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Things Learned At: Supernormal
Mat Colegate , September 2nd, 2015 20:00

Mat Colegate reports from Braziers Park. Photo by Samantha Hayley

There's things... Things in the woods!

Late enough for it to be confusing but early enough for me to know better, on the first night of this year's Supernormal, just after Ten Benson's reheated riffage has got a bit much, I bump into some astronauts on the way back to my tent. They're all stood about in the campsite, five or six of them, suits glowing amber in the torch light, helping each other secure their outfits as if about to go outside the spaceship and fix a hull breach.

Being in a state of utter bovine confusion I simply stop and stare at them all.

"You're astronauts..." I stammer.

"Yep, that's right..." says one, sucking from a straw inside her suit that no doubt contains a nutritional drink to ward of the cold vacuum of endless space.

"I... I don't really know what to think about that..." I confess. And I walk away with both eyes pointing in different directions.

Of course, when I see one of my new cosmic friends crowd surfing the next day I don't even shrug. This is Supernormal, and you quickly get used to the weird sights that come floating out of the woods in Braziers Park.

There's strange and then there's strange

One of the oddest manifestations of the whole weekend occurs fairly early on the Sunday afternoon when Sturle Dagsland coalesces out of wood smoke and henbane onto the main stage. This pixie-like Norwegian man (and his more demure assistant) proceed to unleash an extremely potent racket: a demented mix of Simon Finn's unheralded Pass The Distance and Lorca era Tim Buckley, but sounding quite unlike anything I've heard before. Sturle shrieks and emotes, his clever fingers flickering like a campfire over a broken accordion, while metal scrapings, occasional blasts of acoustic guitar and sudden, lurching silences switch and coagulate behind him. Wonderfully, it seems to divide the crowd completely down the middle. I speak to attendees later that couldn't get past the obvious theatricality and if I was in a different mood I would probably agree with them. But watching these two inscrutable fair folk playing the wooden beamed main stage while the sun beats down, I can't help but feel that something very special indeed is occurring.

You are never more than 3 feet away from a member of Gnod

The Salford based purveyors of righteous kosmiche fury are all over Supernormal. Band members Raikes and Paddy are doing a magnificent job sorting out the sound across the site – everyone sounds incredible all weekend – and they seem to have commandeered a large purple tent near the entrance which is belching out weird noises across the whole festival. But aside from these more ambient concerns it's the various members and associates and their side projects that get the most attention. AHRK/KHOM/WEAVER, featuring Gnod's Alex Macarte, conjure up a fearsome audio visual spell in the Vortex tent on Saturday, edging thrillingly near to the kind of psychedelic power electronics practised by Astra or prime period Ramleh, and several members of the collective are involved with Charles Hayward's Anonymous Bash who headline the main stage on Friday – on whom more later. But it's Gnod mainstay Marlene Ribiera's solo project Negra Branca that causes the biggest stir. Arriving on the red kite stage at exactly the right time in the afternoon to take advantage of the glorious weather with her mix of eyes-to-the-sun groove, incanted vocal drone and warm thudding bass lines. The crowd goes absolutely mental, shuffling about like zombified Tim Learys, arms outstretched as if attending the sun rituals of ancient Mesopotamia. It's a truly Bacchanalian spectacle and a highlight of the whole weekend.

Confidence is everything

Supernormal by its very nature presents a lot of acts that walk the dividing line between ramshackle and majestic. However it's to the organiser's credit that nearly everything booked that chooses that particular path comes off brilliantly. In this regard particular props have to go out to Manchester based ILL who's clattery racket manages to sound constantly on the edge of collapse and clatteringly funky at the same time, and the weekends closing act Ill Devo – yes, a Devo tribute band – because... well if you can think of a better way to end a weekend than a Devo tribute band collapsing around your ears then I'm not lending you my tent mallet.   

At the opposite end of the line however, there are three acts that manage to provide some of the most inspiring spectacle of the weekend through sheer this-is-how-it's-fucking-DONE professionalism. Emma Tricca's gorgeous set in The Barn stage slips down like a shot of warm absinthe: alone with just an acoustic guitar and a handful of beautiful, delicate songs that manage to transcend the 'folk' description with ease, she is an enrapturing performer – unassuming and delicate but with the don't-fuck-with-me delivery of someone who knows exactly how to get a crowd on her side. In a genre where it sometimes seems like anyone with a fisherman cap bleating along to a battered six-string can earn respect, she leaves you in no doubt that you're witnessing the real deal.

Charles Hayward's credentials need little introduction - This Heat, Camberwell Now etc - But his set with various members of the Islington Mill community under the name Anonymous Bash – which includes several Gnods – is a furious lesson in virtuosity. He chivvys and chides, stretching the possibilities of the drum kit out to its maximum potential, never descending into displays of empty show boating, and all the while pushing his band to their complete limit. It's exhausting, invigorating stuff and I leave the stage area twitching and alive to the possibilities that music can contain.

It's Karen Gwyer that really nails the entire weekend down though. Eyes closed, every twist of a knob and touch of a button revealing more depth and variation to her onslaught of centaur-tough rhythm and glutinous texture. It's a supremely confident, inspiring performance. The crowd respond by going absolutely fucking bobo, to the extent that Gwyer herself seems genuinely surprised when she looks up at the end of her set and realises that what seems like the entire of Brighton's underground poetry community have invaded the stage and are bogling like happy fauns. It's a perfect Supernormal moment and the weekend's defining set.

The rhythm is going to get you

It's not only Charles Hayward that gets to push rhythm past its paces over the course of the festival. Emptyset's Paul Purgas plays a solo set of gloopy 909 electronics on the Vortex stage on the Friday that rides just the right line between straight up banging and confounding abstraction. At points it sounds like the hammerings and bashings of a mischievous child, then it morphs into solid, acidic kick-drum porn, before even that slips and glides apart, beats drifting past each other and brushing together like ectoplasmic hands. It's a set that manages to balance the mischievous and the stern with skill.

At a similar limit of abstract bloodymindedness, Brighton's Map 71 pull off one of the festival's most simultaneously baffling and banging sets. A drummer, a backing track and a poet doesn't sound like the ingredients for an on-one night out, but everything coalesces into a furious stream of drums and invective, with no one element ever being allowed to dominate. The result is furious and fiercely funky. The kind of mix that one senses couldn't be imitated by anyone else attempting the same. The total product of the sum of its parts: a twin motherfucker, poesy driven Voltron. "Fuck fucking Sleaford Mods!" yells one wag in response. Well, quite.  

But there's more

Because I could write about bands until my hands go numb and it wouldn't go any way to explaining why Supernormal is the best festival this country has right now. What about the campfire, Mat? What about Jason from Mugstar finally becoming a wizard? What about the moment where everything turned into one of Kevin O'Neill's Nemesis The Warlock illustrations? Or when Deathcount In Silicon Valley made me look at Murnau's Nosferatu with new eyes? And there was a village green, and my friend Lisa's Karaoke performance of 'Diamonds Are A Girls Best Friend'; and David the Gnome served cider, and I ran away from a dream swapping workshop like the devil himself was at my heels, lost a toy car in the woods, played on a rope swing and punched a puppet. Supernormal is the kind of weekend you need a life time to sum up.