As Sonar turned 20 years old, all the talk was about how big the festival has become. In particular, the massive new day time venue stole the headlines for how it solved many of the problems endemic to the previous MACBA art gallery, principally overcrowding which often forbade entry to certain shows if they filled up too quickly. Yes, there is always a certain amount of queuing expected at such massive spectacles, but if anything they were less than in previous years, especially for those smart enough to plan ahead or to make a strategy. But all these organisational congratulations masked a certain staidness to the music this year that is clearly something that needs to be addressed or rebalanced somehow in future issues.
Fundamental to this idea was the idea of the â€œshowâ€ which can save average music or detract from good music. In recent years, festivals have almost become ridiculous with their over dependence on projection mapping (Amon Tobin, for example), LEDs (Squarepusher) and other assorted video art projects to support the music. This year, there was arguably only two such shows: Kraftwerk’ 3D show and the Pet Shop Boys refreshingly old-fashioned approach to a spectacle using multiple (gaudy) costume changes and bizarrely clad dancers to good effect. Kraftwerk in particular left a weird sensation even for a huge fan. The opening was certainly impressive, but after four or five tracks there seemed to be less invention in the video and even a sense of the mundane and absurd as the inert crowd cheered every half-good 3D pattern like pre-programmed robots (sic), but almost seemed indifferent to the music itself. The fact that 3D film has been around for nearly one hundred years in one form or another shows how much of a gimmick it has become. But Kraftwerk’ perfect synchronisation with the video makes you wonder how much playing is really happening and with three new members (only Ralf HÃ¼tter remains from the original line-up) you start to ask what the other guys bring to the sound and if they could actually change it anyway. Their touted new album should reveal more than their live show does.
But in the absence of â€œshowsâ€ the emphasise shifts to the music and by default to the club and party experience and this is where a weakness can be found, especially since there is a fine balancing between satisfying the masses and living up to the â€œadvanced musicâ€ slogan and philosophy. Saturday in particular was wimpy at times, and overall there was too much â€œteenage technoâ€ like Justice and the Ed Banger crew, Skrillex, 2manydjs and to a certain extent Jamie Jones’ Hot Natured live act. Seeing Luciano close for the second year in a row isn’ the worst thing in the world, despite his propensity for the occasional cheese, but coming a day after Richie Hawtin also did the same with his blocky rock beats you have to start craving some new blood and innovation. The problem is that Hawtin and the like are never bad, but are rarely ever really good or stretching themselves either. The question then becomes when do â€œmodern classicâ€ DJs like Ben Klock, Marcel Dettmann, Dixon, Steffi become big enough to play? When does the crowd have enough nous to ask for something new? Part of the same problem is what to do with the mistreated Sonarcar stage which suffers from a small system and the noise of the bumper cars next door, but quite often features some of the more interesting artists. One wonders as well why there is no push to have an ambient zone somewhere given the available space and the current popularity of drone, modern classical and traditional ambient styles?
Thursday’ highlights were easily Kontra Musik boss Ulf Eriksson’ DJ set followed by Metro Area’ live act in the Sonardome that was played more like a traditional rock show with gaps between tracks, rather than a continuous mix. The later in particular were rapturously received, especially the hits like “Miuraâ€. Outside in the village LindstrÃ¸m and Todd Terje nu-disco live act was a breezy and colourful way to see the sun go down on the first day.
On Friday, Matthew Herbert surprised with an exceptional DJ set that effortlessly shrugged off any intellectual prejudice that some of his recordings may invoke. He worked in a vast array of his own material including several of his masterful remixes from Secondhand Sounds as well as other tracks in a set that was spritely and varied as it was technically executed. Jamie Lidell’ brazen crooning was good for a while, but was eventually a little wearying, a fact made all the more frustrating by that late (or lack of?) appearance of JJ Doom upstairs in the Sonardome. Tired of waiting, I left before he may have arrived.
The stand-out acts on Friday were Blawan and Pariah’ nasty techno double act under the Karenn name which jacked in nicely to Objekt’s more experimental and often downbeat performance before that. The hip hop of French turntablists C2C was also a nice contrast to some of the other acts on the same stage, combining flamboyant technique with a sophisticated jazzy ambience, something that the veterans Jurassic 5 also achieved the next day.
Of the big DJs, Maya Jane Cole’ continued to demonstrate that her ability is far bigger than the hype that surrounds her and her forthcoming album will be one of the most anticipated of the year. At the core of her set was a lot of syrupy colour and liquid propulsion that was lacking from Hawtin’ bombastic set. Spanish legend Ãngel Molina also impressed on the Sonarcar stage with a driving and rugged set although Rush Hour’ San Proper was a bit hit and miss. His album â€œAnimalâ€ had overdone his eccentric vocal style and live he continued in the same vein and perhaps suffered from the lack of punch in the sound system.
While Saturday had been disappointing at specific moments it also produced the festivals best shows. During the day, Darkstar’ live sound far exceeded the poppier limitations of â€œNews from nowhereâ€. There were elements of the Cure and Seefeel at times, and at other moments a weird country vibe like John Denver high on drugs playing synths instead of an acoustic guitar. Vatican Shadow after them was also immense in so many ways. The sound was potent and overwhelming, clipping the sound system, intentionally or not, and somehow managed to be intimidating and ridiculously funny, partly down to Dominick Fernow’ over excited and iconoclastic stage antics that seemed to take the piss out of himself and the whole festival in one go.
The continuing decline of dubstep was also evident on Saturday. Mary Anne Hobbs played well in the sun, emphasising the dub over the step, but by resorting almost exclusively to older, classic tracks, she spoke volumes about where the scene is at now. The final nail in the coffin was Skream who played Sonar 2013′ best set in the evening, but all techno and house, having recently claimed that he was leaving dubstep behind. Skream was one of the few DJs however, who looked like he really wanted to play and he took risks and showed off his technique and even managed to work in Donna Summer’ â€œI feel loveâ€ without it sounding clichÃ©d or gimmicky. Laurent Garnier didn’ quite reach the heights of Skream, but was a more than satisfying finish, somehow providing a feel-good vibe that wasn’ embarrassing. Moreover, his penchance for exploiting long tracks was a refreshing change from the modern attention-deficit DJ who loses interest after only 2-3 minutes. Garnier’ complicated break downs were perhaps marred by a few dodgy re-entries, but he clearly was the act to see judging by the massive crowds there compared to the poor crowd in front of Seth Troxler’ light techno set and Luciano’ decent but unconvincing house anthems in the club. Not a vintage year, but the reality is that big or small, Sonar never really disappoints.
Photos by Bianca De Vilar