Sónar Festival 2007
Una Cerveza Con Limón, Señor

Kone-R reports back on the sights and sounds of the 14th annual festival of advanced music and multimedia art.

By Kone-R

This was my third visit to Barcelona’s grand festival of “Advanced Music” (it’s fourteenth edition), the legendary Sónar. As you would expect of the Catalan city in mid-June, the weather was without mercy and, as in previous years, this was to curtail a lot of the energy required of a pale Brit to get around and see more than a fraction of the treats on show. However, the sheer variety of the bill always guarantees that no matter how much you miss, you’ll always manage to catch a good number of things to make you go ‘mmmm’ and, indeed, things to make you go ‘hmmm’.

Easing into things on the opening Thursday afternoon, I was met with the first disappointment of the weekend – the US dollar had seen to it that Budweiser would be the beer sponsor (and therefore only provider) to the festival, as opposed to one of the infinitely superior local brews. That’ll be a ‘cerveza con limon’ for flavour then, señor.

But what of the music? The SónarVillage stage, basking in sunshine, was dominated by a varied but underwhelming showcase from Accidental records. Setsubun Bean Unit mix far-eastern influences with dub, among other genres. Providing visual treats including a dragon on stage adds to the carnival atmosphere, but the gimmicks leave me unconvinced. They are followed by Mica & The Cluster, whose shouty female-fronted R&B/Grime crossover do nothing more than encourage me to go and look elsewhere for entertainment. The cavernous Escanario Hall is not the place to find it either – 718 emits a barely audible string of ambient tones from his laptop to a room of chattering heads, totally ruining any chance of actually getting a handle on the sounds. He is followed by the highly anticipated FM3 Plays The Buddha Machine, wherein several of the ubiquitous loop boxes are moved between a field of microphones on a table as if in some bizarre tactical game. I’ve never really seen the appeal of the box, and this doesn’t win me over.

Returning outside, James Holden is rocking the now considerably sized crowd of sun and sound worshippers with a set of melodic but technical 4/4. It can’t be denied that he has both taste and skills but, possibly due to the heat, his set never quite takes off as it threatens to do. I can’t help but think this was a poor bit of scheduling, as Holden’s vibe would have suited sunrise rather better than sunset.

I am initially wary of the other label showcase of the day, presented by Capsule & No-Fi on the intimate (and several degrees cooler) SónarComplex stage, housed inside the cavernous MACBA building. Black Galaxy open proceedings with a bit of brass-versus-laptop drone - not nearly as unpleasant as it may read on paper. When a lively electro beat suddenly kicks in out of nowhere towards the end of their set, it seems at odds with the restrained madness of what’s come before, not helped by a muddy sound mix. Then suddenly, it’s all over. A case of ‘make your minds up, lads’. For some reason I expect Burning Star Core to be a number of hairy men with very loud guitars, but it actually turns out to be a solo performance by a man with nothing more than a violin and lots of reverb. Starting predictably quiet but slowly metamorphosing into a thunderous wall of harmonics, it’s exactly what this particular stage has always been best at – the arty and esoteric side of electronica, the kind of thing you’d read about in the Wire but never actually come across except at, well, an event like this one. I miss Jazzfinger, but from the enormous stack of Marshall amps lying as yet unused on the side of the stage before they complete the bill on this stage for today, I’d hazard a guess that they did actually turn out to be a number of hairy men with very loud guitars.

Instead I venture back out into the evening heat to the tented SónarDome stage, where Night of the Brain are attempting to set up. I had high hopes of this oddball group, and they draw an enthusiastic crowd, but they just didn’t quite click for me, possibly once again due to the scourge of Dodgy Sound. Time to head out into the city streets in search of food and mescal.

So on to Friday – the first ‘full’ day of the festival proper. A touch of holiday tummy keeps interrupting things. The singular highlight of the afternoon is Sunn 0))), who turn the Escanario Hall into the entrance to Hades. They are pure theatre; dressed in robes and bathed in subtle lighting, a cacophony of sub-bass and affected chants emit from the wall of speakers. This was the second time I’d seen them and they were far more engaging this time round, the sound they create evoking fear and puzzlement in equal measure. I wander to the SónarComplex to see if I can catch the rather more digital but equally intense Haswell & Hecker, fresh from an album release on Warner’s classical music arm (go figure), but despite the large expectant crowd, they are nowhere to be seen, so I cut my losses and decide to prepare for the onslaught of Sónar By Night instead.

A sizeable queue for the bus brings us out to the industrial area that houses the enormo-rave which consists the night-time arenas. Considerably expanded in size since my last visit, in 2005, to include a second outdoor stage (bringing the total to four), the increased capacity is not tempered with a more organised queuing system, resulting in a nasty crush even for those of us lucky enough to be able to use the professionals entrance. Once in, it’s straight off to the main SónarClub stage, where the Beastie Boys are mid-set. The first thing I notice is the sound. In previous years this room has been a joy for those of us that like to temper our frenetic raving with the keen ear of the audiophile, but alas, the old system has been completely done away with in favour of something altogether less capable. Add to this the total lack of presence from the guys on stage and it’s all something of a lame duck. Why they temper classic party rockers like 3 MCs & 1 DJ with laid-back instrumental cuts is beyond me, especially given that they were supposed to have been showcasing this new material in a special concert the night before. If I’d paid the extra cash to witness this as well I’d have felt ripped off to be hearing it all a second time as part of the main event. The lack of flow means my interest soon wanes and, disappointed, I head outside to witness Kode9 and The Spaceape, who are appearing as part of a BBC Radio 1-sponsored dubstep showcase. Being a big fan of their work, and indeed the whole Hyperdub label, this was rather more like it. Even so, the Spaceape’s mic seems to let him down; the presence he holds on vinyl is lost to the wall of bass, making it difficult to identify with his verses. A little bit of South London arrives in Barca, but it seems out of place occurring under the stars rather than in a sweaty warehouse.

Tokyo’s finest, Cornelius take to the stage on the excellent SónarPark stage and it doesn’t take long for them to snatch the accolade of Best Act So Far. Their complex art-rock is performed effortlessly as hypnotising visuals, seamlessly synced up, provide a feast for the eyes. This is a band at the top of their game and whilst the records are good, it’s onstage that they really shine. Back in the main hall, Modeselektor DJ Team seem to have things bubbling along, but the sound is still disappointing, the bass failing to pump even when they drop Paul Kalkbrenner’s excellent Keule. Back outside on the impressive new SónarPub stage, Ed Banger records, current flavour of the month with all the hip kids, are representing. Despite her charms, Uffie appears to be mostly miming to her tracks, only throwing in the occasional garbled shout outs to the crowd. I’m told the next night that she ended up being led from the stage in a drunken state, but am unable to confirm if this was the case. Pop The Glock and Ready To Uff still sound fresh but the new material lacks their bite. Either way, Top Of The Pops this ain’t, and the clock is ticking for this particular pop wannabe. My stomach turning, I head back for a (relatively) early night.

When Saturday comes I feel invigorated and venture to the record fair where I am parted from a fistful of euros by a teutonically effective record salesman, but the only highlight from any of the stages in the afternoon is an unknown scratch DJ ripping it up over Rage Against The Machine’s Killing In The Name Of, which brings smiles to the faces of the SónarVillage. Dinner and another round of mescal later, I’m suitably prepared for the grand finale of the event. Shocked to discover a total absence of the previous night’s queuing antics, we hop straight on the bus and walk straight in to the venue, where Devo have just taken to their first European stage in more than ten years. Dressed in their trademark yellow boiler suits and peculiar red hats, I’m struck by the obvious age of Mark Mothersbaugh and his cohorts, but these are no in-it-for-the-money old hacks. The energy they create is palpable, driving krautrock rhythms hammered out alongside bizarre synchronised hand gestures. “Here’s a song you might not remember”, they exclaim, before launching into a rousing rendition of Whip It, alongside many other classics from the archive. Beastie Boys take note – this is how it should be done.

Mogwai do their post-rock quiet and loud bits with consummate ease. A sizeable Glasgow contingent appears to be in the place, a Scottish flag bearing the legend “Mogwai Are Barry” waves back and forth, and it turns out it’s even some lucky punter’s stag do. The band get a deservedly rapturous reception, but the set seems to have more false endings than a Hollywood blockbuster and eventually feels like it’s dragging. I head outside where the Lo Recordings showcase has just gotten underway with Black Devil Disco Club. This French duo have some story behind them, their forgotten late 70s disco efforts plucked from obscurity and thrust onto the international festival circuit nearly 30 years later, something for which we should all be glad. The music hasn’t dated and in fact sounds curiously modern given the current vogue for this kind of sound. Like Devo, age doesn’t seem to faze them at all and whilst it’s not such an energetic performance, it is confident, assured stuff. Lo head honcho Jon Tye appears under his Milky Globe guise to drop a laptop set of more disco nuggets, but I have to pop back indoors for one of the guaranteed highlights of the weekend, US beatbox extraordinaire Rahzel.

He doesn’t disappoint. The crowd is warmed up by turntable showmanship from JS-One , the perfect counterfoil for the astonishing vocal talents of the man himself, who appears onstage to the strains of album cut All I Know – it only takes a few sound effects before the crowd is eating out of his hand, confirming what the track postulates with the lyric… “that’s a baaaad muthafucka”. He challenges the assembled masses - “y’all don’t think I can do that beat?” - each time JS-One drops the intro to another classic hip hop cut. Kanye West, Busta Rhymes and the Wu Tang are all transformed via the medium of the human beatbox, even drum & bass isn’t spared, basslines and all. A genius performer and a bona fide highlight of the festival. 

Back outside and the Lo showcase reaches the perfect climax with Cursor Miner, who appears onstage in ever more outrageous garb (this time he looks like some kind of alien deep sea diver). Despite the sound problems that have let down certain areas of the festival, the SónarLab stage is soon belting out lung-crushing bass direct from the laptop of one of the UK’s masters of the low frequency spectrum, and all that has gone before is forgotten, for 45 minutes at least. Hair Of The Dog, Sport Of Kings and Grilling The Cheese smack of a greatest hits set, but the crowd is going wild for it as the last few hours of darkness ebb away. His set seems to fly past and, too soon, he is replaced onstage by the mask hysteria of old school ravers Altern 8, who get hands in the air with a set of classics, opening with Strings Of Life and keeping the party vibe going til dawn. Exhausted, I head for home for another year.

It’s clear that this Mecca (mecha?) of electronic and experimental joy continues to evolve and explore, but many of the old organisational problems are still there. Maybe it’s the “manana” way of the Spanish in summer, but surely it can’t be that difficult to sort out the queues and get a few more toilets in. Here’s hoping that next year sees a further progression for Sónar, with its heady mix of tanned bodies, smiling faces and cutting edge sounds.
 Photo credit: Night of the Brain, taken by Paul Love
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