Music

Supersonic Festival 2018 Highlights the Best in Experimental Music

Photo: Joe Singh

The prominent Birmingham music festival Supersonic returned for three days of experimental goodness, partly curated this year by Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe.

Supersonic Festival is one of the legendary music festivals. With a focus on experimental music and arts, the festival was established in 2003, and year in and year out it has featured some of the most important and relevant artists in the scene. Names like Thorr's Hammer, Oxbow, Melt Banana, Richard Dawson, Zu, Jenny Hval, Colin Stetson, Holly Herndon, and Circuit Des Yeux have visited in Birmingham, delivering astounding performances. In 2018, Supersonic returned with an impressive line-up, one of the strongest in its history. From extravagant producer Yves Tumor, score master Mark Korven, instrument aficionados Mario Batkovic and Andrea Belfi, to legendary folk singer Shirley Collins, psychedelic gurus Dwarfs of East Agouza, punk legends the Ex, and black metal masters Wolves in the Throne Room, Supersonic extended its grasp.

Supersonic also makes a point of having a special curator every year, and this time around it was Robert Aoki Aubrey Lowe who filled the role. Inviting a number of impressive acts, including Croww, Wetware, Moor Mother, and Giant Swan, and also in performing alongside YoshimiO and Susie Ibarra, the festival could not have a better curator. Similarly, the spaces were decorated by the artist in residence, Dennis McNett, who is a tremendously talented individual, whose concepts came to life in the various venues.

Spanning three days, Supersonic offers a holistic experience filled not only with music performances but also with film screenings and conversations with some of the most prominent musicians to play in the festival this year. With three different venues, hosting around 40 artists from diverse backgrounds and with very different sonic identities, the festival was bound to be a very entertaining and fascinating event. I had the fortitude to go to all three days of the event and catch as many of the performers as I could. I focused more on the music performances, so I missed the screenings and conversations that were taking place. I am sure those were compelling, but I wanted to catch as many of the bands playing as possible. To do so, I had to hop around the various stages. Therefore my rendition of what occurred in the festival might seem a bit frantic, but I thought it was the only way to detail all of the artists equally (or at least as close to that I could get).

Day 1

The Stage 2 acts (before Giant Swan) were all brought on by the festival's special curator, Robert Aoki Aubrey Lowe. The evening started with Croww, who is an intruguing electronic producer that came into prominence when he used exclusively Slipknot samples to produce his debut album. I wasn't familiar with his work before seeing him live and was quite impressed by the range of this guy. There is a definite love of metal, but it also blends so well with his overall nightclub mentality. Appearing first unfortunately not many were there to watch his rendition of industrial-esque soundscapes and abstract concepts, but it was an excellent opening to the night.

Housewives / Photo: Katja Ogrin

Then I moved to Stage 1 as Housewives were preparing to take the stage. The experimental post-punk/noise rock entity came to the stage amidst brilliant purple lights that created a very hazy ambiance. The setup on stage was also unusual, with the band utilizing less space and playing tightly close together. The two guitarists were opposite each other, while the drummer was placed just behind them. Their unique blend of Swans-ian no-wave with their use of unconventional instruments (saxophone being one of them) produced a brilliant result. The performance was transcendental, and the focal point soon became the rhythm and its various manipulations. Through their experimental post-punk scope, they created these impressive build ups and then completely break them down with erratic renditions. To enrich the towering rhythm section, the band explores sonic textures through the heavily processed instruments and vocals. With a great grasp on dynamics, it felt like the music came alive through their performance.

At that time I went to Stage 3 to catch a bit of BombyxMori. Stage 3 was used for the Ideas of Noise portion of the festival. The concept was curated by Sarah Farmer and Andrew Woodhead and involved an in-depth multitude of improvisation, electronic, noise, contemporary classical, and sound art. The first band (BombyxMori) featured just guitar and saxophone and was one of the mellower moments of the Ideas of Noise stage. It leaned more towards the free jazz side, with still a fair amount of electronica involved. I caught only the last few minutes, but the performance was unquestionably interesting.

At that point Stage 2 was ready and Wetware was about to come to stage. This was one of the finest performances at the festival. The duo from New York City features an impressive blend of experimental and industrial sounds, which make for one harsh and relentless live show. However, what stole the show was the performance of vocalist Roxy Farman; that was just on another dimension. Starting off from the stage, sitting on the barricade she produced an erratic mantra-like performance. Vocal-wise the range was extreme, going from spoken word parts all the way to shrieks and screams. Most importantly, when the initial procession finished, she went into a completely ecstatic state and dove into the crowd. For the remainder of her performance, she stayed there and gave a maniacal performance. Her vibe was intoxicating, and it started to affect all the individuals around her, making the whole process feel like a tribal ritual.

Back to Stage 3 for the second Ideas of Noise band, which featured Onin + Scott/Farmer/Woodhead. This was when Stage 3 started to get truly weird. With five individuals on stage, three of them interacting with electronics, Farmer on the violin and one person producing drones with just his voice, this was a unique performance. Even though notions of contemporary classical begun to form, these were soon surrounded by the overwhelming power of noise and electronics.

Goat / Photo: Joe Singh

But at that time I had to go and witness the mighty Goat. Not to be confused with the well-known Swedish psychedelic rock band, this is the minimalistic, rhythm obsessed act from Osaka, Japan. Their performance started in the most subtle manner possible, as the four band members all performed a percussive introduction to their set. It was a sight to behold and a testament to the technical aptitude of the band. When that finished, the band took its place, with a drummer, a percussionist on center stage and a guitarist and a sax player on either side. Their knowledge of tempo and pacing showed in this instance, and the manner in which the different instruments (especially drums and percussion) interacted with each other was truly astounding. Even though improvisation does come into play, this was a performance based on precision. The timing of the band was nothing short of stellar, and their build-ups were exquisite.

Moor Mother / Photo: Joe Singh

And from the ecstasis of Goat, we dive into the interstellar inferno of Camae Ayewa, known as Moor Mother. Performing on Stage 2, the Afrofuturistic vision of Moor Mother, which belongs within a long lineage of artists like Sun Ra and Basquiat shined through. The performance was mind-blowing, with the industrial-esque setting of Stage 2 adding more depth to her tempering with industrial, power electronics, and punk. Coming through the speakers was an overwhelming and aggressive sound that completely took over the soundscapes, while the slight drops of reality in the form of samples put her vision into scope. Once you experience the first take of Moor Mother's music, which is powerful and overwhelming, and Ayewa's spoken word renditions you come to see the complexity of her work. Ranging from free jazz to hip-hop, this magnificent collage of sounds shines in a live setting.

After Moor Mother's set finished, I revisited the Ideas of Noise stage, where Dead As Dillinger was performing. As I said before, as time passed Stage 3 kept mutating towards a more threatening and overwhelming offering. Dead as Dillinger was easily the harshest of the performances with performers diving deep into the experimental territory with the blasting noise and blinking electronics taking over completely. But then it was time for the highlight of the evening.

The Ex / Katja Ogrin

The last band to appear in Stage 1 was the legendary act the Ex. They are one of the most inspiring acts to arise from the European underground scene in the late 1970s. Baptised in the true spirit of punk music, and with a particular focus on anarcho-punk, it would be great to see what the Ex can do on their 38th anniversary. Well, I was surprised. The only band that set up in a proper rock formation, they featured three guitars (two baritones) and a drummer. Beginning with their latest material, "This Car Is My Guest" from 27 Passports, it was great to see them arrive with such energy and vitality. The Ex also moved into more experimental territories, taking on the punk-jazz spirit that are well known for. Their performance was so powerful and mesmerizing that I just could not leave to check Giant Swan, who were performing in Stage 2 (apologies for that). It was a transcendental performance, with the guitars forming an impressive wall of sound and drowning everything else. The best way to end the night.

Day 2

On to the second day, which started with Yerba Mansa. Unfortunately, I missed two of the opening acts in Joasihno and Jennifer Walsh. The duo formed in Manchester presented its psychedelic brew of heavy rock. For about 40 minutes they took the audience on interstellar travel to alien destinations. The sound from the guitar was huge, and the repetitive drum patterns solidified the hazy atmosphere of the act.

Next on to Connected Devices from Sam Underwood and Graham Dunning. Taking place at the main stage, the duo was on stage with a very strange mechanical structure. The two introduced this equipment as something they have been working on for a while in a dark studio. The minimalist element was present, and the experience of listening to the strange sounds coming out of this machination was interesting. As both Underwood and Dunning display an affinity towards instrument design as well as experimentalism it was an exciting experience watching them explore all the different interpretations that their creation could take on. However, something magical was also taking place in Stage 2.

Dwarfs of East Agouza / Photo: Joe Singh

One of the great contemporary acts of Cairo's new wave, along with the fantastic Nadah El Shazly and Maurice Louca, Dwarfs of East Agouza began exploring their experimental, psychedelic jazz mold. The trio arrived on stage and unleashed an impressive performance, through an hour-long improvisation session. The foundation of their performance arose from Maurice Louca's electronics and percussive loops, on top of which the mystical saxophone renditions of Alan Bishop (best known from the legendary Sun City Girls) and the free jazz guitar playing of Sam Shalabi flourished. The performance produced a trance-like effect, and the relaxed and yet focused demeanor of the performers was in big part responsible for this high-quality offering. Easily one of the unique moments of the festival.

Halfway through Cattle's performance, I decided to take a look at Stage 1, where Vanishing Twin were starting their set. The London-based ensemble took the stage and presented their unique blend of baroque pop motifs merged with folk influences. The air was filled with a sense of mysticism, even though the sound didn't dive too much into the experimental realm. Led by singer Cathy Lucas, the band found a fine balance between the left-field domain, avant-garde ideas, and indie rock. As a result, the performance left an almost magical sense, in a more earthy manner than the one experienced by the likes of Dwarfs of East Agouza. They are an intriguing band, with a lot more going on under the surface.

Nik Void / Photo: Joe Singh

I stayed for the whole of Vanishing Twin's performance and then it was time to see Nik Void. The experimental electronic artist is well known in the scene through her works with Factory Floor and Carter Tutti Void, where she performs alongside the mighty Chris Carter and Cosey Fanni Tutti (both of Throbbing Gristle fame). Void's performance relied on heavy electronics and the beats that she unleashed produced a mesmerizing haze of an experience. Without taking things over the top, relying on the noisier side, this was a very smooth and intoxicating performance. Sonic collage techniques, samples being reconfigured were the methods for morphing the standard practices of techno and dance, moving them into a more ambient stage.

Following Void's performance, Youth Man was preparing to unleash havoc on Stage 3. The Birmingham band provided one of the most exhilarating performances of the festival with their chaotic take on punk rock and hardcore. It felt as if there was no stopping these guys, with the guitars distorted to the extreme and the groove setting the tone. It was one of the more retro performances of the festival, with the band standing firmly on the punk aesthetics but also taking things to a further extreme with their affection towards distortion. The result was an erratic set that saw their music truly shine in a live environment. Unfortunately, I could not experience the full duration of their performance, as one of the highlights of the festival was taking place in Stage 1.

Mario Batkovic / Photo: Joe Singh

Experimental accordion player Mario Batkovic took the stage starting with his trademark composition "Quatere". A few notes from him were enough to dissolve the world around you and transport you to a whole different dimension. Batkovic's music is a force to be reckoned with when considering the sheer extension of his playing. One of the musician's goals is to expand the scope of the accordion, and that's exactly what he showcased at Supersonic. In a live environment, the different manifestations that the instrument can take in his hands is astounding. The melodic element that introduced his performance soon morphed into a number of different forms, from long drones to contemporary classical explorations. With a fair amount of humor to go between tracks ("what is the most rock 'n' roll thing you can do with an accordion on stage?"), Batkovic completely absorbed your attention. At the same time, Angel-Ho was performing on Stage 2, and his high energy electronic take was impressive, but I just had to return to Batkovic's performance. I still caught some of the final minutes of Angel-Ho's set and was astounded by the energy that his techno influences could form.

Terminal Cheesecake / Photo: Joe Singh

Then it was time to experience the historic Terminal Cheesecake outfit. Founded in the late '80s, this was one of the bands that explored the neo-psychedelic domain in a very heavy and extreme manner, catching the attention of both Wiiija Records (an offshoot of Rough Trade) and legendary BBC producer John Peel. The performance on Stage 3 was equal parts heavy and mesmerizing to extreme extents. The guitars were intense, with the heavy distortion taking things to the limit, while the vocal delivery featured a transcendental characteristic, reciting mantras above this haze of psychedelic goodness.

Half an hour into Terminal Cheesecake's set, drummer and percussionist Andrea Belfi was preparing to take us on a trip through the landscapes of rhythm and showcase all their capabilities. In a minimal setting, similar to Mario Batkovic, Belfi started off slowly building his rhythmic patterns and sound structures. The performance began slow, and I think I was quite impressed with what I had just seen from Terminal Cheesecake and Mario Batkovic just before, so I was expecting a bit more from Belfi. However, as time passed the ideas were further explored and became more tangible. But, unfortunately, there was something else that was transpiring in Stage 2.

Yves Tumor / Photo: Joe Singh

Yves Tumor has created an aura of mystique surrounding his presence in the experimental electronic scene. The artist simply lets his work speak for him and through the two full-length records he has unleashed a terrifying vision for abstract, leftfield motivated experimental music. As impressive and overwhelming the experience of listening to a Yves Tumor record is, it doesn't compare to his live performances. The sound was just completely over the top in this case, could take your head off with its sheer intensity, arriving through the disfigured beats of the great producer. With white light shining with great frequency, as if to induce a seizure, Yves Tumor's performance was just a force to be reckoned with. Mosh pits formed at the front of the stage, with the performer questioning the extent of the aggression of the audience ("this is the weakest mosh pit I have seen in a while") and just baiting the audience to explode. In terms of energy, I do not think any other performance matched this, and the sheer intensity of the sound was just perfect.

And out of the frying pan and into the fire with DEAFKIDS taking the stage. The Brazilian band released one of the most exciting records of 2017 in Configuracao Do Lamento, which caught the attention of Neurosis' label Neurot Recordings. This was the first time that I've seen them perform live, and I was thrilled to see how their noise-induced crust sound translated to a live environment. The performance was infernal, with the band losing themselves within their psychedelic take on d-beat variations and projecting their feverish dreams to the audience. But, it was also about time to go and check out the headliners of the day.

Gazelle Twin / Photo: Joe Singh

Gazelle Twin is the electronic project of Elizabeth Bernholz, and as she has previously stated, the idea for the project came when she watched Fever Ray perform live in 2009. There is a definite influence in the way Gazelle Twin has presented herself through the years, taking on bizarre manifestations and experimenting to a great extent with vocals. Coming onto the stage with Jaz Bernholz, the duo appeared in sinister, red jester-like attire that felt as if it had come out of outtakes for Videodrome. Their performance was energetic, and there was a lot of depth with the duo unleashing tracks from its upcoming work, Pastoral. I was impressed by both the performance on stage, which was bizarre, and how captivating that was, but also with the new material that I heard from the project. That makes me anticipate the upcoming record even more.

Unfortunately the other headline act for Day 2, FAKA, could not perform due to issues with their VISA applications. When I read the announcement I was disappointed, and I failed to see that their slot was taken over by a Supersonic Supergroup. As unfortunate as that was, I do think that the trio of performances from Yves Tumor, Deafkids, and Gazelle Twin was the way to end this evening, as it really stood apart.

Day 3

Back to the Custard Factory for Day 3 and the first act I caught was Daniel Higgs, apologies to Tomaga for just missing their show. Higgs is a fascinating artist out of Baltimore, Maryland who produced a very minimalistic performance. Alone on stage with his banjo, his set featured a strange aspect of spirituality. Coupled with some very humorous moments, as the asking of the audience to join in for a noteless chant, the performance was very entertaining.

Just once Higgs' performance had finished, Olanza's was taking place in Stage 3. The band from Bristol took us on an instrumental trip through space rock and post-rock motifs. For the 20 minutes that I watched their performance, the band displayed a strong grasp of heavy music with a slight experimental twist. Even though the post-hardcore past of the band can be detected through their compositions, the vision has switched more towards the post-rock and stoner infused desert rock sound that verges on space rock. It was a very energetic performance and a very nice way to change the mood from Higgs' more introspective tone.

At Stage 1 however Mark Korven was preparing to take the stage. The Toronto-based performer is best known for his work on film and television, with his crowning achievement being the sickening 2016 horror film The Witch. With a minimal setting, Korven introduced the Apprehension Engine, created by himself and Tony Duggan-Smith. The range of sonic textures coming through this machinery was truly astonishing and surrounded the audience with its chilling demeanor. Despite certain surprises (a slight malfunctioning of the equipment), this was a very interesting performance that showcased the musical depth of Korven.

Group A / Photo: Katja Orgin

Halfway into Korven's performance Japanese synth experimentalists Group A were beginning their set. The duo's performance was explosive on stage, with the heavy beats arriving with weight and energy through the speakers. Verging on an almost manic performance the duo was using an unconventional setup with Tommi Tokyo taking on the synths and vocals, while Sayaka Botanic was on the violin and additional audio effects. The result was a staggering trip through hazy, noisy electronica with an industrial backbone.

After Group A's performance Gum Takes Tooth began exploring the boundaries of what is sonically possible in Stage 3. At that point, I was moving between Stage 1, where Modern Ritual was taking place, and Stage 3 so I did not get the full extent of Gum Takes Tooth performance. For the part that I saw it was an exercise in extreme electronica, taking on techno structures and reconfiguring to a dramatic extent. Filled with energy, the band moved confidently through this maniacal set and set the bar fairly high.

Modern Ritual which was taking place in Stage 1 featured a strange tour through a series of experimental performances. It featured some very well known experimental artists in the likes of Charles Hayward (This Heat), Laura Cannell and Hoofus, as well as writers/researchers Jennifer Lucy Allan and Luke Turner. I caught the opening of the performance, which included a reading about foghorns. It was a surprisingly entertaining story, but at the same time, there was another artist that I wanted to catch in Stage 2.

Ukaea stands firmly on the foundations of electronic music and at the same time is focused more towards the more elusive concepts of techno. Fusing their structures with tribal elements, mostly of African and Indonesian origins, the performance felt like an etude in rhythm. The grooves produced were intoxicating, displaying the unique character of the project. The unique textures of the sounds were associated with the many custom-made and self-built pieces of equipment that are a focal part of the performance. The finishing touch is, of course, the acidic element that the project displays, which tied up the overall result very nicely. And it was a fitting segue way into Modern Ritual for the final part of the performance which included a 15-minute drum roll. Yes, just a drum roll. Do not ask me why I stayed for the whole thing, even I do not know.

Gnod / Photo: Katja Ogrin

After a break for the Dennis McNett procession, the stage was set for Gnod. The Manchester band is renowned for some of their early performances, which have included a dizzying 15 band members on stage to perform their hypnotic drone music. Today, however, they have cut down on this expanding outlook and instead provide a more condensed and direct assault. Gnod's sound was heavy as shit, with the amps kneeling under the heavy riffs. The sound comprises many diverse colors, from the grey sludge weight of the guitars, the bright lights of the psychedelic rock scene and the ultraviolet essence of Krautrock. Tribalistic pacing and a grunge influence complete the band's sound and the first part of their performance was truly astonishing.

Yunohana Variations / Photo: Katja Ogrin

The trio of Susie Ibarra, YoshimiO, and Robert Aoki Aubrey Lowe under the Yunohana Variations moniker was preparing for an otherworldly improv performance. The trio earlier released the excellent Flower of Sulphur album, which was one of my favorite releases of 2017 and I was eager to see how they would perform live. I wasn't disappointed, with the trio appearing on stage with a percussion-centric setup, Ibarra and YoshimiO sat opposite each other and reacted to each other's cues. The fluidity of the percussion was met with Lowe's expansive sonic collages to create a connection between different sonic territories and explore all these exquisite rhythmic patterns and soundscapes. It is quite an indescribable performance and one that you have to experience live to appreciate, and the three musicians showcased both how unique they are individually, but also how well they work together as a trio.

Just after Yunohana Variations, Tirikilatops was the last act to appear in Stage 3. Now, I was blown away by the performance of Ibarra, YoshimiO, and Lowe, and Tirikilatops is not exactly my cup of tea. However, it was quite an entertaining performance and a very nice, adventurous take on the k-pop sound. With an upbeat demeanor and a theatrical leaning, the band played around with interesting rhythms and unleashed some very hooky melodies.

Shirley Collins / Photo: Katja Ogrin

Headlining Stage 1 on Sunday was legendary folk singer and song collector Shirley Collins. Collins is a fascinating figure in the folk scene, having a legendary career from the mid-1950s up to the late 1970s. She then disappeared from the scene to make a triumphant return with the unbelievable Lodestar in 2016. The performance here was stellar, both in terms of the musicians accompanying Collins and also with the clarity and warmth of the singer's voice. Songs of May and tales of the sea ("Cruel Lincoln"), were performed in all their majesty. It was a fantastic performance, capable of transferring the listener to a different time and it speaks to the power and substance that folk songs, especially old songs carry. Something else that I found very enjoyable was the introduction to each of the song, detailing what exactly the song represented, its meaning, but also how and by whom these were preserved.

Wolves in the Throne Room / Photo: Katja Ogrin

Closing the festival in Stage 2 was of course Wolves in the Throne Room. Having made their return to the black metal scene just a few months back with their latest album Thrice Woven, the band from the Pacific Northwest took the stage and unleashed a perfect storm of black metal goodness. Tilting the set towards their new record, the band gave a thunderous performance. With three guitars on stage they created an impenetrable wall of sound, preserving their record's asphyxiating tone. The performance felt like a ritual, with the band using frankincense that surrounded the audience and put them in the right mood. Without many breaks, it felt like one continuous assault, with the frenetic energy of their songs only rivaled by the ritualistic quality of their presence. It was the ideal way to end this festival, with an absolutely deafening bang.

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