theartsdesk at Sónar festival, Barcelona | New music reviews, news & interviews
theartsdesk at Sónar festival, Barcelona
Even a flying visit provides plenty to get your teeth into
In retrospect, deciding on a quick in-and-out trip to the Sónar festival was a slightly silly idea. Not because there was any problem with the event, or with getting there, or because I had any difficulty chucking an all-nighter then making it to my plane at 11am, though. Quite the opposite: it was a silly idea because a small taster of one of the best-organised music festivals I have ever been to could only make me deeply hacked off that I wasn't going to be there for the whole thing.The daytime part of Sónar – called, perhaps logically, Sónar by Day – is held in the Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona, a huge, light and airy modern art museum smack-dab in the middle of the criss-crossing semi-pedestrianised streets of the old city. For much of the day, going in and out of the venue is a doddle, so many among the cosmopolitan crowd head to and fro, shopping and eating tapas in the area around the CCCB in between taking in acts or festival-specific art installations.
Joining the general drift of people seemed to be the best way to take things in, and I managed to stumble on some musical gems. A particularly fortuitous find was local band Bradien, who played to a backdrop of creepy, creaky old silent movies and Soviet-era Czech animation, their rickety electronics and wind instruments creating a sound oddly suggestive of an infant Tom Waits lost in a fairytale forest. In a huge gazebo outside the front of the museum, their near-namesake Braiden, the young British DJ from Rinse FM, was showing why house music is getting a new lease of life at the moment, with a set that reminded that the genre is not just about one-note euphoria nor about spacing out, but at its best can be great, rambunctious electronic funk with endless wit and capacity to surprise. Before them a charismatic young Brooklyn woman known as Pursuit Grooves had been stripping modern R&B of all traces of schmaltz, performing a very austere but brilliant kind of techno soul which kept the crowd moving.
Out in the huge central courtyard the beautiful people gathered to dance at pretty much anything thrown at them, whether that was a DJ playing Carly Simon and dubious Euro-reggae, or British band Nedry failing to translate their rather interesting records to the live stage and coming over as simply a clunky indie band with synthesizers. The cool and dark basement hall couldn't have been a bigger contrast, with a rather more Bohemian cross-section of people nodding seriously first to the rather bland French instrumental jazz-rock of Aufgang (so bland, actually, that they resembled nothing so much as the musical doodles TV channels used to play when they had shut down for the night), then to the altogether more gripping King Midas Sound.
KMS are a unique collaboration between veteran avant-garde noisenik Kevin Martin, the Japanese singer Hitomi from the band Dokkebi Q, and the Trinidadian dub poet turned singer Roger Robinson. They produced a phenomenal sound that very much felt like that of a band rather than a “project”: Martin took the space-exploring echo techniques and extreme frequencies of dub reggae to their absolute limits, shifting from the minimalism of pure bass to huge sheets of reverberation that threaten to overwhelm the crowd at points, while Robinson's stentorian recitations and his and Hitomi's far more delicate singing voices gave a sense of both vulnerability and defiance in the face of such inhuman scale of sound. The band's lighting made perfect use of the darkness of the hall, placing single colour spotlights and strobes at the right moments to heighten the drama and emphasise the trio's strikingly contrasting appearances, showing that extreme electronic music can still put on a show without resorting to whizz-bang electronic visuals.
From the easy-going environs of the CCCB to the more imposing events of Sónar by Night is a 20-minute bus or cab ride to the outskirts of Barcelona and a vast, hangar-like complex of exhibition halls. Now this is the sort of event that in Britain would be pretty much a vision of hell – gargoyle-like drug casualties would abound (particularly two days into the festival), security would be porcine and lecherous, every thoroughfare between arenas would be a bottleneck, and the toilets would reek. But here again, despite tens of thousands of party people flooding in, the laid-back but efficient Catalan attitude prevailed, and everything from the timing of the acts to the flushing of the loos simply worked.
The atmosphere was anything but sterile, though. Drinks weren't cheap but the measures were massive, and smoking was tolerated; the whole thing felt more like a very, very large party more than the cattle-herding exercise that so many dance-music festivals can turn into. People were there to dance and otherwise immerse themselves in music, and there was plenty to soak in at every turn. I sadly missed all but 10 minutes of Hot Chip, but it was clear they were hugely relishing the challenge of playing in a part of the venue that hosted techno DJs the rest of the night – a challenge they rose to jus