Sonar 2014 – A Reflection
I first went to Sonar 13 years ago. I happened across it with my girlfriend on our first trip to Barcelona. As far as I remember, a weekend ticket cost £58 (or 150 pesetas as it was back then). That year I remember seeing Sonic Youth (at Sonar By Night!), Sigur Ros (with an audience member tripping their nuts off and swimming on the floor for the duration of their set), Jeff Mills playing 120 records in one 2 hour set (obviously!), an XL/Jockey Slut showcase including Andy Votel, Lemon Jelly and Capitol K, and Richie Hawtin (when he hadn’t disappeared up his own arse and started selling his own brand Sake). At that time there seemed like there was more of an emphasis on the artistic and cultural aspects of the festival. The lineup wasn’t catering to a particular genre, but I guess was trying to appeal to people interested in the music on the more experimental fringes of tastes. It was quite a find and seemed a little like a secret festival I could come back to year on year and be inspired by the varied nature of the lineup and artistic sideshows on offer without fear of a tourist takeover. Although I think this is still true to a certain extent today, it feels as though the festival is slowly trying to meld into an altogether slightly larger machine. This isn’t to say that the festival has lost any of it’s edge though, far from it, I don’ t know many other festivals that would put DJ Harvey or Richie Hawtin (checking his email in front of a psychedelic light plinth) as headliners, or programme a stage with James Murphy, Chic, Brodinski, Boyz Noize and Tiga playing after each other. But it does feel like there’s no stopping its expansion, and its move towards constantly striving for more of something amazing. This does present the problem though, that this approach could entice a less thought-heavy music fan that doesn’t want to be challenged by their aural entertainment. But then Sonar's not let us down yet, and the proof will be in the progress.
Last time I graced Barcelona and Sonar with my presence was before the move from the MACBA. I was a big fan of this venue, an art gallery in the heart of the city covered with astro turf and hidden installations in the belly of the building. You could just roll out of the venue for 10mins respite and get some tapas from one of the many little restaurants and bars just outside the gates and then in no time at all be back inside. But since my last visit, the day time event has moved to the much larger Fira Montjuic
Now this new venue they’ve been using since last year's 20th (!) edition isn't bad at all, it’s a great venue in itself; big halls, lots of outdoor space and loads more space for the technology areas and talks etc.., plus it’s right next to the Font Magica and Placa Espanya, both 2 big Barcelona landmarks. But in doing so it’s lost it’s intimacy and inclusion with the city. It now feels like you can’t just dip in and out whenever you feel like it, it’s designed to keep you at the festival all day long. The problem is I’m talking with rose tinted spectacles about the times when you used to sit down in the courtyard of the MACBA right next to John Peel with a 3 pound free-poured vodka lemon, the sun blazing down and some amazing electronica (what a horrible description!) playing on the main stage, but there you go.
Anyway, enough of my old man nature and harking back to the good old days… what of the ariste eh!
Unfortunately due to prior commitments, I couldn’t make it for the Thursday, but I was told that Plastikman live was good with its central pillar of lights. Still I would have liked to have sat in one of Richie's bass massage chairs sipping Enter Sake whilst watching him and checking my email, but unfortunately I was in WHSmith in Southend Airport!
So my first foray into the joys of Sonar was getting there early on the friday to listen to James Murphy, the Dewaele brothers and the people from McIntosh Labs talking about the Despacio soundsystem.
Now this is essentially like a dream for me, being a sound engineer by profession, and what is clear after listening to these guys chat is this isn't about a gimmick, it’s about people who have a passion for what they do and care about you as the listener and want to give you an aural experience that is being lost in the digital age that has a penchant for squeezing the dynamic hell out of the music we get sold nowadays. But not just that, it's about the lighting and encouraging you to step away from your connected trigger happy life for a few hours and loose yourself in a vinyl wave.
Geek Despacio facts I learnt:
Despacio means slowly in english, was thought up whilst watching the sun go down in Ibiza, but it’s mainly called Despacio because everything in their lives takes ages (although I’m more inclined to think it’s because they play a slower tempo of record through the system, including pitching tracks right down but 15-20% to get the feel they’re after)!
It’s 20 tonnes of kit and has a crew of 14 looking after it.
The average SPL is 105db in the very middle sweet spot, but that aint hurting your ears as the records are old pressings with more dynamic range and there is no limiting on the system.
The crossovers are actually digital for time alignment purposes
On the first Despacio outing they Played Fly Like An Eagle and it just didn’t sound right, they couldn’t work out why the hell it didn't sound right. Turns out the reason it didn’t sound right is because it was a dodgy repress.
………and then they played “Money For Nothing” for us gathered fews listening pleasure! Not a bad way to start the Sonar experience!
Much a part of the same scene that Soulwax and LCD Soundsystem emerged from, were Simian Mobile Disco, who played later that day in SonarHall, who I must admit I thought had gone off the boil for a couple of years now. But their set at Sonar had much of the same aesthetic that Despacio possesses. As far as I understand they’re now just using analog synths and sequencers. Not only does this make for a more interesting spectacle, but (psychologically anyway!) the auditory experience feels a lot more organic. Some of what they play today is spot on, but some of it veers on the side of pretty generic dance music, which I wouldn’t really expect from them. I’d say that for the most part though, it’s top notch stuff and they end on a beatless track, which for a group known for their bangers is quite bold, so they get my vote. The visuals were also pretty darn special for their set, based on broken vertical scan CRT TVs, they gave the whole performance a personality that it would probably have missed if they weren’t there. Great stuff.
Elsewhere musically on the Friday, I missed Matmos (gutted as I love them), tried to see Jon Hopkins (too busy in the Hall to even move, so gave it a miss) and was quite underwhelmed by Theo Parrish's headline DJ set. I did however head back up to the Despacio room for a proper immersive dancing experience.
Dancing under spaceships, planets and the best looking disco ball in town, we were treated to many a slow tempo vinyl gem. The numbers of people in the room was kept to a comfortable number which really helped keep the atmosphere as one of happiness rather than 'barge barge, I need to get to my friends at the front so get out of my way' type dancing…
I did however substitute the lack of afternoon music watching with talks, films, installations and technology. This is the side to Sonar that really sets it apart from other festivals for me. At the same time as watching Richie Hawtin check his email live on stage, you could be instead watching some geeks do their thing at the 5th annual music hack day.
Here I saw a man creating music with his brain waves and sliding lego blocks that create beats, watch it in action here:
There’s also the MarketLab that has all sorts of interesting electronic music instrument oddities like Patch Blocks, cheap, small, programmable synths that can be chain together in blocks. These little blocks have a community of users who create and share their own patches for 909 kick drums, effects modules and all sorts of other musical synth uses. They clip together so you can hook an LFO up to a filter. Essentially stickle bricks for the synth heads. I liked these.
Directly opposite these in MarketLab was Richie Hawtin's tech stall, he’s moved on from sake nowadays darling, now he’s into bass massage chairs. His latest venture involves a vibrating massage pad that you drape over a chair and then plug your iPod into the headphone socket that’s trailing out the back. Plug in a pair of headphones, sit down and get comfy, then press play on your biggest bass heavy tune………then literally feel the bass! On paper this sounds like the biggest pile of sake going, but in practice its actually quite fun, you can feel the music vibrating through your bones.
To be honest I aint going to be rushing out to buy one of these things for $399 as a limited edition part of the latest Plastikman release but…..who would dare call Richie elitist?
Also witnessed in the MarketLab was a robot that can conduct an automatic glockenspiel (or something like that).
A woman with coutless Numark Orbit controllers attached to her person, to remix music and video all at the same time.
Not sure why a keyboard won’t suffice, but maybe I should ask Jean Michel Jarre here…
Here are some other pictures from the MarketLab:
Upstairs above the MarketLab and Music Hack Day a couple of talks took my fancy, one entitled, 'Technology, Feminism and Pop Culture' and 'The Revolution In South African Electronic Music Consumption'. I was a little disappointed by both to be honest. I missed the start of the Technology, Feminism and Pop Culture talk, so maybe I missed the real message of the talk, but it seemed that the talk was more based around the speaker, Sputniko!, talking to crows in a London park.
Quite entertaining nonetheless and I discovered that if you speak in cod-crow speak the London crows will chat back to you!
'The Revolution In South African Electronic Music Consumption' seemed to just be self obsessed with promoting pushing shite music on South Africa with really contrived and obvious video promotion pieces. The whole thing kind of wound me up. Still their hearts were in the right place, I guess.
After this I decided to actually go and see one of the associated South African artists, Transmicsoul, who was actually really good and a lot better than the talk, but it meant I accidentally missed what looked like a really interesting round table talk including the writer Simon Reynolds and Phonicas Simon Rigg! Ah well such is the nature of festivals, you can’t see everything!
Another part of the Sonar non musical environment was the SonarPLANTA, an art installation by Carsten Nicolai called unidisplay. A mesmerising dark room full of screens and mirrors. Repeating patterns and organic shapes on the screens and click clippy sound fx. A great place to get away from the sound of kick-drums and white noise!
Leaving the festival for a quick break before the onslaught of the night time session, I truly felt like I had a head full of inspirational culture.
The Sonar By Night aircraft hangers are almost worth heading out to see on their own, even if you can’t be bothered to stick around till 7 in the morning listening to repetitive beats! Laid out over 2 enormous warehouse arena spaces and 2 outdoor spaces, it’s a little too much to take in initially! We were lucky enough to have Pro Accreditation, which allows you the pleasure to have access to an overhead walkway that spans the width of the whole venue and gives you great views across the site, check it out here:
Unfortunately as we arrived and walked over this walkway, our good vibes were crushed by the sound of the strangulated blonde testicle that is Flux Pavillion, I need not review this monstrosity! Ditto Pretty Lights, crap names and crap music.
After running to the very end of the walk way, as far from Flux Pavillion as physically possible within the perimeter fence, we were treated to a much better option in the form of Moderat. The 3 rats have some great tunes and their sound is super slick, but I feel tonight that the expanse of the SonarLab arena dissipated their meticulously honed sound too much for me and I just wasn’t feeling it.
Later in SonarPub, Kaytrananda played a great set, but unfortunately for him I think it was Caribou most people were waiting for. For me they don’t disappoint live, there’s something so satisfying watching a live band playing dance music where it feels like it could all fall apart at any moment. Caribou have got this nailed down to a tee, even if most of what you hear is coming off Ableton Live. A minor highlight of the whole festival were Caribou. Tracks from last album Odessa live all still sound like future dance music to me. And new track, “I Can’t Do Without You”, is a beautiful understated dance floor gem that doesn’t follow the usual trappings of build ups and breakdowns, but gets to a euphoric crescendo and then leaves you hanging, hungry for more. Can’t wait for the new album in the autumn.
Mr Caribou was closely followed by Todd Terje live, riding high on the popularity of his latest album “It’s Album Time” and the undeniable dance floor hit of the summer, “Inspector Norse”! His stage set is pretty minimal, but unlike most dance acts, he looks like he can actually play his instruments! Jumping between keyboards and laptops, he looks like a man who actually enjoys playing real instruments (even if they may just be midi controllers controlling Ableton Live). To me it feels like he’d really benefit from a band though, with an actual guitarist etc. playing some of the layers that are coming off his sequencer currently. Delorean Dynamite was the standout track of his set for me, a storming set of 80s jams that perfectly soundtracked the outdoors hot summer Barcelona night vibes. Proper good.
After Terje, I was in high spirits and I thought I’d give Richie Hawtin a quick burn. I heard a couple of dull records and turned round and walked right out the door again. Sorry Richie, your massage chair was quite fun, but I’m just not that sure about your music nowadays.
Right, now seeing as Richie wasn't a success, how about let's try 2 Many DJs? Umm, lads, it’s 2014 and you’re still playing the SAME records you were playing in 2001! Aren’t you bored of them? I know I am! Safe to say 2 Many DJs have now morphed into, erm, well err, they’ve er morphed into exactly what they’ve always been, Jive Bunny for hipsters…
Right now Fourtet can’t disappoint now can he? Well, it’s safe to say that I was pretty underwhelmed with him, shame as I’m a massive fan. I think it was just the SonarLab stage that was the issue, nothing live music wise really did it for me on this stage. Although Monki who closed this stage was quite entertaining, she did start playing pretty obvious party tunes towards the end though, but hey, it’s the end of the night and the suns coming up so why not?
The Saturday started a lot slower than the Friday. I headed straight for the cinema to lie down and see a Red Bull documentary called What Difference Does It Make? A Film About Making Music, with a stellar cast of interviewees including James Murphy, Lee Scratch Perry, Brian Eno and Nile Rodgers. It was nicely shot and the people being interviewed were interesting but it just didn't have any continuity or thread running through it to grab onto. Still it eased me into the late afternoon nicely. But I’ll tell you what didn’t ease me into the day was the “official” Sonar film called Ancha es Castilla / N’importe quoi that followed the Red Bull film. I really won’t be able to do it’s oddness any justice, it’s just very very weird, but very entertaining at the same time! Have a butchers at it here.
Off to see some hip-hop then I think. Clipping. play a great set of noisy hip hop to virtually no one up in the SonarComplex. Shame really as they were pretty ace. And do you know what, watching noisy hip-hop in a cinema chair in the dark works wonders for a massive hangover (SonarComplex is a sit down venue hidden away a few flights up so the ravers can’t find it)!
The rest of the day goes thus. Kid Koala is quite fun, but rocks out some dancers halfway through his set, which I’m not sure was necessary. 15mins was enough before I felt the need to move on.
Stayed too long at Kid Koala though and only caught the last couple of songs of Neneh Cherry (I think she came on late though)! Those last couple of songs were well worth seeing though. Neneh definitely gets my vote by employing Rocketnumbernine as her backing band and completely reinventing Buffalo Stance for the last song, as most other acts of her calibre would probably toe a line that their record company would want them to take and get some new pop hits in the bag.
Later on I miss Audion, well I see the dying moments of what looked like an amazing show, the stage set certainly looks like it’d hold my attention by itself. Ah well, I’m sure there’ll be a next time.
Whomadewho in SonarVillage are definitely the most fun band of the whole festival. Massive crowd and massive sunshine punk funk vibes (you love that genre title don’t you!). They have the whole “village” jumping through the entire set. And just when you think they’ve gone, they come back for an encore of “Satisfaction”, which definitely didn’t disappoint anyone, least of all me!
After Whomadewho, James Holden is a little difficult, I try to get into him, but in the end plump for a mix of half Harvey and half Despacio (it was on all 3 days, definitely get your moneys worth!). Both fitting closers for the end of Sonar by Day 2014, although I feel that an hour and a half for Harvey just isn't enough (and I reckon he’d probably agree).
A quick bite to eat (and very good it was too) and then it’s back to Sonar By Night (phew!). Unfortunately the tapas means we miss Massive Attack and Lykke Li. But we get there in time for James Murphy. This man must be super tired after 3 full days of DJing in the Despacio room and then having to come out to this aircraft hanger and play more records for our dancing pleasure…….hang on a minute, is he, is he, erm he’s playing off CDJs. I’ll forgive him, he’s been playing records for 3 days solid. Hang on a minute, is that USB sticks plugged into the CDJs? Is he playing USB sticks. I’ll forgive him he’s been playing records for 3 days solid. Hang on a minute the musics just stopped, what’s going on? Up on the big screen I screen I can see James Murphy (he’s a sound engineer BTW), picking up a CDJ and unplugging one of the cables going to it……and now there’s no sound coming out the system that’s distributing sound to at least 10000 dancing punters……ah well, I’ll forgive him he’s been playing records for 3 days solid……. Still I enjoyed the groove to his set even if it wasn’t technically great, I’d prefer the sound of galloping horses than have to ever hear Flux Pavillion ever again!
James Murphy is closely followed, and unfortunately probably overshadowed (I’m a massive James Murphy fan!) by Chic! There’s no denying how good Chic are and how many MASSIVE tunes Nile Rodgers has written. Rogers certainly doesn’t hold back on the hits tonight, he hasn’t got an experimental new record to promote or anything, he literally just drops hit after hit after hit. Everyone loves it, like they’re in an American sitcom that has a festival scene in it, they’re having that much of a good time. But I’m afraid grumpy nuts here just can’t stop thinking that it feels more like watching a wedding band, wedding bands have ruined these songs! They play wedding hit after wedding hit after wedding hit and the crowd now feel like they’re in an O2 ad where everyone’s having the time of their lives at V Festival……I simply can’t take it any more and have to go get a pizza instead! I know it’s Nile Rogers, I know he’s a legend, I know he’s an amazing guitar player, I know he’s an amazing songwriter, but it's just too much like going to Cheese night at Moles….. I came back for the ending and quite enjoyed it mind. Very sad to think this man may not be long for this world. Nile I salute you, and I’m sorry for being rude about your songs, they will stand the test of time, I on the other hand will not!
A little side note here. On my quest for grub in the middle of Niles set I decided to wander into the main room and had unfortunately witnessed some of Rudimentals set. If you ever witness one of their sets you’ll know how water boarding feels!
My last musical delight of the whole festival went to Daphni & James Holden DJing back to back. They play a great set of techno and other oddities, and even managed to drop in a bit of Daft Punks “Alive” and the new Caribou tune as the sun was coming up.
But at this point I realised I was now far to tired and old for 2 nights in a row and got the shuttle bus back to central Barcelona. And as soon as I stepped off that bus I realised I’d made the right decision as the heavens opened and let out an almighty thunder clap and flood of ferocious rain. Poor people still stuck out in the Sonar By Night aircraft hangers, I thought. But that’s one plus point about getting old and grumpy, you know when to leave…….
Sonar happens in other places other than just Barcelona throughout the year.
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