“The future is my favourite time”: Sónar 2015 reviewed

Evian Christ © Ariel Martini

Words by:

Barcelona

18-20 June

Tucked away behind the business of Sónar’s daytime complex was RGB | CMY Kinetic. A collaboration between Berlin studio ART+COM and SónarPLANTA. With music from Ólafur Arnalds, the stunning installation is powered by industrial engines and controlled by advanced kinetic software to choreograph five floating discs trading in colours and light. While the basic elements are raw, its precision and clarity is solely down to technology. A synergy between technological mastery and pure human creativity – an illuminated emblem for Sónar’s unflinching outlook.

The centre-point for the Sónar experience was Sónar ByDay. Situated at Fira Montjuïc, a complex that has also been used for the Olympic games and Barcelona’s Trade Fair, the various platforms and spaces were used to programme the performances creatively and effectively. As a kind of piazza to all the goings-on was SónarVillage. Complete with siesta-friendly canopies, this was the space where artists like Redinho and J.E.T.S. were perfectly suited to present their upbeat, sugary electronica to the masses. Whether it was a feel-good masterclass from Felix Dickinson or a Colombian carnival-style takeover from Bomba Estéreo, the village would ease us out of our hangovers and back in to the brilliantly non-stop Sónar experience.

One standout curatorial move was the placement of Holly Herndon in the SónarComplex, a seated indoor venue which allowed the high-concept post-internet sounds of Platform to be fully explored. When we entered the amphitheatre, a phone number was up on the screen for spectators to send in confessions or questions to Herndon and her ensemble as the show played out. When asked if she was scared of the internet, Herndon assured us she was only scared of those trying to control it, tying flawlessly into the concepts embedded in her track Home. This monochrome back-and-forth taking place over TextEdit was intercut with wild visuals depicting 2D figures flailing around in a digitalised whirlpool. A stimulating and extraordinary performance that cements Platform’s status as an album-of-the-year frontrunner. 

The towering red drapes of SónarHall created the perfect backdrop for Arca and Jesse Kanda’s cross-media performance. Xen is a challenging LP, the spasmodic synth stabs and abrasive storms of sound are all so conceptually wrapped up that it can be tough to unpack. Fortunately, the live show worked like a thematic microcosm. The visuals were based around the porcelain-coloured figures that Kanda creates – the character of Xen incarnate. The lifeforms would mutate and snap as Arca’s music spiked. This juxtaposition of synthetic disorder and human growth is at the core of Arca’s artistic outlook, seeing it come to life was a weekend standout. Kiasmos also utilised the looming grandeur of the hall as their neoclassical minimalism shook the theatre with glassy intensity. It was this dimly lit theatre which also hosted the bass-weight intensity of The Bug and Flowdan where the scattergun bars of The One rung out like a warning call to mediocrity.

© Ariel Martini

While we couldn’t resist spending some time at the RBMA SónarDome to revel in the joy of hearing Skepta preach, “Mans never been in Barcelona when it’s shut down ay!”, a lot of our time was spent indoors rinsing the Sónar +D programme. Kerri Chandler managed to sum up the entire ethos of the festival during a discussion on STEM files at a roundtable talk when he said, “The future is my favourite time”. Other panelists wholeheartedly backed this new frontier in production and DJing where files will arrive in four sections to allow sampling and intricate mixing. Sónar was the perfect environment to get a taste for this new chapter. XL Recordings’ Richard Russell had an eye-opening conversation where he offered a refreshingly honest and hopeful take on the mass-consumption of music in the post-internet age: “People think they’ve heard everything. But they haven’t.”

Just as day turns to night, our wide-eyed wonderment at the curiosities of ByDay turned into an awe-struck gawp at the scale of ByNight. Held in a colossal exhibition space built from airport hangars, songs like Hudson Mohawke’s Ryderz, A$AP Rocky’s M’$ and FKA twigsGlass & Patron could exist exactly how they were intended to exist. The dangerous fragility of twigs, the stirring euphoria of HudMo and the tripped-out warning shots of Rocky. Even established names like Flying Lotus and Special Request were able to present their music with idiosyncrasies at the forefront thanks to world-class sound systems and technical facilities. Flying Lotus rounding off his set with Rashad’s Pass That Shit and telling the crowd, “Rest in peace DJ Rashad. The first time I saw you was at Sónar” was a touching snapshot of the Sónar ecosystem – forward-facing artists learning from each other and growing together.

For some artists, Sónar is an incubator for creativity. A chance to play to a crowd as excited by works-in-progress as they are seasoned professionals. For others, it is a chance for redefinition. A break from the habitual release-tour cycle and an opportunity to present some of the more nuanced facets of their sound. For spectators it is one of the most rewarding experiences imaginable. Complex acts like Holly Herndon and Arca presented with care, a plethora of non-music programming available to provide the widest picture possible and a handful of stages across day and night where the performers can give us exactly what we pine for.

Expansion is in Sónar’s DNA. We shouldn’t worry when the brand widens to other key cities or changes venues or books ‘established’ acts. Sónar could only disappoint if it sits still and refuses to transform or grow. For as long as this principle of forward-thinking curation and cutting-edge presentation remains at the core of the event’s ethos, the future will be our favourite time too.

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