INTRODUCTION / THURSDAY
Festivals can often feel a bit homogenous, if not in experience then more in setting, with camping fields and stages and, if you’re in the UK, lots of mud and rain. What makes Sonar so special and unique is that it manages to be a city festival, the size of one of the big camping jobbies. And that city is Barcelona. And it’s usually hot.
Sonar proper provides a soundtrack to the city, as do the multitude of ‘Off Sonar’ parties that fill every pool, rooftop, bar and beach. It's here the true charm lies – being able to go from festival to café to party to beach to restaurant, all within the course of a week, with so many different types of experience, means that no two Sonars are alike. Unlike so many festivals whose reputation leads to bloating and increased strain, year on year lessons seem to be learnt, making it one of the slickest festival-going experiences around.
Once inside the massive building complex, you are greeted by the astro-turfed SonarVillage central square, providing both the main stage of Sonar by Day and a place to sit and gather your thoughts in between acts. With the other two main stages so well-spaced out; the brothel-like SonarHall stage, located in a crimson velvet curtained room to the south and, at the opposite side of the complex, SonarDome sponsored by Red Bull Music Academy (this time bedecked with blue velvet curtains), at no point did you find yourself bottlenecked or unable to get to where you wanted to go.
Thursday began for us in earnest with a performance from Nils Frahm in SonarHall. Acts at Sonar tend to be quite equipment heavy, but none more so than the German pianist, boasting multiple synthesizers, an organ and a grand piano with the top removed. Frenetically jumping from organ to synth, pausing every now and then for an intricate passage of play before darting around the stage once more, Frahm was without a doubt the most visibly accomplished musician of the entire festival. He caught the audience by surprise by announcing, with 20 minutes of scheduled time remaining, that he was playing his last song, and answered the audible waves of murmurs by saying 'Don’t worry, it’s very long!'. It turned out he wasn’t lying as the composition he played out ebbed and flowed for the remainder of his set, encompassing haunting piano solos and banging keys over booming analogue bass, capped off by playing the grand piano with two mallets directly on the piano’s strings.
Next up was Machinedrum on the main SonarVillage stage, playing the entirety of his recent Vapor City live with a drummer. I reviewed Vapor City for DiS, and while the album held promise, I had felt it was let down in certain places and as a whole didn’t really excite. Its transformation into a live performance changed all that however, as even weaker tracks like ‘Center of Your Love’ somehow seemed apt in the open air and possessed more energy than they did on record. A large part of this was down to the connection between the two musicians - it's always encouraging to see performers enjoying their performance as much as the crowd - made all the more special by Travis Stewart's live vocoded-vocals and a more than impressive drumming (someone give that poor man a massage). The album’s stand out tracks such as ‘Gunshotta’ and ‘Eyesdontlie’ electrified the close, humid air and the fast-but-slow energy transmitted itself into the crowd creating a truly special atmosphere that was quite literally buzzing, rendering it one of the most memorable moments of Sonar 2014.
After a brief break, it was time again to head into the red velvetiness of SonarHall for Trentemoller. Now this is where personal preference comes in, as every time I have seen him in recent years I can’t help but pine for the intricate, subtle and textured music of his debut The Last Resort, replaced now by loud, flashy and garish rock. The last time I saw him was at Sonar by Night a few years ago and there it was all self-congratulatory fringe waving, very much in the modern Gary Numan style, and in this instance it was toned down somewhat but of the same ilk. Old favourites such as ‘Moan’ really got the crowd going in a more-than-packed SonarHall, and to be fair to Anders, I was probably one of the few people who walked out into the dwindling sunlight feeling a bit disappointed.
In the months leading up to Sonar I had thought the billing Plastikman | Objekt had meant Richie Hawtin (AKA Plastikman) was going to be playing with Objekt. For anyone who has the misfortune to experience the dullness that is modern day Richie Hawtin the amount of times I have (it’s basically a pre-requisite that anyone going to Sonar will be subjected to at least 73 minutes of Hawtin whether they like it or not) the addition of the ever-excellent Objekt would seem to be a stroke of genius. Alas, it was not to be as ‘Objekt’ in this instance turned out to be a huge Toblerone-like object in the middle of SonarVillage on which visuals played out in live response to Plastikman’s music. Similar to Trentemoller, I think I may have been in the minority (aside from one gold-hatted reveller who left abruptly by ploughing through the crowd like an all-star quarterback to launch himself behind some bins) in finding the performance underwhelming, but as with so many Hawtin performances, it just felt so dull. Visuals were ace though.
The obvious benefits of going to a festival are seeing some of your favourite artists play live, but sometimes the most special and memorable moments are when, by pure chance, you stumble upon someone you’ve never heard before and they simply blow you away. I’m not sure if it was just the novelty of his set, or just the contrast to the absolutely god awful FM Belfast who had been playing out beforehand at SonarVillage, but Throwing Snow's hour or so at SonarDome provided one of the undisputed high points of the entire weekend. His performance harked back to early dubstep in a way, with two time signatures competing, allowing you to frantically nod your head to the crisp hi-hats or languidly sway your body in slow motion. The energy created by this battle between ambient and downright nasty was absolutely magical, concocting a trance that was all-consuming. What stood out most was the care and patience with which he treated his set – using Gold Panda-esque scattered percussion and melodic samples before building the tension and unleashing a chest-rattling bass boom or a rich textured analogue synth line.
Back at SonarHall, Matmos performed what turned out to be a complete brain fart of a set. Typically idiosyncratic and humorous, their performance was laden with clicks, beats and any number of incredibly loud strange, glitchy and jarring noises. As the crowd watching on began to diminish rapidly, one of the duo said 'We’re told festival audiences like music with a steady rhythm, is that true? It doesn’t matter what your answer is, every answer is right, so next up we’ve got a song with a regular beat and one with an irregular beat' cuing the projection of a large metronome onto the screen behind them, finally giving the remnants of SonarHall something to actually dance to.
Next up was Bonobo at SonarVillage, supported by a full live band, whose performance was, along with Machinedrum the day before, suited perfectly to the environment. For much of the weekend, even when the rest of the city seemed to be basking in sunshine, the sky above Sonar by Day was overcast, like some sort of raver’s Mordor. On Friday however, and particularly when Bonobo took to the stage, the Catalan sun really burst through, accentuating the deep bass lines, scattered beats and laid back melodies. For years I had always considered Bonobo as sort of Primark version of Four Tet, but with North Borders he really came into his own, and here tracks like ‘Emkay’ and ‘Don’t Wait’ sent the crowd into a sun, sweat and beer drenched sway.
By this point it was evident that the Friday edition of Sonar by Day was shaping up to be an absolute classic, and was capped off in some style by Jon Hopkins who put in perhaps the strongest performance of the weekend. Hopkins has rightly garnered much praise for Immunity, but as good as it was, I always felt there was something missing, and that something was present here by the bucket load. It’s hard to put your finger on exactly what the magic component was, but each and every track just seemed to have so much more energy – the bass and beat snarled away, packed with grit you could feel between your teeth, filling every possible space on the sonic spectrum aided by the as-ever amazing sound system that made each song travel through your very core.
And so to Sonar by Night, as ever hosted in the massive expo centre on Gran Via which over the years has been labelled ‘The Death Hangar’. The size of an airport terminal, four stages both inside and outside that can host tens of thousands of people each, it provides a truly unique festival going experience and, come Sunday morning can inspire a real sense of dread. With Sonar by Day having moved locations, it was comforting to know the night time venue had stayed the same, and it was only when inside that I realised the organisers had been inconsiderate enough as to move everything around, making meeting up with friends in a non-existent corridor quite challenging. Initial confusion aside, the trend of constant self-improvement that Sonar follows became apparent, as shuffling everything around and dispensing with the large corridor that had previously joined all the stages together meant the venues were bigger, bottle-necks were reduced and, as with the day edition, getting a drink was no longer a huge ordeal.
Having acclimatised to the new set up after a good 30 minutes of getting my bearings, it was to SonarPub for Caribou and time for the first slight organisational hitch to make itself known. In the tunnel-like SonarPub, unlike in previous years, no large screens flanked the stage, rendering it as being all but invisible for those stuck further back in the crowd. For DJ sets with impressive visuals, not being able to see the performer isn’t really a biggie, but for artists such as Caribou, seeing the band actually play the music live is half the experience, and so the lack of screens diminished the performance from where we were standing. There seemed to be a few technical difficulties as well as the music wasn’t quite as tight as you would expect from Dan Snaith & co., but they still smashed it, with the anthems off Swim sending waves of excitement through the thousands of onlookers just as they did four years ago. Special mention goes to new track ‘Can’t Do Without You’ which turned out to be one of the anthems of Sonar 2014, its whooshes of synth and layered melody perfectly suiting the big festival vibe.
Following immediately was Todd Terje. Having seen him play his UK debut live show at Oval Space in Bethnal Green, expectations were high, but the performance was not one that will live long in the memory. Whether it was due to the same issues with the sound that affected Caribou I’m not sure, but on the whole it lacked the punch it did in a smaller venue. Nonetheless, as you would expect, ‘Inspector Norse’ saw the crowd explode and how could it not? Even after two years of being played out constantly, it can't fail to get the feet moving and get thousands of people to sing along to every note in tone-deaf fashion.
This was the year of multiple performances as artists and their various aliases seemed to pop up several times on the lineup across the weekend. Plastikman & Richie Hawtin (told you); James Holden live and DJing b2b with Daphni (AKA Caribou); Audion and Matthew Dear and finally Four Tet who played a late live set on Friday night, followed by an early DJ set the following evening. Here, Four Tet began his live show slowly, his trademark percussion feeling out the crowd with the likes of ‘Parallel Jalebi’ before picking up, with aid of clipped vocal sampes and increasingly snarly beats into a wall of sound. If anything signifies the huge musical journey Kieran Hebden has taken over his career, it is to hear first his recent collaboration with Martyn ‘Glassbeadgames’ and then ‘Buchla’ off of Beautiful Rewind roaring its way across the tops of thousands of upraised arms, surrounded by swarming strobes at five in the morning.
Such is the level of pure physical exertion required by Sonar as an experience, that Saturday by Day began with a bleary sit down on the astro-turf of SonarVillage. Just when the thought of doing anything other than huddling on the ground seemed an impossible feat, on came Kid Koala presenting Vinyl Vaudeville 2.0. Somehow jumping around in a Koala suit without evaporating completely, his performance brought much needed levity to proceedings, as throughout it was completely and utterly silly. Aided by dancers dressed in airline hostess outfits, can-can-ing across the stage, catapulting large yellow gloves into the crowd and just generally having a completely unhinged riot of a time, he had everyone dancing and smiling and seemed to remove the hungover fug that had been floating above SonarVillage thicker than the layer of cloud. In line with the general silliness, he played ‘Moon River’ which had everyone singing along and set up the final 12 hours or so of Sonar 2014 perfectly.
As most of the acts at Sonar are producers or DJs, much emphasis is placed on the visuals. Thus, Audion’s new live experience seemed a bit budget in comparison, with him and his equipment sat in what amounted to a large whiffle ball on stage in SonarHall – but that is where ‘budget’ ended. It has been a while since we have been graced with productions from Matthew Dear’s mean alter-ego, and this performance just went to show what we’ve been missing. In an attempt to keep track of what had been going on, I kept notes on my phone, for which the entry under ‘Audion’ merely stated 'nastier and nastier', which is perhaps the best description of his set which the following words will only serve to dilute. While not quite as sonically disgusting (in a good way) as his 2005 debut Suckfish, his set was probably as nasty as Sonar got this year, with every inch of space filled with a saw-tooth growl which seemed to lift the entire crowd off the floor. Lights played across his whiffle ball in tune to bursts of bass and air-ripping synthesizers, purging whatever remnants of fatigue remained.
A 45 minute gap then ensued at SonarHall as the whiffle ball was dismantled and James Holden’s live set up was put together. For someone who has been around for so long, it seems ridiculous that only now has James Holden decided to start playing live. To be fair, until last year’s The Inheritors, he only had about 15 minutes of material - from 2006’s mini album The Idiots are Winning – but much like his long anticipated second album, James Holden Live was definitely something worth waiting for. Having been inspired by playing in the Caribou Vibration Ensemble at ATP a few years ago, the set up sees him on a modular synth and Rocketnumbernine’s Tom Page on drums as they play the entirety of The Inheritors. However as a special addition for Sonar, Zombie Zombie’s Etienne Jaumet (whose saxophone featured on ‘The Caterpillar’s Intervention’) joined the duo. The transformation of one of the most beautiful albums of recent times into a live performance was truly, truly special, particularly as the sonic explosions of first ‘Renata’ and then ‘The Inheritors’ burst across the red velvety room.
Every year at Sonar there are disappointments to be found when acts you really want to see are put on early at night, and a decision has to be made as to whether you want to head straight to Sonar by Night sticky from a hot Barcelona day, with clingy clothes, aching feet and full knowledge that you probably won’t last the night, or retreat to your apartment to freshen up. The dangers of powering through are perfectly captured in this video, courtesy of The Guardian.
It was thus with a heavy heart that we had to sacrifice seeing Massive Attack, whose set started a mere hour after Holden’s finished (it would take at least 40 minutes to get from By Day to By Night even if heading over directly). They were, by all accounts, mind-blowing, and the rendition of ‘Teardrop’ had the thousands watching on singing along. Or so I’m told.
So, having just missed Massive Attack, we caught Matthew Dear DJing directly afterwards at SonarClub. Whereas his Audion alias embodies the nastier side of his persona, Matthew Dear has morphed into an idiosyncratic, silly and light-hearted Yin to Audion’s Yang (for those who doubt it, see his collaborations with DJ Koze on Amygdala). Not so for this performance however, as he layered relentless but fun techno tracks one atop another, demonstrating his expertise in controlling a crowd, building up and up before exploding and quickly gathering the pieces together to start again.
Future Brown, the super-group featuring J-Cush, Asma Maroof, Daniel Pineda and Hyperdub’s Fatima Al Qadiri, were next and, after injection of energy provided by Matthew Dear, were all in all a bit disappointing. Expecting a live set, it turned out to just be the four of them standing idly behind the decks taking turns to mix. Towards the middle things started to pick up, with the excellent ‘Wanna Party feat. Tink’ blaring across SonarLab, but just as quickly began to peter out again, with a languid mix of hip-hop, R&B and grime just not really fitting in with the rest of the night.
But as disappointing as Future Brown were, the undisputed highlight of Saturday night, or even Friday night for that matter, was the back to back DJ set from James Holden and Daphni. Now, you can admire the craftsmanship of the likes of Matthew Dear whose DJ sets are a journey which rise and fall, as that is after all the hallmark of a good DJ, but every now and then you come across a DJ (or DJs in this case) who say “sod that” and just go for it. This can end up being catastrophic as it can stop the audience from really tuning into the set, but when it’s done well it can be truly mind-blowing. Thus it was with the set from these two pals, as they ramped the energy straight up to a Spinal Tap volume 11 and kept it there for the hour and a half they were on stage. Not afraid to play their own releases, with ‘The Caterpillar’s Intervention’ making another appearance, as well as another rendition of Four Tet & Martyn’s ‘Glassbeadgames’, the whole fantastic experience that was Sonar this year came to a perfect explosive and euphoric head with closing track, Caribou’s ‘Can’t Do Without You’. As it built and built and built the entire crowd rose their hands in the air and screamed, and when the finale burst the applause was deafening, with James Holden doing his usual nervous laugh and clapping routine, and Dan Snaith standing straight-backed and prouder than I have ever seen him.
Now if that seemed like the perfect time to leave Sonar by Night…it was…and I didn’t. Heading to SonarPub for the tail end of Boys Noize followed by Tiga, the blissful euphoria of Daphni and Holden’s set was immediately dispelled by what can only be described as the coming of the apocalypse. Matching the pounding, snarly music that vibrated across the massive courtyard that is SonarPub, the heavens, which had for days been hanging ominously over Sonar, opened. With the majority of the crowd flocking to the large doorways on either side of the main square, Tiga played his music as torrential rain pounded the concrete, and thunder cracked overhead. Some, yours truly included, continued to dance in the rain and during what amounted to a game of cat and mouse between the gods and the remainder of Sonar’s population, where they surged back onto the soaking concrete under angrily orange skies when the rain let up, only to scurry away again when the heavenly wrath was unleashed once more. The ominous atmosphere was captured perfectly on Tiga’s Instagram:
Shit just got apocalyptic for my closing set at Sonar. Thanks for still dancing! Barcelona I love u http://t.co/GdnwxZHT7G— Tiga (@ciaotiga) June 15, 2014
I had been amused, when receiving my media pass on Thursday, by the typo identifying me as “Alex Baker, Journalist for Drownerinsound”. But, standing there, soaked to the bone, with waves of techno rolling over me, the title could not have been more apt.
PS. For (admittedly not great quality) highlights of the acts mentioned above, as well as those I missed such as Moderat and Massive Attack, someone has put together this handy little compilation of Sonar 2014.