After hearing coverage of Sónar on Radio 1 in previous years, I always fancied going to the festival especially as its in Barcelona, a city I’ve always wanted to visit. So me and fellow NEN writer Amy went of to Barcelona to sample the festival. The event is split into two parts: Sónar by Day and Sónar by Night.
Day activities run from the Thursday to Saturday, and consists of two main bits, the music and and series of panels and technology demos called Sónar +D. The venue is in a exhibition hall much like Excel or the NEC in the UK with events inside and outside. The night activities are held in a bigger venue further out of town and have a more club-like feel.
Thursday Sónar By Day
I started the day by exploring +D by joining the workshop run by Dirty Electronics to build a synthesiser celebrating the 20 years of Sónar. This was a great start to the festival and unique experience: the workshop was well run but did cost an additional €32 on top of Sónar tickets.
After being inside for an hour it was time to catch some Barcelona sun while watching Fantastic Mr Fox DJ on the main stage, providing the perfect musical backdrop to sunshine. On towards the Sónar Complex stage, we seeked out an auditorium with seated audience to see the Barcelona Laptop Orchestra, who interestingly had mostly ditched laptops for iPads. A group of around 8 members: 2 main members where flanked by 3 iPad wielding musicians on either side, it was a complex and unique setup where vinyl was sampled live. The music itself was deeply experimental and completely suited the day time element of the festival. I’ve been wanting to see Gold Panda for ages and catching him at Sónar was a great excuse, It was a great set with some excellent visuals that were projected on the screens to the side of the stage.
After being in the sun for a while it was time to head inside to the air-conditioned Sónar Complex to watch something totally new to me, Francesco Tristan: Piano 2.o. He is a classically-trained pianist and a true virtuoso, however not only was he showcasing his abilities on the grand piano but also augmented by a Moog synth and keyboard, with percussion and drum loops on a laptop. His musicianship was amazing to watch as he played the piano strings with his hands and messed around with synthesised sounds. Around halfway through the sound got a lot more dancey with house beats, until the final piece he played was an interpretation of late 80s piano house classic: Derrick May’s ‘Strings Of Life’: at this point everyone in the seated room was standing dancing. There was a truly a unique energy in that room: something experimental with a familiarity that made your jaw drop. Next on the main stage was Rob da Bank with a DJ set and it was a true mix of genres featuring Julio Bashmore’s ‘Au Seve’ and Azealia Banks’ ‘212’. Lindstrøm & Todd Terje are two separate artists in their own right but the Sónar by Day headline slot saw them join forces to create a keyboard lover’s dream, with the two showing off their skills on drum pads, samplers and a multitude of analogue keyboards.
Friday Sónar By Day
After accidentally sitting in on a Spanish-speaking panel we quickly left to enjoy some music and sunshine outside from more DJs. A big part of Sónar By Day are the panels and of the ones we chose to sit in on was “Matthew Herbert presents The New Radiophonic Workshop”. As a musician and producer the resurrection of the BBCs Radiophonic Workshop was exciting to me. Also sitting on the panel was developer of the app Chirp, Patrick Bergel and it was chaired by Atom TM. They spoke in-depth about the future of electronic music especially and where it can go, what technology can do and what is holding it back. It was a truly inspiring and thought-provoking panel and a highlight of the festival.
Google+ were present with free brownies and drinks, and a panel discussing how social media has and can change how we experience events and music. Next up Jaime Lidell provided a soulful performance on main stage. Afterwards we headed to see Hip Hop duo JJ DOOM playing on the Red Bull Music Academy stage. The German duo Modeselektor were up next headlining the days activities with a DJ set while we caught the last beer before moving onto Sónar by Night!
Friday Sónar By Night
After 2 days of daytime activities it was time to go to a bigger out-of-town venue on a provided bus to experience Sónar’s night time offering. We picked up our 3D glasses on the way into the venue ready for Kraftwerk’s headline set.
Kraftwerk were fantastic, and I was not surprised most about how much of their material I knew but by how well it fitted the environment, 2 hours of groundbreaking critically-acclaimed music could get boring but it didn’t. They retained a club feel and the set was danceable throughout. But the best part was the visuals, they worked on the massive scale of the hall incredible well, and certainly provided a spectacle that 4 men behind podiums doesn’t quite provide.
After some much needed beer and food it was on to see C2C, who I’ve heard of but never fully checked out, this proved to be a good choice. They are a fantastic group of turntable DJs who are fantastic and scratching and even had a battle between themselves.
Major Lazer was playing on the main stage next and mixed their own songs together with current club favourites and a version of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ that I’m still not sure about, but the crowd was loving bowing to their every move. On the a smaller stage called Sónar Car I watched San Proper DJ playing out a great set of house.
Our last act of the night was Skrillex. An artist who I don’t listen to normally, but as someone at the top of their game in the genre it was a must see and I was unusually excited. He came onto a giant spaceship-shaped DJ booth and the crowd went wild for every single drop. I thought that the set had an awful lot of house-flavoured music for a dubstep/brostep DJ, but this was no bad thing in my eyes. In contrast to Kraftwerk the visuals were a lot sharper but less though out and made for a stunning spectacle, although my favourite thing about the venue was that the light rigging went out all over the crowd to the back of the enormous room, making the audience at the back feel as they were part of it as much as those at the front.
Saturday Sónar By Day
After a late night we got to Sónar in time to catch Skip & Die, who’s African-European mix was a great way to start the day: our last chance to catch up on everything we hadn’t seen at +D including some very clever devices for music-making and interesting visuals!
Beardyman was showing off his Beardytron 5000 mkII, his new live show. For the most part it was great, but I felt it lacked a certain amount of his roots. Although he was creating everything onstage you couldn’t quite see how it was being done which certainly takes away from his craft, however this was rectified at the end when he did some freestyling as the crowd begged for more.
After rocking the ‘Albums Of The Year’ charts last year I decided to check out Chromatics who didn’t disappoint. Their 80s throwback set provided the background for a much-needed beer, before partying on through Mary Anne Hobbs’ excellent bass-heavy DJ set afterwards.
AlunaGeorge together with their band put on a fantastic show next, with garage-flavoured beats and strong bass lines you can see why they get so much coverage and Aluna is a truly great singer. To round the day of we tried to catch TNGHT inside but were disappointed by a lack of direction and decided to get on the bus to Sónar by Night.
Saturday Sónar By Night
This was the night I was most looking forward to and we made sure we got there on time to buy enough drinks tokens for the night before the queues built up. Pet Shop Boys were overall fairly disappointing. Although all the visuals and dancers provided interest to the pair on stage it wasn’t enough as they blasted through their lesser-known tracks to a disappointingly small crowd for a headline act. Not all was bad, though it sounded incredible and the crowd was loving their singalong set.
2manydjs didn’t disappoint the first time I saw them and I wasn’t going to miss a second chance! They had their usual fantastic visuals synced to the music perfectly. Time seemed to pass far more quickly than normal watching them as they played unique versions of songs by TNGNT, Daphni, MGMT, Kavinsky and many more obscure choices. On the way out to catch the Justice set we had to wade through a crowd of people that kept going to the very back of the massive room!
Justice were playing the final DJ set in a trio of DJs celebrating 10 years of Ed Banger Records, and even without their live show and usual huge array of lights they put on a fantastic spectacle, blending their unique flavour of French house with similar choices. Together with 2manydjs they were leading the way that night with fun and creative DJing.
Skream played a understated set with the strobes flashing throughout along to some deeper minimal style house I danced the night away until it was time to head back to the hotel.
Despite some ridiculous queues at the bars and toilets, Sónar has so much to offer in DJs, bands, panels, technology showcases, visual art and more that I’m almost certainly going back: it’s my new favourite big festival!
While at the festival, dates for all of next year’s events were published.
These are the Sónar 2014 dates and cities:
Reykjavik: 13.14.15 February
Tokyo: 12.13 April
Mexico City: 16.17 May
Barcelona: 12.13.14 June
Cape Town: 16 December
You can find more information here.
See you at the front!