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XLR8R Does Sonar 2008

“Soooonaaaaarrrrr!” It seemed that with each new day of this year’s Sónar Festival in Barcelona, yet another band or DJ would give in to the primordial urge to holler the festival's name out over the sweaty masses. While typically a cringe-inducing act on par with “Put your hands in the air,” in this case it was nearly impossible to smirk–the sun was too brilliant, the crowds were too enthusiastic, and everyone was simply having too much fun for irony.

In many ways this collapse of seriousness into merriment is an apt metaphor for Sónar as a whole, and by “Sónar” we might refer to the entire week of June 16 -23, not simply the festival proper, which took place June 19-21. To say that the various factions of electronic music take over Barcelona during this time is an understatement. One could easily dance 10 hours every night, seven nights strong, to a dream lineup of techno heavyweights without ever touching the festival grounds. No matter what venue you chose, it seemed that the most chin-scratching or esoteric of acts were greeted not just with open-minds, but with ebullient, even rambunctious eagerness. Minimal became a bit less tight-lipped, noise became a bit more dreamy. This is Barcelona, not Berlin. People not only stay out really late, they smile the entire time.

The actual Sónar International Festival of Advanced Music and Multimedia is dissected into day and night programs, with the daylight hours leaning a bit more toward the rock, noise, or experimental end of the spectrum and the night to real four-to-the-floor hedonism. The division, however, is much more economic than genre-specific. Sonar de Dia is held at the modern, gleaming Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona (CCCB) and Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona (MACBA) buildings in the center of the city (above) while Sonar de Noche is held in the multi-room, cavernous, rave dome that is the Fira Gran Via. Guess which holds more people? Guess where the most popular acts play?

Gotenburg, Sweden’s Little Dragon warmed up Thursday afternoon’s crowd with an airy blend of jazzy dub and soul.

Out of the sunlight and deep inside the CCCB complex, the “multimedia” aspect of the festival’s moniker reared its inquisitive head. Aside from a full range of film screenings in the SonarCinema that included music docs as well as more experimental fare, one could find a wealth of interactive installations in the SonarMàtica. Marnix de Nijs’ The Beijing Accelerator (above) circulated participants in a whirling race car seat with an attached video monitor. Once synchronized correctly, the sense of swirling motion ceased and the participant felt as if they weren’t moving circularly, but rather forward through the bustle of Beijing.

British duo, ZX Spectrum Orchestra represented the nerd in us all with their 8-bit algorymthic electro. People didn’t know whether to giggle or dance, so they did both.

There were a few big cancellations throughout the weekend (M.I.A, Erol Alkan), but none were so beautifully made up for as Friday afternoon’s replacement of Konono No. 1 with a last-minute collaborative set from El Guincho and Ryan McPhun of the Ruby Suns.

“We’ll go very easy for a minutes, then we’ll go very hard. We’ll fall in love, and then we’ll break up terribly,” Daedelus proclaimed to a packed tent on Friday afternoon, and that’s pretty much how it went–until his sound cut out 5 minutes in. Marred by technical issues and a cramped 45-minute allotment, his set was one of the few disappointments of the weekend. Herding out with the crowds afterward, I overheard a keen fan’s remark, “That was fantastic, but it was the worst set I’ve ever seen him play”

Friday night saw energetic sets from the likes of Buraka Som Sistema, Ewan Pearson, Flying Lotus, Theo Parrish, Diplo, Justice, and Shackleton, but the most highly anticipated sets were from two opposite sides of the dance spectrum: Hercules and Love Affair (above) and the MINUS Records five-hour label showcase. I’m not sure if the rumored Minus cube was even on stage amidst the seven laptops, but no matter, as the Richie Hawtin-led collaborative effort seemed to go off without a hitch.

If critics such as this one are over the Justice hype, then we’re the exception. The duo probably played to the biggest crowd of the weekend. It was a full on faux metal rave.

The hyped crowd during Buraka Som Sistema’s mind-numbing (and leg-burning) 3 AM live set on Friday night/Saturday morning.

After a few measly hours of sleep, how better to start your day than with an eclectic set of musique concrete and blippy collage from the music intellegencia that is Matmos. “Wow…I love electronic music,” M. C. Schmidt exhaled after their second song. I think we all agreed.

Pilooski and the DIRTY Sound System took it from Balaeric to Green Velvet to disco edits to Inner City. It was four o’clock in the afternoon and people danced like it was four in the morning.

If seven hours of music in an enormous rave convention center doesn’t keep your attention, well, there’s always bumper cars.

Saturday night had its fair share of electro-blog-house (ie: Soulwax, above, Busy P, Sebastian), but the real delights came from the masters of techno. X-102 (Mike Banks and Jeff Mills) performing 1992’s Discovers the Rings of Saturn album in its entirety was not only thoroughly enjoyable, it was also a reminder of the piece’s forward-thinking place in the growing cannon of techno. The highlight of the night, and possibly the weekend, however, came with its conclusion: Ricardo Villalobos spinning a near-perfect set of percussion heavy, even jazzy, minimal techno and tech-house to the Sunday morning sunrise crowd of thousands. “No one touches him,” one of my friends muttered as we floated out of the Fira Gran Via into the glaring 8 a.m. sunlight. He might just be right.

X-102 Discovers the Rings of Saturn.

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