Dates: June 12-14
Venue: Fira MontjuÃ¯c and Fira Gran Via L’Hospitalet Barcelona, Spain.
Photos by Bianca de Vilar
After a few days of delicious sun, Sonar 2014 went out in a shower of rain and a few crushing claps of the thunder that all but cleared the outdoor stages and sent everyone home early. Anyone looking for omens in the weather would have found a decision to make. On one hand the rain washed away a disappointing night time ambience, perhaps for the better, whereas in its place it left a breathtakingly beautiful golden dawn when it cleared. But this division also somehow represents the current civil war plaguing the festival.
There has always been a difference between the night and day crowds, vibe and programming, but now it seems at last to have become close to a schism. Last year the organisers introduced a massively bigger daytime venue that continued to grow this year with new spaces, longer hours and record crowds. There is something blissful about hanging around in the sun sipping beer at Sonar Day, and feeling like you are on holiday by the sea regardless of whether you are or not. The music too offers plenty of variety from experimental to commercial so everyone feels happy. Night time has also gotten bigger as walls are removed to open up space around some stages, but it just feels emptier. The music now offers very little interesting choice, with a blatantly commercial feel like watered down electronica and dance music, even before the rain came.
At least the more interesting Sonar Car stage finally got a slightly more dignified setting where you can actually hear over the bumper cars, but there is no effort to really support it and it feels more like a chance to add names to the program than anything else. The night crowd too seem almost disinterested at times and there for the sake of it, and other pleasures, but not necessarily the music. It is understandable that music as a whole might eventually produce an amorphous genre called â€œfestival electronicaâ€ with its associated bandwagon of streamers, lights and videos, and Sonar Day is not immune to that, but the night seems to have been stuffed and overfed with it making you worry about its health. The clubbing roots of Sonar are at risk and with such a dangerously varied choice of real club and electronic music at Off Sonar events you have to wonder if the festival is now out on its own.
There were several other clear talking points of Sonar 2014. Firstly, even despite any real intensity at night, the quality of the shows was generally so high that it felt like a risk or unnecessary to move from place to place too often, as is often the case at festivals. It was generally much more rewarding to take it easy and take all the show in than spend half the day and night looking at timetables and maps.
Another curious feature of this year was the dominance and importance of live drummers. It seemed that everyone had one, or two in the case of Ben Frost and Woodkid. But drummers were at the heart of Oren Ambarchi’ ambitious and brilliant â€œKnotsâ€ performed with the Krakow symphony orchestra in the relocated Sonar Complex, in Machinedrum’ â€œVapor Cityâ€ live show, Henry Saiz’ syrupy set, and providing the beats for Massive Attack, Caribou, Bonobo, Whomadewho and one half of Neneh Cherry’ backing group Rocket Number Nine. But first prize, for best group and best live drummer went to Sayaka Himeno of Japanese all female group Nisennenmondai who had one of the most original sounds and gave one of the most intense performances of the festival. With just drums, Yuri Zaikawa’ bass and Masako Takada’ guitar and electronics the group somehow managed to combine cosmic disco, dystopian minimal techno, Suicide and krautrock into one 45 minute set with barely a single chord played. Himeno’ precision and extremely tight drumming was the unstoppable momentum, but her two colleagues were inspired and unshakeably focussed as the gritty surface of the music.
The free jazz drummer for Ambarchi’ show also lead the long morphing piece for long periods as the sampled orchestra dropped out to watch Ambarchi scratch at his guitar and work the controller. Fellow Australian Frost had more of a mixed time, with the two drummers sometimes lifting the music and sometimes anchoring it to the material world. In a recent Wire interview Frost claimed to be moving sonic objects as his way of composing and performing, something that is evident on the brilliant â€œAuroraâ€ album, but live didn’ quite come across. His fabled volume also didn’ really overwhelm as some of the early hecklers might have liked, but it was still far from a disappointing performance, just one that didn’ reach high expectations.
Neneh Cherry’ show recalled in many ways Grace Jone’ headlining act from a few years before, where an established and more commercial singer showed she has an intimate grasp of alternative electronic music and is not just on a bandwagon. Cherry’ delivery, charisma and songs were all impeccable and anchored to very modern beats and rude bass. Massive Attack were also worthy headliners, giving chills with the hits even if their newer material felt a bit flat and the overall pace a bit lethargic. Nile Rodgers delivered a warm show and also showed that the ego has no bounds, introducing himself as Nile Rodgers with Chic even as his backdrop said Chic with Nile Rodgers, while he also made every effort to let you know how many number one hits he’d written.
The excellent Bee Mask played one of the first shows to a crowd mostly on their backs, while Nils Frahm was another of the early highlights, playing a shortish set that was modelled closely on the â€œSpacesâ€ album, beginning with a dubby opening piece and then moving quickly on to â€œSaysâ€ which has become something of an iconic piece. Not even the poor sound for this track could blunt its emotional penetration, but the sound improved and Frahm again destroyed another crowd.
Poor sound did ruin Audion’ Subverticul show though and highlights the dangers of any festival’ reliance on LEDs and light shows for thrills. His setup was essentially the same as Amon Tobin’ ISAM, with Matthew Dear locked inside a polyhedron as pretty psychedelic lights and videos flashed on and off in synchronisation. But with a bass drum that crackled every time it came on it just seemed to lose the power and feel all the more derivative. Thankfully his night time DJ set did not suffer the same problem. Speaking of LEDs, Richie Hawtin closed Thursday with his Plastikman Ex set that featured a giant LED obelisk in the centre of the Village dance floor and one extra speaker at the rear. This setup was a little problematic as depending where you where the sound was either good, or plagued by a delay on the third speaker. Overall it was decent enough and like an inversion of his DJ sets. Whereas the later depend on big rushes of bass coming in, Plastikman is sparse and almost beatless, working at the edge of consciousness and slipping away, although sometimes it felt a bit too insubstantial. Matmos showed that it is often best to keep it simple. They managed to raise the roof just by turning on a metronome and making a 4-4 beat, to which they gradually added numerous effects, but their set had plenty of interaction between the screens and their improvisation. Chris and Cosey also kept it simple, working off the unease of Cosey’ performance and the unpredictable run of the music.
While there is an inevitable reliance on visual stimulation at a festival, James Murphy and 2Manydjs Despacio room showed that sound overall is the key. With lights low, cheap space baubles hanging overhead and seven massive banks of speakers working off 50,000 watts they played all day everyday some immaculate sets of slow chugging disco and house that was a perfect antidote to the heat and frenzy outside. The quality of the sound was extraordinary, with every frequency coming out clear and rich for perfect immersion. Even Theo Parrish must have been jealous as he closed at dusk with a similar record set, but more of a bass rumble than a sexy throb.
Another general tendency of the festival was the predominance of bass, footwork and juke music which has gone from being misunderstood a few years ago, to being first choice festival music. Jessy Lanza, Throwing Snow, I Am Legion, DJ Nigga Fox and Koreless were some of the purveyors of this style though none better than LAs TOKiMONSTA who absolutely decimated the Sonar DÃ´me stage with a brilliantly constructed set that was seamless and full of colour and energy. 100% Silk’ Octo Octa also played another one of the best sets on the same stage, building up his trademark house sounds and leading into more techno terrain with touches of dub while demonstrating he can design an intelligent and energetic set that takes you somewhere you want to be. The rise of bass and footwork has also come at the same time as the return of drum n bass which had a surprisingly big presence at key moments, from Machinedrum to Rudimental and last but not least, Camo and Krooked whose classic and slightly cheesy Hospital Records rock-styled drum n bass closed the festival as the rain started to come down.
Nissenenmondai – All girl Japanese group plays the tightest darkest minimal techno you ever heard on guitar, bass, drums and electronics.
TOKiMONSTA – an eclectic and energetic blend of dubstep, footwork and house.
Octo Octa – Another energetic set, this time combining warm dreamy house and techno.
Oren Ambarchi – A sublime set ranging from crushing silence to heavy noise, with immense textural variety
Nils Frahm – The German pianist has a perfect blend of emotive tracks, interesting ideas, technique and charisma .