Supernormal: Neon Nettles Review Of A Very Different Kind Of Festival
For lovers of Punk, Jazz, art and all thing unusual.
As a child growing up in Cornwall, before the Internet was much of a thing, I was yearly taken to the Royal Cornwall Show. I have many happy, wholesome memories, and it certainly got me out of the house, but, in the baking sun, flashing in and out on the periphery was a feeling, especially as I grew older: God, is this it?
The factory fresh tractors, rows of livestock for sale and for show, the endless queuing and West Country carney barking and gossipy chatter about surprise royal visits. So many things you could never afford to take home, and wouldn't see for another year, an eternity.
Coming forward to August 2014, I attended Supernormal Festival, an event saturated in a feeling of post-collapse, humming with discordant experimental guitar noise, as though some filmic crisis of civilisation had occurred, the kind Jared Diamond discusses in his bestsellers, like all the meat had run out and the oil dried up, and some semblance of equilibrium having returned after the initial chaos, horizontalist hippies and experimental artists took it upon themselves to steward the royal charter into brave new ground, humbler, scaled back, but also infinitely more, full of synchronicities and, as one of the co-founders calls them, ‘happenings’ waiting to find you.
And so Supernormal combines the bucolic serenity of a country fair with even a roast hog thrown in, but with the excitement of a cutting edge music festival and the dramatic tension of successful dadaist performance art.
I say cutting edge, but all too aware of how easy it is to slip into trashy cliches and neat tick-boxes when writing, I’m reminded of Tim Smit discussing his dislike of empty buzz phrases, such as ’cutting edge’, and how ‘bleeding edge’ is presumably when you’ve pushed too far and incurred organ rupture.
Smit, the ‘creative visionary’ behind Eden Project and the participatory Big Lunch, former recovering disillusioned musician/producer, recounts an experience he had giving a talk to the Historic Houses Association and managing to alienate the entire room with his opening remarks: ‘If you can’t dream in it, if don’t feel like getting drunk in it, and you’re not inspired to make love in it, then for fuck’s sake tarmac it.’
If Supernormal is cutting edge, it is so for exactly what it doesn’t do: it doesn’t treat you as just a consumer, or as a test pool for prototype surveillance systems, as a faceless challenge of sanitation, alcohol distribution and country lane traffic congestion.
The participatory theatre strays beyond the safe confines of toffee apple bobbing and inappropriate cupping of country maid’s arses and generally just getting fucked while watching Mumford and Sons. Supernormal is, then, a throwback, to simpler times in modern music history, and very much in line with Smit’s vision for estate houses.
Not that I’m against systematised sanitation or even profit for that matter, and while I'm at it I remain a bitter clinger in feeling that Laura Marling is unfairly lumped in with all the rest of nu-folk, but all things in balance, and currently we cohabit a catastrophically unbalanced global civilisation. Supernormal, while being conscientious of this, doesn’t presume or pretend to offer any solutions, but it does begin with the vital step of asking the right questions, like: Why? Why can’t we try something else? Why do we have to be like everyone else?
I arrived Friday afternoon, off the bus from Reading, down the road from Brazier’s Park.
I rendezvoused with a group of friends, some of whom had been before, but most hadn’t. When I quote from them, to avoid unnecessary confusion, I shall refer to them as Super Best Friend Alex, Super Best Friend Violet, and so forth.
In case you didn’t know or hadn’t participatorily counter-checked this article already, Supernormal is run by Brazier’s Park School of Integrative Social Research, based in the Gothic revival Brazier’s Park House: a crash pad for the landed classes run as an integrative and sustainable community project and artist’s residency. Unlike National Trust properties, where everything is static, and apart from the odd vegetable garden, are rarely much practical use beyond being vaguely educational 3D museum exhibits, here everything is in use, and open to the elements.
Cobwebs abound in the sheds and outbuildings and hedgerow festival toilets. Swallows darted in and out as Phil Minton’s Feral Choir (imagine Maynard James Keenan + choir actually on hallucinogens, howling under the stars, as opposed to just singing about being on hallucinogens, howling under the stars) practiced in the cavernous barn, listed aptly on the program as The Barn, which became a womb-like second home during the worse excesses of Hurricane Bertha’s sporadic performances.
Dead portraits aren’t worried over at Brazier’s House. Instead, in the basement rooms and hallways, very faithful Little Prince drawings decorate the walls, and facing the front lawn is a round room encircled by joyously hysterical Tarzan and Arab film posters from Gaza.
Supernormal had been hinting at me for years, without my paying much attention to it. Friends of mine had talked of it down the pub, not quite able to convey what they had found to me, not quite able to break through my aura of urbane distraction. Words were spoken, like ‘cosmic crunk rock’ and, ‘then they put the pig’s head in one of the toilets’, but I smiled and carried on.
It turns out that I had also seen footage of R.D. Laing at Brazier’s Park in Luke Fowler’s (very Supernormal) All Divided Selves, filmed when he attended a Sigma gathering to discuss his breakaway anti-psychiatry findings and emerging psycho-spiritual philosophy. On Saturday I took part in the house tour, conducted by a former resident. Having asked about R.D. Laing’s visit, she said that he had got so appallingly fucked on booze that the next day for his talk he had to be heavily dosed up on black coffee just for him to be able to stand and give his presentation. Apparently this did not go down well with the community at the time. Whether or not they were able to see past his failings and contemplate his vision, Laing most certainly would be in favor of the festival today. It speaks directly to his proselytising for autonomous space, away from the ‘often fibrillating heartland of a senescent capitalism.’
Supernormal is also very Jungian. Much water has passed under the bridge since the 60’s and psychology has moved on, but Jung was at least on to something about the power and importance of the imagination, and how medicinal and useful it is to tap into, of the importance of letting loose. In Jung’s day the closest thing to Supernormal was the Carnival of Basel, or Basler Fasnacht: ‘In my native town Basel, every year on January 13th, three masked dancers, a griffin, a lion, and a wild man, come down the Rhine on a raft, they land and dance around the town and no one knows why.
It is an amazing thing in a modern town. These things originate before mind and consciousness. In the beginning there was action, and only afterwards did people invent opinions about them, or a dogma, an explanation for what they were doing.’
I remarked to Super Best Friend Alex upon the number of exceptional Alan Moore style beards present. He spoke of psychic attractors, that once erected draw up unto them certain frequencies of consciousness, and reminded me of something the Great Beard had said himself: before the Northampton Clown was unmasked, Moore was often asked if he was behind it. He said no, but given he had been writing about masked menaces for 30 years, he wouldn’t be surprised if it was some sort of emanation from the super-conscious realms he taps for his stories, as his writings have a strange habit of spilling into reality. Super Best Friend Violet also tells me that someone tried to place himself in her shoulder bag over the weekend, in the bar tent. A new life awaits in the off-world colonies!
The Barn, aforementioned, wonderfully solid and waterproof, with beautiful acoustics, was over the weekend turned into a makeshift chapel to discordant and meditative musical performances. Saturday evening, Maggie Niccolls kneeled at a projector that illuminated the stage wall in the dark while a saxophonist and drummer played freestyle jazz as she poured and played with chemically toxic colours on monochrome slides of religious etchings and photos of smiling babies.
It was at turns Teletubbies on a bad acid trip and, well, being in a church during a service having taken acid, not necessarily bad at all. She would surround the red-faced haloed figures with black and scrape away stars.
Acts fade in and out at Supernormal, and one-to-one dialogue is not only normally welcomed, but often essential given the somewhat fraught, shifting scheduling. At least, it was this year. Whereas at other festivals one may have a hit list of artists one wants to see, at Supernormal abrupt discovery and spontaneous dialogue is built into the framework. It’s nothing to hop from one area to the next. At one point I even saw volunteers spontaneously re-engineer one of the temporary wooden stages, saws in hand.
Away from the sound and fury of the main stages during the afternoon, in a clearing in the woods, Rachel House and her feminist cohorts were getting themselves psyched to Smash the Patriarchy - which in this iteration was a beautiful piñata hanging from the branches, full of Patriarchy Sucks lollies.
Rachel, and her shadow, both balaclaved and caped like something out of the film Super, played a wonderful comic double-act: Remember sister, it’s the system we hate, not all men, Rachel reminded, at which her lieutenant, flustered, would admonish herself for getting carried away and forgetting. Not the height of modern feminist critical theory, but that’s simply not the point.
They were accompanied by a music section, a Greek chorus heckling and cheering, and their youth brigade, friends and relatives’ children, who spun and stamped on the crumbling ruins of patriarchal dominance after we’d all had a go at it blindfolded. One male participant kept missing and eventually bowed out. INTRUDER, one of the chorus yelled. Seems he doesn’t WANT to smash the patriarchy!, a sister reflected. Rachel told me that she was a product of the punk generation: [the Silver Jubilee of Elizabeth II was] a pivotal time for me and I have never been so insulted or threatened in the street as when I wore a Stuff the Jubilee badge...It’s quite nice now to do something for people who feel like me to join in with and something that’s fun but actually does have, for me, a deep political meaning and a resonance.
And it’s good to have big sticks and its good to have lots of generations involved...I like to have things that are open to everyone, not just adults.’ Supernormal is remarkably family and child friendly, without pandering or dumbing down. Not once did I see a freakout or a tantrum. Their first exposure to acid rock and radical feminism combined in one wholesome camping trip, bless their hearts. It’s fair to say that I did quite badly at optimising my time and seeing as much as I could, but even so, the richness and variety of fare on offer still left me feeling fulfilled. My favourite new act was Esben and the Witch, headed by Rachel Davies, a crushingly tender, stormy and dreamy rock band from my original hometown of Brighton, echoed and swelled around the Shed field.
The Wharves’ double-vocalists did a perfect rendition of Kate Bush’s Army Dreamers, while Becky Becky hypnotised a fairly mellow-but-fucked dance hall tent, and suddenly there was about four mesmerised fingers pointing to my right, as one of the organisers (I think) waved a bunny mask back and forth in front of the stage lights, creating a psychedelic rainbow reflection on the tent wall, and Super Best Friend Sion enthused at what a marvellous digital drum clap effect Gemma Williams was employing.
Back in The Barn, wearing a ’FREEDOM MATTERS’ t-shirt, Seth Ayyaz performed ‘the bird ghost at the zaouia’, improvised breaking waves of glitch, algorithmically transposing, transporting. His website adumbrates: ‘Each time the work is listened to it is different, perceptually framed by what comes before and what follows. The work deconstructs and reconfigures recordings made at various Zaouia (Sufi shrines), mosques and religious spaces in Morocco, Egypt, Syria, and Lebanon while attending a series of Lilat, Dhikr, or Zar ceremonies between 2002 and 2011. At the request of the respective religious leaders, no “musical” material played during the various ceremonies has been used. I found birds, resonant tails, breathes, overheard conversations, adhan and extraneous sounds floating in, sounds that where left behind and not framed as part of “music”.
For me, the alternating of ‘organic’ heartbeat rhythms and Arab audial motifs with the metal rain of reverberating, tinnitus metal hammering, evoked the war-zone of Gaza, the abrupt, gun-grey discontinuity of the separation barrier wall. Later that day, Teeth of the Sea, live, and clearly heartened by their surroundings, this being their second Supernormal as far as I know, were kind of like the musical becoming of 80’s sci-fi fantasy, for a person of my generation, actualised, like, you know, as good as you remember it. How it used to make you feel before your adult self went back and reviewed it. An earnest sense of boundless adventure. Sort of what Muse try and capture in Knights of Cydonia, but without the performative self-consciousness or need to stick to any formal radio-edit formula. As I said to them in passing outside the bar tent, they fucking rocked. They in turned complimented my t-shirt. What more could you ask?
Sunday afternoon, sat just outside the Dance Hall Tent on some hay, Richard Dawson’s bardic crying rang out; perhaps a long-lost relative of Tom Waits, in the corner of a roadside inn somewhere near Reading, or maybe Bree, or Mole’s Town, ale in hand, drowning in soaring and tumbling extemporised pathos.
I was hypnotised, as were several hundred other people who were seated in front of the stage, as more sidled in. Before I joined them, Super Best friend Alex turned to me outside and remarked that this is the sort of moment, spinning in the bardo realm of the hangover, when the unsuspecting rube that he usually manages to drag along exclaims you brought me here, you did this! MY THERMOS FLASK LEAKS PARSNIP SOUP ON THE METAL, sang Dawson, bent over, straining and pulling and uncoiling the words from his innermost solar plexus.
Sunday's headline act, The Cosmic Dead, 'Scotland's foremost Hawkwind tribute band', tore a new rift in the already patchy space-time continuum of Brazier's Park. After a 15 minute improvised soundcheck, in which James T. McKay repeatedly asked for his mic to be turned louder, as being deafened by his own voice is the only thing that gets him off anymore, one of his bandmates informed us that, really, he has such a lovely voice, and then McKay shot back in a goblin growl: 'Tell me more, tell me more, like does she have a cunt.'
By the time they reached their second song, the anti-conformist Jazz is Rubbish, Super Best Friend Alex turned to me: 'This is why Hadrian built the wall.' There was more crowd surfing during their gig than the entire weekend, and none of the Super Best Friends had ever seen them play this giddy or furiously.
It mayhaps had something to do with the super-moon that was staring them down atop the hilly incline in front of the stage, and as they screamed into the light rigging, giants' shadows assembled across the tree line behind them, thrown into relief by the green floodlights. According to Wikipedia at least, Brazier's Park was once owned by an Ernest Moon, a House of Commons parliamentarian, and later his widow Lady Moon.
If they were looking down, whatever they thought of the Glaswegian's pro-Scottish independence jogs in-between songs is a matter I am simply not high enough to presume to guess at, but, all portents that night seemed to be saying 'Yes', take it, the ancestors are with you.
Very much later that night, SBF Alex + Sion and I went for a stroll. The giants were still stumbling about the trees, an asexual bacchanal scream rang out while the silent disco tent swayed and stumbled to god-knows-what, and in a near-pitch dark clearing we encountered a group listening to hip-hop.
I briefly turned my torch on, and a gruff voiced demanded I turn it off. Elves, we determined, clearly - best leave them to it. The Super duo asked me what I had made of the festival overall. I said something like: what stands out is just how fluid everything is. At a lot of modern mega-gigs and mainstream festivals - with honourable exceptions - the artists are placed on display, from afar, like something in a museum, at best a sort of interactive exhibit that you can sing along with take a photo in front of.
At Supernormal, you wake up a spitting distance from the main acts in the tent area, and the woods come alive at night to the hooting of owls and invisible, rowdy gatherings. Supernormal doesn’t preach, it accommodates. It caters for vegans as well or nearly as well as it does for carnivores, for jazz fans as well as Cosmic Dead devotees. It is critical of mainstream culture but pretty much avoids being worthy or precious. It would be wrong to say I hope Supernormal grows, as that’s possibly missing the point. Rather, I hope it puts down further roots and strengthens its hold on the imagination. It is something incredibly vital. Having completely sold out the event, I’m sure they’ll do OK.
Monday morning. Exiting festival. As we get to the main car entrance, a white van pulls out, full of hair. It was the Cosmic Dead. They and I smile at each other, and wave goodbye. I conveyed what had just occurred to Super Best Friend Alex: ‘Didn’t offer us a lift though, did they? Bastards.’