It’s been a little over a week but the eardrums are still ringing from a week of high-impact bass at the 21st edition of Sónar, Barcelona’s premiere festival of advanced music and new media art. It was my first time at the festival in over three years and hence my first visit the new daytime venue at Fira de Barcelona an impressive multi-functional plaza nestled at the foot of Montjuïc. Any pre-conceptions that I may have about the loss of intimacy provided by the previous daytime venue more centrally located at MACBA were immediately brushed off. As soon as I stepped onto the huge artificial lawn under that searing June sun I knew that the new location was geared for efficiency.
With a shedload of open and cavernous new spaces to be utilised, it was visibly noticeable that people were much more inclined to visit the expo spaces which were much more accessible and inviting than previous editions of the festival. Anything and everything was featured from the latest in mini Korg synthesisers, to a prototype of the much hyped Oculus Rift virtual reality gaming system to a dark room filled with people making glitchy beats using segments of decaying fruit linked up via circuitry.
Organisation at the venues was key, arena layout was paramount in making it easy to navigate from space to space. Although as expected, with unavoidable programme clashes it proved impossible to fit absolutely everything in and sacrifices had to be made as with any event to this scale. The addition of a fast-pass walkway for those with +D accreditation to swiftly traverse the gargantuan line of warehouses that is the Sonar By Night venue was a much appreciated addition and also provided a vehicle for some stunning views of the eye of the storm.
Musical highlights came from Elijah & Skilliam with special guest Flava D, who’s blend of Grime and House got proceedings of to a bumping start. This Butterz showcase had the new and improved RBMA Sónardôme packed to the rafters and pulsating with a supercharged energy that you couldn’t but help embrace. An ambient live-set from Koreless, directly to follow seemed a bit out of place and the room thinned-out with as the vast majority of the pumped-up crowd clearly in search of something a little bit more upbeat.
This was found outside at the SónarVillage where Machinedrum performed his Vapor City Live show with a full live band. Poly-rhythmic drumming collided with electric guitars and vocals for a cacophony of sound while people sipped on Estrella in the evening sun. We refreshed ourselves and got a good spot for Plastikman’s fabled conceptual audio/visual Objekt concert. This live performance, (an experience created for the Guggenheim) was basically flagged as the main event and centre-piece of the entire festival, (if you disregard the weird art-film that was attached to this year’s theme). Visuals were projected and mapped onto a huge obelisk while Richie Hawtin composed a live set of Ambient Techno. There was certainly a tinge of grandeur in the air as the Strawberry moon glowed full and ominous above thousands to set a scene to behold. As impressive as the whole spectacle was, it seemed more like a testament to Hawtin’s swollen ego than an “interactive” experience.
Throwing Snow’s new improvised live show was received exceptionally well on the second day of festivities. Blending haunting atmosphere with weighty beats the Hyponik favourite proved his determination as one of the most modern producers out there at the moment. Crowds were in high spirits for Bonobo’s live show which was infectious and full of sound. With more and more producers expanding their performance methods it has become clear that the full live band is the only way to take music to a wider audience. I was disappointed to miss Oneohtrix Point Never who’s performance was tucked away in a dark and fully packed auditorium but it was a necessary sacrifice to make if I was to see Theo Parrish open his set on the main stage.
I made the right choice as Parrish entered with his latest release “Footwork” and proceeded to work the crowd with his trademark brand of soulful mid-tempo House. I reluctantly snuck off half-way through this set to catch the second half of Jon Hopkins which proved to be a favourable decision. Hopkins had the room flowing, a stunning visual show that complimented his rugged, cinematic soundscapes. A high point of the weekend was marked when “Open Eye Signal” was unleashed. I returned to Theo Parrish afterwards to the news that a speaker had temporarily cut out half-way through his set.
One could not have been prepared for the night of consistently good and flowing music that was ahead of us at Sónar By Night. I arrived right on time for Caribou’s live performance, Dan Snaith’s and live band with two drummers serenaded thousands in the massive outdoor Sonarpub arena. Todd Terje was also on top form with some seriously impressive piano work, and a huge live version of ‘Inspector Norse’ that prompted a monumental sing-a-long. One would imagine that Terje would be sick of playing the anthem he’s best know for by now but from observing the variety and skill in his live jamming you shall learn that every time he performs it takes a different form. Ron Morelli & Svengalisghost completely annihilated the Sónarcar arena for the L.I.E.S. showcase with a much welcomed dosage of dark and heavy left-field Techno/House across a high-end Void Incubus sound system. The sound at the Sónarcar arena was some of the best at the entire festival.
This ran into a stellar live performance from Four Tet which proved to be one of the best this writer has ever witnessed from the producer, despite some sound being lost as you moved further away from the stage in the lengthy arena. A live rendition of ‘Jupiters’ was stretched of for what seemed like an eternity and remained in the back of my head for the rest of the weekend. Monki followed up and reigned things in with a surprisingly strong set of infectious Garage/Drum & Bass classics, fresh off the press bangers and a guilty pleasure in The Police’s ‘Roxanne’ to keep the crowd on their feet until well after sunrise, breakfast hours and time for round three.
The final day was noticeably quieter and rightly so. People had been partying hard and rain was forecast. Nenah Cherry & RocketNumberNine delivered a raw, soulful performance packed with attitude and profanities. Dâm-Funk got weird jumping around on stage, making love to his Keytar, shouting at the crowd whilst channelling a funk of cosmic proportions. James Holden‘s live show seemed a bit lacklustre from what I caught of it and it was simply too hot in the Sónarhall after a long weekend. Moving back outside, Dj Harvey provided one of the strongest sets of the weekend switching things up between banging Techno and rolling Disco like nobody else knows how.
Chic was as captivating as one would expect, with Nile Rodgers stealing the show, banging out hits and testaments to his self-achievement like it was a farewell concert. Daphni b2b James Holden was another high-point; spirits were high and great expectations were met, it being one of the first occasions that Snaith would play out his super-catchy new instant-hit ‘Can’t Do Without You‘. This experience was made all the more enjoyable in looking to my right and seeing Kieran Hebden (Four Tet) dancing a couple of feet away cheering on his pals. Paul Woolford brought an epic conclusion to the night as the heavens opened and a massive thunderstorm rained down upon the couple of hundred party-people who refused to let the weather spoil their fun. We departed from the arena drenched to the bone and elated with a re-affirmed sense of life.
The Crowd at Sónar was one of the best i’ve ever had the pleasure of being a part of. In total there were 109,000 visitors from 99 countries with more than 3,500 professionals registered at Sónar+D. With the festival being so deeply rooted in the music industry, technology and the showcasing of new products it felt like there was a perfect balance between the tech-heads, industry-folk and everyday revellers looking to have a good time. More importantly there was a perfect balance in the male to female ratio. There was also large consensus of locals present which was a refreshing reminder that the overall experience was paramount and that it wasn’t another run-of-the-mill bass & booze-fuelled UK getaway binge in the sun.
My one regret of the weekend was not having spent enough time at Despacio, the unique project between James Murphy & 2manydjs which was a celebration of the clubbing experience. Seven stacks of 11ft tall Mcintosh speakers were positioned around a very dark circular dance floor where the focus was on the party and not the DJ’s on the stage. With a limited capacity people got hot and heavy dancing their bodies into the ground. The DJ’s performed a marathon 18 hours in total over the course of three days.
To speak on the “Off-Parties” I attended three in total. The Electric Minds party at Razzmatazz prior to the festival, The Numbers Party at Nitsa and the secretsundaze party at La Terrrazza which concludes the week with a lush fashion every year. With the week that’s in it Barcelona shines brightly and the frequency and calibre of event programming is dizzying. The colossal influx of people blows a huge flame of energy under the city and there’s something aloof in every nook and cranny. Come Monday everyone has departed and the streets have returned to regular tourist fare leaving the strange feeling that nothing has ever happened.
It’s clear that “Off-Week” has become as much of an occasion as the main event with hundreds of parties littered across the city and the term “Off-Sónar” has even been officially banned by the festival’s organisers. Plenty of people visit the city purely for these parties, but in my eyes, they will never replicate that same intersubjective energy that’s shared at the festival. Sónar has taken things up a couple of notches, improved accessibility and re-asserted itself as one of the most cutting edge electronic-music events on the planet.