Sónar Festival

By Milla Cint

DJ Lopez of Venezuela’s dark, experimental electro booms out of the speakers as we sup cold beer on Thursday afternoon and watch John Peel, the godfather of noize, bumble past. This is my virgin visit to Barcelona’s three-day electronic music spectacular. Five stages by day, three by night. Oh, and some gallery spaces for clever stuff with lights, computers and multi-media so-and-so. I am well excited.

After riffling through the 140-page programme and enthusiastically scoring the listings in biro, we give up and decide to just wander. So Thursday’s fun continues with a visit to Alek Stark and The Replicant playing “Starwhores” in Sonarlab. Imagine if Adult. and Tears For Fears had a little baby and let it watch too much Star Trek? That’s the closest I can get to describing these two, whose tinny, Howard Jones-era drum machines, sci-fi synths and Dr Who robot voices get the whole tent beaming and rocking. When they throw free CDs into the crowd there is a minor stampede as men and women alike rush the stage then bounce around to a special song about Sonar sung in Spanish by a robot. Judging from such an audience raction, Sonar is not a place for boring bastards who don’t want to party. As we catch DJ Junz’s drum n’ bass set with live vocals in the sunshine, the hooting crowd confirms this. Good. In case you’re interested, the crowd seems to be mid 20s to mid thirties, easy mix of boys and girls, and pretty international. Over three days, we spot Scottish, Irish, French, German, Italian, American, South African, Japanese and Dutch accents in the throngs.

After Junz we get ourselves interviewed for the Radio 1 website, and I drivel incoherently about how great Sonar is. This prevents me from going to see the intriguingly named Mum And Dad – which pains me greatly, as the next outfits I see really suck. Some peanut-head hunched over his laptop, churning out “experimental sounds” which show no respect or interest in the listener at all. Like a drunken washing machine trying to hump a hoover. I think that this was AGF. Next up is Timeblind, who seems terribly dull. The Spacewhores and their dizzy robot-pop have made me peek too soon. Disgruntled, I scan the crowds for the Radio 1 guy to update him on my opinions, but he is wisely absent.

Next up is Christian Marclay, who The Wire described recently as the forefather of turntablism – but not the wickywicky sort, the soundscapes sort. We find a darkened room with a kind of skreeeeeedunk sound emanating from it. Inside, he is playing three records at the same time, all with a second hole drilled off-centre so the needle slips of and on the groove, producing a cyclical sound-warp. Do not hire this man for kids parties. All the same, this interesting technique reminds me of the story about the Aphex Twin playing a sheet of sand paper at the Ministry of Sound, and I wonder if these sonic barmpots are related.

Sonar Night is held in some enormodrome on the outskirts of town, and we pile into buses to catch some beats. Inexplicably, the Petshop Boys are playing, so we all make a point of filing past and giving them the two finger salute. I’m not sure they saw or cared, but it still seemed to redress the balance after New York City Boy.

Arthur Baker wins points for playing Adult.’s Contagious in his well-judged set, its crisp and pristine grandeur ringing perfectly on the outdoor sound system. Next we pop inside to see the delightful DJ Krush, but on the way to the bar I get accosted by a saucer-eyed space cadet begging me to help him make a phonecall. We run into problems when he points to a phone that patently does not exist, and gets angry when I can’t see it.

By the time I escape, Krush is over and Vitalic is starting outside. He wrings as much out of his 30-minute live set as possible, culminating in the astonishing La Rock 01. This track has a filtered, filthy b-line that warps almost beyond tolerance, and writhes like a greased eel. The kids whoop and wriggle in sticky disko delight. Next up is Ellen Allien, the Berlin-based DJ and owner of Bpitch Control, who starts her set with Two Bad Mice-styled hardcore. I don’t know how she ends it, because I stumble across Slam on the way to the bar and spend the next hour watching them rocking the main room in a slick, sexy, Detroit-via-Glasgow stylee. Then it’s a quick peep at Radio Boy, who is smashing hamburgers into microphones and giving away copies of his CD, before deciding bed is the next thing I have to see.

Friday’s excursion starts with sunny skies, and the Ladytron DJs are deftly poisoning the air with an exquisite set of cheap, sexy, Latex-esque electro, slickly produced French pop princesses like Alizee and gritty punk rock. Brilliant. I see a bit of Hiroshi Wanatabe’s deep, thoughtful trance set, whose mid-pace is more Mo’ Wax than Harthouse. I also spot Richie Hawtin chatting and smiling in the sun, but when I claim to have seen Steve Bicknell making a b-line for the toilets my friends start to tire of my star-spotting antics. Then we catch DJ Rupture, whose trick seems to be to play two decks, a CD, a sampler and effects, all at the same time. Hip hop, weird pop, bargain-bin obscurities and free jazz are all slapped together to surprisingly cool and groovy effect.

Leaf’s Tony Morley is playing Aaliyah as we slip off for tapas and sangria. By the time we get back, Kid606 is playing in the basement and the air is thick with steam. The room is dark and full of punters, wobbling from side to side in amazement at the terrific racket booming out of the speakers. Put Aha, Starship, gabba-style kickdrums, free party techno and a demented, TV-happy sampler in the mix, and what do you get? The crazy god of fucked up noize. Some jump and shout as the beats get faster and the samples get crazier, others just sway and grin in sweaty delight. Kid606 stands over his two Apple laptops, manic with concentration, wearing a t-shirt stating “EVIL” in gothic script. Perhaps you should judge a book by its cover after all. Awesome.

Tonight is a lesson in musical humble pie for me. We start the evening with Yo La Tengo’s The Sounds of Science. Jean Painleve’s black and white captioned film about microscopic marine life (wait! Come back….) is shown on huge screens and backed by their plangent, beautiful grooves. I am happy to admit it was utterly absorbing and I never thought I’d gasp and clap as some microscopic umbrella-shaped thing gives birth to thousands of other little umbrella things, but I did.

My next surprise is that I end up dancing to a live bongo player, and I’m not 1) mashed up on horrible pills, 2) in some Goa trance hellhole like Whirlygig, 3) deeply ashamed of my actions. This is because we are watching Soul Designer live, a Belgian outfit with the blessing of Kevin Saunderson, Laurent Garnier and Mike Banks. It’s easy to see why; lush, mellow and minimal Detroit grooves flow from the speakers.

My friends go to see Roger Sanchez, as I sneer at his programme listing of “Latin evangelical house.” I think I’d rather take my eyes out with a tin-opener. But the boot is on the other foot in 30 minutes’ time when I wander through his room and get my third surprise of the evening. The guy is incredible. Rather than the horror of “uplifting” piano screamers, he plays deep and dark, tight but joyful. It’s hard to leave. But Soul Center, aka Thomas Brinkmann is playing outside so I have to. I’m afraid I don’t remember much about his set, other than it was very good. I take quick peek at Funk D’Void, who plays a blinder of taut, angular, fresh machine funk, perfectly mixed and chosen. I emerge into the 7am sunlight three hours later.

Saturday afternoon is a write-off, but the evening starts with Kirk DeGiorgio playing mellow, musical house in the warm midnight air. The atmosphere is charged and the crowds are huge, as tonight is the last. As Underground Resistance’s awesome Transformation booms over our heads, we head into the main hall for the Lord High Wizard of the Electric Groove, Mr Jeff Mills. I’m happy to report it’s fucking rammed. As his trademark atmospherics start drifting from the speakers, the huge screens show a film of a man doing yoga. The idea that this might be Jeff is unbelievably funny, and we snort and chuckle down our sleeves until the beats kick in and the entire room goes off like the proverbial rotter. Now it definitely is him on the screen, face serene with concentration and his shoulders rocking as though conducting the electricity of one deck to the other. As Step to Enchantment sends the crowds into ecstasies of shouting, hugging and leaping, I wonder how the fuck anyone will follow this.

Si Begg, aka S. I. Futures, is up next. Although some of his nerdy-male-voiceover samples sound bit tinny, he quickly fills the gap with oozing, space basslines and erratic machine grind. Excellent stuff, and the room stays packed. Then it’s Richie Hawtin, who greets us with that ubiquitous Lil Louis sample of obsession and desire – “I called you….but you weren’t there……I followed you…..in my blue car….” The kids bay with the excitement of getting their heads messed up by this well-loved sonic pervert. He starts with crunching dark house grooves and an eerie sampled chant of “partytime!” before cranking it up to techno…with a special appearance from none other than the footballing fruitcake Maradona, the mascot for the whole event. He appears on stage a propos of nothing, and headers red Sonar footballs into the cheering, yelling throngs.

Carl Cox is on next, and he rips into a techno set so brutal that it distorts on the speakers. The room probably empties by half, but that is hardly an issue when there’s a good two thousand left, rapt in sonic boom. The most amusing thing about Carl Cox is that he insists on grinning like a nutter and punching the air with his records before putting them back in their sleeves. The crowd are obviously delighted to see someone enjoying themselves as much as they are and go wild, despite the fact that it’s getting on for 7am. Although I’ve seen him before, and although I know there’s lots of other stuff going off in the other rooms, I stay because the atmosphere is killer and the music is great. The party ends at 9am, when the troops pour onto the street outside and form a ramshackle queue for the buses, collapse under bushes for a well-earned kip or pile into the unofficial after-party in a carpark outside.

Phew. And I’ve even got through the review without saying “Sonar, so good.” …..Doh.
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