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Sónar 2014: Winners and Losers

  • Words: Shawn Reynaldo
  • Photo: Steve Stills/Red Bull Content Pool (top image)

Last week, the annual Sónar festival set up shop in Barcelona for the 21st time, offering three full days and two long nights of (mostly) electronic music. According to its organizers, 109,000 people attended the festival this year, and that doesn't even include the thousands who came to Spain solely for the week's bounty of unofficial Off-Sónar events, many of which featured line-ups that rivaled Sónar itself. In short, Barcelona was once again stuffed with people looking to party, and XLR8R did its best to mingle amongst all of the mayhem. During past years, we've often tried to keep our focus on the official Sónar activities, but in the interest of telling a more complete story, we did a lot more dabbling in the Off-Sónar side of things this time around. Now that the festivities have come to a close, we've done our best to collect our thoughts and jot down a few observations, which are admittedly far from comprehensive—the list of artists that we didn't see could fill a festival on their own. At the same time, we did manage to take in quite a bit of the Sónar experience, and since we've never been shy about sharing our opinions when it comes to festivals, we've once again compiled a list of "winners" and "losers" from the week gone by.

Theo Parrish (by Óscar García)

LOSER: The line-up
This year's Sónar bill wasn't the festival's best.

Without question, Sónar's 2014's biggest weakness was the line-up, which ultimately paled in comparison to those of past years. (Even 2013's notably weak bill put this year's festival to shame.) Part of the problem stems from the fact Sónar has been booking so many artists for so long that its organizers simply appear to be running out of options. This is only exacerbated by the festival's attempt to avoid booking the same artists two years in a row (although Richie Hawtin does always seem to end up on the bill in one form or another). With something like 150 artist slots to fill, not to mention an increased level of competition from other electronic festivals around the globe, it's surely becoming harder and harder for Sónar organizers to find acts that are both interesting and commercially viable.

Sónar's own growth spurt in recent years hasn't helped matters either. It doesn't require a sharp eye to see that a more populist booking policy has been adopted, and while the 2014 line-up was arguably less overtly mainstream than those of previous years (the biggest acts were Massive Attack, Chic, and Robyn, names that ultimately lack the star power of past headliners like Skrillex, Lana Del Rey, and New Order), it does feel like the festival's organizers are continuing to walk an increasingly tenuous line between the electronic underground and more mainstream dance fare. For now, the approach seems to be working—one would be hard pressed to find another festival that could draw more than 100,000 people with Sónar's line-up—but as we've noted in prior years, the organizers could eventually find themselves in a situation where their core fans feel alienated. Moreover, Sónar's newer throngs of party-hopping attendees, many of whom likely see the event as "just another festival," might begin to wonder why they don't recognize more names on the bill.

SónarVillage (by Ariel Martini)

WINNER: Sónar by Day
The festival's daytime half is literally bigger than ever.

In 2013, Sónar's decision to move its daytime festivities from their longtime home in El Raval (in the city center) to the Fira Montjuic in Plaza d'Espanya prompted a lot of hand wringing from attendees, as the new location was not only farther out, but also felt a lot more like a typical festival site. From a practical standpoint, the decision was an easy one to understand; essentially, Sónar organizers elected to prioritize additional capacity over old-world charm, and while this choice was certainly noticeable last year, its full impact could really be seen last week. According to the festival, this year's daytime attendance reached 52,000, its highest level ever. Where there was once a huge divide between the relatively mellow Sónar by Day and the wild raving of Sónar by Night, the gap appears to be shrinking. In truth, while Sónar by Day was relatively packed—although not uncomfortably so—this year's Sónar by Night felt noticeably light in comparison to past years. Given that the 2013 edition of Sónar drew more than 120,000 people, it seems that the success of Sónar by Day is really what kept 2014's overall attendance numbers respectable. As the festival continues in the years ahead, it will be interesting to see exactly how this Day vs. Night dynamic plays out.

WINNER: Off-Sónar
The slew of unofficial parties can't be stopped.

Interestingly enough, the numerous unofficial events that take place in Barcelona during Sónar week aren't even allowed to market themselves using the name Off-Sónar anymore. Instead, the term "Off Week" has been created, presumably to placate the official festival and avoid any copyright infringements. That said, regardless of how these parties are being marketed, they've become as integral a part of the Sónar experience as the festival itself, particularly for those who prefer an intimate (or somewhat intimate) club experience to a night spent in what looks like an airplane hangar.

Every night, at least a dozen different crews, labels, and other industry organizations put on events around Barcelona, many of which featured absolutely ace line-ups. We did our best to sample a handful of them, and repeatedly found ourselves impressed by the caliber of the talent on hand. Thursday night, Numbers' annual party at Apolo featured Hudson Mohawke, Jackmaster, Sophie, Space Dimension Controller, Galcher Lustwerk, Redinho, Spencer, and more. Earlier that day, Resident Advisor put on one of the week's best events (with sets from Max Graef, Move D, and a special back-to-back session from John Talabot and Axel Boman, who played under their joint Talaboman moniker) at the Monasterio de Poble Espanyol, a charming hilltop venue in Barcelona's Montjuic park. During the week, the site also played host to parties from Innervisions (featuring Dixon, Ame, Henrik Schwarz, and Gerd Janson) and Pampa (with DJ Koze, Axel Boman, Apparat, and Ada). Saturday night's Hyperdub event at BeCool was incredibly fun, thanks to hard-hitting sets from Ikonika, Kode9, Scratcha DVA, DJ Spinn & Taso, and Cooly G. On Sunday night, the oddball Comeme crew took over the tiny Moog with a line-up that included Sano, Lena Willikens, and live sets from both Philipp Gorbachev and label boss Matias Aguayo. And those were just the events we attended; in all honesty, the city was flooded with talent, and there were numerous times where we wanted to clone ourselves and pop in to parties from Tresor, Hotflush, Kompakt, Night Slugs vs. Fade to Mind, and others too numerous to list. With so many events on offer, most of them happening concurrently with Sónar, it's incredible that they don't all cannibalize one another—in fairness, we did hear stories of a few stinkers happening around town—but it seems that Sónar week has become a big enough event to handle the influx.

Caribou (by Juan Sala)

LOSER: Quality sound.
There was a lot of grumbling about sound issues.

While it's important to note that Barcelona is not a place known for its wealth of quality soundsystems, Sónar has generally been fairly reliable on that front. The festival did run into some sound-related difficulties during its last few years at the previous Sónar by Day location, many of them stemming from complaints by neighbors and general overcrowding of the site, but last year's move to a new daytime location—one which is largely outside of residential areas—was made in part to resolve the issue. It seemed to work; on the whole, the 2013 edition of Sónar was strong in terms of sound quality, which only made it more strange that this year's festival seemed to struggle in that department.

Friday's Sónar by Day was particularly problematic, especially toward the end of the day. As the sun went down and each of the various stages came to close, seemingly all of them were blasting subpar sound. Jon Hopkins' live show is usually quite pristine, even when his music is thick with distortion, but his set in the absolutely rammed SónarHall was overly blown out—and hard to enjoy as a result. Over at the SónarVillage main stage, Theo Parrish's raw, vinyl-centric session didn't seem to agree with the soundsystem, while Buraka Som Sistema's attempts to get to wild, kuduro-flavored party going in the Red Bull Music Academy-curated SónarDome were similarly marred by distortion and muddled sound. The conditions did improve on Saturday, with one glaring exception—Dam-Funk's performance was plagued by sound problems. Initially too low, then too high, the mix never sounded quite right, and although these issues didn't prevent him from serving up a bevy of (admittedly enjoyable) electro and funk selections, the West Coast veteran was visibly upset. Granted, Dam-Funk did seem particularly grumpy on Saturday afternoon—during the course of his set, he took the time to complain about everything from the death of vinyl to the unoriginal acts coming out of Los Angeles to getting picked up too early from his hotel room—but his sharpest comments were reserved for the SónarDome's sound technicians, who were either struggling to help him or just plain unwilling to improve the situation.

Dam-Funk (by Pere Masramon/Red Bull Content Pool)

At Sónar by Night, the sound was generally better, although the enormous stages and soundsystems didn't benefit Caribou and Todd Terje. Both acts performed competently on the outdoor SónarPub stage, but somehow, the nuances of their music were lost in the expanse of the open-air setting. Caribou's music lacked its usual sonic precision, while the mix for Todd Terje felt off, as the elements he played by hand seemed to get buried underneath the pre-recorded bits from his Ableton set-up. Given the huge crowds that packed into the SónarPub area for both sets, these issues were something of a disappointment, but in all honesty, the vast majority of those on hand were in full-on party mode, which meant that they were more than happy to whoop it up when songs like "Sun" and "Inspector Norse" were played.

WINNER: Downliners Sekt
Of all the Spanish acts at the festival, this Barcelona duo was by far the best. In fact, its set was one of the best things we saw all week, period.

By the time Friday night rolled around, a lack of sleep and an creeping sense of exhaustion prompted us to seriously consider skipping the overwhelming Sónar by Night experience altogether, but an 11 p.m. start time for Downliners Sekt meant that we not only made our way to the cavernous Fira Gran Via L'Hospitalet, but we actually got there early. Over the course of an hour, the pair moved through a litany of bass-oriented tracks that included moody, abstract beats, ominously bleating techno, raucous jungle, and other sounds that couldn't be neatly filed into a single genre descriptor. Downliners Sekt may not conform to the "sunny Barcelona" stereotype or even a particular style of music, but its Sónar set was a thrilling reminder of the group's refined aesthetic, singular vision, and commitment to creating a potent vibe.

DESPACIO (by Ariel Martini)

James Murphy's pet project lived up to the hype.

Heading into this year's Sónar, a lot of excitement swirled around DESPACIO, a supposed "new experience in clubbing" put together by James Murphy, 2manydjs, and the renowned McIntosh audio brand. Basically, a dedicated DESPACIO area was set up in an isolated zone of Sónar by Day, which featured Murphy and 2manydjs playing records for six hours each day, mostly of the disco variety. The space itself was adorned simply, as it was essentially just a dark room with some kitschy, space-themed decorations and a giant disco ball hanging from the ceiling. Of course, the real star of DESPACIO was the custom soundsystem, a series of seven imposing speaker stacks that encircled the dancefloor. As promised, the 50,000-watt system sounded fantastic, and the whole environment honestly harkened back to the glory days of clubbing in late-'70s/early-'80s New York. It sounds cliché, but DESPACIO was truly all about the music and the experience of being in that room, as the DJs were somewhat hidden away on one side of the room, and were all but invisible to the majority of the crowd. With nothing to stare at, and nothing to play with—camera and cell phone use was discouraged—those in attendance were free to let loose, dance, and feel the music, an opportunity that often fails to materialize in many of today's clubs. The lights and decor did add to the room's overall appeal, but they weren't over the top, and Sónar also maintained a strict capacity inside the room, so things never became too crowded. As such, DESPACIO was always bustling, but never felt oppressive or uncomfortable. Although those who weren't disco lovers might have wished for a more varied soundtrack—things did get more banging toward the end of each day—DESPACIO was truly an ideal clubbing environment, and Sónar's organizers definitely deserve some major kudos for helping to make it happen.

Ron Morelli at SónarCar (by Óscar García)

WINNER: SónarCar
DESPACIO wasn't the festival's only top-notch soundsystem.

Even though DESPACIO stole most of the sound-related headlines, it wasn't the only impressive soundsystem at Sónar. At Sónar by Night, one stage in particular—SónarCar—sounded fantastic. Powered by a brand-new Void system, the stage was the one place were festivalgoers could get up close and personal with some gut-rattling bass. Copeland's set on Friday at SónarCar was especially strong, as her dead-eyed dirge provided a trance-inducing respite from much of the night's dancier fare. Ron Morelli also made excellent use of the system a few hours later, stringing together a collection of raw, pulsing techno that whipped the crowd into a bit of a frenzy.

Nils Frahm (by Ariel Martini)

WINNER: Nils Frahm
The German composer has become a proper festival act.
Nils Frahm's combination of classical piano and rousing electronic soundscapes has long been impressive in a live setting, but for the past few years, it has often been limited to theaters and more specifically "musical" venues. That obstacle seems to have melted away, as Frahm's (much deserved) reputation as a stellar live act, not to mention his actue ability to dial up the intensity in a festival setting, meant that the crowd was eating out of his hand on Thursday afternoon in SónarHall.

WINNER: Space Dimension Controller
WINNER: Galcher Lustwerk

These guys were the secret heroes of the Numbers party.

When we arrived at Apolo on Thursday night for the Numbers party, Sophie was performing in the main room, assaulting the crowd's eardrums with a hyperactive and abrasively loud live set that left many clubgoers plugging their ears. Thankfully, we quickly found a much-needed oasis downstairs, where Space Dimension Controller was playing upbeat electro-boogie and Yaz records downstairs. His silly dance moves and animated demeanor only added to the fun. Following him was Brooklyn upstart and White Material affiliate Galcher Lustwerk, who further cooled things out with some deep-ish house selections while Spencer and Hudson Mohawke were banging it out upstairs.

Dengue Dengue Dengue (by Pere Masramon/Red Bull Content Pool)

WINNER: Dengue Dengue Dengue
The Peruvian trio proved the electronic cumbia still has legs on the festival circuit.
Taking to the stage in masks and offering up a slightly psychedelic brew of electronic Latin rhythms, Dengue Dengue Dengue was one of the biggest hits of the weekend at the SónarDome.

Sinjin Hawke (by Pere Masramon/Red Bull Content Pool)

WINNER: Sinjin Hawke
One of Barcelona's adopted sons brought some infectious energy to Sónar.
Speaking of the SónarDome, the room was closed out on Saturday evening with an enthusiastic DJ set from Sinjin Hawke, a former staple of Montreal's club scene who's made his home in Barcelona for the past few years. Spinning almost nothing but his own productions, he swayed and bounced his way through an impeccably mixed session of hip-hop, club, footwork, bass music, and more, offering a rather triumphant end to the Sónar by Day festivities.

Moderat (by Juan Sala)

WINNER: Moderat
The German trio arguably sounded better than everyone else.
Purely in terms of audio quality, a case could be made that Moderat (a.k.a. Modeselektor and Apparat) took the top honors at this year's Sónar. The group's music sounded flawless, and even though the trio had performed only two weeks prior at Barcelona's Primavera Sound festival, its set on Friday at Sónar by Night was packed to the brim with enthusiastic fans.

The veteran DJ is exactly who should be playing at a big Barcelona festival.
DJ Harvey closed out the main SónarVillage stage on Saturday at Sónar by Day, and although his set offered a bit more punch than usual—most likely in an effort to satiate the festival crowd—his loosely Balearic tunes and laid-back grooves felt like a perfect way to wrap up a weekend at Sónar.

Suzanne Kraft (by Pere Masramon/Red Bull Content Pool)

WINNER: Suzanne Kraft
The LA-based artist brought his West Coast spirit to Barcelona.
Suzanne Kraft's Thursday-afternoon DJ set in the SónarDome was a relatively relaxed affair, but there was something undeniably enticing about his percussion-laden house and disco selections, not to mention his preference for tunes that sounded like they could have soundtracked a sleazy '80s cop show.

Elijah & Skilliam (by Pere Masramon/Red Bull Content Pool)

WINNER: Elijah & Skilliam
The Butterz bossmen showed that grime can work in a festival setting.
Once Suzanne Kraft's set came to an end, the energy level in the SónarDome spiked in a hurry with the arrival of Elijah & Skilliam, who shared the stage with rising talent Flava D. There wasn't a whole lot of subtlety to the trio's selections, but the buzzy mix of grime, bassline, and upfront UK sounds quickly riled up the crowd and reminded everyone that having fun and getting a little wild is a key component of the festival experience.

WINNER: Hyperdub
The long-running London label is having a moment. Again.
Although we briefly mentioned the Hyperdub party earlier, limiting our enthusiasm for Kode9 and his compatriots to a single line of text would simply be inadequate. Hyperdub is in the midst of celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, and while accolades for the label aren't exactly in short supply, they're all incredibly well deserved. On Saturday night, we elected to skip Sónar by Night completely, simply because the Hyperdub event sounded a lot more promising. Not only was it taking place in a dark, sweaty basement, but it featured a line-up that really represented the broad spectrum of what the label is all about. More importantly, it demonstrated that even though Hyperdub may push a variety of sounds and styles, there is a connective thread that runs through it all. Whether it's the so-called "hardcore continuum" or a shared enthusiasm for urban, bass-oriented sounds, after all of these years, Hyperdub arguably makes more sense than ever.

That seemed especially true on Saturday night, whether Ikonika was mixing blistering techno into grime, Scratcha DVA was exploring weird strains of R&B, or Kode9 was digging deep into footwork. Watching them all play, it was also clear that a proper crew aesthetic has developed, and there exists a real camaraderie amongst the ever-expanding Hyperdub family. While many UK crews give the impression that they're closed off and insular, Hyperdub seems to be incredibly open, not only to new kinds of music, but to the future in general. That openness is something which makes Hyperdub exciting, and leaves us thinking that there's a decent chance we'll still be watching what Kode9 and company are up to in another 10 years.

SónarDome (by Ariel Martini)

LOSERS: People expecting Sónar to be some sort of transcendent experience.
At the end of the day, it's still just a music festival.

While the number of music festivals devoted to credible (or somewhat credible) electronic music continues to rise, only a few of these events have the same kind of global reach as Sónar. After 21 years, the festival has literally become a global brand—in fact, Sónar will be expanding its operations to eight different countries in 2015. That's an impressive feat, especially for an event with roots in Barcelona, a city that has never exactly been recognized as a true hotbed of quality electronic music.

At the same time, it's no secret that Sónar has undergone some growing pains (at least from a creative standpoint), and in the process of getting bigger, some of the things that arguably made it so special in the first place have been lost. Going to Sónar is no longer a singular or even a particularly unique experience. Of course, being in Barcelona helps a lot, and the festival's various stages and commitment to a day/night split do lend the festivities a certain charm, but in the end, Sónar is a music festival, and a big one at that. And like any massive music festival, it has its issues and probably isn't an ideal setting for actual music fans. Even when the music was at its most innovative, the crowd still included plenty of shirtless bros with drawstring backpacks, girls in Native American headdresses, and an incalculable number of British tourists who seemingly came to Spain with the sole intention of being as obnoxious as possible. It was especially telling that one of this year's most popular festival trinket was a gaudy faux gold chain with the Sónar 2014 logo on it, an item which overly enthused normals proudly wore like a badge of honor throughout the weekend. Let's put it this way—if someone came to Sónar solely to get bummed out and catalog reasons why the human race is doomed, the festival crowd was rife with ammunition.

That being said, when comparing Sónar to other large-scale music festivals, it's still significantly better than most of what's out there, especially when the search is limited to events of a similar size. Furthermore, despite its drawbacks, Sónar still offered a lot of exciting music. And while the 2014 line-up surely had its fair share of "loser" performances, the great thing—maybe the best thing—about Sónar is that it was so easy to avoid them. Whether a festivalgoer was at Sónar by Day or Sónar by Night, if they encountered a lame artist, or even an ugly patch of the festival crowd, there were almost always at least three other stages offering something that was at least different, if not altogether better. When operating at this scale, it's impossible for a festival to please everyone with everything all of the time, but Sónar is smart enough to simply try to please everyone with something most of the time. It's a subtle difference, but one that helps to keep Sónar interesting, even after all of these years.

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