Supersonic Festival – The Custard Factory, Birmingham – July 2009

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Now in an almost unbelievable seventh year, the Supersonic festival is rightly regarded as the jewel in the crowd of Birmingham’s independent music scene, and has been growing in stature and recognition at an exponential rate, with all the momentum of that massive boulder from Raiders of the Lost Ark, albeit one probably full of cakes. Supersonic now has the name value alone to attract the likes of the notoriously publicity-shy Corrupted from Japan, to entice Head of David out of a 23 year retirement, and for seminal Italian progressive rockers Goblin to play their first UK shows in two decades.

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Having a prior engagement in London with Anaal Nathrakh meant that I had to miss the opening night of proceedings on Friday, although I had on good authority that the likes of ex-Napalm Death drummer Mickey Harris’ electronic project SCORN, the penultimate show of Nottingham hardcore mainstays ARMY OF FLYING ROBOTS and SUNN o))) purveying sonic doom ensured that the festival couldn’t get off to a better start.

SATURDAY

After finding my bearings – which incidentally was the easiest layout I’ve seen at a Supersonic thus far – my first band of the day were Brighton seven-piece DIAGONAL. Taking a base in driving, heavy stoner rock, the band indulge in their proggier tendencies with real skill, and kept things interesting including a drum solo! They seemed to win over a fair few bands, and did an admirable enough job of creating a festival atmosphere without any what you’d call standard festival-type material.

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Next on the agenda was the first of two talks under the HOME OF METAL banner, with ubiquitous Kerrang! DJ Johnny Doom chatting to Stephen O’Malley and Greg Anderson, who took time out from invocating drones and that to chat about the influence of Birmingham’s greatest cultural export, Heavy f’in Metal. Home Of Metal is a project that seeks to celebrate the musical heritage of Birmingham, in particularly heavy metal and its associated offshoots such as grind and industrial. With special guest Nik Bullen (who formed Napalm Death back in the eighties) the foursome traded tales about the relationship between themselves and the bands from Birmingham, and was actually tremendous fun that seemed to be over way too quickly. I could easily have sat for another hour just hearing some the anecdotes, but to me, whoosh all over. And sadly for me, despite how it looked, it wasn’t actually the contract signing for a crust vs doom tag team wrestling match. Supersonic 2010 main event, maybe?

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Once the talk had ended I caught up with a few tunes from diminutive Japanese trio NISENNENMONDAI on the outside stage. Mixing a relentless rhythmic undercurrent not dissimilar to  a more rocked-up Battles with layers of quasi-Lightning Bolt distortion that under any other circumstances would have captured my attention for the duration of the set, but unfortunately they were competing with IRON LUNG. A two piece grindcore/powerviolence combo from the States, I caught Iron Lung earlier this year supporting Municipal Waste to a handful of people in Dudley and they blew me away.

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To a packed main stage, with an enormous sound, they simply levelled the place. For the uninitiated, powerviolence is a subgenre that took elements from mid-eighties Infest-style hardcore, grindcore, sludge metal and multiple shifts in tempo that was popularized by the likes of Man Is The Bastard, Crossed Out and currently Iron Lung themselves. As you may expect from a lineup so relatively short in numbers their sound was stripped down, but in purely positive terms as it really  enabled the massive, thick sludge sections to really ring out courtesy of Jon Kortland (guitar/vocals) and the powerhouse drumming of Jensen Ward to stand out. Ward’s effortless switching between extreme blasting, myriad stops and starts and the majority of vocals was really impressive and his coolly sarcastic banter meant that many were impressed, not least myself – Iron Lung take band of the day for me, hands down.

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There was a danger that after the cutting-edge brutality of Iron Lung, the celebrated ‘splatter-rock’ pioneers THE ACCÜSED would end up shall we say, showing their age a little? Thankfully there was no musical geriatrics to be found, and the reformed four-piece took to the stage with an obvious fire in their bellies and a real desire to win over as many fans as possible. Whilst not overly familiar with their material, I enjoyed their performance which harkened back to the classic thrash metal crossover sound of the eighties, which meant there wasn’t really a band comparable to them all weekend and thus made them even more memorable.

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Most anticipated band of the day were definitely the reformed blackened doom act THORRS HAMMER who were playing their first shows since the end of their six-week(!) career in 1995. Essentially the act that launched the careers in doom of messrs O’Malley and Anderson, the band also includes drummer Jamie Sykes(Burning Witch, Atavist) bassist Guy Pinhas (The Obsessed, Goatsnake) and vocalist Runhild Gammelsæter, who was a mere 17-year old when their only official release Dommedagsnatt (which was played through tonight) was recorded. With the musicians involved, volume was always going to be their deadliest weapon, but the vocals of Gammelsæter had to be seen to be believed, especially in opener ‘Norge’ where the switch from the sweetly sung, hypnotic Norse folk song to her deathly guttural roar was especially impressive. Only utilising minimal numbers of downtuned, Celtic Frost-homaging riffs, Thorr’s Hammer used repetition and sheer oppressive force to er… hammer their point home, and create one of the most morbid, unpleasant atmospheres of the weekend. That is, until you looked stagewards and saw the number of smiles cracking the usual focussed, lords-of-doom faces, with Runhild attempting to put herself in the running for some imaginary ‘Most Amiable Frontperson In Doom’ award. The band were noticeably relaxed and having fun despite the unpleasantness of the music, even trying to outdo each at one other with knowledge of Birmingham’s metal heritage (“Black Sabbath!” “Bolt Thrower!”) which led to the funniest heckle of the weekend (“Jasper Carrot!”). One of the real exclusives of the weekend, a real coup for Supersonic and yet another highlight.

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Unfortunately a work-related personal curfew meant that my Supersonic Saturday was cut short, but not before I caught Italian proggers ZU, whose ‘Carboniferous’ album I really enjoyed, and the meagre ten minutes or so meant I was gutted to have to leave. Like a mixture of the best parts of Battles, Don Caballero  and Sweep The Leg Johnny (mainly due to the jaw-dropping saxophone abuse) yet eminently more danceable, Zu were another of those ideal Supersonic bands in the tradition of Chrome Hoof and the aforementioned Battles where you’re in a bang-my-head or shake-my-ass quandary, and the only logical conclusion is to do both, no matter how much of a berk you look.

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Again, on great authority I was assured that the remainder of the evening went swimmingly in my absence, with the mysterious Japanese sludge figureheads CORRUPTED making yet another Supersonic exclusive appearance and proceeding to uncork bowels with their droning slabs of filth and in my favourite story of the weekend, Israelis MONOTONIX with their crowdsurfing drummer. That’s crowdsurfing as in himself, bass pedal, snare and all, by the way. But then that’s Supersonic I suppose, peculiar, weird, yet as much fun as a pillow fight in a bouncy castle full of laughing gas.

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SUNDAY

My Sunday started in pretty much the same fashion as my Saturday ended, that with me getting my face stoved in by the heaviest, most apocalyptic doom around. A late addition to this years lineup, Birmingham’s own ESOTERIC were yet another band whose slow motion stylings gave nods to the sound of Sabbath, albeit a Sabbath who had seriously been into the dark side and their stash replaced with slug killer. A slowly whirling cacophonous vortex of foul moods and face-crawling frequencies, you literally felt as if you were being washed asunder amid a tsunami of tar and razor blades, and was as joyful as watching an hour-long timelapse video of a kitten dying. Which is remarkable at half four on a Sunday afternoon. Minor technical difficulties aside with the wireless microphone, (which actually gave the impression the band were indulging in some existential Xbox Live battle against God) Esoteric made one hell of an impact, and I actually had difficulties in imagining I could enjoy more today. Consider bar raised, Sunday bands!

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After milling around the marketplace for a while, and actually feeling quite relived there weren’t any cashpoints on site, I returned to the main stage to catch JARBOE, she of Swans and Neurosis-collaboration fame. Backed with the members of Esoteric, her set actually worked nicely as kind of companion set to that of Esoteric, which jettisoned some of the more abject, negative moods, although did not lose any of the oppressiveness, and was just as intense and just as cold and bleak as any of her Swans output. Again, not being terribly familiar with her solo work, Jarboe did impress, yet not quite as affecting as I hoped.

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Breaking up the bad vibes next on the outside stage were San Diego’s EARTHLESS who pummelled the growing crowd with their psychedelic stoner jams. With ex-Hot Snakes drummer – and former pro skater – Mario Rubalcaba behind the kit, the tempo was frenetic, and Earthless’ instrumental wigouts really helped the audience forget the increasingly-gloomy weather, and by the end of the day, they seemed to be high on most peoples favourites list. I was a bit down on having to curtail the end of Earthless, but I really wanted to catch THE MEMORY BAND, a sort of loose collective of emerging folk talents, who for their set chose to perform the soundtrack to The Wicker Man, arguably Britain’s greatest ever –definitely the most unique- horror film. As a kind of precursor to Goblin’s headlining set, this really worked, given that my two of my favourite soundtracks are those of Zombi (Dawn of the Dead) and yes, the Wicker Man. The seven-strong collaboration performed the material admirably, truly making it their own, the opening ‘Corn Rigs’ was spellbinding, and ‘Gently Johnny’ sent chills down the spine, it’s seemingly quaint folk offset by the dirty-bugger undercurrent of the lyrics bringing to mind the dark secrets hidden within the ostensibly peaceful islet of Summerisle. If you think Nicholas Cage’s remake was the biggest cinematic vomit-fest of all time  or if you wore out the vinyl of Paul Giovanni’s original, there is nothing more to expand upon, you truly would have loved it.

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It’s worth noting that whilst the Home of Metal project has celebrated the importance of Godflesh and the impact they had in bringing Industrial metal to the masses, HEAD OF DAVID were Justin Broadrick’s pre-Godflesh band and were every bit as important in sowing the seeds of that specific genre. Theirs is a sound that exercises many of the conventions of Industrial metal, it’s cold, urban sense of decay and alienation tangible within the mechanical rhythms and unforgiving textures. With a colossal, bass-heavy sound belonging as much to Birmingham as it does the band, I felt as if the entire spaghetti junction had been condensed into one giant weight, existing only to systematically, mechanically crush and grind my face over and over again –with it’s stark, heavy industrial rhythms, you could say that Industrial truly is the sound of the Black Country. This being my first exposure to Head of David, I was captivated throughout as I could trace back – or is it trace forward? – the bands that have probably taken influence from them over the years, for example during ‘I’ll Fall At Your Feet’ I was completely convinced that Shellac and Girls Against Boys had ripped them off good and rotten. And that one song that sounded like the start of Neurosis’ ‘Through Silver In Blood’ going on for about five minutes I could have listened to all night. Probably my favourite surprise of the festival.

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And finally, we come to GOBLIN, a headliner that had seen grown men gibbering like lunatics at the mere announcement of this, their first UK shows for twenty years. Heavily associated with some of the groundbreaking Italian horror, or giallo movies such as Dario Argento’s ‘Suspiria’ and ‘Tenebrae’, Goblin have undergone a steady increase in notoriety parallel with the growing artistic respectability for these films, and Goblin themselves are similarly treated with reverence given the quality of the albums they recorded, and their unique style. Bathed in atmospheric lighting, and supported with projections of images from their movies, from the very first note they blatantly oozed class. With a set spanning their entire career, every moment was enjoyed and respected by what was now almost a capacity crowd, and no one watching had any complaints that their expectations were not met, and what bragging rights we all have to those who missed out.

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Supersonic 2009 was such a fantastic weekend, and compared to other festivals I have experienced, no festival has such a positive ratio of good to bad bands like Supersonic. This weekend, literally, I did not see ANY poor bands. Supersonic is a festival that is inspiring, thought-provoking, both mind and boundary-expanding, convention-challenging and boundary-blurring, with artists that challenge you, yet all possess a dramatic level of integrity, musicianship and humility. This is the best festival out there. There are no others, there is only Supersonic.

Massive thanks and immense respect to Lisa & Jenny from Capsule.

Thanks to the bands, volunteers and staff.

Review – Duncan Wilkins
Photos – Katja Ogrin

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