Thrones, Zombi, Andy Votel, Broadcast, Circle., Isis, Michael Gira, High On Fire, Hanne Hukkelberg, Alexander Tucker, and KnivesEdit this event
- Circulus »
- Alexander Tucker »
- Hanne Hukkelberg »
- High On Fire »
- Michael Gira »
- Isis »
- Circle. »
- Broadcast »
- Andy Votel »
- Zombi »
- Thrones »
- Knives »
Now in its fourth year, Birmingham’s annual Supersonic Festival plays host to a slew of leftfield talents in 2006: from the transcendental bombast of Isis to the dance beats of Shy Child, via the skewed folk of Alexander Tucker and the ‘terrifying assaults’ of Haddonfield Illinois (so says the guide), there’s something for almost everyone, and some.
Sadly, the fun bus laid on by the PR team behind the event, ferrying London-based journalists to the Midlands, takes next to forever to run the M1 route from A – being Archway, near enough – to the B of our second-city destination. The Custard Factory – with no fewer than five of its rooms/stages being used at some point of the Saturday (the previous night sees the venue’s Medicine Bar graced by the likes of Mistress and DJ Food, but DiS is in Islington at the time) – has already been rocked by the sounds of Mills & Boon and Una Corda by the time DiS rolls up to the delicate tones of Hanne Hukkelberg.
The Leaf-signed Norwegian, performing on the festival’s large outdoor stage, seems a little out of sorts here – her music is wonderfully ramshackle, using both accordion and bicycle wheel as accompaniment to a truly special, deeply romantic voice – but she holds her own before a crowd largely here for the forthcoming series of considerably more visceral acts. Polite smiles between songs on stage are replicated off it, and Hukkelberg’s semi-jazz, semi-something set proves to be the day’s first highlight.
In the Medicine Bar, Circulus are waving swords about to their medieval-influenced psych-rock; the front row before them is fist-pumpingly engrossed, but from DiS’s perspective they’re just a group of old-enough-to-know-betters in silly hats. Alexander Tucker’s loops and drones, emitting from The Custard Factory’s Theatre Space – a sit-down room to the main stage’s right – don’t wholly captivate, so DiS wanders off to sample an organic ale from the venue’s Rooty Frooty café. We’ve had better for four pounds, but our plus one’s organic cider seems to meet with approval. The 7-Inch Cinema (link) is showing a film about Birmingham’s Courtesy Group touring Bulgaria. DiS takes the weight off for five, but the smell of coffee and cake – both available from the cinema space – is resisted in favour of a return to the main stage. It’s not that we don’t want a little comfort food, it’s just that we’re already missing the start of Michael Gira.
The former Swans man sits, centre stage, with nothing but an acoustic guitar and the most cracked voice on show today at his disposal; that he commands absolute respect from all in attendance through such simple means is a testament to the quality of his story-telling songs. Each rooted in some fascinating reality the man’s experienced during his however-many years, his tales are coarse, sometimes crude, but always applauded heartily come their conclusions. Knives’s accomplished post-hardcore keeps the Medicine Bar entertained decently enough, but their so-so set is injected with a little extra excitement when the trio pull out a faithful Cable cover. DiS takes another few minutes out from the bustling crowd below in the press pass-only balcony, overlooking the main stage; disappointingly, the drinks tokens can only be exchanged for a rather average brand of American lager. Still, the sun’s beating down after the day’s earlier rain, so who are we to argue with free liquid refreshment?
US Maple’s disjointed hardcore comes across like Lungfish with a bad stutter, but attracts the aforementioned Gira into joining the Medicine Bar’s audience. DiS gets the impression that the four-piece could be excellent on record, but the sombre pace they adopt clashes rather with the superb electro tomfoolery of Modified Toy Orchestra on the main stage. Brian Duffy’s collection of kiddie instruments – anything from toy guitars to giant ‘my-first-style’ cameras – combined with a bank of synthesizers makes for an arresting, and absolutely unexpected, treat on a day far from short on memorable moments. With the Theatre Space rammed for Joe Preston’s Thrones, DiS again has a wander, eventually returning to said room for Haddonfield Illinois. An act who take all things b-movie and gore-splattered very seriously by the look of the accompanying visuals, the four-piece never get going, sadly, due to a nasty gremlin in the works; or rather, DiS waits only so long, listening to the same buzzing sound, before scrambling out of our seat to see the final few offerings from retro-electro Brummies Broadcast. We’re not impressed: Boredcast more like. See what we did there? As inspired as their dull set, that.
Any cobwebs being spun in DiS’s brain space in absence of effectively inspiring music are soon blown away, though, by the arrival of Isis: always likely to be the band of the day, the post-metal-whatever quintet bludgeon their way through a series of selections from their Oceanic and Panopticon albums, pausing only to play a single new song, from their as-yet-untitled fourth album, due in the winter. The addition of a double-kick drum fleshes out certain efforts, but elsewhere seems an unwelcome addition: perhaps, though, its presence is essential to the success of Isis’s continued expansion of the boundaries of what can and can’t be deemed ‘metal’. ‘Wills Dissolve’ and 'Carry' are but two of their many-layered standouts. Another act attempting to dissolve the public’s perceptions of what heavy music should be about is Zombi, whose proggy polyrhythms, served steaming hot in the Medicine Bar, serve as the perfect dessert after Isis’s we-want-more-capped main course (they choose not to encore).
High On Fire close the outdoor stage with a typically bruising set, Matt Pike wielding his guitar as if he were entangled in a swordfight with a Circulus loon; it all feels incredibly archaic after the progressively-minded compositions of Isis and Zombi, but for sheer mindless fun, no band on today’s bill can hold a flaming torch to High On Fire. Drum-and-synth duo Shy Child get the Medicine Bar dancing while contemporary Krautrockers Rother & Moebius – back again after their 2005 set was cut short by a bomb scare (DiS was caught up in it, too) – ensure that the Theatre Space’s crowd remains seated, albeit enraptured.
Andy Votel is spinning his discs into a frenzy – and the remaining crowd likewise – as DiS departs for the southbound journey back to smoggier civilisation. We walk the last mile home with the Sunday sun already up, a deep-red ball hanging low in the eastern sky. For all its alternative leanings, Supersonic has again succeeded in bringing separately styled acts together for a daylong unification, where pigeonholes are ignored in favour of simple pleasure and learning, exploration and understanding. DiS’s legs are barely awake, our feet heavier than they’ve ever been, but our mind isn’t focused on bed just yet, despite the clock turning six am: as we gaze at one brand-new horizon, we’re suddenly excited about the next Supersonic arriving just 364-or-so sun-ups after it.
Live photographs by Louise Yeandle