Thursday, July 19, 2007

SWSL Supersonic 2007 Diary

Three weeks on from Glastonbury, and I'd just about washed off all the mud - time for another festival...

Supersonic is a world away from Glastonbury. Organised by the Capsule girls Lisa and Jenny every July since 2003, it's now a Plan B endorsed two day event running from 9pm to 3am on the Friday and 4pm to 3am on the Saturday which takes place at the Custard Factory in Birmingham. While there are art exhibitions, a handful of stalls and a theatre space screening short films in association with 7 Inch Cinema, Supersonic is primarily a music festival, and an avant-garde / experimental / leftfield one at that, of the sort which appeals to those for whom All Tomorrow's Parties has become far too commercial.

So, no danger of encountering pissed-up Kaiser Chiefs fans in jester hats, then. I hadn't even arrived and I was enjoying it already...

Friday 13th July

Pleasantly fed and watered (or rather lagered) in Cafe Soya - OK, let the festivities commence...

Hang on a minute, this isn't right. Supersonic is an INDOOR festival. It's supposed to be the festival the British summer simply can't ruin. And yet here we are, Kenny and I, queuing up for admission in the pouring rain, soaked through before we've even heard a note...

We walk around the "pool" (drained to create a standing space for the Outside Stage, which is unused tonight) to discover they don't serve anything on draught in the Medicine Bar. Hmm. A bottle of Becks it is, then, at £3 a pop. So, what’s going on on the Medicine Bar Stage?

In the land of the person who likes thunderous Black Sabbath powerchords melted down to a gooey sludge and then stretched out as far as they’ll possibly go in a haze of drone and feedback, MONARCH! are king. In my land, though, they don't quite rule - instead they're at best third or fourth in line to the throne, partly because the concept is better than the reality and partly because the French quartet’s petite frontwoman Emilie is painfully underused, screaming unintelligibly at intervals and turning the pages of her notebook at others as if to emphasise each passage of noise is a different song. Just as I'm thinking that I know a man who'd be loving this, I spot him down at the front - no surprise, really, given that he put them on in Cardiff at the beginning of the week. A question for you: are bands of this ilk who wear earplugs like school bullies who can dish it out but can't take it?

FUCK BUTTONS (Kitchen Stage)? Well, with that name it would be rude not to. The Buttons, as they're possibly known to their more genteel fans, are Bristolian duo Benjamin John Power and Andrew Hung who seem to have taken the super-distorted conclusion of Aphex Twin's 'Windowlicker' as their starting point. Their densely textured electro scree is occasionally underpinned by beats either synthetic or pounded out on a stand-up drum by Power, and overlaid with washes of droney synth, the twinkle of keys and even (yes) hints of melody - 'Sweet Love For Planet Earth', on their MySpace page, is as good an indication of their stock-in-trade as any. But, above all, they're so loud my ears actually start to get hot - it's a wonder the floor-to-ceiling glass wall doesn't shatter. Despite not appearing entirely satisfied with the sound, Power is later very complimentary about the set-up and the festival as a whole, and although Fuck Buttons aren't everyone's cup of tea, for me they've set the bar pretty high and their album, due out in October with Mogwai's John Cummings at the helm, is on the shopping list.

Hurrah - the Kitchen bar serves pints! But it comes with an enormous head, and when I ask for it to be topped up, it's handed back frothing over vigorously with a snide "Enjoy your ice creams". Hmm, definite black marks against the bars. Down in the pool, Nate Young and Mike Connelly of Wolf Eyes chat to friends and punters alike - perhaps their ferocious stage image really is just that.

Given the city in which Supersonic takes place, it's fitting that we're only three bands into the festival and are already witnessing the second to pay very obvious homage to four of its most famous and influential sons, Black Sabbath. KLING KLANG (Medicine Bar Stage), who call Mogwai's Rock Action label home, may have chosen the name of Kraftwerk's studio for a moniker and a barrage of synths may be their weapon of choice, but the "riffs" and rhythms are pure Iommi. There's nothing novelty about it, though, despite the presence on stage of a full-on pair of ear defenders, and the likes of 'Heavydale' have me nodding away vigorously and the bassist from Monarch! enthusiastically throwing devil signs stagewards. A timely reminder that not all Scouse bands are scally chancers with pictures of Lee Mavers pinned to their bedroom walls.

Kid 606 has kicked off on the Kitchen Stage, but we decide to stay put and try to secure some space in the cramped Medicine Bar for Wolf Eyes. First, though, nature calls - and I discover that there's a toilet attendant. C'mon, this is a FESTIVAL, man!

My first experience of WOLF EYES (Medicine Bar Stage), in April this year, was something of an exercise in endurance. This time I'm prepared, but in the event the extreme noise trio have significantly less impact - on me, at least - because they're just not as ear-shreddingly loud (though I wouldn't go so far as to say they're actually tame or toothless). Mike Donnelly is even more hyperactive, shaking his head furiously from side to side until it becomes a blur, but Nate Young is less of a presence than before, and John Olson, newly shorn but still wearing the same AC/DC T-shirt, spends more time punching the air than adding to the aural violence with his homemade bass. Their innate cartoonishness is more evident and, by saving up their crowdpleaser (albeit one called 'Stabbed In The Face') until last, they even suggest a willingness to pander to convention. I wondered beforehand whether I could survive Wolf Eyes for a second time, and by the end the answer is a definite yes - and with a surprising amount of disinterest, too.

For many punters the night's still not quite over - but for me, flagging from my early start to the day, it is.

Saturday 14th July

A pint in the Wellington having assuaged my irritation at having spent an afternoon battling against the crowds in a hot, sunny city centre and traipsing from shop to shop, I'm once more ready for action. Time to return to the fray...

No queue today, when of course sod's law would have it that the weather is glorious. I arrive to the sound of black-clad improv collective STRINGS OF CONSCIOUSNESS (Outside Stage) stirring themselves to a mighty roar, but it's what's going on inside and who's just started up on the Medicine Bar Stage that's calling Kenny and I.

Turns out that it's not really what I'm expecting at all. Supporting Acid Mothers Temple in Cardiff last November, Rick Tomlinson aka VOICE OF THE SEVEN WOODS filled the Point single-handedly, sampling himself to great effect to build up carefully and intricately layered folk-noir. This evening, though, he's stood up, wielding an electric guitar and aided by two accomplices on bass and drums, and is thus a completely different proposition. The songs, though retaining a dark edge, are more about finding and locking into a groove than establishing a mood. At first it's a bit disorienting, but once the recurrent basslines become more pronounced the trio seem to shift up a gear and by the end I'm not missing the solo incarnation of the band at all.

So where's the bar that's selling cans of Red Stripe, then? Asking someone would be too easy, of course, so off we wander. No luck, though we do stumble upon Rooty Frooty and its rapidly-diminshing stock of chilled Samuel Smiths organic lager, a bargain at £3.50 in comparison to the normal bar prices of £3 for a bottle of pisswater like Budweiser.

Underneath the railway track for my first visit to the Arches - not home to Mitchell's Autos but a large empty warehouse or light aircraft hangar equipped with a bank of amps and a stage which is at least as big as the main Outside Stage. Sadly, MIGRANT are not the act to see on it. The Capsule website may be effusive about the way they "generate a sonic landscape of shifting soundfields which encompass sparse electronic soundbeds, languid tone drifts and abrasive digital broadcast storms", but in reality it's three people (one of whom, Nicholas Bullen, was a founder member of Napalm Death) hunched over their laptops with incredibly serious expressions on their faces. The music may be an "interaction" between the trio, but there's nothing in the way of interaction with the audience, mostly sat on the floor with precious little to look at other than Julian Cope, who is stood just in front of us.

By contrast, CALVADOS BEAM TRIO (Medicine Bar Stage) are a real discovery. Admittedly the, er, threesome probably don't win any prizes for originality - though I hear less Slint and Tortoise in their complex math rock and rather more undeservedly forgotten Brits Billy Mahonie, one-time Dischord favourites Faraquet and even Cardiff's own Truckers Of Husk. But, buoyed by a partisan home crowd, they are focused and impeccably tight without ever allowing Migrant-esque levels of concentration to paralyse their faces and conceal the fact that they're having a whale of a time. They claim to only have six friends on their MySpace site - well, they've got a few more now...

On my way around the pool I run into Pete, busy demolishing a burger fresh from the barbecue. Something to keep body and soul together, at least - he's been on the go since the Metal Symposium started yesterday evening in Walsall, and, having opted not to duck the late night last night, had the pleasure of witnessing Otto Von Schirach, clad in a wrestling suit, entertain the hardy survivors into the early hours. TUNNG appear on the Outside Stage, and we go our separate ways.

For me, it's back to the Arches to catch the tail-end of a band who, in terms of sheer presence and spectacle, are the antithesis of the one that preceded them. Featuring members of Guapo and Cathedral, MIASMA & THE CAROUSEL OF HEADLESS HORSES - as the name might suggest - look like face-painted extras from 'Sleepy Hollow' who regularly gargle blood in between performances as Aleister Crowley's house band. The bowler-hatted keyboard player in particular is somewhere between an undertaker and a corpse. There are unsettling echoes of traditional Eastern European music in their melodramatic instrumental rock, and whoever came up with the idea of screening 'The Wicker Man' on mute while they play should be congratulated, 'Asmodius Arise' reaching a feverish pitch just as events on Summerisle are doing likewise. The ghoulish quintet suffered so many cancelled gigs earlier this year they began to think they were cursed - thankfully for us, this one went ahead.

I'm alcoholically slumming, reduced to drinking Magners out of a plastic pint pot - with Rooty Frooty having been cleaned out of its Sam Smiths stock, it's the best value beverage on offer. And to think, the Anchor and its marvellous reserves of Thatchers Cheddar Valley (aka "the orange stuff") is little more than a stone's throw away...

Ever fantasised about an unrepentantly vicious punk band fronted by a bloke who - with his preposterous 'tache, white vest and braces - looks a bit like Freddie Mercury playing a Prohibition-era gangster and who launches stringy globs of spit skywards when he's not emptying every last bit of air from his lungs into a microphone? BEESTUNG LIPS may just be for you. Memorably describing themselves on their MySpace page as "the wet spot in your bed and in your brain", they're even more in-your-face than Wolf Eyes - and that's some achievement. The Capsule girls not only believe in them enough to put them on, but have also (in conjunction with Southern Records) put out their album Songs To And From An Iron Gut. You certainly need an iron gut to withstand the punch they pack.

I emerge into the fading evening sunlight feeling distinctly violated to find that Tunng are still not through administering the Outside Stage crowd with their dose of polite folk. It's not that they're bad - but what is it with them, Midlands festivals and being out of sync with whatever else I've just seen?

With Tunng finally gone, it's time for more local heroes, this time on the Outside Stage. The Pryke-approved MODIFIED TOY ORCHESTRA, playing at their "spiritual home" (this, after all, is their third consecutive appearance), do exactly what it says on the tin, creating cute and quirky electro-pop with specially-customised children's instruments (it's called "circuit bending", apparently). They're the brainchild of Brum sound artist Brian Duffy (he's the one fondling the Barbie doll) but Laurence Hunt of Pram and Mike Johnston of Plone are also among those stood in a line behind their keyboards in suits and matching pink shirts and ties ("Primark's finest") like Kraftwerk fresh from performing best man duties. 'Freeno And Olaf', about the forbidden love between two different species of cuddly toy, gets the warmest reception, but I can't help but feel they would be more interesting and effective if they cut back on the tweeness and novelty factor and instead used the tools at hand to make something altogether darker and more disturbing.

Smoking ban schmoking ban. That's obviously David Yow's perspective on things as he lounges on an amp at the side of the stage, contentedly chuffing away while his bandmates Matt Cronk (guitar) and Paul Christensen (drums) bash through a song without him. In fact, QUI (Arches Stage) used to perform without the former Jesus Lizard frontman and serial microphone abuser all the time, until he joined up late last year, the product of their union being the album Love's Miracle, due out in September on Mike Patton's Ipecac label. There's a heavy blues edge to some of the songs, but Yow's old band, the Melvins and Black Flag are the most obvious reference points, and certainly with 'I Love You' I completely miss any romantic undertones amidst the unhinged squall to which it takes me some time to get attuned. Yow, meanwhile, pleads for the return of his passport which he suspects he may have handed to someone the previous evening: "Otherwise I'll be stuck for the rest of my life in your pathetic little country". He winds up the set by telling a joke over the top of the music, muttering something about someone walking into a bar and then something else about not wanting any salad before the guitar and drums cut out, leaving him saying to a silent room "I'm only here to fuck the monkey". If you know the rest of the joke, answers on a postcard...

Not quite from the sublime to the ridiculous - but CHROME HOOF (Outside Stage) certainly fulfil their side of the bargain. Ridiculousness is their raison d'etre. I've waited for a lot of things in my time, but I can't honestly say I've ever found myself waiting for a marriage of Black Sabbath and Parliament as performed by a collective of indeterminate size wearing what can only be described as mirrorball cowls and featuring (amongst others) Cathedral bassist Leo Smee, a glamorous funk vocalist called Lola and an interpretative dancer. As entertaining as it is, though, the spectacle can't detract from the fact that musically it's something of a marriage of inconvenience, and Kenny sways me into wandering off in search of somewhere where the grass is greener.

Not in the Arches, unfortunately. OM may be comprised of two "founding members of legendary doom pioneers Sleep", but that and what we hear of their music - brooding stoner rock without the all-important guitars - isn't enough to sustain our interest, not least because we're aware that it's one-in-one-out for the main area and neither of us wants to miss the headliners. It's not an entirely wasted trip, though - we at last discover where the elusive bar selling Red Stripe has been lurking and duly seize the opportunity to refuel.

Back inside the main area after a fairly quick queue alongside Qui guitarist Matt Cronk, I finally get the opportunity to introduce one West Midlands blogger extraordinaire to another over badly-poured beers. Sadly a third, RussL, is proving even more elusive than the Red Stripe bar. He's not in the toilets, that's for sure - though Mogwai's Stuart Braithwaite is, chatting to a Joe Strummer lookalike wearing bright red braces. Their exchange is in Glaswegian, so I catch every tenth word before wishing Stuart well as he disappears backstage.

And so to the band who, above all others, got me scrambling to buy a ticket. MOGWAI, by now practically a household name (or at least they would be if after every trailer or segment of TV footage they soundtrack they got visibly credited), are by far the biggest headliner in Supersonic's five year history. Long pursued by Jenny and Lisa, they've been every bit as elusive as the Red Stripe bar or RussL, but at last they're here, and John Cummings appears to have grown a Mogwai beard especially for the occasion. Which makes what follows all the more disappointing. Don't get me wrong - Mogwai on a bad day are still worth ten times most bands on a good one, and they probably still wind up being my favourite act of the weekend. Opener 'Superheroes Of BMX', 'Ratts Of The Capital', 'Hunted By A Freak' and insanely heavy closing duo 'Glasgow Mega Snake' and 'We're No Here' (the former described as "our fast song", in response to the earlier shout of "Faster!" from the crowd - "At least I hope it wasn't 'bastards'", quips Stuart) are among my personal festival highlights. But there's no escaping the facts: it's not loud enough, there's a perceptible lack of enthusiasm emanating from the stage (I'm loath to say it, but it's almost a going-through-the-motions) and the setlist is a real oddity - no 'Mogwai Fear Satan', no 'Like Herod', no 'Xmas Steps', no 'Summer'. This, after all, is a band who only four years ago thought nothing of rounding off a set on the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury with 'My Father My King', their 25-minute-long interpretation of a Jewish hymn, and who witnessed Sonic Youth kick off a headlining set at a festival they curated with an unreleased half-hour-long song called 'New Drone'. Surely they could have jettisoned the likes of 'Travel Is Dangerous' and taken the opportunity to take more risks (a full-length 'Stereodee', perhaps?), safe in the knowledge that we would be a more receptive audience than normal?

While Kenny and Pete decide to stick around for Duracell, my batteries are nearly dead so it's goodnight to Supersonic 2007 from me.

* * * * *

So, it was loud, but only Fuck Buttons really turned it up to 11, and I made it through still able to hear myself think. As ever, writing this review has reminded me of all the bands / acts I missed, either through clashes or foolishness: SUNNO))), Kid 606, Shit And Shine, Pharaoh Overlord, Oxbow, Crippled Black Phoenix, Bela Emerson, Esquilax, Jazzkammer... Perhaps next time, eh?

And there will be a next time, despite my occasional disgruntlements.

No doubt in response to gripes much like my own, Lisa and Jenny have made clear on the Capsule site that the bar arrangements were out of their control - but it's something that could certainly do with being looked at. I'd hope a move away from the Custard Factory could be avoided, but quality beers and a greater range of food outlets (as well as more toilets) would be very welcome if the same number of tickets is to be sold next year. If that means a price hike, then so be it - I think most festival-goers would agree that £35 for the two days is stupendously good value, and that charging £50 certainly wouldn't be unreasonable if the extra money went at least partly on improving the facilities.


RussL's write-up of the event

Pete's collection of Supersonic-related links


Anonymous said...

The don't call me Russ 'The Elusive Pimpern-' L for nothing.

In fact, they don't call me Russ 'The Elusive Pimpern-' L at all.

Pete Ashton said...

It's funny, reading through that I got the feeling you weren't impressed with most of what you saw but you still thought it a terrific event. I like that.

I think the Custard Factory beer supply issues are cause for a campaign. It's really not good enough. A decent range of beers is needed, or at least a fucking bitter and Guiness, and it needs to be substantially cheaper. Hopefully as the site gets expanded there'll be room for another pub/bar to come in and start a bit of competition on that front (Med Bar and Kitchen are the same company).

That said, I got through the festival pretty much on tea and enjoyed it. Maybe tea is the way forward at gigs?

skif said...

Re: the 'not everyone's cup of tea' link to my Fuck Buttons review.

I didn't think mine was a negative review. I quite enjoyed the experience, it's certainly one that stays with you.

Ian said...

Fuck Buttons, Kling Klang and Calvados Beam Trio all sound very good based on their MySpace pages. This sounds like the best festival yet, I wish I'd been able to attend and quaff some Samuel Smith. I hear what you're saying about Mogwai - I love "Travel is Dangerous" but in this kind of setting I'd want more "With Portfolio" or "Ex-Cowboy" and less of that, you know?

Still, "Superheroes of BMX" is one of my favourite Mogwai tracks and I've never seen them play it live. I'm jealous!

I really do hope I make it to your neck of the woods next time I go to the UK (and vice versa, should you every come visit the Commonwealth) - we seem to have very similar opinions on beer, and I'm curious what a Brit like yourself would think of some of our local breweries.

Ben said...

Pete: I'm not sure about my not really being impressed. There wasn't anyone who absolutely blew me away, true - but I enjoyed Fuck Buttons, Calvados Beam Trio and Kling Klang a lot and Mogwai were good, despite my griping. Not so bothered about the prices, to be honest (£3 for a can of Red Stripe was fair enough), but the selection and quality is terrible. The Capsule girls have underlined, they only hire the venue, but surely something could be worked out for next year?

Skif: Looking back, I take your point. Perhaps it was the absence of statements of unequivocal enthusiasm that gave me that impression (much as my own festival review struck Pete)?

Ian: Funny you should say that, but I'm coming to Toronto in October...

Anonymous said...

Of course I'd love it if the drinks were cheaper, but I'm with Ben - the £3 price was about what I'd have expected. It's slightly sad that I do have this expectation for any sort of big event, but there we are.

More variety would be good, of course. Capsule might not run the bars themselves but I'm sure they could lean on the people that do, given the amount of custom they're bringing in for them (that's assuming they haven't already got them to compromise on fifteen other things, though).

In terms of infrastucture-y things like that, I really hope that for next year they bring back the portaloos and scatter a few bins around. Actually, elsewhere on t'internets (I forget where) someone (I forget whom) asked why there wasn't any sort of recycling bin anywhere on site, which is a reasonable question.

As if they don't already have enough to organise...

Ben said...

Spot on, Russ. Donning my Friends of the Earth hat for a moment, I was pretty disappointed to see empty bottles (of which there were loads at the Medicine Bar, given that's pretty much all it serves) chucked into bin bags apparently without any thought of recycling. Of course, no doubt that's the way it operates normally (it wasn't particular to that weekend), but there's no excuse.

The more I think about it, the more the bars did annoy me. OK, so there were rarely big queues - but in addition to the poor choice of beverages the staff were almost uniformly unfriendly, bordering on rude.

Pete Ashton said...

But top marks to the people running the tea and cake stall by the theatre. In fact they deserve a medal.

Ben said...

It certainly looked good in there. Fancied a samosa myself, but never got round to going in...