Supersonic review – giant monsters and ghoul-sponge at UK's best small festival

Various venues, Birmingham
By embracing the heaviness in Birmingham’s heritage, and adding a strong dose of eccentricity, Supersonic is world-class

A city built on guns, iron and chemicals, often under drizzly skies and with no horizon, Birmingham has always been heavy. As the summer’s Home of Metal arts programme across the city suggests – including a Black Sabbath retrospective at the Museum and Art Gallery – that mood influenced its music, but Supersonic festival shows that while Brummies still adore heaviness, it comes in all kinds of pressures and weights. Celebrating its 15th year and set across three modestly sized stages, the world-beating lineup massages, prods and kicks at music’s edges.

Opening the weekend, Neurosis induce the weekend’s most soulful headbanging, and it’s evident why: with their slow guitar lines, bending like the Doppler effect of a passing 18-wheeler, the Californians are a bright blast of spiritual sludge-metal. Supporting them are local veterans Godflesh, whose tinny drum machine acts like a wretched treadmill, locking them into industrial nightmares of ratcheting intensity.

There is plenty of this traditionally heavy stuff. The Body are excellent, vocalist Chip King howling far from the mic to conjure a spectral, tenacious humanity above their cauldron of noise. Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs blend Sabbath’s grandeur with the boisterous enlightened laddism of Idles – one song is about Aleister Crowley being on The Great British Bake Off – while Yob are all hair and strident Viking riffage, Sly and the Family Drone hand their instruments over to the gleeful audience for a noisy jam, and the Bug crushes everyone under hammer blows of dub machinery. His guest vocalist Moor Mother spits out words as if to create something to hang on to, and at one point – unusually for her – flows like a pissed-off Rakim over an old-school breakbeat, a thread of outsider rap later picked up by Dälek and the thunderously bleak Prison Religion.

Enlightened laddism ... Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs.
Enlightened laddism ... Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs. Photograph: Joe Singh

Some artists encourage the headbanging into a blur. “Does anyone like gabber?”, duo Big Lad ask the crowd before launching into mashed synths and pummelled drums. The BPM increases further for Aja, who plays inside the mouth of a giant beast: a stage constructed and curated by Turner-nominated artist Monster Chetwynd, who spends the weekend dressed as a whoopee cushion. Under grotesque makeup and wearing a yellow morphsuit adorned with sagging teats, Aja screams down a mic over pounding beats which, at their funkiest, recall the barely together rave studies of Mark Fell. Fastest of all though are the staggeringly brilliant noise duo Guttersnipe, playing inside the monster in a blur of fiendishly intricate guitar lines and drumming somewhere between free improv and blastbeats. Reminiscent of Harry Pussy, it’s a hail of pure feeling, though its most powerful moment comes when the pair stop playing and silently gesture at trying to play, hinting at trauma that can never be said.

Genius of language ... Daniel Higgs.
Genius of language ... Daniel Higgs. Photograph: Joe Singh

Indeed, some of the best performances are those that wield heaviness with the lightest touch. Reciting a long poem about, in his words, “demons and odours”, sometimes over acoustic guitar, Daniel Higgs is a genius of language. Faulknerian neologisms (“pupatedly”, “sarcophageous”) build into dense and musky images recited with a soothsayer’s vision, where “hurling wigwams of ghoul-sponge” are offset with contemporary details such as mobile phones and a mutilated Star-Spangled Banner.

Equally poetic are Air Loom, a trio anchored by British composer Sarah Angliss, whose drifting but focused compositions use everything from a Latvian clavisimbalum to a pestle and mortar, alongside sampling and other electronic interventions. In other hands this would be fussy and twee, but aided by the springwater vocals of Sarah Gabriel and the Boris-bashing drum solo track Sky Bullion, their beauty is pointed and hard-won. They will hopefully get the opportunity to scale up to bigger stages, as should World Zero, a new collaboration between the Seer, UKAEA and Impatv: a scorched dystopian tableau of cyberpunk accordionists, half-naked oracles and flautists in bondage gear.

Casual, unwacky eccentricity abounds at Supersonic: the suburban Sun Ra that is Paddy Steer; the crocked Balearic disco of Hen Ogledd; mouse-and-bear-voiced punk trio Victim, made up of band members Car Crash, Iron Fist and Pub Fight. In a week in which British politics narrows into mere buffoonery, we need to look to these visionaries, whose wit and energy shows us how broad life can be.


Ben Beaumont-Thomas

The GuardianTramp

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