Embarrassingly homogeneous line-ups, extortionate boutique camping, ubiquitous booze branding and gangs of overexcited teenagers are all familiar and tedious festival realities blighting the ever-expanding UK market. A few trips to some of the larger events can easily result in a life-long aversion to festivals. But all is not lost. Behind the headlines, advertising and corporate sponsorship of big festival business, lies a land of experimental DIY events, where curation means something other than product marketing and community spirit defeats profit-making.
One such odd creation is Supernormal, a 1500-capacity annual celebration of underground music and arts hidden in the grounds of Braziers House in Oxfordshire. A bold rejection of mainstream orthodoxies, Supernormal is as much a political statement as a collaborative arts event. With no special artist areas and emphasis on inclusive participation, it immediately feels like an altogether different proposition. Its deliberately small size facilitates interaction and makes it possible to feel part of its urgent creative vibe. Its active opposition to commercialisation, ironically perhaps, makes it both radically different and more faithful to the original spirit of 60’s free festivals than most more established events.
Ranging from the serious eyeballs-out heavy dose of amplified rock goodness dished out by Ten Benson to the electronic trumpet voyage of Hirvikolari and Karen Dwyer’s stern techno beats, Supernormal 2015 is a carnival of sound and a safe heaven of unrestrained artistic expression rooted in the counter-cultural spirit of Braziers House, whose bohemian lineage goes back many decades prior to the emergence of the festival in 2010.
Following on from a rare and very welcome sighting of ‘psychedelic hillbillies’ Ten Benson, Friday is dominated by the anticipation of Charles Haywood’s Anonymous Bash. Born out of a collaborative project at Manchester’s Islington Mill, their unabashed creative vigour encapsulates Supernormal’s experimental aesthetic and draws a large crowd transfixed by the unnerving yet hypnotic stage spectacle. Synths, wiry guitars interspersed with intense free-jazz saxophone voice anchored by Haywood’s shamanic drumming evoking funk, almost tribal rhythms. Their show is an antithesis of the kind of insipid radio-friendly sounds circulating around festival arenas.
As darkness falls, there is an air of excitement under the cover of Red Kite Stage, conveniently adjacent to the main bar. Karaoke sing-offs are a regular feature of the festival. But this is a karaoke with a difference. This year Supernormal stages Fall Vs Sabbath-oke conducted by ‘hostess with the mostest’ Deirdre Me, assessing the musical prowess of an alarmingly high number of wannabe Mark E. Smiths.
With light aircraft from the nearby airfield buzzing above the site, Saturday brings more sunshine. Drawn by the curious sound of a cello and violin conversation, a steady stream of excited people in exuberant garments assemble in the dark wood-panelled space of Braziers House living room. Words and music entwining as Archbishops of Banterbury characters arrive on the scene brandishing a cornucopia of instruments that include a clarinet, lute, maracas and bells.
Psychedelic forces have always been strong at Supernormal and this year is no exception. Although Mind Mountain (had to be a psych band!) kosmische doom feels a bit heavy for a sunny afternoon, Trembling Bells is another rare cult treat. Channelling spirits of the ’70s in both their music and garish attire, they sound beguiling and uplifting with more than a hint of alternative ’60s folk reminiscent of The Incredible String Band. But this rock-infused folk vibe is short-lived. Next up is Spectres, whose mighty tinnitus-inducing drone blast should really come with a health warning that makes you realise the mighty powers of the main stage PA and the medical necessity of ear plugs.
Along with psych, drone remains a staple of Supernormal’s musical spectrum and another slice of action comes courtesy of Ggu:ll (I still have absolutely no idea how to pronounce their name), whose dark sonic vortex is accompanied by equally unsettling images, drawing you into an abyss of horror pounding through to the core of your very being. It brutally devours your head and haunts your soul, leaving you wandering through the scorched landscape of your demented brain. Not for the faint-hearted.
Stunned and amazed, the crowd shifts toward the main stage in search of redemption, or at least a drink to ease the pain. The unexpected remedy for this seemingly fatal condition comes in the form weekend’s most hotly anticipated band, #A.R.Kane. Another amazing, almost miraculous booking given that this cult ensemble have not been on stage for over two decades. The absence of the original member Alex Ayuli (hence, the ironic addition of the # symbol in the band’s name) and presence of some new personnel does not distract from the significance of this performance. Towards the end of the set, Rudy Tambala, clearly elated by the overwhelming reaction from the audience, narrates a story of Tanzanian rhythms keeping the evil spirits out and declares, “And that’s what we’re trying to do tonight!” This is definitely a special Supernormal moment, touchingly poignant and slightly surreal.
Given its artistic heritage and associations with Braziers House community, Supernormal’s focus on participation and active engagement in all creative disciplines is an essential element of its radical anti-consumerist ethos. Whether you want to be part of an opera, do life drawing, make FM transmitters, get stuck in prop-making and stagecraft or knit yourself a tail, the range of workshops on offer is guaranteed to find you a suitably unusual craft and work for idle hands.
Another attraction is The Vortex, a new covered stage that hosts a number of live act but also serves as a hub for esoteric explorations of the Exploding Cinema collective. They offer a curious selection involving a film about keyhole surgery through a sheep’s eye, a monologue inspired by benefits of burning pubic hair and a children’s programme presented by a precocious girl who seems to be more at ease on stage than some of the more seasoned performers.
True to its name, Sunday is another day of sunshine. John Doran’s breezy Space Family Robo Disco provide motivation for an early(ish) start. Greeting the audience with cheerful “How are you enjoying your hangovers?” Manchester’s ILL launch into a viciously energetic chase blasting out songs about being ill (“No one needs you when you’re ill”), breasts and sexual harassment in the workplace (“If your workplace was out of space”).
Adding to Supernormal’s sonic palette, Tokyo-based ‘electronic jam band’ Check!!! deliver a plethora of swirling beats and colourfully expansive shapes that perhaps deserve a slightly bigger audience. One final festival highlight before our reluctant early departure is a promisingly Scandinavian sounding Sturle Dagsland. Oscillating between acoustic folk comforts, semi-feral screams and noise doom it is a peculiar sonic creature, raised on a diet of Björk and horror. It is primitive, visceral and certainly nothing like you’re ever likely to hear a major festival. In the meantime, over in the giant shaded space of the Barn, Joel Cahen’s Cacophonic set, with its big multi-layered sound and complicated sonic architecture, finds its perfect space.
With its lack of boundaries between performers and audiences (indeed, according to one of the organisers, about a third of people on site are also artists) Supernormal remains a unique visionary event led by a group of people whose primary motivation is the programme and the festival community rather than profit. Although some of the things on offer do appear to have a greater resemblance to group therapy sessions than constructive art projects, for most part the festival offers a platform to artists who may otherwise struggle to expand their audiences and establishes creative opportunities for people suffocated by the passive consumerism of mainstream festival culture. And this is precisely why it has acquired a loyal following, to the extent that sometimes it feels like everyone knows each other and everyone is welcome. To the uninitiated, my advice is to book your 2016 tickets soon. To those who’ve had the pleasure of Supernormal happenings, see you next year.
God is in the TV is an online music and culture fanzine founded in Cardiff by the editor Bill Cummings in 2003. GIITTV Bill has developed the site with the aid of a team of sub-editors and writers from across Britain, covering a wide range of music from unsigned and independent artists to major releases.