A year has gone by, and once again we’re stepping across the artificial grass at Sonar by Day. Once more, electronic dreams have been dyed green in warm Barcelona, where yesterday the dawn was cloudy and breezy, and the mild temperatures made it easy for us to enjoy the Sonar experience even more. The large crowds of people made it difficult for us to get down to the front at every concerts we saw, but we slipped our way through as best we could, so that we could return and tell you what it was like.
Red Bull Music Academy (SónarDome)The extra euro they make you pay in clubs for the drink that “gives you wings” is worth it if you think that it is being invested in the most prolific corporate sponsorship of contemporary music we have seen. Red Bull Music Academy showcases are usually a nest of unknown proposals that we will spent the rest of the season investigating. This year has been no exception, beginning with Noaipre and ending with Robot Koch. The Galician musician took the stage with force, maybe a bit much for the time it was, and the audience themselves were a little under-prepared (the person dancing the most was the musician himself). The eccentric note of the afternoon was provided by Teri Gender Bender and her crew of bloody mummies; the Mexicans were the most rock and roll prospect on the menu, and it was not at all predictable how their sound would go down with the public. But the audience loved it, entertained by Teri’s crazy outbursts; she came down without a mic to sing and bug people a little at the “foot of the field.” In the middle of the day, Kool Clap had two hours to delight us with a session chock full of groove, electro, and funky music, with an eye on the 80s. The Frenchman’s mixes went down well with the audience, who after a few hours were ready for some frenetic dancing. And then came the home stretch, Ango leading us by the hand with his unfailing aim when it comes to choosing and mixing songs; from dubstep to r&b, from crunk to minimalist dub, Ango finished with Douster’s “ King Of Africa”, a standing ovation, and (undoubtedly) some new fans. MF Pete Tong ( SónarVillage)There’s nothing better for your digestion than a good dose of the type of house music that gives you the urge to sweat like a pig and put on your new and very trendy sunglasses because you suddenly think you’re in an Ibiza club. Pete Tong –a.k.a. Lord of the Dance (who is looking physically more like Paul Oakenfold by the day, something very mysterious is going on there) – is an old hand at livening up parties, so it was logical that his slot at Sónar Village would be a site of pilgrimage for faithful hooligans. He took the easy route (let’s tell it like it is) and there were few surprises in his two-hour set. It seemed like a hodgepodge of that radio formula house we enjoy so much on really long road trips. To demonstrate my point, a few tracks that featured were Duex’s “Sun Raising Up” (lacking only the podium for Rebeka Brown to sing), a remix of Hell’s “U Can Dance”–we’ll have to wait until Saturday to see Bryan Ferry– and even Shakira’s “Waka Waka”. But it seems like the linear quality of his set didn’t matter to anybody. We’ve seldom seen Sónar Village so hedonistic and so crowded at this hour. SdA Speech Debelle (SónarVillage)After Pete Tong’s wave of coconut oil and easy summer house with an Ibiza core, Speech Debelle stood ready perform her debut, “ Speech Therapy”. The change was hard for the majority of the public to digest, having come from jumping around like teletubbies for two hours of pounding drums. The Londoner’s set calmed the mood gave people a chance to sit down. Nevertheless, this coldness wasn’t all the BBC Radio 1 presenter’s fault; the drum, double bass, acoustic guitar combo is a big leap in quality for the rapper’s music, but it was received by an audience that was mentally prepared to dance. Everything was too jazzy for a big, open-air stage in broad daylight. Nevertheless, Debelle didn’t let her guard down for a moment. She took advantage of all the gaps between songs to engage the audience, and she performed her verses with much more strength and virulence than on the album, with a certain Jamaican accent, and with the same nerve. “ The Key” or “ Go Then, Bye” sounded a tad naked without the details that gave them shimmer on the album, but they had a much stronger drive. Speech Debelle in her more hardcore rap form. All in all, a good concert in a bad location. MF Caribou (SonarDome / Red Bull Music Academy) A nightmare for claustrophobics, but a delight for the ears. To get into the Red Bull Music Academy tent you needed to take a machete and cut off all the arms that blocked your path in order to make a way through. But once you were inside, you forgot all about the hellish crowds, and concentrated on one of the most fascinating pop happenings of recent times. Yes, Dan Snaith has copied Arthur Russell’s vocal style and also struggles to bring together the popular and the vanguard in music, but he does it with a candour and a way of nailing the melodies that makes you fall in love with the album ( “Swim”) and with the live performance. It was worth being there, even though it seemed like we were in an overcrowded lift. Caribou started with “Leave House”, an antidote to bad days, and with the help of the other three musicians, managed to make some of us forget there was a world beyond that space. Whoever gave in to the crowds and left early, well, all the worse for them: sometimes you have to fight for special moments, you have to deserve them. RF Sounds of Switzerland presented by Mx3.ch and SSR [Round Table Knights / Tim and Puma Mimi / Larytta] (Sónar Village)Switzerland is not a very well-loved country of late (blame it on Spain’s defeat at their hands in South Africa). Nevertheless, all our repressed anger at chocolate and cuckoo clocks vanished upon seeing the duo Round Table Knights in action: with house, refined dub, funk and calypso rhythms –they put out an EP recently where they abused Afro-Caribbean melodies– they confirmed that their thing is mixes without highs to hold on to. Tim and Puma Mimi ’set was very different. The Japanese Puma Mimi, famous for performing via skype, decided to delight us for the occasion of her performance at Sónar, appearing as a pocket sized (and more exotic) version of Yelle. Naive electronic pop—or was it globalised hip hop?–with an electric apple, a megaphone (lacking a vocoder), and a good dose of fun is what this trio offered us, as they practically screamed for DFA to knock on their door. Larytta was no less, who came to present “Difficult Fun”: Africanism, hip hop, pounding beats and a rhapsodic pose that left a good taste in your mouth. For now, we’ll let Gelson Fernandes live. SdA Cluster (SónarComplex)Despite their reputation and status as pioneering icons of krautrock, the German duo didn’t stimulate too many expectations with their visit: they barely managed to half fill the space in SonarComplex, which usually turns out to be too small for a big name with impact. And of those who were there at the start of the show, few remained until the end of the set. The problem with Cluster live is that the couple take their idea of ambient to a mono-chord territory that is cold, clinical, and mechanised, and which barely has an effect on the listener—at no time can you distinguish it from the live experience. The sound is technical, it oscillates with harmony and coherence, and floats decisively over the public, but there is nothing in its manner of progressing and expressing itself that generates emotion, empathy, or even rejection. For my taste, their proposal seems a little moth-eaten, out-of-touch, and predictable—it has become old-hat. Politically-correct ambient. JP Broadcast (SónarHall) The current Broadcast live show confirms the suspicions raised by their last recording: these Brits base their show directly and firmly on hauntology, as we understand this sound-visual concept nowadays. Projections of forests, moonlit dusks, visual effects with a 70s air, a retro aesthetic, and absolute submission to black and white. The sound is liturgical, ceremonial, spiralling, misty and deliberately less poppy than it has been. The hidden, veiled presence of Trish Keenan in the current show renounces even more of the centre stage to camouflage herself in the fog of sound. Twenty minutes into the show, the vast majority of the spectators who had crowded into the Hall had started to file towards the exit, perhaps in search of a climate more in tune with the joyful, festive spirit of the Barcelona afternoon. Mysterious, perverse, and fascinating, a bit like the black smoke in “Lost”. JP Robot Koch (SónarDome / Red Bull Music Academy) The German producer and head of the Robots Don’t Sleep label had prepared a multifaceted show, divided into two parts. The first part was softer, accompanied by the Mexican vocalist Grace, his habitual collaborator, who contributed vocals, sensuality, and a human touch to the marvel of machinery that is the Berliner’s music. Magical atmospheres –so close in form and texture to that of the vocalists on good garage music– and those little Jamaican touches that slide in between Robot Koch’s dry beats, helped to overcome the tiredness of the last concert of the day session. “ Blind” or “ Brujeria” heated up surroundings that were already torrid after Ango’s performance, but also a little emptier because this set clashed with both Broadcast and Elektro Guzzi. Nevertheless, we didn’t know what we were in for when the German DJ took to the stage, at first without his singer. That’s when everything got more metallic, robotic, and impetuous, in a set that went overtime by a couple of songs, and with good reason. With ostentatious use of low notes and a lot of wobble, Robot Koch offered a set where dirty, cutting dubstep and crunchy, galactic glitch-hop ended up filling SónarDome with bass addicts. MF Elektro Guzzi ( SónarComplex)
If Kratftwerk hadn’t been robots, we would have found ourselves siding with Austrian Elektro Guzzi. The concept is simple: a classic rock band –bass, guitar, and drum– without the need for loops or pre-recordings, capable of weaving a shooting, atmospheric minimal techno of the kind that makes the heaviest crowd levitate without the need for psychotropic drugs or other dubious aids. The theory is suggestive at the very least, but it was of vital importance to see them in action, to tell if on-stage they loose any part of the essence they display on their debut album. And, thank God, that didn’t happen. What we saw at SónarComplex could be considered huge, at the very least. For the unbelieving, a camera was always on drummer Bernhard Breuer, who was beating the drums and carrying the beat for his buddies, hanging onto to his pedals to forge the sound effects. As if they had come from another galaxy, Elektro Guzzi showed us that techno with a soul does exist, it’s not just a legend. The audience vibrated to their technical mastery, and, logically, the overwhelming applause received by the trio only reaffirms the band as one of Sónar’s greatest surprises (for now). SdA Ryoji Ikeda presents Spectra (SónarGrec-Teatre Grec de Barcelona)While I was heading for Teatre Grec, I was thinking: “meh, it’s just a ray of light.” I had to see the light from up close to appreciate the beauty of Ryoji Ikeda’s Spectra installation. It’s not only that the music accompanying the towers of light is pure and hypnotic. The towers also amplify the spiritually uplifting feeling you get when you stroll among the spotlights and feel yourself covered with rays of light: like water and air, the simple feeling of light around you relaxes and elevates, helping you to reflect on abstract issues with an unexpected depth. Maybe this is all mystical nonsense, I don’t know. But I can assure you that “Test Patterns”, the concert that Ikeda gave to accompany the Spectra tower of light, is as aggressive as “Dataplex”: geometrical projections, glitches that rain down like arrows, electronic music that hits you like you’re a punching bag and Ikeda is a furious boxer. It was worth climbing the mountain for. RF