It's easy to feel dour at the state of the modern music festival. The necessity for big brand partnerships have left many festivals defined by blanket advertising, conservative lineups, and criminally priced pints. Birmingham festival Supersonic is something of a shining beacon then, bravely curating a weekend out of the most far flung regions of music.
Moor Mother's set on Friday night is all unbridled rage, fusing industrial noise with hip hop. Though beats are there, the spoken-word meets rap delivery mostly cuts through a wall of cluttered detritus. It's fluid and open, a genre-undermining sound that Moor Mother has classified as 'blk girl blues', 'project housing bop', and 'slaveship punk'.
Elsewhere that night, Japanese group Goat take minimalist percussion akin to Steve Reich and apply it to dread-drenched rock music. Post-punk legends The Ex play an energized set of sloppy-tight grooves, and Bristol duo Giant Swan finish things off with some heaving industrial techno.
If there's any notion that the experimental is po-faced and self-serious, Jennifer Walshe's performance on day two makes the idea seem ludicrous. If what's going on here could be deemed as social commentary or a dissection of modern life then it's tackled in the most wayward manner, ridden with anxiety but still funny in an absurdist sort of way.
Over on stage two, Dwarfs of East Agouza flirt between groove and a formless other. They feature two Egyptian musicians, Maurice Louca (Alif) and Sam Shalabi (Land of Kush, Shalabi Effec), as well as Alan Bishop (Sun City Girls, The Invisble Hands). Together, their improvisational sound is a sprawling trip via unkempt paths, unexpected, craggy, but often beautiful. Nik Void's set on the same stage later that day is untamed but in a wholly different manner. Forging jagged rhythms from analogue equipment, the contortion of hardware is similar to her work with Factory Floor but now closer to the squelch and grind of industrial techno.
But it's Yves Tumor who steals the show, his set all white noise and blinding strobe. Yves treats the audience with contempt, aggravates us, laughs at a half-hearted mosh attempt and regularly jumps into the crowd to rectify the situation. The beats are jarred, cut by fierce static, but Yves rides these non-rhythms with a pungent anger. At a festival with some of the heaviest music going, Yves Tumor unleashed the most punishing sound and presence of the entire weekend.
The next day, Tomaga re-scored the occult psychedelic classic Lucifer Rising, the menace and lysergic elements of the film amplified by their reflective moments and frenzied diversions into the formless. Group A also left the audience confounded. Foundation wise, they strayed little further than the same mechanised rhythm, but atop that squealing violin explorations and thuds of metal on metal twisted and diverted the sound far away from the humdrum.
Though this 2018 lineup is international in scope, a concurrent thread throughout is an investigation into Englishness - much needed in light of the political shift rightwards. This is not an England of wretched nationalism, but an account that draws from the people and communities themselves, the love, hardship, and eccentricity.
Three key sets are Gazelle Twin, Modern Ritual, and Shirley Collins. Gazelle Twin arrives in tracksuit-come-pagan attire, streaked with St George's colours that invoke very ancient tribalism but all too modern concerns. A live recorder is heavily treated, whatever quaint connotations that instrument may have feel irrelevant next to Gazelle Twin's maximal beats and garbled gutter croon. Upcoming album 'Pastoral' is played in full, tackling the way community and identity have been distorted for far right means. It's an uncomfortable but urgent set, the fact that judgement is not passed as such makes it all the more disturbed.
Modern Ritual is not an event you can imagine taking place at many UK festivals beside Supersonic, one of the many reasons why the festival's continued existence is so necessary. It's a set comprised of two writers and three musicians. Jennifer Lucy Allan (The Wire, The Quietus) gives a talk on the history of the foghorn, fifteen second fragments of information are delivered between each burst of foghorn, the colossal sound both funny and slightly unnerving. Where Allan's talk centered on the sea, Luke Turner (The Quietus) explores our messy relationship with woodlands, discussing his own unsuccessful attempts to find solace within them, but also the radical opportunities they open for those whose sexuality has not been historically permitted.
Equally too do the three musicians puncture the imagination. Hoofus electronically blurs the distinction between harmony and disharmony, great screeching walls of digital clatter, pain and bliss felt in equal measure. Laura Cannell is one of the weekends true highlights, her violin style of gnarled scrapes and utter beauty, then recorder playing that, like Gazelle Twin, salvages the early instrument from the twee associations its been stuck with. Finally, Charles Hayward (This Heat, Camberwell Now) performs a gargantuan thirty minute drum roll, the repetition causing a trance like stasis that was admittedly cut off after fifteen minutes due to time constraints.
With her music, Shirley Collins draws from a wealth of ancient folk songs, extracting herself and allowing the tales to speak for themselves. Her set culminates the weekend, and although her investigation into the history of traditional song - aided with live Morris dancer accompaniment - could potentially clash with this festival of atonal bother and belligerent noise, it makes a wonderful kind of sense.
These are not songs whose meanings diminish, their truth becomes more apparent with each passing year, decade, century even. Leaving Collins' performance, there's an undeniable sense that Supersonic is incomparable to any other UK music festival.
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Words: Eden Tizard
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