Sónar marked the 25th edition of its Barcelona festival by attracting its highest attendance of 126,000, evenly split between national and international visitors. There were more than 150 musical performances across 10 stages at Sónar by Day and Sónar by Night with Gorillaz, Thom Yorke, LCD Soundsystem, Helena Hauff, Charlotte De Witte, Despacio and Laurent Garnier among them. Mike Barnard reports.
Away from the huge live acts and globe-trotting DJs, there’s always a genre-pushing spectacle or ambitious experimental project to be found.
Our 25th anniversary of Sónar would start early at the first Sónar by Day of the year as the day was packed with special performances, particularly with an audio-visual element, and it would prove to be a rewarding first day. We entered around 1.30pm to hear Ivana Ray Singh’s set of meditative and lysergic sounds in the SonarVillage which suited the a crowd milling around in the hot sun. We spied some keen arrivals sporting acetate masks that looked like computer game sprites - perhaps awaiting the SonarDôme’s mid-afternoon sets - while supping on our first beers, then took up a space at SonarHall for Oscar Mulero presents Monochrome AV.
While Mulero is known for his hard techno sets, for this live show he had teamed up with visual artists Nazare Soares and Javier Bejarano to produce an IDM experience. Black-and-white visuals scratched and flickered like old videotapes as Mulero’s beats sucked us into a bleak soundscape - images of gravestones underlined the initial dark tone. Around midway through the set, Mulero’s sombre tone became more hopeful as images of trees hinted at the outline of faces and then words within their branches - an engrossing effect that capped off a fine 60 minutes of electronica.
Next we swtiched straight over to Kode9 x Koji Morimoto AV which was the first of a videogame-inspired double bill in the SonarDôme. Kode9’s got an arcade influence in early as he kicked off with ‘insert coin’ sounds ahead of his set, then, with typical bass-heavy aplomb, used 8-bit and 16-bit samples to build a retro vibe while Tom Scholefield, AKA Konx-om-Pax, reworked the visuals of legendary animator Koji Morimoto’s work. The result felt like a blend of steam punk, samurai and sci fi anime and game soundtracks of the 80s given a contemporary twist that was both danceable and cinematic.
For the second half of the videogame music double-bill, the composers behind the music on Sega Megadrive games such as Streets of Rage and Katekyo Hitman Reborn!, Yuzo Koshiro and Motohiro Kawashima, took to the stage. This was a more dynamic live show in which Koshiro and Kawashima played their classic Streets of Rage soundtrack through the lens of early 90s house and techno to become dancefloor stormers. The pair looked to be loving their hour behind their keyboards as they threw arms in the air to whoops of approval from a crowd very knowledgeable about the source material, meanwhile, on screens, Konx-om-Pax drew on the gameplay of Streets of Rage to signal when the music was being performed inkeeping with the originals, then flipped into an 8-bit meltdown when they veered into rave territory.
Garnier announced at the end of his set: ‘Sónar, that was special’. It was a fitting description for the whole day.
After three impressive AV shows, we stopped in on the purist dancefloor experience: Despacio. Found on the top level of Fira Barcelona Montjuïc, the trio of James Murphy and the Deawele brothers (2manyDJs) were to play every day of Sónar by Day armed with their bespoke soundsystem and a giant discoball so we took a first look during the opening hours of their marathon session. Enclosed in black curtains the black and white chequered dancefloor was something of an oven at times, but whenever the lights hit the discoball in time with a drop or a synth hook, you didn’t care - especially when it’s the Soulwax remix of Charlotte Gainsbourg’s ‘Deadly Valentine’.
Our final live set of the day came from Deadelus armed with a new show in its production stage dubbed ‘Panoptes’. We last saw Deadelus at Sónar in 2012 when his Archimedes mirror show blew us away, but this time the concept was less about in-your-face movement, and more on subtlety. Behind Deadelus was a series of LED ‘strings’ which would spin and generate columns of light. It was hard to be sure if the intended effect of light and shadows was truly working to the standard intended, however the music was an impressive fusion of genres such as house, techno, dubstep, bassline and ambient woven into a blissful beat tapestry.
We rounded off our first Sónar by Day with two legendary DJ veterans. The 60-year-old Tony Humphries took us on a trip back to his days on Kiss FM during the golden era of New York radio in the SonarDôme by playing tracks epitomising the Jersey house sound, then ‘Laurent Plays Garnier’ saw Sónar regular Laurent Garnier DJ only his own productions for two hours in SonarVillage, including ‘Crispy Bacon’ and ‘The Man With the Red Face’. The pure, feelgood tunes of Humphries were sentiment of a DJ who was once such a figurehead on the radio his shows were bootlegged, while Garnier showed he’s still able to play with the emotions of a vast crowd as he delivered each of his productions to an obliging audience. He announced at the end of his set: ‘Sónar, that was special’. It was a fitting description for the whole day.
Kicking off with powerful electro selections for the first hour, Hauff built up a tension that was only released when bustling acid and tenacious techno was unleashed as the sun rose.
Our stop-in at Sónar by Day on the Friday was a short one as we had to make a quick getaway to Sónar by Night for Gorillaz. Arrival at the SonarVillage was greeted by one of Diplo’s picks: The Destruction Boys playing Gqom - the sparse South African house sound that is both minimalistic but also tribal, with hip hop influences. It made for a throbbing dancefloor in the blazing sun as Thobani “Que” Mgobhozi and Zipho “Goldmax” Mthembu distilled a showcase for a style they consider the future, but we didn’t have long enough to get a full dose as we wanted to see what SOPHIE’s latest show was all about in SonarDôme.
We last saw SOPHIE at Sónar in 2015 when she spent her set providing the beats herself while guest singers such a Hey QT pranced on to join her - this year was a very different delivery. The stage clear of equipment, we’d be blasted with bass stabs and words on the screens while SOPHIE clad in PVC elected to turn her music into more of a performance art piece than a conventional delivery. Flanked by singers and/or dancers, the stage show featured on-stage constume morphing and contored gymnastics as hits such as ‘Whole New World/Pretend World’ and ‘Ponyboy’ felt injected into our faces. Depending on your perspective, it was either genius or some kind of cross between the kind of music art seen in Nathan Barley and Spaced. We’d eventually seek solace with Despacio where there was a disco with a sense of Samba send us on our way to Sónar by Night.
The SonarClub opener was DJ2D2, who has a strong history with Sónar. Warming up the vast main space for Gorillaz, he drew on his love for hip hop to throw in Mase’s ‘Feel So Good’, then followed it up with Janet Jackson’s ‘Nasty’ for a retro blast. Those not paying attention to the Gorillaz output might have thought a callback to the 80s and 90s was needed before the virtual band created by Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett ‘took-to-the-stage’ armed with hits such as ‘Last Living Souls’, ‘Kids With Guns’ and ‘Clint Eastwood’ from their albums in the 2000s. Yet, with Humanz unveiled last year and The Now Now set for release at the end of June, there was plenty of fresh material for Albarn, his vast live band (spanning the width of the stage) and a plethora of guests to rip through.
The vast bulk of the show was from these two albums, but by riffing through 20 songs in the space of two hours, it was a breakneck pace. Every song was accompanied by animations of the band - taken from a video is possible - and often with added effects such as a round screen which would unfold from the ceiling to act like a microsope into the main screen’s action. Guests such as Jamie Principle, De La Soul and Little Simz with the latter’s rap over ‘Garage Palace’ getting the biggest roars having appeared at Sónar and causing the dancefloor to erupt. Albarn looked comfortable at the front of the stage in a yellow sweater, ending the set on his melodia as the original album version of ‘Clint Eastwood’ reverberated around SonarClub. It was a timely reminder of the track that won Gorillaz their fans back in 2001, while the set, as a whole, was evidence there’s far more mileage in this Albarn project than could ever have been first imagined.
Benjamin Damage’s set started at full throttle, eased off with a hint of electro mid-set, then powered back with 4/4 to the end.
We next turned to Preditah to get us moving at SonarLab, the Wolverhampton DJ giving us some immediate smiles by dropping a bassline remix of Artful Dodger’s ‘Rewind’ blended into Tiga vs Audion’s ‘Let’s Go Dancing’. Mission accomplished, our attentions moved to Benjamin Damage’s live techno at SonarPub where cameras gave us an insight into his every move. This proved enlightening as he was constantly switching between synths and equalisers, producing an inventive, driving set which started at full throttle, eased off with a hint of electro mid-set, then powered back with 4/4 to the end.
Looking for where to go next, we noticed somewhat unsurprisingly that frequent-canceller Wiley’s live set at SonarLab had become a Kode9 DJ, but we were headed to see Bicep there shortly so made our way over. The atmospheric, big room house vibes they generate helped us get over another Wiley no-show, particularly as the uplifting ‘Orca’ and ‘Glue’ beamed out at 3am, but the visuals felt like a missed opportunity - neither adding much to the music, nor offering any kind of insight into their performance.
A hop from SonarClub to SonarCar and then SonarPub gave us the opportunity to see Diplo open his set with an EDM remix of Darude’s ‘Sandstorm’ (Club), DJ Harvey having made the SonarCar space his own during a six hour set and longstanding support of Sónar, Angel Molina, providing an industrial techno set as a build up to one of the most exciting DJs on the line-up this year: Helena Hauff. Kicking off with powerful electro selections for the first hour, she built up a tension that was only released when bustling acid and tenacious techno was unleashed as the sun rose. It was a fine end to the first Sónar by Night of 2018.
With a giant disco ball beaming rays of lights out above their heads, we all felt like James Murphy’s friends tonight.
To conserve some energy for the final all-nighter, we skipped Sónar by Day and headed straight to by Night after an afternoon chilling at the beach. No such luck for James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem, our first target at 10pm in SonarClub, as he’d been spinning records all day in Despacio. If he had any issues with tiredness, he didn’t show it during an LCD show in SonarClub that felt like a triumphant return to a festival that first welcomed them onto one of its stages in 2003. Back then, ‘Losing My Edge’ and ‘Beat Connection’ were their biggest hits, but there was no room for either in this set. The biggest cheers would come for ‘Yeah’, ‘Someone Great’ and closer ‘All My Friends’, all perfect examples of the slow build up to euphoria Murphy and his cohorts are able to nail every time. With a giant disco ball beaming rays of lights out above their heads, we all felt like James Murphy’s friends tonight.
A change of pace saw Call Super next up at SonarClub, so we positioned ourselves in front of the sounddesk to get down to his mix of vibrant techno that mixed in Marshall Jefferson’s ‘Move Your Body’ and a remix of The Streets’ ‘Weak Become Heroes’. It got us into a good place, so for the 30 minute changeover before Thom Yorke, we ran to the bumper cars for our annual bounce around the track which always helps sustain the momentum at Sónar by Night.
The enigmatic Thom Yorke was joined on stage by Nigel Godrich and Tarik Barri for what was described as a ‘live mix’ of his solo music plus a few made with his superband Atoms for Peace. Yorke’s solo material has always had a similar tone to that of Moderat at its most dramatic - with Modeselektor working with Yorke on severl tracks - and they translated well to the SonarClub surroundings, but even the more tender tunes such as ‘Atoms for Peace’ from The Eraser were engrossing in this environment, coming at the end of a set which had taken in favourites such as ‘Black Swan’, ‘Cymbal Rush’ and ‘The Clock’. The best would be his final track, the Atoms for Peace tune ‘Default’ which flooded the audience with its rousing, warm synths that left us glowing from the inside.
From here, we’d get a fill of techno as Objekt kicked off his set in SonarClub with his hard-edged style, then the first-time pairing of DJ Nobu and Ben Klock at SonarLab where Klock’s deep-groove-based stylings were complimented by Nobu’s more abstract esoteric techno for a set that must surely be repeated one day. Laurent Garnier was back behind the decks at SonarPub with suitable aplomb, settling into another four hours to close this historic edition of Sónar, and having witnessed his set on Thursday, we opted to check out Richie Hawtin’s live show CLOSE which was geared towards spontaneity by providing the tools he needs to create his minimal beats and loops on-the-fly. Beyond some rolling basslines and spikey drops early on, we felt underwhelmed by this latest fusion, with the visuals lacking any real insight into his activities at the mixing desks and the basslines would eventually lose their impact.
Far more fun was the pairing of Jeremy Underground and Motor City Drum Ensemble in SonarLab where they veered from techno to disco, although they failed to ignite in quite the same way as the legendary SonarLab closing set from Hunee and Daphni last year which the organiers seemed to be keen to match. We’d shift inside back to SonarClub for the final dance to Charlotte De Witte’s dark, linear techno - a lesson in precise mixing and a dramatic finale for the 24-year-old from Ghent.
A synergy of piano, found sounds and electronica, Noto and Sakamoto delivered a beautiful series of delicate pieces which epitomised what makes Sónar so special.
Our Sónar 25th anniversary edition was extended by a day thanks to Alva Noto and Ryuichi Sakamoto’s performance of their collaborative project Two at the open air Teatre Grec on Sunday evening. A synergy of piano, found sounds and electronica, the pair delivered a beautiful series of delicate pieces which epitomised what makes Sónar so special. Away from the huge live acts and globe-trotting DJs, there’s always a genre-pushing spectacle or ambitious experimental project to be found. He’s to another 25 years of Sónar!
Sónar 2019 will be held a month later for one year only from Thursday, July 18th to Saturday, July 20th. In 2020, Sónar will return to its usual dates of Thursday, June 18th to Saturday, June 20th. Tickets and details will be available at sonar.es.
The next Sónar events in 2018 are Buenos Aires (Friday, November 16th) and Bogotá (Saturday, November 17th). In 2019, Sónar heads to Istanbul (Friday, March 8th and Saturday, March 9th), Hong Kong (Saturday, April 13th) and Reykjavík (Thursday, April 25th to Saturday, April 27th).