Even while Sónar continues to adapt to the demands and expectations of ever increasing scale, such as crowd logistics and artistic integrity, it is only the coldest heart that would not admit that 2015 was something of a vintage year, especially during the Sónar Day events. Some of this was down to the impeccable party atmosphere as always, but this year there seemed to be a directness and a swagger to the music that took it to the next level. Part of the directness was down to a seeming abandonment of the excessive and essentially meaningless projection mapping that has come to plague the festival circuit in recent years. In its place was a return to stages adorned simply with light – and darkness – and this was one of the major themes of Sónar this year.
Ironically, this was also in partial contrast to the other major theme of cyberpunk which dominated many of the extra musical activities especially those taking place at Sónar +D where virtual reality seemed to have arrived with a bang in time for broad scale commercialisation in 2016. As well as the trend for testing headsets there was also Datum Explorer, UniversalAssemblyUnits magical 3D scanned virtual forest and circuit bending workshops. Melbourne’s RMIT also presented the RESONANCE table, a fascinating and psychedelic music making tool designed to engage and test different parts of the brain in people with brain injury suggesting that jacking into the mainframe isn’t all about kicks and hacks. Respected cyberpunk author Bruce Sterling was also present to give a talk. But the cyberpunk theme also went as far as the new cashless system and the mobile beer sellers patrolling the crowds with their backpacks and red lights like a horde of cyborgs, or R2D2 on Jabba’s sail barge, and with a crowd just as strange as well.
In terms of light and dark though, you cannot contrast more heavily Keiji Haino with Duran Duran, or Autechre with Skrillex and The Bug and Laurent Garnier. The fact that many of the darkest artists played during the day is perhaps indicative of the focus of the day and night programming into experimental and commercial sides, respectively. Autechre’s set on Thursday though stands out for many reasons, not only the high expectation that was more than met by the performance, but the fact that they played in the unlit Hall stage which was screened off at the back to enhance the darkness. The lights came on for only one minute shortly after the start of the set and then faded, the duo slinking away at the end unseen. But such untethered music as Autechre’s blazing away for a good hour in a dark room with no visual anchor either was a masterpiece of acquired derangement that was literally dizzying by the finale. The duo barely broke the music down throughout the set and just when you thought they might give you an ambient respite, off they went again. On Saturday, Evan Christ and The Bug also used a similar arrangement of the room, but with more illumination.
Lee Gamble was the first act up on Thursday. Despite a few technical hiccups with the video, it was otherwise a slick set pulled from his recent Koch album and with the same unpredictable sequencing of tracks. Uwe Schmidt’s new show Double Vision as AtomTM was a much better proposition than the slightly cheesy HD show that he presented a few years back. The music here was more mature and in line with his Raster Noton work and the visuals by Australian artist Robin Fox were more compelling, interacting RGB light with video. Outside, there was a similar concept behind ART+COM’s RGB | CMI Kinetic installation which projected interacting lights, shapes and colours in a dynamic pattern to ambient music composed by Ólafur Arnalds.
The super group Nazorani featuring Haino, Oren Ambarchi and Stephen O’Malley was one of the most far out shows ever to play Sónar and certainly was one of the loudest. Haino’s guitar was unsurprisingly overwhelming and had most running for the nearest dance floor, but those who stayed were rewarded with a frightening and intense performance. At times Haino seemed to do whatever he wanted, screaming, playing guitar, conjuring his electronic sounds, while Ambarchi held it steady and hard at the back on the drums. O’Malley was the fulcrum between them, giving the signals and working the bass sometimes percussively and sometimes like a wild noise maker. Not many witnessed it, unfortunately, but it is hardly a surprise. It was too late to see Arca and Jesse Kanda, but not to see J.E.T.S., the duo of Jimmy Edgar and Machinedrum, who worked a nice fusion of sleek, chrome-like Detroit techno with smooth dubstep breaks outside in the Village. Hot Chip closed the first day and while I have never been a fan of their music, after Nazorani and Autechre in particular, it was a nice and breezy conclusion to a heavy and chaotic day.
Friday was all about the complex and the Editions Mego showcase, starting with Spanish duo LCC who shocked and surprised many who had come early to see them. This was the third time I have seen them play and the surprise was seeing them deliver yet another different set, this time a deep ambient set that slowly fused into deep techno, another new angle to their growing sound and which led to a standing ovation. EVOL afterwards proved again that there is something deeply fascinating and distinct to their simple sound even while it is quite annoying at times. Russel Haswell was in fine form, bursting open a bottle of cava and guzzling happily as he tinkered away in a fine abstract set. Voices From The Lake did not disappoint at the end of the day either, starting off with a blazing and dizzying techno track that was beautifully evasive, before easing off into the more familiar blend of hypnotic rhythms. Outside, Teengirl Fantasy continued to underwhelm, whereas Vessel packed a major surprise. Although his set last year at LEV was almost the same, with the same video even, here the level of maturity, power and control he achieved was devastating and clearly a major step forward to something new. After Autechre, Squarepusher’s music seemed almost strangely simple, but was well knit together and pleasing as expected. Kiasmos, the techno duo of Ólafur Arnalds and Janus Rasmussen were one of the few disappointments. Although massive crowd favourites the music was cringey and feel good, like Bvdub’s EMO techno, but with mundane and sweet hope in place of sadness. DJ-wise, Ossie then Xosar and finally Floating Points had total control of the Dôme stage. Ossie’s dubstep and house hybrids hit the mark beautifully with absolutely everyone dancing and his was a standout set, Xosar too showed that there is a bright path ahead for her by patiently building up a more psychedelic intro and then firing away the house hits. Floating Points like Vessel has also matured since last time I saw him play, when he had seemed a little insincere and appropriating far too heavily from the kudos of the music he played. At Sónar he seemed more interested in playing and working the crowd even if his selection of disco, funk and soul was similar.
Mika Vainio is something of an electronic festival perennial, but is always worth seeing when he finds the sweet spot of a sound system, even if his sets can sometimes feel belligerent. James Kelly’s WIFE project was also a big surprise, drawing in some unusual elements and getting it to work in a very original way, sounding at times like a dystopian 80s synth pop and others like a heavier smothered dancefloor sound. Out in the Village Chilean DJ Raff was a perfect fit for the sun and the amassing crowd. His set was a highly danceable and an excellently selected and mixed collection of dubstep and bass music that was perhaps the highlight of the Village stage. Fellow Chilean Valesuchi also nailed it in the Dôme delivering a high octane techno set with real mood, shadow and drive to a massive and enthusiastic crowd. Zebra Katz who followed ruined the mood a bit with some obnoxious beats and far too many “bitches” in the rhymes. Tourist were a bit ponderous whereas Evian Christ once more impressed with layers of heavy and bleak hip hop beats. The Bug finished off in the dark with a typical brooding selection accompanied by live vocalists including Flowdan and Miss Red. To close off was Henrik Schwarz whose DJing is maybe a bit obvious, but, with the exception of a few breezy vocal tracks, he delivered a respectable selection of simple house to keep the party going.
Autechre – An incredibly intense show that reinforces the duos status, but perhaps best represented what Sónar 2015 was trying to say.
Nazorani – Clearly never likely to be well received by party people, but nonetheless, Hainio and co. were a triumphant risk by the organisers and more than made up for Duran Duran.
Valesuchi – Young up-and-coming Chilean DJ who delivered a blazing set of techno to a thrilled crowd on Saturday afternoon.
Ossie – Had everyone dancing in the Dôme to an expertly selected and mixed set of bass and house.
LCC – The standouts of all the many Spanish artists at the festival this year and added a new techno aspect to their live show and sound.
Photos by Bianca de Vilar