Wednesday, June 25, 2008
Festivals are supposed to be a challenge: an endurance marathon as to how long you can survive without washing or how much you can wake up at 6am sweating in a tent.
The festival, which I got back from on Sunday, is in two parts, by day and by night: both parts bypass the need for endurance or tents.
Putting Sonar By Day in the middle of Barcelona opens you up to an amazing city, much of which feels very Mediterranean but, because it was built in the late 19th century, lacks the ramshackle, Medieval feel.
My favourite part was La Boqueria, an incredible market that reminded me of the Chinatown market in Bangkok, except with less toads in bags and more fish, sausages and olives. While the food itself was pretty incredible, the explosion of colour was even better: worth an addition to any trip.
Even before Sonar got started we saw some great DJs. Flyers on walls all pointed to the Sleaze Nation party at Mondo. We wandered down past dozens of amazing yachts anchored in the marina, before reaching the venue which the guide book said you couldn’t get in unless you arrived in a Jaguar or a yacht, which is never my kinda vibe for a club.
Inside Rustie and Hudson Mohawk were playing to what looked like a dressy Ibiza crowd, most of whom turned out to be Brits, all of whom were loving the mix of wonky, bassline, rave, crunk and dubstep. I’d heard Joker “Holly Brook Park” and I’d only been in the country about four hours, perfect!
Given the setting, and the, erm, beer, I thought it a good idea to text at 2am Joker to tell him even clubs with plasma screens in Barcelona marina on the walls go off to his next level shit. Turns out, somehow, I had his mum’s number.
She calls back the next day trying to work out who the hell I was. She put Joker on the line by which point none of us knew what was going on. I’ve deleted Joker’s mum’s mobile out of my phone now: it’s probably for the best.
Sonar by Day takes place in and around an art gallery, and it was fun to link Mala and for the first time, the mighty TRG, and chill. It was cool to see the tents and stages, but nothing would prepare me for Sonar by Night.
I’ve seen a few festivals over the years – Glastonbury, Creamfields, Homelands, Phoenix, Big Chill, T in the Park – but no one mentioned just how insanely large Sonar is. There were not one but three rooms that you could have parallel parked two airbuses next to each other in. The rooms were cavernous, just enormous, like the main stage at Glastonbury but in an aircraft hanger.
No wonder then that Diplo, a small dot even from our vantage point down the front, chose to play disco house to begin with. As dubstep has exploded in the last two years the relationship between musical choices and scale has become ever apparent. Subtleties get lost in front of a crowd of biblical proportions.
Diplo found room in the end of his set to drop some of the flavours he’s best known for, not least MIA’s “Paper Planes” and Chamillionaire’s “Ridin’ Durty”, but I’d have preferred him to have taken the massive opportunity presented to him and used it to drop a more daring set.
It was also curious to watch him as a DJ, nervously touching flitting around the mixer, four or eight times a bar. It looks like he’s busy, but if you know how little effect EQ tweaks have, it was definitely a question of: just what is he doing up there?
The same applied to the act that followed him, Justice. Essentially a clone of Daft Punk, they make a massive effort to visually engage the audience. They perform from behind two stacks of Marshall amps (which looked like they’d been hollowed out from where I was standing), rock 80s leather jackets, haircuts like Noel Fielding and a huge glowing cross. Beside the baffling and contradictory symbolism, their music took Daft Punk’s sound and altered the balance in the arrangements between the breakdowns and the full tracks, so just as you got your groove on, you’d be back to filtering again. And while it was a fun set, like Diplo and as I've wondered before about "live" electronic music, it definitely looked like a question of: just what are they doing up there?
It’s hard to answer precisely: they wouldn’t be the first dance act to put on the DAT and act like it’s live. It just goes to show if you turn up with enough rock paraphernalia and glowing crosses, your audience will cease to care how the music’s made.
The dubstep took place on a smaller arena, though still about the size of DMZ. Mary Anne Hobbs mixed it up: it was great to hear grime riddims like “Intensive Snare.” Shackleton felt far less claustrophobic than when I saw him last, perhaps because it was warm and Mediterranean and his setup was flanked in a cascade of decorative lights, but it was really great to hear his detailed and abstract percussion. Am so glad he’s made it to a level where he can perform on this kind of stage.
Having seen a bit more of Justice, I arrived back in the space during the heavy metal track Mala is playing, which oddly, was exactly the moment I left his set at Brainfeeder festival the weekend before. Flying Lotus, also at Brainfeeder, dropped the instrumental of Truth Hurts/Dre’s “Addictive,” which with the Lata vocal samples, is a persy ingle. Buraka Son Sistema put on a good show, with tough and layered Kuduro percussion and a good stage presence.
The rest of the night was all about Theo Parrish though. Bar a few hollow amps, glowing crosses and Teenwolf leather jackets, there’s little in essence difference between Parrish’s meticulous EQing of long JBs records and Justice, but something felt to perfect about the former. How does he make gentle classics sound so fresh and physical?
It made a total contrast for Sonar on Saturday, which by night confirmed my fears about techno. I used to love Detroit techno, I really did, until I’d worked my way backwards through the classics and realised moving forwards wasn’t cutting it. Yet this was apparent again as Jeff Mills tried to re-create his classic, conceptual X-102 project. But if his idea of conceptual engagement is 30 minutes of ambient loops and NASA photos, it didn’t seem to do much for the massive warehouse crowd watching it. But worse still were some of the DJs on the stage Mary Anne had curated the night before.
I’m apprehensive about 4-to-the-floor at the best of times – it’s a rhythmic trap that means that audiences who’re fed it, wont accept anything else – but even within the spectrum of tech/house/garage/hardcore 4x4, there are tens if not hundreds of sub genres and flavours. But the DJs booked seemed to only want to play one flavour: techy but not boshingly hard, cool and never warm, seamlessly mixed without breakdown nor ever moments of true emotional intensity. It began to really grate after several hours. Put it this way, my Saturday highlight was either the double strength Caipirinhas a local friend had earlier led us to down some dark side alley or the dodgems.
Techno dullardry aside, Sonar is an amazing festival. If you go, I hope the weather is just as amazing. If it is, you’ll love it...