Music, Creativity and Technology. So goes the tag line of the Sónar festival. But now after 25 years, it has become to feel like something more. For those who live in the city it is the noisy uncle who visits once a year. For those outside it is like landing on a lost island that only appears at the start of summer like a kind of R’lyeh on the Mediterranean. It’s call echoes out to the whole of Barcelona which becomes even more restless than normal. As the reach of its lure widens (this year was the biggest ever with 126,00 inside and countless more at the off-events) so too does it change what it touches, such that Sónar seems less a bastion apart, than a microcosm of what happens beyond it’s shores.
In this sense, in capturing Sónar’s 25th edition, there are several non-musical events that happened this year that are worth recounting before getting to the music. First up is the issue of plastic and waste. Sónar recently announced that they had studied this year’s festival to offset the carbon cost with a project in Colombia. Great steps indeed, but plastic is still a problem. As a challenge we tried to reuse our beer cups as much as possible throughout the festival and found the going surprisingly tough. There were plenty of weird looks from bar stuff when insisting that they use an old dirty cup that had been fiercely guarded than a brand new one. Nobody behind the bar ever asked if we already had a cup and some were pouring before you could say no, so it was almost impossible to avoid accumulating plastic cups. Ironically, on the last day, it was the door security that confiscated my cherished recycled cup from the previous two days. “No plastic” was the order. But with so many people, so many beers and so many cups, something must be done to reduce the waste you just end up dancing on at the end of the night as its “too hard” to go to the bin or keep it for the next one.
Another incident. Friday day, just arrived. Straight in to see Despacio (of which more below) and almost straight away there a couple of beautiful, young girls sidling up in the darkness. They seemed really interested in me and my friend. But it’s way too early to be that wasted or that interested, and although we are hardly mingers, we are middle-aged men and it seemed all too easy to attract such “passionate bright young things”. After some aggressive flirting and then an uncomfortable coldness from ourside, they put on their lipstick, gave us a kiss and were off. Call me paranoid (it was too early to be that paranoid), but something wasn’t right. Later that day it seems that two Colombian women were caught with over 70 mobiles robbed from Sonar (https://www.metropoliabierta.com/vivir-en-barcelona/roban-mas-de-70-moviles-en-el-sonar-en-una-noche_8016_102.html). Maybe they weren’t the same people, maybe they were, but it was a strange and slightly unsettling incident. Recently I had had two encounters with pick pockets while out and about in Barcelona, my first in 13 years there. And later that night there would be another more physical attempt at thievery on us in the early hours. Not the kind of pattern you want to see emerging.
Finally, Despacio again, the successful return of James Murphy and 2manydjs dark hi fidelity temple which worships slow (and slowed down) disco, world music and Italo. A cool, dark space away from the hot Spanish sun, Despacio chugged away all day, channelling the vibe of David Mancuso’s Loft Parties. That it was unashamedly retro and still one of the better “spaces” at Sonar this year challenges a little the notions of innovation.
All that is to say that given there was a slightly dystopian and hopeless undercurrent this year, the music that stood out the most against this was Chino Amobi. His was a music that really felt like it meant something. After seeing him play on the small XS stage, so much of the rest of Sonar felt like just “entertainment”. Amobi’s show was like being back at a Suicide gig in the 70s, especially on tracks like Antikeimenon, which very confronting and in your face, with punchy, nervous beats, skittish percussion and urgent rhythms. Meanwhile his voice dares and attacks like Alan Vega, echoed into oblivion just as the message starts to become clear. While Amobi’s live is imperfect at times, it is all the better for it, seemingly consciously unhinged and instinctual like Jamal Moss. It is his rage, his empathy and the directness with which he charges that is the most striking, and is what leaves the biggest mark.
Other highlights were Jamz Supernova who played outdoors in the Village on Friday afternoon. Exceptional bass music DJing with a beautiful technique and inspiring track selection, she was the one who most captured the Sonar Day spirit and started the party. Completely different to her on the previous day were Rainforest Spiritual Enslavement. Live, RSE are the trio of Dominick Fernow, Philippe Hallais and Silent Servant with their set essentially a recreation of their exceptional Ambient Black Magic album. With all three working different set ups it was a fascinating interaction to watch and hear, with some lovely cascades and knots of intensity, even at low BPM. It is also worth mentioning Laurel Halo as well, one of the only shows we managed to catch in the Complex. I confess to not having followed her lately but was very surprised and impressed by her sound. Very jazzy and loose, with Halo on keyboards and vocals accompanied by a live drummer. The little battles they played out between them were tense and bewildering in a psychedelic sense and there was a structurelessness to the edges of each track that was fascinating.
Oscar Mulero’s Monochrome live AV was another standout on Thursday. Beguiling and gothic images accompanied by Mulero’s recognisable tension throughout the music kept it interesting and with momentum to the end, clearly a skill honed from his years of DJ experience. Maybe the only thing missing was a deeper trough or a higher peak towards the climax. Kode 9 played outside in the Dome straight after and it was a curious set. Steve Goodman’s Hyperdub label recently released Diggin’ In The Carts: A Collection Of Pioneering Japanese Video Game Music and it is clear that there has been a big influence of this sound on his own compared to the last time I saw him. He employed the same unpredictable and frenetic mixing style as always, but the beats and bass felt lighter and the emphasis firmly in the 8 bit rhythms and cut up voices. The manga AV was more a distraction than a complement with its curious loops of cartoons not really adding anything to the music.
Thursday evening it was a pleasure to see OBC (Barcelona Symphony Orchestra) and American conductor and percussionist Brad Lubman play Terry Riley’s In C for its 50th anniversary. Wonderfully executed with some spell binding sequences of just orchestral texture it was perhaps only a little short. Logistically as well, to get across town meant missing a fair bit at the end of the day all to ensure the 8 pm start which is early for Barcelona.
Suzanne Kraft and Johnny Nash were a harmless way to start off Friday at the Dome, a stage closed more convincingly by Sweden’s Studio Barnhus in classic style with sloppy and mischievous house jams accompanied by a stage of random new age dancers. Russel Haswell was also mind blowing earlier in the day, sticking it to everyone with his cava in one hand and console in the other, alternating between abrasive abstract sound and techno bangers to keep you on your toes. Finally, although it is harsh to judge an act after 5 minutes, it just did not seem that Henry Saiz and band was Sonar music.
Day three, Saturday, was much more of a blur and a disappointment overall. It started decently with a mellow classic pop ambient show, Slow Mo, from France’s Chloé although perhaps again the AV was not quite to the same level. Second Woman later in the Hall had their moments. Some of their recent tracks, including a good EP on Tresor, show a lot of promise in a more clubby direction after their more abstract opening gambit of albums on Spectrum Spools. But maybe after Amobi, it felt after a while just too polished, too neat and cold. Also polished were Cornelius, but in a good way. Japanese bands have a knack of nailing it at Sonar Day. Nisennenmondai (https://www.cyclicdefrost.com/2014/06/cyclic-defrost-sonar-2014-review/) on the same stage springs to mind, but Cornelius were excellent in that odd ball Japanese way that seems to effortlessly mix chaos with extreme order in razor shape changes. DJ Stingray and Mumdance were a moody electro finish to the serious music out back in the Dome before the crowds flocked for 2manydjs outside in the darkening summer air. Pleasant, but too sugary for me, but hat’s off to them for playing another 2 hours to a rapt crowd after 6 hours of Despacio.
photography – Bianca de Vilar