Custard Factory, Birmingham 21st-23rd October 2011
Friday: I arrived at the charmingly subterranean cure for happiness that is Birmingham New Street station at 6pm and after paying 30 pence for a piss I got in a taxi and checked in at the Paragon minutes later. Out of my window blue and red neon punctuated a dark silver skyline of cold enormous cylinders and tower blocks that reared up past a quarter mile of corrugated roofed warehouses and garages. One small and neat row of trees in front of the hotel was the only green visible. Hippy nightmare. Yet without this dystopia of concrete brutalism the world would have no Godflesh, Napalm Death or Black Sabbath. Depressing environment – inspirational music. That’s the trade-off. Nothing so remotely pivotal has ever emerged from the fair Georgian crescents and tea shops of England’s finest and wealthiest cities.
After a grisly and delicious chicken kebab in Digbeth I went to see Slabdragger. Wa hey! A crowd hungry for rhythm and riffs got a steaming death-dollop of wholesome down-tuned buggery. The supernaturally quirky Sam Thredder led his twitching rhythm section through a rigorous sonic yoga, building muscular riff walls with pure heavy rock precision and perspiring determination. In particular hats off to the simultaneous vocal attack of Sam and Yusuf. Lovely stuff. Cracking numbers like ‘Splice The Mainbrace’ pleased my reptile brain stem no end. This was a heavy and charging rhino-bastard of a set, mostly culled from their excellent debut album, and like the crowd, I liked it very much indeed. Unfortunately the more bottom-end riff chunks tended to be buried in a monotone mud that didn’t quite do them justice. That’s what you get when you use electricity.
Over to Stage 2 to see what all this bloody Part Chimp fuss is about. Yeah I can see why, although this hoary old cunt (me) isn’t particularly buying it. Indie sludge is the intentionally disparaging genre label I’ve chosen to describe what I heard here. Undoubtedly competent and thunderously persuasive in their insistent application of forceful chord sequences, PC are bone fide crowd pleasers that bite deep with their churning pseudo-shoe-gaze. Something is too politely calculated and refined about their affluent Home Counties post-rock though. As a band they seem too tall and confident, too well dressed and educated. I want freaks. They would’ve done well at Reading circa 1992.
Like a curious moth I fluttered over to the rock and roll light that shines from a seasoned hardcore legend like this next chap. Mike Watt & The Missingmen were unfortunately not the Minutemen. Mike’s voice was reassuringly Beefheartian and he and his little band went for it and gave good. Like most of the audience I was completely unfamiliar with the material, and like most of the audience my mind wandered away first, and then so did my body. The songs seemed to be overly punctuated by Mike’s growling semi-spoken vocals and never quite got going. The bass playing was, of course, astoundingly dexterous, but that couldn’t save it. I quickly became bored. People wandered off into the barbecue smoke outside. I followed them. Sorry Mike. I wanted Italian meatballs in a bap.
Cloaks were fucking intense maaan. They drew me in slowly and with cunning, playing on the Salford skunk that was looping round my neurons. I started to talk less to those I was stood with, and started to listen more to the two evil geeks plugged into laptops on the stage. I won’t use the word ‘dark’ although I just did. Their vile and feverish insectoid sounds intertwined with snatches of nasty throbbing beats and conjured up a sickening soundtrack for a new and vastly more paranoid version of ‘The Naked Lunch’. This was very loud in the kind of insidious way that permeates every cell in your feeble body. One of the highlights of the weekend was the rippling tsunami of ultra low frequency bass that Cloaks dropped in about 10 minutes into their set. The audience were literally HIT. Smiles and ‘fucking ‘ell’s all-round as we realised we had just been assaulted by a genuine sonic attack. It was also intriguing to observe the psychological manipulation of the punters (like myself) who were drawn from an initially chatting and disparate mass to silent and targeted individuals being pulled towards the front of the stage. Like a call to secular prayer by mind terrorists from the future. Having witnessed Cloaks aural malignancy before I knew this was going to scare me, but tonight they surpassed themselves. By the way, what are these people actually doing on their laptops when they play live? I reckon they’re checking their frigging hotmail. And looking at porn.
It would have to be the one man legion of skin-pounding carp-fishing extremity known as Mick Harris who would take such violence even further. Scorn kicked out bass frequencies that were too much for the audience. Not healthy. At such volume tissue begins to break down irrevocably. Noses and ears bleed as if in the presence of a towering psychic force. If Cloaks were a soundtrack to the junk-warped mind of Burroughs, then Mr. Harris as Scorn made me know what it is to be targeted by Revok in ‘Scanners’. Twitching with adrenalized hatred, nasty man Harris dropped in bass frequencies that are normally reserved for special military experiments. Scorn – how aptly named. This was spite and malevolence masquerading as ‘electronic music/dub’. The visuals were perfect too, although I had my own. Jesus Christ pop-riveted to a great rust streaked crucifix of Black Country steel girders. My head has been raped.
Saturday: after the disorientating juxtaposition of wandering around a dreary and hideous market in the city centre and then devouring tartlets and bagels off a white grand piano at a beautifully serene press party, I was more than ready for some band to hook me into their sound world. Orthodox were that band. Taking the afternoon stage with aplomb, they were the surprise hit of the festival for me. Massive doom-driven power propelled this proficient trio to hypnotic heights of cavernous alt-rock. Recalling trance-masters Om more closely than any other influence, Orthodox drilled the living fuck out of their instruments and wooed a crowd weaned on Sleep and Melvins. Jazz-inflected in parts due to the rollicking drum fills and fluid bass patterns, this hairy Spanish band sung in a language that didn’t seem to be Spanish or Latin or Basque, yet also seemed to be all three (yes I do realise Basque speakers do not live anywhere near Seville). The singer’s monkish and medieval half-chants weaved betwixt searing guitar and gnarly Lemmy-on-dope bass lines and I was not alone in exclaiming my delight at discovering a new band (yep, I know they’ve been around for a bit) whose records I wanted to own. Me impresiono mucho.
After ten slightly dull minutes of watching Teeth Of The Sun doing little electronic coughs and bleeps in time to furious live percussion (I felt it was all a bit pointless), I went to see Bardo Pond play their fine psychedelic rock. A band that I love to listen to at home, they didn’t quite cut it in comparison to their records, mainly due to the fact that many of the micro-subtleties of their layered textures were lost amidst the macho restrictions of a too-loud and all-encompassing PA. Nevertheless this was an interesting show. Vocalist and flautist Isobel Sollenberger was an engaging performer in a washed-out and fucked-up-ever-so-slightly in a glamorous kinda way, leaning on her mike stand and wistfully throwing half lidded glances at the guitarists. Guitars were indeed gorgeous and aplenty: great swathes of fuzzed-out Neil Young-plays-Weld feedback. Yet the dynamics of sound and tempo were not quite there for an early Saturday evening performance and I sensed a Sunday spot would have been better placed for such an indolent and deliciously lazy sound.
I took myself over to tight confines of The Old Library, positioning myself amidst a small crowd of well dressed art and media students (I was of course entirely conspicuous), in order to catch some Kogumaza. Not bad. They’re two guitarists and a percussionist from Nottingham who build up slowly on scratchy stratas of fractured riffs and minimal drums. Their sound is unfortunately marred for me by the needless inclusion of loops and samples of percussion layered over the live drumming. Why bother? A three piece would be better left alone to their own organic devices without the insertion of trendy fucking digital interference. Electronics have their place. When the tinny blips and squeaks override live drums and punctuate fluid guitar riffs then it’s time to sack the invisible fourth member and forge on ahead.
Wolves In The Throne Room are a very hip band who have so far evaded my attention (because I’m not hip?), due of course to the fact that they seem to be featured in all the magazines that matter. When this happens I feel compelled to stay away until the fuss is over. What can I say? Taken at face value, irrespective of music press analysis, they are a very competent black metal band. I enjoyed them – they were heavy in a frantically strummed minor chord and pulverisingly blurred drumming kind of way – the way that other black metal bands are heavy. In the festival context of an arts-inspired weekend like Supersonic they worked well, counterbalancing the short haired people with laptops and the long haired people with low slung guitars. Good old fashioned black metal, but with some contemporary touches. They’ve not invented anything new though. It’s just that they’re North American and educated and therefore a little ironic, instead of Scandinavian and stuck in a decade passed by and mindlessly retreading pagan-metal clichés. I do prefer old Bathory albums though.
I only managed to catch the first two numbers by Finland’s fantastic Pharaoh Overlord but this still amounted to 20 minutes. Within seconds of the opening bar I recognised the introduction to Spacemen 3’s glorious monochord dirge ‘Revolution’ (probably better known by the heavier Mudhoney cover). PO were charismatic and theatrical performers of the classic minimal drug-rock drone, striking brilliantly static poses whilst shifting their cold fingers between two notes for quite some time. Again the projected graphics added much to the show, and I would’ve dearly loved to stay, but I did have a date with a certain seminal band who are always worth watching in all their volume-drenched entirety.
And so I wedged in down the front to watch my perennial favourites Electric Wizard. Not so much a band as the continued concept of one man who increasingly resembles John Belushi dressed as Ozzy Osbourne circa 1969, Wizard always thrill me with their peerless and beautifully primitive horror-soaked drug-metal. Quite simply they still have the best riffs in terms of sheer doom. This is entirely due to a consistently inventive use of tri-tone variations to evoke gothic horror imagery coupled with a sophisticated awareness of true heavy metal heaviness resulting from said tri-tonic shifts. Put that in your bong and smoke it. Other bands utilise such devices, but none so successfully as these misanthropic fuckers. Oh and what a treat to hear Jus unleash the opening notes to ‘Dopethrone’ as the crowd starts to fill the hall! NONE IS HEAVIER. I looked around at the gurning audience and saw hundreds engaged in the synchronised head nodding and fist banging of he/she who truly prays at the altar of the riff. What other bands achieved such FUN this weekend?
The Wizard sound is 1960s Anglo-Italian horror-laced erotica in the form of simple heavy rock and roll. The classics spewed out like the black vomit of a possessed Barbara Steele: ‘Witchcult Today’; ‘Satanic Rites of Drugula’; ‘Return Trip’ and even two off the disliked (not by me) new album: ‘The Nightchild’ and ‘Black Mass’, which both sounded superb. The new bassist and drummer sounded crisp, attacking and very well-drilled, the latest in a long-ish line of rhythm sections. Where have Taz and Shaun Rutter gone? Sacrificed to the goat-faced lord of the forest no doubt. The set ended with the towering head-zapping might of ‘Funeralopolis’ and I don’t care if this band have been going too long or are past their zenith. Those who argue such a line miss the point. Electric Wizard are like the Ramones, the Misfits, Kraftwerk, Black Sabbath etc. They are fiendishly simple conceptual rock and therefore eternal in their appeal. A one-trick pony that benefits from being just that. Less is often so much more.
20 minutes of Zombi next. Like many cerebral bands, I think they are more of a home listening experience than a real live band, although I obviously still dug their John Carpenter meets Goblin and fucks up Tangerine Dream analogue funk. Of particular interest was A. E. Paterra’s splendid ‘kit work’. One for the percussion nerds for sure, he deftly punished his polished drums like a late 1970s top ten session drummer employed in lucrative studio contracts for movie soundtracks. Zombi’s appearance at Supersonic is a good example of why this little festival works so well. Alongside the dubstep, black metal, hardcore and psychedelic rock, cool postmodern stuff like this is perfectly appreciated and therefore perfectly placed. Yes I said postmodern. Get over it. They fucking are. Decidedly un-hip virgins with really big specs, well brushed hair and Commodore 64’s used to listen to similar music back in the early 1980s. Tellingly, that description of someone called Nigel or Tim now sounds very cool. Regardless of the sociological analysis, Zombi were very good indeed.
Over to the other stage to see France’s answer to misery mongers like Khanate, Moss and Corrupted; the splendid and semi-legendary Monarch. And splendid they were, with a line-up that included Dark Castle’s Rob Shaffer on drums and of course resident shriek-queen of Gallic angst Emilie Bresson. Monarch have been criticised by some for merely aping the sounds of similar bands who have been around longer but if that has been true in the past then they certainly showed their detractors the middle finger tonight. The night after Scorn had waged war on feeling healthy and adjusted, my poor fucking inner ears were tortured again – frighteningly powerful waves of super-low-end throb made me curl my lobes over my ear plugs to stop any bass getting in at all. Well done Monarch – you were very bloody loud and very bloody heavy. I was glad to get to my hotel room and rest my wounded ears.
Sunday: bloody Sunday. The vibes felt good today. The punters were more chilled and less totalled. Ale had been quaffed and drugs had been swallowed and inhaled and consequently the festival crowd had a more subdued and hung-over feel. Earlier on I had been baulking at the horror of Birmingham city centre again (huge piles of pavement vomit and ‘architecture’ that seems to be a punishment to the citizens of this city). I was amazed that the only pre-1960s edifice in Brum city centre seemed to be poor little St.Martin’s church near The Bullring, which looked like a fragile Scarlett Johansson surrounded by massive naked Ann Widdecombes the size of Cthulhu. No offence if you love this city but the buildings and lay-out are simply a vicious governmental insult to the proletariat. Growing up in the east midlands I can remember visiting Brum in the 1970s and feeling scared and depressed then. The odd gig in the 1980s seemed to have taken the focus away from the ugliness, but having returned in my forties for a simple weekend break such as this, I am gobsmacked by the unloveliness of this city centre. Brum inhabits a special aesthetic hell that is also shared by places like Vladivostok, Cumbernauld and Bhopal (after the accident). Still, as I said at the start, it’s perfect for heavy riffs, nasty grindcore and bleak industrial metal. Cheers Birmingham!
Once in The Custard Factory I ambled off to see a few pleasant minutes of some blokes with cans of lager called Modulate brewing up some right bleeping and burping behind two laptops, and then feeling like I was on too much of an early 90s comedown, flipped off to check out the superb psychedelic sounds of Eternal Tapestry. Duelling guitar mantras spat, twisted and coiled like silver-plated mind-vipers, packing out the four corners of the hall with the cosmic white heat of a lysergic apocalypse blah blah blah (you know the routine – sound off like Tom Wolfe/William Burroughs about tantric sex/deserts/bikers/eyes in pyramids/mescaline/tangerines etc). Needless to say, they were right trippy and very very good. ‘I would like to see them in a small club headlining their own show’ I thought to myself in an internal dialogue kind of way. Then I said this out loud. No one could hear me. Beautiful.
I really fancied catching the lone hardcore band of the weekend, so I made it over to see Selfless – Brummy born and bred with suitably incoherent accents (because they spoke very fast, like their music). They blasted through their entire album in about 20 minutes. Then Kerrang! DJ Johnny Doom joined them at the end for a HC knees-up. Plenty of wallop and enthusiasm but was it just an exercise in recapturing the excitement of the late eighties for blokes who missed it the first time around? The idea of hardcore taken out of the leftist/anarchist scene it was once part of and transplanted into a cynical and media-savvy setting like The Old Library at Supersonic somehow rendered Selfless’s set as hollow and lacking in significance. It seemed like an exercise in the ironic recreation of Birmingham’s HC and grindcore past. They were a good band but something just didn’t gel. I think that is the limitation of such a self-consciously hip event like Supersonic – like its audience it is too knowing. To reinforce this point the crowd were strangely muted. I think they were embarrassed by the literal nature of political hardcore. Maybe Selfless felt it too. Anyway, I’d like to see them detonate in a little boozer like The Star & Garter. Far more suited to a beery pub gig than an international arts and music fest.
I caught the last part of Drum Eyes frenetic set of fizzing electro-cacophony that circled around the attention deficits of the prolific DJ Scotch Egg (underpinned by two drummers, one of whom used to be in Boredoms – a fact that actually made me go and see them) then I settled myself at Stage 2 for a band I missed last year – Barn Owl. Basically this was Sunn 0))) and Earth with a difference. I think the difference was that they weren’t Sunn 0))) and Earth. Okay, so it’s been done before. It didn’t stop me really enjoying this haunting and uber loud example of what you can do with two guitars, a shit load of effects and super sized amps. I would have liked to have sat down at this point with a tartan rug on my knees and a cheese toastie. Standing up and shifting my weight from one leg to another and then to both legs at once and then back again whilst supping cold bitter was beginning to wear thin. It was distracting me from Barn Owl’s lovely noise. So I went to get a samosa and a cup of tea in the marketplace.
After watching iconAclass lay down the beats (good to hear some hip hop, although I sensed nearly everyone tired of the rapping after a couple of numbers, including myself) I sauntered over to see the legendary avant-garde artist Tony Conrad (apparently he was the owner of the cheap novel called ‘The Velvet Underground’ that prompted Reed and Cale to name their new band in 1965). This man has been around. But tonight he was in Birmingham, standing in front of a fetching moonlit sky backdrop and coaxing tortured strains from his electric violin. An originator, along with others, of droning meditative music, Tony (as I call him) whipped up a sound not dissimilar (unsurprisingly) to the eerie noises produced by John Cale on his viola way back with the Velvet Underground. It was good. The small crowd left were appreciative.
And that is where my story ends…until next year…I’m tired…thanks to Lauren Barley and Lee Edwards especially for making it possible for me to write all these fucking words…I still liked Electric Wizard best…adios.
Scribed by: Adam Stone
Photos by: Lee Edwards