It’s grim up North, so thank goodness for SuperSonic, Birmingham’s perfectly formed festival that manages to shrink the diversity of an ATP-sized event into an inner-city arts complex.
Music venues the world over tend to go for fanciful over function when it comes to names, but Birmingham’s Custard Factory wears its history on its sleeve. A five acre complex of factories once employed by Sir Alfred Bird in the making of the aforementioned yellow goo, it now serves as a home to countless artists and workshops.
It’s also the abode of Capsule, the dynamic duo behind much of Birmingham’s contemporary music scene, and SuperSonic, their yearly festival, is now five years old. What with everyone and his mum at musicOMH off to Spain for Benicassim, Summercase and very probably some sunshine too, some poor fool had to exchange the seaside for the biryanis and bleakness of Brum, so… here I am.
And, as if by magic, some major train problems mean that I arrive extremely late for SuperSonic’s first night on Friday. To add insult to injury, the rain is coming down like a grey curtain, forcing me to choose quickly between different stages; I end up shouldering my way into the Medicine Bar to catch Wolf Eyes. Initially, it feels like I’ve exchanged one curtain for another; the room is packed full of wet, moshing bodies, and the Michigan trio, drenched in red and blue light, are working their way through great slabs of rough noise. It’s music that has the power to effortlessly exclude people, but there’s something about its tactile quality that has thrilled me ever since I first listened to Lou Reed‘s Metal Machine Music. Every hair on my body tingles, my skin ripples with squealing feedback, and to top it all there’s even a stage invasion by some gangly weird-beard who attempts to trash the guitarist’s rig before being removed. Ok, so I missed Kid 606 and Monarch, but I retire happy, if damp.
Saturday inexplicably dawns to bright sunshine, and SuperSonic, as if adapting to its new environment, is a distinctly different beast today. While Friday’s lineup was limited to the evening, Saturday boasts a full-on 12 hours of tantalising weirdness, spanning all the way from 4 in the afternoon to 4 in the morning. In the brightness of the afternoon I’m able to appreciate the layout of the festival more; bands are split between three stages, the intimate Medicine Bar, the industrial Arches Stages, and the Outside stage which is, well, outside. Grabbing a welcome Red Bull and vodka, I begin with Strings of Consciousness.
The French ensemble have a total of 13 members on paper, and at SuperSonic I count between five and seven of them onstage at once, playing a dense art-rock reminiscent of bands on Canada’s Constellation label like Fly Pan Am and A Silver Mount Zion. They’re intriguing, never boring, but miss being essential: there’s just something ‘bottom of the bill’ about their performance today. It’s music best heard at night while you’re waiting for the dawn, and Birmingham’s brightness does nothing to enhance its mystique.
Next up on the Outside Stage are Shady Bard, whose mannered melancholy similarly fails to ignite the bright summer air. The band’s debut album From The Ground Up is certainly worth your time if you’re a fan of the cultured chamber-pop typified by iLiKETRAiNS’ quieter moments, but live they elicit the odd cry of ‘boring’ from the crowd. Unfair, but they’ve still to perfect their stage-craft and find some much needed intensity to go along with their strident environmental messages.
Time for some full-on bonkersness, and Miasma & the Carousel of Headless Horses have that in spades. It’s hard not to warm to a band who come on stage with white, fright-mask like make-up on, and sport a keyboard player whose laptop proudly displays a sticker that shouts ‘EVIL’ in foot-high letters. The band play the kind of music that would have David Lynch turning in his grave if he was dead: the weird whiff of the carnie, the grinning loon of the Victorian madhouse, all wrapped up in screeching violin and shredding guitar. It’s just what I needed after the earlier bands; some honest-to-goodness inbred insanity, and I feel oddly cleansed.
Cleansed enough, that is, to catch a quick slice of Tunng, who have a winning way with the crowd, effortlessly bullshitting through some equipment problems with a story grabbed from the pages of The Guardian, of all places. It’s tempting to brand the band as typical of that paper’s readership, but that would a little untrue: they may have more than a whiff of a 21st century Levellers about them, but there’s little of that band’s po-faced posturing. Instead we get sweet pop melodies wrapped in electronic beeps and whistles, songs built around grooves; little brothers and sisters to the likes of Four Tet and Adem.
Next, I managed to catch some of Beestung Lips‘ set, and am mightily impressed; taut, noisy, faintly melodic, tighter than a teenager’s waistline. Young and energetic, the band race through their set, leaving big grins on the small crowd jammed into the Medicine Bar. However, they are merely the aperitif to my main reason for being here: San Francisco’s Oxbow, or, as they’re billed tonight, Oxbow present ‘The Love’s Holiday Orchestra’. Instead of their usual guitar, bass and drums lineup, tonight the band are represented by vocalist Eugene Robinson and guitarist Niko Wenner, although they take the stage in front of a squashed and heaving Medicine Bar with an additional cellist.
The roar from the crowd when the distinctive bluesy chords of Geometry of Business sang out was incredible, and Wenner and Robinson seemed to feed off the energy in the audience. The next 60 or so minutes were testament to how good stripped-down rock music can be; Wenner, a skinny dervish, hunched over his guitar, and Robinson, slowly losing pieces of his suit in his usual teasing display of unconscious invitation. For the final track, an extended jam which seemed to be modelled around the final track from 2002′s An Evil Heat, the band were joined by various guests; Justin Broadrick of Napalm Death and Jesu, Dave Cochrane, and Stephen O’Malley of fellow festival-goers Sunn O))). As Robinson left the stage we were treated to a truly unique collaboration, which finally left only Wenner, clinging to his acoustic in a miasma of sound. Teeth-clenchingly, lip-curlingly good.
The rest of the festival was dominated by the big guns: how to choose between Mogwai and Sun O)))? Mogwai took the stage a little after their scheduled time, and I almost went to wait for Sun. I’m glad that I didn’t: this set rekindled my love for the band. Manging to find time for recent favourites like Hunted By A Freak as well as old friends like Small Children in the Background, this felt like the Mogwai mix-tape from heaven. As the night ended in a long squall of feedback, there were a lot of happy faces in the crowd, and in general it was a joy to see bands with so many like-minded people. This time, SuperSonic had a welcoming home-made feel to it, but it won’t be like this for long, so if you’re looking to ensure that you see next year’s lineup of fools and freaks, I’d ensure you check for tickets early next year. SuperSonic 2007 was a complete success – roll on 2008.