Barcelona, 14-16th June
You know that sensation of stepping off a plane into warmer climes. The wonderful wall of heat that hits when you emerge from the cabin that fills you with excitement. This isn’t Birmingham.
Barcelona’s Sonar Festival and everything it encapsulates is a week where being in warmer climes acts as a backdrop to a festival that truly dominates an entire city. From the Off Sonar parties that take over every available bar, terrace, rooftop, club and art space, to the festival itself with its wonderful curation and huge crowds, to the knowledgeable and cosmopolitan crowd that can be seen quaffing Estrella and tapas by evening, and losing their shit by night.
The cream of all known music fraternities are in town, but as this was Crack’s first time, we thought we’d try and walk before we could run (check out crackmagazine.net in the coming weeks for coverage of our Off Sonar party antics) and we stuck to the main Sonar festival, with its ‘By Day’ inner city site straddling both the Centre For Contemporary Culture and the Museum Of Contemporary Art and ‘By Night’ in its out of town aircraft hanger space offering a more people-intense and altogether expansive experience both in terms of size and production.
With Barcelona’s beautiful, narrow streets and bustling urban culture as the backdrop, and the centre awash with beautiful people and the fiercely independent spirit that makes Catalonia such an invigorating place, here is our rundown of what made this year’s Sonar Festival one of the best we’ve experienced.
Red Bull Music Academy Stage Presents SonarDome
It’s impossible not to admire what The Red Bull Music Academy achieved, presenting the SonarDome as part of the Sonar By Day activities. The elongated tent site represented as fully as possible the mantra of By Day. Offering variation and experimentation beyond the über-acts of the nighttime, the line-up across three days was primarily pooled from previous RBMA graduates and acted as a roll-call of artists the RBMA have nurtured and developed. Stars of the future playing to an open-minded crowd on a sound system that kicked unequivocal ass? If you insist.
Stand-out performers over the weekend included Crackcast mix star Doc Daneeka who delivered the bass/techno crossover sound that’s seen him shack up with Modeselecktor. His set was so strong it earned him a second set at Sonar By Night, a true reflection of a man on the rise. Following the Doc’s performance, Om Unit’s footwork, two-step, dub, bass conundrum had our chest plates rattling as well as our feet tapping. If the bastardising of genres with overriding theme of bass gets any more complex, we’ll be hunting down Mr Unit for a full explanation; his set was one of the most engaging from the weekend. Nightwave’s yearning, bouncy electronic melodrama surprised and roused, while Eltron John’s stage-name, cross-dressing and haircut turned as many heads as his music. Jesse Boykins III’s claim to be the new D’Angelo was done no harm whatsoever by a performance that juxtaposed vocal smoothness with a personality that had Crack gawping over his style. If ever there was a star in the making …
Headliners certainly played their part and arguably generated the fullest atmosphere on the stage over the weekend with juke/footwork wonders Spinn and Rashad playing a typically energetic, dance-fuelled, body popping set of jams that stuck strongly to the sound they own. Friday night’s bill topper Nina Kraviz’s house and techno, as well as charming disposition, undid men and women with groove after groove of deep lush concoction. Finally, the closing set from DJ Harvey was the most anticipated of the weekend and brought the SonarDome to a rapturous close. A DJ that attracts reverence in these parts, not least because of his mythical status as don of the New York disco underworld and a 10-year visa issue that stopped him playing in Europe. His set had the trainspotters out in force, the gays out in glam and the newbies doing the kind of wiggle usually reserved for the gays. A perfectly effervescent and uplifting way to close a stage that perfectly represented the spirit of Sonar By Day.
Crack saw Modeselektor in a tiny little Bristol club five years ago. Now they hang out with Thom Yorke and they’re fucking massive. Their show, on the brilliantly named SonarPub stage (you’ve never been to a pub like this before mate) was a wonderful combination of the hilarious voice-filter used to make the big one sound like Sauron, visual madness and the hardest most explosive bass-techno we heard all weekend. On the outdoor stage, if the animal had been ramped up any more shoulders would have starting dislocating from sockets with the amount of fist-pumping going on. The flat-peak cap wearing one even had time to cover the crowd in champagne while standing on a speaker. Full fat techno with an awesome sense of humour.
The Big Hitters And Their Stage Production
The level of production at Sonar By Night is the best we’ve ever seen at any festival. That’s not overblown hyperbole. We promise. The first thing the colossally sized air-hanger space venue has in its favour is its indoor/wall enclosed acoustics, amplified by the awesome system on each stage that results in such a magnificent sound, the thought of returning to a rainy British outdoor sound stage makes you wince. Secondly, hosting stages of such magnitude, especially in the SonarClub, allowed for the full incarnation of the visual displays of some of the world’s biggest electronic players to flourish. Comfortably topping this bill was Amon Tobin’s ISAM, block, mirage creation that one Crack reviewer described at Coachella as “the best thing he’s ever seen”. While such a statement is controversial, from a visual perspective this is among the most enthralling performances we’ve ever witnessed. Moving blocks, warping images and 3D projections that move around Tobin, housed in his cocoon of cubic wonder, attempting to express any portrait of exactly how next-level this incarnation is would do it a disservice. Check the YouTubes. On the same night, Squarepusher’s black and white LED sequenced screen did full justice to the arena. EvenDeadmau5’s show, although a little light on what we could call quality music, was visually astounding. Special mention goes to Richie Hawtin, whose typically minimal stage set-up was flanked by screens and LED screens stretching out on the beams, far into the crowd. His hour and a half of techno’s purest strand attracted a massive crowd and finished in typical style with a euphoric glitter cannon explosion. Hawtin isn’t every man’s cup of techno, but for an hour and a half one of Sonar’s stalwart supporters delivered exactly what was expected of him.
Between the numerous hotels, the café culture and the slightly rugged underbelly of the city, the Catalan capital contains all the ingredients to house such a wonderful festival. The relaxed nature of the set-up allowed locals to sell cut price beers outside the event, the ‘party on every street corner’ mentality and the amazing food showcased a city in bloom for the week. And how could we ever forget our trip around the Nou Camp after the night before.
Next time we go to Sonar, earplugs are a necessity, especially for the By Night event. Crushing sound levels are preferable to straining for your life, but during the triple-header of the stellar Metronomy, the deep Maya Jane Coles and the quite superb Azari & III, one member of Crack’s entourage had to move back, before realising the assortment of speakers laced the entire room. British festivals could really learn a thing or two.
There were three label showcases of note at Sonar this year, and they all offered exceptional insights into what has made them such success stories. The Brainfeeder takeover on the Thursday By Day, although characterised by an oddly lackluster performance from Flying Lotus, whose set seemed high on the gimmicks and low on the intensity (Jackson 5 anyone?), saw strong performances from Thundercat and particularly, young gun Lapalux.
In a similar vein the 100% Silk takeover saw a live performance by the brilliant LA Vampires, but the twisted, broken techno and crazy structure of Ital’s live performance is what really caught the attention. Sprawling tracks, screeching peaks and rumbling troughs made-up a very intense sound, yet at the same time bathed in warm synths. On the evidence of this, as well as their recent tour of Europe, there is no way this label’s stock is set to do anything other than soar.
Finally the Hyperdub showcase in SonarPub was every bit as reliable as you’d expect from a label now engrained as an electronic music institution. The yearning vocals of Cooly G and her subtle dub bass sounds are a wonderful reminder of the more introspective side of the label, before Kode 9’s typically eclectic set drew on UK funky, grime, jungle and house and Scratcha DVA stuck a more UK bass influenced set.
We started drinking Mojitos to refresh from the night before. Any drink you consume more than 20 of in a weekend that isn’t wine or beer deserves an honourable mention.
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To check out sets from The Red Bull Music Academy Presents The SonarDome stage at Sonar go to http://www.rbmaradio.com
Words: Thomas Fros