Supersonic is a rare treat on the UK calendar. For those of you yet to experience it, it is remarkably different from other festivals that take place and one that makes you ask why you go to festivals in the first place. You see, the joy of Supersonic is in the exploration it offers; the chance to see, not only famous acts who rarely play in this country, but also acts who may never have crossed your radar; it is the sort of festival that joyfully opens your eyes and does so within the welcoming environs of Birmingham’s Custard Factory – surely the perfect venue for this kind of thing.
Supersonic 2011 sees several improvements on last year’s event. Whilst last year had a line up to die for and was a sublime experience, this year the organisers have gone that extra mile with new spaces popping up (the excellent Boxxed stage), a more open feel to the lay out and a larger, more comfortable market space. The main stage, this year, has also improved with a new position further away from the doors (meaning the place stays rather warmer than last year), spots for merch stands, a fully stocked bar and an impressive array of projectors and lights meaning that the bands are presented in the best light (pun intended) possible. With food coming from quality providers (and Birmingham only a short walk if you really crave a simple burger and chips), the beer (courtesy of the rather lovely Purity brewing company) at sensible prices and plenty of bank-balance-damaging merchandise available so you can discover more about one of the many band’s that has almost certainly blown your brains out during the day – all of these things help to make the festival quite an event – but the real revelation is the atmosphere. Supersonic is, without a doubt, one of the friendliest, most open minded festivals you will ever attend, and with so much to do and so much variety there really is something for anyone with an interest in art, music and film.
We arrived on Saturday, just in time for the box office to open (at a work-friendly four O’clock) and set about discovering as many new acts as we could in the time available to us starting with the quietly revered Spanish act Orthodox; treacle thick doom, propulsive drums, a hint of echo-laden psychedelia – orthodox have it all. No chatter or intro tape, a piercing squeal of feedback announces their arrival on a stage awash with yellow light and then the three piece simply indulge in the sort of brain- melting sludge designed to sap strength and will. It’s corrosive, powerful metal in the vein of Sabbath, Eyehategod and Down and imbued with magical, primitive power. It is a stunning assault from start to the all-too-soon finish… by the third track the crowd has swelled appreciably whilst the music has taken on a psychedelic feel somewhere between om and neurosis, a subtle shift that sets the band apart from the ever-growing doom crowd and leaves you gasping – the band recently released their fourth album (‘Baal’) and you are strongly encouraged to hunt it down . It’s a great start to a great day of adventurous music.
Teeth of the sea exist almost at the opposite end if the spectrum. Part drone, part lonesome trumpet, their opening gambit is a throbbing groundswell that couples post rock and Ennio Morricone to hypnotic effect. As the music builds it becomes more unsettling and dynamic, the pulsing, minimalistic beat augmented by savage electronics…. this is not music for the easily intimidated … it’s not just the sonically overpowering music either. With all four band members right up front there’s a real feeling of spectacle and the musicians are all frighteningly intense, lost in the blizzard of sound they’re creating. The only time they flounder slightly is when vocals are ill advisedly introduced into the mix although the music remains as savagely beautiful as ever- a London-based act, I shall be hunting down more material by the band as soon as possible, they put on an amazing show to a crowd who clearly dug every moment.
Bardo pond, a famous American psychedelic act, play a varied mix of crushingly heavy psyche-doom and strangely heavy P J Harvey esque rock. Hypnotic and heavier than a lead-lined bulldozer they play to a suitably enthusiastic crowd. Their singer is seriously cool – part Josh Homme part Kim Gordon and the music has an epic bass sound. It’s as heavy as psyche rock gets and as footage of dead and desiccated animals flashes on the screens above and bookending the band, it rapidly becomes an overwhelming, mind altering sonic assault on the senses. The only slight reservation is that with the volume clearly turned all the way up to eleven, the subtle nuances the band introduce to the mix (such as flute) are lost amidst the bass rumble, but overall Bardo Pond arean impressive and fascinating act.
Nothing, to this point, has garnered the sort of expectation that Wolves in the throne room’s appearance has generated. The band, strolling onto a darkened stage adorned with candles and fluttering flags, are a revelation, even with the weight of expectation bearing down upon them. Their icy brand of black metal is dry as a bone and laden with frost and best heard, as now, through a PA that’s louder than god. The riffs, although jagged with distortion, are surprisingly beautiful, the melodies ever shifting beneath the surface, creating feelings of yearning for long lost days of Vikings and warriors…. emotive and intelligent wittr offer up an extraordinarily all-encompassing experience that surrounds the listener and wraps them up in a cocoon of velveteen darkness. Given the stunning quality of what’s gone before it’s hard to pinpoint the leap in terms of atmosphere but wittr are no ordinary band. Like such groundbreaking acts as Swans, Darkthrone and Burzum you’re sucked into the black heart of their whirling maelstrom of sound and it’s quite impossible to imagine tearing yourself away until the last moment has faded into memory.
Michael Gira once spoke of the primordial bliss of taking one note or riff and repeating it over and over, expanding and augmenting – it is this that the band have in common with Gira- their music ebbs and flows, expands and coalesces – melodies howling through the sub-sonic rumble and the result is entrancing.
Arriving to the world’s most ominous buzz, Electric Wizard aren’t out to make friends- a not atypical stance for the world’s most misanthropic band. As the screens show flames licking ever higher, the band kick off with a moment of pure Sabbath, their bass-heavy rumble threatening to collapse the venue… it shouldn’t be a surprise really – after all, Dorset’s finest have long been dubbed the world’s heaviest band, but no record… no home amp… can truly prepare you for the hope crushing nihilism of the live show. As the strains of a choir ring out over droning chords and feedback it becomes a yellow hued hell inside the venue with Satan’s house band slowly battering the life from you with riffs hewn from the living rock of ages, it’s all rather intense… Indeed it doesn’t matter who you are or what problems you have, the cumulative effect of Electric wizard is to stun the senses and leave you thinking only of the moment in hand. It’s a leaden, crushing sound they’ve perfected and it’s truly a special end to a special day! except it’s not quite our last band of the night .. we still have skull defekts to go and they transpire to be a very different proposition indeed…
With quite a small crowd (electric wizard having stolen everyone) the band come on to huge swathes of tribal rhythm and ambient samples. The stage is dark, the band mere silhouettes and still the rhythms drone in, taking you deeper into the band’s sonic jungle… as light appears on stage the band don guitars and the incessant rhythm changes, becomes heavier, darker until your pushed way past breaking point, straining and waiting for an end that seems remarkably far from grasp. One brief shout out for Geezer Butler and a hi-hat failure later the band unleash their madcap mix of butthole surfers, de staat and sonic youth to a rapidly expanding crowd. They’re very different to what’s gone before but then that’s the joy of supersonic and long may it continue to introduce us to amazing, weird, wonderful bands…