Words by Helen Knott / Pics by Michelle Martin
Capsule’s Supersonic Festival, held in Birmingham every year for the past thirteen, has established itself as one of the most critically acclaimed experimental music and arts festivals in the world.
But don’t just take my word for it. For The Times, Supersonic is, ‘a celebration of the expressive, challenging and generally out there’. The Quietus thinks it’s, ‘perennially ace’, and for Drowned in Sound it’s, ‘mind-expanding and culturally life-changing’. This 2015 edition of the festival has plenty to live up to.
Proceedings began at Town Hall on Thursday evening, with The Will Gregory Moog Ensemble – a tribute to the inventor of the classic synthesiser, featuring members of Portishead and Goldfrapp. Since the opening concert there has been a Supersonic Kids Gig, a series of art happenings around the city and a whole heap of performances on Friday night by artists including post-Punk pioneers The Pop Group.
My Supersonic 2015 experience begins late on Saturday afternoon at Boxxed, a warehouse space in Digbeth that, along with The Crossing, has replaced The Custard Factory as Supersonic’s home for 2015.
On the surface, Circuit Des Yeux is just a person playing folk music on an acoustic guitar, but as you might expect, it’s so much more complicated than that. The person in question, Haley Fohr, begins the set with neat finger picking work that quickly explodes into distorted, passionate guitar passages.
The music is emotional and introspective; Fohr spends her set singing from behind a curtain of hair. But what a voice. She has a striking Baritone, and uses vibrato to create an unusual timbre that growls in the lower registers and rings sweetly in the upper.
Copenhagen’s Selvhenter is an instrumental collective that use drums, saxophone, trombone and violin to create a Jazz infused experimental sound. The listener’s attention in the improvised, experimental sections is rewarded with pleasing Rock outs, in a manner reminiscent of Spiritualised. Their performance is always surprising and quite frequently much noisier than you would expect from this collection of instruments; the trombone in particular, somehow distorted, sounds utterly demented.
Portland’s Eternal Tapestry reportedly recorded their latest album, Wild Strawberries, in a remote cabin in Oregon, sleeping under the stars and rolling around in nature. And the music has a certain feeling of hippie-psychedelia; it’s slow burning and dreamy, but well structured and moves with purpose. Keyboard drones mix with simple guitar melodies, primal drums and barely audible shoegaze vocals that, for the most part, punctuate some straightforward post Rock songs towards the end of the set.
Liima is the new band of Efterklang members: MadsBrauer, Casper Clausen, Rasmus Stolberg, and Finnish percussionist, Tatu Rönkkö; a live improvisation project, Rönkkö’s percussion forms the backbone around which synthesized sounds, guitar and processed vocals are free to explore. The result is essentially first-rate Scandinavian pop music; a little more experimental than ABBA, but no less joyful.
Sound artist Holly Herndon is ‘so hot right now’, recently collecting a series of unanimously glowing reviews following the release of her second album, Platform. Her set at Supersonic feels as much a video installation as a performance of music, with the accompanying visuals exploring issues of surveillance, technology and the body.
While the music itself, full of twitches and glitches, may sound like Pop made by robots from the future, the video focuses on softer, more organic matter. It’s an odd juxtaposition; Herndon takes the packed audience on a fractured journey, presenting ideas that are political, thought provoking and sometimes even amusing.
Supersonic’s Saturday night headline set sees Dylan Carlson, of instrumental drone metal band Earth, and techno artist Kevin Martin (The Bug) perform together as The Bug vs Dylan Carlson for the very first time. This meeting of two legends of the heavy music scene produces exactly the type of sound that you would expect: dark, heavy and slow, ambient guitar noise interacting with subtle beat shifts. It’s powerful music that envelops your mind and body, with bass so loud you can feel it vibrating in the very depths of your chest.
So did Supersonic 2015 live up to the hype? It certainly felt a little different to previous years, with a change in venue and a slight shift in programming from Metal to Electronica. But the Capsule born and raised festival still holds its singular character, with talks, market stalls and cakes creating the usual friendly atmosphere – feeling distinctively from and of Birmingham in a way that’s hard to quantify.
Most importantly, year after year Supersonic maintains its bravery, spirit of adventure and openness to new experiences. And that is why, in 2015 – nearly a decade and a half since the first act was booked, this annual Birmingham event is still venerated as one of the most pertinent festivals on the planet.
For more on Supersonic Festival, including archives of previous events, visit http://www.supersonicfestival.com/
For more on Capsule, visit http://www.capsule.org.uk/
For more on Circuit Des Yeux, visit http://circuitdesyeux.com/
For more on Selvhenter, visit https://www.facebook.com/pages/Selvhenter/177892536719
For more on Eternal Tapestry, visit http://www.thrilljockey.com/thrill/Eternal-Tapestry/#.VX8-5vlViko
For more from Liima, visit https://www.facebook.com/liimaband
For more on Holly Herndon, visit http://www.hollyherndon.com
For more from Dylan Carlson, visit http://www.drcarlsonalbion.com/
For more from The Bug, visit https://www.facebook.com/thebugofficialpage