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'Boundary pushing' musicians flock to Birmingham for Supersonic Festival - review with pictures

By Pete Madeley | Birmingham | Music | Published:

For curious audiences, it says on the front of the programme accompanying the fifteenth edition of Birmingham's Supersonic festival.

Neurosis at Supersonic Festival 2019. Pictures by: Andy Shaw

It’s an accurate description for a festival that has always specialised in showcasing musicians who push the boundaries of their chosen genres – that’s if they fit into any pigeonhole at all.

This year we get a black sistah punk, a trigger synth party noise machine, Portuguese purveyors of 'skull cave echo', supernatural soundscapes and meditative poetry.

Take a look at our gallery from the event here:

It's an eclectic mix, and while I went to see Neurosis, Godflesh and Yob - all of whom played on Friday night in what initially looked to be a top-heavy line up - I came away on Sunday talking about Faten Kanaan, HHY & The Macumbas, and Anna Von Hausswolff.

Friday

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The chance to see Godflesh and Neurosis play Birmingham's Town Hall was a rare - possibly a once-in-a-lifetime - treat. The famous old venue was the scene of sets by Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin in decades of yore, but these days you’re more likely to find Lulu and Midge Ure strutting their stuff on the stage there.

Tying in with the fantastic Home of Metal exhibition, which is also the work of the busy bees behind Supersonic, this was always likely to be a bit special, and it didn’t disappoint.

Godflesh, the Brum formed two-piece of Justin Broadrick and GC Green, started a shade late to allow the long queue outside the Town Hall to filter in. Broadrick, wearing a bright coloured pac-a-mac and a rucksack looked as if he'd descended a mountain before entering the giant stage, taking his place a full 10 metres across from Green.

They opened up with Sterile Prophet, a suitably heavy blast from the past that preceded Broadrick having a moan about the overly bright lighting. I’ve brought the colour, he tells the crowd, in reference to his coat.

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Once that’s sorted out the venue is suitably bathed in darkness and Godflesh can do what they do best – pummel the audience with an hour’s worth of bleak-as-old-Brum industrial metal.

There’s an early set highlight in Predominance from the band’s classic Pure album, while Merciless sounds utterly incredible. Set closer Defeated is a thing of destructive beauty, setting the tone perfectly for Neurosis.

In many ways it’s surprising they’ve never played the festival before, despite having a long-standing connection with the team that runs the show and, having pushed the boundaries of heavy music for more than 30 years, being the perfect Supersonic band.

Godflesh at Supersonic Festival 2019. Pictures by: Andy Shaw

Watching Neurosis play was once described by some esteemed musicians in an old Relapse DVD as being like “going to church”, and seeing them get into A Sun That Never Sets against a backdrop of the venue’s huge organ pipes is truly something to behold.

A Shadow Memory, from 2016’s Fires Within Fires, builds, seethes and crashes, leading into a hectic version of At The Well that sees keyboard player Noah Landis almost topple into the crowd, keyboard ‘an all.

The set’s last three tracks are jaw dropping, almost like a 20 minute mini-set within a set, starting with Given to the Rising’s To The Wind, and ending with the always incredible Stones from the Sky.

Neurosis always put on a great show, but this one was up there with the very best.

With that it’s farewell to the Town Hall and off to the festival’s main sites down in Digbeth for the rest of the opening night.

I caught a few songs from Hey Colossus, who played to a packed crowd in The Crossing.

They used to be known for jams that were on the sludgier side of things, but now have a sound that is part Jesus Lizard, part Big Black, part Bruce Springsteen and Part Chimp.

Over in The Warehouse, Birmingham’s Savage Realm were the weekend’s first real surprise, delivering a set of utterly perfect old school death metal complete with blood curdling vocals. It was like the last 30 years never happened.

Neurosis at Supersonic Festival 2019. Pictures by: Andy Shaw

Ending the night was Yob, the metal juggernaut that has become one of the ‘must-see’ bands for anyone with even the faintest interest in heavy music.

There is something cathartic about the whole Yob experience. It’s oppressively heavy but delivered with a deeply spiritual touch, taking the listener on a mental journey to a place a million miles away from the venue and into a different stratosphere.

Frontman and guitarist Mike Scheidt nearly died a couple of years ago through an intestinal disease, and he’s played every gig since like it’s his last.

Tonight’s show started with the monstrously heavy Ball of Molten Lead and ended with an incredible rendering of Atma - a substitute to the set drafted due to an earlier than planned curfew.

Immense.

Saturday

Daniel Higgs is best known as the frontman for Dischord alumni Lungfish, but his solo work is an altogether different beast.

Seated on The Crossing’s stage with an acoustic guitar and a small note book for company, Higgs tells tales of shepherds’ flutes and granny’s cauldron, interspersing his stories with the occasional hypnotic ditty.

At times he is like a wild west preacher, at others he is gentle and reflective. There’s also humour. His botched attempt as the Star Spangled Banner – a song he says he used to know how to play – raises laughter from the crowd, some of whom are seated at the front of the venue.

CZN are next up, featuring drummers Joao Pais Filipe and Valentina Magaletti, who sit facing each other behind their respective kits and build up a nice, head-bobbing rhythum.

They are like boxers trading blows in a bid to suss each other out before launching into a full scale brawl.

The climax, featuring gongs, bells, and cymbals clattered into submission, is nothing short of breathtaking.

Black feminist punk trio Big Joanie – featuring Wolverhampton’s own Steph Phillips on vocals and guitar – were talked up a lot before the festival having started to rise to prominence on the back of a busy year.

Supersonic Festival 2019. Pictures by: Andy Shaw

There’s no aggression to their music. It’s soulful and tender, but also confrontational – with lyrics such as “all of my friends are white, all of my friends are rich” aimed at breaking people out of their comfort zone.

Big Joanie went down a storm, although the biggest cheer came when Steph urged the crowd in The Warehouse to revolt against Boris Johnson.

Next up its back to The Crossing for Faten Kanaan, a New York based artist who stands stage-centre behind an enormous mixing desk from where she crafts synth-led songs by live looping them.

She is mesmerising to watch, using her hands to signal tone and paint a picture of the music she creates. There’s elements of Goblin to the sound, with tension building throughout an intimate set that leaves the room in awe.

I took in a few songs from The Body – probably the festival’s heaviest band – who lose me due to the insufferable high-pitched vocals.

Back in The Warehouse, the aforementioned purveyors of 'skull cave echo', HHY & The Macumbas, ended the night on the ultimate high.

There’s always at least one band at Supersonic that leaves you completely in awe at what you have witnessed, and for me this was it.

Using horns and percussion to build up a rhythm – with CZN’s Joao Pais Filipe back for another stint behind the kit – the band create a sound that is inherently tribal.

Mono at Supersonic Festival 2019. Pictures by: Andy Shaw

The members are barely visible for parts of the set, with the room shrouded in smoke and darkness which is only interrupted by the occasional shard of light breaking through from the stage.

When the smoke does clear composer Saldanha is a sight to behold, standing at the front of the stage with his back to the crowd, a mask on the back of his head, conducting the rest of the band with triggers in each hand.

By the end of it, most of the room is in a trance-like state and I’ve been introduced to a completely new sonic world.

Sunday

After Body/Vice's set in The Crossing was delayed, I decided to wander down to The Warehouse to see the wonderfully named Sly & The Family Drone.

It proved to be a wise decision, although things started off blandly enough with 20 minutes of bell tinkering, squeals, sparse drum rolls and cymbal crashes.

Sly – initially featuring drummer Matt Cargill who was joined by experimental artist Sharon Gal for this show – elected to play in the centre of the room rather than on stage, the crowd gathered in a circle around them.

Slowly a rhythm began to emerge and build, and then it hit home, a remorseless bludgeoning of the senses that subsides when Gal appeared to be choking to death, or gargling blood, or something similarly hideous.

At this point the crowd became part of the set, as drum sticks and microphones were handed out by Cargill, who stomped around the circle like a man possessed as the band swelled to a 19-piece.

His 'Mr Noisy' t-shirt could not have been more appropriate.

It ended in a collapsing (literally, as Cargill started dismantling the set and passing parts of his drum kit into the crowd), shambolic, but completely brilliant mess.

Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs at Supersonic Festival 2019. Pictures by: Andy Shaw

Sly were a hard act to follow, but Japanese post-rockers Mono made a pretty good fist of it.

Theirs is cinematic rock at its most intense and emotional, where quiet, mournful openings give way to stunning, Earth shattering finales.

While there are plenty of bands doing the 'quiet/loud' things these days, Mono do it better than most.

I suffered through 20 minutes of Jerusalem In My Heart's 'traditional melismatic singing' in The Crossing before returning to The Warehouse for one of the weekend's highlights – Anna Von Hausswolff.

The Swedish singer and her band nearly didn't make the festival at all when their drummer was unable to make the trip over, although thankfully a replacement was found.

The set at Supersonic was remarkable, drifting from dense doomy atmospherics to quieter, reflective moments, often within the same song.

Von Hausswolff spends most of the set behind an organ at the back of the stage, venturing forward towards the end of the set to play some harmonica and thank the crowd.

Her voice has a power all of its own, at times mired in darkness and always haunting.

Anna Von Hauss at Supersonic Festival 2019. Pictures by: Andy Shaw

She used to get likened to Kate Bush, and while that comparison is not without merit, there's a penetrating element to her voice that gives it a unique quality.

It's left to Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs to bring the curtain down on the festival, the Geordie noise merchants coming on with cans of Stella on a mission to end proceedings on as low a note as possible.

And I mean low – the bass rumble on opening tracks GNT and Shockmaster has the floor shaking.

It's a cracking set which sparkles as brightly as singer Matt Baty's green sequinned hooded jacket.

And with that, Supersonic was done for another year. Full credit to Lisa and her team - including all the volunteers who kept the beer flowing and made sure the venues were kept tidy - for putting on a great festival.

Once again, Supersonic succeeded in opening up my world to new music. For now at least, consider my curiosity satisfied.

Pete Madeley

By Pete Madeley
@P_Madeley_Star

Political Editor for the Express & Star. Responsible for local and national political stories, opinion, comment and analysis.

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