Supersonic

Dates: September 1, 2023– September 3, 2023

I went to Supersonic and I had a really great time. You know I did, of course I did, because it’s a brilliant festival with a packed bill of excellent bands.

There’s a lot more to it than that. Supersonic calls an atomised underground out of their burrows to blink together in the light. True believers in music’s transformative powers. Here music is still important, essential, more than just ‘content’. Largely free of the commercial impulses and cloying nostalgica that pool in the awnings of the festival industry, Supersonic is a twenty-first century event. Post subcultural, post internet, post 9/11. Twenty years it’s been going. No small achievement. There is so much to say about this incredible weekend it’s hard to know where to even begin and my brain has been bubbling and boiling with the overwhelm of it. Apologies.

Let’s get into it.

First on, Ex Easter Island Head have been quieter in recent years and appear as a four-piece rather than a large ensemble. Still plying their radiant experimental minimalism the ‘how’ of what they do is fascinating but doesn’t overpower the ‘what’. A sense they might be embracing techno proves a mere dalliance along the way, another related strand to draw from, bobbing up amid their waves of gorgeous sound. The crowd grows while they play so that on wrapping up a long piece late in the set they are met with a much louder roar of appreciation from the now full hall. Visibly affected, they thank us and welcome us to Supersonic garnering another loud cheer. As undeniably beautiful as it is weird and intuitive, their music channels the festival’s spirit of adventure. It’s a perfect start

Further open ended improvisations blossom as the day progresses. Ondata Rossa comprise noted explorers Agathe Max, Yoshino Shigihara and Dali de Saint Paul. Valentina Magaletti is missing, and so also her dextrous rhythmic underpinning, but they produce some wobbly and occasionally spooky drones. Un.procedure are a local team taking similar approaches, standing a few feet nearer to jazz I suppose but today delivering a set that proves a good deal more cosmic than I expected.  

Excitable noisers Total Luck are kicking up an absolute racket to open proceedings across the way in the dubiously named 7SVN warehouse. Also local, and breathlessly repeating it (as if yow cor tell bab) while thanking everyone for turning up and listening. Supersonic draws a crowd of the curious, they respect each other and the artists which means that even a first-on-the-bill, largely unknown local band still plays to a decent crowd and not an empty hall. They give everyone a chance and wander off if it’s not of interest. I find myself applying this approach to Deerhoof, a band I’ve never really engaged with. The live experience and/or the magic of the cosmos still fail to connect me to their music. It seems busy and overly sweetened, widdly even. I don’t get along with “widdly”.     

Also celebrating their twentieth year Hey Colossus continue to amaze and move forwards. Vocalist Paul Sykes pulls off the high-wire stage move of performing loud rock music while drinking red wine in a crisp white shirt. Suave. Drawing heavily on new album In Blood their set finds them playing approachable alternative rock, mixing a kaleidoscope of sources for their own unique musical language. After an emotional ‘Over Cedar Limb’ they throw in a couple of old numbers in a nod to the anniversary. ‘Black and Gold’ is pleasingly rough-and-tumble while a sly ‘Oktave Dokkter’ harks back to their first Supersonic appearance more than ten years ago. They end on a fantastic run through the epic ‘Trembling Rose’.

Sykes dedicates their set to MC Yallah, who was due to be playing tonight but was refused a visa by our hateful Home Office despite touring here only last year. As he so succinctly puts it “Fuck. That. Shit.” Stepping up to bring the party are Bristol’s Giant Swan. Not seen them for a few years but they have not dulled their attack, still cranking out a banging electronic noise meets beats cocktail for Friday-night good times; intense and exhilarating it’s a hard act for Infinity Knives x Brian Ennals to follow, leaving them feeling a little bit flat. Fortunately it’s an injustice they’re blissfully unaware of, having a great time kicking out their mid-pace jams to an appreciative crowd. Their white dungarees bring a touch of kid’s TV and I can’t help wondering why he stuck with “Brian” when his buddy was like “Ima be ‘Infinity Knives’, yeah!” But it all gels together, wrapping some serious lyrical punches in playful productions.     

SATURDAY

Opening Saturday with a bracing set of hardcore rippers, Blind Eye play with the giddy abandon of punk kids half their age. It gives their twist on 80s/90s moves the vital energy it needs to work, making for an adrenalised rush along the edge of collapse. It arrives late in the set as guitarist Andy Morgan experiences the nightmare of total tech failure. Rather than stand around looking embarrassed, they plough on, waiting out his anxious fight with the pedal board and finishing the song once he regains the noise. With Anmarie Spaziano’s vocals bearing strains of both Poly Styrene and John Lydon their sound is what you might call ‘classic’, but not pinned down by it. It offers an ideal baseline from which Saturday’s joyride through possibilities for rock in the 21st century begins.

Taking up the torch of punk as protest music, Taqbir‘s sound is fairly straight rage-punk with some Banshees style guitar fx, sharpened by the very real danger their expression of anger has put them in. Moroccan but now living in Europe, they perform wearing the niqab in order to conceal their identities which makes for a visually arresting spectacle, particularly the bold feminist declarations between songs. Using punk as channel for righteous rage, they wish to destroy the world as it stands so that a better one can be born.

This is a common thread in Saturday’s acts, and an important difference from the uncut nihilism extreme music can tend towards. Ashenspire and Ragana both draw from black metal, twisting its intensity and darkness towards an expression both of fury and hope. Ashenspire’s reputation as bagpipin’ black metallers has raised a few eyebrows among those I’ve encouraged to come see them. There’s neither pipes nor fiddle today, but plenty of sax from a chap in a cut-off baby pink ‘Scotland’ tee having the time of his life. It’s a joyous, unstoppable, performance, vocalist Rylan Gleave providing a hyperactive focal point for their huge sound, daring you not to be swept upwards in it. The closing ‘Cable Street Again’ is completely massive.  

Ragana are a far more stripped back proposition, operating in a more personal and intimate register. It’s impressive but there’s a touch of the anxious first date about it. They also suffer slightly from following Divide and Dissolve on the other stage. Feminist extreme metal duos aren’t all that common, and not only did Divide and Dissolve win hearts here last year they are also comfortably the loudest band of the weekend. There is something quite wonderful about watching a room full of hardened noise enthusiasts covering their ears and running for the ear plugs then hearing the sweet voice of Takaiya Reed chat between songs. Her saxophone is similarly mellifluous but her guitar is loud enough to shake your teeth –if not yet loud enough to crush white supremacy.  

While their politics are central to the project, in Divide and Dissolve they split from lyrical sloganeering to deep intentions that animate the music and clear statements made alongside it. The exceptions are their collaborations with writer Minori Sanchiz-Fung who makes a rare appearance on stage here, the music stepping back for poetry that sketches defiant resistance within a suffocating system.  

Eugene Robinson laughs about a recent piece calling Oxbow “Dad Rock”. It’s a thought. They are imposing, stern even. They deserve your love but don’t make it easy and they’ve been around long enough so, maybe? It is certainly music that is adult in its concerns. Robinson is both literary in approach and theatrical in performance. His addressing the horrors of the human heart is some way from hardcore kids yelling at the horrors of the world, but Oxbow remain a viscerally intense experience.

Godflesh are a blunter channelling of Justin Broadrick’s anxiety and rage. They last played the festival four years ago but are heavier, fiercer, louder and all-round better this time. Starting with the two hip-hop fired tunes that open Purge and a blistering ‘I, Me, Mine’ they power through a relentless set of punishing beats and howling guitar noise that has me dancing with a massive grin on my face. A hugely important band, their influence is best seen in the possibilities it suggests for other artists rather than weak copyists.

Backxwash‘s love of Godflesh and her ability to move that forward in a personal way is undoubtedly a fine example. Her UK debut is remarkable and fearless. If you aren’t here for a lyrical battle with demons fought through caustic textures and distorted beats I can see how you might find it a touch overwrought, but if you get on board we eventually make it to the syrupy stringed redemption of ‘MUKAZI’, one of the more surprising and rewarding places “heavy” music can take you to in 2023. It’s an extraordinary and powerful close to the evening.

SUNDAY

By Sunday we’re all physically and emotionally drained, but our thoughtful hosts are way ahead of us and the day begins with the gentle songs of Josephine Foster. Her band softly shuffling behind her delicate voice like something from a dream. Even her mild panic about not being able to find the right harmonica is calming. Jessica Moss plays some soothing violin and outside a rabble assembles with unclear intent. Later Moss appears in collaboration with Big | Brave who have nominated her to speak on their behalf. She briefly and eloquently talks about how supportive and welcoming everyone here is, impressing upon us that this is unusual but crucially “it’s not an accident, it’s a choice.” Then they play some new music they’ve made together, two huge pieces of overwhelming post-rock drone greatness that end far too soon.

The rabble make noise and hoist banners, the biggest of which features every artist to have played the festival in its twenty years. The Supersonic Mass has great potential as a punk-rock village fete and/or a growing ritual event of mystic revelry, and yet I fear it will always be thwarted by the accursed English reserve. They march the short distance up to the warehouse leading awkwardly into Shovel Dance Collective’s performance, which assuredly calms the waters. The lovely Thames river field-recordings of their last album do not feature, but the overly earnest interjections of historical solidarity remain.  

75 Dollar‘s music runs like a quiet river, a constant but ever changing flow of guitar and minimal percussion that cools the air around it. What’s happening as you listen to them is your breath and blood is slowing, and your jabbering internal idiot making gags at Shovel Dance Collective’s expense finally shuts up. Meanwhile, Širom have been thwarted by officious airline staff and Matana Roberts has been stopped by Covid. Both are disappointing and yet the bill is so strong the impact is negligible.

Lankum are the main event today and they do not disappoint. Delivering a completely wonderful set that is all too short. Their slowly intensifying take on ‘The Wild Rover’ is a perfect introduction, finding new drama and possibilities in a song so old and familiar it’s part of the furniture. ‘The Young People’ brings inevitable tears, ‘Cold Old Fire’ is surprisingly beautiful and they end with a masterful ‘Go Dig My Grave’. Growing from Radie Peat’s extraordinary unaccompanied voice it works through its dark tale of woe, and they push its final drone section into a wonderfully dense and looming sound.

The Lynch brothers have been here checking stuff out all weekend. Ian talks about what a great festival it is and about them coming here in the past; he laughs that even the security are sound and says how proud he felt to see his band’s name up on the banner earlier. There’s something in that. Something also in the banner’s field of evocative connections; but thinking about what makes Supersonic special I keep coming back to Jessica Moss’ words earlier: “it’s not an accident, it’s a choice.” 

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