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Supersonic Festival 2018 review – Birmingham waves the flag for New Weird Britain | reviews, news & interviews

Supersonic Festival 2018 review – Birmingham waves the flag for New Weird Britain

Supersonic Festival 2018 review – Birmingham waves the flag for New Weird Britain

Another vintage year for Digbeth’s annual showcase of the sonically strange

Terminal Cheesecake in full effect (photography by Joe Singh Snap Rock and Pop)

A mere fortnight after the Download Festival, the Midlands was at it again over the weekend, celebrating noisy musical mavericks who have no truck with the mainstream.

Indeed, if anything, Birmingham’s annual Supersonic Festival was considerably more way out than its metallic cousin in the East Midlands. Exploring culture from even more obscure places in the musical margins of the self-proclaimed New Weird Britain, there was folk music, glitchy techno, heavy psych, black metal, North African trance music and k-pop. That was just the musical side of things, as there was also plenty to sample away from the stages, with cinema, yoga and art workshops. If anything, squeezing all this into three days proved to be an artform in itself, as audience members from around the UK, America, Japan and other far-flung parts of the globe got together to celebrate the weird and the wonderful.

As in previous years, Supersonic 2018 was an urban festival located in Digbeth, just south of Birmingham’s city centre, with stages spread across both the Custard Factory and next door neighbour South and City College Birmingham – and with only one stage to be found outside, it also provided some shade from another glorious English summer weekend. So, while sunburn was largely avoided, loud fun and weirdness could be sampled without having to travel to the middle of nowhere.

On paper, Friday’s opening evening looked like an exploration into the sonic unknown for most punters. From the harsh, squalling grooves of Housewives to the wild and grubby techno of Giant Swan, strange and unfamiliar sounds were on offer in spades. Catching Goat (the Japanese band, rather than our Scandinavian pagan friends), Moor Mother’s “slaveship punk” and Anglo-Dutch veteran punks, The Ex may have provided an interesting introduction to this year’s shenanigans, but the first day’s highlights came from relative new comers Wetware and Giant Swan.

Wetware (pictured below, photography Joe Singh Snap Rock and Pop) are a New York duo made up of electronics wizard Matthew Morandi and vocalist Roxy Farman. Channeling noisy ambient electronica and half-heard gibberish into the spirit of Iggy Pop and the Birthday Party, the band took things by the scruff of the neck for a confrontational exorcism of fierce sounds that gave no quarter. By the third song, Farman was already in the middle of the crowd, throwing herself at punters and rolling around on the floor. It was an audacious performance that refused to acknowledge any divide between band and public. Stage 2’s headliners on Friday on the other hand, were Giant Swan, who produced a maelstrom of exciting hypnotic dance music that had the crowd bouncing around well into the early hours of Saturday. Robin Stewart and Harry Wright’s set provided thumping groove after thumping groove that couldn’t help but grab you by the guts and drag you onto the dance floor. It was magnificent stuff that was just what was needed to bring on that all-weekend festival vibe.If anything, Saturday’s fare proved even more eclectic than the day before. Jennifer Walshe and Gazelle Twin opened and closed the Main Stage with electronica-flavoured sets that hovered around the interesting/pretentious divide. Walshe started the day with a spoken word/sung performance over an atmospheric soundscape that got things moving for the day. While Elizabeth Bernholz’s Gizelle Twin duo trod a similar path, premiering tracks from the forthcoming Pastoral album, while dressed like imps. While both were intellectually fascinating, they struggled to be truly engaging but were still well worth a look-in.

As with most festivals, more satisfying fare was to be found away from the Main Stage and the day’s celebrations on Stage 3 were launched by Yerba Mansa. Initially coming across like a Sunn O))) tribute act, they soon got into their stride, laying down tribal drum-beats and wah-wah heavy guitar to produce a set that could’ve been used as an alternative soundtrack to Apocalypse Now. In fact, Stage 3 proved itself the place to be throughout Supersonic’s Day 2, as Yerba Mansa were followed by a barrage of heavy psych and punky fellow-travelers who all had plenty in the tank.

Next up was Cattle’s guitar-free, two-drum assault, which dabbled in old-school hardcore punk with splashes of dub to produce a thrilling storm of sonic violence. In fact, by the time they were ready to leave the stage, their singer had blood pouring down his face either from a collision with a microphone or through some cathartic release – it wasn’t obvious from what. Cattle were, in turn, followed by local Birmingham punks Youth Man, who brought their muscular sound and dry between-song banter, while speeding through such future classics as “Valley Girl”, “I’m on Fire” and “Statuesque”.

As the evening really came on, so did a personal highlight in the form of London’s psychedelic noise veterans Terminal Cheesecake. The last time that I saw these reprobates was in the early 1990s and so I was quite excited about seeing them again. Any fears that the band might have lost their mojo or settled for being an alt heritage act were  banished as they took to the stage looking like characters from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre while thumping out a righteous noise. Drawing from tunes old and new, including a couple of as yet unrecorded gems, they had middle-aged men and women truly flipping out and even crowd-surfing to their rejuvenating sounds. From an elongated take on “Blow Hound” to “Birds in 6/8” from their recent-ish Dandelion Sauce of the Ancients album, this was a good groove writ large. Ending with a quite fabulous take on Flipper’s “Sex Bomb”, their set was finally brought to a halt as singer Neil Francis was dragged off the stage and passed around over the heads of the crowd. This was a truly epic performance.

As good as Terminal Cheesecake proved to be, however, they weren’t the headliners on Stage 3. That accolade fell to Brazilian jazz-metal experimentalists Deaf Kids. Dry ice, mad tempo shifts, manipulated vocals and a guitarist going apeshit with hair flailing all over the place was what they had to offer, and while it didn’t throw any shade on South London’s finest, it was thrilling stuff. Similarly, there was also plenty that was worth dipping into on the other stages. From Dwarfs of East Agouza’s excellent Egyptian trance sounds to Nik Void’s techno grooves and Mario Batkovic’s solo accordion rendition of Philip Glass-like soundscapes, the problem was that there was so much that was worth seeing and hearing that many good performances were inevitably missed.

Sunday afternoon started with a chilled set from Daniel Higgs (pictured below, photography by Katja Ogrin) of post-hardcore types, Lungfish. Taking to the stage with no more than a banjo, Higgs came on like a cosmic Seasick Steve as he spread lashings of happiness that took in TV evangelists, Star Trek, LSD and “the accursed blessing of the internet” with his elongated poem “The Turbulent Trips”. Speaking almost totally in verse and ending with a crowd-enhanced droning wail, it was a wonderful beginning to Supersonic Day 3. This was followed by Japanese duo, Group A’s excellent violin and electronic drone-fest that involved tribal drumming sounds, primal noise, cinematic atmospheres and plenty more. Elsewhere, Gum Takes Tooth laid down experimental techno and electronica, while Agathe Max and Luke Mawdsley’s Mésange project brought chilled-out sounds with elements of neo-classical, minimalism and drone out into the sunshine.At this point, there was a pause in the music, as the Festival’s artist-in-residence Dennis McNett and his confederates from the crowd processed around the streets of Digbeth from the College to the Custard Factory dressed in fantastical costumes and masks that drew from Nordic and Native American culture to bless the spirits of noise, chaos and togetherness for their involvement in the weekend’s frolics. This pause was brief, however, and it wasn’t long before we were heading into the final stretch of Supersonic for another year. Particular highlights were Gnod’s wild and trippy heavy psych set that finished off with an epic version of “Bodies for Money” that shook the venue so much that the crowd had all kinds of paint flecks and general grot raining down on them from the rafters, due to the ferocious groove. Anglo-Korean pranksters Tinkilatops performed a set of unhinged K-pop, while the venerable Shirley Collins gave a history lesson in British folk music that was anything but twee.

Closing the festival was Washington State’s black metal brothers Wolves in the Throne Room. Playing a set characterised by horror film screaming and cacophonies of sound, it was a wild and exhilarating ending to a cracking weekend that, on several occasions, refreshingly called for earplugs to guard against tinnitus in an age when punters can easily manage uninterrupted conversations on even the front row of most gigs.

With so much good stuff going on, I inevitably missed plenty of wonderful performances that had me kicking myself later. From Tomaga’s live soundtrack to Kenneth Anger’s Lucifer Rising to Black Sabbath karaoke; a kids’ gig with The Ex and Yoga; a swath of excellent films, which included The Witch and a documentary about funk queen Betty Davis, as well as art workshops with Dennis McNett, there was more than enough to keep anyone with the slightest curiosity going for months. Supersonic 2018 was, without doubt, another vintage year for sonic adventurers.

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