Something About It All Felt Really Special: Eight Takeaways from Primavera Sound 2014
- Words: Glenn Jackson
Over the past weekend, XLR8R made the trip to Barcelona in order to attend the annual Primavera Sound festival. Now in its 14th year, Primavera has grown to become a world-recognized gathering, one whose curation leans heavily towards the more respectable ends of indie rock and pop, while dedicating a portion of its line-up to a select range of electronic talents. Navigating the 12-stage event for the principal three days of the festival, XLR8R had the opportunity to take in a bevy of live acts and DJ sets while continuously trotting around Barcelona's seaside Parc Del Forum; in the aftermath, we've compiled the eight key takeaways which, for better or worse, left a lasting impression following our weekend at Primavera Sound.
The Pitchfork Stage and surrounding Parc Del Forum
1. Jamie xx loves disco.
Though this has never been a closely guarded secret, Jamie xx has quite an affinity for classic disco sounds and their related offshoots. Grabbing strictly vinyl for his opening 60-minute session on Thursday (Primavera's first official night), Jamie xx laid down a well-paced run of horn-heavy, funk-laced disco tracks, touching on bits of vintage electro and soul along the way. This was exactly what the party needed to get started at 9 p.m. on a Thursday, with his selections proving to be both effortlessly fun and playfully disarming. The music certainly went over extremely well with the jam-packed crowd inside the Bowers & Wilkins + Boiler Room tent, which could hardly have fit another person by the time Jamie xx took to the decks. Appearing for a more "proper" DJ set much later in the night (actually, 4 a.m. the next morning), the UK DJ/producer's love of disco still echoed amongst a mix of his own tunes and a tasteful selection of moodier cuts from contemporary producers. That said, while this late-night endeavor showcased plenty of skill, it ultimately paled in comparison to Jamie xx's earlier set, in which he had easily gotten the party started just a few hours before.
Top: Jamie xx; Bottom: View from inside the Bowers & Wilkins + Boiler Room tent
2. Fort Romeau is a solid DJ.
Again, this shouldn't exactly come as a surprise, but if there were any doubts concerning Fort Romeau's abilities behind the decks before his set on Thursday night at the Bowers & Wilkins + Boiler Room tent, he quickly and completely laid them to rest. Beginning at midnight, the London-based Ghostly affiliate built up a solid dancefloor, running through a well-balanced selection of chord-heavy house tracks that favored juicy pianos, purple synths, and rounded, active basslines. At times, his set did not sound too far off from what one might expect to hear an artist like Motor City Drum Ensemble throw down, favoring low-swung grooves and Detroit-indebted bits of luscious soul. Still, Fort Romeau did not stay in any particular corner for longer than necessary, connecting the dots between spacey, synth-led house and tunes flushed with pulsing Rhodes and Juno stabs. The most surprising turn of the 90-minute set came when Fort Romeau snuck in Whitney Houston's "I Wanna Dance with Somebody"; the track shouldn't have made as much sense as it did in that moment, yet it elicited some of the weekend's biggest smiles—right up until it was painstakingly teased out and replaced by another grooving track.
3. FKA Twigs is on to something.
At first glance, it was hard not to be a touch skeptical of FKA Twigs as she took to Primavera's Pitchfork stage with a three-piece ensemble on Friday evening. Considering her recent ascent up the indie-music hype ladder, her attire for the day (think Salt-N-Pepa meets Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes meets rain gear from the future), and the fact that the only real instrument on stage was a single guitar, one could easily have imagined that the XL/Young Turks-signed artist was about to offer up something far more self-servingly artsy than substantive. These initial impressions, however, turned out to be very short-sighted, as FKA Twigs' performance was actually an utterly captivating affair. Utilizing no backing tracks, the "band" triggered sparse rhythms, chords, melodies, and FX from a series of MIDI drum pads (each member controlled at least two), while FKA Twigs concentrated on her vocal performance, displaying a great deal of control as she led each slow, jagged endeavor with her graceful voice. The outfit's set was by no means perfect—the band at times had trouble syncing together, and there were one or two minor technical hiccups along the way—but these did little to take away from the overall performance which was, when at its best, remarkably powerful and engaging. Unbreakably intense during her vocal parts, FKA Twigs was surprisingly endearing between songs, her banter making her seem genuinely overwhelmed by and grateful for the love the crowd gave her each time a song concluded. In a musical landscape swelling with dubious alt-R&B personalities, FKA Twigs proved to be the real thing at Primavera.
Top: FKA Twigs from the crowd; Bottom: Factory Floor on the Pitchfork Stage
4. Factory Floor is fantastic live.
Last year's self-titled LP from Factory Floor was a benchmark for the DFA outfit, finding the trio funneling all its experience in the realm of UK post-punk and no wave into sharp dance cuts led by fervent synth sequences and driving machine rhythms. At Primavera, the group's live set was about as accurate a representation of that as possible, with the unrelenting pulses heard on record magnified by the group's live presence and the fact that one was surrounded by a few thousand fellow revelers. Basically, one had to really force themselves not to dance while Factory Floor took to the Pitchfork stage on Friday night, as the three-piece laid down its energized, back-to-basics dance music with hardly a lull in momentum (and absolutely no applause breaks) during its 60-minute run. (It should also be pointed out that the performance featured some of the festival's best visual accompaniments.) With one member (Dominic Butler) manning the "mothership" of laptop and FX, another (Nik Colk Void) played bass, keyboards, and occasionally sang—through layers of manipulation—into a mic on a select few cuts. Still, it was the drummer (Gabriel Gurnsey) who was working the hardest, adding a live touch and moments of unpredictability to the proceedings. Together, the trio forged an enthralling flurry of no-bullshit dance music that came and went far too quickly.
5. The Range and SBTRKT needed some work.
There is really no other way to say it: During the course of Primavera, the only two artists that truly fell short of our expectations were The Range and SBTRKT. In each of their defenses, the cards did seem stacked up against them to a certain degree. On Thursday night, The Range was tasked with delivering a DJ set to one of the smallest audiences to gather at the Pitchfork stage all weekend (likely due in part to the fact that Andy Stott was performing just a 10-minute walk away). Still, the Rhode Island-based producer did himself few favors, sounding rushed as he ran through a clunky set of glowing future beats, re-fixed R&B tracks, and the numerous juke-indebted permutations of bass music. The speed bumps were many, especially considering how fast The Range attempted to switch between tracks, hardly letting a selection play for more than 40 or 50 seconds. Spinning for just over an hour, the Stateside producer failed to lock into any sort of groove or build much palpable momentum during his time behind the decks, and a few minor trainwrecks also seemed to further signal that he was in the midst of an off night.
By all accounts, SBTRKT was one of Primavera's Friday-night headliners, as he was slated to give the final performance on festival's large ATP stage. In anticipation, a substantial gathering of fans had amassed in front of the stage, where a few spontaneous acapella versions of "Wildfire" and "Something Goes Right" sprang up in anticipation. However, from the moment SBTRKT (now performing a three-piece live act with a dedicated drummer and without Sampha serving as a regular member) stepped onto the stage, it was clear that technical problems were afoot. The trio's opening jam seemed to be a test of the system, which led SBTRKT himself to call for a stagehand to come and attempt to fix the issues; still, nothing seemed to be completely resolved. Even with Sampha appearing on a few songs towards the middle of the set and adding some much-needed energy to the performance, SBTRKT struggled to build any sort of momentum as technical difficulties continued to plague the set. When the show concluded, SBTRKT actually thanked the audience for their patience. It was a shame really, as the few new songs the trio managed to partly pull off sounded promising. Whether it was caused by factors out of the group's control or was simply the result of a lack of preparation, the technical issues were immensely frustrating and resulted in an underwhelming headlining performance.
6. We have no idea what to do with ourselves during a Haxan Cloak performance.
As it turns out, that's not a bad thing. In fact, London-based sound designer and multi-instrumentalist The Haxan Cloak delivered one of the more spellbinding sets of the festival. Performing inside what had largely been a dancefloor-friendly venue, the Bowers & Wilkins + Boiler Room tent, The Haxan Cloak wasted no time completely changing gears. As such, some of those left over from the techy DJ set that preceded him were unsure of what to do with themselves as the Tri Angle-affiliated artist began to construct dense webs of sound. We elected to just stand in awe as The Haxan Cloak's visceral soundscapes and intense, methodical rhythms formed, shifted, and pushed their way through the custom soundsystem at what seemed like the "Loud as Fuck" setting. Though his set was only 45 minutes in length, The Haxan Cloak's impact was deeply felt, as his immense textures morphed through both evil and gorgeous forms while he unraveled a series of vividly dark compositions.
Top: Outside the Bowers & Wilkins + Boiler Room tent on Friday night; Bottom: One of four custom speaker stacks for the Bowers & Wilkins Sound System
7. The Bowers & Wilkins Sound System was as good as advertised.
In anticipation of the Primavera festival, last week we had a quick Q+A session with British hi-fi speaker designers Bowers & Wilkins, who had specifically built an ambitious custom soundsystem for the festival's appropriately named Bowers & Wilkins + Boiler Room tent. Housed inside the rounded, igloo-shaped Igloovision tent (which displayed custom live visuals in its upper ring all throughout the festival), four main speaker stacks made up the system that powered some of the best DJ sets and live performances of the weekend. During our discussion with B&W, the company had stressed its goal of using the opportunity at Primavera to produce clean, hi-quality sound for a new audience, and in that respect, it surely succeeded. To call the system "mind blowing" would be to go too far, but perhaps that is because good sound isn't necessarily something that is beyond comprehension—one knows it when they hear it. As a variety of electronic styles pushed through its system across Thursday, Friday, and Saturday night, the Bowers & Wilkins Sound System consistently sounded crisp and intelligible; its low-end material was robust, but still detailed, and the highs and mids remained present without becoming harsh. Rarely did it sound like the system was struggling or being overworked by the musical content, and—though it may sound like a small observation—the snares and claps on tracks noticeably cut through the tent without being overbearing.
Again, to say that B&W had created a perfect listening environment would be an overstatement; quite frankly, even a great sound system is bound to be compromised by the audience chatter and revelry that any good dancefloor is bound to have. Still, those who paid attention were impressed, and those who didn't reaped the benefits of B&W's labor nontheless.
Top: John Talabot; Bottom: Genius of Time's live set
8. John Talabot and the Hivern Discs showcase stole the show.
Primavera's Saturday session—the last full day of the festival—seemed to bring many extra busloads of people to the Parc Del Forum, as every stage's crowd extended out a few more feet than it had in the days before. The Bowers & Wilkins + Boiler Room tent (which, for those who haven't figured it out yet, is where we spent a majority of our time at Primavera) was no different, which came as little surprise considering the home field advantage held by John Talabot and his Hivern Discs label showcase. From the beginning moments of Talabot's opening set at 9 p.m. on Saturday, the tent was filled to capacity; even those stuck four or five feet beyond the stage's enclosure were dancing anyway. Starting off the night strong, the Barcelona-based DJ delved into a remarkably musical set, focusing on disco-related sounds with bits of soulful house and synthy electronics peppered throughout. Spinning for just an hour, Talabot could basically do no wrong in the eyes of the crowd, and seemed to use this freedom to try out a number of different musical corners; sweeping strings would give way to lush piano chords, which would then land on tribal percussion pieces, and so on. As long as the music was fun and a bit funky, everything seemed to be fair game.
Off to an excellent start, the Hivern Discs showcase was basically the only place that fans of quality electronic music needed to be for the rest of Primavera's Saturday night. Following Talabot's run, the tent remained packed with dancers for the better part of the next 9 hours, with DJ sets from Dani R Baughman, Marc Piñol, and Mattis With (of the Michael and Mattis pair) proving to be especially impressive. In addition, live sets from New Jackson and Swedish duo Genius of Time kept things moving nicely—the former delivered dreamy house-pop hybrids with languid grooves, synth solos, and vocoded voice, while the latter outfit pieced together an exceptional mix of live house, utilizing a large array of synths and sequencers and occasionally playing lead lines by hand on a handful of synthesizers. Looking back, it's hard to pinpoint exactly what stylistic throughline connected the Hivern Discs family's offerings at Primavera. It seems the label has a noticeable appreciation for musical personality, and that is what shined through during the course of its showcase. The DJs and artists, though like-minded, were allowed to follow their own muse, and it resulted in a fantastically varied party, one which was expertly finished off by Talabot, Piñol, and others together as the "Hivern DJs." With that, the entire showcase ensured that Primavera Sound ended on one of its highest notes.
The festival gates
Some final thoughts.
One thing was clear during the course of Primavera: a festival is a festival is a festival. Despite being halfway across the world, the four-day gathering was strikingly similar to many of its American counterparts; though civil and never too time-consuming, lines were constantly forming and disbanding, drugs were had by many, corporate sponsors abounded, and disregarded beer cups and bottles were strewn all over the grounds. In other words, Primavera fit the mold of the modern-day festival. However, this did not turn out to be an entirely bad thing. Though frustrating and understimulating at times, Primavera's organizers did appear to put a good deal of effort into creating platforms for unique musical experiences, especially in terms of its electronic selections, which were not the focus of the festival's line-up by any means, but were still well curated and attended. In the end, this almost made the weekend's select electronic events seem a bit more exclusive—while most everyone else was running off to see bands like The National, The Pixies, and Kendrick Lamar, the congregation of dance music heads had their own little world to exist within. When the music was right, and the vibes were good, something about it all felt really special.
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