Sónar 2012: Winners and Losers
Fresh off a trip to Montreal for MUTEK, XLR8R hopped on another plane, this time heading all the way to Barcelona for the city's annual Sónar festival. Frankly, it's hard to take issue with anything having to do with Sónar without sounding like a jerk. Even without factoring in the picturesque setting—Barcelona is definitely one of those uniquely wonderful cities that occasionally feels too good to be true—Sónar is impressive, not only in scale, but in its commitment to progressive programming. Seriously, how many other large-scale festivals are handing over a three-hour block of prime time to Hyperdub? Spread over three days and two long nights, there was simply a massive amount of music to consume. It was impossible to see everything, and frankly, even documenting all the things we did manage to see would be a tedious exercise. As such, we've elected to break down Sónar a bit differently, tagging the festival's various highlights and lowlights as "Winners" and "Losers." Admittedly, it's all a bit crude, but hopefully, an accurate picture of the Sónar 2012 experience has been unveiled in the process.
Europe is absolutely overloaded with summer festivals, but Sónar continues to shine like few others. A big part of that reason is the setting, as the festival not only takes place in picturesque Barcelona, but the daytime portion (appropriately titled Sónar by Day) is plunked down alongside the city's contemporary art museum in the El Raval neighborhood, itself a charmingly knotted network of winding streets and old buildings. When the sun is shining and the music is good, it's really hard to argue with the surroundings.
WINNER: John Talabot
Sónar had more than a few standout performances, but it's quite possible that Barcelona's own John Talabot had the best set of the festival. Playing his new live show, which featured plenty of live vocals and instrumentation, not to mention a large helping hand from partner-in-crime Pional, Talabot ran through many of the best cuts from ƒIN and also performed some new songs that found him going in a decidedly pop direction. Where many live electronic shows simply reproduce the songs as originally created, Talabot's show enhanced them, and the experience was truly enthralling.
WINNER: Doc Daneeka
Spinning on Thursday evening, Doc Daneeka delivered one of Sónar's first "wow" moments by dropping an assortment of upbeat house and techno for a very enthusiastic crowd. Not shy about dipping into '90s-era (or '90s-influenced) tunes, the UK producer kept things fun with plenty of organ riffs, piano melodies, and snappy drum patterns. Though it happened on Sónar's first day when things were decidedly mellower, Doc Daneeka's set continued to be a topic of conversation throughout the weekend.
LOSER: Personal space
There were a lot of people at Sónar. According to organizers, 98,000 people attended this year's festival. As such, there was not a lot of room to operate, especially on Friday and Saturday evening at Sonar by Day. Even at Sonar by Night, which took place on the outskirts of the city in a massive complex with multiple hangars, the sheer volume of bodies was overwhelming. As such, watching bands and DJs often involved tolerating a seemingly endless parade of people pushing their way past, stepping on your feet, or just flat-out running into you. The prevailing attitude was something along the lines of, "It's a festival. it's crowded. People will touch you. Deal with it."
While Sónar by Day included four distinct areas, without question the Red Bull Music Academy-curated SonarDôme was the most consistently excellent. Featuring a diverse lineup that combined past RBMA participants with more established acts (and a few artists who fell into both categories), the covered space not only provided a shady respite from the Spanish sunshine, but was also ground zero for festival attendees seeking adventurous electronic sounds.
As the main stage for Sonar by Day, SonarVillage should have been a focal point. However, although the bill included several "name" acts (Flying Lotus, Thundercat, Darkside, Lapalux), it often felt like an afterthought. The weak sound certainly didn't help matters either, which often made the stage feel more like a chillout zone or picnic area than the main attraction.
WINNER: Flying Lotus
Flying Lotus may not be in need of further accolades, but he could have been crowned as the official king of Sónar. Even after playing a ho-hum set on the main stage of SonarVillage on Thursday afternoon, everyone was excited to see FlyLo around the festival. And he was everywhere, frequently mingling with the crowd and taking in the music like anyone else. On Friday afternoon at SonarDôme, he performed a second time, offering a sort of hybrid DJ set that went down much better and had a full house rocking to everything from aggressive grime to Waka Flocka Flame.
LOSER: Jacques Greene
It's not Jacques Greene's fault that he's on this list. It really isn't. But anticipation was really high for his live set at Sónar—a show he's done sparingly since unveiling the live setup about a year ago—and it wound up being a bit lackluster, largely due to two factors. First, the sound was sub-par, something that plagued the SonarVillage stage throughout the festival. Microphone problems hindered Greene's vocalist/collaborator Ango, and furthermore, the show was simply too quiet, meaning that many of the melodic intricacies of his tunes were lost. Second, he was scheduled to play at 7:15 p.m. on Friday evening, when the sun was still blazing by the giant outdoor stage. The environment wasn't ideal, and he probably would have been a much better choice for one of Sónar's other spaces.
Another scheduling victim, UK producer Untold took the stage in the enormous SonarClub hangar on Friday night/Saturday morning at 3:30 a.m., which would have been fine if he wasn't following Richie Hawtin. After 90 minutes of Hawtin's minimal pulse, the crowd left in droves as Untold's set began. Unfortunately, the visual element used to accompany his music wasn't especially dynamic, and it also seemed like he began on a more techno note than usual, perhaps in an effort to appeal to Hawtin's crowd. Regardless, it didn't really work, and his set felt a bit flat as a result.
No, we're not talking about the SoundCloud-fueled nonsense being turned out by legions of dubstep converts and former rap diehards. By juke, we mean the real thing, the music coming from the South Side of Chicago, specifically the tunes offered up in the set from DJ Spinn and DJ Rashad, who closed out SonarDôme on Thursday. Blowing through tracks at a blistering pace, and supported by an actual footworker the pair brought along for the festival, Spinn & Rashad had the crowd going nuts, and proved that juke—a genre that has been steadily creeping toward instant-eyeroll status for a while now—has plenty of life left.
Even with all the electronic music on the bill, hardly a dubstep record was heard throughout the weekend. The few times when they did make an appearance—most notably in sets by Kode9 and Om Unit—the tracks weren't of the boorish, ADD-addled, hyper-masculine variety that runs particularly strong in the US and often seems to be in danger sweeping the globe. Other festivals should take note.
WINNER: Squarepusher's visuals
UK veteran Squarepusher performed late on Friday night/Saturday morning, and rolled out a stunning visual show with large-scale projections and constantly morphing linear imagery. Adding to the spectacle was his special helmet; it may have been reminiscent of Daft Punk, but it actually topped the French duo's headgear by blasting patterns of light across the front. Squarepusher obviously spent lots of time getting it ready, and it was unquestionably really cool to look at.
LOSER: Squarepusher's music
Even with the new visuals, whoever decided that Squarepusher's intense and harshly experimental beat work was a good fit for 4:30 a.m. in a giant arena was clearly overestimating the crowd. Squarepusher may be an important and incredibly influential artist, but even his fans were walking in there, checking the visuals for about 10 minutes, saying "this is cool," and then moving on to another area where things were a little less dire.
WINNER: Minimal techno
In fairness, there wasn't a ton of techno on the bill this year, but the genre's few representatives showed just how powerful the sound could be on an area-sized system. Richie Hawtin (pictured at top) led the way, and although his set wasn't the most exciting, it was truly impressive to see how much the addition of a simple hi-hat or drum loop could rile up the crowd. For anyone who's ever claimed that they didn't "get" minimal techno, it needs to be experienced on this sort of grand scale.
Sónar has always leaned strongly toward electronic music, but it was certainly refreshing to take in a lineup where the instrument was essentially absent. The world can learn a lot from the notion that festivals can be successful without one group after another of slackerish white dudes with guitars.
Quite possibly the festival's biggest surprise, the UK's Nightwave got behind the decks on Friday afternoon and promptly wowed everyone with her DJ stylings. While we've been following her exploits for some time, and have certainly enjoyed several of her productions, there seemed to be a sort of prevailing opinion that Nightwave was part of the LuckyMe B team. Well, that notion was pretty much shattered by her set at Sónar, which might as well be considered her coming-out party as a great DJ. Bouncing between classic house, R&B, grime, juke, hip-hop, and more, she enlivened the dancefloor in grand fashion, and turned a lot of heads in the process.
WINNER: Julio Bashmore
To be honest, we only saw about 10 minutes of Julio Bashmore's set. He actually closed out the festival with a set that began at 5:45 a.m. on Sunday morning, and while we would have loved to have heard everything he served up, the need to sleep was simply too great. That said, the Bristol producer could have trainwrecked every mix and still come out as one of Sónar's biggest winners. Throughout the festival, everyone was playing "Au Seve," the forthcoming first single from his new label Broadwalk, which drops in early July. Clearly, the guy is in no danger of losing his status as one of the UK's best producers anytime soon.
WINNER: Blatant drug use
People like to do drugs at Sónar. A lot. Granted, maybe it's our puritanical American roots speaking here, but whatever happened to (not-so) slyly going to the bathroom, or even a dark corner, to ingest whatever substances you happened to bring along or acquire. Maybe Europeans really are more free about this stuff, because everywhere we looked, people of all ages were brazenly snorting and ingesting things. Granted, this isn't meant as some kind of alarmist claim that "drugs were out of control" at Sónar. On the contrary, most people, minus the occasional squealing idiot or obnoxious lout, were partying responsibly. It wasn't the drug use itself that was surprising, it was the openness of it all that caught our attention.
WINNER: Yosi Horikawa
Japanese producer Yosi Horikawa, a participant from last year's Red Bull Music Academy in Madrid, may not be a well-known name now, but his set at Sónar indicated that great things are on the way. His productions skew towards fuzzy, mid-tempo beats, but there's something intrinsically uplifting and enticing about his music, something he showcased while performing live and filling SonarDôme to the brim on Thursday afternoon.
WINNERS: Starving Yet Full and Fritz Helder
Most readers won't recognize these names, but these two gentlemen are the singers for Toronto house outfit Azari & III, which performed in front of a massive crowd on Saturday night around 2 a.m. In truth, the set was upbeat and enjoyable, although some early sound troubles derailed things a bit. But that certainly didn't deter Starving Yet Full and Helder, who brought everything they had to the table. Azari & III are often tagged as a sort of '80s/'90s throwback, and these two guys' wild dancing, powerful singing, and larger-than-life stage presence really brought home visions of groups like Inner City and all the fly-by-night outfits who used to soundtrack MTV's The Grind.
WINNERS: Kode9 & Scratcha DVA
Following an uneven set by Cooly G, who seemed nervous and a touch distant while running through her new live show, her Hyperdub cohorts Kode9 and Scratcha DVA quickly righted the ship in the early hours of Sunday morning. Kode9 ripped through a high-energy set of grime, bass music, Jersey club, drum & bass, and juke, proving that his elder statesman status in the UK is well deserved. DVA, on the other hand, elected to perform live with the assistance of a vocalist. While his set initially consisted of songs from his recent Pretty Ugly album—an LP that had its share of problems—the songs translated really well in a live setting, actually hitting harder and somehow coming across as infinitely more compelling. Perhaps it was the volume, perhaps it was the vocalist, but the live set was a real success. It also didn't hurt that about halfway through, DVA essentially began doing a DJ set largely centered around his own productions, many of which were UK funky-influenced gems that made us love him in the first place.
WINNER: Jesse Boykins III
There were plenty of coming-out parties happening at SonarDôme, one of which starred soulful troubadour Jesse Boykins III. Boykins is a singer, and though many of his tunes were produced by the likes of Machinedrum, the prospect of a live show can be daunting for this sort of artist, as he faced the prospect of essentially doing karaoke over an Ableton set (which was piloted by Salva). Even if the situation's inherent risk concerned him, Boykins certainly didn't let it show, as he not only kept but impressed the crowd with his commanding stage presence and silky smooth pipes. With guys like D'Angelo either out of touch or out of commission, there's a void in the world of soul. With any luck, Boykins—who has a new album on the way—will be the man to fill the position.
Brooklyn's Ital is an artist whose name has appeared frequently on XLR8R in the past year, but his performance on the big SonarVillage stage on Saturday evening proved that he's more than ready to bring his lo-fi, DIY take on vintage house and techno tropes out of the basement. Energetically manipulating his gear in front of thousands of revelers on Saturday evening and actually closing out the Sonar-by-Day festivities, he seemed anything but out of place, and the crowd certainly responded, even as his danceable creations got progressively harsher and weirder throughout the set.
UK producer xxxy makes good tunes. Solid tunes, the kind of tracks DJs of all different stripes (particularly those with a fondness for classic house and present-day bass music) can reliably drop into a set without worrying about upsetting the flow or losing the dancefloor. But seriously, the man is an incredible DJ. Even more incredible is the fact that this news hasn't been spread far and wide, because xxxy is fire behind the decks, something he proved once again on Saturday night at SonarDôme. The tent was absolutely stuffed to the gills while he played to an especially enthused crowd which roared with approval just about every time he mixed in a new song. Without question, his set was one of the festival's standout moments.
LOSER: European fashion sense
Americans have been taking flak for their poor fashion choices for, well, just about forever. And in all fairness, there are way too many Americans wearing sweatpants and fedoras in public. That said, allow us to debunk the notion that Europeans are these uber-fashionable types, because there was some truly heinous shit happening in the appearance department at Sónar. Where to begin... how about the fact that hair gel is still a major factor in male hairstyles? Or that the guys who don't have spiky hairdos seem to gravitate toward this Burning Man land-pirate motif of shaving their hair into a buzz cut but leaving a few nasty dreadlocks dangling behind? Sticking to the head region, the assortment of stupid little hats is simply out of control over here. Frankly, maybe it's just the whole accessories game that's throwing us off, because dudes were rocking terrible mini-backpacks—you know, the kind your sister and her friends wore to the mall in high school—and some of the worst man-sandles and assorted footwear the world has ever seen. The Ed Hardy profit margin doesn't appear to have slowed down whatsoever on European soil, nor has designers' predilection for skulls, roses, and rhinestones. And just in case people think we're unfairly targeting the Spanish, allow us to clarify that these fashion trends crossed international lines, and were also being flouted by many of the Brits, Germans, and everyone else in attendance. Even worse, many of those folks were red like tomatoes, most likely an effect of 1) getting drunk all day/night and 2) allowing their pasty selves to roast in the sun all day. In short, European festival-goers might not dress like Americans, but they've gone ahead and pioneered their own ways to look awful.
Okay, so Sónar didn't actually feel unsafe, barring one major exception. At Sonar by Night, there's a stage called SonarCar, which actually features a small DJ booth right next to some actual bumper cars. It's a great idea and something that creates a really fun environment, but the fact that there were essentially zero safety precautions being taken felt a bit... imprudent, to say the least. Literally, the bumper car sessions would last about two minutes each, after which drunken partiers would storm into the area and attempt to hop into cars for the next go-round. Nevermind that many of these people were drunk or high already, but they were also allowed to pile three or four people into the cars, which were only designed to (barely) hold two people. As a result, each session included multiple cars with people literally hanging off the sides. It's a miracle that someone hasn't died on these things yet. Did we mention that there's also no barrier around the sides of the bumper-car area? It's not as though these cars couldn't maim a bystander on the side who simply wasn't paying attention. Oh wait, they totally could.
The Sónar festival organizers most likely aren't too pleased about this development, but the number of unofficial Off-Sónar parties happening in Barcelona throughout the week was overwhelming. These weren't rinky-dink affairs either, with labels/clubs/crews like Hessle Ausio, Tresor, Leisure System, Hotflush, Kompakt, and more all putting together some stellar lineups. It's almost a sort of European parallel to what's happened at South by Southwest, where the unofficial events can seem more enticing than the actual festival, especially for those seeking an evening of music that doesn't involve tens of thousands of ravers in empty airplane hangars. That said, we still spent all of Friday and Saturday nights at the packed official festival, so Sonar by Night is certainly in no danger of losing its drawing power. The one Off-Sónar party we did attend though, the Numbers party on Thursday, was really good, especially at the end when Jackmaster and Joy Orbison went back to back with one pumping house tune after another.
When it comes to the schedule, Sónar was no joke. Sonar by Day kicked off at noon every day and ran until 10 p.m. On Friday and Saturday, Sonar by Night then took over at 10 p.m. and didn't wrap up until 7 a.m. Even for those who only checked out a fraction of the performances, that added up to a lot of time partying and not much else. So what was the first casualty? Sleep. Throughout the festival, jokes abounded about Sónar zombies, but by the time Saturday rolled around, especially at Sonar by Night, it didn't seem so funny anymore. Sónar was an absolute grind, but when your favorite artists were performing at 5 a.m., there weren't many options besides rolling with the punches. For future reference, don't expect to come to Sónar and leave Barcelona well rested—we certainly didn't.
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