The oft-referenced quote by John Peel about The Fall being “always different, always the same” is understandably uttered for numerous contemporary bands these days. It’s quite an achievement; putting out new material that somehow manages to explore new territories while retaining the original kernel that made them so good in the first place. But could it ever be said of a festival?
Supernormal – a weekender of music and arts that takes place in Oxfordshire each August – might be a good candidate. This year’s edition is the third time I’ve ventured up to Braziers for the party and I feel the format of the festival gets just a touch more crystallized each year. There’s the diverse musical line-up taking in the cream of the UK underground and some special guests from further afield. There’s the workshops, the installations and the intimate sessions in the house and the woods. There’s the karaoke and the disco and the Brainbiter cider. There’s the sun. And the occasional pesky wasp.
This year though, we also get a fully-fledged cinema and sound program from Bristol Experimental Expanded Film in their Octopolis, a live ‘Invisible Jukebox’ courtesy of Wire magazine, audio walks thanks to Eastville Project Space (Superparanormal) and Iris Garrelfs (The Listening Wall) and the younger attendees get their own dedicated Kids Kino and Supersonic Kids Gig. You, sadly, can’t witness it all. But here’s what I did see…
The first act to open the Vortex venue on Friday is a real treat for industrial music fans. COUM Flakes is a project re-exploring the work of COUM Transmissions – the performance art group founded by Genesis P-Orridge in the late 60s and which would later go on to evolve into Throbbing Gristle. The Flakes edition performing today features another principal member of COUM, Foxtrot Echo, who orchestrates the group through a mix of sinister and humorous spoken word, noise and ambience, deconstructed rock ‘n’ roll – all against a backdrop of projections. The newer material is more on the nose than the art-space vintage COUM stuff, but it’s a special opener for the weekend.
Later on the Shed Stage, a new collaboration of Pikacyu from Afrirampo and Kawabata Makato from Acid Mothers Temple melts the faces and rattles the eardrums of those who see them. Pikacyu is the rarest of drummers who is so much more than the backbeat of the music – jumping off the kit when the music allows, and dropping back into the most exhilarating beats in the blink of an eye. This collaboration with Makato really works, himself having a bit more space to shred than he perhaps gets the opportunity to in Acid Mothers Temple.
Needing a quieter moment, briefly, I head over to BEEF’s woodland hide-out to catch a series of films curated by Marcy Saude. Advertised under the banner of This land is…, the films take us on a psychogeographic trip through England and beyond (Particularly Eric Stewart’s Harbour) and it’s a welcome moment of reflection as I come to get my bearings in Braziers for a third year running – even if Supernormal wasn’t here, this is a very special part of the world.
While This land is… makes me contemplate Braziers, England and how these places have shaped me, Supernormal is a truly international festival. Over on the Shed stage, Ghanaian kologo player King Ayisoba and his band is getting into full flow. Backed up by tuned drums, shakers and intermittent horn blasts, Ayisoba rocks through some propulsive tracks while he calls and responds with a voice which can mutate into various characters. Following Ayisoba, Michigan noisemongers Wolf Eyes present a tripped out croonfest as Friday turns into Saturday, before Cosmic Dead DJs take us deeper into late night incongruity with a set of pop bangers. Yes, Supernormal attendees can get down to Abba and The Venga Boys like everyone else.
Saturday afternoon kicks off in the Vortex with Wire Magazine presenting a live ‘Invisible Jukebox’ featuring :zoviet*france:. For those unfamiliar with the regular magazine feature, bands and artists are played a selection of tracks which they try and guess and then reflect upon. It works as a live Q&A and :zoviet*france: are a good choice as they pore over their nearly 40 years of continued ambient experimentation. They do a ridiculously good job at guessing the jukebox tracks too. Later, the Vortex is given over to something very different – a participatory hour titled Behavioural Training For Astronauts For Earthlings in which audience members are invited to help plan a space station. From sexual relations to disposing of dead bodies, many key issues are debated. I guess if I had to be stuck on a space station with a bunch of random people, Supernormal attendees would make a pretty good crew.
The first musical thing that really gets me going on the Saturday is doom brass group ORE. The band have recently expanded to a three piece featuring tuba, contrabassoon and other horns, and perform a special unamplified set in a secretive part of the wood. Doom tuba is no doubt something of a niche prospect, but the lulling deep tones of the instruments against the backdrop of deciduous Oxfordshire is thoroughly lovely.
Bruxa Maria, fronted by the guitar-wielding screamer Gill Dread, take over the Shed stage shortly after. This five piece features phat riffs, electronic noise and heavy beats – and get people moving as day turns into night once more. Following them, Big Lad (who used to be known as Shitwife) perform a fantastic set of synth and beats before solo midi-triggering drummer Jaxson Payne presents an exclusive live journey through his new album of diverse technotronica. I’ve seen Payne a number of times over the years, but this latest set of vocal samples and more analogue types of sound is my favourite yet – and I can’t wait to hear the new album.
Sunday gets off to an immediate start as Aggressive Perfector hit the Shed at noon sharp. This trio mine the satanic thrash genre with assuredness and see headbangers young and old with grins across their faces. Following this cobweb-blowout, I head over to Braziers House for one of their intimate sessions. Here I see pianist Steve Beresford perform two pieces on the incredible grand piano. The movements include lightning quick melodic runs juxtaposed with clanging discordance often embellished with wine glasses and other gizmos he casts onto the piano strings themselves.
Next I venture over to the Barn which is absolutely packed while Matana Roberts plays some blissful and tranquil saxophone meditations. I take up position at the nearby campfire while Roberts’ tones echo around the courtyard – it is as close to perfect as the weekend can get, but I wonder if she would be suited to a bigger venue where more people can experience it. Then, feeling in the mood for something a little heavier, post-hardcore group Death Pedals are the next thing I see over on the Shed. They offer a pretty straight-up fourpiece racket. But it is welcome and fun.
Sacred Paws are my next absolute highlight of the weekend. Fusing uplifting clean guitar lines, fun clattering drums and harmonic vocals. The comparison in the programme to Pylon and B-52s is misleading – this is not some post-punk throwback. Rather, the Paws are to me, a very refreshing approach to the guitar and drum set-up; where each melody is brilliantly considered, and celebration and positivity is the order of the day.
Later on I head back to the Barn with some trepidation. Is Ben Wallers, frontman of Country Teasers, really performing Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of The Moon? What transpires over the next 45 minutes is so much more than that. Wallers and friend (known collectively as The Stallion) rip through a murky acid-fried regurgitation of the aforementioned album. The music itself is kind of like a melange of Ween fun and Residents horror (with some pure Snakefinger solos) while the accompanying visuals mostly feature strobing colours, worms and Roger Waters’ disembodied head. Wonderful.
Over on the Shed, :zoviet*france: have their bank of modular synths and laptops set up while the attendant audience lay underneath the hazy Braziers sky. The set is a masterclass of organic ambience and I’ve never before seen an open air ambient concert result in the spectators being so proficiently lulled into stasis. The act who follows changes things up again. Container is a Providence based electronic producer, whose throbbing bass and drilly beats shake Oxfordshire to its countercultural foundations.
Up in the Red Kite tent, MxLx brings more suitable noise and ‘tronics to the party – screaming up the place and prowling around the stage with top fury. It’s a triumphant close to a weekend of diverse musical treats. And MxLx’s Matt Loveridge is an apt place to leave it – himself being an artist who travels a musical path that rarely re-treads previous ground. Supernormal is certainly diverse. But it always has been. This year they somehow managed to cram even more nourishing music, art, culture and fun into Braziers than they’ve done before. Peel’s ‘always different, always the same’ quote works. Kind of. Supernormal’s sameness comes from it being consistently great, its greatness comes from it being consistently different.