Barcelona | June 13-16th
The scale of Sonar is something that has to be seen to be believed, the cultural heart of Catalonia playing host to over 120,000 festival-goers with a minimum of compromises. Besides a typically impressive line-up, there were opportunities to try out the latest music tech, ride dodgems and watch short films and music documentaries between acts.
The new venue for Sonar’s day events has lent itself surprisingly well to hosting a music festival, indeed the act of taking an escalator to see bands perform seemed perfectly natural. A central courtyard and main stage separated two indoor stages and Sonar+D making a compact and well organised space for the many facets of Sonar.
The recently reformed Metro Area’s set of melodic techno was highly enjoyable despite the occasional technical issue, bringing a well known and loved sound back to life with an accomplished live show. It was striking just how ‘live’ Lindstrøm and Todd Terje’s bouncy analogue collaboration was, the duo alternately tapping out loose rhythms on drum machines and hunching over old keyboards. Fun and easy to dance to, the set peaked with an excellent version of Whitney Houston’s I Wanna Dance With Somebody providing the highlight of Thursday’s music.
Thursday also provided an opportunity to explore Sonar+D, the interactive conference attached to the music festival. Unfortunately, the events were somewhat under promoted, and felt like a less than fully-formed attempt at Sonar justifying its tag as a multimedia festival. With seminars on the music business in the digital age and the collaborative music hack day, as well as the numerous collaborative performances throughout the festival, the emphasis was firmly on sharing ideas.
On Friday this theme was continued by AtomTMand Diamond Version (Alva Noto and Beytone) both giving their take on Kraftwerk’s electro blueprint, robotic voices delivering anti-corporate messages throughout both sets. The hugely positive response to this Raster-Noton showing was well justified: Diamond Version’s harsh strobing visuals and pounding digital noise was a real highlight, and an ideal warm-up for the robots’ performance that evening.
Sonar by night occupies a larger exhibition space than the day event, slightly further out of the centre, with four stages spread across two vast outdoor courtyards and two indoor spaces reminiscent of aircraft hangars. The hundred thousand strong crowd was accommodated with ease and the sound filled the arenas with a power and clarity that gave DJs and live acts alike an outstanding forum for their performances.
Kraftwerk’s headline show followed an accomplished, but obviously nervous set from Raime at Sonar by Night’s main Sonar Club stage. The huge 3D visuals accompanying the performance added an element of fun to an impressive two hour set from some of dance music’s most revered legends. Incorporating futuristic jump suits, a dub techno rendition of Computer Love and over 10 minutes of Autobahn, the show demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt that Kraftwerk were here first and they still do it the best.
The only thing more baffling than Skrillex following Kraftwerk later in the night was the number of people moaning about it. Thankfully, no drops or complaints were audible over the varied incarnations of techno at the Sonar Lab stage. Objekt gave an unrelenting performance followed by Karenn, who have cleaned up their trademark live sound, delivering pounding hardware techno with the rawness that originally grabbed our attention. The night concluded with a sunrise set from Derrick May, last but not least on a bill that expressed perfectly when, where and what techno is all about.
On to Saturday’s daytime event, where Chromatics’ brand of cold electronic pop offered a strange contrast to the baking afternoon sun on the outdoor main stage. The cool synths and soft vocals made an ideal tonic for any heads still reverberating from the previous night. Felix Kubin and James Pants’ show later in the day attracted a mixed crowd, curious to see what the esoteric pair would bring to their first joint live performance. Unfortunately, the collaboration promised more than it delivered, recycling ideas and leaning heavily on the quirkiness of the cult musicians.
Where Kubin and Pants disappointed, Vatican Shadow’s new live sound made a surprising and successful sidestep into big room techno. The significant change eschewed the limp distorted drums those familiar with Vatican Shadow would recognise and instead underpinned noisy arabesque drones with punishing kick drums and chattering percussion. More surprising than the change of style was the willingness with which the crowd engaged with the performance, responding to Dominik Fernow’s martial image and relentless sound with raised fists and emphatic dancing. The performance was somewhat let down by Fernow’s onstage antics. He spent most of the set flailing like a toddler having a tantrum, pausing to cue tracks and shine a torch into the audience in a way that must have been intended to be menacing, but just wasn’t.
It has to be said in Vatican Shadow’s defence that seeing a performer engage with their material, however bizarrely, is infinitely preferable to seeing Mary Anne Hobbs standing morosely behind the decks looking as bored as we felt during her set.
The highlight of Saturday’s by night schedule was undoubtedly Pet Shop Boys, whose wonderfully camp performance came complete with costume changes, backing dancers on pogo sticks dressed in tinsel, and confetti cannons. In a bizarre piece of scheduling, they were followed by an abrasively heterosexual hour from DJ Mele, whose post dubstep sound substituted genuine attitude for in-your-face posturing and a clichéd MC.
2manydjs came after, and save for a few token references to Daft Punk and Disclosure, played a set you could have expected to hear from them five years ago. That said, they gave the crowd exactly what they wanted, and their Monty Pythonesque visuals added another surreal layer to their energetic cut and paste sound.
Laurent Garnier closed Sonar By Night in the not-so-small hours of Sunday morning with a hard but accessible set. Garnier spread his attention across three CDJs manipulating them and the crowd deftly, moving between trance, techno, house, dark and light with ease.
Despite its magnitude and a range of highlights, genuinely outstanding moments came less frequently at Sonar 2013 than might have been expected. The festival’s aim to present dance music in its broadest forms occasionally proved misguided, namely in the sublime-to-ridiculous Kraftwerk/Skrillex progression of Friday. While there were few compromises elsewhere on the line-up, we can only hope that Sonar’s future will see it continue to focus on the quality which forged its reputation as the best electronic music festival on the planet.
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Words: Thomas Painter
Photos: Gareth Thomas + Oscar Garcia