Festival Review: Supernormal, Oxfordshire

It’s hard to write an accurate account of Supernormal because a) it’s just slightly too surreal to capture in writing, rather than tape loops or gong-based, Ganesh-inspired performance art, and b) it’s hard to let everyone know how excellent it is for fear everyone else turns up and ruins it. But curmudgeonliness and journalistic failings aside, imagine a festival built around a “difficult/experimental” art and music niche that’s at once tiny and all-encompassing. Where the lineup means nothing and everything; where National Trust-style houses and cream teas merrily co-exist with Nanas from Space yelling “acid”, small children in neon ear protectors, east London art types, Scousers that still use the term “disco biscuits” and a standout act being a man with a carpet on his face, seemingly pretending to be an anthropomorphised slice of toast.

Friday’s highlights were Housewives, a London band usually seen in total darkness, lit only by shuddering strobe lighting and a collective realisation that they’re one of the most exciting live bands around at the moment. Here though, they played in daylight, but that didn’t hinder things; if anything, it showed that they’re more than the smoke and mirrors afforded by luminary trickery, and are a taut, brilliant and highly innovative take on post-punk angularity and barely verbal vocal delivery.

Cider is served from large kegs, demarcated by worryingly high ABVs. “That’s a conservative estimate,” says a chipper barmaid, pointing at the 7.4% Brain Biter variant. “With that one, you’ll end up in a hedge.” Reader, I confess. I vomited.

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Prior to seeing the Brain Biter for the second time, however, more salubrious happenings unfolded. This is the sort of festival where no one bats an eyelid that a band called Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs is one of the best-known on the bill, and so they shouldn’t as we see them stomp through their peculiarly catchy brand of doom-led, Krautrock-inflected space rock. Later that night is the vaguely more accessible Girlsweat. Alluringly, the description offered by Supernormal name-checks karaoke-like cutie John Maus and Thee Oh See’s John Dwyer’s other band Coachwhips as influences, but naturally Girlsweat is nothing like either. But that’s beside the point really, as he’s magical in a way that it’s rather hard to pin down; despite vocals that mumble like Alan Vega and no shortage of full-bleed noise and reverb, it’s one of the most charmingly poppy performances of the festival, delivered by a man spotted around the site at various points living a life that can only be described as totally, unself-consciously  bonkers.

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For those looking for a festival experience a little less totally bonkers, Saturday morning brought a raft of genteel delights, including yoga, cream teas in Brazier’s House, life drawing and, er, death metal aerobics(face paint included). Nothing here is truly as it seems. When is a dart board not a dart board? Here, of course, where it’s an art installation mysteriously but perhaps unimaginatively called “Let’s…play…darts.”

In a day and age where we’re constantly bombarded with good tidings about “millennials” and their openness to alternative approaches to gender, community, modes of self-expression and identity politics – our only evinces being body postivity hashtags and “curated” Instagram feeds, Supernormal presents these alternatives and acceptances with no need for footnotes, hashtags, or indeed any 21st Century means of technologically driven communication. If that all sounds hippieish and Utopian, well I’m afraid it is. No one here seems to be doing the “I’m zany, me!” act, or indeed being a dick in any discernible way whatsoever. Everyone really just muddles along with each other, and when most people here seem to be making some sort of obtuse racket, that’s something rather powerful.

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Take Isn’tses, for instance. This little duo spent the festival wandering about in sequins and wrestler masks shouting through a portable set-up of DIY circuit-bent synth boxes and distortion, but didn’t seem in the least bit out of place doing so in a quiet woodland enclave. Just over the hill from them, a kind primary school teacher-esque lady was leading a “noize choir” session in a barn. It’s very surreal, but in a way seems to tie in with the endless chatter of the modern world, and the need for “mindfulness” we see preached so often to counteract it. Once you start hearing the beauty in a noisy coffee machine or the revving of an engine, the world is suddenly not a mass irritant, but simply a very interesting sound collage.

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Taking a more traditional route over on The Shed stage, The Early Years played a superb set of driven, determined and Damo Suzuki-endorsed psychedelia; followed over on the Red Kite stage by festival highlight Bas Jan. This all-girl outfit features Serafina Steer, battling on through with one arm in a sling, and sound a little like Electrelane, tackling otherworldly harmonies and narratives about Anglo Saxon burial grounds with deft dexterity and luscious arrangements. Take your eyes from the stage, though, and who do you see? But of course! It’s Bowie and Prince (a tall man in a ruff bearing a striking resemblance to the Thin White Duke, and a short smiling woman resplendent in military jacket and drawn-on moustache). They’re gearing up for Bowie vs Prince karaoke, which by all accounts, did their late namesakes proud.

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Where at other festivals whispered rumours might concentrate on Terry Wogan’s death or Brexit, here it was about a secret act that few (us included) had previously heard of. By Sunday, everyone was very excited indeed about some cryptic symbols written near the Vortex stage hinting that Glasgow band The Cosmic Dead were to appear. When they did, in a flurry of hair and space rock, you could see why everyone was getting so animated. Both expertly tight and delightfully irreverent, they veered between impassioned praise for the festival and for experimental music itself, and hilarious quips about both. In a song about how much they loved jazz (“we’ve been reading Wire magazine, the sponsors, and it turns out it’s really fucking good,” they said). Lyrically, it was something like this: “Jazz is fucking brilliant…Lovely jubbly!”

Moments like this cement that fact that Supernormal is a glorious antidote to mediocrity, normalcy and modern life itself. Lovely jubbly indeed.

Review by Emily Gosling
Photography by Richard Edkins
supernormalfestival.co.uk

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