Sónar 2019 report

Sónar shifted back a month this year to host the 26th edition of its Barcelona festival from Thursday, July 18th to Saturday, July 20th. Skepta, Disclosure, Underworld and Stormzy were among the headliners as 105,000 people attended the two venues across the three days to see 140 performances by more than 300 artists from 36 countries. Mike Barnard was there.

[Manabe’s] result was abrasive electronica fused in-time with various brain scan graphics to create a disorientating, yet fascinating, insight into how we perceive sounds in our minds.

Just days before Sónar was due to begin, it was almost cancelled owing to a strike by the riggers. A judge’s ruling saved the festival, though it was not the only hardship the organisers had to overcome this year. Sónar’s traditional dates in June were taken by a textiles even at the night-time exhibition space, pushing it back to July for the first time in its 26-year history. Two years ago, a June heatwave had ensured Sónar was tough to really enjoy as it proved near impossible to cool down while the sun was shining during the day, while at night even the huge main space of SonarClub was a sweat-box during headline acts. We realised then that Sónar might be a bit uncomfortable later in the year, but, little did we know, that in 2019 that’s exactly where it would land.

As it turned out, the temperatures never soared to the heights of the heatwave year by night, but, by day, we would often be found seeking out music in the air conditioned spaces at Fira Montjuïc rather than basking in the sun (or, rather seeking some shade) outside at SonarVillage. This was the case for the first performance we saw: Berlinist presents Gris Game Live in the SonarComplex auditorium early Thursday afternoon. Gris is an acclaimed platform adventure game soundtracked by Barcelona’s chamber pop outfit Berlinist - and, settling into our seats, the stage was soon alive with musicians set to recreate the dreamy music as the game was played out on a screen behind. The result was like watching a lush animated movie rather than a game on auto-pilot, while the live music brought a more emotional response to the shadowy creature battles, puzzles and little characters Gris meets on her epic journey. This was a relaxed, and very welcome, start to Sónar 2019 - as well as the kind of innovative shows we’ve come to expect during the day portion of the festival.

From one engaging visual performance to another - we’d next check out Desert + Desilence in SonarHall. Desert is the music project of Cristina Checa and Eloi Caballé; Desilence is the visual arts duo Tatiana Halbach and Søren Christensen. Their audiovisual show saw disrupted images of people merge and weave while a fresh, forward-thinking sonic shower rained over us. The transcendental sounds ensured we were cool enough to emerge into the sunlight, however, like the majority of people that afternoon, sought the shade available from the giant structures over Sonar Village. From there we could enjoy Dengue Dengue Dengue - the duo of Rafael Pereira and Felipe Salmón - who blended house music with live tribal percussion for a kind of psychedelic ritual. The pair hid behind elaborate tribal masks as the tweaked their synths, flanked by two musicians providing the more organic aspect and making sun worshippers out of us all.

Visual artist Daito Manabe has a long history of bringing intriguing concepts to Sónar, so we were keen to see his latest project, ‘dissonant imaginary’, this time working with Dr Yukiyasu Kamitani. Manabe presented a 30 minute AV tech show which based on MRI scans and Dr. Kamitani’s research into the decoding and visualisation of brain states to processes signals from the visual cortex and project them in the form of images in real time. The result was abrasive electronica fused in-time with various brain scan graphics to create a disorientating, yet fascinating, insight into how we perceive sounds in our minds. Perhaps a little commentary would have helped get the most from the spectacle, though.

Less engaging was Afrodeutsche’s set at SonarXS. The much-hyped artist who fuses her Ghana, Russia and Germany heritage into her music and is backed by Aphex Twin seemed to scrap around for inventive electronica during her set. There was a lot of movement on stage, but we didn’t feel compelled to match it. Far more successful was Leon Vynehall’s set at SonarVillage which fused house, acid and techno followed by a live set from Ross From Friends, the lo-fi house producer flanked by musicians armed with a laptop and guitar respectively. All three twiddled with knobs and synths to a create soft, cosy house vibes to say goodbye to the setting sun.

We ducked into Arca’s performance briefly to see her show inspired by cabaret and speculative fiction which was enthralling the audience, but, as latecomers, the messages coming from this Sónar exclusive came second to a vibrant stage show. We’d finish the day watching Daphni’s headline set at SonarVillage which had plenty of positive, sunshine stylings such as tunes from his latest EP Sizzling and Kieran Hebden’s latest ‘Only Human’ along with an novel mixing of Holen’s ‘Lump’ with Daniele Papini’s ‘Church Of Nonsense’ to keep the energetic mass in front of him dancing, but there was never a knock out drop even with a slew of disco bangers at the end. Even so, you couldn’t fault wide-ranging tune selection and it all added up to a fine first day of Sónar 2019.

SebastiAn on form is a dancefloor destroyer - especially with a set closer like his remix of Rage Against The Machine’s ‘Killing in the Name’.

Friday would start with a disappointing return to SonarComplex to see Bruce Brubaker and Max Cooper’s Glassforms performance. The reinterpretations of Philip Glass’s work via Brubaker’s remarkable talents on a grand piano and Max Cooper’s knob-twiddling proved underwhelming. While Brubaker helped us drift away into a sea of melodic bliss, Cooper’s electronics added very little to the overall feel of the show and felt tacked on to the former’s talents. It was a miss for us.

Far more engrossing was the vocal acrobats on display as Holly Herndon played her new album, PROTO, out in full in SonarHall. Flanked by singers who showed incredible range to create unique sounds together, Holly stood front and centre of a show that felt the sum of its parts - those parts including JLin, long time collaborator Mat Dryhurst and the AI baby christened ‘Spawn’. Unlike Glassforms, this was a sumptuous project that lived up to its billing.

Later we’d take in the guitar-led project of Lorenzo Senni that was recently resurrected in Red Bull’s mobile music studio, long after its original inception in 2012. Not far removed from his laser-fuelled trance show of 2018, this was a band taking us to outer space with epic build ups and drops akin to Mogwai or 65daysofstatic; a lot of fun. There was just enough time to take in the formidable turntable talents of DJ Krush as we tucked into food in SonarVillage and then get a feel for Maya Janes Coles’ dubstep and bass side project Nocturnal Sunshine before we were heading in to SonarHall for SebastiAn.

The Frenchman and Ed Banger mainstay came to prominence in the French electro explosion of the mid-2000s, and was last seen at Sónar in 2009 atop a plinth playing a live set and dishing out free masks. This year he returned with a more traditional set up of equipment spread along a long table, but with heftier light show. As brutalist as ever, his set ranged from original material from back-in-the-day such as ‘Ross Ross Ross’ and ‘Walkman’ through to remixes such as ‘Human After All’ and more recent fare such as ‘Thirst’ and ‘Beograd’ which were given videos directed by Gaspar Noé. It was an explosive show that acted as a reminder that a SebastiAn on form is a dancefloor destroyer - especially with a set closer like his remix of Rage Against The Machine’s ‘Killing in the Name’.

We walked into the Sónar By Night venue to the Enry-K’s set of hip-hop ahead of the replacement for A$AP Rocky following his arrest in Sweden - none other than Stormzy. Enry-K’s set caught the attention of the crowd with a few catch tunes such as Estelle’s ‘American Boy’ ahead of Stormzy’s headline set in which he repeatedly thanked a big audience for turning out to support him as a back-up act and pledging his support for A$AP Rocky’s release. A stripped down show compared to the stage time and set design at Glastonbury, Stormzy was joined on stage by a DJ who served as his own personal warm-up act and backed by a huge screen. Stormzy put in a commanding performance with hits such as ‘Vossi Bop’ and ‘Know Me From’, although some of the slower beats and an ode to weed lacked the punch he can pack when he’s on top form.

We’d switch our attention to a very different set in SonarLab next: the A/V of Murlo. The producer/illustrationist had brought his Dolos album to the festival complete with an animated version of his graphic novel that accompanies his LP. Soundtracking his own majestic, Ghibli-esque animations with the mashup of garage, funky, dancehall, bassline, grime and ambient of Dolos was more akin to a cinematic experience than the usual A/V set where visuals take second place - and this was an infectiously-soundtracked, inventive one at that.

After a marathon bumper car session, a must-do every year, we returned to SonarLab to see a pumped up Octavian. He jumped around the stage spraying bottles of water into the crowd, which endeared them to him more and more. By the time the DJ was standing on the decks, there had been some serious grime attitude unleashed. Jlin stepped up at SonarLab next, bringing her footwork sounds most recently heard on Autobiography to those looking for something away from the 4/4 offered on the other stages. For us, both our minds and and feet were dancing.

When Andy C started surging through a vast catalogue of drum & bass with his customary double and triple drops, we went wandering. Mall Grab and Disclosure drew huge crowds in SonarPub, the latter rolling through their hits such as ‘F For You’, ‘Latch’ and ‘White Noise’ to much applause atop an oversized DJ booth that did little to help engagement with their audience compared with their live shows. Daniel Avery’s techno at SonarPub was energetic, if linear, and easily trumped by the eclectic selections of Four Tet who effortlessly dropped tunes such as DJ Logic1000’s ‘Please Forgive Me’ alongside his own with ‘Only Human’ getting its second big reaction of the weekend.

We’d finish the night after DJ Koze had filled his stage with plants, then failed to ignite our interest with a plodding opening salvo of selections, Peggy Gou b2b Palms Trax had teased ‘Only Human’ by using the vocals only and Joseph Capriati had pound SonarClub in the most business-techno-like way.

Blawan added twisted synths and basslines to Dax J’s more finessed leanings, producing one of the best sets of the weekend.

The sole show we caught at By Day on the Saturday was Ecuadorian Nicola Cruz. His Andean-influenced set combined hypnotic drum loops with smooth synths that would surprise with fizzles, snaps and claps to bring us out of a trance-like state and take notice of the craftsmanship. With the heat of the daytime partying under a July Barcelona sun getting to us, we then retreated back to our apartment ahead of the final By Night of 2019.

Arrival at Fira Barcelona Gran Via saw us walk into Bad Bunny’s wildly popular set. The Puerto Rican rapper set the stage alight with streamers, confetti and pyrotechnics, with tunes such as ‘MIA’, Cardi B cover ‘I Like It’ and closer ‘Chambea’ met with wild dance moves from the Sónar faithful. He seemed to be enjoying himself on stage, taking every opportunity to address the crowd, though sadly we don’t know enough Spanish to fully understand what he was talking about (sorry) but it helped result in his set overrunning by half an hour.

Flava D dealt with having her set shortened admirably, kicking off the 50 minutes she did get with some deep garage, before skipping through to UKG with a remix of ‘Renegade Master’ a high point and closing out with one ‘Human Trumpet’ as she skipped round the decks for a snap with the vast audience. The night was go. Skepta kept the energy crew going in SonarClub with a grime masterclass assisted by Boy Better Know members DJ Maximum and Shorty, with the latter bouncing out onto the raised part of the stage to perform ‘What’s Going On’. From opener ‘That’s Not Me’ to closer ‘Shutdown’, Skepta was full of beans on stage, and keen to ensure tracks from his latest album Ignorance Is Bliss were introduced to potentially new ears. That said, it didn’t look like he needed to make such concessions as mid set there was a mosh pit and, by the end, it could be argued he’d won the crown for best grime performance of Sónar 2019.

The final portion of this year’s Sónar was spent at SonarLab where we’d see two sets. First up, Saoirse played an hour of heavy techno with a few delicate twists - in particular the Aaron Darc remix of Heart of Glass which mutates the Blondie dancefloor number into an epic, orchestral ballad. Next it was over to Dax J to kick off his b2b with Blawan solo while his partner behind the decks rushed from the airport following a delayed flight, but he slammed into top gear from the off. By the time Blawan arrived, the SonarLab was being hit by a barrage of front-foot techno and loving it. Blawan added twisted synths and basslines to Dax J’s more finessed leanings, producing one of the best sets of the weekend.

We stuck around for the Louie Vega and Honey Dijon team up that followed hoping for another electric b2b, but beyond a lively remix of Chaka Khan’s ‘Ain’t Nobody’, stabs of ‘Vouge’ and the well-worn pleaser of the Bucketheads, the set became dry. We were soon sticking our heads into Amelie Lens where her big room sounds had pulled one of the biggest crowds for a closing set in SonarClub we’d ever seen, but it was a weary techno assault rather than the innovative conclusion we felt Sónar deserved. Even so, this was another fine edition of the Barcelona festival that will benefit hugely from a return to the slightly cooler month of June in 2020.

Sónar returns to Barcelona in 2020 from Thursday, June 18th to Saturday, June 20th. For tickets and details go to sonar.es. Sónar’s next dates around the world are Mexico (October 5th), Athens (October 11th and 12th), Buenos Aires (November 10th), Istanbul (next March) and Hong Kong (April).

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