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Things Learned At: Supersonic Festival
Eoin Murray , June 26th, 2017 12:03

Supersonic reasserts itself as the best European festival for new music as Eoin Murray reports. Photographs by Shot2Bits.net

All pictures courtesy of Shot2Bits.net

Nicholas Bullen Dons His Crown And Deafens Us All

Warding off stiff competition to be one of the loudest sets of the weekend, Napalm Death founder Nicholas Bullen saunters onto the Boxxed stage on Friday night to deliver his colossal 'Universal Detention Centre'.

In honour of the 30th anniversary of Napalm Death's Scum Bullen's commissioned chaos is a distorted mess of brutal static, muffled squeals and machine gun percussion. A genuinely flinch triggering spectacle. Unfortunately, such is the onslaught of frequency and noise at the start that his mixer blows out after about 30 seconds . . . figures. All props to the stage's sound team though who quickly replace the equipment and have the grindcore pioneer back up and running with his jarring ode to Scum in no time.

Speaking after the set, Bullen had nothing but praise for Supersonic and for its championing of the strange. He said: "[Supersonic's] strength is its eclecticism. They pull in disparate strands that gel together into a cohesive whole rather than focussing on one particular area and that's why it draws people in."

Supersonic Is A Festival That Celebrates Collaboration And Reunion

Collaboration is the name of the game at Supersonic, with a wealth of cross-pollination between bands and musicians throughout. It adds layer of playfulness to festivities that are noticed from the get-go in legendary drummer Charles Hayward's face as he leathers his kit during Anonymous Bash's slot on Friday night in The Crossing. Alongside musicians from the Gnod/Tombed Visions/Islington Mill family, they craft a sound that is rife with groove and prog energy and that is chock with turbulent guitars, whirring sax and delightful Mbira thumb piano.

It's impossible to go into the details of every collab, but they stand out at every turn, from Ex-Easter Island Head's breathtaking opening performance on Saturday with an ensemble featuring members of ILL, Action Beat, Mother and Gnod (again) to Pigs x7's Matt Baty and John Hedley providing bass and drums for Richard Dawson alongside violinist Angharad Davies.

On Sunday night the spirit of giddy yet artisanal collaboration is observed once again in the spiritually grating performance from the inimitable Oxbow as they are joined by a sizeable choir whose contribution adds to an already stellar set and to the erratic presence of frontman Eugene S. Robinson.

Jenny Hval's set is as dizzying and mesmeric as you'd expect

No two Jenny Hval performances ever look, sound or feel quite the same. From clown costumes to blow-up baths, they veer from the ridiculous to the enchanting at the flick of a wig and Saturday night's performance in The Crossing is no different.

With a random ladder in place as just one of the set's props, and with her trio of co-conspirators draped in black wigs and gowns, Hval arrives cocooned in a black cover-all suit, writhing in a shroud of invisibility as they pour through 'The Great Undressing'. From there, the performance becomes the sort of commentary on our addiction to visibility that only Hval could deliver. With her actively encouraging the use of flash photography while she performs holding a phone camera directly to her own face and at times to the audience, it all comes off with a dystopian disquiet.

We had been warned that themes like fluidity and visibility would factor into tonight's performance earlier in the day during a Q + A which saw Hval speaking about the desire for transparency and about the strangeness of an artist's conceptual "brand". Other topics included the fact that the Norwegian government funds many of the country's artists; a sharp fact to swallow given that we are attending one of the important independent UK festivals that has remained standing in a year where so many have had to call time.

The Wild Stage Is The Weekend's Home For Heft

Throughout the weekend the Wild warehouse is the spiritual home for some of the most gut-mangling and ear-twisting guitar-driven acts on the bill.

On Friday, Mothwasp and the killer combo of Blood Sport & Heavy Lifting set the pace with frenetic, arrhythmic energy, shoving us like square pegs into triangular holes. On Saturday, the gnarled garage punk of Big Joanie surges moods upward despite the sluggish heat in the room. Nottingham's Grey Hairs take that raucousness to the next rung with their haggard grunge and with vocalist James Finley looking as frenzied as a man who's just been pulled out of a bunker.

Later, the ever growing appeal of the mighty Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs is undeniable, with the space packed to the rafters and dripping with sweat as they plough through their set, their new drummer acting as a force of pure demolition throughout. Closing the stage on Saturday is Electronica Wizard, a four-piece whose covers of the pioneering doom metal outfit bring the seminal tracks into a futuristic context with a tongue-in-cheek sensibility that is nonetheless staggeringly heavy.

Sunday stays true to form for the most part with slots from the likes of Snapped Ankles, Ghold and Casual Nun being feasts of motoric, distorted weight that manage to get heads flopping and necks craning amid the sweat and stale air.

Black Sabbath Karaoke And More Keep The Whole Place Smiling

From an outsider's perspective, a festival like Supersonic could appear like a pseudo-intellectual festival for grey haired chin strokers who can't stomach the idea of toning it down in order to go to Glastonbury like normal people. Nonsense! Okay, it is a bit niche maybe, but there's enough laughter and fun at this festival to keep even the most passive fans entertained at its most obscure corners.

Supernormal's Sabbath-Aoke and Black Metal Life Drawing are some of the most notable installations of the weekend and they attract modest seas of grinning participants and show that this a million miles from being just some uppity gathering of folks who haven't listened to anything other than Sunn O))) for the past 15 years. [You say that like it's a bad thing, Ed]

Ex-Easter Island Head Perform A Dazzling Ode To New York Minimalism

Opening proceedings on Saturday afternoon at The Crossing, Liverpool ensemble Ex-Easter Island Head and pals deliver an enthralling performance that is almost cult-like in appearance as members donned in all black stand dutifully by assorted guitars and basses lying flat on tables.

It's a thrilling venture into galloping rhythm and elongated layers of droning melody. With every turn there are nods to the pioneers of experimental and minimal composers of New York, from the giddy clapped movement's ode to Steve Reich to the dizzying harmonic appeals to Terry Riley and Le Monte Young.

Khyam Allami's Nawa Recordings Showcase Is A Triumph

Award winning Iraqi-British multi-instrumentalist and composer Khyam Allami's opening performance in the town hall on Friday was a spacious and transcendent affair, his improvised oud movements taking the audience on a hypnotic trip into elements of Arabic music tradition with embellishments of international influence. On Sunday then, Allami curates the Boxxed stage, hosting a cast of varied and diverse artists from his roster on Nawa Recordings label and showcasing some of the most forward thinking and exciting independent musicians currently operating out of the Arab world.

Kamilya Jubran & Wasl for instance, are a trio whose ethos is built around the reunion of three friends (with Wasl being the Arabic word for reunion). Jubran, a Palestinian Oud player and vocalist is joined by French double bass player Sarah Murcia and Swiss trumpeter and producer of weird electronics Werner Haslr to play a set that combs haunting experimental composition with poems from Jerusalem and Morocco sung with a deft, lamenting quality.

Later, Cairo-based singer and composer Nadah El Shazly performs to a seated crowd who revel in her stunning vocal work. It's testament to the quality of her set that despite the almost unbearable heat in the space that has people pouring water over their heads and frantically fanning themselves, they stick around. The performance is intoxicating and at points nightmarish but resolutely beautiful.

Lone Taxidermist's Trifle Makes Us Squidge And Squirm

Natalie Sharp's squelchy and strange Trifle is an immersive, jarring confectionary venture into the world of food/sex fetishism, all to the sound of suitably manic electronic production, sporadic pop vocal work and with bizarre visual backdrops to boot.

Joined on stage by musicians Philip Winter and Will Kwerk, dressed like nightmarish Umpa Lumpas, Sharp – herself, dressed like a bowl of custard splattered on the floor – has produced a set that is equal measures uncomfortable, fun and irresistible. Everyone anxiously laughs as they shuffle into the Wild stage with plastic hanging from the walls as sneaky assistants coyly rub increasingly tepid cream on unsuspecting arms.

Wet electronics and off-kilter grooves give leverage to stand out lines such as: "Lipstick on her cunt" – "Go through the beef curtain" – "Get in my trifle and fucking eat it".

You get the picture.

Everyone Wants Richard Dawson To Be Their Best Mate

More than just a musical feast, Dawson's performance is littered with some of the most natural, from the gut laughter of the whole event. It's the simple, hanging out at mate's house sort of laugh too; he falls and plays dead at a breaking mic, he slags off his bassist, Johnny Hedley of Pigs7 for breaking his treasured acoustic guitar, he sardonically swears and jibes under his breath about politics, about his bright red guitar and about how scared he is of violinist Angharad Davies. It's adds such a sheen of fun and homeliness to his set, comprised mostly of tracks from this year's Peasant, that you could be hearing it live from the comfort of his living room floor, slouched in the wine proud drowsiness of the one-too-many at 3 am.

For 'Ogre', members of the audience are invited up to provide guest vocals to the song's earworm end section and it's a boisterously fun mess that benefits from its clumsiness. He closes off with the ferociously unique 'The Vile Stuff', the gross, grizzly icing on the top of an already special set from one of the most outstanding talents in Europe.

The Space Lady Gets An Entire Venue Of Experimental Noise Fans To Openly Weep And Sing John Lennon

Sceptics bedamned! Providing the most emotionally charged, pure and heartfelt set of the weekend was one Susan Dietrich Schneider AKA The Space Lady. In the midst of her fifth extensive tour having re-emerged from retirement in 2012, The Space Lady has garnered a near Sugarman-like following and a reputation as an artist whose live performances are filled with poised and profound covers of The Beatles, Steppenwolf, Stan Jones and Peter Schilling as well as a modest selection of originals.

Her performance tonight is repeatedly touching, honest and raw, the bleeps and bloops of her Casio keyboard sounding full and perfect despite their toy-like quality. Originals like 'Do The Next Right Thing' and 'Synthesize Me' are brilliant and when she encourages the crowd to sings along to the gossamer-light 'Oh Brave New World' the whole room does so obediently and sincerely. There is something sacred in this performance, in this performer, that leaves many in the room audibly and unabashedly sobbing. And why shouldn't they? There is a catharsis to be found in the embrace of the swirling keyboards and in her untarnished, impassioned appeals for us to love the planet and love one other.

A modest and enthralled crowd had gathered earlier in the day to watch this clumsy tQ writer host a Q + A with The Space Lady during which she recounted parts of her Kerouacian story of life on the road and of her views on the world. It gave context and seasoning to her set later in the evening and proved wrong any naysayers who would suggest that she is anything but the real deal. Show me a room full of Napalm Death fans singing Lennon's 'Imagine' with tears pouring down their faces and you show me the very reason we gather to experience live music in the first place.

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