Birmingham’s Supersonic, that compact but perfectly realised gathering which The Quietus have designated ‘the mother of British underground festivals’, returned live to central Brum last weekend after a two year COVID hiatus and, judging by the final day, readily reclaimed its deserved touchstone status.
Revered but relatively conspicuous in the festival furore, Supersonic is not otherwise renowned for proceeding quietly. It’s an event that celebrates gradations of loudness and experimentation through the medium of guitars and electronics. You could box it up lazily as focusing on doom metal, slow core or noise rock but that limits the sweep of Supersonic’s well established endeavours. It’s a festival that for the past sixteen years has diligently championed the riff end of Wire magazine and low-fi post-punk electronics from rock’s industrial enclave, embellishing such shadowy margins with an artful multi-media flourish. A community exists around it, a music crowd seeking discovery rather than some predictable homogenous party. Having already consumed the likes of The Bug, Follakzoid, Old Man Gloom, Bismuth and Holy Tongue through Day One and Two, you might think that the energy could be flagging by Sunday but no. It might have been baking pavements in Digbeth but this was one group of people not seeking the chill out.
It was up to A.A. Williams to bring the curtain up on the darkened interiors of The Mill stage with her heavily cloaked swirl of gothic shoegaze. Tougher and more aggressively toned than her emotive post classical/post rock debut Forever Blue, the set signalled a sonic rush forward in the singer/songwriter’s dramatic evolution. The dovetailing of her soaring vocal with the drilled staccato lead guitar tingled every watching spine while the snare crack whipped up an infectious ceremonial sway. Unveiling new material from the soon come, well Octoberish, As The Moon Rests release, it felt like A.A. was stomping that stiletto heel right into the place Anna Calvi may have vacated.
Over on Supersonic’s main stage for 22, amongst the flaking girders and corrugated roof of 7SVN, Lorena Quintanilla a.k.a. J. Zunz charged her Sunday assembly with a shock of deviant beat electronica. With announcements in short supply, it’s worth guessing that it was Alberto Gonzalez her buddy from the cult Guadalajaran electro-psyche agitators ‘Lorelle Meets The Obsolete’ providing rhythmics and drums but don’t shoot the messenger. What’s less contentious was the visceral impact of a set that blew the haunted atmospherics of her recordings away with a series of driven punk techno workouts. Nina and Liminal defiantly raised their bpm while the Quintanilla’s wrenching guitar on Outsides almost snapped with tension. The closing epic drone based around a throbbing Horizonte reached near shamanistic levels of reeling repetition.
Big l Brave scaled similar peaks of mesmeric intensity at 7SVN, the Montreal trio digging deep to plunge near to early era Swans slowest core. They projected furiously, their welded sound wrought around the density of founder members’ Robin Wattie and Matthieu Ball’s guitar swell and the crisp incision of Tasy Hudson’s drum shocks. Wattie’s unflustered vocal rose above it all, part banshee, part beauty bringing as ever a beam of clarity to Big l Brave’s songs. Although Abating The Incarnation Of Matter jabbed with particular lashing synchronicity the whole set, drawn primarily from the Vital album, consistently astonished, at times achieving melodic heights worthy of Low, at others unwinding hypnotically like some subterranean raga.
Onstage Wattie had compared playing at Supersonic to ‘coming home’ and you could feel why. Here is a festival that dismantles any heavy rock cliché and ignores posture to focus on welcome and acceptance. Perhaps on Sunday Divide And Dissolve were the band that most encapsulated the Supersonic spirit. The Melbourne duo’s cataclysmic creation, forthright, phenomenal and uncoiling from guitarist/sax player Takiaya Reed’s lyrical horn introductions defined a no-boundaries experience. It’s molten music, Reed’s sonorous chords, seared with feedback, flowing between the Marshall stacks while Sylvie Nehill’s percussive pounding burns definition into the sound. Time spent with Divide And Dissolve may often feel extreme but it’s not without context. Between songs Reed provided an articulate polemic, maybe falling on already empathic ears at Supersonic but powerful none the less and indicative of how far the community around the heaviest of music is defiantly confronting personal and political oppression together.
Similarly passionate and politicised Jerusalem In My Heart marked a return to the festival as curators and performers at the Mill’s evening session. Multi-instrumentalist Radwan Ghazi Moumneh and film-maker/projectionist Erin Weisgerber forge a stunning deconstruction of traditional Lebanese/Palestinian expressionism with angered electronics and psychedelic electro- acoustic layers. Witnessing the duo present their remarkable Qalaq material live brought further confirmation of the significance of their music. There was an eerie physicality about the performance with Weisgerber’s looping super- eights framing Radwan’s restless figure as he twirled between synths, gizmos, pedals and buzuk. At one point as he crept spiderlike over the monitors, growling prayer lines over a degenerating soundscape you could sense to audience huddle a little closer. It was an unsettling and unforgettable forty five minutes.
It was left to Supersonic stalwart Richard Dawson to close the festival, teaming up with Finnish heavy progressives Circle to reconnect with the uplifting audacity of their Henki song book. It was canny programming bringing a warm glow to sustain the ‘soon be Monday’ crowd. Dawson was certainly in his element, hair down and falsetto fully primed, basking in the melodic muscle and tangible tightness of Circle’s sixth sense. There is too much authenticity and invention in the music that the partnership have created to label it pastiche but yes there was genuine head banging, fist punching and crossing of raised guitars. Silene and Lily sounded even fresher than you thought possible and the band’s closing version of Martha and The Muffins Echo Beach sent us tumbling more than happy into the after-midnight streets.
A little gem with a mighty message, Supersonic seeks to make you smile, think and extend – it was a genuine mission accomplished.