Old Man Gloom at Supersonic Festival 2022

FESTIVAL REPORT: Supersonic

When: 8 – 10 July 2022

Where: Birmingham, England.

If it had been outdoors it would have rained non-stop this weekend. That’s the nature of British festivals. As it was an indoor affair, naturally the country had to be going through some kind of menopausal heatwave. Since its move from the Custard Factory, Supersonic Festival has endeavoured even further into the heart of Digbeth, which is now seemingly an entertainment hub with an array of giant bars, clubs, restaurants and crazy golf venues that have popped up over the last few years. Where anyone has the money for new enterprising businesses over the course of a two-year lockdown, I’m not sure, but it seems that Digbeth has undergone quite the make-over.

This year’s festival is spread across two separate venues – The Mill and 7SVN. Most of the main acts are taking place at the latter because it’s bigger, although it lacks the rooftop bar that the Mill features which is the only downside during this sweltering weekend. The Mill contains food vendors in an outdoor space too, as well as a small indoor marketplace which features a range of independent artists and publishers. Oh, and they’re also selling tea and cake at the bar so you know this is a markedly different type of festival!

It isn’t all just music, there are drone yoga workshops, films, art exhibitions and talks that are scheduled to take place over the next couple of days and even a synth-building workshop (more on that later). This year, the festival has partnered with BBC 6 (Stuart Maconie‘s – Freak Show) who is hosting Saturday’s Richard Dawson interview as well as recording some of the acts (now available to listen to online). Supersonic is known for being one of the most innovative and unique festivals in the UK so we’re eager to see if this year’s curation lives up to the hype.

Friday

Föllakzoid

Föllakzoid has to be the most louche experimental noise band you’ll ever see. Despite the heavy dub undertones amidst guitar distortion and soundscape atmospherics, there’s nothing stereotypically “heavy” about this band. In fact, you’d be forgiven for thinking that you’d just entered the bedroom of people getting ready for a big night out at Gatecrasher if you walked in halfway. Because as Föllakzoid’s hypnotic grooves drive deeper so do their clothes get looser. A top is thrown aside, followed by bottoms until all that’s left is a skimpy white vest top, pants and clear plastic heel open toe mules, accessorised by a guitar and a glass of Prosecco that’s refilled a couple of times throughout the course of the set.

It’s a captivating performance and a reminder that although this may be a heavy noise festival, there is no excuse not to bring your glam! As the guitarist lights a fag and takes a few quick drags before the performance is through, we’re positioned again into feeling as though we’re getting ready to go out and something exciting is about to go down. As it happens, it is.

Matters

With Matters come wires, so many wires. The duo’s complicated robotic texture-laden compositions permeate the medium-sized room at The Mill. As headliners of this stage tonight a fair amount of the crowd has been drawn out, all of whom nod and move rhythmically in time with the strategically placed blips and bloops. It’s not quite a dance party since if it was they probably wouldn’t be playing Supersonic but it’s enough to get feet moving and vibes buzzing.

The Bug feat. Flowdan

Holy guacamole. Nothing could have prepared me for this set. Despite the fact that the programme bio explicitly states that The Bug “believes that a live show should be unforgettable, should alter your DNA, or scar you for life in a good way.” It’s hard not to take these kinds of press type of statements with a pinch of salt because everybody’s going to try and sell themselves right. Yeah, well, in this case, it’s not an upsell.

After what seems like a lifetime of sitting in the photography pit amongst various smoke machine offsets and The Bug’s ever-building, tension-increasing beats, a figure emerges on stage. It’s not Flowdan; this man reads a poem, a tribute to Grenfell as more smoke releases. He exits the stage and we wait more and more and more. Just as I’m beginning to question if anyone else is going to show, a silhouette moves from the side of the stage and takes the mic. A deafening round of applause ensues, more smoke. This is Grenfell-inspired performance art. It’s a terrible time to be a photographer.

Flowdan moves into centre stage, picks up the mic and proceeds to eloquently spit bars whilst The Bug keeps a consistent, dirty, ice cold, f**k off beat. I look over to my plus one – Tom (also in the photography pit) and watch as a huge grin transforms his face. This is special, there are no bones about it. We’ll never see another performance like this, not this weekend, not next year, not ever. That it’s unmissable is an understatement.

Saturday

Punk Seq Synth Workshop

Tom (my plus one and second photographer) has signed up for the synth building workshop taking place at Centralla on Saturday afternoon and he’s pretty psyched about it. We chat to Farmer Glitch at his stall the evening before and he warns not to have too many drinks ahead of the workshop so that his hands don’t shake during the soldering. The location is by the canal side which is refreshing in the heat; this is not the weekend for an indoor festival.

A medium-sized table containing individual synth building kits sits at the back of a café area where soldering guns await the slightly experienced. I attempt to fill some latecomers’ spots but am warned that it may be difficult for someone with zero soldering experience such as me. They’re probably (definitely) right. Tom, however, cracks on despite my insistence on getting pictures, managing to complete a fully functional synth. It only takes him three hours….

Nadja

Dreamy heaven metal is the order of the day as Canadian two-piece Nadja are first to take the stage at 7SVN on Saturday. There is a distinct lack of vocals that some might have been hoping for, with the band choosing to take a more instrumental approach for this set. Some disappointment seems to permeate a few fans but otherwise, it’s a suitable mood setter for the day. Slow, hot, heavy and well I’m going to stop there because it’s starting to sound a lot like I’m trying to write the next 50 Shades of Grey here.

Rachel Aggs

You may know Rachel Aggs from bands such as Shopping, Trash Kit and Sacred Paws. In this set they’re going solo and after the heaviness of Nadja it’s a delightfully uplifting set. Aggs is handling all the components of the compositions alone here and at one point forgets to add hi-hats to a song, announcing that they’re throwing them in at the end in case anyone still wants to dance. It’s an upbeat breath of fresh air and a welcome energising set much needed to balance out the overall heaviness of the upcoming evening events.

Bloody Head

With a thousand-yard stare that looks as though the band just got back from ‘Nam, being the vocalist of Bloody Head is hard, sweaty work. Maybe that’s where the PTSD comes from – previous gigs performed in heatwaves. The last time I saw this band actually was also on a boiling hot summer’s day at an industrial estate in Derbyshire, with about five other people in a dank, basement-like room. The band have never been opposed to Brechtian methods of performance art in which to accompany the sound of their crushingly anarchic anthems, and I remember on that occasion the vocalist stepping aside from the front to stand and watch the rest of the band amongst the small audience as they continued to perform without his input.

Although there wasn’t anything quite as avant-garde conducted during this performance, they were still pretty out there in terms of the norm, throwing themselves all over the stage and wrapping themselves up in vocal wires. At one point an unassuming photographer takes the contents of a can of cider to the face after it’s accidentally kicked off the stage in destructive anarchy. Cider drips ominously towards live cables threatening to shut down the whole shebang as the band play on in noisy disarray. Another photographer moves the live wires out the way, saving the sound and maybe a couple of lives. Hey, no one ever said rock ‘n’ roll was about being safe.

Rooftop garden

Needless to say, the rooftop garden at the Mill is laden with heat-ridden bodies this weekend and provides a much-needed respite from the heat and exhaustion of standing up to watch bands. There are rotating DJs over the course of the weekend but mostly the area is used as a space in which to collapse and enjoy some sun/shade between bands. Paul Purgas’s set of ambient tracks is the perfect tonic to the Saturday afternoon heat. No one needs more music to smack them in the face with and he nails it with sobering, conversation-level, Oneohtrix Point Never infused ambience.

Thou

Thou take to the stage to deliver their crushing experimental doom metal. The lights dim as the six-piece envelop the audience at 7SVN in atmospheric arpeggios and sludgy chords, punctuated with the blastbeats that begin ‘By Endurance We Conquer’. Though there’s plenty of low end on show, it doesn’t threaten to drown out the airier elements of Thou’s sound. Props to the sound engineers.

After a brief moment to tune they move onto the second song of the set. On record it’s an example of Thou’s softer side, but live it’s transformed into a rumbling behemoth: ‘The Hammer’. That’s not to say that it becomes a blunt object; making it heavier actually better shows the opposites that make Thou. The gentle melodies and floating textures opposite the massive sludgy guitars. Guitarist KC Stafford’s clean, sombre vocals opposite vocalist Brian Funck’s Eyehategod-like screams as he joins in to reinforce the mood. And, in a way, the show itself is one of these opposites too.

Despite doom metal’s reputation for conjuring atmospheres of despair (and Thou do conjure them), there’s a sense of fun throughout. I catch a glimpse of Funck smiling at his bandmates between songs. A fan happily calls out “you’re excellent” in a moment of quiet. I see joy on the faces of the photographers near me. For a band that have been described as oppressive, monolithic, and inescapable it was really quite an uplifting experience. (T.M)

Old Man Gloom

Saturday night’s headliners, Old Man Gloom begin their set with guitar feedback ran through so many guitar pedals you’d swear they’d hidden a synth player behind an amp. The sonic experimentation is cut short (to return later in the set) as the band erupts into the pounding groove of ‘Procession of the Wounded’. You can tell that Old Man Gloom are professionals; they move around the stage headbanging and locking into each other’s rhythms without a single dropped beat or misplayed note. It looks effortless. It’s hypnotic in such close proximity.

If there’s one word (other than loud) I could use to describe Old Man Gloom’s performance, it’s kinetic. Everyone’s moving most of the time, even during slower songs. Especially vocalist/guitarist Aaron Turner. He’s nearly always in motion, a blur of guitar and hair. Midway through the set, during ‘Simia Dei’, he steps from the stage onto the barrier about a metre from where I’ve been taking photos and leans into the crowd while he plays.

At the end of their set they share a hopeful message, telling the crowd to “find joy in your life wherever you can” and to love and respect one another. It may seem odd to some people that a band with song titles like ‘A Hideous Nightmare Lies Upon the World’ or ‘Burden’ could be such a fun and positive experience, but those people aren’t who Supersonic is meant for. The feeling in the room once the show is over and people start to spill out into the street is definitely far from gloom. (T.M)

Sunday

Farida Amadou

Farida Amadou takes to the stage armed with a bass guitar and an array of pedals. Oh, and a couple of sticks that she’s going to use later as part of the set. She takes a seat at the centre of the stage, and blue lighting engulfs her as she begins to strum chords, over and over, until the sound builds and she begins to strategically pick apart and distinguish individual notes. Halfway through the set, she puts a thin, long wooden stick underneath the strings on the fretboard and begins to pound across the guitar with two other sticks creating a unique percussive free jazz improvisation.

Paul Purgas

You can expect to see some pretty experimental setups at Supersonic but Purgas’s has to be in the top five. He uses a reel-to-reel tape machine to release atmospheric ambience into what begins as a somewhat empty room. He goes back and forth a couple of times to stop the reel that’s wrapped around a long pole from slipping. This is a special commission for the festival that explores the past and future of analogue tape composition. As with his DJ set, Purgas lets the music speak volumes even though at first it doesn’t sound like it is.

This is music to which you must accustom yourself. It is not made to be relevant to you, it’s for you to listen and in listening evaluate your own presence in the world. By the end of the set, the room is brimming with people and as Purgas leaves the stage, he turns around to take one last look at the crowd with a big beaming grin, as though he can’t believe his luck and its endearing to see that he might think luck had anything to do with it.

Paul Purgas1 1

June of 44

It’s been 23 years since June of 44 were last in the UK and you can feel the anticipation in the air. As we make our way into 7SVN, Good Morning Captain by Slint blares through the speakers and we enter just as the climactic “I MISS YOU” screams kick in. I turn to Tom and excitedly mouth the words as a group standing by the bar look on in amusement. They get it, it’s a buzz and I’m buzzed OK because this era is my jam as the kids say. This is one of the first acts on the main stage where I haven’t been blinded by strobe lighting; it feels almost in honour of the band’s earthiness that there’s some regular lighting.

They bring a bottle of wine on stage which remains largely untouched throughout the set. The band plough through eleven tracks over the course of the hour including ‘Of Information and Belief’ and ‘Doomsday’ (see Setlist FM for full tracklist) and despite some incredibly forceful requests they stick to the plan, graciously thanking the audience for their time and support, as well as stating what an honour it is to be playing in a city that’s home to so much seminal music. Let’s hope it’s not another 23 years before they return.

Richard Dawson and Circle

This weekend’s finale takes the form of a North East folk singer/songwriter and a Finnish psychedelic rock band – combined. It’s not not like Iron Maiden but there are certainly no ten-minute guitar solos that drag on. Dawson stands at the front of the stage looking mock-serious in green lighting arrangements. The group are kitted out in matching green scarfs and the keyboard player takes the lead on the first song, stirring up the atmosphere and evoking cries of delight as he takes the band into the first track of the new album Henki‘Cooksonia’. The two guitarists swing their hips from left to right in unison, looking content and slightly amused to be in sync.

There really is no bones about hamming up the Eurovision-style cheese factor here, from the (sort of) costumes to dancing in unison. Circle are a team and you can tell they’re having fun. And because they’re having fun, we’re having fun. A mosh pit breaks out towards the end of the set as the band join together to stand and hold a pose in rehearsed positioning; guitars are wielded towards the sky as they form together like a psychedelic transformer.

But wait, that’s not the end. Dawson isn’t letting anyone leave before he gives a shout-out to Big Jeff (a well-known and well-loved regular gig goer from Bristol) and he dedicates the final song of the night to him: a cover of the eighties classic ‘Echo Beach’ by Martha and the Muffins. A one-hit wonder if there ever was one but its frivolous, jangle poppiness is the perfect way to finish the night, and although this might be a cover that goes over some of the fans’ heads, there’s no denying that it’s a hell of riff and Big Jeff is (probably) a hell of a guy.

Photos: Kate Haresnape and Thomas Mannay

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.