

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With two basses employed, Nathan Warner was playing the more grounded, heart-of-the-music grooves of the two four-stringers whilst opposite number Nic Bullen thrashed at his instrument through waves of distortion applying contrast.
Their charismatic enigma of a vocalist Biff screamed barely intelligible vocals throughout a bank of guitar pedals balanced precariously atop a chair. To apply further levels of discordance, drummer Dougie flitted between locked-in groove and more sporadic beats whilst the guest saxophone gave the performance an avant-garde, almost free-jazz flavour on top of what was already a pretty out-there amalgamation without it.

It all coalesced into a seething, in-your-face experience that dripped with bad intentions and sleaze. Girls Against Boys sprung to mind at one point, although whereas GVSB always seemed like they could seduce the listener with coffee and nicotine and motel-room sleaze, Backwards were something else, something from the canon of David Lynch, like they were trying to get you back to their place for a spot of Videodrome fucking.

As this was my first encounter with Backwards I had little frame of reference in terms of previous gigs. But with Biff and Warner both ex-Beestung Lips alumni, this seemed like a logical progression from that much missed band of reprobates, albeit one tethered and much less combustible even with the darkness behind the music so pronounced. Another sterling discovery, although one I should have rectified myself a long, long time ago.

One of the main draws of the entire weekend, Dorset doomlords and perennial Capsule faves ELECTRIC WIZARD take to the stage for their biggest show in Birmingham to date.

Having formed back in 1993, the band have weathered a procession of slings and arrows throughout their career, some through simple bad luck, others due to drug-addled self-destruction.

I was really looking forward to seeing these again for the first time in what must have been five years, and the twisted, wyrd folk of Comus breezing through the PA beforehand set an atmosphere befitting their horror-influenced music. Starting with the monolithic ‘Dopethrone’ was somewhat of a masterstroke : the title track from their 2000 magnum opus, recently declared ‘album of the decade’ by Terrorizer magazine. All of the Wizard’s trademarks were present and correct – lumbering, Sabbath-channelling downtuned riffs; monged, dopehead-nodding stoner rhythms and languid, dopesick vocals courtesy of band leader Jus Osborn.

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The sound was as good as it had been in Space 2 all weekend, and the mass of red-eyed fans were enthralled. However, something didn’t seem quite right, with Osborn in particular looking like he was struggling with something other than a massive case of the munchies – the fact that the band were playing with a completely new and unannounced rhythm section seemed to suggest that something significant had occured behind the scenes.

Swiftly following with ‘Church of Drugula’ from latest album ‘Black Masses’ it seemed to signify why I felt just a little disappointed. In the early years of the classic Osborn / Greening / Bagshaw lineup there was always a sense of actual danger. Were the band going to make it to the gig? If they did, would they last til the end or would it all fall apart before the first song had even ended?

Since his original rhythm section left to form Ramesses, Jus and Electric Wizard have almost appeared safe, with none of the danger that made them so unmissable, that made them the most punk rock bunch of Sabbathian heshers this country had ever produced.

Please feel free to take this as the grumblings of an old man, as it was quite obvious that for a large proportion of this crowd at least, Electric Wizard speak to them as closely as Sabbath did to both Wizard and the the elder statesmen of this scene.

They boast a back catalogue of generally unparallelled quality, have the years under their belt to back up their position as figureheads, and in ‘Return Trip’ and the epic ‘Funeralapolis’, have at least two of the greatest doom tracks of all time in their canon that were aired in their full, head-caving glory here. It was just hard not to feel a longing for thse classic, crushingly claustrophobic shows at the Flapper and the Jug of Ale so many years ago. Like I said, feel free to take this as the grumblings of an old man, albeit one who does miss that most anarchic of the bands eras.

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Making a welcome return to Supersonic, US instrumental two-piece ZOMBI were charged with the task of following the ‘Wiz, and as such, trying to inspire a room full of doom-addled stoners to stay for another hour or so. There were no such grumbles from these quarters though, as I’d gotten into Zombi literally a month or so after missing them at their performance in 2007 – forever with my finger on the pulse eh?

Framed by Supersonic’s ever-impressive lighting and projection screens, the silhouetted duo took to the stage and took to their positions – one taking to the drumkit, the other behind a bank of synthesizers befitting any stadium-straddling prog band of yesteryear.

The set was equally weighted between the two eras of the band over the course of their four records. The first is what they built their name upon, an affectionate blend of the twin goliaths of horror soundtracks – John Carpenter and ex-Supersonic alumni Goblin, all atmospheric, synth-drenched slabs of creeping electro-death. The other era saw them expand their sound to incorporate more progressive influences with water-tight, lolloping rhythms steeped in mathrock.

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Their trance-inducing, off-time beats and repetitive basslines were as effective as any played through the traditional rock-band setup, but also echoed other acts such as Trans Am and Lustre King – or if Shellac or Don Caballero were created inside the Tron machine.

Their set conjured mental images of hordes of the undead shambling through shopping malls and brutal knife murders committed in shades of giallo; but also of less-than-convincing spaceships floating through space containing saucer-eyed bearded astronauts. This cinematic imagery fitted well with the Lovecraftian menace and Hammer Horror rituals of Electric Wizard and acted as a great come-down to Saturday night.

It acted just a little too well for me, as nagging tiredness and a need to recharge my batteries before tomorrows exertions dictated that I left before the end of their set. As I walked back into town with Zombi’s pulsating rhythms still gambolling through my head, I made extra sure there wasn’t a shadowy, knife-wielding figure following me through the dark alleys of Digbeth.

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Sunday started with a trip to the practise room to load up, as I’d be kicking off Sunday performing with one of my own bands, SELFLESS. As was the case last year with Fukpig, I was a little apprehensive as to how the Supersonic clientele would take to our resolutely no-frills blend of 80’s hardcore, grind and punk rock. And again, I can proudly state that were received warmly enough to make a mockery of any doubts we had. There are a few other reviews dotted around the interweb of our performance, so be sure to check those out. Put briefly, thankyou Supersonic. Thankyou.

And thanks to Johnny Kerrang! of Doom for the guest vocals (wink, wink!)

One of my most eagerly-awaited performances of the weekend was the new project of William Bennett, CUT HANDS. Bennett was one of the minds behind Whitehouse; the ground-breaking power electronics outfit who equalled their vicious sonic terrorism with an unflinching, gut-churning look at the stark horrors of reality. Towards the end of Whitehouse’s career, Bennett incorporated the use of African instrumentation and tribal rhythms into their sound, and it was immediately apparent that these African influences were the very backbone of Cut Hands.

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With the rhythmic heart provided by the simple, indigenous-sounding click-click of wood on wood; the colour, power and texture was provided by Bennett’s laptop, manipulating and twisting ever-increasingly tense stretches of electronic pulse against it, a clash of nature against technology. At times the percussive elements would take over, with a number of rhythms seemingly knitted together, creating a tension of its own.

It wasn’t anywhere near as feverishly aggressive or as in-your-face as Whitehouse, nor did I really expect it to be. Shorn of his Whitehouse partner in crime Peter Best, Bennett cut a more sedate, satisfied figure onstage than the snarling, confrontational animal of yesteryear. With the video screens projecting his simplistic shield design from his ‘Afro Noise vol.1’ debut, it was clear that with Cut Hands he was forging a new identity in a way. After almost two decades in the depths of Whitehouse, maybe this was just what he needed. Maybe Cut Hands did have the solution.

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Back in 2004, Capsule booked Lightning Bolt at the theatre space for their first Birmingham show, where they were supported by a little-known Japanese act called ENVY. I didn’t have a clue who the band were, but they proceeded to etch themselves permanently in my consciousness with one of the most memorable shows I’ve ever seen from a band I knew nothing about beforehand.

The five-piece play an absorbing blend of post-rock build, screamo release and hardcore-fuelled power. Undoubtedly influenced greatly by numerous American bands of the last ten years, Envy take those influences and combine them to arguably even greater effect than that of their inspirations. Their take on post-rock is less meandering than most, their moments of tranquility always with one eye upon the crescendo, the soaring rapture that all paths within their songs lead to.

The dramatically swelling guitar lines imbued the material with a sadness and melancholia that invoked a genuine emotional reaction from the crowd, whilst the band members onstage were locked into the music they were creating. The vocalist was hunched over, desperately clutching at his mike stand whilst wrenching every ounce of emotion into his lyrics. He was flanked by the guitarists and bass player, pneumatically banging to the driving tempos.

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Given that the band sing in their native tongue, it was doubly impressive that they stirred such a response using their songwriting and vocal placement without the benefit of language to latch onto, and further proof of music’s ability to transcend cultural barriers. The set was arresting from start to finish, although my lack of knowledge of their back catalogue past their first two albums meant that the bulk – if not all – of the tracks were new to me; but it did mean that this show had as similar an impact as that memorable show back in 2004.

After the soaring, affecting emotional beauty of Envy, the Old Library played host to the unbridled, unadulterated rage and horror of DRUNK IN HELL. I had been warned throughout the weekend that this was one band I was not to miss. And I’m so glad I did. A to-the-point explosion of urban alienation and as delicate as a punch in the face from a dinosaur with FUCK OFF carved into its knuckles, this Middlesbrough quintet staked their claim as band of the weekend after a mere five minutes.

With a similarly minimalist outlook to that of Backwards, Drunk in Hell distil their songs to its purest essence, that of the riff. And despite rationing them to one riff per song, what fucking riffs they are. Taking influence from the howling vortex of Pissed Jeans, the crawling menace and cold detachment of early Unsane, the band simply bludgeon from start to finish, with each songs riff using only slight variations on the theme to act as choruses and hooks.

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Their burly frontman and his drawled vocals brought to mind aurally the likes of David Yow and Eugene Robinson, and physically Tyrone from Corrie mixed with Ray Winstone in Scum. Their bassist was just downright fucking pant-fillingly bastard terrifying; his cold-dead eyes locked dead ahead in a murderous thousand-mile stare that was only momentarily broken by moments where the ferocity of the music made it impossible to resist headbanging. The band simply oozed bad vibes from start to finish; a real gang of outsiders and outlaws that made the Turbojugend look like a denim-clad Tufty club in comparison.

Despite creating such a disturbing atmosphere, not a second of it seemed forced. This aggression and spite came with its own bruised knuckles and split lips, from a background of bad drugs, paranoia and anxiety, filtered through unapologetically abrasive music with a real fucking bad attitude all of its own.

Without an official release to their name, all I can do is to implore you to check out their live videos via youtube and pray they make a swift return to Brum, as your soul needs a right down-and-dirty cleansing every now and then.

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CIRCLE were another act making their return to Supersonic, having last played here in 2006, and were another act I’d been told to keep an eye out for, and I’d heard reports of gaudy, OTT showmanship and comparisons to Rob Halford through around. Consider my interest piqued.

I wasn’t ready for the contrast though. After the sonic battering of Drunk In Hell, it felt like following up Nil By Mouth with Moulin Rouge, and it definitely affected my perception of them. DiH had turned my ‘evil’ switch on, and I was hoping it’d turn off in time for Turbonegro.

Their eccentric frontman was clad in leather straps half-inched from WWF tag team specialists Demolition, leather studded wristbands robbed from Count Grishnackh, and a pink shirt from the wardrobe of David Dickinson. Vocally he flitted from Rob Halford Metal God Wail to the goaty, Rent-A-Ghost voice lifted from that Comus record last night. Their music veered from straight-up trad metal thrashiness to more challenging, obscure passages played with camp abandon and bags of energy.

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With a clear head I’d have probably dug Circle a lot more, and I cannot deny that out of all the other bands passing through the festival this weekend, there were none more befitting to act as main support for the headliners, sharing a similarly devilish sense of fun and theatrics.

There were a lot of question marks over TURBONEGRO’s appearance this year, mostly in the direction of new vocalist Tony Sylvester, making his first UK performance since replaced the departed Hank von Helvete. Having endured tribulations such as the loss of such a magnetic frontman, as well as the horrible cancer scare that befell guitarist Euroboy a few years back, this felt in many ways like a rebirth.

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I had no real worries as to how Sylvester would fit in, having been a massive fan of his vocals in the Dukes of Nothing (one of the first post-Iron Monkey bands) and taking to the stage, any doubts were swiftly extinguished. The band sounded fantastic, possibly having even downtuned slightly to accommodate Sylvester’s gruffer vocal style.

Looking as dapper as ever and sporting a single, Cooper-styled black ring around one of his eyes, he slotted perfectly in place alongside the motley crew of reprobates gathered around and within moments he had the assembled Jugend eating out of the palms of his hands.

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Backed up by the neckerchief-clad Euroboy, the returning, pither-hat wearing Pol Pot Pamparius on guitars, and the worlds meanest sailor boy bassist Happy Tom second in command, they had a gripping aesthetic to match the bubblegum pop songs dressed up as dark DeathPunk. The Glam stomp and pizzazz of ‘Back to Dungaree High’ and ‘Get It On’ meshed with the gnarlier likes of ‘Prince of the Rodeo’, like Poison Idea beating up the Sweet in the Blue Oyster Bar.

They are a band who were designed to close festivals – effortlessly singalongable, packed with sly humour and catchier than a particular nasty strain of herpes down at the docks. The only battle they were facing was a stage time of gone midnight, and the crowd was noticeably thinner than previous nights, but the ones who were there witnessed a triumphant return and a defiant statement of intent.

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I feel like all of my superlatives have been exhausted regarding Supersonic over the years. I’ve been at the majority of the festivals since the very first instalment and count myself lucky to have performed in different capacities for five of them, never feeling like anything less than an honour to do so. I’ve seen the festival grow from I guess a bit of an experiment to a globally-renowned highlight of the festival circuit, that to many people is always the highlight of the year.

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The fact that next year sees its tenth anniversary is cause for celebration in itself.

So just imagine what fucking bands they’ll get for THAT.

Review – Duncan Wilkins
Photos – Katja Ogrin

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