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Split across day and night, along with Primavera, the as-ever electronica tinged Sónar is up there with Spain's musical spectacles. DiS's man at Sónar Alex Baker took in the sounds and sights of the night-time Barcelona festival.
In my stinginess, thanks to ‘le crunch’ inspired job hopping, I only forked out for Sónar by Night tickets, and thus the following musings are based solely on my experience in the haunting airplane-hangar like exposition centre on La Gran Via.
On my way to Barcelona, I poured over the highlighted line up that I had printed out that morning (ever conscious of the opportunities and resources that temping can provide) and planned out who my top five acts would be, predicting what I would see and readying myself for what I would say, like some sort of self-professed Oracle. Even as I crammed myself on the 2 Euro ‘free Sónar bus’ I smiled knowingly to myself, looking around at my fellow festival goers and revelling in the fact that I already knew what was to come and would thus fully appreciate the upcoming spectacle, striding sagely through the masses of these mere mortals. Whether through divine retribution for my arrogant folly, or perhaps a simple two fingers to my self proclaimed prophetic abilities, I was pleasantly surprised to find I had to reassess ‘the list’ as Sónar threw a few curveballs my way and some upstarts forced their way into my reckoning.
Animal Collective: The moment that Animal Collective appeared on the Sónar website as being scheduled to play was the decisive factor that brought an end to the months of indecision as to whether to spend my hard earned money on what would no doubt be a pricey weekend. A decision which was entirely justified by their set which kicked off the festivities on Sónar's final night and set the bar high for all who followed. They appeared on stage fifteen minutes late (thankfully as I had spent a very anxious ten minutes rugby tackling my way through the queue outside) and their opening song, ‘My Girls’ off of their latest album Merriweather Post Pavilion, was greeted with a loud cheer. I had heard that AC in concert were amazing but I was genuinely surprised by how well their sound translated live. The sheer intensity of their performance, coupled with the sound system which made the hair on my legs curl, was all encompassing, and all round scores of people stood mesmerised, swaying to and fro with a few dogged individuals trying to dance. I had also expected them to use Sónar as a platform from which they could further promote the success of MPP, but their set dipped further back into their repertoire of material. As each track blended into one another the evolution of their music, from their ground breaking and boundary pushing earlier work to the more settled and ‘poppy’ work of MPP could be readily seen. Like an orchestra the cacophony and sonic saturation that is the staple of AC, built and built, and climaxed with a rendition of ‘Daily Routine’, which seemed to last for an age, morphing yet always returning to that refrain, ‘Just one more sec in my bed’. The hour that they were on stage seemed to elevate the audience to an almost nirvana-like stupor, which was made all the more evident when the spell was broken suddenly by the vocal acrobatics of Beardyman.
Late of the Pier: Along with Animal Collective and Deadmau5, Castle Donington’s finest were one of the acts who I predicted would make it in to my top five, and they did…just. The three of them upheld their reputation for electric live shows, and had the audience thrashing around to their distinctive brand of electro-pop. The exuberance of the crowd was demonstrated amply by the fact that my girlfriend managed to leap a foot into the air and head butt me on the nose without even noticing until five minutes later when I got a cursory glance and she saw me clutching my face in agony. Their set was unfortunately tarnished by the fact that early on they stopped after the intro to ‘Broken’ and walked off stage, seemingly uninterested in the sound engineers frantically running around unplugging and re-plugging various wires, only to return and kick off again with a new song. I found not only the interruption of one of my favourite tracks highly irritating, especially over something so seemingly trivial, but also managed to puncture the growing atmosphere and disjointed the whole experience for me. Overall they managed to just scrape it ahead of Beardyman as they once again they proved how good they sound live with a palpable and vibrant performance. It was a close one however.
Buraka Som Sistema: I was determined to go watch Richie Hawtin, however after a distinctly average opening I was dragged away to see the Portuguese-Angolan troop and I must say, it was one of the best decisions, willing or not, that I made over the whole weekend. I must sheepishly admit that although I had heard their name bandied about on several occasions, I had never actually listened to any of their work and so walked into the Sónar Pub in complete ignorance. From the off, however, all frustrations at missing Hawtin and any remaining apprehensions I may have previously held were blasted away by the Latino-African Kuduro-meets-Grimey Breakbeats spectacle that was laid out before me. The energy that they possessed and transmitted to the audience had the whole atmosphere fizzing and crackling and had the entire crowd leaping about and was the closest I came to a true carnival experience. They possessed that which is so often missing at electronic music events, an ability to showboat and give a face to the booty-shaking Afro-Beat rhythms that they pumped out. All four MC’s strode across the stage, weaving in and out of each other, gesturing towards the crowd and the front-lady in particular whipping the crowd up into a frenzy. At the culmination of their set held an Iggy Pop style stage invasion of a crowd of young women. Perhaps a large part of the joy I felt at the time, and the fondness with which I look back at it, comes from being so utterly surprised by what I saw, but nevertheless, my feelings were unashamedly shared by all that I could see.
Rob Da Bank: Another surprise entry, Rob Da Bank was, I’ll openly admit, one act that I did not plan to go out of my way to see, considering the prevalence of other, seemingly worthier acts that were strewn across the three stages. However, after deciding to have a wander I went to investigate some dodgems and stumbled unawares upon his set. What I saw, perhaps not surprisingly, resembled what a massive house party where only one ‘Party Bangers’ CD remained in the stereo all night, the result a mix of flailing limbs and massive grins. I found it extremely refreshing to dance for a while to a DJ who doesn’t possess that so prevalent of traits, complete and utter self indulgence. I have often lamented that on the many DJ sets by some of my favourite DJs, things aren’t spruced up enough by dropping a few fan favourites to create and maintain a party atmosphere. No problem here as banger after banger was pumped out with little abandon, where the audience, anticipating a breather after the Prodigy were slapped in the face with a succession of hits from Pendulum to MGMT to Dizzee Rascal. Perhaps not the most talented act of the weekend, or the most alternative, nevertheless Rob Da Bank delivered what everyone was seeking: a jolly good time.
Deadmau5: I had spent all weekend looking forward to Deadmau5’s set and I wasn’t disappointed. His mix of house, techno and trance translated predictably well to a live performance, as did his exceptional production skills. After the melancholic, considered and less accessible performance of Moderat, he brought the party back to the final hours of Sónar 2009. Appearing on stage amid a flurry of visuals of his trademark ‘Dead Mouse’ and wearing a massive headgear of, you’ve got it - a mouse, he set out and achieved his goal of putting a fun performance to complement his undoubtedly fun music. Not since I saw Flying Lotus in a cramped basement in Nottingham have I seen a DJ enjoy themselves quite so much. He leapt around behind his decks, his massive ears flapping as he punched the air and encouraged the adoring crowd to join him in his reverie. The £30,000 pound helmet with air-conditioning and LED projections that I had told may be in production (urban myth perhaps?) didn’t make an appearance, however his current headgear still thrilled although it did take a few breathers, sitting on a table next to him grinning manically at the crowd. Not satisfied with playing tracks from his latest release Random Album Title, he dropped Daft Punk’s ‘Harder Better Faster Stronger’ in to the mix, which of course sent everyone crazy. His strong start dwindled slightly, in my opinion, but he fully justified his billing as one of the heavyweights of the festival. While his performance did not inspire and amaze me as Animal Collective’s had, and did not surprise me like Buraka Som Sistema, he put in a solid performance worthy of his brilliant debut album, and brought a happy end to my Sónar 2009 experience.
And the rest…
Beardyman: Pipped to the post by Late of the Pier, I was nonetheless taken aback by Beardyman’s performance, and on any other day probably would have scored higher in the rankings. Thrilling the crowd as any beat boxer does, he managed to intertwine a wide range of party tricks, splicing in Ray Charles, Faithless and La Roux (Skream Let’s Get Ravey remix), with a genuine musical and dancey set. After the intensity of Animal Collective he managed to break their spell and transform the swaying mass into a crowd of dancing bodies.
Crystal Castles: Was a seemingly shoo-in into the top five, and probably would have been had it not been for a catastrophic sound failure which led to no vocals and pretty much just a bassline and drums. Hugely disappointing as Alice Glass demonstrated once again her larger-than-life stage presence, striding around on a platform waving around a strobe light and screaming futilely, until she trashed the set and was dragged off stage. Gutting.
Moderat: I could not imagine how Modeselektor and Apparat could ever combine, but the result was impressive. The dirtier sound of Modeselektor mixed well with the almost melancholy and ambient contribution of Apparat and had a beautiful and sedative effect on the crowd. Pleasantly surprising and good, but personally the raver in me would have preferred Modeselektor on their own.
SebastiAn: His set confirmed the opinion I had previously held of the French DJ: filthy French electro that everyone can dance to, but under the surface was just, in my opinion, one of the legion of Ed Bangin’ yet poor pretenders to the crowns of Daft Punk and Justice that seem to be pumped out of Parisian clubs at an alarming rate. Creepy masks too.
Nathan Fake: While not performing at Sónar 2009, for if he had he would have been without question at the top of my list, he joined the massive party that descends upon Barcelona at this time of year. He played at a Border Community night at Razzmatazz and completely blew everyone away. James Holden impressed as always, but it was the tall East Anglian, with his typical immersion into the world inside his laptop, that had everyone dancing their little hearts out. A+. No discussion.
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