Nearly 120,000 visitors from more than 100 countries attended the 22nd music, creativity and technology festival Sónar in Barcelona from Thursday, June 18th to Saturday, June 20th 2015. Of the 150 performances across the three days and two nights included A$AP Rocky, Skrillex, The Chemical Brothers, Hot Chip, Die Antwoord, FKA Twigs and Duran Duran. Meanwhile the third Sónar+D, the International Congress of Creativity, Technology and Business, brought together 3,900 accredited professionals from over 60 countries discussing all parts of the creative process and industry. Mike Barnard reports on the artist performances.
On entering Sónar by Day at the Fira Montjuïc exhibition centre, we emerged into the vast open air SónarVillage to the sounds of Adam Bainbridge, more commonly known as Kindness, playing a cover of Womack & Womack’s “Teardrops”. Their set was heard while munching on a burger and a gluten-free Estrella Damm Daura, on sale at all bars this year for the first time. It was also the first time Sónar had gone cashless, meaning the token system so common at urban festivals was replaced by a wristband with a chip which could be charged a special points then used for all transactions. It would work remarkably smoothly over the three days with refunds available up to three days after the event. It made the previously-annual pocket rummage for the right mix of beer, long drink and water tokens at the bar a thing of the past.
Meeting up with some other Sónar attendees in the SónarHall, we caught the closure of Double Vision: Atom™ + Robin Fox’s performance reaching the crescendo of their deconstruction of pop music’s classic codes via lasers, video and experimental sound. The video screen showed static and lasers zapped frenetically as distortion filtered through the speakers and over the audience. The effect was bewildering, an response often triggered by acts in the Hall - and we’d see two further fascinating performances this weekend at the venue. Back outside in the Village, it was time for some dreamy 4/4 beats from Hfn Music’s Kasper Bjørke who dropped James Holden’s remix of Nathan Fake’s “The Sky Was Pink” and an instrumental version of Kyle Minogue’s “Can’t Get You Out of My Head” before a 1980s throwback from Visage’s “Fade to Grey”.
Next up in the Village was J.E.T.S., the Jimmy Edgar and Machinedrum project. The pair are two albums into their partnership and seemed at ease on stage with live drums beefing up the smooth grooves and funky electro. The Detroit vibes kept coming when we headed to the SónarDôme for Palms Trax. His Detroit-Chicago house crossover is fused with Berlin basement techno for a tougher edge, yet not so tough that there weren’t plenty of smiles in front of the Red Bull Music Academy stage. This emerging artist releases on the respected Lobster Theremin label and with friends under the Chicago Flotation Device pseudonym - and certainly one to keep an eye on.
Hot Chip’s charm remains international and ensured the Sónar faithful left with smiles on their faces when day one reached its close.
Then we headed to see one of the most exciting names on today’s bill: Warp veterans Autechre. The duo of Rob Brown and Sean Booth rarely perform live and this was only their second appearance at Sónar - their first coming 20 years ago in 1996. As always, the lights were killed completely as they got behind their computers for an IDM excursion of beats and electronic sounds presented in a unique algebraic form which challenges listeners to make sense of it. SónarHall seemed captivated by the sounds coming through the crystal clear speakers, and we left knowing there would be no performance that quite explored music in the same way this weekend.
Back outside in the Village with the sun now low in the sky, there was just time to catch the end of Felix Dickinson’s set before By Day headliner and Sónar favourites Hot Chip made their way on stage. Playing their first of two sets this weekend - the second would be on Friday’s By Night - their twee electronic pop proved as irresistible as ever. “Over and Over”, “Flutes” and “Ready for the Floor” still sound fresh while newer tunes including “Huarache Lights” were warmly received. Hot Chip’s charm remains international and ensured the Sónar faithful left with smiles on their faces when day one reached its close.
Sónar by Day was a short experience, but well worth stopping by. We had to see Tom Jenksinson - aka Squarepusher - present his latest live show fuelled by the release of Damogen Furies. Wearing a fencing mask to enable projections directly onto his body and creating a brooding shadow on the vast screen behind him, all manner of shapes and distortion brought the latest incarnation of his drill and bass style to life. Now fully back immersed in electronic music after his flirtation with a smoother, jazzier vibe, Squarepusher seems dedicated to make intense tunes that channel dubstep and jungle such as “Rayc Fire 2” which is almost like dubstep on helium.
Some tried to dance to Squarepusher, with one guy jutting on the spot like he was standing on a platform sending him electric shocks in time with the music, while others marvelled at another complex set in SónarHall. Jenkinson finished up with some classics rarely heard live such as “Venus No. 17” from 2004 and “Arterial Fantasy” from 2009 for a polished performance that felt so much more complete than the album run through of his Ufabulum show in 2012 with some welcome rare additions too. We passed through Nick Hook’s set in the Village but his eclectic approach seemed too slapdash to encourage us to stay so we headed off to see some friends nearby via the Magic Fountain of Montjuïc before Sónar by Night.
After his flirtation with a smoother, jazzier vibe, Squarepusher seems dedicated to make intense tunes that channel dubstep and jungle.
The late night part of Sónar got off to a bad start after a mix-up at the gates meant some of our crew had their paper ticket scanned when they already had a wristband on, leading to an unnecessary hour-long queue just to get into the venue. The change to the ticket check system - those with weekend passes no longer requiring to show their paper ticket - seemed to confuse security and punters alike, and it would make for an admittedly legitimately grumpy pair when we found them at the dodgems by SónarCar. Prior to that, some of us got to see A$AP Rocky and Salva kick off the blend of rap, grime, drum & bass and dubstep in SónarClub with sets that seemed to appeal to a small part of the Sónar audience, yet they were particularly vocal in their support and proved that the main space doesn’t need a 4/4 beat to become alive.
Unfortunately the problems continued when the crew reunited as Paranoid London’s live acid-techno infusion was wasted on a disappointing soundsystem at SónarCar which couldn’t handle the bass, nor the trio’s endless enthusiasm on stage. As one of the acts we had been most looking forward to that night, we were getting a little disappointed. Disappointment turned to shock when we headed over to the front of SónarLab where PC Music star SOPHIE was slicing up the post-modern, 8-bit-pop idealism the label has been become known for with little care for musicality, though that is the point of this new fad of contemporary electronica. When QT pranced out on stage to mime her way through joint single “Hey QT” the crowd roared with approval and some barged past us to get a proper look at the barrier as QT struck poses and pouted throughout. Quite the showcase for PC Music.
Far more enjoyable was Tiga’s live set for which he was delighted to bring to Barcelona, a city he announced “has always had a special place in my heart”. The Montreal-born DJ/producer has plenty of hits to choose from and sauntered on stage wearing all white to launch into the minimal house of “Bugatti” and his co-production smash with Audion “Let’s Go Dancing” to much aplomb. Images were projected onto white blinds behind him which opened ocassionally to reveal an LED lighting bank, as he provided all the vocals supported by an unknown figure alongside who was working much of the music. A step back in time for “Sunglasses At Night” and “You Gonna Want Me” were very welcome before three backing singers were wheeled onto stage in the form of mannequins. A sound engineer then came on to adjust their waiting microphones. Bizarre. “Mind Dimension” then a “Shoes” remix to The Proxy’s “Raven” were a powerful end to the live performance and Tiga seemed genuinely moved by the crowd reaction - it was the highlight of By Night for us as we took an early bath.
There’s normally a By Day sacrifice to be made at Sónar each year, Saturday’s was it - however the By Night was so strong that we had no regrets, particularly by the time the sun rose in the morning at Fira Gran Via L’Hospitalet while watching Laurent Garnier close the outdoor SónarPub stage. Rewind eight hours and we were back in the 1980s as then-New Romantics Duran Duran were putting on a hits-laden show at SónarClub with a rapidly-increasing audience. They went for the juggular immediately with “Wild Boys”, “Hungry Like the Wolf”, “Notorious” and “The Reflex” providing sing-along material befoe drifting off into newer tunes which acted as filler/reminded us of their relevance depending on whether you’re a life-long fan or just like the classics. “A View to a Kill” had all the Bond fans make themselves know and their was a lighters-in-the-air moment for “Ordinary World”. They surprised everyone with a cover of Grandmaster Flash’s “White Lines (Don’t Do It)” before round off with stadium tunes “(Reach Up for the) Sunrise”, “Planet Earth” and “Rio” with a nearing capacity SónarClub and a reminder that partying in the 1980s was a lot of fun.
Duran Duran lyrics now buzzing through our heads, we stepped out of the action and headed to the dodgems at SónarCar where a prolonged session of seemingly endless tokens saw us bash into enough drivers to lose our licence in every European country, then decided to get into a good spot in SónarClub again for The Chemical Brothers performing their new live show ahead of the release of a new album. Erol Alkan was on before so it couldn’t be that busy, right? How wrong we were. With half an hour of his set left, Alkan had built up a hefty head of steam with his electro-tinged tune selection and it was already hard to move around the vast space. We had to opt to shuffle in at the back of the biggest crowd we’ve seen in SónarClub in our seven years of attendance, worrying that the atmosphere, despite being in excellent view of the furthest video scren from the stage and under many a set of speak would not carry. Wrong again.
“Escape Velocity” snuck in lyrics from “Golden Path” while “The Test got a rare outing combined with “Don’t Think” and “Under the Influence” before another well-worked combination of “Music:Response” and “Block Rockin’ Beats” to close.
The Chemical Brothers must have been the one act everyone at Sónar 2015 was waiting to not only see, but bust out all their moves to. As soon as opener “Hey Boy, Hey Girl” blasted out the adoring ravers hands shot up in the air and SónarClub was pulsating for the next 90 minutes from front to the back. We looked left and right throughout the set and were impressed to see the normally stoic distant onlookers were going for it, making for an intense mood it felt everyone was lapping up and ploughing back into the room. While the crowd were doing their part, as were the duo on stage with new tunes “EML Ritual”, “Go”, “Sometimes I Feel So Deserted” and “I’ll See You There” fitting in perfectly with live favourites “Saturate”, “Star Guitar”, “Do It Again” and “Galvanise”. Yet it was the mash-ups that raised the most eyebrows and ensured those who have seen The Chemical Brothers numerous times before were kept engaged. “Acid Children/Chemical Beats” played up their big beat roots with a famous sample of “You’re All My Children Now” while an “Out of Control/Setting Sun/It Doesn’t Matter” trio made use of the lesser-played parts of each to make something new. “Escape Velocity” snuck in lyrics from “Golden Path” while “The Test got a rare outing combined with “Don’t Think” and “Under the Influence” before another well-worked combination of “Music:Response” and “Block Rockin’ Beats” to close.
The last Chems album and live show for Further suggested the electronic wizards might be losing their edge and slowing down as the years go on, but this performance proved they are still with us on the dancefloor and bringing back favourites like “The Sunshine Underground” mid-set was a nod to their former glories. One missing component was perhaps “My Psychadelic Reel” as the encore, though that might be saved for their solo live shows. Here’s hoping. Charged up, it was time for us to seek an outdoor space to cool off and we were heading to one place: SónarPub for the joining of forces of Siriusmo and Modeselektor for Siriusmodeselektor. The electro-beat trio mght seem a no-brainer for a tie-up but shy, retiring Siriusmo is rarely seen performing live while Modeselektor rock out wherever they can. Putting them as one was not a gamble, though there were no guarantees it would pay of as handsomely as it did.
Annie Mac’s set before was beefy enough to set the scene and when the three guys got behind their varouis computers and synths, the SónarPub exploded into life. Siriusmo’s blissful tunes such as “Einmal in der Woche schreien” and “Nights Off” were juxtaposed by Modeselektor’s more abrasive beats such as “Cash” and “Black Block” making for an imposing live set which rivalled The Chemical Brothers for intensity and fun - you could even see how much the artists were enjoying themselves on stage, throwing the words “NICE” up on screens throughout. The gusto of Siriusmodeselektor was replaced by the French flair of Laurent Garnier as the clock neared 5am, giving the veteran spinner the chance to play the closing set at SónarPub with his deep techno. We would pepper his set with a visit to SónarClub to check out Dubfire’s live:hybrid show and Drumcode boss Adam Beyer’s own closing set, and it was hard to pick a favourite. Dubfire had the audio/visual edge performing within a box that changed colour in time with the music and visuals on screen which took us on a journey through his music while Beyer’s relentless techno was at the harder end of his quite minimal style. We finished the night with Garnier, choosing to leave as the sound of Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” ringing in our ears and a beautiful sunrise emerged in the sky. An epic end to Sónar 2015 in Barcelona. We will be back.
Forthcoming Sónar events around the world over the next 12 months
Sónar São Paulo 24-28 November 2015 Espaço das Americas
Sónar Buenos Aires 3 December 2015 Complejo Al Río
SonarSound Santiago de Chile 5 December 2015 Hangares de Suricato, ex Aeropuerto Los Cerrillos
Sónar Bogotá 7 December 2015 Corferias
Sónar Reykjavik 18, 19 and 20 February 2016 Harpa Concert House
Sónar Copenhagen 19-20 February 2016 DR Koncerthuset
Sónar Stockholm 26-27 February 2016 Stockholm Waterfront Congress Center
Sónar Barcelona 16, 17, 18 June 2016 Fira Montjuïc and Fira Gran Via
For details on any of the above, go to the Sónar worldwide portal.
Images by Ariel Martini, Bianca Devilar and Fernando Schlaepfer.