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Supersonic Ltd Edt 2014: A Quietus Preview
The Quietus , May 23rd, 2014 13:03

Ahead of two days of brilliantly-curated leftfield music and art in Birmingham next weekend, we pick 11 essential artists, bands, installations and screenings at the Custard Factory

Photograph courtesy of Tracey Moberley

For a festival to survive it has to keep evolving, challenging itself as much as its audience. After a year and a half off, Supersonic - one of the Quietus' favourites since the site was a little twinkle in John and Luke's eyes - returns to the Custard Factory in Digbeth with one of their finest line-ups yet. What's more, organisers Capsule have reduced the capacity for their return, which basically means Swans in front of a few hundred people. Given few albums are likely to come near To Be Kind in power and grace this year, we're all already quaking in our brogues with anticipation. To be fair, there's not a single thing on the bill we're not looking forward to (as ever, Supersonic's arts programming looks as compelling as the main musical bill, managing to bring a flock of woodpeckers to the treeless streets of Digbeth) but here's a digested read of some of the highlights. See you next Friday.

1. Bill Drummond - The 25 Paintings (above)

Can I let you in on a little secret? I believe Bill Drummond is a better artist than he is musician. And I have a lot of time for his music. You may disagree with me but even if you're a massive fan of the KLF, the JAMMs, the Time Lords, Big In Japan, etc, you're probably never going to get a better chance to test out this theory for yourself than you will currently in Birmingham. Drummond has set up base in Eastside Projects gallery (handily situated a stone's throw away from The Custard Factory) to kick start his most ambitious project to date - The 25 Paintings. Each of the titular canvases is a signpost to a particular "direct action' he is completing during his three month stay in Brum. So far he has put flags up, built beds for strangers, sailed into Spaghetti Junction on a homemade raft carrying scores of daffodils, painted out UKIP billboards, fly-postered walls and started knitting the world's biggest blanket. As part of Supersonic he will be organising a special performance of his choir The17, which is something that needs to be heard to be believed. [I've actually spent several days trailing Bill on his artistic day-to-day in Birmingham and the feature will be going live on tQ soon.] John Doran

2. Ex-Easter Island Head

Following their fantastic Quietus gig with Alexander Tucker last month, Liverpool collective Ex-Easter Island Head will be arriving at Supersonic to perform their piece Large Electric Ensemble. The group are typically known for their use of prepared guitar and mallets to create hypnotic storm clouds of rhythm and reverberation - bandleader Ben Duvall and his cohorts stick extra bridges beneath the guitar's strings and playing the instrument percussively, sending glimmers of melody glancing around the performance space to mesmerising effect. (For more on the band's history, click here to read our interview with them from 2012.) However, their performance at Supersonic will be their latest with a twelve-part guitar orchestra, a euphoric collective exploration of rhythm and tonality inspired by the work of artists like Glenn Branca and Swans. It provoked a rapturous response from a packed Cafe Oto the other week - expect nothing less at Supersonic. Rory Gibb

3. Karen Gwyer

Gwyer's already followed up her excellent debut LP, 2013's Needs Continuum, with the New Roof EP, which furthers her line in textural, diverse electronic experimentation. The three-tracker in some ways took up where the full-length left off - there's the same meld of cloaked, gently powering beats and a panoply of synths - some seeping and nocturnal, others warm and hazing - but pulled them together over two long-form, 16-minute-plus tracks, 'Lay Claim To My Grub', shot through with jittery techno rhythms, and 'Missisissipippi', gradual unfurl of degraded electronics, both sepulchral and graceful, joined together by an organ interlude, 'Nail Bars Of The Apocalypse'. Whether or not this heralds what's to come on her next album remains to be heard, but makes her set at the festival one definitely worth catching. Laurie Tuffrey

4. Jenny Hval

As with her current tour mates Swans, Supersonic should be a fittingly intimate location in which to hear Jenny Hval. The Norwegian polymath - as well as being a singer-songwriter, Hval is also a writer, academic and visual artist - has so far released two albums under her own name, following her former guise as Rockettothesky (read our interview from that time here). Hval's songs revel in candidly sexual lyrics, delivered in her acrobatic, ringing whispered-sung-spoken voice, as well as setting references to web porn and a cast of historical and literary figures - Oedipus, Joan Of Arc, Mephisto, Ophelia - reanimated and relocated to Hval's native Oslo, side by side, over frequently beautiful settings, the sparse, orchestrated backings on 2011's Viscera or the brittle bursts of abrasive guitar on Innocence Is Kinky from last year. Laurie Tuffrey

5. Felix Kubin

One of Germany's finest, most playfully provocative current musicians, Felix Kubin's show at Supersonic is a rare chance to catch his sci-fi tinged electro-pop live in the UK. Drawing on post-punk, electro and the compositional avant garde, his songs blur the lines between satirical comment, future projection, and historical reflections upon his growing up in divided Germany and the legacy of Communist East Europe. "Maybe I can't take myself seriously, the way other Germans do," he said to David Stubbs in a recent Quietus interview, around the release of his latest album Zemsta Plutona. "I don't take myself seriously, but the music I take very seriously. The playfulness is designed to confuse – like these Idiotenmusik tracks I made, completely experimental cut-up pieces – I throw these into my pop sets because I want to challenge people. It's not meant as a circus effect." Rory Gibb

6. Matmos

As a duo that intrinsically understand the importance of humour to create serious art, Drew Daniel and MC Schmidt's live performances are never less than completely compelling, whether involving percussive squeaks coaxed from inflated balloons, wildly percussive sample bricolage, black metal covers or, as in one recent London performance, symphonies for naked slapped arses. Last year found Matmos releasing one of their finest records to date, The Marriage Of True Minds, centred around themes of psychic projection and mind-reading. Their Supersonic show will hopefully find the long-running electronic duo treading some of that album's ground - here's hoping for an airing of madcap percussive banger 'Very Large Green Triangles'. Rory Gibb

7. Pharmakon

I saw Pharmakon once before, at a night in an abandoned factory in New York where Red Bull was the only chemical on offer - a lifestyle noise outing, if you will. Playing on the floor through a shoddy PA, any subtlety in Margaret Chardiet's music was lost, her BM-influenced screaming and backing racket lost to sounding like the 'gettinthebackofthevan' policeman through a giant distortion pedal in a bin. This is a shame, as her music - as heard on excellent Sacred Bones (where else?) LP Abandon, is a lot more subtle than this suggests. The electronic thrums eddy and swirl rather than just going for cattle prod assault, while murmuring and circular looped backing vocals up the misty, murky atmospheres. On Supersonic's always excellent PA systems this subtlety ought stand out. Luke Turner

8. Sleaford Mods

By the time of Supersonic, the full scale of UKIP's progress in the local and European elections will have sunk in, and we'll all have been bludgeoned about the eyes with endless handwringing thinkpieces about their appeal to the white working class vote, and what can be done. As statements on disillusionment with the way England is run and operated go, Sleaford Mods' Divide & Exit perhaps ought to be required research listening for all those Oxbridge grad wallahs desperate to become two-bit career politicians who currently geek it up ruining the Labour Party, and are currently being so useless we risk the Tories getting back in again in 2015. At a festival not lacking in bracingly intense music, but Sleaford Mods' - as Kev Kharas' recent live review suggests - will have a timely political bite. Luke Turner

9. Sly & The Family Drone

What is it about bands who live and work in abandoned/converted workhouse spaces? Gnod, Factory Floor, Sly & The Family Drone, Steely Dan… All of them excellent. All of them able to follow their impulses, no matter how illogical or outlandish. Except how outlandish is this really? To take a shimmer of noise, a hint of feedback and then to pursue it until it becomes an overwhelming avalanche of sonic matter, propelled along by a drum circle from Hell? Well, I guess it is pretty outlandish if you think about it objectively for a few seconds but nonetheless, still extremely enjoyable. John Doran

10. The Quietus At Leisure films

In the works over the last two years, the Quietus co-editor Luke Turner and director Ethan Reid have followed some of our favourite musicians getting up to non-musical pursuits, each resulting in short, intimate documentaries. As part of Supersonic's film programme, we'll be screening four of these: Steve Ignorant of Crass manning the Sea Palling lifeboat on the North Sea, Low's Alan Sparhawk teaching Luke how to play American football in the foyer of the Barbican, Cosey Fanni Tutti showing us around her vegetable plots and New Order's Stephen Morris going for a drive in his collection of military vehicles - get a taster of what to expect in the trailer above. Laurie Tuffrey


Supersonic Ltd Edt 2014 takes place at the Custard Factory in Digbeth, Birmingham from May 30-31; head to the festival's website for full details and tickets