Sónar 2017 report


Sónar’s Barcelona edition this year was the highest attended in its 24-year history with 123,000 visitors. Featuring more than 140 music performances across nine stages, acts included HVOB, Floorplan, Keys N Krates and Nadia Rose by Day; Justice, Moderat, Eric Prydz, Soulwax and Dubfire by Night. Mike Barnard reports from the three days of Sónar (with a little help from Laura Jones).

The curation, sound, set flow and organisation continue to be Sónar’s strengths.

Thursday

An early arrival was made to Sónar by Day on Thursday, June 15th as we were keen to see the first performance of the Entropy scientific lecture that would take us on a cosmic journey soundtracked by Dopplereffekt. But first we assembled in SónarVillage for some refreshment in the sun where Tutu was welcoming the first visitors with ambient beats and found sounds, including birdsong, which produced a soothing entry point for the day ahead. We got our bearings and then moved to SonarComplex where a line snaked back from the auditorium with Entropy a must-see for many already on-site.

We welcomed the chance to sit in an air conditioned space, knowing only that we’d be getting a lesson in the life of the universe from beginning to end. When the lights dropped, astronomer and cosmologist Dr. Dida Markovic introduced us to the idea of the show which would visualise the formation of our universe in ultra slow motion, then take in its development of our galaxy, the Milky Way, through to eventual darkness as every star expires. To do this, we’d be treated to computer graphic demonstrations of real astronomical data designed by the digital arts label Antivj in collaboration with a group of creative coders led by Elie Zananiri. These were formed on a set of LED screens at the back of the stage as well as projected onto a clear screen at the front to form an engrossing 3D effect. This initially helped us to understand the complex reactions between particles and gasses at the point of the Big Bang. Dr. Markovic stood between the two sets of images as our guide, and we’d soon be joined by Dopplereffekt at either side of the stage armed with their synths and music composed specifically for Entropy which would enhance the experience further.

Dopplereffekt’s dark electro presented a foreboding audio experience matching the fate which will befall us.

One of the highlights of Entropy was witnessing the formation of our sun via magnetic forces which saw white lines representing particles slowly build up across the 3D space in front of us while Doppleffekt’s dramatic soundscape evolved. As we went on to look at the present and future of the universe, Dopplereffekt’s dark electro presented a foreboding audio experience matching the fate which will befall us, however this was far from an oppresive subject - this was one of wonder.

After the scientific lesson of Entopy, we needed some playtime and got it in spades over the course of the rest of the day. BFletcha’s poppy take on dubstep and trap told through her new album Kwalia was like a light refreshment ahead of the live deep house set from Rumore which peaked at a hypnotic rhythm on the SonarVillage stage. We’d take a look at the SonarDôme where Christian Tiger School were combining jazz with drum & bass for a fluid performance aided a live drummer to add more emphatic beats than their electornic equipment could provide. We’d have a blast - and win a pair of socks - at the Adidas van by playing a version of Arkanoid, then we headed back to the Village where Italian Bawrut was playing funky electro before Princess Nokia took to the stage.

Boasting an abundance of energy, Princess Nokia, aka Wavy Spice, aka Destiny Frasqueri, launched herself onto the stage with serious attitude. The New York MC displayed none of the luxury aesthetics of modern trap queens and R&B figures, wearing a simple top, bottoms, trainers and necklace, while preferring to focus on bounding around the stage rather than rap over every line played by her DJ. Indeed, she jumped into an extended crowd surf for the start of ‘Mine’, though she did slow down proceedings with the sultry ‘Green Line’ midway through her 30 minute set before finishing with the drum & bass backed ‘Dragons’. This the first set to really work the Sónar crowd into a sweat in what would be heatwave conditions for the whole festival.

We’d next be treated to the second visual spectacular of the day as SonarPLANTA hosted Daito Manabe’s augmented immersive experience ‘phosphere’, which was receiving its world premiere. Entering into a darkened room, we were presented with a circle of video projectors, synchronised mirrors, a smoke machine and spotlights which would produce different results according to the place of the audience. Fortunately for us, the time we visited there was a special presentation with dancers that was part ballet, part light show. In the first piece we saw, the movements of the performers would produce patterns that started with the wave of an arm or leg project out across the floor or into the smoke-filled air. But this was merely a taster. In the second piece a single performer repeated a short dance at various points in the room until we suddenly realised we could see her shape within the lights, as though the light had taken her form for a brief time. A truly outstanding project, and a fine addition to the SonarPLANTA history, the dedication of the festival to the advancement of technology in performance continues to dig up some of the most future-thinking projects.

Our day would finish with a glut of performances across the stages. Forest Swords’ lush electronica at SonarHall was captivating, a Kim Jong-un masked DJ Bus Replacement Service on the new SonarXS stage for new artists was a conundrum who blasted through a plethora of genres and RP Boo produced a lesson in the footwork genre he originated armed with a beaming smile. RP Boo wins the entertainer award among those three as he showed off his dance moves in front of the decks and brought his collection of rare footwork cuts.

For the final sets we’d get down front and centre as Prins Thomas closed his set with the dramatic orchestral blast of Harry Thumann’s ‘Underwater’ ahead of HVOB. Their live set of deep mid-tempo techno and melancholic vocal pop as the sun’s rays grew weaker was a thrilling experience that set up the eclectic stylings of fabric resident Craig Richards nicely. Dressed in a Hawaiian shirt with vinyl and digital tracks on the go, he cooked up a treat of a set as be moved from mixer to turntable to CDJ while scratching and tweaking a tune selection that would take in broken beat, electro, house and techno. The SonarVillage was packed through until the final track at midnight, when darkness had descended, capping the perfect start to Sónar 2017.

Craig Richards cooked up a treat of a set as be moved from mixer to turntable to CDJ while scratching and tweaking a tune selection that would take in broken beat, electro, house and techno.

Friday

A slow start to Friday involving the beach meant we didn’t get to Sónar by Day until dusk, however the short time we were there proved rewarding. Sticking to the SonarDôme, we would first see Marie Davidson present “Bullshit Threshold”, a live performance from the Canadian blending theatrical performance, video projections and social commentary: ‘If you take drugs, you’re going to hell’ she shouted over oblique beats. The 10 acts of her show presented an array of styles and you could tell the personal element of the show meant a lot to Marie as she thanked the crowd for taking the journey with her. Next up was Floorplan, a project Detroit techno don Robert Hood opened up to daughter Lyric for last year’s Victorious album. A mix of straight up techno with disco/gospel influences, it was ‘Tell No Lie’ and ‘We Magnify His Name’ that brought the biggest cheers together with almighty sing-a-longs. It was sweet to see Robert eagerly looking over Lyric’s shoulder as she took the controls of the live performance or got to work behind the decks at the end, smiling proudly whenever he approved of her work, yet quick to jump in to assist if he felt he could. They’d round off with the more direct techno of the first Floorplan album - ‘Baby, Baby’ and ‘Never Grow Old’ were greeted with much delight. Despite a few technical issues throughout and it beig clear Robert and Lyric have not quite mastered their delivery as a duo, the roars of approval meeting their music and the look of satisfaction on the pair’s faces at the end suggests it’s only a matter of time before two Hoods are better than one.

We made a quick exit after Floorplan to get to Sónar by Night as soon as we could to see DJ Shadow, but the taxi gods were against us. We’d arrive as he was wrapping up a audio/visual show which took in his new album The Mountain Will Fall as well as classics from Endtroducing…. DJ Shadow’s dishing out of samples combined with dramatic imagery made for quite the entrance to By Night, and we’d take in a dash of the flow of Anderson .Paak & The Free Nationals on the SonarPub stage before settling at a table near SonarLab to watch Little Dragon while we snacked on some crispy chips from the nearby street food trucks.

Dressed in what looked like a neon beekeepers net, Yukimi Nagano caught the eye with her captivating presence as the Swedish band ebbed and flowed between their slow jams and more dancefloor-friendly electro stylings. Always ones to ramp up the energy for their live shows, this was a lively performance that led us nicely into Moderat at SonarClub. The output of Apparat and Modeselektor together has never quite hit the highs of their first album, but the two that have followed have brought with them tunes that have fitted nicely into their dramatic live shows. They use selections from each as they built to a series of powerful crescendos that belie their subtle pacing and soft vocals which expand to engulf even a main room the size of SonarClub. We’d initially attempt to get up close, however the searing heat and dense crowd meant standing back was advisable unless you liked to get drenched in other people’s sweat. Nevertheless, their black and white visuals were effective wherever we stood, and fan favourites such as ‘A New Error’ and ‘Rusty Nails’ were as effective as ever. ‘Running’ and ‘Ghostmother’ from last year’s album ensured Moderat provided some freshness to their third appearance at Sónar while ‘Bad Kingdom’ made an appearance from their second LP. Now an accomplished group with a real journey to their live sets, Moderat proved their peak time credentials tonight.

After a regroup, we left the somewhat uninspiring Jacques Greene DJ set to catch the legends that are Masters at Work in the SonarCar circle of red curtains. The iconic decor gave the impression you were entering the Black Lodge of Twin Peaks on first arrival where Kenny Dope and Louie Vega would be found for the duration of the Friday night dropping tracks such as Harry Romero’s ‘Chromium’ and The Martinez Brothers’ ‘No Pop’. The pair were in a far more vibrant mood than when we had popped in before Moderat, and the crowd were responding to their upping of the tempo with plenty of bodyshaking to their grooves. Another house music icon, Derrick Carter, would draw our attention at SonarPub, however his somewhat stoic performance belied an astute tune selection. Somehow that zing you need at 4am wasn’t forthcoming from Carter even with the inclusion of Kevin Saunderson’s ‘Bassline’ to spice proceedings up.

We decided to get an adrenaline rush of our own on the legendary bumper cars that had been re-positioned at the back of SonarClub where we could smash into fellow revellers while Soulwax played in the background. It proved a good move, most evident when a foolish driver grasping the steering wheel in one hand and a pint in the other fell foul of our driving, splashing his beer everywhere. With the sounds of Deewee in our ears, it was a perfect conclusion to a hectic, and very hot night, at Sónar.

Now an accomplished group with a real journey to their live sets, Moderat proved their peak time credentials tonight.

Saturday

An even slower start to Saturday means I hand over to *zap! bang! Magazine affiliate Laura Jones to fill in the details of Sónar by Day…*

Entering day three of the festival to the strains of ‘Human Heart’, I see a small, but not insignificant, crowd gathering in the afternoon sun for Joe Goddard’s live show. Many more were shuffling under the shade to ‘Ordinary Madness’, guest vocalist Valentina’s voice soaring as Joe was looping beats, twiddling knobs and eliciting fizzes, bleeps and distortions from the huge console in front of him. Then, flying solo, and taking us on the journey through more of the new album, he began coaxing the audience into the sunshine for the euphoric ‘Lose Your Love’ and, aptly, ‘Children of the Sun’. Halfway through, and bringing Valentina out again to an appreciative crowd, her soft heartfelt warbling laced with menace on ‘Gabriel’ tempered the light with the shade. ‘Music is the Answer’ got hands in the air and the crowd singing, before Joe, imparting sage advice on the wearing of sunscreen in the hot weather, departed the stage.

Speaking of the heat, Nadia Rose was on fire! Wearing her trademark baby-spice buns (the very same that grace her EP cover Shooting Flames), there is nothing sweet about this girl, she brings the noise! Leading the swelling crowd through ‘Sqwod’ and ‘Tight Up Skirt’, her flows were tighter than those hair buns. Then, unexpectedly dropping Daniel Beddingfield’s ‘Gotta Get Thru This’ to the delight of British and international revellers alike, she kicked it into fifth gear. The highlight of the set was ‘Crank It’, the George Kwali and Kideko summer banger she guested on last year. Leaving the stage, her DJ spun dancehall classics like ‘Murder She Wrote’, transporting us to the sunny Caribbean via Spain.

Guest vocalist Valentina’s voice soaring as Joe Goddard was looping beats, twiddling knobs and eliciting fizzes, bleeps and distortions from the huge console in front of him.

Touted as one show ‘not-to-be-missed’ on many muso lists, a packed SonarHall nodded to the beats and bleeps of Nosaj Thing, while visual artist Daito Manabe provided scenes both retro, reminiscent of early CAD, and futuristic, with bold black and white graphics pulsing to the rhythms. I left feeling like I could see what the hype was about.

Another hyped act next, and I defy anyone to not like Thundercat, whose infectious love of noodling baselines cut through any pretension there could have been here today. As the antithesis of calculated, machine-created techno, Stephen Bruner was creating as he went. With just a bass, his drummer (dripping with sweat in the humid, curtained SonarDôme space) and supplemented by synths that have, for me, made his recent album Drunk his best yet, he bridges the worlds of digital and analogue. Wigging out on extended versions, he seemed reluctant to leave the stage. Although arriving late, he was more than welcome to stay. Asking the crowd to wish Kendrick Lamar, (paraphrasing) ‘one bad mo fo’, happy birthday, it felt like he could ask anything of the crowd and we would oblige.

I wouldn’t be able to write without mentioning the street food experience, which was varied and tasty, and for every pocket and appetite. Gluten intolerances and meat-free options were clearly catered for. Over the three days I sampled Keralan fried chicken, from Massala 73; a big carton of nachos from Corazón de Agave that came topped with a huge helping of health-giving fresh tomatoes; organic burger van Fileteando kept the pace as one of the most popular trucks, screaming out orders to a hungry crowd; and €3 slices of tasty Pizzes Tarradellas that were most reveller’s choice to keep on dancing. Sushi or Spanish sandwiches were also on the menu, and for desserts: smoothies, gelato or crepes. Eating was definitely not cheating for those in it for the long haul. (Thanks Laura).7

The shift in gear required to go from Sónar by Day to Sónar by Night was helped along by the immediate bassline wonk that came from TQD - the ‘DJ supergroup’ made up of Royal-T, DJ Q and Flava D. Their penchant for big drops into wobbly bass made for a lively first set at SonarLab with remixes of ‘Renegade Master’ and ‘Inner City Life’ hitting the spot nicely. Though they never quite seem to justify the need for six hands behind the decks, their mere presence exudes attitude and geared us up for the night.

We’d next head over to SonarClub for Justice who came with banks of synths and a set of moving lights which rose, fell and tiled about them. Their set, much of it dedicated to their 2007 album , was a scatty affair as they let songs build but rarely linger. ‘Phantom’, ‘Stress’ and ‘Waters of Nazareth’ got the most from the beefy soundsystem which seemed to easy reverberate around the huge space, the bass driving the songs on. Of course it had to be ‘We Are Friends’ to feature in the final moments - a song that once help usher in the French electro of Ed Banger to mainstream clubland, yet now seems so twee. Nevertheless, Justice showed they are still a force to be reckoned with if they could just nail a new album with the same forward-thinking approach to beats as their first.

Vitalic brought a dynamic lighting rig that included a shape-shifting series of square LEDs that would morph into various forms above his head to suit the tune he was playing.

Head High’s ‘Rave’ greeted us when we ducked into the six-hour Seth Troxler and Tiga back-to-back session at SonarCar as the pair got stuck into some acid vibes, we’d then catch the end of the comforting Beautiful Swimmers set at SonarLab which ended with what felt like a collective hug ahead of the rolling, atmospheric techno of Marcel Dettmann back-to-back with Dr. Rubenstein. We got lost in their dark beats, then headed along to the final live set for the weekend - Vitalic’s ODC show.

A huge crowd had gathered at SonarPub for the Frenchman who brought a dynamic lighting rig that included a shape-shifting series of square LEDs that would morph into various forms above his head to suit the tune he was playing. Vitalic lent heavily on his disco-infused Voyager album released earlier this year with ‘Waiting for the Stars’, ‘Use it or Lose it’ and ‘Lightspeed’ while ‘Second Lives’ and ‘Poison Lips’ from Flashmob were ramped up to the max. Between the hits, Vitalic played around with synth rumblings which didn’t always segue ideally into the next recognisable tune, however the impact of ‘My Friend Dario’ and ‘La Rock 01’ could never be derailed by such deliberation - especially with such eye-catching visuals to sustain interest. If Vitalic can nail those intermissions with something more purposeful, this will be a more effective show as a whole.

We’d finish our night at the stripped-back SonarLab where Hunee and Daphni were teaming up for their first ever back-to-back. You’d never think it as the two played off each other perfectly throughout their two hours, first serving up a warm electronic hour to bring the Dettmann and Rubenstein crowd round from their Berlin techno dreams, noteably dropping Aphex Twin’s ‘Analogue Bubblebath’ as the sun began to rise over the outdoor arena. With an hour still to go, they shifted gear into disco with Daphni showcasing new tunes from his album including a song about a question that had everyone desperate to get ID for, but all that’s emerged is it may be on his Fabriclive album due at the end of July. Ending on ‘You Can be a Star’ by Luther Davis Group - an edit of which will also be on said record - teased smiles of even the most tired raver after a immensely satisfying night.

With the curation, sound, set flow and organisation continuing to be Sónar’s strengths, their 25 anniversary will be a fascinating edition to watch unfold in the coming months. The one area to improve on must be the situation at the bars where it would take up to 30 minutes to be served at Sónar by Night. For a space so vast, this surely can be fixed - it’s never felt like it’s taken so long in the past. A minor quibble, perhaps, but one that needs to be addressed. See you next year Sónar!

The 25th anniversary of Sónar will be held on from Wednesday, June 13th to Saturday, June 16h in 2018. The next Sónar events around the world are: Buenos Aires (November 26th), Bogotá (December 2nd), Reykjavík (March 16th and 17th), Hong Kong (March 17th) and Istanbul (March 30th and 31st). Icelandic band Sigur Rós will headline the two Latin American festivals. For details go to sonar.es.

Saturday By Day report by Laura Jones.

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