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Sonar 2016: Review

We'd finally made it. The first time that Barcelona’s Sonar Festival had taken priority over Glastonbury just a week later in the UK. To say we were excited would be an understatement.

Split across 2 main venues; Sonar By Day and Sonar By Night, it has for many years offered the world’s most diverse and daring programme alongside an incredibly informative and interactive schedule of business and outreach activities. This year’s parallel conference and plethora of workshops simply titled Sonar+D focused on visual arts but also technology advances, experimentation and innovation.

With a backdrop of fountains and waterfalls as well as a panoramic view of Barcelona from the National Palace, just off site from Sonar By Day, it was hard to believe that within the centre of the city was a music festival. The line up echoed this diversity with artists playing across four stages; SonarVillage, SonarDôme, SonarHall and SonarComplex.

Whilst both the 2nd and 3rd day of the festival culminated at Sonar By Night, Day 1 was exclusively at Sonar By Day. Taking advantage of the venue in full we started our day with a talk with Kode9 and Lawrence Lek and their visual concept of the ‘Nøtel’, an “evacuated, fully automated, luxury hotel” which operates in a kind of creepy, post-human scenario.

As we explored the site further, another notable activity included a multichannel video installation titled ‘Earthworks’. A visual representation of the formation of the earth via 5 large screens in a giant dark room, with attendees laying and gazing in the surreal light coming from each screen.

Outside in the glorious sunshine, Mad Professor displayed his skill as one of the best in the game with a suitable selection of sunny and upbeat dub. Inside the dark and theatrical SonarHall draped in red lights and curtains almost like an adaptation of David Lynch’s ‘Red Room’ from Twin Peaks, Nicola Cruz showed off a sophisticated sound where the folklore of the Ecuadorian Andes were front and centre but punchy and heard like never before – placing the largely Spanish crowd into a frenzy – and almost at times, placing the listener in a tribal trance only heightened by the howls of the crowd. Later on the same stage, King Midas Sound, Kelela and David August’s live band all impressed - each bringing energy and intensity that one can only expect from the worlds most respected platform for electronic music.

Our favourite stage SonarComplex focussed its energy on genre defying, radical concepts and aesthetics. Fully seated and always in complete darkness, it was a world away from the sunny centre of the festival. Its constant queues only reminding you of the essence of Sónar. A platform where music from the fringes is given a spotlight, and no matter how weird and intense, offering a crowd up for the challenge.

Thursday’s performances by Canadian visual artist Martin Messier and 65daysofstatic, placed heavy emphasis on visuals and innovative performance design, always leaving you in a daze at facing the bright and sunny world outside.

SonarDôme also known as the Red Bull Music Academy stage probably had the most diverse programming all weekend. Its vast indoor space, almost like an all day terrace party with light shining through the large windows in the roof. Thursday’s highlights included Iranian/Dutch Sevdaliza, London’s Jamie Woon and Turkey’s upcoming electronic act Insanular featuring Turkish DJ royalty Baris K.

Friday’s festival line up kept the pace high with highlights including Kode 9’s Nøtel show, Roots Manuva, Santigold, the incredible Matias Aguayo, a destructive live show from Detroit legends Underground Resistance, and Gerd Janson before all attendees joined another 40,000 at the sprawling Sonar By Night venue on the outskirts of the city.

We entered on Friday to Jean Michel Jarre’s live show, whose projections, and laser show backed up his 80s synthpop and electronic genius completely gripping SonarClub, easily the biggest indoor venue we’ve ever seen. Straight after we walked through to SonarLab, where Resident Advisor led a line up that touched on every decade of house and techno, with Soichi Terada at the helm. Through at the 2nd outdoor stage; SonarPub, the much hyped Anhoni led a rather subdued and underwhelming performance once again with heavy emphasic on visuals - a strong ongoing theme, over the 3 days of the festival.

SonarCar the 4th stage at Sonar By Night evolved this year into a 360 stage, surrounded by red curtains (David Lynch again?) and led by Funktion one sound with Four Tet playing all night long (7 hours). As he opened up proceedings and the crowd filtered in, we took a moment to sit on what would become a heaving dancefloor, as he touched on dub, reggae, jazz, afrobeat and funk before eventually of course leading info an effortless, and multi genre display of house, techno, dubstep, grime, and drum and bass.

As the night progressed and quickly became morning acts such as Kerri Chandler, Ben UFO B2B Helena Hauff and John Talabot all impressed and sounded flawless on the high end stacks besides each stage. Perhaps the most disappointing performance however was James Blake’s highly anticipated headline show. Whilst the Sonar programmers don’t shy away from placing acts that are usually suited to smaller stages on the enormous SonarClub stage, in some cases it just doesn’t do the act justice. James Blake was a prime example for this. His performance seemed flat and was simply unable to fill the space on offer.

Day 3 started a bit slower, with Nozinja pleasing an afternoon audience in the sun at Sonar By Day, followed by Oneohtrix Point Never and SonarHall headliner; Howling. By far the star of the show however was the pitch black environment of SonarComplex where ‘Cyclo’ the collaboration between sound and visual artist Ryoji Ikeda and Carsten Nicolai led into another gripping performance from ‘Byetone’ - both to capacity audiences - once again proving the diversity of the Sonar Festival punter.

Saturday’s Night program, kicked off with a tight but restrained performance from New Order, leading into boisterous performances from DJ EZ, Kaytranada, Skepta, Stormzy, Bicep and Jackmaster just to name a few. The star (or daddy) of the evening however was Laurent Garnier, once again displaying his ability as one of the worlds best DJs at SonarCar, another 7 hour multi genre journey at its best and all night long.

Despite easily being one of the most technically sound festivals on the planet, with a schedule that ran like clockwork and sound that is big and whole at every point in absolutely mammoth arenas; lasting till the morning of Sonar Festival is no easy feat. While ‘VIP/accredited’ attendees can decompress in VIP bars, standard attendees have an all day and night program to attend to, with no real chillout zone to take shelter from the pounding music – making it at times feel more like a rave than a festival. Considering the thought gone into the production of the festival on a whole, this is definitely missed and though it does let the music do the talking, it would make one of the world’s best electronic music ‘marathons’ easier on the mind, body (and soul?)

Bearing this in mind Sonar Festival was everything it said it would be and easily still holds the trophy for Europe’s best weekend for electronic music. What it lacks, it makes up for in content, but further activities to make it feel more “festive” wouldn’t go amiss.

We’ll be back.

Words: Munbir Chawla
Image Credit: Sonar Festival

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09 July 2016

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