Supersonic Festival, Birmingham, England, 11-13 July 2008

Friday, August 01 2008 @ 01:00 AM PDT

Contributed by: drengskap

The Supersonic festival has been running annually for six years now, and for 2008 it was bigger than ever, now extending over Friday evening and two full days on Saturday and Sunday. Tragically for me, this is also the year it happened to coincide with Tewkesbury medieval festival, another highlight of my summer calendar, so difficult choices had to be made. I ended up splitting the difference, going to Tewkesbury on Saturday and Supersonic on Sunday. Tewkesbury was a blast, ending with top psychedelic folk minstrels Circulus kicking out the jams medieval-style in a marquee full of people in period costume – but that’s a whole different report. This review, though, ought to begin with an apology to all the people I‘d have liked to have seen on Saturday, especially BLACK SUN, THE OWL SERVICE and OREN AMBARCHI. I did manage to get a very interesting interview with Oren Ambarchi on Sunday afternoon, which should be online at the same time as this piece. I'm sure OXBOW were great too, but I saw them last year with guest appearances from Sunn 0)))’s Stephen O’Malley and Jesu’s Justin Broadrick, which goes a long way towards taking the edge off this particular deprivation. And I'd also really like to have caught the talks given by Nic Bullen (ex-Napalm Death, ex-Scorn) on ‘The Aesthetics Of Grindcore’ and Mark Pilkington (editor of Strange Attractor magazine) on the history of occultism in British rock music.

Supersonic is organised by Capsule, Birmingham’s leading promoters of alternative and extreme live music, and the festival specialises in showcasing the area where experimental, electronic and avant-garde music blends into extreme metal. Its appeal tends to rely more on the possibility of making exciting new discoveries than on big crowd-pulling names, although to be sure there were some legendary artists performing at this year’s festival. I always leave Supersonic with some new names to check out, and with performances running in three venues for all of Sunday afternoon and evening, it was hard to decide who and what to see. As it turned out, I spent nearly all my time at the Space 2 stage, which this year had a definite doom / drone flavour to it, departing from this stage only twice for brief periods – once to catch a little of the theatre’s screening of the silent horror classic Nosferatu, with a live sound track provided by members of PRAM and MISTY’S BIG ADVENTURE, and once for part of the ZX SPECTRUM ORCHESTRA’s set on the main stage. ZX Spectrum Orchestra is the brainchild of local circuit bender extraordinaire and technology womble Brian Duffy, who also presides over the Modified Toy Orchestra, and Brian and Clive delighted in tormenting hard electronic beats out of antique microprocessors well past retirement age, with Brain informing us that it takes 21, 000 Spectrums to equal the processing power of a single Mac laptop. “We’re going to need a bigger stage!"

Anyway, those two diversions aside, this was the view of events on Stage 2:

TRANSITIONAL dispense with the venerable tradition of opening bands having crap sound, delivering enormously loud, fat slabs of shredding bass which have me reaching for my earplugs. Earplugs in place, I can still actually feel their sound resonating through my nasal membranes every time I breathe in. It’s so loud, I can’t even decide if it’s any good or not, I'm just feeling concussed. Transitional is a duo consisting of Kevin Laska, who’s also recorded as Novatron, and Dave Cochrane, also of Head of David and Art of Burning Water, and they will be releasing their debut on Capsule Records soon – if they can still hear after this performance.

So far, so sludgy, and Spanish doomhounds ORTHODOX continue to stir the tar pits. The Seville-base trio produce Moss-like extreme doom metal, with occasional nods back to the 70s metal of Black Sabbath et al. Whilst their last album, Amanecer En Puerta Oscura, included orchestral elements such as clarinet and trumpet, there’s none of this experimentation on display this afternoon – Orthodox are, well, orthodox in their approach, never deviating from the slow, steady trudge of riffs’n’drums.

Next up is ASVA – a name new to me, but a band with an impressive pedigree, including ex-members of Burning Witch, Goatsnake, Accused and Mr Bungle. They got me onside before even playing a note, simply by using Burzum’s ‘Dunkelheit’ as their intro music. And with their previous employment history being what it is, you’ll be unsurprised to hear that Asva’s music is sludgy, slow and brutal, though with lighter keyboards and samples deftly inserted into the gaps between the megalithic blocks of dirge. Guitarist Milky cuts an particularly elegant figure, looking quite a lot like Freewheelin’ Franklin of the Freak Brothers (see photo), while Trey Spruance appears robed and bearded like an Orthodox priest. The band’s second album, What You Don’t Know Is Frontier, has recently been featured as Terrorizer magazine’s album of the month, and on the strength of this commanding performance, it’s easy to see why.

Dylan Carlson’s EARTH take to the stage, providing the first living-legends status act of the day. Opening with ‘Omens And Portents II: Carrion Crow’ from the current album The Bees Made Honey In The Lion's Skull, the band are joined by Trey and Milky from Asva for the album’s title track. Whilst Earth in their salad days were a huge influence on bands like Transitional, Orthodox, and Asva, not to mention any of the myriad projects involving Stephen O’Malley, such as tonight’s headliners Gravetemple, Earth have evolved away from such definitive drone statements as 1993’s Earth 2 and the stoner rock tendencies of Pentastar: In The Style Of Demons (one of my personal favourites) towards a freer, sunnier, almost jazz style, so laid-back that keyboardist Steve Moore can blow trombone on one song without it sounding incongruous. Earth close with a new, as yet unreleased song, ‘Junkyard Priest’. It’s good to see this band, who were such a key and influential part of the Seattle scene of the early 90s, in fine innovative form, continuing to grow and develop, and not merely mired in aimless repetition of their style of 15 years ago.
Canadian hardcore crew FUCKED UP play approximately 500 times faster than any other band so far, but are just as heavy – quite literally, with the Sumo-wrestler build of their demented frontman Pink Eyes guaranteeing that this band would prevail over all others in a weigh-in or tag-team contest. Pink Eyes whips up a truly rip-snorting enter-at-your-own-risk moshpit frenzy, blood from self-inflicted wounds running down his face, while security staff stand around wearing expressions of stern resolve. Incredibly, he even manages to crowd-surf at one point. I'm just grateful I wasn’t underneath when that all went wrong... The music is fast, crude and fun, but do Fucked Up really deserve a higher billing than Earth? I doubt it.

KIKURU provide some even more extreme sonic punishment, courtesy of Masami Akita, a.k.a. Merzbow, and fellow Japanese noise inflicter Keiji Haino. Merzbow sits sedately behind his laptops for the opening part of the set, whilst Keiji Haino howls into a mic and strikes axe hero poses, his guitar having a severely processed sound. Keiji may look like a rock star (in fact, with his long silver wig and elfin figure, he looks like a Japanese Genesis P-Orridge) but the ensuing torrent of sound bear little resemblance to rock music. Merzbow gets behind a drum-kit later on, proving himself to be a competent drummer, whilst Keiji swaps his guitar for some mysterious kind of small stringed instrument. I'm certainly no great fan of Japanese noise in recorded form, but on the rare occasions I've seen it live, I've enjoyed it more than I though I would, and Keiji is certainly more of a showman than Merzbow. Kikuru’s set is rapturously received, and I heard more than one person saying that this was the highlight of the festival for them.

GRAVETEMPLE also go with Burzum for their intro music – ‘Feeble Screams From Forests Unknown’ this time. The band take to the stage in traditional Stephen O’Malley style, which is to say, with low lighting and swathed in dry ice. No Sunn 0)))-style black robes, though. The doyen of drone is joined on stage by guitarist Oren Ambarchi, who has a full table of effect devices as well as numerous pedals on the floor, drummer Matt Sanders and, of course, black metal legend Attila Csihar (ex-Mayhem, ex-Tormentor, ex-Aborym, Sunn 0))), Burial Chamber Trio etc.) Of Julian Cope, though, who’d been billed to appear with the band, there was no sign – evidently he pulled out at short notice. Gravetemple live sets tend towards the improvisatory, so I didn’t recognise any of the material they played as such. Attila provided the visual focus in black bondage trousers and red shirt, with dry ice swirling around his legs as he muttered, chanted and spoke in tongues, whilst Stephen O’Malley lurked near the backline as usual, laying down riffs. No-show Drude aside, this was a fine performance, even if not quite as compelling and memorable as Sunn 0)))’s set in the same spot last year, when Attila incarnated some kind of spooky vegetation spirit / John Barleycorn / Swamp Thing figure by dressing up in a fright wig and sacking like a black metal scarecrow.

Overall, Supersonic 2008 was great. This festival enjoys a well-deserved and growing reputation for excellence and efficient organisation, and for offering a distinctive blend of musical extremity and intellectual complexity which is, by and large, neither too headbangingly moronic nor too chin-strokingly effete. It didn’t even rain too much – always the bugbear of British festivals – and in any case, all the performance spaces at Supersonic are covered, so even if it does rain, it’s nowhere near as bad as being stuck in a mudpit in the middle of a field. However, it does seem as if the playbills at Supersonic are getting a bit repetitious. A lot of the bands who played this year have been seen at Supersonic before, for instance Thrones, Battles, Dälek, Oxbow, Fuck Buttons, and other bands involving Stephen O’Malley and Brian Duffy. Maybe some fresher faces would be good next year. But still, Supersonic is a fantastic event to have happening in my hometown, and we’d be much deprived without it.