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Supersonic 2014

Martin Longley By

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The second day was fuller, starting at 4pm rather than 9pm, and pouncing straight into the peaks at an early stage of the evening. New York singer/guitarist Chris Brokaw (of Codeine and Come fame) opened up with a suitably intimate recital, sometimes delivering songs, but also including a swathe of instrumental film music, cleverly utilizing moderate amounts of distortion to combine melody and abrasion. His vocals weren't the most tuneful song-channelling tool, but the numbers are best heard as storylines, narrated without much voice dynamism. It's the guitar that provided the true expressive core of the pieces.

Agathe Max, from Lyon, played a solo violin set, although her heavily effected sound wouldn't have existed if not for the pioneering work of John Cale and Tony Conrad. She plastered slow-drawled looping-lines, making a dragging construction that moved forward at an appealingly lumbering pace, allowing the audience to savor her thick, granular textures. Daylight was still beaming through the skylights, all the better to impart that special loft studio aura to the proceedings.

Then, one of the weekend's mightiest acts stormed the stage, early evening light still dappling, even though their crazed sounds were meant for the midnight hour. Alien Whale brings together the tri-borough (Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens) New Yorkers Colin Langenus (guitar), Matt Mottel (keytar), and Nick Lesley (drums), three musical maniacs with a desperate rapport, once again taking a form, psychedelic jazz-rock, and bending it into an extreme parody—thrilling, absurd, macho and moronic, virtuosic and violent. Mottel and Langenus were vying for supremacy as they traded ever more elaborate solos, kept aloft and limber by Lesley's whipcrack patterns. When Langenus was rising up to solo dominance, Mottel maintained a rippling bass flow, but when the keytar-slinger came forth himself, the treble end suddenly ripped into glorious primacy, in a rocked up Terry Riley rupture of rapture. They played like it was their final show, as if it was the latest, most drink'n'drug fuelled nightcap possible.

Sly & the Family Drone opted to play on the floor, in the middle of the space, gathering their audience around them in a packed circle. This made visibility low, but their ritualistic primitivism didn't necessarily demand eye contact. It all sounded like one long song, incrementally facilitating mental derangement. Until the climactic stage, it hadn't been clear what was happening, but then they started to distribute their drumkit around the crowd, encouraging simple beats, or more syncopated scissoring, depending on who ended up hogging the flying drumsticks. Their main man, by this time stripped down to boxer shorts, stood atop an amplifier, spraying beard-beer whilst conducting the melee, the invocatory session concluding when he was handed a pizza box and proceeded to plaster a slice to his face, taking art music into a called-for visceral zone, barely sidestepping a wardrobe malfunction. If they'd been up onstage, it would've been a very different experience, but the Sly Drone approach found audience communication to be a vital part of its armory.

Detroit's Wolf Eyes trio tried hard, but there was something lacking, as the band followed on from Alien Whale and the Sly Droners. They seemed to take themselves far too seriously, in comparison, lacking the self-knowledge of the previous pair of socially-challenged outfits. Under other circumstances, the set would have seemed stronger, but Wolf Eyes suffered due to so closely following two of the festival's best sets.

Swans came on after midnight, and played for around two hours. Occasionally they sprawled, but mostly justified the length of their performance, particularly in the light of all Supersonic's other acts keeping down to an hour or less onstage. Singer/guitarist Michael Gira commanded the attention with stern drama, his songs grinding between wall-of-shimmer patterns, hardened into vibrating granite structures, and almost diaphanous ballad sections, poised before the magnification into another bruising ascendance. Nowhere near as loud as its reputation promised, Swans was still quite high on the meter, nevertheless, surmounting a brief power outage before weighing in for the duration. Gira's voice was sometimes subject to a rare challenge in the mix, being one of the few instruments to suffer unintended distortion in Supersonic's general democracy of sound. Or perhaps by 2:00 a.m., your reviewer's tender eardrums had been pummelled way too hard.

Photo Credit:
Katja Ogrin

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