While supersonic festival spreads itself over three days and, this year, housed such artists as Godflesh and Napalm Death, SonicAbuse were only able to go on the Sunday due to prior commitments. Happily, that day featured the return of Swans to UK shores as well as a host of talent that made the day a gloriously worthwhile experience.
Birmingham’s custard factory is an excellent venue for this sort of thing, and it has long been associated with a culture of independence. With plenty of space, the organisers made good use of the venue’s rather obtuse layout to put on a festival where each stage offered the best possible musical experience both aurally and visually. A market stall offered a large choice of vinyl and CDs to those not awaiting their next pay-check and the food was provided by a selection of quality vendors whom you wouldn’t normally associate with a festival. Better still, the prices were all reasonable and for those on a tighter budget a newsagent tucked away by the Old Library offered a selection of cheap snacks. In short, Supersonic is a festival that caters to all interests, tastes and budgets, an important aspect of its inclusive ethos.
Arriving at the start of the day (2.30 for Sunday), our first band was health and efficiency who graced the Old Library stage with a powerful albeit short set. Admirably stopping a song so that they could present it to the audience properly, health and efficiency are a band who clearly care deeply about their art and the meticulous arrangements clearly appealed to an enthusiastic crowd who turned out early to catch this band. Essentially a combination of post-rock and shoegaze, the band could be described as something like Isis with clean, rather than screamed, vocals who produce epic vistas of sound in the live environment. A band to explore further when the occasion arises I think. Moving over to the main stage (space 2), we catch bong who are simply awesome. Oppressively heavy, with elements of sleep, Om, Sabbath and drone all shot through their sound, they play a beguiling, repetitive and totally absorbing set to a large crowd. Producing a solid wall of molten guitars, the effect is rather like catching Earthless playing High on fire covers – a sort of doom blizzard if you will, that washes over the listener in a blissful haze of dark, ambient grinding noise. Bong are amazing today and well worth checking out.
For a welcome change from the sonic darkness we head to the outdoor stage for Poland’s Maly instrument who are just great. Playing tracks utilising a range of small instruments and toys, the band have a sense of humour that shines amidst their obvious musical talent and what starts off as a crowd checking out a novelty act rapidly becomes an enthusiastic throng witnessing a band who just happen to play a variety of brightly coloured toys. Even sound issues don’t put the band off and these Wroclaw heroes capture the hearts of many of those who stayed to check them out. Sounding rather like the soundtrack to a children’s TV programme created by Syd Barrett and astonishingly versatile, Maly instrument were an unexpected highlight for a day packed with quality acts.
A trip to Squisito! (who deserve special mention for their amazingly friendly staff and tasty food) to refuel, a plunge back into the darkness of space 2 saw voice of seven thunders unleashing a spacey voyage into heavy Hawkwind territory. Eastern tinged and with a hint of Led Zeppelin mixed with Mogwai and Om, this heavy stoner band unleashed a deeply involving experience for all those present as their selection of heavy riffs reverberated off the skulls of the audience. An awesome band who have developed the post-rock sound to suit their own unique styling, they played an astonishing set. Alas, ruin, who play to a tightly packed old library sound like Yes played at 45rpm and while the chin strokers all seem happy to look for meaning in the messy collage of syncopated rhythms and tuneless vocals my one thought was to escape.
Better, although rather perplexing, were mothlite who seem to have developed their sound to include far more vocals than previously and they’ve edged out of the art-rock category towards the rather more fashionable space occupied by acts such as Toro Y Moi and Yeahsayer, with a sound that echoes vintage Depeche mode, ‘kid A’ era Radiohead and Joy Division. It doesn’t wholly work, but when the mighty rhythms coalesce and the keyboards and bass hit their stride the true beauty of the band shine through and all is forgiven. Back at the outdoor stage is Nissenmano who, perplexingly, kick off sounding like the rave tent at Glastonbury and end up unleashing a wall of guitar noise. Not the best act of the day, but far better than I was initially prepared to give them credit for.
James Blackshaw was one of the acts I was waiting for and his amazing guitar work has been a joy to hear on record but in the old library, sitting alone on the stage he cut a strangely forlorn figure. Certainly the cross-legged crowd at the front of the stage loved his intricate playing but the loud, rude group of people at the bar showed only their ignorance by shouting loudly over a delicate and beautiful performance. James is more than capable of putting on a great live show, but perhaps a festival is the wrong environment, with too many transient listeners wondering through and disturbing what should have been an enthralling set. The same cannot be said of the master musicians of bukkake who put on a grand, mystical, humorous and exciting set that developed over almost eighty minutes from a whisper to a roar. Appearing decked out in Bedouin robes amidst a sea of Eastern-tinged noise, the band look amazing . The group shimmer in the lights while a synth-like drone builds tension – rather like a cross between Slipknot and Lawrence of Arabia, there’s an undercurrent of menace coming from the stage and the hypnotic, beautiful music is a smoke-filled eastern take on stoner rock.
A trip back to the outdoor stage for factory music ends in disappointment when the band turn out to be strangely organic dance music played by three barely moving shoegazers. It’s not bad, as such, it’s just not terribly original or interesting and suffers badly from comparisons to the music taking place elsewhere. Happily Chrome hoof are next and if it wasn’t for the might of Swans they would easily have taken the band of the day award. Playing in the old library, it’s rare to see a band of this stature at this range with the front line of the audience so close to the artist that they’re practically on the stage. Sadly, the front row is rather less comprised of fans and rather more full of rude, disinterested-but-desperate-for-a-money-shot photographers who jostle for position utterly unaware that they are elbowing out genuine fans of the band in the process. Said tossers aside, the gig is a revelation with Chrome hoof delighting in their proximity to the audience and taking every opportunity to interact with the crowd and make their stage show an experience to remember. The opening blast of ‘Witches’ sounds amazing while tracks such as ‘one day’ and ‘pronoid’ are tailor made for the live environment. Other highlights include ‘sea hornet’ and ‘peptides’ but in truth every track is a highlight. Amazingly the musicians reproduce the album tracks perfectly (perhaps with a tad more energy) and the crowd go mental for the band – particularly one over excite stage diver who somehow finds his way on to the stage and then refuses to move until prompted with a well-placed kick to the ass from the bassist. Chrome hoof were exceptional.
A rare performance is next from Zeni Geva who sound HUGE. Heavy as hell in a Shrinebuilder does Slayer kind of way, the shaven headed, slightly moustachioed band leader looks rather like an aged samurai and sounds like the devil barking instructions at his hordes. The overall effect is awe-inspiring and the jazzy drumming only helps. They are the perfect warm up for Swans. With massive, corrosive riffs which are part doom, part metal and utterly irresistible, Zeni Geva are god-like and the crowd seem to agree.
If you were to be foolish enough to have read the Guardian on Monday you will have seen that their resident music critic (whom, it has to be said, seems to know rather less about music and rather more about how to humorously criticise a band to sell papers to painfully mediocre dullards who sip decaf while waiting to purchase the latest Robbie Williams compilation) gave a damning review of Swans, presumably from somewhere near the back of (or outside) the venue, where he woefully misinterpreted Michael Gira’s every move. The review was so mind-numbingly ignorant and ill-informed you have to question why such a person was ever present at a Swans gig, but without heading into the realms of conjecture it’s enough to say that The Guardian’s patronising, pathetic attempts to cover an event of this magnitude succeeded only in highlighting their supercilious attitude towards contemporary and genuinely daring art. Rant over, here is what Swans were really like.
Swans in 2010 are a rather more mature prospect than ten years ago. Grizzled and with the experience of many bands between them, you still can’t expect a mellow show from “the noisiest band in the world” and as the amps are layered on stage there’s a sense of expectation and even a hint of fear in the gathered throng, not least because the new album is a stunning, beautiful piece of art that more than matches the band’s classic output. A slow swell of feedback announces the return of Swans to a UK stage and it continues, building gently, for ten minutes before shimmering guitar slips into the mix and you realise you’re trapped in the headlights of “no words / no thoughts” a blistering juggernaut of sound which, when it reaches its peak, is like being trapped in the grinding belly of an industrial machine. The band’s shocking intensity is not dimmed one bit and Michael Gira is in thrall to the music. He screams, he cries, he spits and he’s not even approached the microphone yet – the riffs rage around him and it’s clear that this is going to be a show that will live long in the memories of a crowd, some of whom have waited eleven years for this concert. No one can compete with this level of sound. Huge droning riffs collide with a percussive onslaught that could level a building. The guitars rage with a blistering fury only hinted at on the album and we find ourselves lost in Michael’s vortex of doom, drone and terror. Radically the songs on the album are different – re-worked and bolstered with a live fury that is impossible to capture within the confines of a piece of vinyl. Heavier, deeper and more tormented it’s lucky the photographers were ejected from the pit or the band may have slaughtered the lot of them. If you missed out on the experience try listening to Swans are dead and then imagine it grander, louder and more impossibly intense and you’re still only part way there.
While everything Swans played sounded truly immense, special mention must go to the enervating, monumental ‘I crawled’ which was a droning doom-laden tsunami of noise. The crowd had long since taken on the aspect of rabbits in headlights and one can only imagine that the levels of sound and the sweat and sincerity flowing off stage were too much for some on a Sunday night but for those who stayed, letting every last raging beat pummel their tired bodies, this was an amazing return from a much-missed band. Michael Gira may have been lost to the music, but I have never witnessed a man so in control of his band and the effect was utterly stunning. Savagery has never been this beautiful and for those who missed this remarkable show I can only suggest you catch them on one of their other UK dates – this is one how you don’t want to miss.