It’s already been a better than average week. The weather’s great and the parcel of corrupt bastards we have in place of a government has gone into self-inflicted meltdown, but the return of the magnificent Supersonic Festival after three years away is cause for the most rejoicing. Loud, atonal hosannas, let’s hear you. We gather in new venues, further up the hill in rapidly gentrifying Digbeth, for a weekend of remarkable music and a sense of community and resistance among those on the cultural margins. Although the term “experimental music” scares people, the festival is welcoming to anyone with sufficient curiosity. No doubt some would consider the sensory assault of Friday night’s “party” act The Bug to be more like a Guantanamo ordeal, but most of it is not nearly so confrontational as the unfamiliar might expect.
Plugging directly into the heart of things Rakhi Singh is on stage producing a soaring, looping, violin drone. She’s soon joined by Vessel on electronics and four-strong drone choir NYX and they produce a remarkable sound that feels both ancient and alien at the same time. If you give yourself over, it’s a re-set, a brain wipe; I can feel the world receding, tension leaving my body. Holy Tongue feature the always remarkable drums of Valentina Magaletti steering an ambient cloud of pulsing dub. Filling the warehouse with a pleasing groove, softening everything. Föllakzoid take this a step further, a mind-melting hypnotic glide that absorbs you even though nothing appears to be happening. Arriving on stage with a flute of champagne to toast the crowd, Domingæ’s increasingly showbiz presence seems a little at odds with the band’s steady organic minimalism. But perhaps she’s becoming Donna Summer to the music’s blend of Moroder and motorik. I mean, if ever there was a band who would crush a version of ‘I Feel Love’. . .
Music’s not for everyone. If the terminal weakeners frothing about “proper music” and how they preferred Glastonbury before it “went woke” would be in a bit of a fluster over Domingæ then Grove ought to have them absolutely apoplectic. Good. Defiantly Queer and Black they bring an exhilarating bass-driven mash-up of mutating electronica and dancehall, get the crowd chanting “off with their heads!” along to ‘Fuck Ur Land Lord’ and generally win the day with a huge jolt of energy, charm, and banging tunes. They end on a fiery ‘Ur Boyfriend’s Wack’ but the real genius move comes just before, a clattering drum-and-bass romp through Girls Aloud’s ‘Sound Of The Underground’. Sharp, joyous and ecstatically received they easily snatch the “thrilling newcomer” rosette.
The Bug is a Supersonic lifer, bringing a series of different collaborators and projects to the festival over the years. It has been a while since he brought big Flowdan with him though and it feels like a trip back to the centre of Bug-sound, to the core of what he does. Red light and thick smoke. Deep bass and Flowdan’s commanding vocals pouring out. The Bug live is a very physical experience, the sound pressing on and through your body, surrounding you in space. The set steadily builds in intensity until even Flowdan loses himself there for a second.
Saturday is Metal Day. Metal stress tested and recast. Following a recent discussion of preposterous disco-metal stomper ‘I Was Made For Loving You’ I’ve been wondering, is all metal novelty metal? If nothing else, it’s a fun way to start an argument. Pharoah Overlord and Aaron Turner pick up the heavy metal disco torch, mixing soaring cosmic-synth jams with Turner’s death growl. Like Donna Summer on the Navy Cut, 40 years on 40 a day. It’s a startling flavour combination, one which divided opinion about their album 6. I wasn’t won over by the record myself but live it works a good deal better, makes a more convincingly insane sort of sense. Still, fun as it is, I can’t help wishing it was their D-beat/crust band Split Cranium, instead.
Turner is back later with Old Man Gloom, who are somehow the most straightforwardly heavy metal band of the weekend. I can’t see how you’d say they were a novelty. Alternating between thrilling bursts of thunder and suspiciously Spinal Tap diversions they barrel recklessly along the line between metal’s brilliance and its clichés. If the uniting principal of experimental or extreme metal can be imagined as the erasure of Bruce Dickinson (no operatic wailing, no cod epic nonsense, no spandex, no pilot’s licence) or at least its exchange for new codes (vocal growls, screams, and roars concealing any lyrical content, trucker chic, a principled stand against “pizzazz”) then that’s where we are. Alright, Aaron Turner is playing his signature model EGC clear acrylic guitar, that’s the kind of measurable details you want is it? There are no objective truths in art, buddy.
Thou ratchet up the intensity with fierce hardcore-meets-sludge noise and as we’re here in the home of metal they break out some Sabbath vibes on epic last tune ‘Ode To Physical Pain’. Adept at combining extreme approaches in a singular way, they’re always impressive, but live it’s overwhelming. Once again heightened volume and the excellent sound system bring out another dimension in the music that you just don’t get from ear buds or home speakers. Nadja open the day playing in front of a projection of cat videos, which I guess is why I thought they’d be in their dreamier, gazier mode. They’re rougher and heavier though, the drum machine recalling Godflesh. Only horizontal where the ‘Flesh are vertical, if you take my meaning. Bismuth are subterranean, a huge and wonderous roar. Bass doom from beneath the ocean’s floor, sparse drums dragging on the heavy flow of sludge. Tanya ends the set moving through the crowd, screaming.
Buñuel stand out in the middle of today’s bill as a band with no sludge on their shiny boots. Eugene Robinson comes out in a dapper suit, they’re not here to fool around. Sharp and brutal they slice through the sonic fog like a razor, Motorhead speed-freak rock ‘n’ roll among all the Sabbath stoner doom. It helps that they have an extraordinary and magnetic front man, but the band are a well oiled machine cranking out precision-tooled noise rock. There’s a severity to it, no fat, no tired moves. They tear through a set drawing on this year’s excellent Killers Like Us record, finishing on a blistering ‘Roll Call’. Killers indeed.
As is usual, Sunday starts out gently. Shovel Dance Collective are working their way through a slowed and quietened take on ‘Abbots Bromley Horn Dance’ a tune that reaches way back into the mists of folklore. It’s lovely. Their set swings between slightly dusty museum-tour earnestness and moments of beauty as they disappear into the songs. Having voices, stories and traditional compositions at the centre of what they do setting them apart from a lot of the other music here, much of which explores the possibility of heavily processed sound.
I have to admit I hadn’t been especially engaged by J. Zunz as a recording artist so far but I was really impressed. Long, minimal, electro builds, an occasional clatter of real percussion and bracing rhythmic noise-stabs. I enjoyed it a great deal. Veteran math rockers June of 44 are on their first visit to the UK this century, although they have spent the majority of that time inactive. Largely an unknown quantity to me, their late 90’s post-hardcore is nostalgic even though the material is unfamiliar. Not crescendo-rock, it’s more abrupt. Deadpan intonations over thoughtful guitar patterns. Somewhere along the line between Slint and Shellac, it’s pretty much what you expect but very pleasingly so and warmly received by the crowd whether long=standing fans or new.
The weekend’s unique cocktail of emotion is already mixing with the heat and exhaustion by the time Big | Brave and Divide and Dissolve take turns in pushing it to the edge with huge slabs of quaking distortion. Their respective takes on noise/doom feel linked; there’s a different weight to them. Righteous fury and a glimmer of hope in place of doom’s usual impotent rage and comforting despair. Both bands turn in outstanding performances. Towards the end of Big | Brave’s set Robin Wattie makes a quick speech about what a great festival this is and never having felt more welcome anywhere. She looks so genuinely moved I briefly think she might cry. I’m both proud and slightly saddened that no one yells “Silver Machine!” in the ensuing silence. Jeff Mueller makes similar remarks before June of 44 begin as does Takiaya Reed during one of several breaks Divide and Dissolve take from their overpowering whirl of sound for a chat about their motivations. There’s no lip-service being paid here, when artists offer humble acknowledgement of how well they’re being treated by the crew and how nice it is to play for such a welcoming audience it just underlines what a special festival this is.
I first saw Richard Dawson play here ten years ago, he was just a crazy, hungover kid with a tiny guitar. Now he’s gone full wizard and is fronting the almost inexplicably incredible Circle – his favourite band in the world, as he’s not shy to mention. Dawson is living his dream. Circle are the glorious exception to the erasure of Bruce Dickinson rule, there is seemingly no element of rock so dumb they cannot spin it into gold and there’s plenty of Iron Maiden in this current manifestation. Ten years ago I would have been circumspect about this, and teenage me would be aghast. I didn’t come to underground festivals for this; I came for men with beards playing dour noiserock and performance-art electronica so fractious it’s hardly music. I did not plan on expanding my musical horizons so far that a folk-prog concept record about plants was something I was keen to see performed live. Yet here we are. They play most of the Henki album and it is wonderful, a celebratory event. A magnificently overblown ‘Ivy’ is a particular standout but it’s all great. They build the guitar pyramid during ‘Terminal’ and end on an unexpected cover of ‘Echo Beach’ that becomes a joyous sing along. It’s a perfect feelgood close to a wonderful weekend.