Supersonic 2008: the DiS review
Additional words: Kev Kharas
While summer colours the sky above Birmingham a dazzling blue, albeit behind passing quilts of deep grey, the Custard Factory arts complex proceeds to paint the town black. Another July, another Supersonic, sponsored by DiS for a second time. Organisers Capsule have pulled out the stops in an unprecedented fashion: this time the festival spans three days, cutting-edge acts established and upcoming converging on the nation’s second city for a weekend of revelry that’s quite unlike any other you could experience this season.
2007’s two-dayer was named festival of the year by fellow media partners Plan B, and I can’t argue with them: alongside ATP it’s perhaps the most forward-thinking festival in the UK. Actually, scratch that, as ‘forward-thinking’ is a little misleading. The festival doesn’t just look to promote future sounds from the way beyond, but also looks over its shoulder to bring forth the forefathers whose rumblings back when made events like this possible. The acts that pioneered new takes on musicianship that, today, are as natural-sounding to those with their ears to the underground as any chart-frequenting pop-rockers.
Cutting Pink With Knives
2008’s Supersonic begins with an ending: the final domestic show from Cutting Pink With Knives, opening the outdoor stage on Friday evening. The London trio’s engaging glitch-punk – hammerhead beats bludgeoning a bass and guitar set-up while a livewire vocalist screams absolute murder about five inches from your face – ticks the right boxes to get the party swinging, and while bassist Alex busts his toe leaping from the stage, his smiling mug tells a tale: they came, saw, hollered and flailed, got dancing shoes hot and left haters quite deliberately cold, and finally broke up amicably with a set to remember.
One-time Holy Roar labelmates Rolo Tomassi **follow, their own take on Locust-tinged hardcore now taking a substantial progressive turn as their debut LP Hysterics looms on the horizon. The five-piece seems to exude more confidence with each show, every second they’re up there stretching their ambitions as arrangements twist out of rumbling drones into fizzy key swirls and, finally, convulsing power-chords and dizzying percussion. PCM (see extended review) fill the space between Rolo Tomassi and Dälek, whose brutal hip-hop closes the outdoor stage for Friday (the Factory Club stage has played host to a Japanese invasion headed by DJ Scotch Egg, featuring a wealth of noisy but accessible acts that, before today, few in the UK would have heard of). Outside, the hulking form of MC Dälek delivers vicious rhymes atop sheets of rippling white noise and My Bloody Valentine-like sonic undulations. Some of the words are lost in the fuzzy mix, but the effect’s fairly body-shuddering, and Friday becomes Saturday in a fog of volatile atmospherics.
_Extended review: PCM
After barely surviving Rolo Tomassi’s blunderbuss sortie brains twisted out of mould welcome PCM**’s head-down approach to rhythm; two local rave vets letting their weirdness unfold over a typically dark and determined drum ‘n’ bass beat that recalls Bad Company’s Renegade Hardware tapes and coffee sickness. Synths break like glass as patrons groan and gurn, alien sounds doing their best to weave spells before this heaving oaf by the name of Karl comes out a to plant a flag for what he lets us know is “doom ‘n’ bass”, getting guttural to comic effect with both fists – sans index, middle, ring, natch – raised skyways and a beard full of spit. Neil Harvey and Nik Wells laugh and turn to each other, bemusement turning to school geek glints before leaving the stage, triumphant. KK
Glasgow’s Black Sun raise the curtain on Saturday’s Space 2 bill with volcanic sludge-metal moves influenced by the likes of Jesu but delivered with a ferocity that truly blows any lingering cobwebs from the mind and body – day two is underway with a quite literal bang. As Phil & Cath Tyler turn the outside stage onto their take on archaic folk melodies – they’re appropriately followed by Southern signings The Owl Service, who also do their bit for the quieter end of Supersonic’s booking spectrum with a set of harmonised understatement – Alexander Tucker is in full-band mode in the Factory Club (aka The Medicine Bar from years past). His eerie folk, full of strange effects that elevate it above the more traditional approaches witnessed outside, sets the Saturday bar high early on. Birmingham’s The Courtesy Group do the limbo under it, their Fall-inspired rock rough-edged and their vocalist fond of heading into the crowd. Space 2 is appreciative of their efforts, but the local boys aren’t able to make too large an impression as their material wears its influences a little too obviously.
Heatseekers fill the Factory Club – a coming-together of members of many a group producing a sound that buzzes delightfully at first before splitting into fragments of razor-sharp hardcore. Magnetophone, in comparison, seem rather shallow of substance, their pleasantly-paced electronica (think Hood, with a little shoegaze in there) a nice-enough comedown after a hot and sweaty experience next door. Guapo take us on a proggy odyssey in Space 2 minutes later, the London-based band’s sparkling suits giving us visions of the cast of Star Trek setting about updating the King Crimson catalogue. Their new album for Neurot, Elixirs, is one that many a convert here today will rush to buy, the memory of entrancing and enveloping psychedelia lingering long. Plus, those outfits really do look the part.
Justice Yeldham spits into glass, literally – some go nuts for it in the Factory Club, most run away. It’s an experience, but not one I’ll look to repeat any time soon. A conversation about how sometimes crap really is just that overruns and I miss Thrones, but settle in for Efterklang’s magnificent orchestral indie-rock early, and watch almost all of it, the only break a Beestung Lips interlude. The Danish collective deliver highlights from last year’s Parades album, pull a brand-new song from their pockets, look absurdly beautiful in bulging jodhpurs and silky bows, and leave one attendee turning to a friend come their end and exclaiming simply, “That was fucking amazing”. Yes, yes it was. Hometown punks Beestung Lips, meanwhile, see their vocalist leave the stage two songs from the end, but rock on regardless. Live they’re yet to capture the acerbic atom-bomb-in-your-pants brilliance of their Songs To And From An Iron Gut EP of last year, but once they find a set-up that can operate on a permanent basis they could well be unstoppable. When they hit their stride proper there’s no punk band in the UK that can touch them, truthfully. I’m not sure they realise just how amazing they could be. Yet.
The outside stage double-header of The Heads and Wooden Shjips leaves those that’ve come to dip their senses into a heady psyche brew satisfied – personally the former act, from Bristol, outshine their stateside tourmates with a set that’s phenomenally loud but highly textural too. In Space 2 Oxbow use rock music as a weapon, terrifying all onlookers into a submission that was always on the cards; I mutter something about them being a BBC4 Les Savy Fav, and the image sticks in my mind as their performance goes from captivating to can’t-look-away. Eugene Robinson loses his jacket, his shirt, his trousers… screams and writhes and shadow boxes all the way through as his bandmates churn out a taut and tense soundtrack to a skull being battered. The San Franciscans command what might be the biggest individual crowd of Supersonic 2008 yet, and it’s easy to see and hear why: this band is so absolutely fucking brilliant that I can’t quite believe it’s taken me ‘til right now to finally ‘get it’. Real drama unfolds: will he? Won’t he? Get it_ out, that is. He doesn’t, but a band this excellent should always hold a little something back. Or perhaps even something rather big. _Ahem.
Fuck Buttons (see extended review) also stuff Space 2 to its rafters; after their impressive set, attendees are split: do they watch Battles struggle through sound difficulties with a fast and loose festival set that features all of Mirrored’s most bounce-along songs (I do, for a little bit, up until ‘Atlas’), or do they cluster in front of the outside stage for Harvey Milk’s first-ever UK show? Some do one, some do both. I do both, and arrive at Supersonic’s only al fresco stage to witness the Georgians smiling through a raft of requests and guitar strap malfunctions. As a relative newcomer to the band I only really recognise the Life… The Greatest Game In Town material well enough to mime a word or two to, but long-term acolytes sing the veterans’ praises triumphantly come an encore-capped climax, so I’m guessing this was one for many to remember. It leaves me wanting to properly explore the back catalogue.
_Extended review: **Fuck Buttons
Compared to the heaps of reluctant sludge that have come seeping out from the Space 2 stage so far this weekend, **Fuck Buttons’ noise – usually a strange, Everest-bulk totem in a flash fog of London mediocrity – fair glides across the air tonight, buoyed up on the sighs freed from between hundreds of giddy ribs. That’s not to say they aren’t loud - ‘Sweet Love for Planet Earth’ opens as usual and once it hits its 32-step stride Ben and Andy ramp things up and up, ‘til allusions to the euphoria of what they do are undeniable. What’s less settled but fast approaching credence is the idea that Fuck Buttons might just be the finest new ‘niks in the land – two new ones in among eight love songs for Asva fans suggest a still warmer future, but for now they seem at home among the long of beard and hard of hearing, party kids coming up in the loon house. KK_
Einstellung open Sunday’s bill earlier than the previous two days, a 2.15 start finding the outside stage under-populated of attendee. Their proggy-hued instrumental rock, ripe with Kraut undercurrents, is harmless enough on the senses (which, to be fair, do need a break from the more punishing bands of the weekend), but seems rather too formulaic and predictable of purpose compared to many other acts here this weekend. A lot more fun is Max Tundra, who follows immediately on the outside stage and gets a couple of people dancing vigorously down the front. Chirpy of banter between numbers of fractured-pop and skippy-beats, the diminutive man known to his mother as Ben Jacobs leaves everyone in a jovial mood, and is seen throughout the day getting properly into a number of other bands. Bravo, that man.
Transitional is a new duo featuring Dave Cochrane and Kevin Laska. They open Space 2 with a doom-powered set so frighteningly powerful of volume I have to step outside after a handful of numbers – at one point my whole body is quite literally vibrating, a lot, and not pleasantly. Perhaps they’re one for earphones, a la Jesu, as prolonged exposure in the live environment definitely can’t be healthy. Californians Asva go head to head with Parts & Labor (see extended review), the Brooklyn four-piece winning the popular vote perhaps due to the fact they feature (by far) the prettiest (female) band member of any act participating in Supersonic 2008. Maybe I’m just a little tired of staring open-mouthed at bearded dudes dressed in black, but I stick their set out almost in its entirety, even sipping a cider as I go (and I do not do cider), catching the end of Asva in Space 2 as they cloak the room in a blanket of black-hearted metal. Some fellow bearded dudes go crazy for it, but I’m not massively impressed. That said, I only catch around ten minutes, so with prolonged exposure I could well have discovered an act to hold aloft as highly as SunnO))) – their MySpace seems to suggest as much, after the event.
_Extended review: Parts & Labor**
With zippy, post-teen pep and pop, Parts & Labor** are as close as this year’s Supersonic bill will get to the straight and narrow. The Brooklyn quartet – joined today by new guitarist Sarah Lipstate, who slots in perfectly – work up a dogged and uplifting sweat, the “actual songs you can sing along to” described in the programme on show and doubling in worth with effort exerted. A crowd builds undeterred, even as Asva’s thunderous swell leaks out to cloak the entire site in spite and din, Parts & Labor a rare window of joyful innocence that closes as Lipstate picks up her FX pedal to wring out the last few scraps of defiant noise. KK_
Parts & Labor
Another clash sees Errors crowd shrink as Earth take the Space 2 stage. The Scottish electro foursome, playing outside, pick the best of their It’s Not Something But It Is Like Whatever album for optimum backside-shaking – we get ‘Toes’ and ‘Salut! France’ and I toddle off to the remainder of Earth come their finish pleased as punch with the rays of sonic sunshine they exude. Earth are an entirely different proposition of course, their slow-motion movements of the dark go down a treat with some, yet I can’t penetrate the squall deeply enough to be taken away by the band’s acclaimed low-end meanderings. I guess a few more drinks at this juncture might have helped – if I close my eyes I see all the various shades of grey Earth can conjure, but not for long enough to get them fully in focus. I blame Errors for perking me up when I should have arrived with melancholy creeping up my backbone. Another night, Dylan, I’m yours.
Red Sparowes’ instrumental offerings on the outside stage don’t grab me either, a shame as I’m a huge fan of the band’s recorded output. From Los Angeles, they’re hardly an aurally typical representation of the west coast’s sunshine leanings, but as a background accompaniment to another pint of cider – all draught beer is off – they’re just fine. Fucked Up turn Space 2 into a writhing mass of limb-spinning bodies, sweat lost by the bucket and blood spilled into the mix for good measure. Vocalist Damian Abraham careers into the crowd, spies an old friend and hoists him up onto his shoulders, spins a few mosh-happy punters about with a beaming smile on his lumpy face, and leaves all that take the ride with him absolutely spent but hugely exhilarated. Sure, the band is making waves almost entirely due to the antics of their frontman, but that never stopped a million bands of respectable note before them.
The Oscillation have neat projections on the outside stage but, like a few other vaguely psychedelic bands this weekend, their output leaves me colder than hoped; they need a little more urgency about themselves for their rendered-well music to possess the bite necessary to grab absolute beginners. ZX Spectrum Orchestra** are a lot of fun – as their name well implies – but their playful tunes are just a slight distraction from the anticipation that’s building for Harmonia (see extended review). Also, they’re up against Kikuri in Space 2 (see extended review), so few gather at the outside stage. Gravetemple go up against the Kraut legends, filling Space 2, but Stephen O’Malley’s new project is one Julian Cope short of being the attraction is was billed as, so I see Supersonic to a close in the company of Moebius, Rother and Roedelius. It seems appropriate, too: the festival began with an ending, and closes with a set from an act that has touched so many of the artists performing across its three days. From cheery closure to new beginnings, rooted in the 1970s but as relevant today as ever. The closing applause is superb, and doesn’t want to allow itself to stop. I raise my hands as high as they will reach as the Germans raise theirs in appreciation. It’s a real moment, another to file beside the many that have come my way while enjoying what just might be, for real, the best festival in the country.
_Extended review: **Kikuri
It says a lot about a band when they’re the only ones able to raise a wince from the Supersonic crowd, but then it’s probably a disservice to refer to **Kikuri – comprised of Japanese racketeers Keiji Haino and Merzbow – as a ‘band’, the duo shrouded in levels of dry ice and noise that find them bearing more resemblance to the jagged statuettes of Futurist art or, as on one, broken-down track here, Satan tuning up. Peerless in terms of volume, Kikuri are remarkably absurd and as such just unexplainable, shrieking men doing battle with sounds organic (Haino) and synthetic (Merzbow) and dropping us like lambs somewhere in the middle of the melee. One observer will later talk in wide-eyed terms about how this set provided the highlight of his festival – Merzbow, standing up_. He’d never seen him do that before, apparently. It’s such reverence that buys Kikuri patience, catching the crowd between fight and flight as dread clambers in a knot from stomach to sorry frontal lobes.
Extended review: Harmonia**
As Stephen O’Malley’s Gravetemple bring Supersonic to a trudging close for those over at Space 2, a few flee the sludge to arrive, broken and blue, where kraut-nobles Harmonia** are holding court before the drained swimming pool that is the Outside Stage. Motorik’s ageless pulse pushes the weary along to the finishing line as Moebius, Rother and Roedelius flit between sparse, involved micro-compositions and tracks that would sound at home in Fabric on a Friday night, pounding us serene and sullen, heads bobbing to dodge the rhythm, some arms aloft and approaching rapture. You can usually tell how hard each track is gonna hit before it starts – if Rother, stage right, picks up his guitar you know you’re gonna get something like the glistening ‘Deluxe (Immer Wieder)’ a song so heroic you feel you could trust it to fend off evil in The House on the Borderland, stretching out before you in a crystalline wash of guitar and synth that sounds like it’s reflected and refracted through the walls of a dozen glass cathedrals. The body language of Moebius, stage left, is telling too – he raises his head to register every lapse in concentration from his colleagues, a professor chasing the immaculate. Roedelius just stands there, stage centre, lost and aloof ‘til the end when we’re afforded a beaming smile and a clasp-handed bow which signals the end of Supersonic 2008.