Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Sonar sounds

Sonar crowd blue

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.

Not Sonar.

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.

La Boqueria market

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.

La Boqueria Market

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.

Justice @ Sonar

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.

Justice @ Sonar

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?

Sonar

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...

20 comments:

philip sherburne said...

"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..."

Welcome to the sound of Spanish clubs!
Nice wrapup -- but for one thing: Barcelona was built in the late 19th century? I thought only Americans had a historical grasp that vague. ;)

Aaron said...

"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..."

Mate this is the sound that has been affiliated with sonar for soo long. Also so has the sound of Jeff Mills boring sound scapes and other electronica. Where did u think u were? And just because u cant find true intensity in techno doesn't means others cant.

Anonymous said...

Nice post - it was my first time at Sonar also and I was blown away. Beautiful city, awesome venues, great music, and a nice cultural experience on top of all the raving.

The music in the day was a bit mixed but definitely interesting (anyone see Internet 2..?), and it was just a great place to hang out for a day - particularly with all the installations and the art gallery right there.

And yeah, no one quite prepared me for walking into SonarClub (the main one) and seeing Diplo destroy it with Spastik. Absolutely mental venue. So fucking big!

Fair enough about the soundtrack to the first outdoor arena on Saturday, I'd actually liked to have heard more of the stuff there but there was just too much else on. It's worrying that you've not mentioned the other outdoor arena (SonarPub) in your post though!

Contakt on the Friday was bloody good (but perhaps not to everyone's taste), but Villalobos on Saturday was absolutely amazing. Nothing like the minimal bleeps the uninitiated might expect him to play - pure, flowing, body moving, sexy house music. If you'd been there for his set you might have some praise for a booming 4/4 kick :) Best set of the weekend, and probably the best DJ in the world right now.

But yeah, what a festival. Can't wait for next time.

MODA CADISI said...

Same here, I was amazed by pretty much everything with Sonar and Barcelona. Crowd, venue, music, city,the vibe.. Justice sucked but Ricardo did a a great closing although I am not a fan of his music. We definetely be back for the next year.

MICKY FREEZE said...

QUALITY WRITING

leon lo said...

I saw some footage of the X-102 set on the Youtube and it looked absolutely mental. Strange/nice to see Mad Mike's unmasked faced projected onto a giant screen in front of a huge crowd. Times are changing.

As for 4x4 being boring, well anything can be and has been boring. Snares on the three and the predictability of an imminent bass drop can pummel you with that wet towel too. So can changing time signatures every other bar. All that stuff can also be incredibly invigorating and fill you with that "gold rush" excitement. It's just some people can pull it off better than others.

Please Hang Up said...

I thought Buraka absolutely killed it, easily the highlight of my festival. Did you not see A-Trak and Mehdi on Saturday though? I thought their selection of electro-hop bangers and some "get money" era classics was spot-on. And talk about "busy". Few DJs can touch the effortless , busy-handed mix style of A-Trak these days. That kid is more "live" on turntables than a thousand lap-top nerds. Sick business. I thought the Shackleton set was a bit of a let down, and MAH just needs to stay behind the scenes. Homegirl can't mix to save her life. Big up Mala and FlylLo though. Although their sets were exactly the same their Brainfeeder ones (though Mala changed up a few things).

I think you have to spend the whole week at Sonar to the full impact.

panaripoff said...

quite diplomatic commentary on diplo [& justice]. but i really do wonder, how how how [& to what extent] is that music[/experience] made ?

big ups to you martin. been reading your pitchfork column for a whiles, without knowing a goddamn about you. just starting to read your blog.

cheers!

Martyn @ 3024 said...

Hey Martin- great review of what sounded like a great weekend! On Saturday you shouldve come to Macarena where Daniel Bell was dictating what proper house music is all about, in a wicked little club - it was great!! And as for myself i laid down some post 2-step post 3-step but 10-step classics :) Shame we didnt link up - but i might see u end of this month for break the habit.. m

Anonymous said...

I saw Justice last weekend at Werchter and I ended up wondering the same; what the hell are they doing? We ended up deciding that they must me doing a jigsaw or something.

Chemical Brothers was exactly the same, I only heard 3 things that I thought they actually did live, although the visuals were brilliant.

I don't particularly have a problem with this type of performance, but I don't feel it could ever be that good since there is no audience/artist interaction that you get with a DJ or a live band.

DJ Shiva. said...

That side of techno is exactly what led me to dubstep, which has in turn led me to garage, all of which have led me back to techno from a decidedly different perspective. ;)

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