You hear it before you see it. Even at a festival with bands as loud as Birmingham’s Supersonic, the screeching yowl emanating from artist Justice Yeldham’s vinyl rally is audible from far off in the Custard Factory venue.
© Supersonic Festival
Following the sound to its source reveals a giant remote-controlled car race track beneath the illuminated railway arches which loom over festival-goers. Appropriately enough for an event which aims to explore the more adventurous side of music and art, this is no mere oversized Scalextric set.
The 3-D rollercoaster of a track is built of crates, with a surface consisting entirely of abandoned vinyl records. Two remote-controlled cars, chassis removed to reveal the electronic innards beneath, whizz around the course.
The deafening scream is not coming from the cars themselves, but is a product of the record player needles stuck to their undercarriages that are being dragged across the record-covered track. Their output is being amplified by two arcade machine-style booths, where the vehicles’ controllers sit at the wheel with looks of grim determination.
Instead of a computer simulation on the screens, they see a live video link-up from the vehicle they control. The sound vibrating their seats can be altered with a series of pleasingly tactile knobs and dials with names like ‘oscillator’ and ‘ring modulator’. A crowd forms around them, waiting their turn and watching with amused curiosity.
It’s a disconcerting mix of the retro and modern, the contemporary technology used to realise the Rally melded with visual signifiers of eras past.
The stark physicality of the cars and records, the sense of actually controlling something that exists in a physical space rather than a digital representation, evokes a firmly analogue approach to music and entertainment that is a world away from the sleek lines of an iPod and the invisible world of the downloadable media file.
The rally isn’t the only way to gets hands on this weekend. Five minutes’ walk away festival goers are queued up in the Eastside Projects gallery waiting for a chance to jam with alt-rock royalty and artist in more senses than one, Kim Gordon.
Okay, she’s not quite there in person – this is ‘Reverse Karaoke’, where punters play along to Gordon’s vocal line using some of the suitably rocking instruments strewn around the room.
The impromptu beat combos that form from the queue even get to take away a CD of their performances which, it has to be said, tend to veer towards the more atonal end of the musical spectrum - though the Sonic Youth front woman would doubtless not have it any other way.
Even the free life drawing classes come with a difference. Attendees were promised the chance to draw a ‘semi-tame wildman’ and that’s what we get, though mercifully his hairy and tailed form is obscured by an opaque screen, rendering him in silhouette.
He’s here as a very visible manifestation of a theme running through some of the festival’s artistic exploration this year: the mythical potential of the nearby River Rea, with its hidden history of beasts and spirits.
The hirsute showman strikes a variety of poses for the chuckling artists, occasionally pausing to scratch his nether regions. Our efforts range from impressionistic inky swirls to careful charcoal etchings; all are dutifully stuck up on the wall by encouraging host Stephen Fowler for the appreciation of passersby.
As befits a festival currently celebrating its tenth birthday, its organisers Capsule have arranged a special meal for guests, friends and associates. Created by nomadic artistic collective Companis, this ‘bespoke dining experience’ revolves entirely around sound.
On entry to the dining hall guests are given plastic ponchos to wear over their clothes, then get gin and tonic poured down their throats from above - which they are encouraged to gargle with.
Each bubble-wrapped table has a microphone attached, the better to hear the sound of soup slurped through straws and the chopping, smashing and mixing of a very musical salad. The Eton Mess desert is indeed messy, eaten as it is with bare hands - once we’ve whipped our own cream with our non-electric whisks, that is.
Much like the festival itself, it’s loud, innovative, occasionally disorienting, and very enjoyable – the perfect way to celebrate ten years of sonic and artistic adventure.
Supersonic Festival took place in various venues in Birmingham, October 19 - 21. For more information see supersonicfestival.com