LIVE REVIEWS

Supersonic Festival - Munificent. Mesmerizing. Mindblowing.

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words: Elena Mara Reed, 2017-06-29

Birmingham is flooded with curious mélomanes – one of the most adventurous experimental music festivals in the UK, Supersonic, is upon us. On menu - three days of genre bending sound scattered over indoor venues, from industrial hangars to concert halls. To the most insatiable attendees the programme offers talks, workshops (including one on visual coding and synth building), exhibitions, films and many other educational as well as entertaining activities. The moment our dancing shoes step into Supersonic, it becomes crystal clear – the fest is run for and by music enthusiasts, absolutely passionate and dedicated to everything they undertake.

Thermometer hits 30°C. We are feeling hot and ready to be seduced by the experimental charms of Supersonic! The opening show is by Swedish Anna von Hausswolff. The multi-instrumentalist fills the Town Hall with dreamy melancholic melodies that elegantly merge church music into folk and post-rock. Anna’s high-pitched voice (imho, set too loud) is accompanied by the gigantic 1834 pipe organ, so immediately and visually impressive. Lighting effects give the feeling of surreal. It is this feeling that will be chasing us throughout the festival.

 

Melt-Banana, photo: Katja Ogrin 

 

Hazed by the almost liturgical von Hausswolffian celebration we dive straight into rave. I wanted to see the Japanese noise-rockers Melt-Banana live for ages! Finally, the day has come – the band is shattering ears at the Boxxed. The room is full of grinders and ravers, who are moving their feet to the extremely fast cyperpunk-grind odyssey. Fiercely ecstatic Yasuko Onuki sings us some pop-leaning songs too, exposing all the different aspects of Melt-Banana’s unique sound. More than 20 years into their career, Melt-Banana continue to fuel injections of manic joy! Tick!

Anonymous Bash is an embodiment of this year’s emphasis on collaborations. Anonymous Bash is a project that unites legendary drummer Charles Hayward with Gnod’ians Marlene Ribeiro, Paddy Shine and Chris Haslam as well as Louise Woodcont (vocals) and David Andrew McLean (the mighty saxophone). Born at Salford’s Islington Mill, Anonymous Bash generate mantra-like uplifting soundscapes. Jazzy, avant-garde and joyful, the collective stands out for their high-energy performance and Charles’s genuine smile. Authentic!

 

Ex-Eastern Island Head, photo: Katja Ogrin

 

Saturday

Let’s admit, we woke up slightly hungover and overwhelmed with the emotions and vibes Supersonic evokes. Luckily, there is a healing therapy available! Another brilliant collaboration, Ex-Easter Island Head, is one of the biggest highlights of the fest. This ensemble of 20 talented people (including three Gnod’ians) is perfectly synchronised and focussed. With their guitars placed on the tables, EEIH use no non-mechanical sound effects. Arranged in pairs, musicians are producing minimal chords and adding percussive patterns on top to mesmerising otherworldly effect. Every sound seamlessly relates to another, every instrument is fine-tuned into one magical soundscape. Led by the composer and performer Benjamin Duvall, EEIH create a modern symphony for gods!

Immediately after I run to catch the violinist Jessica Moss. While Jessica perhaps is best known for Silver Mt Zion, I first became familiar with her heart-wrenching violin performances in Godspeed You Black Emperor! Moss transcends the turbulence of the 21st century into a breath-taking song “Entire Populations”, which references the Syrian refugee crisis. She loops her violin eerily adding abstract passages of vocals and we walk a fine line between hope and despair.

 

 Jessica Moss, photo: Katja Ogrin

 

After the emotive solo performance by Jessica Moss, ZU feels like a punch in the face. Artfully combining jazz, metal and noise, the Italian trio is punishing us for our sins. Furious drumming, sludgy bass passages and saxophone screams blend into a supremely confident carnage. Dynamic and manic, members of ZU are surrounded by the stage fog for a good hour, - a lasting delirium of tempestuous glory.

The madness continues with Pigs x7. The room feels like a sauna and our bodies are dripping with sweat. The British psychedelic stoner metal outfit brings punk attitude on stage. Matt Baty howls and dances half naked bringing brooding intensity. The further Pigs x7 go the more righteous they become, and the room — boiling and vibrating. Playing with an occult self-possession, Britons deliver a crowd-moving performance. Stoner has never felt so brutal!

 

Colin Stetson, photo: Joe Snaprockandpop

 

David Lynch should put the American saxophonist Colin Stetson, the ultimate one man orchestra, into the new Twin Peaks. Whilst I am aware of Colin’s distinctive playing technique, my ears cannot believe what they are hearing. My eyes are desperately searching for a drum machine, pedals or anything digital. “How does he do that? How could this be possible?” – yet there’s only his alto and bass saxophones and meticulously positioned mics. Colin rhythmically moves back and forth exploiting every bit of his sax and body. The percussion our feet are dancing to is the clinking of the sax's keys and the pads hitting the horn's holes. The contact mics add a staggering intensity and make it sound like industrial electronica. What you might think to be loops or triggered samples is Colin playing and simultaneously singing into the horn. The "dog collar" microphone, Stetson is kinkily wearing around his throat, allows us to savour his melancholic eerie voice… A song is being munificently described to us by the maestro – ‘when you are having one of those very real dreams where you wake up and, - fuck!!’. The whole performance is an alluring mindfucking dream we don’t want to wake up from. Like Sirens luring sailors with their enchanting music into doom, Colin Stetson is fatally bewitching.

The last performance of the night belongs to my favourite collab – ZONAL. Luckily for us, the British producers Kevin Martin (aka The Bug) and Justin Broadrick (JK FLESH) felt there was some unfinished business with Techno Animal. Tonight they are playing their first show as ZONAL, an obvious extension of Techno Animal. For as Kevin noted in a recent interview, ‘new rhythms are sounding heavier, deeper, sweeter and uglier’. Indeed, the new soundscapes have much more sonic dirt. The duo shows no mercy upon us, - strobing lights are flashing, bass is crushing, internal organs are shaking. For us, detonating and ruthless, ZONAL are actually very danceable! Subjugated by The Bug and JK, we frantically move our bodies to this sonic source of premonitions.

 

ZONAL, photo: Joe Snaprockandpop

 

Sunday

On Sunday we already feel that Supersonic is our home and family. It is that sense of a community that makes the festival so attractive and authentic. Talking about authenticity, I’m entirely sold by The Space Lady. Wearing a winged helmet topped with a blinking red ball on her head, Susan Dietrich Schneider has been playing psychedelic synth pop since the 80s (if not earlier). She pauses after each song to talk to us and conquers our hearts with her simple Casiotone keyboard and soft comforting voice. Charmed by Susan’s humbleness and storytelling, we get emotional when The Space Lady asks us to sing the chorus for her politically and environmental conscious song “Oh Brave New World.” The song is performed in an unusual setting – with a guitar. The room responds with a massive chorus. Tears are shed. Someone asks The Space Lady whether she would like to take the position of the prime minister. Do I need to say more?

Immediately after The Space Lady, Londoners Casual Nun ravage our psyche and bring down cascades of intensity. They deliver brutality and urgency with a spiritual diligence. Atmospheric trippy melodies are interspersed with electrifying vocals of Vasili Sakkos. Add two bruising drummers and voila, - the Nuns are transmitting furious energy! Certainly not your bog standard psychedelic noise rock band.

 

Oxbow Choir, photo: Katja Ogrin

 

The last time I have seen avant-garde rockers Oxbow was in May, Copenhagen. That was their last gig of the European tour with Sumac and the band looked deservedly tired. Tonight’s experience is entirely different. I must reiterate that Supersonic celebrates collaborations… and do Oxbow, accompanied by choir! The set up reminds classical, almost church-like musicianship. Yet that’s not an obstacle for Eugene Robinson to put his signature show on. With his ears covered in duct tape, the vocalist is singing, dancing vigorously and… stripping. Both hysteric and euphoric crowd is left wanting more. Impressive!

Music is powerful. A platform to convey socio-political ideas. A tool to inspire and connect people (better than Nokia!). A refuge to take shelter from existential dread. A hedonistic pleasure to immerse oneself. Supersonic offers it all. It’s a place where classical musicianship meets with rock, metal, jazz, electronic and experimental. It’s an alternative celebration for those with refined sonic palettes and big open hearts. This year’s programming ticks so many boxes that I cannot wait until the next edition. Let’s see what 2018 brings about!