Birmingham may be the home of metal, but metal kids have to grow up some day. Now in its ninth year, there is a sense that the city’s Supersonic festival is maturing. While it remains based in Birmingham’s Custard Factory, this year it spread out further into this industrial sprawl, making more sensible use of the myriad of dark spaces beneath the railway arches. This attention to the design of the individual venues extended to the audio and the visual aspects of the festival: the new Boxxed and the reworked Space 2 areas in particular had some of the most advanced sound systems I’ve ever heard in a festival setting, while all stages now had space for artist-specific projections. These are timely developments, especially in light of Supersonic’s continuing interest in more experimental art forms, enabling an increasing range of musicians to wed their vision to that of the festival organisers Capsule.
Indeed, the image which sums up this year’s edition most is that of a guy who used to be in Birmingham metal legends Napalm Death, wearing a Cramps t-shirt, playing deep bass music (and boy, was the bass deep) to an extremely open-minded crowd. That guy was Mick Harris, aka Scorn, but his Friday night speaker-rattling set was an echo of the earlier performance by Drumcunt, a group who included a Hey Colossus drummer and a Cannibal Corpse t-shirt, and who played a Basic Channel variant, with ultra-minimal rhythms gathering dub effects and building huge tension. You could also pick out a similar theme in the hyperactive performance by DJ Scotch Egg, who tore into “Iron Man” (by another local band whose name I forget) while turning the music from a Gameboy into something much more modern – only 8 bits, but the smartest set I saw on the first night.
As we grow older, the desire to trace our roots emerges, to map family trees, to try to understand why we are who we are. Nathan Bell epitomises this – a former member of Dischord band Lungfish, he has (much like his colleague in that band Daniel Higgs) chased his own musical predecessors back to the desert. His take on traditional folk and country forms had rock’s rawness and looseness, as he kicked at a bell-strewn hi-hat, and grappled melodies from deep within his banjo. His Jesus figurine capo was the closest the festival got to religious iconography all weekend, other than the vodun symbols of Cut Hands. The latest project of William Bennett, Cut Hands follows the trail from the percussion sounds of late period Whitehouse back to the djembes and doun douns of Western Africa, cutting and splicing them into rhythmic patterns which, when coupled with the films behind (and his spinning and shimmying behind the laptop), seem to make explicit links between the club culture of modern society with the tribal rituals of those indigenous people. Yet the euphoric high engendered by this percussive tour de force was tempered by a typically unsettling atmosphere, with villagers erupting into mouth-foaming violence on the screens behind.
Finland may be the only country in which you’ll find a monument to a metal band in a town square (Lordi, Rovaniemi) but the folk song tradition has long been more important to the nation’s psyche. The talented Pekko Kappi has been playing the jouhikko, a horsehair-bowed three stringed lyre, for many years, collecting songs which deal with the dark past of this complex nation, such as the deportations to Siberian prison camps during the Finnish Civil War. Using loops and pedals he built his own fortified complex from within which he could scream, his instrument marking the passage of time with a relentless tick-tock. When his songs escaped the gulag, his lyrics about battling the demons of hell, however comedic in their expression, ultimately led us back towards more familiar subject matter.
Given the city and the festival’s history, I’m dwelling a little on the metal side of the event, but the truth is that given the diversity of the lineup, you could easily make it through the weekend without seeing a single metal band. You’d be nuts to do so, for many of those on the bill were some of the most progressive (if I can unburden the word of its rock baggage) of the genre, using the its stylistic tropes as jumping off points for some particularly experimental and exciting music. Even the unpromisingly-named Slabdragger found a niche in the dark shadows between blistering riffs, breaking up and crumbling bass notes, sieving them through their amplifiers. And despite the incense, deep violet lighting, dry ice, and ferocious headbanging, the magnificent Wolves In The Throne Room ultimately transcended genre. Their music was a brooding rumination on the landscapes of the Pacific northwest, a mass that melted out from under rusted metal towards vast forests of psychedelic rock and drone, while also acknowledged the Western soundtracks of Morricone.
The occasional punkish immaturity – for example, a terrifyingly young-looking Klaus Kinski thrashing at guitars in their boxer shorts with a shout of “Oi! Oi” – seemed out of place next to the likes of Sweden’s Skull Defekts, who showed that post-punk sophistication can still be fun. Alongside the guitar of experimental musician Joachim Nordwall, their drum and jerry can percussion assault sounded more like Liquid Liquid at times than the ragged Sonic Youth aping of this year’s Peer Amid LP. They celebrated the riff in its most reductive form, all four locking Ex-like into a straightjacket-tight groove, stretching out the chant of “Push out the sound” for a very good twenty minutes, until one by one they departed the stage to massive roars.
Their countryman, the saxophonist Mats Gustaffson, has long attempted to fuse the punk ethic with free jazz technique in his trio The Thing. Here as a member of Fire! with Johan Berthling from Tape on bass, and Andreas Werliin from Wildbirds & Peacedrums on drums, along with special guest Oren Ambarchi on guitar and electronics, he was seeking to chart a hitherto unexplored passage between the evil jazz fusions of mid-70s Miles Davis and Earth’s stoner metal (further sonic alchemy had earlier been attempted by the doom tuba duo Ore, who turned bass metal into base bass brass via their cover of Earth’s “Ouroboros Is Broken”). Long, slow riffs and electronic pulses gradually coalesced around the minimal bass of Berthling, who anchored the developing chaos like William Henderson on Agharta, while Gustafsson played confrontational keyboard with the back of his hand like Miles. It gradually bubbled up to a dark, Jack Johnson funk, and when Gustafsson tipped some circular breathing sax noise into the brew, there was much gasping and spluttering – from both Mats and the crowd. With the Birmingham Improvisers Orchestra having also played at this year’s festival, the incorporation of all this jazz felt like a major landmark in the festival’s coming of age. More please.
Further riff-based exploration was to lead us far, far from Birmingham. Pharoah Overlord had a distinctly German pulse, songs breaking down into a repeated phrase which was played po-faced ad absurdum. Kogumaza‘s visuals were similarly kosmische, pointing us towards outer space, the three piece blasting us out there via some potent 3/4 time post-rock. Eternal Tapestry‘s destination was, like, totally Woodstock, man (“Uh, we’ll play a mellow one – I hope that doesn’t bum you out”, being a particularly aromatic onstage pronouncement). They gave off the vibe of a late 60s good-time jam band, and when the guitarists huddled in the centre of the stage to tangle their coils of fuzzed-out riffs, I couldn’t help but think of Crazy Horse. One track saw them shift up briefly into motorik, but this was an unconvincing attempt to dress up the freeways of the US’s west coast as the Autobahn.
Barn Owl were the much needed Arc to Eternal Tapestry’s Weld. This was most definitely not the same Barn Owl who played at last year’s Supersonic, when they created gentle, monochrome, e-bow hymns in the venue’s theatre. This was more deconstruction than construction, a Sunn O)))-like dismantling of the riff, Evan Caminiti and Jon Porras cleaving the Birmingham air with their guitars, sending another charred, blackened shard of metal crashing to the floor. Feedback hung in the air like black dust over a collapsing city, the duo revelling in the carnage by swirling it into shapes with a drop of the shoulder, a shake of the hips. The heat and light built in intensity until it was like staring straight into the sun, a blinding and beautiful white glare, pockmarked by a pair of bowed black shapes.
The festival culminated with a pair of sets which showed just how far it has come in its nine year history. Their serious investment in the event’s sound, visuals, and performance spaces meant that they were able not to just attract avant-garde aesthetes of the order of Raster-Noton bosses Carsten Nicolai and Olaf Bender (Alva Noto and Byetone to their mums), but to make their inclusion on the bill seem a natural fit. Alva Noto‘s recent Univrs album saw him marrying the fastidiousness of his studio work to the abrasive aggressiveness of his live sets, and this performance dazzled, deafened and disorientated in the most delicious manner. He synchronised his razor sharp frequency slices to streaks of colour on the stage behind with brain-tingling precision, before the disembodied voice of Anne-James Chaton signified a roof-rattling performance of album highlight “Uni Acronym”: the lyrics and logos a dizzying scroll of three letter acronyms, mainly from music, media and technology, from MGM to MIA, from ELO to EMI. By the time his colleague Byetone had finished, the bass bins had been given one last thorough rinsing, and were ready to be packed away for next year. And given how Supersonic has entered relative middle age in festival terms while showing no signs of settling into a comfort zone, I can’t wait for that one.