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Sónar 2013: Winners and Losers

Last week, XLR8R—along with just about everyone else in the electronic music sphere—made a trip to Barcelona to check out the 2013 edition of Sónar, which happened to be celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. Heading into the festival, Sónar faced a lot of potential question marks, including a venue change, a line-up seemingly lacking in star power, and, yes, the inclusion of EDM on the bill. Yet despite all the public grumbling and hand wringing during the lead-up to the festival, in the end it certainly didn't seem like fewer people were taking part in this year's Sónar. Barcelona's nightlife calendar was absolutely stuffed throughout the week, and the festival itself, which effectively took place over three days and two very long nights, was very busy. With a dizzying number of acts to see and precious little time to sleep, Sónar was, as always, a bit overwhelming, and checking out everything proved impossible. That said, the weekend was certainly marked by a number of highlights and lowlights, so we've once again crudely designated the various "winners" and "losers" of Sónar.


SónarVillage (photo by Sónar)

WINNER: The new Sónar by Day venue
LOSER: The new Sónar by Day venue
The new spot was... well, it wasn't terrible.

During the run-up to Sónar 2013, much of the chatter from longtime attendees centered around the festival's decision to relocate the Sónar by Day portion of the festivities to a new location. Granted, praise for the prior spot—next to MACBA, the city's picturesque contemporary art museum, in the middle of the historic El Raval neighborhood—was more or less universal, which meant that any change was bound to be met with suspicion. Regardless, the organizers went ahead and set up shop this year in the Fira Montjuic—which is essentially a giant convention center/exhibition hall—and the result was... alright.

In truth, the new Sónar by Day locale had its advantages. At the top of the list was comfort. In previous years, the MACBA location, for all of its good vibes and nice views, had become almost impossibly crowded. Moving between stages had become difficult, and getting into the indoor spaces like SónarHall often required waiting in long lines, simply because these spaces were almost constantly at capacity. By moving to Fira Montjuic, festival organizers unquestionably sacrificed some of the ambience that made Sónar by Day such a special thing—the new locale felt a lot more like a traditional festival environment—but at the same time, Sónar 2013 attendees had plenty of room to operate. Even at peak attendance, moving between stages was easy, and one never felt claustrophobic. Finding a decent spot to watch a performance was rarely difficult, shade was in abundance, and the atmosphere was generally pleasant. The main stage (SónarVillage) was even an improvement over the old one, although that was more of a function of how bad that stage sounded in prior years. (For the record, there's still plenty of room to improve in terms of sound quality; SónarVillage was often too quiet and a limiter on the soundsystem intermittently dropped the volume at inopportune moments.)

Sound wasn't an issue at the other key daytime stages, SónarHall and SónarDome, the latter of which was curated by Red Bull Music Academy. SónarHall was actually pretty solid, as it basically felt like being in a big, dark theater. SónarDome, on the other hand, was a noticeable downgrade for the RBMA stage. Again, sound wasn't a problem, but the vibe in there was definitely a little off. The space felt like a big, concrete hallway and was oddly bright, thanks to some skylights in the ceiling. It was unfortunate, especially because the RBMA stage was often the highlight of past Sónar editions, a place where festivalgoers could hang out for hours and simply soak in the atmosphere. This year's SónarDome wasn't as inviting, even when the music was excellent.


(photo by Sónar)

WINNER: Kraftwerk
LOSERS: People who expected taxi drivers to automatically know where Sónar by Night was happening, inadvertently got driven to the wrong place, and arrived late to the festival.
We didn't see Kraftwerk.

Honestly, we had every intention of seeing Kraftwerk on Friday night. After all, the legendary group was basically the biggest headliner on the entire festival line-up. Unfortunately, a taxi mishap meant that we arrived just in time to see the final image of the German pioneers' 3-D show—the words "Music Non Stop"—fading from SónarClub's multiple screens. Luckily, our photographer made it in time to snap some photos. She said it was good. Everyone said it was good. We blew it. Whoops.


(photo by Sónar)

LOSER: C2C
Seriously, this group needs to be stopped.

Turntablism has been effectively off our radar for several years now, but French quartet C2C brought it roaring back on Friday night. If the group's performance was any indication, the artform hasn't improved with age, and is especially noxious when combined with paint-by-numbers electronic beats and an overreliance on gimmickry. Although the outfit is a mainstay of the European festival circuit, C2C quite literally brought nothing to the table apart from cheap showmanship. Taking the stage atop of giant light-adorned rig, the four DJs did little more than repeatedly raise their arms in triumph and intermittently scratch along to a backing track of limp EDM. Without question, it was the worst thing we saw all weekend.


SónarLab at Sónar by Night

WINNER: Sónar by Night
LOSER: Sónar by Night
There was fun to be had, but it was still kind of scary.

Make no mistake, when we say "scary," we don't mean that Sónar by Night felt unsafe or dangerous. (On the contrary, the massive Sónar by Night operation ran rather smoothly and offered a sort of organized chaos in which people could party all night and get absolutely mashed in a controlled environment. That said, the lazily monitored bumper cars—yes, there are bumper cars at Sónar by Night—were still a tragic accident waiting to happen. Of course, that didn't stop us from riding them.)

We mean "scary" in the sense that we were scared for the future of the human race. If asked to politely describe Sónar by Night in a single word, we might say "intense." As always, the festivities took place in an enormous complex outside the city that resembles a series of airplane hangars, and the mere scale of it all is hard to properly comprehend without being there. On top of that, the place was absolutely stuffed with people; quite literally, one could see just about every bad rave cliché imaginable without having to look too hard. Overly muscled jocks with no shirts on? Check. Sunglasses at night? Check. Drunk girls screaming constantly for no apparent reason? Check. American teenagers "getting crazy" during their summer abroad? Check. Drug-addled Spaniards repeatedly asking, "Is this Richie Hawtin?" Check. Guys and girls repeatedly hitting you with their annoying little drawstring backpacks as they flailed about to mediocre tech-house? Check. British lads that look like they played rugby in high school talking about how "FAAAAHHHCKING AMAZING" everything was? Oh yes.

Admittedly, we're painting a bit of grim picture here, but it honestly wasn't all bad. Although many adults surely found themselves thinking something along the lines of "I need to get the fuck out of here" as soon as they arrived, the sensation eventually passed. Attending a megarave is not an everyday occurrence for most people, but after adjusting to the absurdity of it all, there was plenty of good music to be heard and, yes, fun to be had.

WINNER: Delorean
The Spanish outfit sounded fantastic.

After largely keeping quiet in 2012, Barcelona's own Delorean has properly re-introduced itself to the music circuit in 2013, testing out material from an upcoming full-length along the way. After making appearances at SXSW and Primavera Sound (and various other locales in recent months), the quartet was in top form at Sónar 2013, performing on Saturday at Sónar by Night. Joined by a female back-up vocalist for much of the set, the group sounded appropriately large and festival-ready, both when playing its new songs and re-tooled versions of tracks from 2010's Subiza and 2009's Aryton Senna EP. While the new offerings appeared to find the group scaling back on overt pop hooks and references to Balearic house, they were no less effective—in fact, the new tunes often outshined the old ones, although live staple "Come Wander"—which was beefed up with sample of Plastikman's "Spastik" and Black Box's "Ride on Time"—was definitely a highlight. We won't know for sure until Delorean's new LP surfaces this fall, but it appears that the Spanish outfit has nicely refined its aesthetic, going deeper without losing touch with the sound that garnered the band international recognition. Still, regardless of what happens with the new record, there's no denying that the group gave a stellar performance at this year's Sónar.

WINNER: Lindstrom & Todd Terje
Not many artists can get away with a live refashioning of Whitney Houston.

Either Lindstrom or Todd Terje would have been excellent candidates to close out Thursday's Sónar festivities on their own, but the two actually came together for a special live set that was one of the week's best performances. The two Norwegians took to the stage with a small fleet of gear, and played songs from each of their catalogs. Not surprisingly, Terje's "Inspector Norse" was a huge hit, although the crowd also responded favorably to the pair's recent collaborative single "Lanzarote." Although there were a few sound issues—the stage simply wasn't loud enough and the aforementioned limiter occasionally dropped the volume even further—the duo's patented brand of spacy, sun-drenched disco was a perfect accompaniment to the gradually disappearing daylight. The set was upbeat and fun from start to finish, but the effect was amplified further by Lindstrom's and Terje's final track, an infectiously silly reimagining of Whitney Houston's "I Wanna Dance with Somebody."

LOSER: Krystal Klear
The Manchester DJ/producer took the easy route.

Heading into Sónar 2013, we never would have pegged Krystal Klear as a potential disappointment, but his set on Saturday evening at the RBMA stage was quite possibly the biggest bummer of the festival. It's not that he mixed poorly, or that the crowd didn't eat up his set—without question, the punters loved it. However, that adoration had little to do with Krystal Klear, and even less to do with his production. On the contrary, it had everything to do with the fact that he delivered the kind of set one might hear in a New York City hotel bar on an average Thursday night. In other words, he played it safe. It's one thing to be a "party DJ"—a route often taken by Krystal Klear peers like Jackmaster and Oneman—and it's another thing entirely to play nothing but easily digestible hits, especially at a festival with a captive audience that would likely be up for just about anything even moderately danceable. (The RBMA stage on Saturday afternoon/evening was especially lively and ebullient.) In fairness, Krystal Klear has always skillfully walked the line between pop cheese and the dancefloor—his XLR8R podcast from last year is a particularly good example of the UK artist at his best—but on this occasion, there was no balance. Over the course of about 30 minutes, he dropped Daft Punk's "Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger" and "Get Lucky" (on which he turned down the volume so the audience could sing along), Basement Jaxx's "Red Alert," Cheryl Lynn's "Got to Be Real" (he actually stopped the music entirely to throw that one on), and a number of other straight-up wedding tracks. Let's put it this way: Todd Terje's "Inspector Norse" was the deepest cut on offer. That was a problem, and Krystal Klear could have done better. As trite as it sounds, DJing is supposed to be about taking dancers on a journey; Krystal Klear simply gave everyone exactly what they wanted. (Note: According to Krystal Klear's management, he actually played Locksmith's "Far Beyond," which was sampled on "Red Alert." Our apologies for the error.)

WINNER: Chromatics
Apparently, this is a group that just about everyone can agree upon.

Surveying the audience during Chromatics' set on Saturday afternoon, we had an interesting realization: everybody likes this band. Sure, not everyone loves the group, and Chromatics certainly isn't reinventing the wheel with its sultry synth-pop, but beyond that, there's rather little to take issue with. The music is undeniably pleasant to the ears, and tugs at various nostalgic heartstrings without being obnoxiously retro, which perhaps helps explain why the group's performance at Sónar 2013 was so well received. Prior to Chromatics' set, the main stage had been somewhat sparse throughout the afternoon, with attendees preferring to take refuge beneath shady overhangs or inside at one of the other festival areas. The sun was still blazing when Chromatics took began around 5:30 p.m., and even though the group is often associated with late nights and a pitch-black aesthetic, festivalgoers flooded into the area and hung on every hazy note. Electro/disco-flavored numbers like "In the City" drew the biggest response, although the crowd also reveled in the band's covers of Kate Bush's "Running Up That Hill" and Neil Young's "Into the Black."

WINNER: Mr. Beatnick
The hardworking Londoner turned heads.

Every festival has at least a few unexpected breakout performances, and it's safe to say that Mr. Beatnick was one of Sónar 2013's biggest surprises. The London DJ/producer has been kicking around for quite some time—he was actually an RBMA participant all the way back in 2003—but his SónarDome set on Saturday afternoon certainly had people talking. Despite his early start time (4 p.m.), the stage was packed with festive partygoers, many of who looked like they hadn't gone to bed the night before. As such, the room had a good vibe, which only swelled as Mr. Beatnick served up a propulsive and diverse set that deftly moved between upbeat house, UK funky, grime, hip-hop, and R&B. It takes a skilled DJ to hop between genres without sounding scattered or losing momentum, but Mr. Beatnick handled his business and demonstrated that he's a talent worth keeping tabs on.

LOSERS: Ed Banger and Justice
Someone credit these guys as the forefathers of EDM.

France's Ed Banger imprint is in the midst of celebrating its 10-year anniversary, and brought the celebration to Sónar on Saturday night with a showcase that included DJ sets from Breakbot, label owner Busy P, and Justice. In truth, we only caught the latter two, but watching them in action made one thing clear: these guys did a lot of the groundwork for what is now being touted as EDM. All the elements were there: big, bold light shows that lent shows a level of spectacle on par with their rock 'n' roll counterparts; heavy doses of bass; eschewing melody in favor of distorted, mid-range synths; the elevation of the DJ to deity-like status; and, yes, a focus on style over substance. Critics often complain that today's EDM and dubstep shows cater to jockish audiences, but Justice and the Ed Banger crew were inciting bros to dance back in 2006. As these Sónar performances demonstrated, the formula hasn't changed much since then; Busy P and Justice trotted out the same old tunes, and proved that Ed Banger can still melt faces with the best of them. Granted, in comparison with the EDM crowd, there might be a bit more humor (and a lot more musical know-how) at work, but we're guessing that most of the folks swarming the Sónar by Night dancefloor didn't care about that.

WINNER: Oneman
Diversity and DJ prowess proved to be a potent combination.

We were lucky enough to see London's Oneman twice during the week, once on Thursday at the off-Sónar Numbers party at Apolo—which, it should be said, was excellent from start to finish—and again on Friday at Sónar by Night. On both occasions, he demonstrated the sort of DJ skill that has elevated him to international acclaim. His Numbers set was particularly good, as he took over the decks rather late and cooly delved into a set that was heavy on house and garage selections. Oneman's musical palette has grown over the past few years; where he was once known for playing mostly garage, grime, and other mutations of UK dance music, he now incorporates bits of house, techno, disco, hip-hop, R&B, and even '80s pop into his sets. In truth, this expansion hasn't been celebrated across the board, particularly by purists and some of those who originally supported his ascent, but there was little to complain about in his Sónar sets. He did play New Order's "Blue Monday" on Friday night, but the crowd erupted when it came on and he quickly delved back into more adventurous sounds. Furthermore, his predilection for quick mixing remains intact, which lent his sets a uniquely light and bouncy feel and suited his genre-hopping nature nicely.

LOSER: Hot Natured
House music can only be diluted so far before it loses its way entirely.
On Saturday night, tech-house "supergroup" Hot Natured walked onstage a little after 2 a.m. and quickly delivered a live set featuring some of the most tepid music we heard all weekend. Over the past few years, a lot of criticism has been thrown at Jamie Jones and his Hot Creations associates, and after witnessing Hot Natured in action, it's hard to disagree with those sentiments. The four-piece, which included Jones, Luca C, Ali Love, and vocalist Anabel Englund (group member Lee Foss was not present), attempted to present a sort of "band," and even donned matching, vaguely Tron-esque outfits, but none of that was compelling enough to mask the project's musical shortcomings. Perhaps Jones and his associates were attempting to evoke the energy of groups like Azari & III, but the Hot Natured live show was nowhere close to functioning on that level. While the band was playing a sort of house music, there was nothing raw, soulful, innovative, or even interesting about the tunes—from what we saw, the group had nothing to offer beyond easy-to-digest productions with smoothed-out basslines and polished pop lyrics. It was music for an Ibiza lounge, and showed absolutely no imagination whatsoever.

WINNER: Gold Panda
The UK producer made his laptop aesthetic work in a festival setting.

As enjoyable as his music is, Gold Panda has never seemed like a natural candidate for the festival circuit. After all, this is an artist who trades in hazy, nuanced production and often relies on the thinnest of percussion to move his tracks along; these qualities have only strengthened on his newly issued sophomore LP, Half of Where You Live. Given that, we weren't sure how Gold Panda was going to translate on the main stage at Sónar by Day, but his Thursday-afternoon set delivered the goods. The new tracks, though unquestionably "deeper" than his past output, sounded rich and full on the big system, and retooled versions of his older selections, including "You," "Marriage," and "Vanilla Minus," sounded as though Gold Panda had thickened up the low end to give them some extra punch. Some of those tunes' precious, laptop-esque quality may have been lost in the process, but the emotive sentiment remained, and the set was a success.

WINNER: Metro Area
LOSERS: People that wanted to see a flawless Metro Area show
The NYC duo was back, and people were excited—even when the group ran into technical problems.

After a lengthy hiatus, Metro Area, the collaborative project of veteran producers Morgan Geist and Darshan Jesrani, has resurfaced in recent months, and embarked on a series of live shows around Europe this summer. This included a Thursday-evening performance at Sónar by Day, which found the two producers greeted by throngs of excited fans inside SónarDome. Clearly, Metro Area had been missed by those who loved them the first time around, and it appeared that countless others had become fans during their prolonged absence. For the first 40 minutes of Metro Area's set, everything was great. The music sounded excellent, people were dancing, and the energy skyrocketed when the duo dropped "Miura." Unfortunately, something went wrong along the way, and the group's last few songs were marred by some kind of distortion, as some of the beats were blown out and enveloped in static. It was an unfortunate end to what should have been a joyous celebration from start to finish, but it was nevertheless good to have Metro Area back in the mix.

WINNER: Diamond Version
Glitch techno for the masses? These guys just might have the formula.

A collaborative project dreamed up by Raster-Noton founders Alva Noto and Byetone, Diamond Version first appeared last year on the Mute label, and is slated to release an album in the months ahead. The duo performed at Sonár by Day on Friday evening, and presented a live show that was truly thrilling. Granted, Alva Noto always comes correct with his audio-visual shows, and this was no different, with multiple screens flashing fast and furious imagery that matched the two producers' dark, industrial-tinged brand of glitchy techno. Punishing and compelling at the same time, the music showed a real depth that is often missing in many of today's hybrid industrial-techno efforts. Of course, both artists are already accomplished in their own right, but this Diamond Version performance hinted at a special sort of potential that doesn't come along very often.

WINNER: Elektro Guzzi
Banging techno from an unlikely source.

When Elektro Guzzi took to the RBMA stage on Friday afternoon, they looked like some sort of rock band—after all, the Austrian trio consists of a guitar player, a drummer, and a bass player. But as soon as the music began, it was clear that something much different was on offer. For the next 50 minutes, we were treated to a booming assault of techno that was as precise and powerful as anything that could have been conjured up by drum machines and analog hardware. Heavy on the low end, Elektro Guzzi definitely appeared to be taking cues from the Berghain school of techno, though watching these three highly skilled musicians operate undoubtedly added an extra sense of electricity to the proceedings.


(photo by Sónar)

WINNER: Friday-night techno
People complained about this year's EDM inclusions, but there was plenty of top-shelf techno on the bill.

Friday's Sónar by Night line-up featured many of the festival's biggest names on the massive SónarClub stage, including EDM heavyweights like Skrillex and Diplo. (Diplo's solo DJ set was his second performance of the night; he also played earlier in the evening as part of Major Lazer.) While those acts undoubtedly attracted a huge portion of the crowd, we weren't exactly interested in checking out the spectacle they offered. Thankfully, we didn't have to, as the Sónar organizers programmed two separate line-ups of high-quality techno on the SónarLab and SónarPub stages, both of which really got cooking around 3 a.m.


Objekt

SónarPub played host to a showcase of Richie Hawtin's Enter show, which will be running throughout the summer in Ibiza. Representing Enter was Hawtin himself, along with Barcelona's Paco Osuna and ever-rising UK talent Maya Jane Coles. The latter was the best of the three, offering a steady pulse of house and techno that, although perhaps a bit too linear, certainly got the job done.


Karenn (photo by Sónar)

More impressive was SónarLab, which featured a succession of Objekt, Karenn, and Derrick May. Objekt was precise as always, starting off hard and only ratcheting up the tempo further as his set proceeded. Though there was some sort of technical issue during his set which caused things to sound a bit muddy, the quality of the music was high and the Berlin artist's presence was a welcome palette cleanser after C2C's atrocious set. Karenn was next, and kept things ominous with a live session that frequently adorned the duo's dark techno explorations with acid flourishes. May closed out the night, and kept things on a techno tip, although the Detroit legend's offerings were undeniably brighter, funkier, and more colorful than those of his predecessors. Given that the sun was coming up throughout his set—it was full-on morning when he finally wrapped up—he made a good decision to go that route.


Derrick May

WINNER: Off-Sónar
The number of unofficial events in Barcelona during Sónar week is staggering.

In truth, XLR8R didn't spend a whole lot of time at Off-Sónar events, as our primary focus was on the festival itself. That said, the number of high-quality parties that took place in Barcelona—and had nothing to do with the festival, at least officially—over the past week was truly impressive. On top of that, while Sónar itself was clearly a proper festival, the Off-Sónar events came in all shapes and sizes. There were clubs big and small, parties on the beach, parties at hotels, parties by the pool, and even makeshift mini-festivals at various locales throughout the city. And with so much of the electronic music industry coming to town, the caliber of these Off-Sónar events was often quite high, at least in terms of the line-ups and talent involved. While the festival itself clearly remains the major magnet drawing people to Barcelona, Sónar organizers must be concerned that Off-Sónar has grown to such a large degree. The entire week now resembles something like Austin's SXSW or Miami's Winter Music Conference, both in that the line between official and unofficial events has become rather blurry, and that the sheer volume of Off-Sónar events has made coming to Barcelona and skipping the festival entirely a viable possibility. This will be an interesting situation to monitor in the years ahead.

LOSERS: People waiting for "wow" moments
LOSERS: People who seriously complain about Sónar
Sónar's 2013 edition may not have been its best, but the festival is still miles ahead of most of its contemporaries.

Looking objectively at this year's Sónar, the festival was unquestionably a success, at least from a commercial standpoint. According to organizers, more than 121,000 people from 102 different countries attended. That's almost absurd, especially when one considers how far outside the mainstream Sónar is operating. Although the charge that this year's bill was lacking in star power and can't-miss acts was certainly valid, especially considering that this was the festival's 20th-anniversary edition, organizers should be commended for not taking the easy way out and delving full-bore into EDM or enlisting a slew of more popular indie and hip-hop acts.

In truth, Sónar 2013 had plenty of good music, but it did feel like this year's festival was lacking in terms of truly memorable moments. Walking around Sónar each day, attendees would often compare notes about what artists they had liked, and the sentiment tellingly appeared to be a sort of general shrug. Even those having a good time often frequently seemed oddly disconnected from the music that they had seen; this is not a good thing, especially for a festival which has historically been fueled by niche artists and their fans' passion for them. Moving forward, it appears that Sónar is at a bit of a crossroads, and organizers will ultimately need to decide exactly what kind of festival they want to have. Sónar is growing, and attempting to take a middle road that balances mass appeal with more innovative fare is a risky path that could end up alienating the festival's core fans and pleasing no one.

That said, at this point, we're getting into heavy speculation. It is possible that 2013 was simply a weak year in terms of talent options, a blip in the booking cycle that will be rectified by better timing once next year's festival rolls around. Furthermore, it's not like we had a bad time at Sónar 2013. Without question, the festival isn't for everyone, but what festival possibly could be? Furthermore, it's not like going to Sónar is a one-size-fits-all proposition; attendees can take part in any number of different ways, which makes checking out the good stuff—whatever one deems that to be—and avoiding the rest especially easy. On a simpler level, it's also worth pointing out that Sónar takes place in Barcelona; this might seem obvious, but anyone who can't find a way to enjoy a few days in Barcelona—especially when a portion of those days involves a high concentration of excellent music—might be incapable of having fun anywhere.

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