Sonar 2012 review by Christopher Mann


There was a distinctly family – or cross-generational – air to Sonar this year. A big reason for this could have been the more commercial line-up, hosting a young Lana Del Rey alongside old New Order as the two big names, in what was a vastly different affair to last year’ experimental feast. But Sonar is big enough to always harbour surprises and offer a less trodden path.

It wasn’ just the mix of old and young on stage, but the large range of ages in the crowd that gave the family feeling. At 19 years young, the festival is starting to draw in the generation who do not remember the time when Sonar didn’ exist, not even as a twinkle in the eye of founder and director Enric Palau. Many who were there at the beginning in 1994 are facing the first full revolution of the Sonar life-cycle. On Friday night for example, I saw a mother and father with two teenage children lining up for food at 3am while relative mayhem spilled all around them. Who was bringing who to the fiesta? Children of Sonar? The day time events also saw plenty of kids running around, even in the absence of Sonar Kids which was held on a different date up the Costa Brava coast. Meanwhile plenty of golden oldies, many clearly a bit worse for wear, were dancing eagerly and expressively in front of every stage as if to show the youngsters how it should be.

Masaki Batoh

If Sonar 2012 was about family, then Masaki Batoh was certainly the Christening, opening the festival in ritualistic fashion after a short prepared speech in Spanish and English declaring that “This is not black magic. This is not techno”. The Ghost front-man then presented a quasi-religious demonstration of his brain pulse music (BPM) machine, a modified helmet that senses and translates brain waves into sine waves. Batoh played in the Sonar Complex, a new venue this year derived from the restored remains of a medieval chapel. A local volunteer played the BPM with eyes closed while Batoh made loops, added effects and other sounds like the traditional shō flute, percussion and chants that wove into a rough edged chain of mesmerising plateaus.

Flying Lotus

Outside in the Sonar Village sunlight, L.A.’s Flying Lotus took over from the U.K.’s Kutmah as part of his own Brainfeeder label showcase. Smiling all the while, he ducked and weaved as he crushed together what seemed like an array of new material into his trade-mark hyper-ordered arrays. Recent criticism has suggested that Steven Ellison had perhaps become so chaotic as to be unintelligible, but there was nothing in his driven show to suggest this as he blended soul, traditional dubstep, video game sounds and odd timings together into a masterful collage. After 30 minutes alone on stage he was joined by costumed label mate Thundercat on bass and equally eccentric Austrian keyboard player Dorian Concept on synths. Just as they got up a head of steam a technical fault brought the sound down for several minutes and perhaps it was for this reason that the music thereafter seemed to suffer volume problems. This was particularly noticeable during the set of Orlando Higginbottom’ daft, but catchy Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs project. The crowd at least didn’ seem to mind, perhaps helped by familiarity with his many Kompakt-style pop techno hits, especially ‘Household Goods’. On stage he came across as a kind of one-man daggy Pet Shop Boys, dressed in a green dinosaur costume, but was soon joined by equally clad dancers and a hooded Sampha to add a feminine touch to vocal duties.

Sonar Village

Out back Jim Coles aka Om Unit was laying down the template for the rowdier evening shows with a feisty dubstep set in the Dôme, but the last of day one was Brazilian Ricardo Donoso back in the Complex. Donoso’ beatless techno in unusual time signatures is a magnificent and challenging beast for clubs and dance music. Somehow an antithesis of everything, it still had a few moving, while others listened on their feet with eyes closed. The magic of Donoso’ music is that he somehow makes the ends of tracks feel like the middle and the middle sections with their unpeeling melodies and disconnecting rhythms somehow feel like the bridge between two different tracks. The experience is like being caught in an endless drug peak in a club, swaying, but not dancing and blissfully waiting forever for the beat to come back.

Friday day was something of a missed opportunity due to a mistimed and mandatory meeting at work. But there was still enough time before sundown to catch Mute Records founder Daniel “The Normal” Miller blazing out a hard and nuggetty techno set on the restored Village sound system to once again prove that you don’ have to be young to rock. Mouse on Mars also proved to be another timeless act in the dark Sonar Hall, delivering what was possibly this year’ greatest set. Back in the early noughties it seemed as if MoM had lost their audience with their complicated and unclassifiable Niun Niggung and Idiology albums, but a decade later it seems that the world has caught up, thanks in part to other pioneering warped sounds on labels like Brainfeeder, Hyperdub and 50 Weapons. But MoM are still one step ahead, focussing their sound more than ever on the dance floor, but still unencumbered by rules. A lengthy rampaging version of ‘They Know Your Name’ off the recent Parastrophics album was a standout amongst standouts, but the whole set, which was played to a barrage of continuous strobes, was greeted by an extraordinarily ecstatic cheer at the end.

Room was at a premium for the other afternoon gigs, with local house star John Talabot completely inaccessible well before the show. There was still space at L.A. duo Nguzunguzu’ pan-break beat exhibition which was technically proficient, but somehow blunted and crude. Husband and wife duo Aaron Coyes and Indra Dunis aka Peaking Lights came across like a kind of hippy-grunge Suicide and far more techno than their albums suggest, perhaps only for the power of the kick drum off the sound system and the context. But their set was easily the best of the 100% Silk/Not Not Fun-associated crew at the festival, benefiting from a balance of elements: electronica, pure dub, Dunis’ effective ritualistic singing and genuine indie chops.

Amon Tobin

One complaint of 2012 Sonar was perhaps the competitive nature of the time slots. Day time events finished around 10:00 with must-see stuff already coming on at the epic night time venue across town a mere hour later. Thankfully Amon Tobin’ much celebrated ISAM show was a generous 90 minutes which meant there was still time for a good hour of mind boggling projection mapping and Tobin’ intriguing music, despite arriving late. Tobin’ music was pleasantly more ambient and experimental than the rough-edged dubstep and drum n bass I had expected from seeing him in the past.

Lana Del Rey

Sadly, there wasn’ enough time to take in Nicolas Jaar’ live set with a full band. Many told me it had been spectacular, but the brief moments of it I saw in passing it had seemed plodding and a bit heavy. A brief spell of Lana Del Rey was also enough to get the idea as she sang her ballads to the backing of a large ensemble and projections of Hollywood imagery a la her video clips. James Blake who followed with a light weight dubstep set also failed to convince. There was something about his set akin to his album, and even his appearance, somehow all too well groomed and too neatly in shape to really thrill or say something unexpected. But there are enough hints of Blake’ much-hyped genius hidden on his records and many years ahead to suggest he may yet unleash himself fully.

Coyu’ techno set in the main Club hall had plenty of good moments that were unfortunately undermined by an over simplified technique, with the Spanish duo resorting to smashing home the bass far too often. At one stage they performed the same drop three times in the one track and were better when letting the tracks to run than fidgeting with them so much. Not that the main body of the audience seemed to mind by then. It was then a surprise to see Sonar stalwart Richie Hawtin turn in such a measured set as he has been known to resort to the same kind of brashness when not in the mood. Perhaps he had one eye on the longer sets that will be the staple of his up-coming sake-themed residency at Space, Ibiza, but his peak time show was almost too paced at times, if only because the audience seemed to be anxious for a rougher, faster set. Nonetheless, the more sophisticated control made for a better balance between pure listening and reckless dancing and Hawtin showed he still isn’ too past it to be out of touch.

LCD Soundsystem’ James Murphy seems to have aged a lot since splitting up the band last year. But like Daniel Miller earlier in the day, he showed that taste and skill are no match for youth and he subsequently played one of the most understated and satisfying sets of the festival. Not many could mix dub techno, disco and other left field delights into a seamless and comprehensible slow-tempo set and make it work so well. By the time he finished a big crowd had gathered for Norman Cook’ Fatboy Slim show. Waiting no time, he launched straight into a corny high energy techno mix of ‘Praise You’ and then continued with hit after hit, casting aside all subtlety by the wayside. Musically he was more amusing than pleasant, but there was no denying that those there to see him were having the time of their lives.

Tom Jenkinson’ Squarepusher show in support of his new album Ufabulum was almost the opposite: less attended, visually arresting and musically complicated, if not quite reaching the levels of Aphex Twin’ exceptionally unhinged show the previous year, arguably one of the best ever of the festival. Jenkinson’ rave-ier sound definitely suits the big stage, especially as it was decorated by the screen and his LED helmet, but sadly the bigger audience appeared to prefer other things although they slowly filtered in.

Nina Kraviz

Russian techno queen Nina Kraviz was a more than satisfying close to Friday night, picking up the pieces from Hawtin and Coyu and delivering a contrastingly punchy and direct set elaborated with plenty of loops and psychedelia without the nonsense trickery.

Nicolas Jaar supplemented his night time show with a Saturday afternoon set as Darkside, his duo with guitar player Dave Harrington, which from the beginning half hour seemed more interesting of the two performances. Slow-paced and gently building it seemed like an ambient dubstep take on shoegaze. Downstairs, local group The Suicide of Western Culture continued their impressive run of recent festivals, starting with a Civil War song, sampling it, looping it and then warping it into a steadily building mix of urgent IDM beats and splashing synths. Meanwhile, the 100% Silk showcase didn’ quite convince.

Maria Minerva’ show in the Complex was thrilling with its rawness and barely-veiled eroticism, but rapidly tired after four or five tracks, alternating one fast and one slow so she could catch her breath. The problem was the apparent message of female instinct and identity, as told through Minerva’ Irene Cara-like persona either relies too much on irony or suffers from a lack of deeper words or musical methods to really deliver over long duration.

L.A. Vampires

Similarly, seeing L.A. Vampires on the bright, hot Village stage was somehow disempowering to the group, whose nice take on house is better suited to intimacy and shadow. Worse for the group was their ponderance between tracks, a classic band tendency that doesn’ sit well with a crowd used to the gapless eternity of electronic music sets. Where Batoh had christened, local group Arbol provided the eulogy in what was easily the daytime’s best set. From the dense, accumulating swirls of the opener, via the dramatic bitter-sweet waltz of ‘In this Castle’ to the resonant finale, Miguel Marin’ group dominated and thrilled. Moreover, the group reinforced their originality and their virtuosity, playing their instruments traditionally, interchanging them or using them as percussion and seemingly as interested and surprised by the music they were making as the audience.

New Order

Again, because of timing, there was only a chance to catch the end of New Order’ set, with ‘Blue Monday’ and a gorgeous version of ‘Temptation’ amongst the last songs. The latter would have been a good and poignant closer as Bernard Sumner sang beautifully the Morrisey-esque line “Oh, this is the last time”, but an ill-advised anodyne version of ‘Love will tear us apart’s was added instead, undermining what had come before. The Roots meanwhile had the crowd in the palm of their hand, spending what seemed half their set finishing the set, but always finding another burst of energy to raise a rumpus. Maya Jane Coles then played one of the most adept sets of the festival with the stars and clouds above. Coles’ skill in selection and varied mixing technique showed what is so good about modern dance music: its ability to cross genres from techno to house to dubstep, perhaps the festivals most dominant music form, so easily without riling the crowd, something that not so long ago seemed impossible.

Die Antwoord

Love them or hate them South Africa’ Die Antwoord are the kind of group you never want to turn your back on. Who else but genuine iconoclasts or artists could sing a rap song about masturbation over an electro version of Enya’ ‘Orinoco Flow’ dressed as they are with the catch cry chorus “Sail away mother fuckers!” So bad they are good and, in many ways, they are the kind of group you want to have around somewhere, especially at a festival.

Cooly G

In complete contrast to the rough power house of Die Antwoord was the delicate bass music of Cooly G. If anything, Merrisa Campbell’ song-based dubstep suffered from being at the wrong stage at the wrong time, being too downbeat for a party crowd. But, without doubt she was one of the biggest and best surprises of the festival, floating out her shimmering and spacey rhymes and rhythms like a bona fide dreamscape. Kode 9 then was the nightmare, in a good way: tough and fast and ranging far and wide, delivering passages of garage, ragga, bleepy dubstep and even cascades of jungle in what was an unmappable exhibition of quality. Luciano was the final act of the night in the main Club hall, but despite an opening start he rapidly delved into cheese, working samples of Prince and the like into an otherwise anthem-led bombastic set. Too much for old bones like mine with critical ears, but there was still an endless line-up of youth waiting to fill the floor.

Christopher Mann
Photos by Bianca De Vilar

See more exclusive photos from Sonar 2012 in issue 31 of Cyclic Defrost


About Author