Where the hell were you last weekend? What’s that? You were in Barcelona?! Oh right, at that Primavera thingy. Wearing your holiday shorts, greased head-to-toe in sunblock, listening to Arcade Fire’s abominable new direction and tolerating Mogwai’s lacklustre Rave Tapes material in the hope they’d eventually play something off of Young Team. After a few too many sangria rounds you even cheered Disclosure, didn’t you? You bloody sell-out. Well I was in Birmingham, at the Custard Factory, keeping it real (ale). And, no, it didn’t rain.
A little shorter than usual and with a smaller capacity, the Supersonic ‘Limited Edition’ weekend suffered no dearth of brain-bending musical and arty curiosities to write home about. Here’s our synopsis of its assorted entertainments, from the hairy and the scary to the glary, blarey and quite contrary
Friday began with ANTA ploughing their way through some impressive organ-centric heavy, beardy math-rock, like a proggier Pelican. Though they boast no vocalist, their music itself risks shouting out 'Look! We’re technical, we are!', for the guitarist is prone to swanky finger-tapping and the bassist’s big right hand comes down over the top of the neck of his instrument and scrambles back and forth like Miss Muffet’s tarantula along a slippery branch. (Does this method have any advantage over the ‘normal’ way of playing the bass, with fingers rising up from the underneath the neck? Answers on an upside-down postcard). For me, ANTA are best when they slow their tempo and simplify, but each to their own, and it’s a constant joy to observe the bassist’s remarkably agile facial gurning.
'We talk a lot of shit about being experimental,' explain Matmos, but they’ve saved up their really experimental stuff for this esoterica-celebrating festival. Is that a compliment or a caveat? Over the duo’s abstract electronics, there is a huge imposing face on a screen that recites some spoken-word beat-poetry porno 'schlong'-ologue, like a dirtier version of Orwell’s Big Brother or Ray Winstone from those betting ads. 'I’m glad it’s not pretentious' quips one of my sarcastic companions. 'TOO MUCH TALKING,' rules another. The big-screen head morphs into a woman’s face, and then into another character, a bit like the end of Michael Jackson’s ‘Black or White’ video, only with a more impenetrable message. Matmos’ second piece involves them filming and recording a metronome with their laptop and then building, conjuring and swirling sounds from this minimalist starting-point. This set is either fascinating chin-stroke-worthy genius or hollow Nathan Barley idiocy, but I don’t stick around to decide because this early on in proceedings I’m more in the mood for giddier treats.
Suitably, Opium Lord kick off in the other room. As you’d expect from an act named OPIUM LORD, this is some pretty heavy shit right here. It is crushing, crunking, admirably slow sludgecore. During the lengthy instrumental passages, the
singer growly-screamer paces around in circles like an angry grounded child as if impatiently waiting for his group to catch up, but they’re in no rush to get anywhere. When he sings scream-growls, he lurches to the front to the stage clasping the microphone in one tattoo-covered arm while forming dramatic claw shapes and existential scrabbling gestures with his other curiously non-tattooed arm.
Next up are Evil Blizzard, who have to be seen to be believed. A bloke in a latex old-man mask and glittery jumpsuit wanders on like something from Trash Humpers: The Vegas Years, blowing sinister kisses to the crowd. He picks up his bass and is joined by a drummer and no less than three further bassists, all wearing similarly eerie masks. One of them looks like a melting Madame Tussauds model of Iron Maiden’s Steve Harris. There’s another bloke with a pig mask who wanders on occasionally and then wanders off again. They’re a bit like the Autons from Dr Who, only instead of coming to Earth to kill all the humans with ray-guns hidden in their hands they’ve come to Earth to kill all the humans with four basses held in their hands. (They may have northern accents but as The Doctor himself once noted, 'lots of planets have a north'.) The drummer sings, but he’s a universe away from Phil Collins blandness. The old-man-mask-man also does a bit of singing, and occasionally messes with a keyboard. Another has a handheld gadget jobby that adds a bit of texture to the unrelenting Hawkwind-ish bass jams. The old-man-mask-man unzips his jumpsuit to reveal a hairy chest. He touches himself suggestively. Sexy it ain’t. They play a song called ‘Are You Evil?’ For all the novelty value of masks and the inevitable evocation of Slipknot or Gwar, there really is something evil about them. There goes the planet.
As an electro/vocal duo, Sleaford Mods resemble a messed-up Bizarro World Pet Shop Boys. Sporting a baseball cap and swigging a tinnie like you wouldn’t want to lend him your bike, Andrew Fearn presses 'play' to begin each song and then just stands jiggling behind his laptop. A couple of tittering wallies in the crowd mutter the name 'Bez', ignoring the fact that Fearn is the musical whizz-kid behind the ‘Mods compositions and is thus no dispensable maraca-waving 'vibes' man. His music sounds even better live, the throbbing elements are bolder and the subtleties more pronounced. Comparatively dapper but still well-hard-lookin’, Jason Williamson struts around like Liam Gallagher at his surliest, snarls into the mic like Johnny Rotten at his angriest, and spits rhymes like John Cooper Clarke got out of the wrong side of bed. Hilariously, his between-song banter consists of staring down the audience, yelling “bollocks!” or “fuck off!” and grinning to himself. As fucked as they look and as rough and potty-mouthed as they sound, it’s actually a pretty smooth and professional set. Williamson doesn’t fluff a single line. This isn’t tourette-ish random ribald verbal diarrhoea. Both lyrically and musically, it is precise, measured, powerful and penetrating. It’s pretty much all one tone but, hey, what a tone. Might this be their biggest gig to date? Introducing one song, Williamson says, “this is about rich people. I’m rich. I’m rich now,” perhaps acknowledging the dilemma that all hip-hop artists face when blessed/cursed by success, whether from Compton or straight outta Nottingham. How will the ‘Mods reconcile their newfound popularity with their critical disaffected outsider status? Maybe they should go on hiatus for a decade or two and invest in headphones like that f%%%ing daft c%%% Dr f%%%ing Dre.
Saturday eases in nicely with The Quietus premiering the first instalments of their ‘At Leisure’ documentary series. (Bias alert! I write for them too so am not exactly impartial.) Quietus co-gaffer Luke Turner and film director Ethan Reid have collaborated on a series of short films investigating the non-musical habits of a selection of their favourite cult musicians. Ex-Throbbing Gristle-r Cosey Fanni Tutti takes us on a tour of her garden, showing off the parsnips she grows for Christmas dinner. Steve Ignorant from Crass explains his heroic duties as a crew member of an independent, non-RNLI lifeboat. New Order drummer Stephen Morris shows off the many
tanks military vehicles that he owns, an impressive and bewildering collection, bewildering to himself as much as anyone.
The films are intimate and revealing, but also leave questions swirling around in your head. Are the subjects striving to regress to a simpler Rousseauian state-of-nature by spending hours on the sea or tending the garden (ok, the latter might be more Voltaire’s bag)? Are they alleviating themselves from something with these pursuits that others (or their younger selves) might ease with booze, drugs, or sex? Are they trying to relive the experiences of their formative years spent in bands in a new, more middle-aged manner (as Ignorant suggests)? And, finally, is Stephen Morris an exact real-life amalgamation of Steve Coogan’s Alan Partridge and Steve Coogan’s Tommy Saxondale? It’s all fascinating, moving and (particularly in Morris’ case) funny stuff.
Back to the live music, and it’s a well known fact that all the best bands have two drummers for at least a portion of their career. The appropriately-named Rattle consist of two drummers only. Each drummer also sings. They sound skittishly stonking and are probably even better if you can see their arms and drums; from the back all I can see is the two drummer-singers’ heads bobbing up and down above the crowd. Liars would surely dig this celebration of the pleasures of percussion. Alien Whale, meanwhile, are drums, guitar and a man in shades and a waistcoat playing an enamel-white keytar like his life depends on it. It’s joyful, slightly silly, phat rugged instrumental prog gubbins, and it goes down a bloody treat accompanied by a rum and ginger beer with ice and lime (real ale isn’t always appropriate).
If there is one band of the weekend with the potential to break out of the avant garde festival circuit and become rock-music megastars, then it’s local group Youth Man. They play frantic, yelping, hard‘n'fast post-punk like a threeway between X-Ray Spex, Bad Brains and that little-known beat combo fronted by Kurt Cobain. I don’t know if it’s because I’m watching a proper rock band playing some proper rock songs in the context of a festival bill of double-drummers, quadruple bassists, and opaque computer white-noise, or whether that rum is kicking in, but Youth Man’s dynamic set convinces me that they’re the NEXT BIG THING. The next Nirvana, no less (and not just because they’re a trio and thus have to be compared to Nirvana by media law). Angry, wry, and passionate, singer/guitarist Kaila Whyte is clearly a star in the making, prowling around the stage, dropping to her knees to thrash at her strings, and generally being everything you want from your new favourite rock idol. If they’re not on the cover of every surviving rock-based music mag in a year or so, I’ll eat my fraying Sub Pop beanie.
From up-and-coming rockstars to up-and-coming primal abstract mentalists, we move to Sly & the Family Drone. They’re not on to a winner with that silly name, like Joanna Gruesome or Com Truise or Neutral Milk Hogroast. They also set up on the floor in the middle of the room, instead of on the stage, because they think they’re democrats or anarchists or revolutionaries or something and that they’re above the tried-and-tested (AND LOGICAL) traditional formula of band-on-stage, audience-on-floor, so that THE AUDIENCE CAN ACTUALLY SEE THE BAND THEY’VE PAID MONEY TO, YOU KNOW, F%%%ING SEE, YOU DIVS. And lo and behold, only those who arrive early enough to secure a position in the immediate vicinity of Sly & The Family Drone can see the bloody group. Well, actually I can see one man, who wanders around the crowd, and fiddles with electronic gadgets in one corner. Admittedly, they sound incredible. It’s mad, juddering, cyber-tribal noise music that vibrates harder a gigantic washing machine being dry-humped by a randy Optimus Prime. Yet there’s something strangely catchy about their experimental rumblings. Do they have two drumkits? Three drumkits? I can’t see. Sounds like a lot of drumkits. And then the band starts handing sticks and drums to audience members who are encouraged to bash away at the drumkit fragments (and pass them on to the next guy when they get a bit tired; it’s harder than it looks this drumming lark). As annoying as floor set-ups are, toms and cymbals floating into the audience like shipwreck remains on a turbulent sea looks pretty darn cool. Is one of the band naked? No, just topless. Wait, now he’s stripped to his boxers. He’s climbed on top of a speaker stack in the middle of the room so we can see him. He’s playing the ceiling-beam like a drum now. The set climaxes with this plump, ginger hero balancing up there in his pants. Someone passes him a pint which he swigs and then spits out like a gargoyle fountain loosely modelled on Les Savy Fav’s Tim Harrington. Someone passes him a box of pizza. He gnaws at a slice and then hurls the remains across the room. You won’t see that when Prince plays the Roundhouse. It’s not democratic. It’s not particularly anarchic. It’s not revolutionary. Yet it is an undeniably marvellous and hugely entertaining spectacle.
Compared to these beer-spitting, margherita-frisbeeing nutters, established noise legends Wolf Eyes are virtually serene. Comically dressed as a breakaway group of Big Lebowski nihilists, with 'Crazy' Jim Baljo’s Rasputin beard now trimmed back to an imposing pair of thick Wolf Sideburns, they are in a playful mood, shoving each other around the stage in a brotherly fashion. Though still primarily brutal, this incarnation of Wolf Eyes is calmer and quieter. Nate Young’s vocals are grotesquely distorted rather than aggressively screamed. John Olson fiddles with a noise-box strapped to his waist. Baljo hacks at his guitar in a manner that alternates between scowling indifference and boyish gusto. It may be noise music played with one eyebrow raised and tongue pushed softly in cheek, yet it never feels insincere. Just kinda fun.
Jenny Hval seems nervous to be playing such an out-there festival, but she needn’t be. Her eclectic sound goes down a storm. It’s a bit electro, a bit indie, a bit ghostly, a bit Bjork-y, a bit saucy, a bit Kate Bush for the laptop porn generation (the first line of ‘Innocence is Kinky’ is “At night I watch people fucking on my computer”). 'I recently realised I’m Norwegian,' offers Hval by way of explanation, 'which means I’m very shy but get the urge to shout rude things.' And set to such appealing, soul-soothing music, it really works.
Swans’ reputation precedes them and the crowd wait with bated breath for their emergence. Looking like someone who was expelled from an ancient marauding warrior tribe for being just too darn manly (and now sporting an extraordinary thicket-thick beard to boot), Thor Harris begins by tinkling on various percussion pieces. Soon he is joined by the rest of Swans, who loiter on, pick up their instruments and begin playing their slow, dark chords. The music builds and builds, teetering towards a crescendo but never quite climaxing. It builds and builds some more. Michael Gira, peeping out of those narrow eyelids that rise upwards as they approach the middle of his face like a strange and empathetic anti-frown, slinks towards the microphone and then, and then... there’s a massive power cut! Sound, lights and everything gone in an instant. No doubt there’s a frantic panic backstage, but Swans take it in good humour with Gira improvising a stomping a cappella drone-rock tap dance. The power is restored before long and Swans launch into a two-hour set of typically epic rock bookended by new tracks ‘Frankie M’ and ‘Black Hole Man’, the latter is particularly pungent, harrowing and infectious. Notorious for their volume, Swans cause clouds of dust or paint (or roof?!) or something to tumble down from the ceiling. It makes Gira cough, hack, spit, and joke that he’s going to need his lungs pumped. While Swans are thrilling the first time you see them, their brand of repetitive droning alt-rock can feel a little predictable thereafter, and with their recent records they seem to have perfected this shtick so adeptly that if they don’t mix things up a bit they’re going to risk descending into cyclical self-parody. How Swans might escape this fate is up to Gira. Perhaps he should try climbing on a speaker, stripping to his knickers and munching on a deep-pan Hawaiian. Stranger things have happened.
Photo by Katja Ogrin