On this, its 19th installment, Sonar International Festival of Advanced Music and Multimedia Art proved just how important an event it has become on the international music calendar. Despite the worst global economic downturn in decades, particularly acute in Spain, Barcelona still welcomed over 90,000 festival goers and countless more that came seeking the delights offered up by the unofficial festival counterweight “Off-Sonar”. For a city with a population of 1.5 million, the impact and atmosphere created by this sudden influx of debaucherous and wide-eyed ravers, wedded with the ever-present thud of heavy bass and kickdrums that echo through winding streets and courtyards, is astounding. In comparison to places like London, where any outdoors event held within city limits is plagued by the obtrusive and over-bearing hand of noise regulation and complaining residents, the complete and utter disregard for such concerns is one of the contributory factors to what makes Sonar so unique.
Sonar’s birthplace and spiritual home is the Catalan capital, however this year’s edition was the culmination of yet another world-tour of the Sonar brand. Having already set foot in 24 different cities, in 2012 the festival travelled across the Atlantic for Sonar Sao Paulo, SonarSound Tokyo and A Taste of Sonar at Design Indaba in Cape Town. Whilst much-maligned by traditionalists, who pine for its early days as a bastion of techno, techno and nothing but techno, the festival’s embrace of a wider range of music, a wider audience and a global appeal is one of the very things that could see Sonar survive. Whilst the brand grows, so too does its shadow as with each year that passes, Off-Sonar plays host to a greater number of DJs and producers, filling every bar, club, beach and pool with those seeking either cheaper or more avant-garde forms of entertainment.
Thursday kicked off at the venue which year after year plays host to some of the most sought-after parties on the Off-Sonar calendar, the W Hotel. This event, Save the Day featured the likes of Theo Parrish and Cobblestone Jazz, the trio formed by the consistently excellent Matthew Jonson. Positioned at the tip of the peninsula separating the port from the Barceloneta beach, the hotel itself is a striking piece of architecture, rising high above the sea like a massive glass sail. Walking up the steps towards the ever-loudening throb of bass and excited voices with the Mediterranean spreading out before you, the anticipation of that first taste of Sonar weekend is second to none, and all the more marked in retrospect when viewed through fatigued and apathetic post-Sonar eyes.
Cobblestone Jazz were the first artists of note to perform, playing a gently pumping summery set which floated across the terrace over bodies basking in the glare of the Spanish sun. As the tempo increased, more and more people filtered onto the dance floor, huddling around the speakers as Matthew Jonson & Co. began to make the most of vocoder-inspired fun. Reaching a perfect equilibrium, where both musicians and crowd were enjoying themselves equally, the scene was set for what would be one of the standout performances of the week, Theo Parrish. To say that Theo killed it would be a massive understatement. Playing a mix of laid-back reggae, disco, soul and flat-out funk, all held together by a solid and hearty beat, each and every offering was lapped up by a crowd which had previously been doped by a mix of sunshine and Estrella Damm (the beer brewed in Barcelona which is ever present from the moment you step off the plane). Sweating profusely, he pounded on his mixer furiously, whipping everyone up into a frenzy to the extent that I was surprised there was anything left of his equipment by the time he had finished with it. It was one of those moments where everything came together and made sense – the weather, crowd and music, and cemented once and for all that he should always play in sunshine, as his talents are wasted hidden away in dark and dingy clubs.
Moving to Sonar by Day, we arrived just in time for the end of Flying Lotus’ first set of the weekend. Playing on the main SonarVillage stage, his performance was more relaxed than his appearance the following day, featuring a more diverse and eclectic selection of songs, the highlight of which was the ever crowd-pleasing “Idioteque” by Radiohead. Shortly after, in the middle of a Blastto sandwich was Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs (TEED). Wearing his totally enormous colourful headgear, and jumping around behind his decks, he was perfectly suited to bringing the first Sonar by Day to a close, encapsulating the excitement, jollity and the fleeting sense of energy that Thursday brings. Flanked by dancers, it was on playing “Garden” that the atmosphere came to a head, the squelchy electro-pop synths rolling out over a boistrous crowd in the rapidly receding daylight. “Blood Pressure”, one of the let-downs of his excellent All In Two Sixty Dancehalls EP was transformed live, its cheesiness suddenly welcome and relevant and was a shot in the arm to anyone with tired legs.
Each year, the SonarDome stage plays host to the Redbull Music Academy which showcases both new and established artists who have partaken in the corporation’s global music events schedule. This was best encapsulated on Friday afternoon, by the performance of Sonar debutant Nightwave followed directly by Flying Lotus. Nightwave, the London based but Slovenian born Maya Medvesek was one of the surprise packages of the festival. Playing a percussive set which encapsulated rap, house, R&B and Rustie tracks — for whom she has performed vocals for on “Surph” — the SonarDome tent soon filled up and began to spill out onto the surrounding courtyard. Egged on by the crowd, she returned for a quick encore before being moved almost to tears as she waved to her adoring audience.
With the venue properly warmed up for the arrival of Flying Lotus, it took mere moments before the place erupted into a mass of flaying limbs. Playing a combination of his own tracks as well as those by other artists, it was almost like a DJ set without any mixing, as each track flowed into the next in a continuous manner without any discernible effort to properly blend them. The emphasis on bass was far more acute than it had been the day before and it was lapped up by the crowd, but you could not help thinking that half of the enthusiasm was built by the reputation that preceded him. As a live performance, it ticked every box, however for a producer as talented and innovative as Mr. Ellison is, the outcome was somehow disappointing as you left feeling he could have given so much more.
Leaving SonarDome, tucked away round the corner from the rest of the stages, we returned to the main stage at SonarVillage to see Jacques Greene. Sonar by Day is hosted at one of the most charming festival venues you are ever likely to come across. Located right in the city centre, just a moments walk from the Placa Catalunya and Las Ramblas in the Centre for Contemporary Culture of Barcelona (CCCB) and the Museum of Contemporary Art (MACBA), it centers around a tree-lined courtyard flanked by impressively modern buildings on all sides. The SonarVillage stage acts as the beating heart of proceedings, and it was disappointing that despite its prominence, it was plagued by poor sound throughout the weekend. Despite this setback, Jacques Greene and his onstage companion Ango impressed with a live all-synth hardware set which lulled the crowd into a dreamy trance with intoxicating percussion and emotive vocals, culminating in a performance of “Strings of Life”.
Having learnt our lessons from last year, we headed down underground to the SonarHall stage early for one of the most anticipated sets of the weekend. For all of Sonar’s charm and for everything its organizers manage to do right, certain blindingly obvious mistakes seem to be made year after year and one of the most notable is the continued decision to host some of the most sought-after performances in the SonarHall venue. Located in the basement, it is the only stage of the daytime edition to be held indoors, and as such has a limited capacity. In 2011, Nicolas Jaar and Actress both played there amidst scenes of massive queues as festival goers strove to gain access, which begs the question why one year on they decided it would be a good idea for SonarHall to play host to John Talabot. As a Barcelona native, and producer of one of the most critically acclaimed albums of 2012 so far, he was at the top of most peoples ‘must see’ list of the weekend, yet they crammed him into one of the smallest and least accessible venues of the entire festival.
Foresight has never been so welcome however, and Talabot lived up to all the hype and delivered the best performance of the entire festival. Mainly playing tracks from the excellent FIN, his set somehow managed to get better and better as time wore on, aided ably by Pional who contributed to two of the best songs on FIN. I had wondered how his music, both darkly claustrophobic and enchantingly summery in equal measure would translate live, but all fears of disappointment dissipated within moments of the first notes being played. Favourites from the album such as “So Will Be Now”, “Destiny”, “Oro Y Sangre” and “When the Past was Present” were lined up alongside early hits like “Sunshine” and created an atmosphere that was almost sing-along without anyone actually singing along — where the entire crowd throbbed knowingly in perfect time with the music. Being Barcelona’s favourite son, the sense of Catalan pride was palpable and despite the cramped and sweaty surroundings, the atmosphere positively crackled with energy.
Along with the propensity to stage exciting and popular acts in the SonarHall stage, year after year the organizers have an annoying habit of placing some of the headliners of the night time edition quite early on. Given that Sonar by Day comes to a close at around 10 pm, the decision to have the likes of Amon Tobin and New Order play at 11 pm seems utterly ridiculous. The venue for Sonar by Night is a large expo centre near the airport which can only be accessed by public transport, the ‘free’ Sonar bus (that always ends up costing around 2 Euros) or taxi. Considering that Sonar sold over 90,000 tickets this year (not counting all the thousands of other visitors who flock to the city for Off-Sonar), the transport system for a city of Barcelona’s size is understandably placed under immense strain and thus the logistics of attempting to travel between Sonar by Day to Sonar by Night, via your apartment to change and get ready, within one hour proves time and again to be a step too far.
It was thus with mixed feelings of irritation and relief that we caught the end of Amon Tobin’s ISAM live performance. The Brazilian producer has spent the last couple of years touring the world with his ISAM show which has got to be one of the most visually impressive performances the world has ever seen. The set, a large three dimensional geometric structure which houses a cube in which Tobin performs from, is used as a screen upon which 3D projections are broadcast, the effect of which is to create an other-worldly visual display. From a large spaceship travelling through space to ambient flashes of colour to a transformer-like wall of cubes that rotate and collapse into each other, the entire performance is one in which you stand transfixed rather than dance. However, much like movies where special effects take the front seat at the expense of a good storyline or dialogue, the music in the ISAM show seems to suffer from the amount of effort put into the visuals.
One of the best features of Sonar by Night is the ease in which you can travel from stage to stage. Despite being largely held indoors, the venue is big enough to allow the ebb and flow of thousands of festival goers without creating bottlenecks and thus delays. After the end of Amon Tobin’s set, which exploded into its Jungle-y finale, we made the short journey to the main outdoors stage, the comically titled SonarPub, to see James Blake DJ. Playing a mixture of textured dark drums and ethereal vocals, laden with his trademark effects, his set was soothing, swinging between stuttered percussion and soft R&B, but suggested that he might have been better playing during the day as he failed to really get a rhythm going. In comparison to the all-out sonic warfare being waged elsewhere, his set seemed cowed somehow, particularly in view of the next act on the list.
Richie Hawtin, who despite being at the forefront of the techno scene for over 20 years still looks about 21, is a familiar face in Barcelona in June. For two years running he has appeared at the famous Boqueria Market, playing from a fruit stall, and performed at Sonar proper as recently as 2010 under his Plastikman moniker. You always know what you’re going to get when Hawtin plays, yet somehow it never gets boring. The onslaught of relentless dark minimal techno suited the cavernous and dystopic surroundings of SonarClub perfectly, battering the crowd into submission in the most violent and delicious form of sensory deprivation.
Later on in the evening, it was off to see another legend of electronic music, Squarepusher. His recently released album Ufabulum has seen a change in tack from the Warp Records man, forgoing slightly his skewed and glitchy drill and bass approach. In years gone by, catching a Squarepusher performance was an unforgettable experience, his live bass play leaving onlookers utterly transfixed like children watching a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat. In line with his new approach on Ufabulum, as demonstrated by the video for lead single “Dark Steering”, his performance was more akin to that of a DJ, aided ably by striking visuals on the screen behind him and his Daft Punk-esque headgear. Playing a mix of old and new material, the tempo was high enough to give you a nosebleed and while it is sad to see his live instrumentals fall by the wayside, it was almost equally as impressive.
The Friday edition of Sonar ended on a high, with the fun, unashamedly cheesy and generally OTT Jacques lu Cont. Stuart Price, whose many guises include Les Rhythms Digitales, The Thine White Duke and Zoot Woman, has demonstrated time and again his ear for fantastic pop songs, and performing at SonarPub under an ever brightening sky, he didn’t disappoint. Any fears of tired limbs or drooping eyelids were dispersed upon the first echoes of saturated synths, and he played hit after hit, including his wildly popular remix of “Mr Brightside” by The Killers. It was perfect music for a crowd of that size, at that particular time, and sent all and sundry off to the hour long queues for busses and taxis with a smile on their face.
Given the quality of the lineup both at Sonar itself and in the various Off-Sonar parties that take place all week, you are always left with a sense of unfulfilled potential as every choice has its repercussions. Often the best approach is to try and have your cake and eat it, and attempt to sample the best of both worlds. Of the many parties taking place on Saturday day, one of the most appealing was the pool party hosted by FACT magazine which featured, among others, appearances from Seth Troxler and Guy Gerber. Due to take place in the Olympic swimming pool on top of Montjuic, the large hill located just to the east of the centre overlooking the harbour, on paper the party promised to offer everything you could want on a Sonar Saturday: untaxing Tech-house, sun, a great view of the city, a pool and the subsequent delights only a pool can offer. As buzzkills go, there is nothing quite like turning up to a party only to find that it is nowhere to be seen. Under the unforgiving sun, the main road running across Montjuic resembled that of a half-assed zombie film as groups of people walked up and down the baking pavement looking for the party that never was. Eventually the word spread that due to licensing issues the party had been moved to another pool ’20 minutes away’ and right on queue taxis started to arrive from all directions. Despite the prevalence of taxis in Barcelona, coupled with the readiness to overcharge at every opportunity, it is striking how many drivers have absolutely no clue where anything is. 40 minutes and many diversions later, we found ourselves amongst a throng of hungover and dusty party-goers outside the new venue, which it turned out was not opening for another hour. The decision to cut our losses and return to Sonar by Day proved a wise one, as internet forums afterwards told of half-hour drinks queues, poor sound and early doors. Each choice you make has a repercussion, some worse than others.
At Sonar by Day we arrived in the midst of a DJ set by Manchester-based Star Slinger. Playing an eclectic mix of songs, including an appearance from the seemingly ever present Julio Bashmore (nothing quite indicates that you have ‘made it’ than being played constantly at Sonar — and Bashmore is seemingly 2012’s answer to Jamie xx), his set was upbeat enough to get a few people dancing, but at the same time was respectful of the collective hangover which plagues the Saturday edition of Sonar by Day each and every year. He was followed on directly by the 100% Silk showcase which began with a performance by LA Vampires. The poor sound at the SonarVillage stage seemed to get worse as the festival wore on, and by the time LA Vampires graced the stage it had hit an all time low and left Amanda Brown struggling to have her voice heard. Despite the fact that her vocals were a reedy and distant whine, it did not seem to have much of an impact on the crowd as the dancing continued, perhaps driven by the echo of the bass from the night before.
The expo centre which hosts Sonar by Night is an intimidating building located in the middle of an industrial wasteland, and the scene outside as you queue to enter is like no other festival experience. With the muted thud of beats echoing out from its interior blending into the sound of thousands of voices and shouts from men hawking everything from hotdogs to MDMA, the sense of excitement on the Friday night cannot be matched, particularly on the following day. Whilst the chaos remains the same, the atmosphere is somewhat muted as a result of the previous 3 or 4 days of exertion and the full knowledge that a bleary flight home beckons soon after. The curse of the lineup struck again, with the casualties this time being The Roots and New Order.
Having finally made it inside, first up was Maya Jane Coles. Probably one of house music’s hardest working producers, Coles seems to be everywhere these days, whether it be remixing the likes of Tricky or Little Dragon, or releasing work under her Nocturnal Sunshine and She is Danger monikers. Whilst her music may not be challenging, thought-provoking or even cutting edge, she nevertheless manages to always push the right buttons and has something of an air of a musical Midas about her. What works in her favour as well is the ability to demonstrate a certain amount of versatility in her DJ sets, which, considering how often she plays, is definitely a good thing. Contrasting greatly with her performance at London’s Field Day Festival a few weeks previously, she seemed to embody the atmosphere of Sonar by Night perfectly in providing a harder and louder set which erred further towards techno than it did house. It is always nice to see a DJ enjoying themselves as much as those who are watching them, and her exuberance behind the decks was infectious and with her track selection managed to blow away the cobwebs of last-night malaise. With her spacey and melodic remix of Little Dragon’s “Ritual Union” drifting over the crowd at SonarLab, things came to a head in what proved to be one of the highlights of the entire weekend.
Taking the short walk to SonarClub, the largest of the indoor rooms, we entered the carnage that was Madeon’s set. The interior of Sonar by Night resembles a hellish version of an airport, with polished floors and ceilings which stretch far above into the darkness. SonarClub itself gained the title of ‘The Hangar of Death’ as the weekend wore on, and in this instance, filled with the pounding bass-lines of the Frenchman’s brand of techy-electro, it lived up to its title. With the capacity to fit thousands of people in its vast embrace, the crowd here had thinned considerably in comparison to the likes of Richie Hawtin’s performance the night before, but made up for the lack of numbers with an energy and exuberance that had previously been lacking, and was the perfect warm up for Modeselektor.
Running a bit behind schedule, the wait in the humid Spanish night air at SonarPub was well worth it when they eventually graced the stage. Modeselektor never disappoint live, as their music is infused with the nastiest of basslines and razor-sharp melodies, which in a rave atmosphere is guaranteed to get the party started, or in this case, ensure that it continues going. What sets them apart from other purveyors of loud and distorted techno is firstly the depth to their music which on first listen can be concealed by the brashness of their sonic output, but secondly and perhaps most importantly is their ability as performers. Not content with just standing behind their computers “checking their emails”, they interact with the crowd, running forward to the barriers, jumping around the stage and generally egging the crowd on – and in doing so create electronic music’s answer to a mosh-pit. On this occasion they seemed to crank up the energy levels even higher than normal, and wedded with the absurd visuals created by Pfanderei which splattered across the screen behind them created an atmosphere unlike any other all weekend. With the arrival of their fantastic “Kill Bill Vol. 4” came time for the coup de grace, whereby Sebastian shakes up a bottle of champagne, steps almost into the crowd and then sprays it over everyone when the song drops. Despite pulling this trick out of the hat every time they play, the effect remains the same and in this case it sent the crowd into total delirium. Modeselekter’s performance was the pinnacle of an progression which had been steadily building since Maya Jane Coles had taken to the stage, and when they finished the rest of the night seemed to deflate slowly, as their energy remained unmatched.
All in all, Sonar 2012 could only be considered a success. Whilst it may have lacked legendary performances on the scale of James Holden’s closing set in 2011, LCD Soundsytem’s appearance in 2010 or Buraka Som Sistema’s in 2009 and 2011, the consistency and variety displayed was and is remarkable, as is its organizers’ ability to stay the same whilst moving forward with the times. The inclusion of the likes of Lana Del Rey are always going to be made to appeal to a wider selection of people, however with so much on offer, it is possible to take any number of different paths, where you can spend three whole days seeing acts you’ve never heard of, or acts that have been tearing up dance floors for decades, all contained in two of the most unique festival sites you are ever likely to come across.