Maybe it’s the sunshine, maybe it’s the kaleidoscopic streets of Barcelona itself, or maybe it’s the evaporated fug of chemical stimulants clogging the festival air, but Sónar has a perverse effect on people.
Amidst the innumerable photographers, outlandish stage outfits and ridiculously high drug consumption, the weekend finds artists and festival-goers oscillating between two general electro stereotypes. Firstly, the try-hard intellectual-exploration-of-sound group: quiet men with computers, trendy-looking tall people in expensive glasses, sporadic whoops. Secondly, the day-glo, MDMA’ed, styled-in-Dalston group: fake glasses, photographed for obscure Danish style magazines, gurning at 4am to SebastiAn.
Yet the festival’s gems are to be found somewhere between these stereotypes, as well as between the event’s two poles of commercial appeal (Grace Jones, Orbital, La Roux) and eclecticism (the fantastic Mulatu Astatke and the Heliocentrics, whose celebratory Thursday set kicked the shit out of Omar Souleyman’s similarly-billed yet disdainful performance a day later).
The best set of the weekend was not, as some will undoubtedly argue, Deadmau5’s triumphant, compulsively danceable hour deep into Sunday morning. It was a 45-minute blast on Friday afternoon from a pallid-looking Austrian that provided the most unpredictable highlight. Appearing as a shyer version of The Breakfast Club’s Anthony Michael Hall (born ten years later, grown an emo-fringe and played computer games instead of fussed with that elephant-trunk lamp), Dorian Concept managed to fill Sonar Dome in the blink of an eye.
His performance deconstructed the very idea of electronic music and simultaneously proved the family connections between hip-hop, techno, glitch and breaks. It was an intellectual master class and an invitation to dance; thanks partly to the uncontrollable enthusiasm of the artist himself. He looked like he had spent the past ten years sitting in his bedroom practising every move, conducting the drops and breaks as they happened, interpreting them into signs for the crowd, and all the time looking so surprised and embarrassed that anyone had bothered to turn up. We lapped it up.
What a contrast at the Sónar Village that same afternoon, where Huw Stephens showcased the BBC’s talent, which felt cynical and one-dimensional in comparison. Young Fathers hopped about for a painful few songs looking like Cool Kids trying to be a Beastie Boys covers band. Their aping begged the question: what is the point in having a branded UK showcase if the first band might as well be from Brooklyn? (And if they were representing Brooklyn, they wouldn’t even be getting as far as JFK.) Ditto La Roux, who were offensive simply because copying Annie Lennox is just not trying hard enough.
Instead, the UK artists who got it right were at the cavernous Sónar Nit complex (a series of intimidatingly vast hangars in the city’s industrial graveyard), with Joker and even Beardyman going hard. Though he looked like he ran through Timmy Mallett’s washing line, Rustie got the crowd sufficiently hyped for a very promising Crystal Castles set early on Sunday morning in SonarPub.
Unfortunately for Crystal Castles, their Sónar was not to be: devastating mix-ups with sound and vocal levels meant that their set was severed as abruptly as singer Alice Glass’s fringe. It was a shame for the group, whose energy, gothic monochrome aesthetic and stark lighting was tipping the crowd into riot mode. Instead, Glass lost it, trashing the set and being dragged off stage. Perhaps their boundless energy had been cursed by the disappointingly lacklustre Fever Ray, the post-baby project from The Knife’s Karin Dreijer Andersson.
There were plenty of other success stories to assuage the disappointment. Orbital had their desired headliner effect, as their calculated beats attracted swathes to the SonarClub zone (‘room’ seems humiliatingly inadequate for a space which is more like the back end of Siberia, or Hamlet’s ”undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveller returns”).
The rest of the second night was typified by standout sets from younger upstarts who should become idols: namely, Moderat’s utterly beautiful, incredibly composed hour of considered electronica. Without ever dropping the energy and enthusiasm built by the DJs before them, they recalled the ambience and complexity which had been captured earlier on by Animal Collective (who themselves played a spellbinding set marrying latest offering ‘Merriweather Post Pavilion’ with twisted, sparkling versions of earlier classics; opener ‘My Girls’ was almost tear-worthy). What’s more, the 3am Moderat billing was a stroke of genius on the organisers’ part. Placing a live act just before the non-stop hands-in-the-air mania caused by Deadmau5 somehow made perfect sense, providing the punters with an arresting break from dancing, and once again proving that Germany has got its finger firmly on the pulse.
In contrast to this late-night finale, the majority of Friday provided big names and on-trend party-makers without giving too much genre-bending or jaw-dropping experimentation. We had Grace Jones being Grace Jones, in a series of headpieces, demonstrating that sometimes personality and a little bit of performance art is all you need to distract the crowd from a lack of material (she should have done her cover of ‘Warm Leatherette’).
James Murphy and Pat Mahoney played a taut, humorous set of minimal techno and Italo-disco, and while they are no longer punk-funk flavour of the month, they have a few more tricks in the bag. Erol Alkan, unfortunately, tried to play the same set about two hours later, and didn’t produce the same effect. Meanwhile, at SonarPub, Buraka Som Sistema did a Grace Jones and proved that being a bit musically one-dimensional doesn’t stop you having a good time. They hauled 25 girls from the crowd on to the stage for a streamer-laden, Afrobeat ass-shake session to the thousands of waving hands seemingly propping up the murky Barca sky.
That first night was rounded off by a couple of accomplished, very popular sets by two Frenchmen. Black-clad, chain-smoking Ed Banger hero SebastiAn played his muscular electro from a black plinth, his trademark cartoon image adorning the back screen as Busy P handed out matching masks to the crowd, until the enigmatic DJ played to a room of Mini-Mes. The enduring image of the festival came at 6.30am at SonarPub, as Brodinski closed the Friday session with an intelligent, well-judged set of deep techno. As the sun pushed through the clouds, delicate splatters of rain began to fall and the thousands of very happy ravers basked in a gentle downpour as soothing and invigorating as the music accompanying them. Perfection.
Whilst Sónar’s self-proclaimed forward-thinking ‘snapshot of the present’ inevitably led to a few wayward errors of judgement, the 2009 weekend successfully straddled experimental abstraction, foot-stomping dance music, and ambient delights. A few fell by the wayside, and a few need to go home and try harder next year (Erol, BBC showcasers: we’re looking at you), but we are willing to forgive and forget.
And to the very small Scottish man who talked to my chin whilst I lost all my friends in Moderat: no I don’t have any Ketamine, and you’re right, I really didn’t want to talk to you. I hope you found your friends.
Words: Lowri Jenkins