Festivals 2015

Sonar: World Conquering or World Weary?

As the musical festival landscape gets more over-crowded than the tube at rush hour, can the old guard still smash it out the park?

As the musical festival landscape gets more over-crowded than the tube at rush hour, can the old guard still smash it out the park?

Sonar, Barcelona's perennial three day music festival, has been a forerunner in the global festival circuit since its sustained expansion from DIY label fair to city-swallowing colossus from 1997 - 2001. Now in its 24th year, the festival looms large over the city's musical landscape in much the same way as Ultra does with Miami. But unlike Ultra, Sonar has always prided itself on giving fair exposure to domestic and experimental artists. With the Sonar brand now reaching around the world - this year sees spinoff editions in Bogota, Buenos Aires, Copenhagen, Santiago de Chile, Sao Paulo, Stockholm and Reykjavik - there is a definite concern that the quality of the OG Sonar could suffer. So can the festival maintain its position at the bleeding edge of electronic music or has world domination made it world-weary? I went along to find out.

Since the very beginning the festival has been split into two very different events. Sonar by Day features a whole host of media, technology, art installations and attractions. It's not all art and tech though, Sonar by Day still provides a healthy program of music, with the focus generally on local and more experimental acts. This being Sonar, it's not all unknowns though, with Tourist and Redinho being highlights for this year.

Sonar by Night is a very different animal and rather than taking place in a city centre expo centre like its daytime cousin, by Night resides in a truly colossal aircraft hanger. The vibe here is 100% focused on the music and the lineup is an eclectic mic of the most exciting electronic artists in the world alongside some old favourites and a healthy dose of hip hop. Since this is Ministry of Sound, it should come as no surprise that I'll mainly be focusing on Sonar by Night.

When you arrive at Sonar by Night, you're first struck by the size of the venue, I don't know what aircraft they were keeping in there but it looked like it could hold a hundred of the Easyjet planes we flew over on. The second is what an assault to the senses it is, each stage creates a massive sound, and the visuals on the main and second stages are truly spectacular. Over the course of the two nights we're bombarded by confetti cannons, lazer shows, CO2, even Euros courtesy of A$AP Rocky and his crew frequently making it rain throughout his set.

Speaking of A$AP, he was the first act we saw once through the chaos of the Friday night press queue (members of the dance music media can get particularly unruly after a full session of day-drinking in the 30 degree Spanish sun). Rocky's set was a tour de force of material old and new. Highlights included the aforementioned money-throwing parties, the drop of his Skrillex collab - "Wild for the Night", and him throwing a bag of unidentified powder to the crowd.

Next up was Scottish bass wizard Hudson Mohawke replete with a new live setup consisting of a drummer and Redinho on keys. The set was a schooling in the Hud Mo sound with album tracks, rarities and marquee bangers interspersed with booming bass and screaming synths. I'd seen him debut the live show at London's Field Day two weeks prior and while the music sounded better on Sonar's system, the Spanish crowd didn't seem as into it as the UK rabble. That could be to do with the programming - Hud Mo was the last act of Field Day, and us Brits aren't ones to hold back during headline sets after a full day of getting on it - whereas at Sonar, which runs from 10pm to 7am, with an 11:30 time slot, he was practically opening.

That's one of the strange, but very satisfying aspects of Sonar, it's programmed by vibe rather than ego. So the bigger names tend to be on earlier, while the techno gods take you into the sunrise. For most other performances - you're Rocky's, you're Duran Duran's, this worked perfectly, but you can't help but think that Hud Mo Should've been on a little later for full effect.

After Hudson it was time for the sugar-coated sounds of SOPHIE. The artist and his PC Music associates have been debated ad nauseam in music media, so I don't want to get into it too much. All I can say is that, as a fan of that music, his set was exactly what the doctor ordered. I've seen him before and his love of static and reluctance to let tracks drop rendered his set almost un-danceable, but there was none of that here and the crowd were going suitably nuts. The high point was, of course, when artificial popstar and energy drink, QT strutted out to over-dramatically mime along with fan-favourite "Hey QT".

Next up Tiga gave us another live show debut. Flanked by a trio of manikins acting as his backing dancers, Tiga sang his way through his back catalogue and the crowd sang every note straight back at him. It was a pretty weird sight, but then I guess Tiga's a pretty weird guy. After him I was thrilled to catch the end of Die Antwoord on the main stage, right as everything got turned up to eleven for "Enter The Ninja".

Next, Friday headliner, Skrillex nearly brought the house down. He pulled out all the stops - bringing out A$AP Rocky (and a lot of girls), having a huge visual show and even dropping a remix of "The Macarena". Needless to say it was a pretty odd show and on paper it shouldn't have worked, but however bizarrely, it totally did - and that's coming from a self-confessed cynical dance snob.

After that we had a back to back of the best of British with Jamie xx followed by The 2 Bears. Surprisingly enough, I think The 2 Bears out performed Mr xx. Though the odds were stacked in The Bears' favour as they had a full live set up, including Vula Malinga - the voice of Basement Jaxx. Jamie attracted a huge crowd and started strong with "I Know There's Gonna Be Good Times", but his teasing of both "Far Nearer" and "Take Care" without ever really playing them, is just made me want to shake him asking "why Jamie, why?"

Next up we checked in on the main stage for a final time as DJ Fresh had what seemed like half of Barcelona bouncing off the walls. Then we ended the night and saw in the day in the ever capable hands of Seth Troxler. This was as deep as I've heard him and despite the 5:30 kick off time, there was still a huge turnout. I could've stayed immersed in his music long into the next day, but as the combination of travel and rave fatigue set in and the morning light turned into just actual daytime, I could fight the need to sleep no longer and headed back to the hotel.

If day one was anything to go by Sonar was still at the top of it's game, a strong and varied lineup coupled with best in show visuals and huge sound had me really impressed, but I was interested to see if it could repeat the deed on Saturday when the really big dance names arrived.

You can read about our Saturday at Sonar tomorrow.

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Written by Matthew Francey

23 Jun 2015