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Ian Wollaston ©

Supersonic Festival, various Digbeth venues, Birmingham, 8/9/10 July 2022. The triumphant return of one of my favourite musical events on a weekend where the second city hosted three divergent festivals, the others being Mostly Jazz, Funk & Soul and Wireless - I imagine the audience intersection on that particular Venn diagram is pretty small to the relief of all promoters concerned. The first live Supersonic since 2019 and still clinging limpet-like to its Digbeth spiritual home, giving the finger to encroaching gentrification, HS2-fuelled ennui and the prefabricated Luna Springs/Ghetto Golf-style 'fun' that currently assail these gloriously grimy streets. The main festival site is now right on the edge of the area in two new spaces - established venue The Mill (but with actual beer courtesy of Purity Brewing and extended by use of an adjacent open space under the looming viaduct) and 7SVN, a sizeable warehouse just over the road I didn't even know existed. It seems the atmospheric post-industrial vibe still exists round these parts if you know where to look. A few minutes walk away Centrala is the third leg on the stool with art, talks, films and workshops throughout the weekend (as well as much-needed coffee to soothe the morning hangovers). I didn't realise how much I'd missed Supersonic til I actually got there. A big part of it is the sheer number of people I know - a good proportion of the local gig-going fraternity is in attendance as well as loads of Home of Metal people and treasured gig buddies from all over the UK (London, Cardiff, Manchester, Cumbria, Newcastle and the Isle of Bute to name a few) and beyond. A quite emotional gathering of my musical clan, a shot in the arm for the local economy and something of a palliative to the sad fact that many touring domestic and international bands I like often miss out the West Mids entirely. I get to see at least some of all but one musical act (Rachel Aggs sacrificed in favour of some rather tasty Hong Kong-style dumplings) and enjoyed pretty much everything. Supersonic's usual MO is much in evidence with a heady mix of genres and mucho evidence supporting the premise that 'heavy' music isn't limited to metal. Guest curators Decolonise Fest and Radwan Ghazi Moumneh (of Jerusalem In My Heart) enrich both of those elements, the end result being the inclusion of communities and musical acts that don't get a look in at most festivals, plus a guaranteed slew of new discoveries along the way. Supersonic call it 'crafting extraordinary events for curious audiences', another strapline might be 'often challenging, never boring.' Identifying highlights in such a strong line up is a tough call, but here goes nowt. The festival opener on Friday was a collaboration between the NYX Electronic Drone Choir, violinist/composer Rakhi Singh and producer Vessel, which builds on their composition 'It' from the New Music Biennial in Coventry back in April. I've really started to appreciate choral singing and drone music in recent years, so combining the two in such a heart-stoppingly beautiful and ritualistic performance is a real gift. A stunning start to proceedings that's imbued with a sort of spectral longing - they really need to release something pronto. Over at 7SVN an hour or so later Holy Tongue entrance with their live dub/post-punk hybrid, with abstract dancey rhythms up front and centre. The shit-eating grin on drum maestro Valentina Maglietti's face throughout their set seems to encapsulate the deep sense of joy that permeates the whole event. In the same venue, Bristolian Grove's performance perhaps lacks the immediacy of their floor level show at Salford's Sounds From The Other City Festival in May, but that's made up for by an extra band member pumping out the bass heavy splintered beats that foreground the punky ire of the vocal. Militant but fun - it all sounds huge in this cavernous space that handles the low end remarkably well, even if structural integrity is tested. Speaking of huge, The Bug and grime MC Flowdan are the first night headliners. Expectations are high as I wait smack bang in front of the huge rig - after all his latest album 'Fire' was my favourite of 2021, with the three tracks featuring Flowdan being particularly satisfying. We get a sonic attack, but probably not as Hawkwind envisioned it - it's loud to the point of intimidation, loaded with bassy dread and foreboding. Flowdan's lyrics only add to this sense of a dystopian world gone wrong, but an angry hope becomes evident too as the musical flames excoriate all before them. I've seen The Bug many times, but this performance is right up there with the finest. Have to miss the end, but hear a strange noise on leaving - it's the metal roof panels of the venue vibrating. Thankfully 7SVN is still standing when we arrive on Saturday, a good job as it's hosting a bill dominated by heavy sounds that's attracted a good number of metalhead daytrippers to swell the crowd. The Mill offers a nice counterpoint, with a line up largely featuring bands from the Decolonise Fest 'punx of colour' stable, the best of which for me was No Home, a solo act replete with raw no wave guitar, an electronic backing track and emotionally charged lyrics. Over the road, doom/sludge duo Bismuth were the best I've I've ever seen them. A thunderous wall of drums and heavily processed bass plus harrowing vocals, ending with Tanya Byrne curled in a fetal ball in the audience screaming into her mike. Later on we're treated to a quality noise rock double header starting with Bunuel, an Italian band fronted by Oxbow's Eugene Robinson - harsh, heavy and visually arresting (as you'd expect given the personnel involved). A quick shuffle over to The Mill was rewarded with a good chunk of Bloody Head's set - again the best I've seen em, including my two favourite slabs of propulsive, psychy discordance from their 2021 debut LP. 7SVN's closing acts for the evening start with something different in the shape of Pharaoh Overload and Aaron Turner's cross of Italo disco and post metal tropes. Still not convinced (although preferred it live to on recent album '6'), but entertaining to watch the crowd's slow, synchronised head nods morph into an equally uniform hip sway. I admit to being pretty metalled out after the following onslaught of Thou and Old Man Gloom, so retire to The Mill roof garden for a beer to finish the evening, the location for a fun (and inflatable) filled Quietus takeover during the day (including a cheeky set from Matt Cargill/UKAEA electronic side project Pocket Signs). I actually feel pretty chilly up there - the last time that'll be the case at this event. It's stultifyingly hot on Sunday, a state of affairs that doesn't suit old industrial buildings as we've discovered at previous Supersonics. The weather conditions force a change in band watching tactics - a couple of songs down the front, then a strategic retreat for a few mins to the industrial fans (hardware not people) now placed at the back of the venues. First big draw of the day for me is J.Zunz from Mexico, whose 2020 debut album for Rocket Recordings is still on regular rotation in Wollaston Towers. Hypnotic electronics, occasionally overlayed with a tribal drumbeat and effects-laden guitar create an atmospheric, shoegazey stew that has an almost dub-like ambience - a great way to spend Sunday tea-time. Next up on the 7SVN stage are Big Brave, one of my favourite live bands of recent years. The Canadian trio are visibly moved by the support received from the festival team and audience alike. Of course happy bands make for good performances and this one's a doozy. Doomy, experimental metal/post-rock with sledgehammer drums, twin guitar assault and a plaintive vocal over the top of it all - I'm glad for the occasional quiet breaks to catch my breath. A highlight within a highlight is a ferocious version of 'Halfbreed' (from latest LP 'Vital' ), which won't be the last time today that colonial legacy and white supremacy are called out. Possibly heretical behaviour a bit later when I leave underground rock legends June of 44 early (sounds great, but my lack of familiarity plays in) to catch Jerusalem In My Heart at The Mill. I'm intrigued to see them again after a rather subdued Supersonic debut in 2019. They're on top form this evening, with the Montreal-based duo's usually strong visual element taking the form of multiple 16mm projectors a la Godspeed. The resulting analog montage makes for an atmospheric, immersive experience complementing the experimental Arabic music being performed on stage - a merging of folk songs from Moumneh's Lebanese heritage, field recordings, electronics and bravura buzuk-playing (that's a long necked lute fact fans). While watching the beginning of the Divide & Dissolve Q & A earlier in the day, esteemed Brum-based music head Austin Kendrick suggests a good question would be 'how do you make political music in an instrumental band?' The answer becomes apparent to me part way thru their late evening set - address the audience with forceful, well-reasoned statements on the impact of racism and empire from the perspective of indigenous people (in the most soothing voice I've heard all weekend), then play pummelling doom to drive those words home like a hammer hitting a nail. The obvious chemistry between the guitar and drum duo is beautiful to watch as they create their heavy tapestry, with lighter touches of looped saxophone sewn within. The whole shebang is brought to a close by Richard Dawson and Finnish band Circle. Richard's informative and moving conversation with BBC6's Stuart Maconie the previous day informs proceedings for me, plus it seems the prog dial of their recent album 'Henki' has been turned down a tad (which suits me fine). It's a fun end to the festival, but sadly I have to leave before the real (acrobatic and musical) shenanigans get going. Some testosterone-fuelled, semi-clad denizens of Wireless lurking at New St station quickly contextualise the weekend. Inevitably it's not quite perfect, with a few late cancellations and some (initially) lengthy bar queues, the spectre of Covid playing a big part I suspect. Being old and greedy, I would've liked earlier start/finish times and less (partial) clashes, but understand that's probably unrealistic. Generally things ran very smoothly though and when issues did arise they were mitigated with cheerfulness and a 'can do' attitude - a big thanks is due to all concerned in delivering what I'm sure will be one of my 2022 highlights. I'm left with an abiding sense of nurturing community, a warmth to thaw the current cold hard realities of life for a little while at least. Locals may be aware of the phrase 'a sonic love letter to Birmingham' in the context of another recent musical project - I think it's applicable here too. Absolutely essential stuff. (Get a taste via the Supersonic special edition of Stuart Maconie's 'Freak Zone' on BBC Sounds now.)





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