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15 Years Strong: Supersonic Festival Reviewed
JR Moores , July 31st, 2019 06:46

JR Moores heads to Digbeth's hotbed of degenerate art where Sly & The Family Drone will nearly have your eye out and minds are blown by The Bug

All live pictures by Mark Rhodes


Supersonic 2019's opening concert takes place at Birmingham's Town Hall where local hero Justin Broadrick has to implore the staff, several times, to turn down the lighting. Broadrick wants no spotlights. He needs the stage to be "very dark" with "only a little bit of blue". This makes perfect sense. One of the countless developments to have evolved out of Black Sabbath's original metal blueprint, Godflesh's bleak industrial sound doesn't exactly lend itself to brightness (even if Broadrick, unlike his fans, is dressed in a glowing green cagoule). Backed by preset drum beats, the reunited duo's austere racket doesn't feel quite as radical as it did back when Godflesh were first active - nor as forward-thinking as some of Broadrick's subsequent projects - but it acts as a healthy reminder than the city known as 'The Home Of Metal' didn't cease innovating once Ozzy went solo.

Next up are another vintage act who helped yank metal in a fresh direction. Californian post-metal pioneers Neurosis have a speciality. It is to play long, slowly unwinding songs that all seem to have been written with the following instruction in mind: "Yes, but how can we make this even more EPIC?" It's sludgy stuff with a bluesy and cinematic edge composed to produce goosebumps. If tracks like 'My Heart For Deliverance' achieve that aim, the relentless seriousness of Neurosis begins to grow a little preposterous and the mind starts to wonder whether the Town Hall's massive organ situated directly behind the band is a suitable backdrop for the band's grandeur or a more amusingly priapic metaphor. However, beneath their chesty masculinity there is a sweetness to Neurosis, often overlooked, in regards that most of their songs essentially take the form of a duet between two hairy blokes. It's rather adorable.

Over at the festival's main hub in Digbeth, proceedings are opened by Hey Colossus. Scratch that. I mean The Mighty Hey Colossus. The London/Somerset crew have had "mighty" prefixed to their name so many times they may as well print it as such on all of their posters, releases, and limited edition tote bags. In his excellent new Sleevenotes tome, bassist Joe Thompson writes that when Hey Colossus played this festival back in 2012, "the sound was bouncing all over the place and the booze was beginning to ruin everything." The results, for Thompson, were less than mighty. Reviewers such as tQ's Toby Cook agreed. If their set proved anything, wrote Cook, "it's that if they'd stop fucking around they could easily be the most vital noise rock outfit in the country." Well now they have and they are. This year's performance is a masterclass in making loud, heavy, interesting and accessible big-fat-rock music. The band's small army of guitarists hammer, twist, and shake a wall of bruising yet catchy noise that only a true curmudgeon could resist. Unlike certain other artists, The Mighty Hey Colossus are dressed in their normal clothes. They do not remove their tops. There are no fireworks, gimmicks, or unusual costumes. With his dapper yellow shirt tucked smartly into his belt, Paul Sykes stalks around the middle of the stage, crooning his head off. Guitarist Bob Davis stands on one leg for a bit (the show off).

Thompson's book also asserts that "bands who don't change over their years of existence are lying to you." This has been one of the many joys of following The Mighty Hey Colossus. It's not easy to mutate, develop, and evolve so impressively. When noise-rock artists begin to introduce greater melody and cast their net over a broader shoal of people, it risks alienating miserable critics such as I, not to mention long-term fans who might lose interest or even feel betrayed. Yet The Mighty Hey Colossus, almost objectively speaking, just keep getting better. Onstage, The Mighty Hey Colossus look like they're having fun. This is to be appreciated. Hopefully they enjoyed themselves more than in 2012.


Saturday sees Daniel Higgs resume the psyche-Homeric poem that he was forced to cut short at last year's event. Elsewhere, Prison Religion bring the sweary dystopian noise music. Big Joanie's set is witnessed by singer/guitarist Stephanie Phillips' mother who the band are named after and whose photograph adorns the cover of the Afropunkers' debut album Sistahs. If at first you're not entirely on board with Hen Ogledd's distinctive if somewhat uneven brand of strange electro-folk, then just try standing next to the grey bearded twonk who spends the entire seven minutes of 'Transport & Travel' nattering about how he'd much rather be watching a solo show by Hen Ogledd member Richard Dawson. At one point, the punter even starts singing part of a Richard Dawson track over the top of Richard Dawson, who is on stage. Then at the end of this Hen Ogledd track, the beardy plonkster raises his hands high in the air to applaud. What's he even clapping here?! His own conversation? Shushing ensues and from that moment I couldn't support Hen Ogledd's divisive folkotronic oddness with greater fervour.

With a variety of guest collaborators who assist in always bringing something fresh to the equipment-laden table, The Bug has played Supersonic Festival so many times he deserves his own annual residency. SUPERSONIC HOUSE ARTIST: THE BUG. That's what should be on the posters. His set works like magic. The pacing is something else. It opens with a reading by Roger Robinson; a poem about the Grenfell Tower disaster. When Robinson leaves, Moor Mother appears, dreadlocks whipping around her lurching frame as she spits her furious personal and political rap-rants. Compared to previous Bug sets, for a long time the mood remains eerily subdued. A good 25 minutes ambles past before any bass or drum sounds can be identified. Even then, those chest-rattling rumbles fade in and out in a fascinating and near-frustrating manner. Proceedings are prevented from properly "going off". This creates an remarkable tension in a room that is still reeling from Robinson's verses. It's a commentary, right? Each member of this Anglo-American collaboration is equally embarrassed by the political and social happenings in their respective countries. The depressing parallels between the two nations are particularly apparent as another blonde-haired bag of air is awarded the top job on this side of the Atlantic. This is no time to party. We can't solve this crapstorm through dancing to loud music. We've got shit to deal with. How can we shake our booties now? How do we begin to sort out this mess?

After such questions are wrenched to mind, only in the last fifteen minutes or are the spirits raised. Once Moor Mother departs to the cheers she has earned, Miss Red leaps onto the stage. Twerking and jerking and bouncing and grooving like dancehall's answer to Tigger, Miss Red relieves that curious built-up tension and the party is brought, finally, albeit only briefly. Then it's over. The Bug is gone, leaving us deafened and sweaty and slightly bamboozled and ruminating on what just occurred.

As Kevin Martin aka The Bug explains afterwards on Twitter, he discovered his Serato box was missing an hour before the show. To make matters worse, he then accidentally bashed his head prior to taking the stage, a mishap that caused him to collapse and required the urgent application of an icepack. Following that catastrophe, a second hastily-retrieved Serato box failed to function as The Bug's set began. It turns out this incredible performance was no meticulously planned sonic reflection on the usefulness or futility of art and sound in uncertain times. Martin was simply forced to churn out those uncanny soundscapes while Camae Ayewa aka Moor Mother improvised her angrily forlorn vocals over the top. An accidental work of magic is still a work of magic.


Among the final day's many highlights are Sly & The Family Drone, assisted by Sharon Gal whose face is concealed by some kind of creepy cat mask. Matt Cargill is dressed in the most appropriate stage wear of all time: a Mr Noisy T-shirt (torn off when he gets a bit hotter). Callum Buckland, meanwhile, manages to peel away a layer of his own clothing WHILE STILL PLAYING THE DRUMS AND WITHOUT MISSING A SINGLE BEAT. The set starts with quiet tinkling embellished by Gal's feline howls. The music grows heavier and more intense as it develops, breaking into silence at one point for a mass audience-participating primal scream, and climaxing with instruments being handed out to members of the crowd in a gesture of community I'd have found more warming if I hadn't been so concerned about the well-being of my own eyeballs. Only a few moments earlier, this swaying bloke had failed to operate the camera on his own smart phone, sheepishly tucking it back into his front pocket after finding himself unable to focus both its lens and his own vision. That's how sozzled he was. Why not hand him a drum stick and plonk him front of a floor tom? Thankfully the inebriated assistant's flailing limbs leaves our eyes intact.

After Dalek's basstastic avant-rap rumblings complete with an invitation for Donald Trump to "suck my entire dick", it's time for Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs to once more resurrect and remould The Spirit Of Sabbath with riff after riff after mother-effing riff. Each to their own, but it's bit of a shame that the merry moshers at the front aren't concentrating more on half-naked singer Matthew Baty's excellent stagecraft as he stomps and slinks around with bombastic authority. Baty makes a moving speech about having been in this very room during the festival's closing night back in 2018, headlined by Shirley Collins, and how he wept through the entirety of the folk legend's set. He is honoured to be performing in the same spot. But rock is what Pigs came here to do, and soon the riffs are flying out once more, assisted in the final leg by Gordon from Terminal Cheesecake.

Wider reflections

Congratulations on making it this far. We are nearing the important bit.

While I missed the first few (eight?) years of the festival, since 2012 I have been attending Supersonic as wide-eyed punter, furrow-browed reviewer, and occasional semi-articulate Q&A host. In that time, I have discovered new favourite artists. I have been exposed to whole genres and subgenres I'd never even read about before. I have witnessed old hands I never thought I'd get to see. I have seen websites for which I have reviewed the festival die out completely or struggle to survive as advertising revenues are swallowed up by tech giants. I have seen the festival relocate from The Custard Factory as the event's organisers find themselves being priced out by the very area they have helped to rejuvenate. I have made new friends. I have stood right next to Dylan Carlson and chickened out of garbling something about how much Earth mean to me. I have bought a Box Records t-shirt from Matthew Baty back in the days before he was headlining because I didn't realise the weather in Brum was going to be quite so warm and I'd already sweated through all my other tops. I too have been in the same room as Shirley Collins. I have been worried at the prospect of the roof caving in when Swans were so loud that bits of the ceiling started to malt down upon our balding noggins. I have witnessed whatever the hell it is that Guttersnipe do. I have dodged the whipped cream assaults of Lone Taxidermist's mischievous minions. I have seen acts that I personally wouldn't necessarily want to encourage (these might have wacky cloaks or suchlike), but what the hell do I know?

Over those years, the events reported on the Channel 4 news have grown steadily and frighteningly worse. As the saying goes, in the UK you are never more than a few feet away from a fascist. They lurk always in the shadows as they have done since the days of Mosley, waiting for their opportunity to pounce. Sometimes they wear suits and ties. Sometimes they accept invitations to be on the panel of Question Time. Sometimes they wear sports shirts and George Cross facepaint. Sometimes they look just like nice Mrs Morris who lives next door. Some of them won't even realise they're fascists themselves until they find it's too late to turn back.

Among the first things fascists do when they slither and elbow their way into authority is to suppress, censor, molest, and assault the arts. If and when these scum do manage to pull off their despicable conquest, which areas of the arts will they be eagerest to quash most immediately? It won't be Glastonbury (not at first). It won't be Radio1's late-night Indie Show. It won't be the Sunday supplements. It won't be the O2 Academy venue chain.

It will be spaces like Supersonic. Those will be first to go. The first to be targeted and labelled as "degenerate". Supersonic Festival celebrates weirdness. It encourages unbridled creativity. It expands the imagination. It promotes the free and limitless pursuit of expression in order to expand the body, the mind, and the human spirit. It forges unlikely connections between ostensibly different areas, ideas, people and disciplines.

These principals - and the places where they occur and where they flourish most - these must be valued and protected. Maybe I'm being overly paranoid and the last thing I want to do is give the baddies any tips, but there are times when Supersonic Festival can feel like the dying days of the Weimar cabaret (not least when somebody dons a wacky cloak and does a bit of self-expression; I disapprove of your wacky cloak but I will defend to the death your right to wear it). That is the important bit. Apologies for being momentarily more earnest than a Neurosis midsection.