Sonar 2011 – A Diary

Feature by Ray Philp | 27 Jun 2011

El Raval is littered with fauna typical of June. Wet cans of Estrella Damm exchange hands in the clandestine passageways of Carrer de L'Hostpital. Ears ring with terse, whispered promises of "hashish, coke, ketamina" from faceless silhouettes. Twentysomething tourists in cheap sunglasses and expensive t-shirts gape at everything and nothing in particular as they stroll on La Rambla, trying to take in the maelstrom of human activity around them while pickpockets target the lost and the naive with a more deliberate gait. And amongst all of this, the 18th edition of Sonar festival draws in the usual topography of advanced electronic music and multimedia art to the Catalan capital.

But this June, the garden looks less than rosy. Given the parlous state of the Spanish and Catalan economies (El Pais reports that of the unemployed in Spain, 45% are under the age of 30), you might suppose that Sonar might offer some respite, but many are less than enamoured by the festival's annual presence.

"We want a nice town, but in the high season, the street is like a latrine. People piss on the roads, they throw up, they party; especially in Barri Gotic."

Miguel's agitation is typical of hostel owners and residents in the Gothic Quarter. Balconies in the area are draped with white sheets bearing the legend "Volem Un Barri Digne!!", insisting on the obeisance of tourists and newcomers to the city.

Contempt for the festival extends to more unexpected quarters, too. For some, no Sonar lineup ever supersedes the inaugural discovery; no festival ever seems immune to the law of diminishing returns. Others find the stramash of Sonar too slick, too big, too…commercial. So long as you're not performing your own colonoscopy in the process, burrowing deeper does bring considerable reward, via the sprawl of rooftop and beach parties collectively known as 'Off Sonar'. Indeed, the lineup for any number of these parties is almost always stellar, but it's worth noting the maxim that says every action has an equal and opposite reaction: Off-Sonar parties excel because, when faced with an event as well-organised, popular, and credible as Sonar, they simply have to.

With that in mind, no jaded recommendations of one over the other shall be found herein. So long as your liver and sleep cycle can take the pounding, one should endeavor to do both.

Off Sonar

Situated right at the nexus that connects the post-post-dubstep zeitgeist (it's getting ridiculous now) and a smoothed-down strain of Detroit techno, the Hotflush/AUS Music showcase on the rooftop of the Hotel Axel is as good a place as any to begin an exploration into forward-minded electronic music. Both labels sketch out not only their recent slew of low-end techno (something that departs rather deliberately from their seminal associations with UK bass music), but a stylistic range that also extends to the more playful end of house music, too. Of a lineup that includes Midland, Sigha, Appleblim, Deadbeat and Will Saul, Scuba offers the tightest precis of the fragmented 4/4 - indebted in equal measure to the Belleville Three and FWD - that Hotflush and AUS Music specialise in.

"I like vinyl, I can touch it, I can feel it, do you know what a 60-year old vinyl smells like? No, you don't, you have got your iPod…I have got records that smell like 1967." Thus begins a Moodymann diatribe played out for the sake of knowing irony (the DJs today are using Serrato, a vinyl-laptop hybrid) on the sweltering rooftop of the Axel, where the Sub Club's Factor 50 party showcases a sleek brand of tech-house for the long-haul; lithe rhythms that offer the ideal soundtrack to what becomes an increasingly debauched affair, largely thanks to a hot tub that facilitates an increasing scarcity of inhibition. Whereas Sensu and Milton Jackson offer something very much in that mould, Athletic Disco Club and Thunder Disco Club, as the names suggest, bring out something a little less expeditious, bridging the Bering Strait between the disco of Donna Summer and and the proto-house music of Frankie Knuckles.

Cocking a head towards the future are LuckyMe, hosting their own Off Sonar showcase at BeCool. The Edinburgh-born, Glasgow-based label have long boasted a partycentric aesthetic of hip-hop, R&B and funk, but it's a touchstone that crumbles under the weight of everything else that the label now incorporates. Gaslamp Killer's cinescope medley of sample-heavy grooves and dungeon lair moodscapes offer an early indication of this much, with the Gonjasufi-assisted psychedelia of When I'm In Awe sitting comfortably alongside a trunk-rattler to end all trunk-rattlers, Hudson Mohawke's Thunder Bay. Incidentally, his set is a world away from an abhorrent set of Looney Tunes brostep that he had indulged in at the latter end of his Sonar by Night slot, something that seems to defile the boxes of an excessive number of otherwise accomplished DJs across the Atlantic.

As one half of Lazer Sword, Lando Kal has produced a bold palette of records informed by West Coast hyphy, the crash-bang of seminal Ed Banger electro (their self-titled debut LP sounds like a Justice record that won't be out for another decade) and the blunted, worn-in loops typical of Brainfeeder. Lando Kal synthesises all of these influences to brutal, heart-clasping effect as he closes the evening, while also incorporating elements of his UK house/garage 12" for Hotflush, Further/Time Out. That said, Hudson Mohawke does nothing to dissuade the suspicion that he remains the imprint's crown jewel, not least because of the ubiquity of Thunder Bay across the evening and, indeed, Sonar itself. Making room for Prodigy classics, Hi-NRG rave and new songs likely set for his forthcoming Satin Panthers EP, the roof doesn't seem high enough to contain such an ecstatic hybrid of sounds that breach the 140bpm barrier with all the care of a drunken plasterer at a Rembrandt exhibit.

Sonar 2011

Much like last year's festival, Scottish interests at Sonar are fortified by Glasgow collective Numbers, although Jackmaster's unforgettable 90 minute closer at last year's Sonar by Day now takes the form of a 4 hour showcase at SonarLab (incidentally, the same stage that was given to LuckyMe last year). His Sonar 2.0 set foregrounds his excellent Fabriclive mix, with Kim English's Nite Life and Radiohead's Idioteque being notable drops, and pushes his affection for Detroit techno further still with the stratospheric synth lines of Derrick May's Strings of Life. Redinho's set is undoubtedly the toughest sonically, although the clipped rudeboy grime of his debut EP, Bare Blips, is now augmented by some Roger Troutman-in-excelsis funk via the Edge Off EP. The short slots afforded to each DJ means that the showcase tends to segue into one long set, rather than the scene-stealing cameos in evidence at LuckyMe last year, though it does offer more in the way of continuity for the thousands of dancers below them. Moreover, Numbers manage to crystallise their status as arch tastemakers: the grime-influenced sub bass bark of Silo Pass, courtesy of Bok Bok, and the old-school garage vocal of Mosca's Bax were singularly responsible for obliterating what little rectitude remained.

Of Friday night's lineup, M.I.A. freedom-fighter shtick is given a drumkick-heavy refit that adds a snarl to her already visceral mode of expression. Her peroxide-blonde mop of hair darts around stage like a starving Pacman as her feral renditions of Lovalot and Born Free ring out to a packed SonarClub. By overrunning her slot by a distance, M.I.A. leaves little time for Scuba to show off his meditative take on techno to a wider audience, though there remains room for his own slew of 12s - the clipped, ping-pong intonation of Feel It and the ebullient house vocal of Loss among them - and those of the likes of Boddika (Rubba) and, surprisingly enough, Deadboy (Wish You Were Here). Ms. Dynamite's appearance alongside Redlight and Dread MC at SonarLab seems about 10 years too late, but the vocal additions that she and Dread MC add to Redlight's forays into 2-step and grime are a welcome blast from the past.

A word about the lowlights, for the following are too odious to omit: a brief visit to Steve Aoki confirms that the meathead-electro therein holds all the nutritional value of a banana condom, and a Ritalin-addled set from Toddla T is of regrettably similar quality. Most onerous of all, though, is catching sight of the newly-erected Ballantine's stage, a sponsored tent which pumps out some of the sorriest shite this side of Capital FM; hearing a Swedish House Mafia track at a festival that actively tries to educate and disabuse folk of such nonsense is an unpalatable irony.

Luddite gripes aside, final word should go to one of the finest acts of the entire week Silent Servant, aka Juan Mendez of reclusive IDM collective Sandwell District. Closing out the festival with lean, synth-drenched warehouse techno that seems tailored for the SonarClub stage, it's the grainy, archive-sourced audiovisuals that really arrest the senses: framed by the first-person POV of a pair of binoculars, two motorcycles whizz along a highway toward an unseen destination. A phrase appears shortly after the motorcycles disappear from view, which happens to be an elegant riposte to the snide revisionism that Sonar cynics are wont to indulge in.

"These are the times, do not fear."