tue 14/07/2020

theartsdesk at Sónar festival, Barcelona | reviews, news & interviews

theartsdesk at Sónar festival, Barcelona

theartsdesk at Sónar festival, Barcelona

Even a flying visit provides plenty to get your teeth into

The daytime part of Sónar – called, perhaps logically, Sónar by Day – is held in the Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona, a huge, light and airy modern art museum smack-dab in the middle of the criss-crossing semi-pedestrianised streets of the old city. For much of the day, going in and out of the venue is a doddle, so many among the cosmopolitan crowd head to and fro, shopping and eating tapas in the area around the CCCB in between taking in acts or festival-specific art installations.

Joining the general drift of people seemed to be the best way to take things in, and I managed to stumble on some musical gems. A particularly fortuitous find was local band Bradien, who played to a backdrop of creepy, creaky old silent movies and Soviet-era Czech animation, their rickety electronics and wind instruments creating a sound oddly suggestive of an infant Tom Waits lost in a fairytale forest. In a huge gazebo outside the front of the museum, their near-namesake Braiden, the young British DJ from Rinse FM, was showing why house music is getting a new lease of life at the moment, with a set that reminded that the genre is not just about one-note euphoria nor about spacing out, but at its best can be great, rambunctious electronic funk with endless wit and capacity to surprise. Before them a charismatic young Brooklyn woman known as Pursuit Grooves had been stripping modern R&B of all traces of schmaltz, performing a very austere but brilliant kind of techno soul which kept the crowd moving.

Out in the huge central courtyard the beautiful people gathered to dance at pretty much anything thrown at them, whether that was a DJ playing Carly Simon and dubious Euro-reggae, or British band Nedry failing to translate their rather interesting records to the live stage and coming over as simply a clunky indie band with synthesizers. The cool and dark basement hall couldn't have been a bigger contrast, with a rather more Bohemian cross-section of people nodding seriously first to the rather bland French instrumental jazz-rock of Aufgang (so bland, actually, that they resembled nothing so much as the musical doodles TV channels used to play when they had shut down for the night), then to the altogether more gripping King Midas Sound.

KMS are a unique collaboration between veteran avant-garde noisenik Kevin Martin, the Japanese singer Hitomi from the band Dokkebi Q, and the Trinidadian dub poet turned singer Roger Robinson. They produced a phenomenal sound that very much felt like that of a band rather than a “project”: Martin took the space-exploring echo techniques and extreme frequencies of dub reggae to their absolute limits, shifting from the minimalism of pure bass to huge sheets of reverberation that threaten to overwhelm the crowd at points, while Robinson's stentorian recitations and his and Hitomi's far more delicate singing voices gave a sense of both vulnerability and defiance in the face of such inhuman scale of sound. The band's lighting made perfect use of the darkness of the hall, placing single colour spotlights and strobes at the right moments to heighten the drama and emphasise the trio's strikingly contrasting appearances, showing that extreme electronic music can still put on a show without resorting to whizz-bang electronic visuals.

From the easy-going environs of the CCCB to the more imposing events of Sónar by Night is a 20-minute bus or cab ride to the outskirts of Barcelona and a vast, hangar-like complex of exhibition halls. Now this is the sort of event that in Britain would be pretty much a vision of hell – gargoyle-like drug casualties would abound (particularly two days into the festival), security would be porcine and lecherous, every thoroughfare between arenas would be a bottleneck, and the toilets would reek. But here again, despite tens of thousands of party people flooding in, the laid-back but efficient Catalan attitude prevailed, and everything from the timing of the acts to the flushing of the loos simply worked.

The atmosphere was anything but sterile, though. Drinks weren't cheap but the measures were massive, and smoking was tolerated; the whole thing felt more like a very, very large party more than the cattle-herding exercise that so many dance-music festivals can turn into. People were there to dance and otherwise immerse themselves in music, and there was plenty to soak in at every turn. I sadly missed all but 10 minutes of Hot Chip, but it was clear they were hugely relishing the challenge of playing in a part of the venue that hosted techno DJs the rest of the night – a challenge they rose to just fine, with the crowd dancing and yip-yip-yipping away. French duo Air, too, seemed happy to be playing to a dance crowd in the vast main hall, their sultry and atmospheric dream-pop ideally suited to swaying and milling around in the warm summer night, their focused playing happy to create rich ambience rather than force their music AT the crowd in traditional rock band style.

LCD Soundsystem's James Murphy seemed a little less happy with the crowd's unreceptiveness to trad rock performing. The band have deep roots in club culture – they have always assimilated techno elements into a new-wave rock format better than almost anyone else, and Murphy's lyrics are bittersweet celebrations and satires of clublands fads and foibles. But over their second and third albums, he has sung more than ranted, and taken on more influence from late-70s Bowie and Iggy – and onstage, a certain degree of frustration began to become apparent at his inability to build up his heroes' style of enigmatic rockstar repartee with the multi-lingual, polymorphous crowd. The band, and Murphy, were great musically, and the crowd was highly apprecative; but the bulk of their appreciation was not focused towards the stage, but towards immersion in the grooves. It was a fascinating demonstration of where attempts to bridge dance and rock culture can run into trouble.

Perversely there was more direct focus on the stage in the outdoor arena for the DJs hosted by Radio 1's Mary Anne Hobbs. The smaller, narrower space tended to focus people's attention in one direction, and the vastly dramatic dubstep sounds of Hobbs's own set snapped attention her way. Her guests Joy Orbison and Roska, like Braiden before them, showed how young Britain is re-wiring house music for a new generation – Roska in particularly delivering a brilliantly raw and sparse but gleeful fusion of Caribbean syncopation and bass with house music's funk. They were eclipsed somewhat, though, by the astounding sets from Los Angeles's Flying Lotus and Glasgow's Hudson Mohawke, both of whom applied the cut-up techniques of hip hop to a radical range of avante-garde, electronic, rock and jazz source materials to create sets that were both mind-bogglingly complex and directly aimed at the feet.

Flying Lotus showed that given the right context, thousands of people who had come out for a party could be induced to dance with wild abandon to cosmic bebop and electronically shattered drum & bass rhythms – not because it was the hip thing to do, but because the sounds demanded it. Hudson Mohawke had an even more challenging task, playing at 4.30am after the rather cabaret-ish performance by rap veterans Sugarhill Gang, but with hip hop scratching skills of supreme confidence and help from lascivious Washington DC funk vocalist Olivier Daysoul he too showed that the most unlikely sounds can keep a crowd alive and bouncing even as dawn breaks. In the other arenas where techno DJs held sway, the crowds were a little zoned out by this time, but with Hudson Mohawke playing it remained a colourful, fun party to the end.

Another shuttle bus back into Barcelona, some breakfast, a walk on the beach, a short train-ride and I was back in the airport ready to sleep as soundly as an EasyJet seat would allow. The combination of good memories and frustration at not having the time to stay for the whole weekend and see Dizzee Rascal, Roxy Music, Kode 9 and so very many others was as bittersweet as any post-gig feeling I've experienced (admittedly the onset of melancholia may have been aided by the creeping arrival of a hangover, but only partially so). But then a trip to Sónar could spiral out of control if you let it – with half the planet's experimental musicians and club DJs performing over more than a week of “off-piste” events in Barcelona, proving again and again that abstract sounds needn't be just for awkward geeks nor dance music for die-hard hedonists, the options are dizzying. So maybe limiting it to a single day is the best way.

I'm kidding myself, aren't I?

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Fantastic review. Couldn't have put it better myself how perfectly organised the festival is. The only thing which is enraging is that you wake up every morning gutted about what you missed the night before - only because you were attempting to see all of something equally as good.

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