It should come as no surprise by now that the fifteenth Supersonic Festival once again brought an exhilarating three days of experimental sounds and sights. You’re probably equally unsurprised that weeks of great weather breaks on the last day of school leaving a black-clad queue winding from the Town Hall towards the Art Gallery slowly absorbing the thin summer rain. Hipster menus and skin crawlingly twee boutique festivals have given the term “curated” something of a bad name in recent years, but Supersonic has built its deserved reputation for excellence via the steady guiding hand and considerable curatorial nous of Capsule, the team behind it. This year they are in overdrive in celebration of Birmingham as the Home of Metal. There’s fifty years of Black Sabbath just behind us here at the city Museum and Art Gallery plus related shows at the mac and Walsall Art Gallery, and an installation at Eastside Projects that will serve as a third stage for parts of the weekend. With a bucket of strong coffee and an iron will you could conceivably fit it all in. Lesser mortals do what we can.
There’s always been metal at Supersonic, usually its wilder fringes; this year there’s a little more than usual and everything kicks off with underground giants Godflesh and Neurosis. I guess they’re the old guard now, pioneers for many a younger band to play the festival. Homecoming legends of industrial metal, Godflesh, at the Town Hall promises much. I love the idea of the Town Hall as a venue but its grandeur and air of refinement can sap vital energy, I fear Godflesh just won’t get to be loud enough. Initial signs are not great, Justin Broadrick marches on stage late with soaking wet hair as if he’s been stuck queuing outside. His work trousers and weird green kagoule make him look like Shaggy from Scooby Doo got a gardening job. It’s too bright. It’s too quiet. The impact dissipates, floating up to the ornately plastered ceiling. A polite but firm few words with the lighting and sound guys and we’re on track. Godflesh have always been more of a live experience for me, less about songs and all about being pounded into the ground by that remarkable sound. As the darkness and volume improves it starts to surround us. There’s still much to love about the clanking groove and a weirdly psychedelic edge to the guitar that I’ve not noticed before, but it never gets quite oppressive enough.
Down to Digbeth, to the festival’s heart. Hey Colossus take the stage at The Crossing like returning kings. Winding up three months of pretty solid touring they are absolutely on fire. A lot has changed since they last played here in 2012: at that point they were just moving up from their early sludge and grind to the more open and exploratory band that made the impressive run of albums leading up to this year’s Four Bibles. The set covers the full range of that period, although they don’t play either new single ‘Carcass’ or the remarkable ‘It’s A Low’ from it. It doesn’t matter. In familiar style, they shift up a gear about ten-minutes-in at ‘Palm Hex/Arndale Chins’ and from there they’re unstoppable. It’s possible that we’re only used to hearing them through a smaller, more battered PA, but they’re bigger and bolder than ever. Sykes’ vocals are higher in the mix, his voice is sounding great, and he’s gained the swagger to go with it, prowling up and down the stage. I love Hey Colossus; I’ve seen them a lot and it’s becoming a truism that it’s always the best gig I’ve seen them play; but seriously, they were astonishing. They set a ridiculously high bar for the weekend.
Late night Friday’s line-up is billed as an after party to the Town Hall opening gig, and if it’s an after party you want I can think of no one better to bring the hectic noise than Big Lad‘s dynamic duo – business in front, high octane party bangers in the back. Their demented mix of overdriven electronic insanity and hyperkinetic superhuman drum battery is just the ticket to kick off a gleeful moshpit and leave the beard-stroking massive grinning like fools. They even throw in a cover of Aphex Twin’s ‘Come To Daddy’ and get away with it. Nothing else this weekend even looks in with a chance of being this much fun.
Saturday starts gently with the return of Daniel Higgs, bearded poet-shaman and holy fool. He recites a lengthy poem with occasional acoustic guitar and digressions. It’s never clear if he’s finished or just moved on, despite the steady relaxed pace there’s never a pause for applause but his calm mastery of the stage holds the audience as if we’re in church or a lecture. There’s some pretty wild ideas flying about and he can cut a marginal figure, half Dr Amp half Jerry Horne, but his humility brings a rootedness to his fantastical psychedelic meanderings that holds it and makes a half-hour-plus poem about demons and smells seem as natural as can be.
CZN bring a chance to catch the amazing Valentina Magaletti in action alongside percussionist Joao Pais Filipe playing the bells and gongs he makes from the copper, zinc and nickel that give them their name. It’s busy and constantly changing, occasionally shot through with weird and unsettling drones from the gongs that mean you harm. Having recently opened for Bikini Kill in London, Big Joanie are riding high and bring a message of community and positivity. They’ve got tighter as a band, rumbling through their lo-fi, riot-grrrl tunes, with a dash of high life here and slash of post punk there. They take turns speaking to the crowd, sharing and encouraging. Stephanie’s mother, from whom they take their name, is down the front, as is Moor Mother, who’ll appear on stage later tonight in a Big Joanie shirt.
In my experience you can’t go wrong with a thoughtful woman and a table-top full of electronics. Before a glowing backdrop of forests seen through church windows, Faten Kanaan is unfurling some live looped emotional electronica. It’s beautiful and consoling; it shimmers and washes around you; it makes you feel better. She occasionally engages in some kooky finger dancing, but I’m letting it pass because her music is a balm for troubled minds. By dramatic contrast, AJA is screaming in the mouth of a monster, swinging her multiple yellow breasts to the distorting confrontational polyrhythms of her own table top machines. At Eastside Projects, a small stage has been set up in Monster Chetwynd’s installation Hell Mouth 3. It makes for an amazing performance space although, of course, the space is limited. In another extraordinary costume, and some truly remarkable face distorting make up, AJA is killing it. Improvised and interactive, the audience feeds her performance, and that’s not always comfortable. Today she’s in a safe and supportive place and clearly enjoying herself. Cranking hardware techno disrupted by blasts of wild noise, she brings an intense new twist to her emotional exorcisms – now there’s joy in it. This is not just unexpected but brilliantly realised – amazing.
The weekend’s big draw for me are Hen Ogledd, the one band on the bill I’ve not seen before but really want to catch. Started as a way for Richard Dawson and Rhodri Davies to get their freeform groove on things changed once they were joined by Sally Pilkington and Dawn Bothwell, two women with a table-top full of electronics. By the time they got to last year’s remarkable third album Mogic it was an altogether different kettle of weird and multi-coloured fish. Mogic was immediate and yet genuinely odd. It wasn’t obvious it would work live but it does. They look like a kid’s drawing of a band, dressed in bold colours and wearing ridiculous home made hats. The music is human and hallucinatory. Despite the processed vocals ‘Sky Burial’ is so lovely it almost makes me weep. ‘Tiny Witch Hunter’ is fantastic; a massive hit in a better world. They’re glorious.
Sunday can be a tough day at Supersonic. On the back of a two-day action-packed parade of greatness, feet and heads are sore, hearts are full and hands are shaky. As a result the festival often takes a more peaceful turn. Today opens with a beautiful set from Haress bringing the ancient pastoral disquiet of Bishop’s Castle to the rotting warehouses of Digbeth. Thomas House rocks centre stage like a beacon of calm, his soft vocals at one with the band’s music. It feels rural, organic, as if it grew out of the landscape. A just perceptible strand of folk tradition wound through slow core and post rock. It wanders but never gets lost and, as unique as it is, it still feels warm and familiar. They leave a room full of happy people.
We’re ready to face an afternoon of unique and immersive performances. Helping artists come together and put on ambitious projects and performances is something Supersonic excel at. There’s a full run of them today in The Crossing but the universe is not in helpful mood. Tech problems and scheduling conspire against unfettered expression. Body/Vice and WORLD ZERO both start late and have to cut their performances short. A three-way collaboration between UKAEA, IMPA TV and The Seer, WORLD ZERO fills the room with dry ice and dim lights, Conny Prantera is up on a podium with an accordion. It’s a striking image but somehow the whole conspires to be less than the sum of its parts. Jerusalem In My Heart bring moody atmospherics beneath the multilayered glow of old cine reels. Quite beautiful but also curiously static, it’s more like an installation than a performance.
Back in the warehouse for another unique collaboration. Sly & The Family Drone today are just two of the regular four-piece allowing space and support for Sharon Gal‘s vocal improvisations. In what looks to be an animal mask cut from an image of a human face, and bells tied about her wrists, she brings some wild shamanic vocalisations. A new wrinkle on Sly’s murk. It takes a while to find its own feet; but once they lock in, the tension subsides and the room starts to unify till minds align and they fully bring it. Eventually bits of kit are going out into the crowd for a raucous but elegantly orchestrated finale. Always a joy.
After all that, amazing postrock wonders from Japan, Mono, are perhaps a more straightforward proposition. Taking to the stage in black and humbly playing their music – their elegant, oceanic, beautiful music. Twenty years into their career, some of their signature moves may have been worn to crescendo-rock cliché in lesser hands, but Mono helped write this book and they have long perfected their approach. Their music is liquid and translucent, never clumsy or forced. It’s surprisingly emotional watching them, even in sunlight pouring through the ceiling; but its moments of drama are always earned; they don’t deal in hollow bombast.
It’s not that the weekend’s last couple of acts are what you’d call easy listening exactly, but they’re both rooted in familiar genres which they distort to their own ends. Alt-hop pioneers Dälek bring rolling basslines, head-nodding beats and rhymes mixed with casually brilliant screeds of noise. It’s irresistible. Then what better way to finish up the weekend than with karaoke Sabbath kings, Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs? Their ludicrous and celebratory art-metal has taken them to heights no-one in this room could have possibly imagined even a year ago. Used to the wider world’s indifference to the charms of bands we love, it’s always a welcome surprise when one of them starts to make real headway. Pigs seemed unlikely candidates, but their distillation and distortion of the riff appears undeniable. Shedding his sparkly hoody, Matt Baty calls a halt to his band’s onslaught for a brief and moving little speech about Supersonic: how he used to look at the line-up every year and think how good it looked; how much he wanted to go; how that became a desire to play it, and how much it meant to be closing it out having wept through Shirley Collins’ wonderful set on this same stage, last year. Short and sweet, it completes a circle – and underlines how much this festival means to people. Long may it continue.