"So much more than a music festival....."
"Turn the smoke down!" grumbles Bernard Sumner as New Order are engulfed in an atmospheric haze. Is he too old for this? Too irritable? The fearlessness of youth that would have pervaded his being earlier in his career is replaced by a disgruntled demeanour. Fortunately, it's the only moment that he lets his guard down in an otherwise distinguished performance this Saturday at Sónar by Night.
In terms of picking a live band to fit this electronic music festival, the organisers couldn't have landed anyone more fitting. New Order are an incredible hybrid of dance music and post-punk, meaning they’re energetic enough to rave to, yet possess all the unpredictability and intensity that only a live band can give – the guitar-centric and ravers unite. In addition, the band are performing live at a time where they've bucked the trap that bands fall into of producing poor albums in the twilight of their career. Instead, they’ve come out with some of their best material in years, proving they’re not over the hill. What a time to be seeing New Order.
Opener, 'Singularity', from the new album Music Complete, stands tall next to the crop of cuts they perform from seminal album Power, Corruption & Lies. Meanwhile, new-ish single 'Tutti Frutti' is as hook-heavy and infectious as anything any of the top bands are coming out with at the moment. Despite the electronic music Gods being indispensable contributors to new music, this isn’t the real reason people have sacrificed paella on the beach, a stroll around the old town, or one of the mouth-watering Off Sónar events going on in some very cool clubs this evening. They’ve sacrificed those things to come to this show, held in a colossally sized dystopian out-of-town air hangar in Barcelona, because of the legacy they represent. The proliferation of Matalan made Joy Division t-shirts says it all. Put simply, fans hold the early years of the group so dearly. There’s even an understated, yet emotional, nod going around that implies this is a moment to treasure – a rare glimpse of an extraordinary band who beguile with their commanding stage presence.
In a solid Best of Set, it's arguably unfair to point out highlights, but when things reach a stratospheric high as they run through ‘Blue Monday’ and ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ for the much-welcomed encore, it's unavoidable to gravitate towards this moment. The collective appreciation for one of the best bands to ever exist, who fell from the ashes of probably the greatest band of all time, Joy Division, is an immense privilege. If this isn’t a special occasion for music fans, then what is?
Despite being one of the most recognisable – and greatest – names on the bill, New Order aren't strictly headliners. Sónar doesn't weight bands like this; it's much more a level playing field than the hierarchical habits of other large scale events. For instance, the poster puts each band in equal size font – yes, that’s a thing – and major acts go on as late as 5am. Moreover, Sónar by Day offers just as much stimulation as anything going on late at night. Plus, it's at Sónar by Day that all the delightful discoveries begin each day.
Compared to Sónar by Night, Sónar by Day offers more ambient options, which is perfect when you know there’s a long night ahead. The collaboration between King Midas Sound and Fennesz is the first to loosely fit this box. They draw from their album Section 1, that’s as experimental and psychedelic as parts of the German Krautrockers Cluster and their self-titled debut album. Fennesz & co offer deep meditative, unsettling, and – at times – ecstatic sound. Having all contributors on stage gives the band an edge over the proliferation of lone DJ’s currently on elsewhere in the festival. Christian Fennesz’s innovative use of an effects-processed guitar keeps things intriguing, and he bounces off co-beatmaster Kevin Martin of King Midas Sound superbly. Meanwhile, the vocal performance from the enigmatic Roger Robinson and Kiki Hitomi give them further credence.
In addition to the main stages, one of the main benefits of Sónar by Day – the thing that consolidates this place as a world-beating place for discovery – is the SónarComplex. This indoor performance space has impeccable sound, and the comfort of a cinema – especially rejuvenating for long days spent stood watching music. But, more importantly, this venue is the one most dedicated to integrating Sónar +D in its programming. Sónar +D is an international conference, held parallel to Sónar by Day, and is defined as follows: "the relationship between creativity and technology, and the digital transformation of the cultural industries involved." The majority of the activities are based around stalls where experts exhibit their innovative, creative technology, and allow festival-goers to interact with it. For DiS, though, one of the most impressive ways to experience this advanced creativity is to see the experts do it on stage.
Gazelle Twin are the first to make a striking contribution with their show Kingdom Come. The interdisciplinary Brighton-based group, who incorporate music, theatre, and technology, are performing the show for only the third time since its creation. Angular sci-fi Burial-esque beats that are restless and paranoid are set to JG Ballard-inspired dystopian images of empty shopping centers and car parks. Two hooded performers stand in the shadows like hooligans of the night, heightening the tense atmosphere. They soon walk toward the two treadmills and walk or run depending on the tempo of the beat for the majority of the performance. Not a word is muttered among the audience, as it’s completely captivating. Soon after, SónarComplex opens its doors again for 65Daysofstatic, who deliver the soundtrack to No Man’s Sky – the Playstation 4 game that they were commissioned to score. The images of the game, coupled with the band's soaring live performance, is an experience that channels everything Sónar is about: progressive music, with unparalleled, beautiful technological visuals. A perfect end to the first Sónar by Day 2016.
After all this cerebral stimulation, it’s off to something more physical, repetitive, and sociable. As there’s no Sónar by Night this evening, instead it's a scramble for the best Off Sónar ticket in town which in this case is the Numbers party at Apolo. It’s one of the most well laid out venues in Western Europe for any live event, and the young crowd mean it's always teeming with energy; tonight is no different. Headline DJ Joy Orbison commands the dancefloor from his decks, crafting a sublime atmosphere to the point where there was a stage invasion, security battling to keep it under control. This is about as punk rock as a DJ gig can get.
First up for DiS on the sun-soaked late afternoon at Sónar by Day is Congo Natty. But without Tenor Fly to back him up as an MC, the set is not at its full potential and fails to hold our attention. Elsewhere Santigold, who’s playing the first of two sets at this year’s Sónar, doesn’t offer the progressive, experimental, or underground touch that we've come to expect from Sónar by Day acts. It feels relatively middle of the road, and it’s a bit too sickly sweet in its embrace of mainstream pop. Sure, it’s a little quirkier than average, but hard to see this having any clout years down the line.
John Grant, on the other hand, has a distinct voice that could only be his, and this is someone who’ll be listened to for generations. He’s drawn a committed group of fans who've fully bought the critics who hail him as one of the greatest songwriters since Leonard Cohen and Paul McCartney after the release of his third album, Grey Tickles, Black Pressure. He showcases this remarkable craft, yet what's more entertaining than observing the perfect ballad is the range of sounds that are employed during the show. Tender, melancholic pianos are contrasted by buzzing electronica that nods to Depeche Mode, but far weirder. It's this boundary breaking, genre-less approach that makes Grant such a fitting contribution to Sónar. This is rounding up to be an "electronic festival" in the loosest sense of the word, and any music fan could find a sound that inspires them here; it just takes a little digging through the dense, talented line-up.
It’s tempting to continue adventures in the centre of Barcelona, rather than commuting to another part of town. Yet with ANOHNI about to take to the stage for the European premiere of her new show, which draws from one of the Albums of the Year so far in Hopelessness, heading to the hangar has to be done. Collaborators Oneohtrix Point Never and Hudson Mohawke carefully guard their laptops, whilst ANOHNI sings tone for tone like the record. With such important topics such as ecocide, drone attacks, and public surveillance covered, SónarComplex couldn’t have been a better venue in which to engage with the lyrics. However, there's something fitting about an air hangar for songs about drones, because if there was no one in this building, it’s the sort of terrain you’d roam through on a computer game like Half Life, or another futuristic first person shooter.
The evening is gathering momentum as wide-eyed, beat-hungry revellers looking to smash the monotony of their regular lives cram into a euphoric James Blake set tonight. Sure, he's been on the circuit a little while. Yes, we've seen him before. But not like this – he's on top of his game and delivers his 12 track set with the emotional intensity of that viral Welsh football fan who was seen blubbering in the stands during the England game. And a focused performance isn’t the only thing that’s on-point this evening; there's the superb sound system of the SónarClub at hand to receive every nuance that this three-piece band throw at it. The bass rumbles sink deeper into the foundations, and the melancholy hits harder. This is the perfect festival venue for them, far better than an outdoor show where the sound could get whisked away by the breeze.
Another British export, Four Tet, is up next with a seven-hour set. People take to the revamped SónarCar stage for it in droves. The stage has been redesigned as a new club within Sónar by Night; it’s an enclosed circular space thanks to the long red curtains and offers temporary solace from the vast spaces around it. Because of its intimate atmosphere, it’s in high demand. There’s a queue from the start, and many remain there for the whole night. Starting off with some Afrobeat, and reggae, Four Tet nurses a relaxed atmosphere before swooping in with hard-hitting dance grooves and builds rhythm in an intelligent way to get a fixated, elated crowd dancing hard into the night.
It’s 4pm Saturday, BADBADNOTGOOD are the best live band at Sónar by Day, and there’s hardly anyone around to witness it. A few showers mean there’s a smaller crowd gathering at the front than there would have been otherwise. Immediately striking is just how mind-blowingly good their drummer, Alex Sowinski is. No one gets to this level without hard work, unfailing discipline, and determination. As such a powerhouse, he takes the role of band leader, regularly addressing the audience with a charismatic, self-confident manner. This isn’t to say the others are any less accomplished; the four-piece are like a magical mutant jazz/ hip hop quartet bringing classical disciplines to the forefront of the underground. Of the mix of covers and originals that they play, the new stuff from their album IV stands out; in particular 'Lavender', which they co-wrote with Kaytranada, shines, and suggests the new LP is going to be one of the best releases this year.
The soft amount of rain outside gets people cowering inside. Subsequently, thousands of people are here for Warp Records’ new signing Lafawndah set at SónarDome. The elegant half-Egyptian, half-Iranian, who grew up in Paris, performs a neatly crafted brand of tribal pop that draws on cumbia and salsa rhythms. Her stage presence is mystical; her exotic dress emphasizes her exotic roots, whilst a gong in the background adds to the holistic, worldly approach she takes to making pop/dance music. A bright future awaits her.
Next, it’s back to DiS’ favourite venue, SónarComplex, for a unique sensory experience. Cyclo, a collaborative research project by Ryoji Ikeda and Carsten Nicolai, focuses on the visualisation of sound. It's an intriguing proposition, and possible another solid Sónar +D affiliated event. Blisteringly loud, cutting-edge electronic beats work in sequence with dynamic visuals that have the intensity of the Battling Seizure Robots in The Simpsons. Surely this overload could be used by CIA use to interrogate suspects. But, the extreme nature of it makes it all the more memorable, and the display puts every other projector screen show in the festival to shame. The accuracy of the visualisation of the corresponding sound is stunning, and anyone working on a visual display should for their DJ set consult these geniuses.
As mentioned, the fortunate thing about Sónar is the lack of a headliner, as acts across the board are so strong. Kaytranada’s appearance after New Order is a case in point. He’s a massive draw, and easily known as one of the hottest hip hop producers in the world since his impeccable album 99.9% came out on XL Recordings. Word of the talent of the Madlib-inspired 23-year-old Canadian has certainly penetrated these circles, as the density of the SónarPub crowd suggests. This isn't hype music, this is here to stay and no one here – it seems – is going to questions that.
Lastly, on what’s been an immense, intense, three days of gluttonous entertainment – it’s just not normal to have a festival this well curated – is the sendoff by Laurent Garnier. The techno and house wizard is on fire for his epic seven-hour set at SónarCar. Catching the last half of it, we're immersed in one of the most mesmerizing events of the weekend. The intense physical reaction of the audience is overwhelming to witness – no one is faking it, or half-hearted. There’s a collective appreciation for a set that’s spectacular in its range and powerful in its beats. Above all, he’s enjoying himself; there’s a glint in his eye as if to indicate he’s having the time of his life, and it's infectious – people respond by giving everything they’ve got. This legend will be first on the promoters list to get back next year. 2017 can't come soon enough, as Sónar earns the right to stay known as the best electronic festival in the world.
Photo by Ariel Martini