As usual the line-up for this year’s Supersonic Festival was looking stellar. Like everything else it got knocked off the table and then put away ’til next year. Outside the miasma of Covid-19 squats on the horizon obscuring the future. Music offers an escape but even here, in the internet’s music corner, it pops up with its dread chatter and death dance, tapping at the window with smeary fingers. Aside from the very serious threat to life, concerns bubble around loss of venues and the return of live music and festivals. Marc Geiger, who helped set up Lollapalooza has been catastrophising that it won’t be until 2022. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Bingo the Clown has said next month it’ll all be ok but nobody takes him seriously. I don’t want to leave my house.
Rather than submit to the fatalist bed-bound alcoholism of weaklings like you or I, the Supersonic team pulled together an online reimagining of the festival running over the original dates. While it’s always home to a wide programme that includes talks, art exhibits, films and more there’s no escaping that the filling in the Supersonic sandwich is immersive live performance. Without that crackle in the air how does it work via the magic of the internet? Renamed Sofasonic, as a nod to the comfortable repositioning of their audience, they attempt to deal with the shift of framework imposed by events and let those other strands take centre stage.
The results can be scrappy and uneven but are mostly successful. The immediate effect is of some kind of underground, public access version of The One Show or This Morning, Bizarro-world magazine TV, as we start with chef Andrew Clarke making some tasty looking gram-flour pancakes. Long haired and heavily tattooed, to be fair he does look like he should be in the sludge metal band opening the bill to a half empty hall. He’s good on the TV chef stuff but his longer chat with Mike Patton gets a bit “two guys are excited about fancy international restaurants you’ll never visit” for my taste. Next we pop ’round to Alys Fowler‘s kitchen where she lets us in on the various bits of plants she’s been putting in her gin to try and make it palatable and pass the long lockdown days without drinking it all. Suspicions that the still in her garden is carefully kept off camera are hard to shake.
Overall Sofasonic is less an attempt to stick a band aid on the desperation for live music to return, more a thoughtful consideration of the culture that surrounds that and potential ways forward. There’s a lot of talking, which is fine, it tends to get drowned out usually and much of it is interesting. There’s some round table discussions that don’t follow the usual TV pantomime: Paul Purgas on Indian electronic music and John Doran exploring Cornish folklore via Aphex Twin.
The festival’s Artistic Director Lisa Meyer and A.A. Williams have a Zoom chat, largely concerning their little dogs (Yo Yo and Geezer respectively). When you get past the initial oddness it turns out quite sweet. One of the things they talk about is lockdown allowing people time to listen, making space for a different sort of attention. Williams sings ‘Terrible Friends’, it’s sad and pretty. She’s sat at the piano in her house, shot in black and white with some slo-mo. It’s so nearly like she just walked in the next room and played but so clearly not that it seems to fall into some kind of temporal uncanny valley. The idea of ‘now’ fades in and out, a kind of short circuiting of engagement, a curious side effect of a semi-live event. “Is this happening or am I just watching YouTube?”
The comfortable remove of the screen encourages your internal peanut gallery to pipe up with mockery or focus on background detail. I try and ignore it but I can hear Beavis and Butthead chuckling away pretty loudly in back as Steve Von Till (Neurosis) and Einar Selvik (Wardruna) discuss how they find meaning and music in landscape. . . or something; their magnificent beards are distracting and they’re so earnest I can’t really follow it. By the time they show the video for Wardruna‘s ‘Lyfjaberg (Healing-mountain)’ I’m struggling not to see it as self parody. Which is a bit unfair – it’s beautifully shot in stunning landscapes, impossibly shiny among all the grainy laptop views of domestic spaces.
Also glossy, but much weirder, Friday night’s “headliner” is the premiere of A Walk With Love & Death, a short film by Jesse Nieminen and Buzz Osbourne soundtracked by Melvins in loose experimental mood. It’s kind of a psychedelic, cut-up, tour film – the view from the window of the bus, a non-stop tumble of images, an anti Koyaanisqatsi. Part of the deal with Melvins is they baffle as often as they delight and it seems they wouldn’t have it any other way. The basic concept is sustained across the full length of the film and again it forces a different kind of attention, melting time. “This corruption of reality is abhorrent to many but tantalising to some.” After the credits roll there’s a quick little animation of Ozzy’s head blowing off in a lurid spout of felt pen red.
The Sabbath Karaoke of previous years reanimates as Sofa Sabbath, abstracted living room affairs tending away from rock to laptops, glitch pop and gentler instrumental takes. The first of these, ‘Avant Sabbath’ by Valentina Magaletti feat Pierpaulo Martino, is a kinda Jazz Sabs stand-up bass and drums thing. It’s amazing. The nice black-and-white clip shot in a rehearsal studio helps too. The other high production effort is from Tirikilatops who have a typically lurid animated video in which they fly in an Ozzy’s head spaceship while banging out an intense chip-tune-type take on ‘Paranoid’. Only White Hills really bring the heavy riffs on their stab at ‘Lord Of This World’. It looks like an old school low-to-no budget MTV clip for a dubious goth-metal band but they’ve never been afraid to be a bit ridiculous and it works in their favour here, Ego Sensation pulling off the one vocal to really do it justice as well.
In between all the stuff on the running order there are regular short festival idents crammed full of amazing micro-clips of previous year’s performances. These are briefly exhilarating but also potent reminders of what Sofasonic isn’t able to do. On the whole the decision not to lean on old stuff from the vaults and portion it out in small amounts seems pretty smart. You could already dig through a lot of it on their YouTube channel anyway. A selection of these clips round out Friday night, allowing you to marvel at stuff you missed, relive/rewrite memories if you were there and even, if you’re lucky, marvel at the back of your own fat idiot head in the bottom of the screen.
The final clip of The Bug and Flowdan in 2012 looks amazing, like you’d definitely want to be there, but the darkness and harsh flashing-light strain the cameras and the use of slow motion adds to the distancing effect pushing you away from the event. I actually was there but it’s still disorientingly alien. A lot of what The Bug does is about sound as a physical force, and that can’t help but be diluted. Glitching through a screen it’s like a worn photocopy. Almost sarcastically at the end of the first night, YouTube suggests an ambient black screen and the sounds of rain on a tent so that I can maximise my festival vibes.
There are some actual musical performances of course. Bulbils are the perfect band for this online moment. The lockdown project of Sally Pilkington and Richard Dawson (one half of Hen Ogledd) Bulbils have been steadily making music as a comfort for themselves and putting it up free on Bandcamp for others. They’ve been insanely productive and will apparently stop when they hit 50 albums, which won’t be long. We join them at the dinner table which is covered in keyboards and electronics and you have to wonder, have they had their tea on their laps or is it in the oven for afterwards? That cosy domesticity seems somehow integral to their music’s response to the current situation. It’s loose, improvisatory and ambient leaning, a calm drift, the actual year’s events awkwardly scribbling over the script of Dawson’s brilliant 2020 album. The other house-bound live sets from Acavernas & Yantra, and M Takara & Carla Boregas tread a similar path of gentle improvisation – music as a soothing balm. The closest we get to thrilling noise provocation is Andrew Clarke grinding pumpkin seeds in his NutriBullet.
IMPA TV provide some excellent visuals to accompany a full play through of Gnod‘s new collaboration with Joao Pais Filipe, Faca de Fogo. You can read Chad Murray’s review elsewhere on Echoes and Dust but in short: it’s great, you should really check it out. The overall surreality tweaks upwards a notch as Natalie Sharp paints rainbows on her own face narrated by what sounds like Bob Ross put through Stephen Hawking’s voice box. Then Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs call the bingo. Matt Baty is sporting a champion light-entertainer’s ‘tache while Adam Sykes is manning the luxury bingo cage in super sardonic style: “it’s fallen but it’s valid.” They offer us a series of dubious facts regarding a cat who was mayor in Alaska and Presidential hopeful Kanye West having a child called Paracetamol. Baty makes the bold claim “I can probably eat more than 57 crisps in a sitting” and if Ross Kemp’s Sleep Paralysis do not appear on a future Supersonic line-up then an opportunity has, you have to feel, been squandered. I didn’t even sign up to get involved on Zoom – just watched, helpless – but the bingo and the funny/impossible quiz with Jennifer Lucy Allan do generate a sense of connection and community. If this is the entertainment in the Supersonic care home, I’ll be okay with it.
Set to be a highlight of this year’s line-up, Lankum‘s astounding drone folk connects the ancient and the modern with rich seams of emotion. They were no doubt going to leave me in floods of manly tears but it’s a surprise to find them so ably navigating the unique space of the online festival. Sat on the drive in their van playing a truck simulator, the brothers Lynch maintain a delirious deception that they are travelling to the gig. They drink and crash repeatedly, occasionally bursting into song. They pick up a hitcher, George, who turns out to be a musician heading to Supersonic Festival. He’s in a band with Paddy Shine and Natalia Beylis and plays some of Natalia’s beautiful music. They call Radie on the phone. She’s in Tipperary which, as any fool knows, is a long way. Unable to make the gig she deputises George, who possibly refers to himself as the Pagan Ghostface Killa. I may have been confused by this point but I hope so. They achieve such a giddy sense of sensory derangement that even Lone Taxidermist pipes up in the chat box that she doesn’t understand what’s happening. If that’s not a token of achievement then I don’t know what is. Ploughing right through the central reservation barrier and into oncoming traffic it’s the one time across the weekend you don’t feel transposed from another format, that whatever is happening could only be happening here. Plus, they seem like lovely fellas that you’d be happy to share a lift with, as long as Dara isn’t driving. Overall the idea of Sofasonic as similar to a ‘zine is surprisingly successful in the face of the current misery and delirium. There’s never a sense that this version of things can match or replace being together in a room with loud, righteous music shaking our bones in time. But until then. . .