Stephanie Burgess reviews this experimental music festival currently celebrating its 15th anniversary. It remains a festival that creates a space for the music fan to escape any notion of ‘mainstream’ and take a personal journey of sonic discovery and enlightenment…
Supersonic Festival celebrated its 15th edition this summer. The festival - whose main site each year takes up spaces in what were once industrial units in Birmingham’s Digbeth district - advertises itself as a festival ‘for curious audiences’. Curated by a team mainly made up of women, my curiosity was spurred, and, as a music fan who actively seeks out new sounds, I was excited by the number of acts on the bill that I had never even heard of.
Friday night headliners, Godflesh and Neurosis, were bands I’d listened to since the mid-1990s and I’d even caught Neurosis’ Scott Kelly on stage with Mastodon on their tour last January.
“It’s pretty unusual for Neurosis to play outside of London, so we’re really pleased to have them on the bill,'' Supersonic’s artistic director Lisa Meyer had told me. “And with the 15th edition of Supersonic coinciding with the 50th anniversary of Black Sabbath celebrations, I think that they are excited to be playing here on the same stage that Sabbath have played many times.”
Tsunami of Sound
The venue for the opening night this year was the city’s historic Town Hall. Over the years, this venue has played host to the likes of Led Zeppelin, The Who and Thin Lizzy; a 1,200- capacity venue, steeped in rock history, that is a completely sold-out show for Godflesh and Neurosis.
The queue outside, which snaked around the block, was a sign of the night’s impending success before we’d even stepped through the door. There’s expectation in the air as each punter gets filed in and wristbands are issued. Some have just come down for the night, but those who are issued with a red wristband are here for the duration. And what a weekend awaits them.
Noise, noise, and more noise. Godflesh play a hard and heavy set. The whole evening is dark. Godflesh’s lead singer, speaks out to the lighting crew: “More dark, less colour, just blues and spots, I’m the only colour on this stage,” he says pointing at his green anorak. And just when you think it can’t get any louder, Neurosis hit the stage. Neurosis are an overwhelming raucous swell, a sonic tsunami of sound. The audience, which nods in unison to the powerful beats, is mesmerized by the hypnotic quietness, which walks them through an imaginary haunted house at midnight, only for the beast to awaken and jump out at them causing sonic pandemonium.
But the night doesn’t finish with Neurosis’ last chord. A short walk back through town and the festival-goers are congregating around the Digbeth venues. In The Crossing, Hey Colossus are already on stage and the hall is nearly full to capacity. But down the road in The Warehouse venue, mind-warping Savage Realm are about to go on …
The programme warns us that: “Only you the listener can decide whether you are capable of making it out the other side alive … “
Twenty-five minutes later, we’re still standing, but only just. One of the thrashiest, hardest metal bands I’ve seen for a while, they’re up there with Carcass and Napalm Death, for heaviness. A band comprised of male and female members, the female front singer growls deep vocals into the mic as the supercharged, fast heavy riffs take the listener on a “mystic voyage to the future”, where they release, unashamedly, their music; “a cultural artifact of a putrid battle-torn existence”. The night continues with the same heaviness. Doom Metal band, YOB finish the night in The Warehouse while synth duo, Big Lad, bring the night to a close in The Crossing.
Screaming, surrealism and sonorous avant-garde
The only problem with festivals like this is that it is impossible to see everyone. Then again, there is such a mixed bag of acts, there’s going to be some acts you love and others that you just won’t get at all. But that’s the beauty of the experimental music offered at Supersonic Festival; it challenges you to get rid of any preconceptions of what music should be and pushes the audience into a sonorous avant-garde. It’s a surrealist painting played out on a conglomeration of instruments, with some artists bringing their own instrumental inventions to the stage, or pushing the boundaries of synthesised music and electronic beats to the limits of inventiveness. Plus, there’s a lot of screaming, because, as artist Aja commented after her Saturday performance: “Screaming is like having a poo. It needs to come out [...] I needed to scream last night,” she said, before encouraging everyone attending her Sunday afternoon talk in the café area of The Crossing to go home and scream into a pillow, recommending it as the best therapy of all.
Maybe that’s why we’re all there. Maybe this music brings us the therapy we are looking for in this mainstream-saturated society; a chance to escape for the weekend into another world, which isn’t always going to offer us a radio-friendly, easy listen. To grow as musicians or music fans, we can’t always take the easy option, we need to hear someone who challenges us, pushes us sonically or philosophically.
As festival goer, Gethen, who I spoke with over the weekend says: “It sets me up with new music for the whole year.”
And actually, you don’t even need to have heard of the bands billed for the weekend. Instead, I would invite you to put your trust in artistic director Lisa to take you on a journey with her hand-picked acts: “The wonderful thing about Supersonic is that you don’t need to be an expert, you may only know one artist on the bill, but then you’ll discover a whole load of new acts,” she told me.
I guarantee that you will have your moment, at some point over the weekend, where you close your eyes and feel the music reverberating through your rib cage. Your whole body will respond; the hairs on the back of your neck will be raised, you will have your ‘Oh, wow!’ moment. I can’t tell you where and when it will happen to you; each festival-goer has their own journey. What I can guarantee though is that it will happen. As well as watching the bands at Supersonic, I also watched the audience and it was instantly recognisable when the music did something to the listener. A nexus between listener and performer, where sound penetrates the psyche, eyes close and then something kicks in; I could see the total physical response; a shudder, a jolt, a smile, and a brightness springing to their eyes as they reopened; reawakened and inspired.
Supersonic started 15 years ago and was originally a one-day event. Curator, Lisa Meyer told me a bit of the background story. “I used to go to DIY festivals but I got a bit bored of the twelve bands on the bill that all sounded the same. I went to Sonar Festival in 2001 and I was blown away. It wasn’t a festival in a field but they were using these interesting spaces within a cityscape.
“It was the first time I’d seen bands like Coil, set against an amazing gothic church; it blew my mind. And so that was a huge influence in terms of where we started with Supersonic. We were able to use The Custard Factory in the early days when it was a bit like the Wild West. We could inhabit those empty spaces and make installations. In that first year, it was a one-day event and we were blown away by the response we got from it. I’ve been doing it ever since. Each year, the festival evolves because I’m always trying to search for the most interesting artists. I always try and put on a line up that will surprise people.”
My personal favourite on Saturday was black feminist punk band, Big Joanie. Although based in London, members Stephanie and Estella are originally from the Midlands and so they easily won the crowd over. Celebrating successes on the back of a support for Bikini Kill, and a tour around Europe with Gossip, lead singer Stephanie told me that it had been a small festival, like Supersonic, down in London that had inspired her to create Big Joanie: “It was trying to get more marginalised people into punk music; that was in 2013 and there weren’t really that many people of colour in the punk scene at the time and we just evolved that. We’ve just really been ourselves since then.''
The stages at Supersonic create a space for diversity and self-expression and actually, it felt that the whole weekend lent itself to celebrating that diversity through music; whether it be a feminist punk band; a Montreal-Beirut contemporary Arabic audio-visual duo (Jerusalem in my Heart); a Japanese power emo band (Mono); a Swedish industrial songwriter (Anna Von Hausswolff); or a New York alternative hip-hop act (Dalek) - the sheer variety of the acts was tangible.
Supersonic is a space for self-expression. Festival goers feel free to wear what they like and be who they are; for the start of Air Loom’s set, one girl is dressed as a mystic beast being guided around on a leash and another man is wearing a balloon on his head. Throughout the weekend I see a girl with her face painted The Crow style, there’s a lot of leather and a lot of band t-shirts, there are fishnet tights and a variety of hair colours and styles. The whole festival encourages ‘free-thinking.’ What the Supersonic team has created here is a community of like-minded individuals, the link between all being an absolute and intense love for music. Lisa told me: “The audience is very much a part of Supersonic; it’s the alchemy of the Act and how the audience responds to it. It’s just about being sociable and meeting like-minded people.”
The eating and drinking areas of the Festival become places people hang out to socialise and it’s not hard to get talking to anyone and everyone. People are talking about music. It’s all about the bands they’ve seen, gigs they’ve been to and the Festival itself. The delicious range of food vans serving Mexican tacos, flame baked pizzas, or mango- or meat-based curries means you hardly have to leave the site during the opening hours. And as the weekend goes on, we see the same faces time and time again and find we’re chatting to everyone.
As Lisa says: “It’s a beautiful mass, both a national and a global community of people who are interested in seeing experimental music.” And by Sunday night, we feel as if we’re leaving friends behind as we wander out of the site and disappear into the warm Birmingham night.
Stephanie Burgess is one of the original riot grrrls, having played in punk bands throughout the ’90s. She currently runs her own fanzine and blog ‘Marina is Red’, which forms part of her postgraduate research into female representation in the Spanish alternative music scene, but also covers Riot Grrrl, Alternative, Punk and Metal bands from across Europe. She is an avid fan of alternative music and has an extensive record collection which ranges from off-the-wall to the downright weird. She can still be found most weekends flicking through the vinyls and CDs at her nearest music shop or at an underground gig.