Not since the daytime venue moved from the cramped MACBA venue in the dead centre of town to its current venue in the Fira exposition centre has there felt like a bigger shift in the Sonar philosophy. The 2019 edition was (hopefully) something of a statement and a resetting of direction for the veteran festival. There was a concentrated and cohesive effort both on and off the stage to reflect what is happening not only on the airwaves, but down in the crowd and out in the street.
The festival kicked off in mid-July for one year only, instead of the usual mid-June calendar due to clashes with the ITMA 2019 Textile & Garment Technology Exhibition. July is hotter than June anyway, but compounded by the recent heatwave, the sweltering temperatures quickly came into play. The earlier artists definitely suffered and some of the programing might also not have factored in the sun, especially on Saturday. But even before things got going there were arbitration issues with the riggers assembling the infrastructure that nearly scuppered the whole festival until days before. It was rumoured that ticket sales might have suffered as a result, but at the daytime session it wasn’t noticeable.
In terms of statements, there were many.
Finally there was a shift to recyclable cups that made a profound difference. Instead of a sea of waste strewn over the Astroturf there was only bright green and clean. There was also a Purple Point for women and a strong message of anti-sexual harassment. On stage there was an outstanding diversity of performers with an emphasis on women and up and coming talent rather than so many established names. There was no notable drop in quality as a result and it was great to see so many countries represented amongst the artists including Nigeria, Venezuela, Colombia, Uganda and the first ever Palestinian artist, Muqata’a, as well as many artists of multicultural backgrounds. Also clearly represented were the LGBT community, especially with shows on Thursday. Although I didn’t go to Sonar by Night, there was a rightful buzz about some of the new acts to play, exemplified by the decision to let new generation artists like Amelie Lens close. Not all was wine and roses however. Perhaps as a real world reminder, at the back of the Village was a Calvin Klein selfie stage that flashed endless hell-like flames over the screens and seemed to make everything around it hotter. Outside in front of it was a cardboard tower showing off the young brawn of A$AP Rocky in his sponsored brand underwear while on the news the man himself was in Sweden detained while they investigated allegations of a brawl, allegations that were subsequently dropped, but not before Donald Trump got involved.
Saturday afternoon also featured one of the most controversial Sonar acts of recent memory for all the wrong reasons. I won’t claim to have seen enough of : Bad Gyal’s show to give an outright opinion, but after all the positive steps taken at the festival this year, to put on a show like that at a peak time just seemed absurd. Bad Gyal, the “pussy q mana”, is even a local Catalan woman which made it all the more painful. But her mix of plasticine beats, autotune vocals, a pink bikini with few moves and surrounded by more girls in swimwear dancing provocatively is just jarring and, even if ironic, is in bad taste perhaps. Maybe it’s just my age, but independently of Bad Gyal, the trap, reggaeton et al., axis does define a generation line at times. Consequently the decision to have reggaeton and trap star DJ Bad Bunny play at night was also seen as a big choice that may further worry the classic big room techno acts that their time has come for a younger generation.
In terms of acts, it was hard to pick a real stand out. Part of the reason for this was moving between stages a lot to experiment with what was going on rather than stay and absorb a whole act. Partly it also seemed as if there was no real peaks even though the baseline quality was up. Leon Vynehall on Thursday stands out, bringing a welcome and necessary jolt of house as well as continuity with his longer set just as the sun was cool enough to step out of the shadow. Actress was as mesmerising and inscrutable as ever with his AV set collaboration with Young Paint. PAN label boss Bill Kouligas DJing in the small XS stage was also a delight and something novel, with a selection of stark mid-tempo techno tracks that had just enough wobble and groove to keep it interesting. On the same stage on Thursday afternoon Afrodeutsche battled hard and made an impression. She has a fascinating sound, but the overall live just lacks a little more structure or flow. 700 Bliss (the duo of DJ Haram and Moor Mother) were also stimulating, with a strong urban sound and a good vocal pressure.
Those artists who suffered from the heat and/or being on a tad early or late where Japanese legend DJ Krush. A great set of stark dubstep and hip hop withhis masterful scratching, but perhaps a bit too dark for the glaring light. Maya Jane Coles presented her unfortunately named Nocturnal Sunshine set also at the end of the day in the dying sunlight. She showed she has matured since her early breakthrough sets at the festival, but it was probably a bit too early in the day for her tidy mix of tech house. LYZZA’s fast and brash dancehall also seemed like it would have been better in the dark too.
Other notables were Sevdaliza on Thursday. A very interesting trio of electronics and keyboards, treated and raw double bass and the vocals of Dutch-Iranian Sevdaliza. The mix between trip hop, middle eastern influence and jazz is compelling, coupled with the star like quality of Sevadilza. SebastiAn was also a surprise. I had seen the Ed Banger-associated Frenchman several years ago at Sonar where the staging was better than the tracks, but here it seemed he had just what everybody wanted. The stage was crowded and the vibe and sound was good even if it was all a bit obvious with frequent drops to make sure nobody got lost. Nicolas Cruz was more subtle, but also played with big sounds and clear brush strokes.
Thursday afternoon started with Lotic and their intriguing set of dark beats and paranoid trap in a blazing disc of laser light. Later on the same stage there was an unprecedented que to see Arca so only the lucky saw the beginning, but the last 30 minutes of the 2 hour set where spell-binding with the room full of sweaty heat and expectation and Arca transfixing everyone. Theo Parrish was also good, but the sound wasn’t. Maybe it was the way he wanted to play it, but the high end was too loud and there seemed to be a sfumato effect on the mix that made it a little distant. Holly Herndon’s PROTO show was hard to tell whether it was good or bad, but it was either one or the other. I might need to see more to make up my mind, but the polyphonic choral harmonies and strange stage show were not immediately inspiring even if they were novel. The Spanish rapper Dellafuente was also a bit of a surprise, eventually coming on after a few stage preparation issue, but it was worth the wait for the legions of loyal local fans who had come to see his particular blend of flamenco, R&B and hip hop. Of the closing DJs, Daphni on Thursday was great as expected, no surprises, just good clean house, and Erol Alkan was pretty much perfect. A nice tidy, driving techno set with tinges of acid and enough dirt to make a bit of a mess. All in all a solid year with promise to come.
Photo credit: Bianca de Vilar