There is so much more to a good festival these days than just grab bagging artists together and putting on a minimum of logistics and organization. Many festivals now often seem to have as many character traits and undergo as many narrative turns as the careers of the artists who play there. Sonar is one such festival and it seems to duck and weave in and around trends and the times more than most for its esteemed standing, sometimes coming out in front and sometimes just breaking even. Although the 2016 edition probably falls into the later camp, it is not to say it was not without its moments and it certainly revealed a lot about the current state of electronic music which has been in something of a plateau the last few years after a golden period of innovation. Perhaps the most striking aspect of this year’s edition was just how stripped down so many of the shows felt, with an emphasis on authenticity and performance rather than overdone lights, lasers and videos that were endemic and somewhat distracting in previous years. Key examples of the stripped back approach might be Kelela (compelling, but needing a few more tricks), King Midas Sound (who did fade towards the end) and Anohni, one of the highlights, who scandalized many by opening with 15 minutes of slowly climaxing drone before launching into a bruisingly powerful and melancholy set cut from the aptly named “Hoplessness” album.
Coupled to this stripped back feel, and just as important to the lasting image of this year’s edition, was a big return to the clubbing roots of Sonar, especially on Friday, which could be navigated like a massive old school rave with impeccable sound to boot. Sonar in recent years has often gone a bit soft on “real” club sounds in favour of the more generally appealing hybrid electronica acts who lean towards pop (still plenty of them), bass music and more downbeat styles of the daytime (still plenty of them too). But this year, perhaps due to the influence of co-sponsors Resident Advisor, there was a lot of real down and gritty techno and house. Friday basically extended in a straight rhythmic party line for 12 hours or more. The kick off was Jacob Korn’s twee but groovy house in the Dôme stage, followed by the upbeat jazzy techno jams of Underground Resistance which climaxed with a rousing rendition of Knights of the Jaguar, then Gerd Janson eclectic and often surprising house selection. Over at the Sonar Night venue, the Lab staged blazed away despite a gentle rain until well after the sun came up, coming to life first with the revitalized Soichi Terrada who played live a set culled from his recent Sounds of the Far East collection. Kerri Chandler was impeccable afterwards, playing deep house that rode a fine balance between soulful nostalgia, the obvious and unexpected. Ben UFO back to back with Helena Hauff followed by the similar pairing of DVS1 and current techno darling Rødhåd was the standout sequence of the festival. Not only were the organisers generous in letting them play for a massive 4 hours combined, but both sets were incredible, being brutally driving, intelligent and infectiously urgent and, despite the good stuff on elsewhere, they made it hard to want to leave. Not even a bit of rain could spoil the mood.
Elsewhere, others had maybe sensed the mood as well. Back inside the main Club even the perennial Richie Hawtin seemed to be sweating under pressure from the kids coming up from behind and consequently delivered a more than decent 15 minute opening stretch, one of the best I have seen him play ever at Sonar, before he later succumbed to his usual tricks of slamming home the bass. Earlier in the evening in the same place, Kode 9 had been under-attended, perhaps because he’d also played earlier in the day, albeit a totally different type of set, but he always marvels with his precision mixing and mind boggling changes. It’s almost a miracle to step back and watch him play and marvel that so many young people actually “get” that kind of music. James Blake afterwards was somewhat predictable and whimsical if not pleasant and professional, and quite the contrast to Kode 9’s uncompromising approach. Local hero John Talabot also seemed to be enjoying his closing set out in the pub, whereas the new Car stage worked a treat hosting the long sets on both nights allowing a chance for out of the box selections and patient builds. But as much as you wanted to like Jean Michel Jarre, his techno forays leave a lot to be desired, even if his ambient interludes offer something still. However, I confess to being further put off after watching a horrendous live interview with him at Sonar +D earlier in the day where he had embarrassed himself with some rambling responses and weak claims to have some kind of shared ancestry with Detroit techno.
Saturday was somewhat undermined by rain, with the Village stage all but abandoned for long periods as the downpour came to stay. The pressure was therefore on the covered venues which overflowed and the mood a little dour. Although the place to be was the Complex and the Raster Noton showcase, there was an underwhelming feel by the end, perhaps dampened further by the long queuing and Byetone’s frustration at experiencing an AV failure and having to play unaccompanied by visuals which seemed to clog his usual energy. Earlier, Alva Noto was perhaps the best of the lot both musically and visually, contrasting colour with black and white and silence with volume to great effect, but without really seeming to break new ground. Cyclo, his duo with Ryoji Ikeda, also felt a bit the same, beautifully presented, but somehow recycled from previous sets. Roots Manuva was forceful and well received whereas Oneohtrix Point Never’s live rendition of Garden of Delight was good without being great, showing how far he had come since the early days, but somehow not adding anything new to what you already knew from the album. Magic Mountain High’s languid noodling house jams was a nice conclusion to the day, but the rain had somehow washed most of the party vibe away.
Over the three days at Sonar +D there was plenty of fascinating innovation on show from new music production software and hardware designs including Hawtin’s new mixer, to a big emphasis on 3D printing, especially for musical applications. Virtual Reality was also back in several places and again highly popular as was the remarkable installation Earthwork by Semiconductor that featured a long horizon-like screen that crunched and morphed seismic data into glitch music and elegant coloured patterns and was a calming hangout. More scientific, but equally fascinating, was the Black Box which contained a fascinating anechoic chamber-like room where different frequencies where transmitted in different tactile regions and the simple, but fascinating Absolute-Relative device which revealed a lot about how the brain can perceive and transmit differences in perception and confuse the senses. The Royal College of Art’s kinetic Soundobjects were also fascinating and intricate, whereas of the talks, one of the highlights was We Are Europe who offered a short but critical training on how to minimize and erase your digital trace which seems ever more poignant.
Photos by Bianca de Vilar