Start Making Sense: Supernormal 2019 Reviewed

Byline wizard Eden Tizard heads to Braziers Park in rural Oxfordshire for the best showcase of weird art and music, Supernormal Festival

Gallery of Supernormal photographs courtesy of Maria Jefferis

On a trek through the fields which lead up to Braziers Park, my friend turns to me and makes the observation, “This is all a bit Midsommar.” Having grown up in close proximity to the countryside – where a walk twenty or so minutes in any direction will lead to a similar view – I’m not normally so quick to spot the folk horror in every field I pass through. Yet with some of the sounds I can distantly make out from the Supernormal site up ahead, now I’m not so sure – not to mention the enormous wooden spider that rests just past the entrance. A spider, that come Sunday night, many were convinced could move independently.

From the trees we can hear a manic thud, thrash and yelp. After a quick dash through the mass of tents, we come across a small stage sheltered amongst the branches.

What we find there are Bristol based band The Perverts, an ideal Supernormal initiation. The vocalist is covered head to toe in a sparkly silver lycra and squawking to their heart’s content, musical notes stitched up the leg and a kid’s school bag strapped onto their back. Then there’s the guitarist; cosmos leggings, Paddington coat, and a matted wig that bulges from an oversized yellow hood.

“At first I was afraid, I was petrified.” Fucking hell, they’re doing an art punk cover of Gloria Gaynor’s ‘I Will Survive’ but its demented stomp alone puts to bed any accusation of novelty. From the moment we’re handed our pints by a peculiar woman whose dedication to chain smoking meant each drink came with a hefty risk of ash fallout, it becomes clear that this is more autonomous zone than regular festival.

Throughout the weekend a resistance to beige band doctrine can be detected in countless acts, not to mention a common focus on the heavy, whether that be the taut technical oomph of Liverpudlian extreme metal band Horse Bastard (the leading or perhaps sole proponents of "equestrian blastcore") or the seismic head splitting of Cattle-related power electronics act Soft Issues.

Later that Friday we bump into Pan affiliate Rashad Becker outside The Barn, a stage he’ll be performing at that evening. “What’s your show about?”, we ask him. “It’s about war”, he says, before looking in bemusement at a parent holding onto their child with a pair of safety reins, “Do you keep your kids on leashes in England?”

His show encompasses a mixture of heady seriousness and the playful, a music of swarming insects and flatulent outbursts. War is an apt word for some of the music Becker performs here, at times like a grotesque gargle, the writhing and wheezing that occurs before a body finally expires. But it would be a lie to wholly characterise this music as destructive, as there are moments of complete awe, the audience left slack jawed by the monolithic otherness of the sound.

Though Becker has a knack for the best mastering in the game, this should in no way overshadow his solo work, and live he’s an ideal fit for this setting. The faint buzz of wasps and crickets perhaps some of the few comparable earthbound sounds. His set is one that never settles. Time lapses, minds fry, we all leave somewhat dazed.

Performing on Saturday afternoon, No Home (who is part of a series of acts curated by Decolonise Fest) shares this slippery quality, an artist particularly difficult to pinpoint. The program cites Kate Bush, Oneohtrix Point Never and Nina Simone as influences, comparisons that are useful in so much as they throw you off. The guitar is not unlike a fuzzy grunge Mica Levi, but aside from that this is very singular music. Vocals are of a brash beauty, and backdrops alternate between clotted guitar dirges and clunky loops – loops which appear to be made directly from her phone. Like the best D.I.Y. or outsider music, No home balances a rough around the edges sound with a shrewd ear for both melody and exploration.

Highlight of the day however comes from Wojciech Rusin’s performance of their album The Funnel, presented onstage like ambassadors from a collapsed alien race, an armour worn of cracked phone and tablet protectors. It’s a music of choral bliss and Coil-like electronic alchemy, sampled strings coalesce with the duo’s solos on bizarre hyper-futurist instruments. For all that occurs throughout their set, what we’re left with is a sense of sublime stillness, a stillness beamed outwards into the night.

This static sensation continues next morning with Air Loom, composer Sarah Angliss’ project with soprano singer Sarah Gabriel and multi-instrumentalist Stephen Hiscok. Air Loom conjure a sound of broad depth, where instruments traditional, homemade, and electronic coexist, practices that reach both far back and look forward at what may be yet to come.

Most powerful throughout, however, is a respite from the still, a piece which functions as a tense condemnation of our new PM Boris Johnson’s time as London Mayor. This was a period where the city changed immeasurably, buildings deemed useless were torn down and rent prices skyrocketed, made into a playground for his own ilk with little to no thought given to the residents. To the sound of an actual building collapsing, a rhythmic call to arms emits from the drums, a defiant bam, boom, and bash. Amid a weekend of joy, this surprise jolt brings a necessary bout of fury.

I’m not really able to watch much after Air Loom, so wander fairly aimlessly around the site. That is mind until Gentle Stranger.

How to describe a group who refuse to sit still? If their own visual and sonic descriptor of post-clown doesn’t give too much of an indication, then the sound that recurs most throughout is possible to place amongst groups like This Heat, Aksak Maboul, or even Liars. But then there are these sudden detours into mournful brass laments, communal folk, and even thumping electro punk – or The Residents meets Yellow Magic Orchestra as they call it.

The band are comprised of two singers, one who onstage has a stern Withnail like demeanour, though both vocalists are happy to embrace the absurd, even the ludicrous, and commit with dogged persistence to stylistic switches at every possible opportunity. Then there’s the drummer, a fierce player who my editor not inaccurately referred to as looking like “the pink-haired whistle blower from Cambridge Analytica”. This is a group whose venturing spirit sits them at odds with some of London’s newest young bands – where an unfortunate tendency still lurks to revert to sub-Fall slurred vocals and piss-poor twangy riffage. Gentle Stranger are a group who swerve from such trappings with ease. A definite highlight.

If Gentle Stranger have a keen eye for visual and performative aesthetics, then this carries through for a potentially festival stealing performance from Body/Vice, an MRI themed paranoia rave masterminded by Natalie Sharp – or Lone Taxidermist as you may well know her. TQ’s own John Doran comes on stage in full hospital gown – though perplexingly still his summer hat – and delivers dread drenched spoken word over the jolts and beeps of medical machinery, referring to his own experiences in an MRI machine and a desire for a 24/7 existential button that he will no doubt be forcibly be disconnected due to over usage.

The rhythm kicks into gear with the grind of drill into bone, a sound which gets to the strange essence of the hospital experience, designed to mend but clouded in such clinical detachment that your own body feels reduced to mere anatomy. This performance makes the audience hyper aware of the body, its status as a ‘sensory device’ and its capacity to be manipulated. Touch individual vertebrae on model spinal columns hanging from the rafters of the Vortex stage and jarring sounds will be triggered, fragments of medical speech are projected on screen then read aloud, and performers come on stage in suits of flesh and organs, an exposure of the unseen body, its intimate inner workings.

With frantic dancing, a dark sweaty room, and utterly pounding beats, it feels odd that from a subject matter of such abject existential and physical terror comes one of the most pleasurable moments all weekend, albeit this is a pleasure where pain and discomfort are ever present.

Again, this is a set difficult to recover from, though there are stellar performances later that evening to close off the weekend, like the rapid-fire dance music of Otim Alpha, or Zu’s metal meets Brötzmann style sax skronk, and that’s without forgetting the sight of a supernormal style silent disco, where a tent full of people – in what onlookers perceive to be silence – scream along to every line of the Dead Kennedys’ ‘California Über Alles’.

With a site whose history of countercultural action stretches way back to the 60s hippy days, even here it’s possible to be alarmed by an overall lack of cohesion. That is if it didn’t all make such a strange kind of sense. This is freak solidarity across genres, where metal, electronics, folk, whatever, are presented as mere variations of a same creative urge. Some will question the essence of New Weird Britain, and it’s true that with such a disparate crop of artists, it can be difficult to trace a concurrent thread. But immerse yourself somewhere like this? Suddenly it all feels abundantly clear.

To see a gallery of photographs from Supernormal click on the image below

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