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Supersonic 2011 – The Custard Factory, Birmingham – 21st-23rd October 2011 (Live Review)

Thursday, 10 November 2011 Written by Jon Stickler


Set amongst the slightly bleak, yet somehow endearing industrial greyness of Birmingham and spread across a series of what look like slightly unsettling, derelict warehouses, Supersonic has consistently proved an absolute must on the calendar of any self-respecting muso since 2003, and with a line-up this year boasting doom metal, experimental noise, drone, psychedelic rock and avant-garde music in equal measure, this year is indeed business as usual.

FRIDAY

In typically unique (read: Supersonic) fashion, Friday’s proceedings don’t commence until the murky, watershed timeslot of 9pm, and so what better a way to kick things off than with the disgusting, swampy bile of Croydon sludge metallers Slabdragger? Blasting through the majority of their debut album ‘Regress’ at ear-splitting volume whilst masterfully blending each song into the next, their set is an utter master class in riffage, groove and precision. Although a couple of technical problems occasionally threaten the performance onstage, the sizeable crowd itself is utterly won over almost instantly – an unrivalled triumph of a performance.

For those who still possess insatiable doom cravings, even after such a satisfying fix, Part Chimp prove more than an affable fit for the job. Although many of their songs aren’t quite as compact and focused as the compositions in the performance previously witnessed, the group’s spaced out, noisier take on stoner rock provides a perfect, varied contrast. Their music occasionally rambles, but the payoff is always an utter joy.

Heading back over to the Boxxed Stage, DJ Scotch Egg proves to be a total revelation. Cloaked in a combination of darkness, flashing lights and abstract stage projections, the sight of the part-time Drum Eyes bassist hopping around the stage in his trademark beanie hat/ hoodie combo, shrieking over heavily manipulated, angular chiptune is funny, confusing and utterly mind-blowing all at once. It’s like watching an insane laboratory professor conducting the most nonsensical orchestra of all time.

Sadly, due to the sheer captivity of the previous set, this writer arrives at the main space to hear only the very final notes of the legendary Mike Watt (and his Missingmen)’s set, plus one final grunt of “JOHN COLTRANE!” from Watt himself. Thankfully, after a short wait come the suitably insane Secret Chiefs 3 with their potent mixture of soundtrack worship, alternative metal and middle-eastern leanings as present as ever. Despite being draped in black robes with their faces shrouded in darkness (or what looks like a flannel in the case of their violinist) for most of the set, their stage presence proves as delightfully frenetic and enjoyably baffling as their music. A wonderfully bizarre end to the first day of festivities.

SATURDAY

As the second day of the festival kicks off (albeit at the fairly late start of 4:30pm), many members of the audience still appear to be nursing frail hangovers as doomy Spaniards Orthodox serenade the main space. Thankfully the familiarity of their Buzz Osborne-esque vocals and Iommi-heavy riffs combined with occasional nods to folk music and medieval lyrics strike a chord with the Brummy-heavy audience. I wonder why.

For those who prefer their hangovers to be treated with a tad more tact and delicacy, the quaint and cosy confines of the Old Library prove a solid escape thanks to a hypnotic performance from Agathe Max.

A delicate, lone figure onstage accompanied only by a violin and a loop pedal, her pulsing repetitions are a soothing calm to the storm of ear-punishing noise to arrive later on. In suitable juxtaposition to such a relaxing set, and bathed in spaced-out electronics, thunderous guitar and backed by enjoyably monotonous krautrock rhythms, Antilles’ turn in an enjoyably trippy set, akin to the sound of an army marching in space after every member has swallowed a tab of acid. As intense a performance as it is cosmic.

For all the acclaim they consistently receive from fans and press alike, Electric Wizard’s live performances tend to vary from average to stunning due to a variety of different reasons. In the past (although through no fault of their own), bad sound has rendered a handful of their live performances to be an underwhelming, muddy mess. At other times, their aloof stonerisms tend to give off an unavoidable heir of smug arrogance and wanting to be elsewhere. Today, neither of these things prove to be true as the Dorset cult legends rip through a stunning and painfully loud set showcasing the best of their discography along with a few hidden gems too. Although the only crowd interaction from singer Jus Osborn comes in the form of screaming “ARE YOU HIGH?!”, the response from this crowd of long haired, bearded men in Sleep shirts, oddly, seems to be a resounding yes.

After a lengthy break from the music in order to let the abrasive ringing stop (it doesn’t), The Skull Defekts descend upon the Boxxed Stage with a puzzling mixture of questionable dance moves, fuzzed-out guitars and a hefty amount of stomping. Although the intensity perfected on their most recent studio effort 'Peer Amid' isn’t quite recaptured here, they still prove to be a good-humoured and enthralling presence.

It’d be easy to assume that once you’ve seen sets from both Electric Wizard and Orthodox in one day that any amount of volume projected by following bands would pail in comparison. Wrong. After just 30 seconds into Monarch’s set, this writer can feel hearing damage occurring rapidly, but as is quickly proven, they are such an utterly captivating live act that there is no option but to let the sonic abuse take its place. Drowning the crowd in a suffocating fusion of drone and sludge metal, the French foursome are unequivocally sensational for the entire duration of their hour long performance. A perfect exercise in abject misery.

SUNDAY

For those who would rather be lying down in a darkened room listening to Prince after two solid days of avant-garde noise and rum abuse (yours truly, specifically) the start of today certainly takes its toll on both patience and commitment. Obtuse, improvised smooth jazz from the Birmingham Improvisers Orchestra or the repetitive psyche-droning of Eternal Tapestry may be just the ticket for some first thing on a Sunday, but not for this Stereoboard writer.

As if answering our prayers almost instantly, it’s time for Drum Eyes (aka the main project of the previously reviewed DJ Scotch Egg). Although there seems to be more structure and individual compositions present than in Scotch Egg’s brilliant solo set on Friday, there still remains a huge sense of spontaneous joy present throughout their music. Just as certain pieces begin to plod, a hugely satisfying climax appears to be brought forward out of nowhere. A particular highlight occurs at the end of their performance in which the members convulse around stage to a huge rumbling wall of noise that builds and builds until it finally collapses in truly glorious fashion. A fascinatingly intense set and minimal set from avant-garde legend Tony Conrad sees him alone on stage with nothing but his violin and his own silhouette perfectly cast across a wide backdrop of what looks like the moon. A surprisingly relaxed show from a man whose performances have often proved testing in the past.



Being an act that play the UK as rarely as they do, Envy were a must-see at Supersonic from the moment they were announced. Blending unabashedly emotional hardcore and screamo with beautiful post-rock soundscapes, their performance is both furiously passionate and unapologetically affecting. Somehow delicately pulverising their way through a well-balanced selection of cuts from their discography, they turn in what is without a doubt the most dazzling set of the festival thus far. A performance that manages to evoke a sense of both immense sadness and determined hope.

Drunk In Hell are, thankfully, a most welcome riposte to the bout of emotional devastation layed down upon the festival by Envy. Even though the quiet, muddy levels of the Old Library may be slightly too twee a setting for their offensive concoction of sludge, hardcore punk and occasional glitchy noise, the raw, primitive aggression that the band emanate is the perfect antidote to the claustrophobic amount of inescapable, avant-garde noise witnessed so far.

It’s always difficult to try and gauge which version of Circle will turn up to their live shows. Admittedly, whilst this writer was hoping for the introverted, noodling krautrock Circle to be present, the incarnation that we’re finally treated to is no doubt a thousand times more entertaining. Dressed in ridiculously garish spandex and blithely prancing about the stage as if they were Queen, the performance essentially consists of a shedload of immense rockstar gurning, experimental theatre posing and Dave Lee Roth-esque flamboyancy. The music? If you can imagine what a mixture of Judas Priest and Can would sound like, you’re halfway to imagining the truly perplexing nature of it. A hilariously enjoyable spectacle.

As the festival winds down before its final headliner, a large majority of the crowd seem to evacuate for an early night before Turbonegro take to the stage. Although the reviews surrounding the band’s debut show with new singer Tony Sylvester were positively glowing, all of the hype and good will radiating from Sylvester and the band themselves can’t quite mask the fact that the atmosphere, save for a small smattering of faithful Turbojugend members, is a tad flat. Being a band that relies on crowd energy and party vibes in a live environment, the show suffers greatly. Sylvester’s gruff vocals combined with the band’s new down tuned sound to accommodate them seem to strip the original classics of the soul and character that Hank Von Helvete was able to bring to them in spades. Having also visibly aged, the deathpunk legends have seemingly lost a great deal of the frenetic energy they possessed when the charismatic Helvete was at the helm of vocal duties.

It’s a horrendous shame for this depressingly going-through-the-motions set to be the last thing Stereoboard witness this weekend, but hey, same time next year, Birmingham? We wouldn’t miss it for the world.


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