The recent spate of unpredictable weather has evoked fears that rain will turn Supernormal’s luscious green plains into brown, skiddy slop over the weekend, but Friday is an absolute scorcher. Fantastic news, although ribbon-cutters Unicorn Dad vrs Robot Dad must be sweltering under their intricate costumes of cardboard and felt over at the Nest Stage. Just as last year’s Workin’ Man Noise Unit provided an appropriate festival jump-start, the duo bring the enjoyment to an early brim with hollered gang chants (sounding like pissed football hooligans one minute and sugar-high toddlers the next) and riffs that sound like dislocated limbs.
Meanwhile, the Shed Stage is experiencing its christening vibrations at the hands of Mothers Of The Third Reich, whose loose hose of feedback and smacked drums make a seamless transition into a hideous saxophone duet, all before one of the amplifiers is sent into judders and screams as it’s forcefully toppled on its side. The cloaked figures of Thee Bald Knobbers are on hand to gather up those tantalised by their weekend’s early chaotic blasts, luring curious attendees toward the Church Of Chaos with their wandering orchestra of pots, pans, acoustic guitars, megaphones, tambourines, possessed voices and trumpets. Stepping inside the tent is like joining a party just as it hits its peak of ecstasy – I become surrounded by sound at its spontaneous and collaborative best, both loud and liberated from any intelligent for thought. After all, anyone claiming that sonic vibration can or should have an IQ is lying.
Time for Supernormal to flex its limbs of eclecticism. After having my brain rinsed by serrated buzzes and nauseous feedback, Sun Skeletons rebrand my head with their jangly, summery imprint and some of the weekend’s smoothest bass lines – it’s pop rock with the added psychedelic ripples of a shahi baaja tracing the main melodies, and echoes its way through Brazier’s park for hours after via the subconscious, infected hums of the Supernormal crowd.
But the festival isn’t just about becoming a gluttonous sensory sponge, and Ghost Fuck offers up my first opportunity to engage with our own participatory inclinations in the collaborative creation of a Supernormal Zine. After a 40-minute run-through of her own relationship with zines – plus a few contextual nods toward the wider spectrum of zine culture and its ties to feminism and punk – I’m sent away with a blank page and a selection of felt-tip pens, returning on Sunday to hand in my own graphic interpretation of the sounds of various Supernormal performers. Despite the best attempts of the Shed Stage to drown out Lizzy Maries’ talk on Friday (unfortunately, the activity tent is situated right in the jaws of Supernormal’s loudest musical mouth), it’s a wholly successful project, with the end result providing a scruffy and intimate depiction of Supernormal Festival as a whole. The finished zine can be found here.
By now, Thee Bald Knobbers have long vacated the Church Of Chaos and the acoustic sounds of Me With Others have taken their place. The Friday heat is wreaking more havoc than it’s worth for some, with the tuning of Dave Hamilton Smith’s guitar constantly drooping under the sun. “Fuck off!” he yells as another string slinks out of harmonic step; the actual songs are sadly distracted by the constant battle to keep his instrument together, despite the undeniable strength of the material itself. “Who are they?” he queries at one point, referring to the beautiful string drones that have just started to seep into the tent from the outside. “They sound good”.
“They” are Agathe Max and Cyril M, whose set moves from spun-out violin notes and cymbal wash to some sort of grooving hoedown, featuring breaks into Lightning Bolt-style explosions of tempo and energy. The sound is rough and organic, littered with bow creaks and percussive missteps that only work to galvanise the enjoyment. Meanwhile, I’m Being Good are straining to hold themselves together under the weight of their music’s doomy implications; the vocals sound inspired by the strained wails of newborn children, and the beats stumble giddily in between hits as though the band’s legs are weak with fatigue. Unsteady and intimidating.
A small chalk-written sign tucked under a tree denotes a sunset performance by Sunsurrations at 8pm in the woods, but by the time the band actually start (about quarter past), they’re battling with one of the weekend’s loudest sets, leaving their delicate improvisatory brushstrokes of cello, guitar and sighed vowels to be blown out of audibility by a ferocious kraut-esque racket occurring about 200 metres down the hill. Huddling closer to their instruments is futile.
I decide to investigate the source of the problem, and find myself in amongst one of the weekend’s most talked about performances. Evil Blizzard are a creepy collective comprised of four bass guitars, squealing electronics and a terrifying selection of masks: lots of PiL-style incantatory wailing over a cosmic party of bass frequencies and cyclic states, fully aware of the excruciating excess and perversely delighting in the friction between sweat, noise and prosthetic faces.
Exhausted, I retreat to the Barn for the first time. Shabash is playing an electronic violin from what feels like the back of a mansion hall, or from within an underwater cave. Looped layers overlap like eerie jets of light, tilting gently between moments of dissonant tension and graceful releases. Having the speakers at the back of the room creates a curious, immersive disconnect between sound and image, with Shabash’s swaying frame acting as the distraction that allows the sound to swallow listeners from behind.
Sea Bastard cater for the lineup’s more metallic tendencies, with their slow, crumbling spew hitting the spot for those who like their doom to sound like a series of earthquake fractures, but those hoping for Shit & Shine to perpetuate the sense of excruciating sonic weight will no doubt feel let down. It’s undoubtedly one of the weekend’s most divisive sets (to be expected from a band with such a mercurial artistic identity), with three improvising drummers rolling across a clacking, techno-paced beat for half an hour straight. It’s tempting to leave before the end and imagine that the piece rolls out into the infinite, but I’m overpowered by the desire to stay and applaud at the set’s conclusion, which manifests as a slurp of synthesiser slowing into death. Personally I love it.
Speaking of curious artistic personalities, David Thomas Broughton’s frail, whimpering vibrato (which sits strikingly at odds with his youthful appearance) is draping itself over disastrous guitar loops at the Barn. He’s a haphazard performer – collapsing into coughing fits mid-croon, tangling himself up in microphone cabling, half-muttering harmonies as if his mind has drawn a sudden creative blank – but is it all just theatre? Am I really witnessing a live set that peers into the jaws of collapse, or have I just fallen for a captivating, knowingly comedic character? He spends the last portion of his set packing up, still howling into the Barn acoustics as the last of his leads is wrapped up and put away. I’m confused, but my applause is assertive. It’s a clear weekend highlight.
Terminal Cheesecake close out my evening with a punchy psychedelic blast, with vocals crying out of the colours and steadfast beats stopping the whole thing from echoing too far out of the lines. Supernormal welcomes them warmly, and they’re evidently glad to be back.
Uh oh. I can hear a storm cloud ripping through the sky just over Brazier’s Park, with thunder creeping above my tent and then hanging in ominous anticipation. Yet something isn’t quite right; it fizzes and crackles a bit more than it should, as though comprised of thousands of tiny electric shocks. Equally, the birdsong arching overhead while I queue for my shower is subjected to trippy bouts of delay, bounding over the woodland as though swinging jovially from tree to tree. As it turns out, both are synthetic soundscapes courtesy of those Supernormal rascals. Olanza are another pleasant surprise in the morning hours, setting up in front of the silk-screen poster stall and comprised of some of the designers: heavy instrumental rock with lots of buzz and neat flecks of detail.
The Experimental Sounding Board is my next stop of the day, and despite being billed as a “live mobile platform for performance collaborations between sonic and visual modes of improvisation”, it seems to be a pre-recorded analogue synth jam playing out of one speaker when I go to investigate. Perhaps I’m missing something. Off to the Shed Stage then, where Undersmile’s acoustic alter-ego Coma Wall are wafting out ominous frequencies into the afternoon. Even with all the distortion stripped back and just acoustic guitar, bass and banjo providing the main musical drive, this is sinister stuff; vocals remain locked into a half-human groan, while those bleak chords are arguably more menacing for hearing the plectrum plucks that bore them. Meanwhile, Tomago keep things simple on drums and synthesizer – the former meditating on simple patterns (save for the bursts of fluid improv), and the latter creating long corridors of static and tone that curve and pulsate extremely slowly – while Good Throb’s clacky bass tones and strained screams are unruly and instant in impact, no doubt sitting nicely for those with a inclination toward scratchy, semi-inept punk.
Fully aware that some of the best Supernormal sounds and experiences are often hidden away from the main stages, I wander down to the Granary for Aidan Taylor’s Secret Sounds Workshop. After a brief introductory demo, I’m sent out with a couple of contact mics and a simple handmade amplifier – housed in a gorgeous wooden case – and return to the room with a metal water flask, wind-up torch and a pair of rusty campsite scissors. Everyone spends a good half-hour building jumbled instruments from their findings, before a 10 minute jam takes place featuring all of the contraptions at once. It’s a cacophonous mess, but in the best way – I’m reminded of old music lessons at school, in which ineptitude, creativity and excitement collide in a reinvigorated curiosity and naivety for what constitutes an instrument, and how interesting sounds can be attained.
I return to the stages for Art Of Burning Water, whose palm-muted guitars sound like steel boots slurping through mud, while hoarse shouts are helplessly pummeled right down beneath the mire. It’s a brief set – with attendees having to squeeze an encore out of the three-piece after only 12 minutes – but it’s certainly a case of density over duration. I return to the Church Of Chaos, keen to shake the oppressive distortion off my shoulders, and find Nil By Nose delivering a playful improvisation for bells, kalimbas, singing bowls and scrunched up bits of paper, blasting bicycle horns in eachother’s faces and resuming the church’s promotion of a liberated, anything-goes sonic democracy. All the while, H ZamZam is turning the Barn into a spaceship cockpit on the verge of meltdown; boisterous electronics are looped until tempo disappears beneath the blur of simultaneous processes.
Dethscalator are just as disorientating, and seem to catch the crowd while the drinks are in full swing. Either that or their music brings out a weary, drunken stagger in everyone. It’s a vicious, dirty carnation of blues music, with vocals hurled overhead like projectile puke. Those galloping, groove-centric moments of relief are withheld via faltered lunges of crash and feedback, keeping the floodgates together until the very last moment.
Shield Your Eyes prove equally capable of a teasing anticipation, albeit through the use of some hefty pauses between songs. At times it looks as though not all is technically well, yet the songs themselves most assertively protest the contrary – fluid, effortless, kicking out with scratchy hammer-ons and percussive micro hits, finishing off with two scuzzy blues covers (including one of Mose Allison’s “Young Man Blues”). Plurals seem to be beset with technical snags too, with their gradual drone ascent blemished by un-gated hiss and sudden sound cut-outs. Nevermind – time to close out another day with Clinics’ infectious and danceable 4/4, complete with fizzy guitars and vocals that sound, most appropriately, like a hospital tannoy system.
I spend my bleary-eyed morning away from the music, starting with a delightfully accessible Holistic Massage workshop that focuses more on attaining a relaxed, fully immersed mindset than the stiff precision of technique. Women’s Hour offers up a chance to talk about the female presence within Supernormal’s lineup and the arts in general, thankfully bleeding out of the initial discussion on the Brazier’s Park community to touch on much more inclusive topics thus bringing in stimulating viewpoints from Supernormal’s eclectic attendance list. Chuckles of irony are exchanged when, halfway through the debate, the voices become submerged beneath the opening improvisatory throes of the Cosham Community Players Association. I find myself unable to zone out into their noisy plateau, and the heavy-handed tumble of drums are also seemingly unable to carve out a home in amongst the distortion and brass.
Dan Hayward swirls a gorgeously pastoral folk sound with a modern humour injection plucked straight out of the city. I find myself napping on the grass (an oft overlooked perk of holding a festival in a spacious grassy park in the sun), as Hayward’s narratives paint pictures of lonely hilltops and washed out agriculture drift past the mind’s eye.
The visuals that spring to mind during Bang The Bore’s composition programme are much simpler, but no less captivating. Steve Reich’s clapping music pings across my skull as individual rhythms are dizzyingly overlain, while a 15-minute solo piece for triangle (originally by Alvin Lucier) takes an emphasis on timbre to the point of pure enlightenment, leaving me to dream into its gentle, metallic attack. My earlier nap is well timed, and I find myself coming up just as Comanechi puppeteer me into a furious, unruly dance; a guitar defies the laws of sound by packing the fizzy gut-punch of a guitar and bass simultaneously, while vocalist Akiko Matsuura yelps and squeals until her lavish fruit hat falls halfway down her face. Absolutely exhilarating.
Back to Bang The Bore, where the pre-emptive foundations of composition have been knocked down to produce the unpredictable dust clouds of improvisation. Jennifer Allum’s violin is hobbling along on creaking joints, stumbling on a broken but inexorable energy – rhythms loop back in on themselves, lurching onward like an unoiled wagon tottering down a bumpy hill. Dream Machine Allstars continue the evening’s exploration into the magic of spontaneity: a band cooked up over the festival weekend, consisting of personnel from across the Supernormal line up and featuring guitar, saxophone, flute, two drummers and a synthesizer among their ranks. Probably an absolute blast for those involved, but their cosmic kraut doesn’t hold much momentum for me.
So it’s over to the barn to catch a taste of belly fire and wrestler spandex in the form of Homosexual Death Drive. Their track “Sunshine” is a particular highpoint, kicking off with a playful collision of keyboard backing tracks and brashly sung verses (for some reason it takes me back to singing songs in my primary school assembly), before collapsing into a raucous climax of wheezing accordions and howling recorders. I’m amused and unexplainably touched in equal measure.
That’s the last I’ll see of the Barn this year, but it’s up to Physics House Band to provide my final Supernormal farewell. “Come closer,” they request as I wander down toward the stage. “Then you can see how many notes we’re playing”. Nice to see a band bringing a bit of tongue in cheek to their technical chops, and sure enough, notes are in abundance. It’s “progressive” without being a gratuitous promotion for a life in music tuition, using meticulous speed to engage audiences rather than alienate them; bass lines slink up to meet the bleeping synthesizers and tumble back down again, with an unruly noise stampeding freely between the passages of virtuosity. It’s a great way to close out a festival that, once again, pits fresh colours and sounds in a community context that instantly feels like home.