There is a bohemian elegance to Barcelona amidst the summer festival season. Now in its twenty second year, Sonar has achieved far more than was ever expected of it as both a brand and as an event.
Once upon a time it began as a small-scale niche electronic music festival buried amidst the backstreets of Barcelona: in its current state it attracts between 50,000 and 70,000 attendees each year and is about to boom worldwide. However, the personality of Sonar remains as sincere as ever.
The city itself provides a perfect backdrop to the musical diversity on offer over the course of the festival. Perched on the hillside above the festival’s primary open space sits the national Catalan art museum: it looks across the sprawling city and casts a shadow over Fira Montjuïc. This has become the home of Sonar by day.
Upon arrival at the festival space there becomes a clear sense of distance between Sonar and most festivals in the UK. Alcohol, for example, doesn’t litter the streets; crowds enter in a civilised fashion and conversation is shared with ease. The security are friendly and polite, proceedings move quickly. This in itself begins to set a precedent for the overall tone of the event, which runs very smoothly indeed. Precision and intricacy is the flavour of the day, no detail is missed and all is considered.
Astro-turf lines much of the outdoor space at Sonar, the radiant green carpet glimmers brightly beneath the warmth and blue skies. The energetic stabs of Lemonick soundtrack our opening intake and the first thing that instantly catches attention is the clarity of sound. Often the breaking point in many a festival, Sonar has seemed to achieve aural magnificence in all areas instilling trust in dancers and audiophiles alike.
There is very much an educational undercurrent to proceedings as a whole. Musically you are encouraged to explore here, to dig deep, to seek out the new and wondrous. Beyond this there also remains the opportunity to examine the latest and forthcoming technology whilst attending talks from guest speakers, artists and musicians.
The auditorium is full for a guest speech from the widely admired Brian Eno. We take a back seat as he speaks of the relevance of art to the human condition.
“Culture is the lubricant of evolution.”
He is met with great applause as he praises the work of those who create and exist at the forefront of musical, expressive and artistic scenes. This is a place for the impassioned, the active, the intrigued.
As we explore the far reaches of the site it becomes clear that there is far more to Sonar than music. An installation planted in a darkened room creaks and groans as colours concave into one another in a distorted, chaotic blur. Titled ‘Earthworks’ it is a perfect example of the depths of Sonar D: the visualisation itself “represents the process of formation of the Earth and the constant changes that take place in its structure and landscape”.
We stumble accidentally through the hanger into an extravagantly large room. Red curtains line the walls of the SonarHall. Dim lighting casts a warm glow throughout as Nicola Cruz opens his set with soft pads and percussion. He continues for the next hour along a similar trajectory, enchanting an audience that has become mesmerized by the clatter of drums and a visual display of captivating detail. It becomes very clear why as an artist you would aspire to play in such a space, for many it may be the highlight of their musical performance career to date. Nicola’s live show lives up to the occasion.
Upon emergence back in to the sunlight, a full party is very much underway. Several thousand can be seen moving to and fro in the warm afternoon glow. Accompanied by the seamless mixing of The Black Madonna we sip from iced glasses of vodka lemon and begin to dance.
Over the course of the evening the atmosphere begins to change, darkness falls, senses heighten and the halls begin to fill again once more. Insanlar, a Turkish group, have become familiar amongst the far reaches of Europe and the Middle East. However, their progressive sound which incorporates folk, electronics, hip hop and all between has yet to find a firm home in the UK despite a release on Honest Jon’s. Forward thinking as ever, Sonar hit the nail on the head as the groups’ echoes of psychedelia play out to a large crowd. An endless rise and fall of melody and percussion moves feet. It’s hypnotic, spellbinding, spectacularly futuristic and yet historically rooted all at once.
The evening concludes with Kenny Dope outdoors. However, it’s Tuff City Kids who manage to retain our attention. Their live set sees them rattle out industrial drums as the stabs of synthesisers weave between. Largely comprised of their own music and productions; ‘Beggar’ remains the obvious highlight of the performance as the iconic synth line reverberates around the hanger. It makes more sense in this context than ever before. Loud, repetitive and uncompromising it triumphantly concludes a gripping performance.
The lights around the courtyard begin to flicker as we leave this place. There is no trouble, no raised voices, simply smiles and excited conversation. As you emerge from this experience you are met by lush Spanish air, its warm and it clings to you. Sonar remains a sensory experience now, more so than ever before. It’s personal, sincere and inspired. Brian Eno was right, art and culture is certainly important, especially if it is executed as beautifully as Sonar is.
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