Since its inaugural event in 2003, Supersonic has grown to be one of Europe’s standout alternative festivals. Centred around The Custard Factory and the industrial warehouses of Digbeth in Birmingham, Supersonic has constantly evolved to fulfil its mission statement of providing experimental music for curious audiences.
I first attended in 2007 and have had the pleasure of returning six times. I have witnessed an orchestra of automated toys, a man playing glass, tuba drone and an array of underground legends from Tony Conrad and Michael Rother to Napalm Death and Godflesh. So what could Supersonic 2018 possibly have in store for me?
After getting our wristbands, our bearings and admiring the artwork of Dennis McNett that adorns the three stages, it is time for Wetware. The NYC duo are a terrifying proposition as vocalist Roxy Farman props herself up against the barrier, eyes alight with a predator’s glare.
As the electronic maelstrom builds, she steps into the crowd, stalking the audience. She is fascinating to watch, her body always in motion as she coughs, splutters and rambles throughout an anxiety-inducing set.
If Wetware felt loose and dangerous, Goat are considered and methodical. The Japanese quartet create mechanically precise music with percussion, guitar and saxophone. Each instrument is used in new ways: the saxophone has a water bottle stuffed in it to muffle the brief blows, the guitar holds his hand over the strings to produce a clicking effect while the drummer is arguably the most technically impressive player I’ve ever seen. The audience watch with awe as their speedy rhythms build without missing a beat. Phenomenal.
The Ex act as headliners for Friday, deservedly so as the Dutch band have been doling out their warped brand of post-punk since 1979! Playing several tracks from this year’s ‘27 Passports’, their music is easy to lock into; bouncy and hypnotic or both in the case of ‘The Heart Conductor’. However, I’m starting to flag and barely maintain consciousness long enough to see Giant Swan bring the evening to a close. Their heavy beats and chaotic noise gets the crowd going but, despite a high energy set and some fantastically colourful visuals, I’m knackered and slink off to bed.
With the sun shining down on Digbeth, what better way to start the day than with Joasihno, a German duo with a robot orchestra? The pair twiddle knobs, play guitar and even a recorder while triggering automated devices. Crane-like structures spin around, tapping tiny wrecking balls against wood and metal to knock out a percussive rhythm. Drum sticks tap out pre-programmed patterns onto xylophones. The music ranges from hazy chillwave to hypnotic kraut-esque tracks. Despite the electronic backbone, the music feels remarkably organic – Joasihno have set an extremely high bar for the rest of the acts.
Somewhat dazed, it’s off to Connected Devices, Sam Underwood and Graham Dunning’s latest musical creation. I mean that literally – these guys have built an obscure contraption consisting of bicycle wheels, chains on sticks, various pipes and balloons and a slide whistle. It provides a fascinating novelty but musically it wears thin quickly. A man with a camera moves around the device recording constantly. Perhaps if his filming had been shown during the performance, we could have seen the inner workings clearly and the performance would have been more involving.
After such an obscure offering, Supersonic is always careful to balance things out with a good dose of heavy. This year, Cattle are on hand to make our eardrums bleed. Two drummers face each other at the front of the stage. It’s a great choice as it emphasises the physicality and heft of their sound. The singer, like his blistering echoed howls, lingers in the background, an ominous presence. Cattle are an act that should be experienced live; a real heavy highlight.
Having seen accordionist Mario Batkovic (above) at Utrecht’s incredible Le Guess Who? festival two years running, I had high hopes. The Swiss musician makes full use of the accordion’s range. Stretching it out slowly, we hear creaks and groans, a skin-prickling accompaniment to the tuba-like bass notes that drone darkly. It’s not all horror soundtrack though – Batkovic makes beautiful noise with his repetitious tapping of the countless keys that bookend his instrument’s central concertina. It’s evocative stuff and extremely cinematic, reminiscent of a Phillip Glass score in its power and emotion. Absolutely spellbinding.
The performance leaves me stunned and I retreat to the cinema for a comfy seat and a few scenes of The Witch before Deaf Kids. This Brazilian trio were news to me but they totally won me over with their strange and diverse racket. Across a blistering set, Deaf Kids meld punk and hardcore, psychedelic delay, industrial dance, tribal drumming and a good sprinkling of Motörhead into one unrelenting noise.
Earlier in the day, it had been announced that, due to visa issues, South African duo FAKA were unable to make it to the UK. Instead, the night ends with the hastily assembled Supersonic Super Group. Featuring members of Pigs x7, Big Lad, Tomaga and UKAEA, the 5-piece create an apocalyptic rave, rapid pounding beats accentuated by layers of glitch and noise while Matt Baty bellows over it all. When a troupe of robed women walk on stage brandishing bizarre animal masks, the frenzy ramps up a notch with the occult vibe turning the performance into some kind of twisted sermon.
In the event of a last-minute cancellation, another festival might fill the slot with a DJ. If you’re lucky, you might get a second set from another band. Most likely, you’d get an apology and a gap in the schedule. Supersonic chose to create something new. Rather than let circumstance take away from the festival, they used it as an opportunity to add to it, bringing us a chaotic shamanistic rave. That’s why there is no festival like Supersonic and that’s why it has built a loyal following over the last 15 years – long may it continue.
All pics courtesy & copyright Julie R. Kane