Twenty years of Sonar: Part one – live review
Barcelona, various venues.
June 14th & 15th
Forget about mainstream dance music events such as Ultra Music or Tomorrowland. Sonar has been the coolest, most forward-thinking electronic music festival for two decades now. And once again this year Louder Than War were in attendance.
After expanding around the Globe with branches in Japan and Iceland and a mini-tour in the US, Sonar finally returned to its headquarters in Barcelona, where it all started, to celebrate a very special anniversary.
This edition attracted by far more visitors than ever so the daytime performances and presentations had to be relocated from the usual spots in CCCB and MACBA to the much bigger Fira Montjuïc. But controversial decisions such as including the likes of Skrillex and Alvin Risk in the line-up have risen more than a few eyebrows among purists. With an undeniable link between the massive growth of the festival and conforming to trends that blatantly stray away from its original avant-garde and non-compliant spirit, there’s a slight sense of fear of Sonar becoming yet another cash-in. At this point, one question becomes obvious: What does the future hold for Sonar?
We kicked off Friday’s Sonar by Day with Hip-Hop / Grime outfit Foreign Beggars. They are an excellent example of how an underground band can reach a broader audience while keeping their edge. There was a bit of a problem concerning the output volume, as it dropped down for a few seconds several times. Chances are they went into protect mode, as overheating can be a common problem with power amps operating under the unforgiving Spanish sun. The show probably lacked a little bit more energy, and the Beggars couldn’t get the crowd into doing the usual Wall of Death when they drop the last track, but it was still an enjoyable performance considering it was still early and everyone had to save some stamina for a really long and hard weekend.
Time to check out Spain’s own bRUNA at Sonar Dome stage curated by Red Bull Music Academy. In this era of Ableton “live” sets it’s somehow refreshing to watch electronic artists perform their music on a hardware-based setup. It was certainly worth a listen.
Dub expert Adrian Sherwood and Tectonic’s Pinch recently joined forces in their single ‘Bring me Weed’. To support this must-have release they teamed up for exclusive live shows at Sonar Tokyo and Sonar Barcelona. With Pinch on the decks, Sherwood took over the synths creating a nice atmosphere that got everybody ready for skankin’. The set was a magnificent display of the extensive sound palette of underground dubstep; from dubbed out halfstep sounds to the more techno-influenced stuff that the likes of Kryptic Minds and Paul Mac have been championing lately. Too bad the volume was insanely loud, thus making things painful if you weren’t wearing proper ear protection. I’m usually ok with feeling the bass pressure on my chest (“If yer chest aint rattling, shot aint happening” – bass monster ed) & I actually like that, but it’s not that cool when the SPL (“Sound Pressure Level” – acronym explaining ed) literally crushes your skull.
Time to make a move and go to Sonar by Night’s venue, the gigantic Gran Via 2. The massive amount of people and an inefficient door system created huge queues, and even press pass holders had to go through the same nightmare. After the gates, people were given some nice 3D specs as main act Kraftwerk were performing an exclusive show with three-dimensional visuals.
I don’t think Bat For Lashes were the right choice for Sonar by night. Don’t get me wrong, they’re more than capable musicians, but their style would be so much more suitable for a slot during the day. Unless you were a die-hard fan of the band, the greater part of the crowd needed something more up-tempo to keep them pumping through the night. Right after them, Eats Everything took the stage with his nu-skool house and solid mix of fresh beats and bumping basslines. His own mashup of Breach’s ‘Jack’ and Ron Costa’s ‘Gez Uri’, also played by Skream itself the day after, totally rocked the place.
The French four-piece C2C demonstrated their turntablism skills in front of an enthusiastic audience. It was sheer fun to enjoy their live re-creations of feel-good anthems like ‘Happy’, watch them interact with the crowd and perform a 2vs2 DJ battle. Add a tribute to the late Adam Yauch with an awesome cover of the Beastie’s ‘Intergalactic’ and you just got the cherry on top.
Now, it would have been too easy to just walk away and rant about the fact that OWSLA head honcho’s Skrillex and Alvin Risk were playing not only in Sonar but on the very same stage that pioneers Kraftwerk performed their 3D show a few hours before. But here at Louder Than War, we do things the hard way (or at least I do) so I stayed through both sets to properly document this review even if I absolutely can’t stand their music.
Alvin Risk performance was too predictable and highly disappointing as the floor was half empty at peak time and even when he grabbed the mic to sing a song of his own, no one seemed to care. To be honest, it’s probably the worst failure I’ve seen at any festival. Why promoters hired an artist with such a poor reception is beyond me. The only explanation I can come up with is that it all could be a cheeky management trick; maybe you need to book at least one more OWSLA alumni if you want Skrillex to perform at your festival. That’s my guess. In the case I’m right, I believe KOAN Sound or Seven Lions would have been a much better choice for the night.
After Risk left the stage, a five-minute countdown appeared in the gigantic background screen. When it finished the guy with the weirdest hairdo in the business made his big appearance, wearing a FC Barcelona football shirt and riding a black spaceship that seemed made with parts of a wrecked X-Wing and the Batmobile from Nolan’s Batman. Pictures of Sagrada Familia and Ramblas on the screen while the anthemic Barcelona Olympics theme song by Montserrat Caballé and Freddie Mercury was mixed into an Electro House (EDM some would say) beat. Please, can we throw in something a little bit more obvious so we go full cliché? A picture of Skrillex having paella and sangria in Lloret de Mar maybe?
I was absolutely shocked (and not in a good way) to see snippets from Blade’s blood rave scene and Domino’s Pizza ‘Techno Chicken’ advert were used as visuals. Just to add insult to injury, pixels the size of golf balls revealed the videos were ripped from Youtube. Was this meant to be ironical? It just looked absolutely cheap and tacky compared to the futuristic computer-rendered graphics that were tailor-made for the show. Anyway, I reckon the music itself was surprisingly acceptable at some points, and it’s undeniable that he really injected some adrenaline to the audience, but I have serious doubts the tracks were mixed on the spot, as it looked and sounded more like a pre-recorded set with a few tweaks, loops and effects.
Closing the main stage was Mad Decent’s Diplo, who had already performed earlier that night under the Major Lazer moniker. His eclectic mix of Electro, Trap, Moombahton and the latest trends coming from the US was an absolute winner and made everyone in the crowd shake it like there was no tomorrow. Firing banger after banger the dancefloor quickly went off the hook. No doubt this was a great way to end the first night at Sonar.
Part two covering saturday 15th coming soon.