Not only is this Capsule’s ninth annual edition of Supersonic Festival, but it’s the fifth time in six years that I’ve traipsed up to Birmingham to attend. The quality of the line-up has been ever consistent – the Capsule girls have always known what’s good in terms of “left-field” sound, and have introduced me to a plethora of new artists over the years – but the actual setup of the festival itself has been tweaked and refined all the while.
This year was undoubtedly the most successful layout to date. The Outside Stage had been ditched for the first time (it was most strange to see a decorative pool occupying the space where the likes of Melt Banana and Napalm Death had played blistering performances just a year previous), and instead the Boxxed Stage has been introduced: an unused warehousing space just a metal gangway across from Space 2. Personally, I was delighted – the Outside Stage undoubtedly trailed the other spaces in terms of sound quality, while Boxxed’s smaller size – and ultra-wide screen – allowed for an immersive, uncompromising experience for those artists that required it.
So it’s a good thing that Slabdragger had the job of christening it. No visuals required here though; the three-piece let the music do all of the work, and carried the sort of conviction that you’d expect from a Supersonic opening statement. The band name makes all kinds of sense once you’ve seen these guys: this is all the best elements plucked out of the sludge/stoner/doom pool, sprinkled with the rubble of Sleep’s Holy Mountain for good measure. Clearly a bit of Greg Anderson worship at work in terms of guitar – with a distortion that could fracture the earth, and any silence forbidden by the pained feedback that wailed during the gaps – but this is certainly no bad thing.
I decided to stick around Boxxed a while to hear the opening twenty minutes of Drumcunt, whose minimal techno couldn’t have contrasted more. Handclaps perpetuated by quickfire echoes, vocals mashed into a cyborg vocoder drawls, with a constant thudding bass drum loop underpinning everything. It was heading somewhere for certain – building in volume and gradually fusing its elements into a single organism – but the ascent itself felt erratic and without tension. Sounds were picked up and dropped almost arbitrarily, resulting in a piece that felt ultimately lacking in a clear direction other than simply “up”.
So it was over to Space 2 to witness another step toward Part Chimp’s imminent disbandment. The band seem keen to shed every ounce in them before they (eventually) part ways, and aside from a couple of tuning-related distractions, they sounded gargantuan tonight – resounding with a clean, punchy heaviness that surged out of their slow-motion rock, in stark contrast to Slabdragger’s dirty sonics just an hour before.
Once again, I stayed put for another complete shift in sound. Mike Watt’s “45-minute piece in 30 parts” was an effortless masterclass in virtuoso precision and pure, out-of-love energy. Winding bass lines talked, danced and squabbled with spiky guitar chords, juxtaposing the Ruins-esque drum rhythms that flowed and rolled underneath. A surprise highlight for me (ashamedly oblivious to Mike Watt before this evening), but no doubt this was an inevitable show-stealer for anyone that knew what was coming.
An exhilarating showing from Secret Chiefs 3 rounded off my evening at Space 2. It’s difficult to know where to begin with these guys; they bend cultures, merge genres; throwing fresh surprises all the time, while consistently exuding a character that is indisputably all their own. The band flitted effortlessly from an inspired take on the infamous Halloween theme through to some off-kilter Middle-Eastern jams, riddled with jerky time signatures (plenty of awkward rhythmic head-nodding throughout the crowd), and even dipping into fizzing, death metal distortion. On paper it sounds plagued with tongue-in-cheek, but Secret Chiefs thread everything together in such an expert manner that any laughs are stifled by speechlessness.
I headed back to Boxxed first thing on Saturday for electronics/drum duo Berg Sans Nipple, whose playful antics went down well with the crowd and myself. The pair chopped and changed between instruments and sounds very effectively – incorporating melodica and reverse-delay kalimba without breaking flow – and the end result sounded rather like the celebratory march of an alien tribe. Some of the more rhythmically simplistic tracks plodded rather cumbersomely, but thankfully, the pieces that took to a more jubilant flutter and dance were in greater number.
None of that flutter and dance going on for Orthodox though, who upturned Berg’s alien party with their ominous, no-way-out doom. Vocals sounded gargled through water, chanted over resonant powerchords and grooves paced at an agonising crawl. Nothing groundbreaking here, but I get the impression that neither Orthodox nor their audience could care less.
Speaking of groundbreaking: even an impressive showing by Wolves In The Throne Room could take me no closer to understanding the hype that surrounds their music. Does their melancholy-tinged black metal venture to any grounds not already explored by the likes of, say, Drudkh and Xasthur? Still – an undeniably solid performance and an impeccable sound left me satisfied enough, even if an hour of relentless blastbeats and tremolo picking was perhaps a bit excessive for my tastes. Recent interviews with the band seem to imply that they won’t be around for much longer – just as with Part Chimp the day before, it’s good to see a band intent on emptying the tank before throwing it away, and giving it their all during those final few live shows rather than gradually “winding down”.
Next up was Supersonic veterans Pharaoh Overlord, whose opening cover of Spacemen 3’s “Revolution” set the scene for those that needed acquainting. In contrast to everything I’d witnessed thus far this weekend, the band forged their stage presence by…well, being as absent as possible. The crowd was left responsible to do the dancing and moving, and responded appropriately – the rhythmic sway of bodies became increasingly more intense as the song’s single riff repeated over and over, with the band remaining expressionless and rooted to the spot. As always, this was some stellar “lose yourself” stuff.
My mind continued to enter new states – this time an earthly, sludgy bliss – as the highly anticipated Electric Wizard slammed straight into “Dopethrone” to open an hour’s worth of cuts from the back catalogue. One song bled into the next, guitar bled into bass; Wizard melted the whole room down into gloop, making brief transcendental escapes via guitar solo but ultimately wallowing in treacle-thick distortion murk. Every bit as hypnotic as I’d hoped.
Sadly I’m not able to say the same about Alexander Tucker, whose decision to ditch the guitars for samples, electronics and pedal FX seem to fall a bit flat. The best part of the performance was undoubtedly Tucker’s attire – a full-body yeti costume with lights for eyes – but the music itself was an uncomfortable mess for the most part. Material from his recent Dorwytch album formed the basis, dragged into drones and chopped up by delay and tremolo. These transformations felt aimless, driven more by the pedal buttons available rather than artistic intent, and consisted largely of arbitrary swoops of pitch shift and reverse-delay.
It’s lucky that Zombi could sweep in to wash the disappointment away. The duo have perfected the dynamic of their live set over the years, dragging out an excruciating tension over the first half hour that materialised as a deep, penetrative bass drone. Jams were built up and phased out, but Zombi ultimately sounded poised on the edge of climax right up until that low drone cut out to set the arpeggiating synthesizers free. At this point the room erupted, and the band expelled every ounce of the momentum harnessed during that prolonged suspension of impact. No surprises with the encore here; Zombi crack out the addictive synth line of “Orion” to the ecstasy of those in attendance, taking their polished set to aptly spacey close.
Doom tuba anyone? Considering the instrument is capable of such timbral density and guttural low pitches, it’s surprising that tuba doesn’t feature more heavily in metal music’s slower, darker incarnations. Dissonant tones rub together like giant battleships scraping along one another as the duo of Ore alternate between passages of static drone and slow groans of “riff”. I was delighted to spot an inspired re-working of “Ouroboros is Broken” during the set’s latter half (tinged slightly in a delicious pedal fuzz) and hope that this debut performance encourages further pursuit of this sound: perhaps Sunn 0)))’s “Orthodox Caveman” next?
Another pleasant surprise followed. Finnish musician Pekko Kappi introduced me (and no doubt many other audience members) to the bowed lyre: an instrument that, from where I was standing at least, somewhat resembled a miniature Victorian washboard. It sounded absolutely beautiful – croaking and groaning like ragged violin playing, and generally centred on a single chord for the duration of each song. Kappi quivered and wailed as though fighting to keep his sanity intact, howling stories of evil women beating up devils in the depths of hell and the like. So much conviction lay behind each syllable, making it apparent that even the most outlandish qualities of these lyrical tales probably have a disturbing basis in personal experience. A most welcome discovery for me.
After nipping back to the hotel to fetch earplugs (while I’d had no urgent need for them thus far, I could sense that Sunday was about to get noisy), I ventured back into Space 2 to see what Eternal Tapestry were up to. I’m not one for relentless guitar soloing – and the band indulged in this aplenty – but with so much energy pouring off of the stage, it became difficult to pretend that I wasn’t enjoying myself right along with them. To the group’s credit, they didn’t allow the solos to reign supreme throughout. Sometimes the other musicians “fought back”, swallowing the lead guitar in waves of crashing drums and riffs and re-asserting themselves as equally vital components of the setup.
An unfortunate bout of sound issues prevented Astro (aka Hiroshi Hasegawa) being the weekend highlight he could have been. At the times at which everything seemed to go right, the noisemaker’s combination of blistering white noise and digitalised visuals was exceptional, arriving as a ferocious sensory attack of volume and flickering, dazzling visual activity. At one point it seemed as though Hasegawa had left the stage in a huff and refused to continue, but his eventual return was rewarded with a vastly improved “second half”, even if further problems seemed to resurge during the set’s closing stages.
Continuing the “laptop noise” theme, William Bennett’s sublime offering as Cut Hands seemed to suggest that all is going swimmingly beyond the disbandment of Whitehouse back in 2008. He juddered and spun as his African percussion workouts rose into pummelling full force, enveloped in the thunderous intensity that will no doubt render any future listens to his Afro Noise I album as feeble in comparison. Who says laptop performers can’t openly display a physical connection to their music through dance and movement?
Unfortunately I had to slip out early to catch a rare showing for Tony Conrad back over at Space 2. Abrasive, overlapping violin drones were looped into a barbed blanket of sound, with various loose strings (one of which looked to be a row of beads tethered to the violin bridge) were pulled taut by Conrad’s hands and bowed until they creaked and groaned in agony. He pushes his instrument to its limits – both in terms of sound capability and physical withstanding of Conrad’s playing technique – and while many of the sounds produced resembled uncomfortable shrieks of pain, the overall effect was unexplainably beautiful.
Up next was Fire!, who had called in Australasia’s Oren Ambarchi to contribute electronics, guitar and feedback. It’s a real struggle to resist horrible (but perfectly apt) puns here, and I can’t think of many other ways to describe how the group really did set the room ablaze. Definitely one of the most energetic performances of the weekend, rising out of sparse, soundscapey beginnings into powerful grooves founded on drums, bass, keyboard and sax. Noisy in a really joyous way: a primitive explosion of excitement, and the sound of uncontainable ecstasy.
From the loose and unrestrained, straight into to computerised calculation: after a quick food break, I ventured back over to Boxxed for Alva Noto. I wouldn’t be surprised if both the PA and three-part screen had been fashioned specifically around maximising the Noto experience, as this looked, sounded and felt exactly how it should. Perpetuated bass tones shuddered right through from the stomach up to the top of the throat, while various colours and shapes pulsed in synesthesic synchronisation to the electronic beats that thumped in relentless rhythms. Some danced frantically, while others froze under the unshakable hypnosis of the visuals. Just as Nicolai had explained in our pre-festival interview, this is music for the live environment. It’s an experience to be shared and enjoyed as a collective, at a volume that coats wall to wall in sound.
Exhausted, I staggered eagerly to the Old Library for White Hills to see out my weekend. Riding the momentum of their Hp-1 record, the group rolled through a set of psyche-tinged space rock – flying off into wah solos, slamming back down into powerchord riffs. The energy level never dipped – even during the 17-minute finale of Hp-1’s title track – as the band sweated off facepaint and make-up to take Supersonic 2011 to an explosive conclusion of reverb, groove and repetition. In all: this was a Supersonic line up to match the dizzy heights of previous years, but the experience itself was unparalleled. My money’s on 2012 being better still.