Supersonic Festival 2023
(Various venues, Digbeth Birmingham. Festival round-up by AJ Dehany)
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Artists/bands covered: un.procedure (Piera Onacko/ Cassie Kinoshi /Nathan England-Jones); Matana Roberts (in absentia); Agathe Max; Jessica Moss; Ondata Rossa; Big | Brave; 75 Dollar Bill; Deerhoof; Ex-Easter Island Head; Lankum; Godflesh; Hey Colossus; Oxbow; Divide & Dissolve; Ashenspire; Backxwash.
Supersonic Festival is a sign of the times in a time of signs. A radical, diverse, inclusive, empowering mindset drives Birmingham’s celebration of heavy music in eclectic forms— the mostly uncategorizable fare beloved of people who read the Wire and the Quietus, listen to Stewart Maconie’s Freak Zone, and go to gigs organised by Cafe Oto and Baba Yaga’s Hut— but it also attracts heads young and old who just want to hear something different.
Supersonic 2023 brought an intensive programme to keep you on your feet bouncing between the bigger 7SVN warehouse venue round the corner from The Mill with its smaller mainstage, Market Place areas and Roof Top Bar, from which at one point someone turned off Tropical Wreck DJs on the native PA speaker so we could watch and hear, without irony, an unrelated festival happening next door at which pop-reggae legend Maxi Priest was playing: a sunshine set of a different kind to Tropical Wreck’s chaotic spin on desert island disc-spinning.
Indeed, while many of the most interest angles were extrapolated from the smaller corners of the festival. Agathe Max and Jessica Moss each played distinctively different sets involving densely layered violin loops, two sides of a Venn of intensive nervous activity and vast glacial soundscapes. These were further extrapolated in Agathe Max’s involvment in Ondata Rossa, a kind of supergroup of improvising composers with a messy loopy incantatory eschatological imperative, while Jessica Moss with trio Big |Brave recall the repetition at scale of Michael Gera’s pioneering group SWANS.
Repetition is the mainstay of US duo 75 Dollar Bill; their bass-and-rhythm-and-lead guitar and insistent polyrhythmic cajon sounds like no-wave afrobeat. People seem to revere them. It is technically better than it sounds but I think I’m the only one who didn’t feel rewarded by the endlessness of it all. For repetition I was much better served by Ex-Easter Island Head, the brilliant Liverpudlian quartet who play their guitars mounted on keyboard stands, tapping and whacking them with sticks. The group’s outstanding angular modernism is achieved by a range of unusual means, sustained over a set that held the main excitement for the last five minutes, but which held the attention throughout. They are the Kraftwerk of musical tactility.
At Supersonic, even the headliners have distinctively skewed takes on the already skewed genres they invoke. Dublin quartet Lankum’s music gave us the deep dark drones common to both contemporary electronica and traditional Irish folk, which made for an alternately spellbinding and visceral reflowing of several mainstreams at once. Similarly, Birmingham duo Godflesh work in the intersection between industrial and metal. Deerhoof, Hey Colossus, and Oxbow, are all stalwart rock bands unafraid to pursue change and difference, who continue to receive rapturous reception at these things.
When I lived in London I often got a cheap train (can you still do that?) up to Birmingham (where Soweto Kinch and Xhosa Cole were formed as musicians) to explore the city’s strong improvisation scene, with gigs ranging from the back room of the Spotted Dog to the plush Town Hall, many organised by legend Tony Dudley-Evans, whose TDE Promotions alongside Fizzle are still packing schedules with first rate art. The redoubtable TDE wrote thoughtfully about Day 1 and Days 2 and 3 of Supersonic. He reflects on a paucity of improvisation, and admittedly it is striking that the pursuit of freedom through making it up as you go along might not be as vital as it was in the Radical Sixties. Maybe the language of improvisation was overwhelmed by the oxymoronic nature of becoming a non-idiomatic idiom.
We love improvisation, but that’s not exactly why you go to Supersonic. You go for the ridiculous feeling of the very air moving during Divide & Dissolve, which is only a duo, but with such a vast sound and such volume that they initiated a raid on earplugs at the bar. Glaswegian anti-fascist anarchist post-black metal group Ashenspire add in saxophone and a captivating frontman, though not as captivating as Backxwash, one of the most impressive rappers I’ve ever seen, with the flamboyance of A$AP Rocky and the artistic credibility and intensity of JPEGMAFIA, wrapped up in a Pierrot-like visual style that emphasises the horror, the horror.
My highlight for improvised music was un.procedure, a Birmingham trio formed in 2021 of Piera Onacko on walls of synths, Cassie Kinoshi on electronically enhanced saxophone, and Nathan England-Jones on drums. Space rock in mode of The Comet Is Coming, they welcomed us along to “the birthplace of this band” performing an intense set drawn from their two EPs un.proecedure and Themory, which has only just been made available on bandcamp. Clearly at this level of volume subtleties and nuances of playing are not in contention, but the new EP is the soundtrack to an audiovisual installation that premiered at Manchester Jazz Festival, and its use of field recordings and abrupt changes of pace might hold they key to how they differentiate themselves in future from the Comet model.
The biggest draw from a creative perspective music, however, was sadly absent from the programme. Just ahead of the release of the fifth instalment of Matana Roberts’ COIN COIN series, Matana was due to bring an AV show of COIN COIN Chapter Three: river run thee but had to cancel at almost literally the last minute following a positive COVID test. I can’t vouch for the venues they had been playing before they arrived, but at 2.06pm the very same day Matana had tweeted about how “[…] performing in room w/ zero ventilation, of mostly unmasked ppl, is still kinda terrifying” and then at 6.53pm (27 minutes before stage time) a photo of a positive COVID test.
Deerhoof had already reminded us of the reality of the risk on Friday, with signs requesting that audience members “mask up”. As well as free ear protectors, free masks had been offered at the wristband exchange, so I could join a minority who actually had a mask to hand at all. We all know it’s real, but we’re all complacent. It’s a whole headache to psychoanalyze.
It’s such a shame because everything about Matana Roberts’ COIN COIN series fits Supersonic so perfectly, intersecting sound art, literature, music, history, and visual material with a vital seriousness. Supersonic 2023 celebrated the festival’s twentieth year, and it is remarkable to look back now in the time of signs, when in an Orwellian stage of enforced arbitrary culture wars, and see how Supersonic was ahead of the game on many fronts. The female-founded festival was up on gender representation long before the Keychange initiative drew attention to ways of trying to achieve gender parity in the music industry. Gender and sexuality find a safe space here. Even such things as metal being taken seriously by electronic musicians, and electronics coming to rock, and the now preponderant but still under-regarded creative economy of solo artists and DJs using electronics to create a huge sound. For organisational problems arising from gentrification, Supersonic is the test case for how to deal with it, and how to do it right. In society and culture, the ongoing backlash against progressivism has made us all suffer. But before the backlash even began, the backlash to the backlash started here— and it started in Birmingham.
AJ Dehany writes independently about music, art and stuff. ajdehany.co.uk