It should hardly need saying at this point but Supersonic is an absolute champion among festivals, a unique and precious thing, a banquet for the musically curious, a head-spinning weekend of possibilities, a face-full of noise, an overload of input to sort through over the summer. It’s main problems are being too short and the impossibility of seeing everything. Rounding the corner beneath the shining JFK mosaic, hearts sink at the sight of a queue stretching away down Floodgate Street. Our eternal nemesis technology has failed and the box office are battling to return the e-ticket system to something workably analogue. Similar human vs machine interactions will power some of the weekend’s performances. Calm prevails, the situation is resolved fairly swiftly and the griping never rises above the standard British background resignation to the world’s ceaseless parade of irritants. It does unfortunately mean we miss the first half of Housewives set. They are dressed in white t-shirts; at a glance they hold the form of a rock band but they are not rock. They’re playing something slippery and improvised. A shirtless sax yogi wails on the far side of the stage. It’s percussive, abstract and rhythmically compelling. And then they’re done. It’s all too brief but it’s a fine start.
We leave the cool darkness of Stage 1 and potter around the corner to Stage 2, a bright, white industrial space, sunlight streaming through the ceiling lights. Wetware are already in full swing, vocalist Roxy rolling on the floor in the midst of the crowd. Industrial noise stutters from the stage. Entering the space is like approaching the luggage carousel at the airport. “Isn’t that your transgressive screaming electronic artist there?” “Nah, mine’s got a red label tied around the handles”. I’ve got to admire their commitment to bringing the fight but I’m left feeling on the outside of it, the energy dissipating in the sunlight. Another of guest curator Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe’s selections, Moor Mother, fares slightly better. She kicks out gnarly chunks of grating noise and burns with righteous fury. As protest music it works on the gut punch level. Her political dissections and black history storytelling lost in the fractured howl of distorting electronics.
A serene and measured contrast back on Stage 1 with the band currently known as “Japanese” Goat to avoid unwelcome confusion with Swedish fancy-dress Goat. They start with a prolonged silence as they gather tightly around a stand of drums. A busy twitching rhythm starts up. They play a melodically percussive minimalism that builds and flows organically yet seems almost superhuman in its execution. It’s a little like a more spartan Nissennenmondai. They’re precise and elegant, a hypnotically impressive technical display. Their sax player puts a water bottle in the bell of his instrument and contributes only rhythmic blasts. It’s over much too soon and they’re so good we decide “proper” Goat should be the correct nomenclature from now on.
Are Dutch legends The Ex about to finally reach the broader audience they so richly deserve? Closing in on 40 years as a band there is no sense of them looking backwards or fading away. Mostly drawing on stunning recent album 27 Passports, the third from this current version of the band (no bass player, fronted by Arnold de Boer) they play a fierce and exhilarating set. It’s no exaggeration to say they are as good if not better than they have ever been. Channeling post punk, free jazz and African elements into a sound all their own, their playing together is so natural it almost looks effortless. For a band who have travelled and collaborated so widely the razor edges of their sound have not dulled; when they kick into them, the noisier sections are still furiously discordant. They encore with a cracking ‘Maybe I Was The Pilot’ and then, perhaps aware they’ve got the kids gig to do in the morning, they’re gone. This means we’ve time to catch some of Giant Swan who are bringing their banging hardware techno party over in the warehouse. They’re hitting the ceiling; it’s delirious.
Well we tried to be good, honest, but on a shaky morning behind my shades the second day stretches out dauntingly. I’ve a lot of love and respect for Alan Bishop but Dwarfs Of East Agouza are not sitting comfortably with my hangover. Improvised instrumentals from master musicians using African percussion loops and free-jazz guitar, they work their way patiently up to a frenzied cacophonous groove. The possibilities are more than I can take in at the moment and while it’s far from a soothing set they do manage to put my mind right in time for Leeds’ noise-farmers, Cattle. They’re out on the Third Stage in the old Custard Factory courtyard where, for reasons obscure, the reflecting pool has been paved over. Not ones to mess about, Cattle are straight in with the fierce two-drum assault. It’s bracing and glorious. It rattles your bones. Their percussive force is irresistible and they have that liberating wave of filthy, distorting noise-thing going on. There’s even an odd moment where they sound like Jane’s Addiction. I just about have time to notice this and they’re back into the sweaty, grimy groove. Idiot-grins move among the crowd, early yet for wild abandon. Enthusiastic shouter/table-top noise generator Chris does it for us, managing to throw himself off the back of the stage early on, before cutting his forehead open on his mic. Excellent.
Nik Void has been one of the artists in residence in the Moog soundlab. I take it that’s fed into her loose set of improvised electronics. It’s no surprise to find her walking a crooked line between textured noise and a steady techno pulse, but there’s hardly anything surprising happening at all. I usually love this sort of stuff but it’s not quite reaching me. Perhaps it’s the sun beating through the glass, or the aftermath of Cattle’s set ringing around my brain, but she seems to have got lost. The noise bits are a little slight and decorative, the beats never really kick in with force. Lift-off appears tantalisingly imminent but never comes. Back in the cool dark space of Stage 1 for one of the weekend’s unexpected treats: this year I slacked off on the homework for unfamiliar names, but a friend tipped me off to Mario Batkovic, and I’m glad I listened. Batkovic plays the accordion which, he concedes, is not very rock ‘n’ roll. We’re perhaps more used to accordion renditions of piano music, but his compositions explore the full possibilities of the instrument and push at the edges. He relishes its deep bass drones and works rhythms from its clicks and creaks in a way reminiscent of Colin Stetson. His playing is experimental but sweepingly melodic, seeming to draw on classical minimalism and hints of folk melodies. Yann Tiersen’s accordion packed score for Amelié comes readily to mind, but Batkovic is less whimsical, darker and more dramatic. He undercuts this slightly by mugging to the crowd and shushing us if we start to applaud during quiet sections, and eventually deciding to talk to us. It doesn’t break the spell his absorbing music has cast though. As we pass through the market place Khyam Allami is bent in the corner working through a version of ‘In C’. That’s a capital C for culture darling, you don’t get this just anywhere you know.
Amusingly Terminal Cheesecake are now in the role of venerable elders, a state of affairs that would once have seemed preposterous and even now seems quite an unlikely turn of events. UK originators and masters of the kind of fried punk-psych-noise that countless young pretenders have been having a crack at in recent years, they’ve still not received the credit they’re due. Mercifully perhaps, Supersonic knows though; they pull a big crowd and offer a big sound and big hair. There’s a lot of love in the courtyard, and Cheesecake rise to the occasion with huge squalls of delicious noise. Earlier I realised my hangover was easing when I started looking forward to ‘Blow Hound’ as it’s magnificent, a massive lurching wonder. They’re not done yet though, pushing on to higher and weirder. The courtyard fills with shambolic dancing and general delight, even crowd surfing. Glorious.
I wish I’d been able to pay more attention to Yves Tumor. He brings a wall of abrasive noise clattering through clouds of dry ice and harsh white strobe light. He’s totally harshing our post cheesecake buzz. It’s great but I’m dipping out early to catch Gazelle Twin. Three years ago she bounced out on this stage to present Unflesh, grabbed the festival by the throat and threw it against the back wall. It was an absolutely incredible performance and expectations are high. Tonight she’s premiering new album Pastoral and it sounds like anything but the arcadian idyll its title might suggest. The music is intense and claustrophobic, it feels darker and less immediate. There’s a Lynchian sense of the rotting horror beneath the picture box surface. Unflesh was insular but very physical. Body music. That seems to have shifted towards a kind of psychic unease. It feels densely layered, a little murky but it lacks the visceral shock and awe of her previous appearance. There’s a new red outfit/persona that blends urban street-urchin with medieval jester – a combination you feel the album might explore, but seems obscured right now. There’s some distorted recorder playing too. She closes with ‘Hobby Horse’ the one new tune we’ve had chance to get familiar with, and it comes as something of a relief even as it judders and goads us. The actual hobby horse, star of recent photo shoots, fails to make it out on stage and Gazelle Twin prances off leaving us bewitched and bewildered.
Of the many great things filling this weekend, few can be as illustrative of Supersonic’s approach and its audience than the closing headline acts. An English folk singer in her 80’s and an American black metal band might appear at the furthest poles from one another, but that a considerable proportion of us aren’t sure which we’ll choose to watch, and that the deep currents that connect them seem natural and obvious, says much for the spirit of the festival. Daniel Higgs is somewhere on the middle of that mythic thread. Formerly of fierce post-hardcore titans Lungfish, these days he cuts a more folksy figure. Part genial uncle, part backwoods mystic. he sits with his banjo and beard-sharing wisdom punctured with mischievous humour. Higgs ends his set by getting us all to join in a communal wordless vocalisation to set us up for the day. Such is his charm that he not only gets away with this, but could probably have kept it going longer. He’s right as well, I do feel better. Higgs should MC between the acts, to help us with our ‘musical bladder’ control. Full enough with cosmic spiritual business for now, we drink beer while Olanza play noise rock in the courtyard. They make a fine if not overly diverting racket.
“Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain”. For his first UK appearance, horror-soundtrack composer Mark Korven has brought along The Apprehension Engine, a curious device he helped devise specifically to generate chilling creaks, groans and ghostly drones suited to horror atmospherics. Watching Korven play it is a contradictory experience. It’s impressive and sort of fascinating to see it done, although in truth it gives no real understanding of what he’s up to. Sadly I find the visual cue of an intense chap making weird sounds with a strange box has the unwelcome side effect of pinning them down and so stripping away their eeriness. I can’t help thinking it would have a more powerful effect if he hid behind a curtain leaving the crowd in darkness with their fearful imaginings. I enjoyed it, but rather than icy fingers down the spine it had a peculiar sort of nostalgic warmth for me. Not a lot of room for that with Group A, but they do also have weird instruments of their own creation. Tommi Tokyo produces a shiny, twisted metal shape and gets some fantastic noises out of beating it with a drumstick. A full force electronic noise duo, their set bristles with manic energy.
By comparison Gum Takes Tooth is like watching the world cup of Battleships. They’re joined by Wayne Adams (Big Lad, Death Pedals etc) another of the Moog residency artists, forming a trio of men in caps bent over a table of switches and wires. One day they might ride a bathtub down a hillside. What they lack in performative spectacle they more than make up for in their music – a soaring, rough-and-ready jumble of techno and krautrock. It gets so wild, a man throws his crocs on stage comically highlighting the gap between the rushing abandon of the music and the gentle afternoon swaying of the assembled. In the oppressive heat of the Warehouse, an unlikely looking congregation are about to take this issue on. UKAEA are an event, a spectacle. Set up on the floor in front of the stage, a scattering of drums and devices, a circle of bones. A blindfold woman atop a plinth in a custard yellow robe channels the ancient desert spirits of the place. Possibly. Her attendants pull willing supplicants from the crowd, blindfold them and daub them with red clay. A form of primitivist hardware techno is building, rhythms bashed out by people and twisted by machines. The form and content of the ritual changes with every performance, but its purpose is clear: dissolve boundaries between performers and audience and move together towards some kind of ecstatic cathartis. It’s a lot more fun than watching a spoddy guy tinker with a laptop, you have to admit. In the burning afternoon sun they seem a little up against entrenched English reserve, but they just about pull it off. I mean really, who wouldn’t want to get ridden by the custard loa? UKAEA‘s baseless cult of gestures pinpoints a recurrent theme – a shapeless desire to reconnect with the power of myths and ritual by a secular culture that has dismissed the beliefs that generated them as superstition. We’re only half on board.
Knocked briefly back on their heels, our native suspicion and general tentativeness regroup in time for Dennis McNett’s Wolfbat Procession. It’s a wonderful thing this but slightly underpowered and polite; I secretly will the parade to lurch with its own life, march on up to Highgate or down to the canal, setting the giant wolf afloat on a burning barge accompanied by the frenzied cheers of revellers. Instead, we pretend not to notice as it’s awkwardly manhandled through an alley to complete its short route, then shuffled in quietly behind. More spectators than participants, we huddle in confusion before Wolfie gets wheeled into a corner and forgotten. If the parade becomes an annual event, which would be great, we’ll look back on this as a strong first effort.
GNOD are riding a wave at the moment. Long-serving, shape-shifting, sonic explorers they may have assumed their ultimate form. There’s been no shortage of noise over the weekend, but when they open with ‘Donovan’s Daughters’ it’s clear the dial’s been turned right up to 11. The volume hits you and pushes your internal organs about; when they reach the drop into the last section they properly shake the walls, raining dust and flaking paint down on us like Swans a few years back. It’s a wall of crushing sound but they work depth and breadth and texture into it; it’s not just sludge. As you start to wonder if they should ease off the accelerator or press down further, they drag out the central section of ‘Bodies For Money’ into something open and exploratory without dropping the intensity. It spirals out and washes back and forth creating space and expectation for that massive riff to come crashing back in. When it does, it’s just ridiculous; an intense and joyous storm of noise. They’re magnificent, and before they can spoil it they’re gone.
How much work does her myth do for the appearance of Shirley Collins? I don’t, if I’m honest, know much beyond the outline: English folk revival, collected songs in the US with Lomax, lost her voice for decades, recently made a comeback album, which I haven’t even heard. It seems unlikely you could have arrived at this performance with much less than that. It matters, because history and memory is in the heart of this music, but not that much because it’s about community and the sharing of human stories, and not particularly about Shirley Collins. Her voice is not one of breathtaking angelic beauty, the loss of which the poets would mourn, but unadorned and direct. This matters to her, “You want no sheen, just the song” and is the secret of her considerable charm. English Folk often falls victim to a mannered singing style that robs it of its truth, but there is not the merest shadow of it here. Another sticking point can be a history-book, museum-piece reverence that saps the life of the songs. This collecting, cataloguing impulse to preservation is part of Collins’ career going all the way back. The songs tonight are all furnished with quite long and learned introductions, either from Shirley herself or Pip Barnes, and yet they swerve that deadening weight with a sense we’re just having a conversation not attending a lecture. Her accompanying musicians are superb, bringing the same economy and skill to their playing as she does to her singing. A slideshow plays behind them of star maps and images from English folk festivals. There are some wonderful, startling images of people in jack-in-the-green outfits outside small town cornershops. They even bring a morris dancer out. Ossian Brown gets a name check for his arrangement of one of the songs, teasing out another thread of this weekend’s extraordinary musical tapestry. Brown was involved in Lodestar, Collins’ recent album and was also a member of Coil at the time of the first Supersonic festival, although neither he nor Jhonn Balance appeared with them at it. Collins succeeds wonderfully in filling the room with the kind of communal warmth and sense of shared experience that animates her music. It feels excessive to call it spellbinding, but Wolves In The Throne Room are on the other stage and if it were anything less I’d be away over there. They close by bringing out the morris man again, and even then I stay.
I eventually flee the morris dancing into the dark forest. Wolves In The Throne Room are powering out their epic, soaring melody lines over thunderous drums and a haze of buzzing guitar. For a band that pushes at the edge of their genre, building something grander from its tools, I’m always surprised by how firmly embedded in it they look. There’s a lot more Spinal Tap about them than you’d expect is what I’m saying, whipping their luxuriant manes in unison and thrashing at angular heavy metal guitars. They’ve got a weird sculpture made of sticks on stage, its purpose unclear, heraldic banners either side and a shield on the mic stand. Full on metal theatrics – bet they’d have had pyro if they could. No matter, their music transcends this slightly carnival aspect and roars through you evoking the majesty of the Pacific Northwest mountains and forests that inspired it, stirring up ancient myths. All here, in the centre of an industrial city, in a warehouse that used to make custard powder. Can’t wait for next year.