This June saw the 21st edition of the annual Sónar festival of advanced music and new media art in the sunny Catalan capital of Barcelona. As usual the festival had something for everyone, presenting a number of innovative showcases from up-and-coming and experimental artists as well as several blockbuster headlining acts and new spaces. With so much to see and hear, we highlight some of the key trends that were evident this year.
1. Year of the drum.
It might be stating the obvious to say that the fundamental aspect of a dance music festival is the beat, but one defining aspect of Sónar 2014 was that the beats were coming more often from live drummers than drum machines or laptops. It seemed that nearly everyone had a drummer on hand, from headliners Massive Attack and Nile Rodger’s excellent Chic show, to Neneh Cherry’s simple backing group RocketNumberNine who only featured a drummer and a synth player. Several of the experimental artists more associated with ambient music like Australian’s Ben Frost and Oren Ambarchi also had live drummers as essential parts of their performance. Ambarchi hung his lengthy and elaborate set off a blazing free drumming workout whereas Frost actually had two drummers on stage rolling out atypical patterns to underpin his blasts of noise. James Holden, Bonobo and Whomadewho were among the other groups relying on live drummers, but it was Japanese all girl group Nisennenmondai who had arguably the best drummer of the festival. Sayaka Himeno was eerily machine-perfect and deadly sharp with every touch as she battered out endless cycles of dystopian cosmic beats. Finally, it is perhaps ironic then that Machinedrum aka Travis Stewart played his excellent “Vapor City” album live with a live drummer accompaniment to accentuate brilliantly the drum n bass tracks.
Speaking of such things, the last year or two in electronic music has seen a resurgence of drum n bass and a lot more innovation in related styles like grime as well as a broader acceptance of dubstep, footwork and newer bass music styles which rely on more elaborate drum and synth patterns than traditional house and techno. Saturday night, for example, closed with drum n bass dominating the main stage, something that has rarely been seen at Sónar in recent years, with performances from Rudimental, Camo and Krooked as well as support from dub steppers I Am Legion and DJ Snake. Portugal’s DJ Nigga Fox and Buraka Som Sistema introduced Sónar to their style of dubstep inspired in kuduro and kizomba styles of African drumming music, particularly from Angola, whereas Peruvian duo Dengue Dengue Dengue treated the day time crowd to their cumbia-influenced jams. The lasting impression from these shows was that there is still plenty of innovation and new DNA entering the electronic music gene pool, particularly around the beat.
2. Sound vs. light
[Röyksopp & Robyn]
Festivals have come to depend a lot on the visual aspect of performances, from LEDs to projections and more traditional fizz like stage lights, streamers and confetti. But there is always a danger in these things when the music doesn’t quite match up to the show, or, in reverse where a simple focus on sound yields greater dividends. American composer and musician Chris Madak aka Bee Mask provided one of the first and best shows. His strain of luscious and soothing ambient was best experienced lying down with eyes closed rather than being bombarded by lights and colors. Nils Frahm also showed you only need to play emotional and sweeping music to win over the crowd. Similarly, the Despacio space, featuring seven massive speaker towers and 50,000 watts of power, had only the music as its decoration (well, and some token astronomical baubles hanging from the roof). Here, the key was immersion in sound and a super clear and vibrant dance floor experience that was perfect for enjoying the slow motion house and disco of James Murphy and 2manydjs. The space also contrasted nicely with the rest of the goings on: outside it was baking hot and bright, while inside their cozy cavern was cool, dark and intimate.
Matthew Dear’s Audion “Subverticul” show was a clear example of what happens when it goes wrong. His setup borrowed far too heavily from Amon Tobin’s ISAM project from a few years back and suffered from poor sound, with bass frequencies crackling in the speakers and undermining any chance of pulling it off. Richie Hawtin’s much anticipated “Objekt” show as Plastikman also ran a fine line between success and failure. With three speakers, there was an awkward positional limitation to enjoyment with a lag on the third speaker muddying the sound in some places, though thankfully and surprisingly, there were less bass and deep rhythmic elements than expected to upset things too frequently. All eyes were however on his giant LED obelisk, an impressive work in its own right, but one you feel was too important to the enjoyment of the music which without it his set might have seemed a little too amorphous.
3. Big isn’t better
The bigger names at festivals are not always the best ones and most of the standout sets were from the younger or lesser known artists. Amongst those not already mentioned were Brooklyn house maestro Octo Octa who delivered a well-designed and vibrant set late on Friday afternoon starting with his signature vocal house sound and shifting into dub techno terrain to indicate his sound is on the move. TOKiMONSTA was also sensational on the same stage, mashing up a plethora of styles into a sublime and addictive performance that suggests bigger things are coming.
But big also means space and scope and while the day time continues to grow and feel healthy, the opening up of more night time space makes the festival seem cavernous and empty at times, something not helped by an uninvited rain storm that all but blew away the last acts of the festival playing on the outdoor stages. There is always a danger in continued growth of music festivals in that the monster requires a different kind of feeding to keep it from being hungry.
4. Conscientious behavior
It is kind of ironic that many clubs and even some festivals now require or strongly suggest that people refrain from excessive use of phones, particularly videos. But some people just can’t help it. Do they watch their videos with the crappy sound afterwards to know that it doesn’t work and it annoys people during the show? Worse still is the mindless desire to take endless selfies, all invariably in exaggerated poses or states of increasing debauchery. The worst moment came during a quiet and emotionally stirring piece by Nils Frahm and I had the misfortune of standing next to a group of clearly less intelligent people (temporarily or otherwise as they were clearly inebriated on something) who were clearly disconnected from the music and who kept taking raucous selfies with the flash in a darkly lit room and then clapping and whooping to the quiet music. Have some dignity and show some respect please!
As well, all the glamour and the spectacle is nice and there is always pretty girls/boys around for everyone’s taste, but it is all slightly contradicted by the observation that everyone is dancing on a rubbish tip by the end of the night. There needs to be more of a conscious effort to deal with the problem. It’s undignified and irresponsible just to throw it all on the floor, but as well it’s hard to dance if your feet are glued down by all the spilled beer. Some festivals have made better moves for recycling and environmental concerns. If Japanese soccer fans will take the initiative to clean up the stadium after a recent World Cup loss, why can’t festival goers behave a little better? It is ironic then that the image of the festival this year was a cute hybrid organic food puppets and not scary plastic monsters.