Supersense, Melbourne: August 18-20, 2017

I’m just back from a couple of days in Melbourne at the Supersense festival, and am kind of exhausted but mostly happy. So I figured while it was fresh I’d note some thoughts on the whole shebang.

Stage and stalls

The festival bills itself as an examination of the ecstatic experience, and that pretty accurately covers the couple of days I spent in the phone coverage-free bowels of Arts Centre Melbourne. Like other festivals it’s run to a timetable, sure. But this one saw performances enacted in familiar venues seen from unusual perspectives: foyers, rehearsal rooms and, notably, viewed from an enormous stage (and not the stalls). Throughout, I saw and heard a dedication to pushing music somewhere that transcends the idea of mere performance – sometimes unsuccessfully, but often brilliantly.

TLDR version? Goes orright, mate.

I bought a weekend pass for the festival as soon as they’d gone on sale, because the lineup was, frankly, jaw-dropping. As constant readers may know, I’m something of a Keiji Haino fanboy, and so to see that he was playing both solo and in his power trio mode? Instant sale. With each pass, you had to choose an evening ticketed event for Saturday and Sunday: I plumped for a performance of the ecstatic music of Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda and Nazoranai. This meant I’d miss Pussy Riot, Kimbra, Lullaby Movement and Spiritualized but I figured fuck it, how often was I going to see Haino et al somewhere that didn’t require a hemispheric crossing?

(As a brief aside, I can recommend nobody ever stay at the Citiclub Hotel on Queen St. Well, not unless you dig muffled nightclub sounds. Bear in mind I say this as someone paying money to see noise bands.)

DAY ONE: FRIDAY EVENING
After assorted weather-and-travel fuckery I made it to the Arts Centre Melbourne to meet up with friends and begin my trip. First up? Acid Mothers Temple & the Melting Paraiso UFO.

Far out, man. 

No, really, that’s it. I’ve been a fan of these cosmic stoner warrior guitarslingers for a long time, but it took a live show to show me that they’re just as great and slightly dodgy as I had hoped. They definitely come under the “jam band” umbrella: songs are long, sometimes repetitive, and generally do what you’d expect a band of that name to do. But my god, can they ride a groove to glory. Kawabata Makoto’s guitar spends a lot of time in wild air-soloing mode, while a boa-bedecked Tabata Mitsuru alternately plays guitar and flirts with the punters. Meanwhile, the rhythm section work it like their lives depend on it.

(I swear, keeping up solid 16th notes for a good 20-minutes of increasing freak-out intensity? I salute you, Satoshima Nani.)

A good start, a sentiment shared by the couple clad in psychedelic garb who were bouncing around the room as if on springs.

The next couple of sets I saw were equally entertaining. Cleek Schrey’s hardanger fiddle music was joyously foot-stompin’, though the attentive quietude of the room as he played seemed at odds with tunes so filled with life. Memory Field, an interplay between Laurence Pike on percussion and Waangenga Blanco’s dance was intriguing, but I wasn’t able to give it a full set’s attention, which I suspect was necessary for full enjoyment.

The Master Musicians of Jajouka played their evocative, ancient music to an increasingly boisterous crowd. Leader Bachir Attar downplayed his talents as he exhorted us all to come together with the music, becoming more playful as he learned people in the crowd spoke Arabic. It was so disarmingly honest.

The final set I saw – hey, I was starting to flag – was one I’d been anticipating the most keenly: Keiji Haino. I had first seen him play at a What Is Music? gig years ago – technically billed as Fushitsusha, though it was definitely a solo Haino show – and  it pretty much changed my life.

(Well, it certainly meant I was going to spend a lot more money trying to snare the rare birds of his seemingly endless discography at least.)

The guy is the working definition of uncompromising. He’s never seen without his sunglasses, and has the air of a wizard locked in the body of a goth Ramones pixie. He works in a variety of musical areas – medieval music, psych rock, folk, harsh noise, solo voice and percussion – and that’s before you get to the collaborations. He is far cooler, and much louder than you or I will ever be.

Keiji Haino

Tonight’s set was pretty similar in structure to what I’d seen years before. A table of electronic noisemaking gear was set up, and that received first attention. The volume was up, and people began to leave as what sounded like sampled sirens bled through the amphitheatre. I’d expected some people to leave – this music has an immediate physical reaction, and it’s either fuck no! or fuck yeah! – but fewer left than I’d expected.

(Either that or they couldn’t be fucked trying to push past people in the dark.)

The noise section of the show was unrelenting. It bludgeoned, pushing everything louder than everything else. But in contrast, the middle section of the show – he returned to the noise table to end proceedings – featured delayed, spidery guitar lines that evoked haunted houses or fading memories. True, there were moments of that psych-rock fire which typify his work in Fushitsusha, but this was a sort of sad-eyed respite. I suppose it’s indicative of the Japanese idea of ma – the inexplicable meaning gleaned from an undescribed space, a moment of pause – which suffuses his work. What’s not played is just as important, and after such a battering, the spaces in between are filled with wonder.

Offstage, Haino may walk with a cane, but when he plays its necessity disappears. Transported by what he’s playing – he really is the hose through which the water travels – he thrashed about. Over the table, over his guitar, he moved as if shocked; when singing, guttural bursts of sound seemed to erupt from his belly, contorting his body,  bursting free. His gigs aren’t just an example of someone making music: they’re someone being ridden by it, controlled by it. He’s 65 and more vital than most performers: I hope I have a chance to see him again soon.

DAY TWO: SATURDAY
I was feeling a little sore – there were precious few places to sit, unless you headed towards sunlight – so I gingerly approached day two. It started bucolically enough as I walked into Severed Heads’ slot. The duo – replacing Blonde Redhead, who apparently pulled their Australian tour – sprinkled banger classics in a set that was far more beautiful and subtle than I had heard from them. The room danced in approval as the pair snapped selfies with the crowd, under the watchful gaze of animated skeletons and a rippling shot of the long dead.

I zipped around a fair bit during the day, trying to cover a bit of ground. I caught Ánde Somby’s yoiking – a traditional Sámi style of singing that is often dedicated to birds or nature or special events such as births and deaths – and was mesmerised. It’s a throaty, raw sound that taps somewhere strange within.

Cellist Oliver Coates performed an endearingly nervy set of modern pieces running the gamut from Messaien to Squarepusher, apologising for his jetlagged (ie: malfunctioning) computer.  Heading back to the larger space of the State stage, I caught snippets of Inga ‘Lolina’ Copeland’s dark set, which others dug but I seemed to lack an affinity for.

Tech problems delayed the kickoff for what was, incredibly, JG Thirlwell‘s first Melbourne performance. Family members gathered at the doors to ensure his mum had the seats he’d recommended, and the venue foyer filled more quickly than I’d seen elsewhere at the festival. The show – a performance of his Cholera Nocebo project – was worth the wait.

A mixture of electronic noise, live playing and manipulation, the music unfolded underneath visions of night driving. It was hypnotic and strange, full of a coiling, pregnant energy, and I’ll be very interested to hear its solidified form when it’s released on disc later this year. Needless to say, it went down a fucking storm with the crowd.

The last set I saw before the break for headliners was Stephen O’Malley, whose backline was terrifyingly large. A lot of amps pushing a lot of air, I was prepared for devastating volume. And volume I got – though not quite in the way I’d expected.

Beneath a backdrop of black and white footage – particles flying across a dark space – the guitarist created a more minimal type of soundscape than I’d expected. True, Sunn o))) are minimal in a lot of ways, but this was almost an abstraction of music: the guitar was less an instrument for chords and melody than it was used as a kind of plane for shearing off unwanted sound until the correct tones emerged. In near-darkness, O’Malley coaxed slabs of sound out of the corralled speakers, sound which was strangely soporific: it was like falling asleep in a snowdrift to die. It’s the first time I’ve seen one of his solo shows and goddamnit this means I’m gonna have to buy more vinyl now, doesn’t it? 

My evening ended with a performance celebrating the ecstatic music of Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda. This is a good piece about Coltrane’s ashram life and recording, and you can visit her Vedantic Center here. The evening session had pulled in a slightly different crowd, with far more yoga pants and mandala-print shirts floating about than there had been earlier.

After a bit of a wait, a shoeless crowd – not mandatory, but in keeping with the spirit of the thing – walked through the auditorium of the State Theatre and up onto the stage, where white cloth was laid. Songbooks were dispensed, and we sat, cross-legged, as projections welcomed us to a makeshift ashram. The Sai Anantam ashram singers walked through the crowd to the stage, there was a burst of om and it was on.

If you can imagine singers raising their estimable vocal chops in praise of something bigger than they are, and suffusing it with so much soul that the most staunchly atheist person in the place can sense it, you’re getting mostly there. Accompanied only by a keyboardist and a percussionist – what tabla skills! – the singers gave it everything they had. The music sounds a little dated – that’s probably because it has its genesis in tunes written in the ’70s, let’s face it – but it’s played with such dedication, with such soul that it doesn’t matter. They sell it completely.

I believe the singers’ strength of sound would be the same if there was no audience at all: I was witnessing devotion, and my presence was secondary to that, for sure. The crowd at Supersense was, to a certain extent, a bit too cool for school. There were people dancing at things like Severed Heads, true – but they were outweighed by beard-stroking types, or those too self-conscious to let themselves be seen to be surrendering to the music in that way. I can imagine that it might be difficult to break through that, as a performer – to perform with joy in the face of people who, while they might feel it, find it hard to express it. But here, in front of these brightly-garbed people, that reserve broke a little, and people did, in the end, get the fuck up and dance.

At the end, a side curtain arose and a feast of samosas appeared, instantly obliterating the 90-minutes of floor-sitting pain – at least it did, if your feet hadn’t gone to sleep.

DAY THREE: SUNDAY
Sunday’s lineup was different in that it was run in conjunction with The Now Now and Liquid Architecture. Billed as OVERGROUND: A FESTIVAL WITHIN A FESTIVAL, the shows on the day were all short yet sweet – sometimes just fifteen minutes long – as they were collaborative, and, it seemed, improvised on the spot. Festival curator Sophia Brous – whose work I somehow managed to consistently miss – was everywhere on the day, checking stuff out and supporting the players.

There was a lot of great stuff going on – I checked out nine groupings, though I was taking it easy – but to my mind there were two sets that really stood out: the combination of Oren Ambarchi and Zeena Parkins in the State Theatre Rehearsal Room (which provided sculpted drone and explosive prepared harp exploration) and the noise insanity of Jon Hunter, Makoto Kawabata, Kusum Normoyle and Rohan Rebeiro at the Playhouse Stalls Foyer, which was pure explosive fucking brutality. Easily my picks of the day, for sure.

Oren Ambarchi and Zeena Parkins

The problems I had with this day are the problems I have with improv stuff in general. Don’t get me wrong: I fucking love spontaneous composition, or difficult listening, or whatever you’d like to call it. I’m a noise and farting sax kind of man. But sometimes, it just doesn’t work – though I am profoundly aware that what isn’t working for me might be blissful jams for someone else. There were a couple of sets on the day that didn’t really gel for me, most notably the trio of Lucy Cliché, Jonnine Standish and JG Thirlwell: all great performers, yet not working as I’d’ve thought. Having said that, I was less enthused than I thought I’d be by the matching of Acid Mothers Temple with Jeremy Gustin, Dave Harrington and Scott McConnachie: though I guess it is pretty difficult to stop anything with AMT involved from sounding like, well, AMT.

I guess at the end of it, it’s not that I’m irritated by failures: to fail means you at least tried. But I am left a bit deflated when stuff doesn’t come off, because I know how magical it can be when musicians click. So it goes, I guess. And really, there was always something else going on mere steps away.

This day was perhaps the most logistically irritating for me. I’d found it pretty easy on the other days to get from gig to gig – once I’d oriented myself, that is. But Overground’s shows were held in foyer spaces, mostly, and by their nature these tended to fill very quickly, meaning that a lot of sets were aurally consumed only, because getting in or out could be a ball ache.

Sunday was also where I noticed tall dudes visually cockblocking with abandon. Part of the joy of improv is seeing how it all happens, and at every show, there seemed to be a wall of nine-foot dudes in denim, who’d shift from foot to foot, obscuring any view anyone behind them might have had.

(I also noticed – though I’d seen it on other days too – that there were a lot of people recording not just snippets, but full sets of shows at the festival. I get taking photos – I do that, though I’m gregarious about the no-flash thing – but videoing the whole performance? Jesus man, just watch them play!)

Overground came to an end with an expanding trio: on paper it was Arrington de Dionyso, Clayton Thomas and Erkki Veltheim, their ranks swelling as their performance progressed. It was a fitting close to the day of experimentation: furious plastic piping blowing married with exploratory bass and frenetic electric violin, shards of sound that travelled around the room (literally, at times) and seemed to pull people from everywhere.

A bit of a break, and then time for the headline gigs: Nazoranai and Spiritualized. I imagine Spiritualized were great – they’ve always played well on the couple of times I’ve seen them – but I think Nazoranai was a better pick for matching my read of the festival’s intent. Spiritualized sends their audience into raptures, no doubt, but I rarely feel the performers at those shows are feeling that same rapture, that sense of anything-can-happen. That’s totally not the case with Nazoranai.

First up? This show was loud. Really fucking loud. This is something I’d expected, but it’s a different type of volume than you’d find at shows – even at O’Malley’s Sunn gigs. I saw My Bloody Valentine play at a NY ATP and they were obnoxiously loud – loud for the sake of living up to a rep – but tonight’s Nazoranai gig was loud in a way that reasserted the fact that volume is the unspoken member of the band.

Nazoranai

The gig wasn’t loud for show (although fuck, it must be fun to play through that much gear) – it was loud because that volume is used to make you feel things: to crush your head, to frighten, even. And to make you lightheaded, almost, when the volume wasn’t there. That concept of ma again, I guess.

Really, I had come to Supersense for this set. I’m a big fan of each musician in the trio, and seeing them play filled in gaps in the Nazoranai albums: it is absolutely a live thing – and a lot more joyously communal than I would have expected, especially given how introspective each man’s solo work can seem. This trio, though, is the sound of an apocalypse, and it’s dancing.

There were a couple of sections to the performance, which ran for an hour and a half. Mostly, Ambarchi’s drumming was insistent, a propulsive driver to the set. O’Malley’s prepared bass rumbled imprecations while providing a boundary for Haino’s instrumental textures to work within. From flute to table of electronics to guitar and voice and weirdly medieval-sounding miniature horn, Haino changed tack relentlessly, but always to serve the music – and always with head nodding in time with that wicked hi-hat.

O’Malley and Ambarchi refer to Haino as “the maestro” and gigs like this pretty much underscore why that is. The guy is unstoppable, and ridiculously adroit at whatever he plays. True, he works in astringent noise a lot of the time, but there’s some delightful moments in this set – I’m thinking of his opening stretch on the flute – where lovely melodies surface, only to be shadowed by decay; the worm in the apple.

I’m hoping this performance makes its way to release sometime. For a band that doesn’t rehearse, Nazoranai know how to fucking destroy more prepared musicians with ease. For something that’s billed as apocalyptic and terrible – and it is that, certainly – it was also a lot more fun than I’d anticipated.

I guess you could say the festival ended on a high. I’m pretty sure I’ll be dissecting it over the weeks to come: I’m very keen to see what happens next.

Suggestions for the next iteration? I could go on about Stars of the Lid, about Low, about Bohren & Der Club Of Gore, about the Gavin Bryars Ensemble, about Arvo Pärt, about Om, about Einstürzende Neubauten, Campbell Kneale or Merzbow – all of who would be exceptional, and who the organisers no doubt already kinda know. But really, if we’re taking music where its players are elsewhere and drags the crowd along with ’em?

Oxbow.

C’mon, make it happen. I’ll be first in line for a ticket.

 

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