Sónar Festival

Three days of sun, San Miguel and forward-thinking electronic sounds in the vibrant city of Barcelona. Overload’s Jeremy Slacksworth visits Sonar 2003, the 10th International Festival of Advanced Music and Multimedia Art.

By Jeremy Slacksworth

Along with curating perhaps the most impressive line-ups of all contemporary music events, Sonar is unique in that brings together a curious mix of people, a striking location, faultless weather and an abundance of external parties. Attending Sónar is as much about these peripheral elements as the actual festival itself, hence, as a Sónar virgin on my first visit to Spain, it would be easy for this review to slip into a rehashed tourist information brochure coupled with a hazy account of drunkenness.

Arriving on the Wednesday, a day before official kick off, we stumbled along to ‘The Wrong Festival’ – an intimate reaction to the grand Sónar festivities. Arriving too late to witness the irrepressible Donna Summer, instead we caught the start of Hrvatski's set, whose laptop antics proved just too disjointed to embrace. The venue seemed overrun by chinstrokers and the bar was costly, so we left, not overly impressed. Apparently the subsequent night there saw Bloodslut cut up a sheep’s head with a chainsaw on stage, coating the audience in animal matter. Nothing rock and roll hasn’t seen before, but plenty of fun I’m sure if you like that kind of thing.

24 hours in the city, with little sleep and chronically depleted Euros, we hit Sónar By Day. Sónar’s daytime activities take place in a huge complex nestled in the city’s bustling centre, ten minutes stroll from the seafront. A natural meeting point was SonarVillage – an extensive astroturf area that greets visitors upon entry. Anticon’s hip hop collective laid down the tone for much of the music played in this area during the festival – derailed hip hop jams, fusing inventive turntablism with powerful live elements. Here, as with some of the other areas, the sound seemed underpowered for the crowd capacity, lacking the overall cohesion that a quadraphonic set-up (or perhaps just a bit more volume) would have achieved. Despite Sónar’s daytime activities being much more of a socially orientated affair than the night agenda, it did seem strange to employ this compromised set-up.

While a cosmopolitan spread of trainspotters, ravers, media reps and industry moguls were lapping up the thick atmosphere of anticipation, on the other side of the walls it was a different story as ticketless hoardes queued at various outlets dotted around the Metro map, some waiting until 9 in the evening for their passes, by which time admission to the day events was no longer permitted. Indeed, queuing seemed to be the major gripe aired by punters during the course of the festival.

Out in the SónarDome area (the other outdoor stage operating during the day) the Cheap Records showcase found Patrick Pulsinger slipping into some mid-afternoon techno tunage. I wandered through to check it out upon recommendation but retreated sharply when confronted by a scary looking/sounding electro-punk outfit.

Lording it about on the astroturf seemed appropriate behaviour for much of the day’s remainder. A showcase from Jazzland permeated the airwaves for a large part of the afternoon, fusing psychedelic electronic jazz and noodley instrumental grooves – not really enough to stimulate dancing feet but undeniably accomplished at times. Pole played later that evening in the SónarHall as part of a downtempo showcase from Mute. It was hellishly crowded, so I squeezed my way out and along to the SónarComplex where DJ Hellfish drove a packed room stupid with his butchering mix of gabber and queasy hip hop beats. Switching between laptop and turntable, and employing some nimble scratching, the Deathchant Records’ boss threw down the gauntlet to those who felt the day had been lacking drive.

Unlike previous years, Thursday night saw scaled down official celebrations on offer with no major rave-up taking place in the usual spot a few miles southwest of the centre. Instead, performances from Matthew Herbert’s Big Band took place (if, unlike your reviewer, you managed to pre-book tickets), as did a special ‘10 Years of Sónar’ party, thrown for artists, press and those who’d forked out extra Euros for their Sonar Pro accreditations. As our entourage had tickets for neither we headed down to the Astin Bar where Cristian Vogel and Emma from No Future plucked out guitar-driven classics ranging from Dinosaur Jr though to the Pixies. Apparently the 10 Years Of Sónar party went off, with festival faves from the past decade hobnobbing behind the decks in a champagne swilling haze. Admittedly, it was a shame to miss the likes of Garnier, Francois K, Mills and Peel all under one roof at a freebie, but we had plenty of fun anyway, in a backstreet indie club kind of way.

Friday’s temperature reached a stifiling 36 degrees as we arrived to catch Prefuse 73’s jittery hip hop attitude getting pumped across the packed astroturf. Out in the Sonar Dome the Rise Robots Rise showcase saw Cristian Vogel spin twice (the first set chilled, meshing various mixes and oddities from the RRR camp, the second with more weight – a diverse medley spanning The Fall through to UR and Neil Landstrumm). Sandwiched between Vogel’s squeaky selections, labelmates the Meteorites injected some dub, funk and an indisputably fun element into the day’s events. The duo’s unrestrained vocalist did a fine job of rousing the revellers as his co-member tweaked and fiddled at the desk.

A mission to the nearest vodka vendor (a nice touch to Sónar is that they don’t check your bags for booze, unlike almost every music event in the UK) took longer than anticipated, thus we missed all but the last track from soundcraftsman Errorsmith (the guy from Smith N Hack, responsible for the celebrated MMM series). Unfortunately you can’t be everywhere at once, I was learning, and even if you are, your faculties are often somewhere completely different altogether.

If there was ever a more apt sponsor for this year’s event, Phoenecia, who followed on in the SónarHall, reinforced the notion it should be the Mac PowerBook. Hunched behind their illuminated Apple logos, they were dull to watch and difficult to lock in to. The muffled sound didn’t help either, so we drank vodka on the astroturf, mostly oblivious to whoever was on stage at the time.

Getting to the night site wasn’t easy. Not for the first time during our stay in Barcelona, the taxi driver didn't have the vaguest clue where he was going. In the end we persuaded him to follow a cab of drunken Brits to the venue, which led to a reckless Starsky & Hutch chase through the traffic queues leading out of the city centre. We arrived just before midnight to heaving crowds spilling out into the road. Touts were selling Friday night tickets for up to 120 Euros a piece (though friends managed to get in for 50 Euros each), and the queue to enter the complex was like an immense, unstable landmass trying to squeeze through an ant’s arse.

Inside and Bjork was halfway through her two-hour slot, yet tonight her charisma and stage presence felt lost in the vastness of the great hall. There were few close-ups of her on the video screens, which, if utilised better might have created more of a connection with the sprawling audience. It all sounded very polished, although it could have been anyone in the distance, playing a Bjork Greatest Hits CD, for all I knew. LFO's Mark Bell followed, and after rather a shaky start dipped into some rousing techno and electro flavours, warming the dancefloor well for bespectacled Canadian pioneer Richie Hawtin. From midway down the room Hawtin’s mixing sounded very tight and driving, but again not adequately inspiring for me to want to get close enough to the speaker stacks to become fully immersed. Elsewhere, T.Raumschmiere’s spiky electronic pulses were spinning people out in the SónarPub area, while at the same time DJ Krush’s lumbering breaks rattled around the Sonar Park in rather a sombre fashion.

Having been far from stunned by any of the music during the day or night there was only one answer – to stand right in front of the biggest speaker stack and wait for Aphex Twin to follow So Solid Crew’s Oxide and Neutrino. The performance from the two most prominent members of South London’s infamous garage collective for the most part fell flat on its face. ‘Barcelona, we’re taking over’, one of them announced. Uh huh.

Aphex Twin hit the mark, teasing the crowd into a steady groove with a techno-tinged selection – sounding a little pedestrian at times – before bolting through harder looped techno, rugged breaks and broken electro terrain. Midway through, his set broke down into five or so minutes of undulating bass tones, creating the most intense bottom-end experience I’ve ever had the pleasure of damaging my hearing to. When he then dropped a jungle bomb the whole arena went ballistic. True to form, following an old skool-meets-new school junglist tumult, the cocky Cornishman descended into an edgy gabba/pop/noise mashup that made Hellfish sound like a DJ at the waltzers. We left, unable to speak for about half an hour.

Outside saw a huge sound system gathering take place. Many stayed, while others floundered to get the scant transport facilities back to town. Witnessing the distress of those dithering around for the absurdly inadequate bus service, we walked back into town. It took three hours but the weather and the view across the city made it an absolute pleasure.

Where the previous night’s activities suffered from slightly disorientating agoraphobia, Saturday’s daytime event generated an electric and surprisingly intimate atmosphere. Sadly we arrived too late to catch US glitch-don Safety Scissors at Sonar Village but it was a treat to catch Spanish jock Fatkut deftly scratch and spin his way through tracks ranging from Massive Attack to heady melodic techno.

Despite his live sets receiving widespread critical acclaim, Canada’s Akufen was disappointing. His bouncy, glitch-laden disco-tech was punchy yet fell a little flat as he wiggled away behind his laptop set-up as part of the Mutek showcase in Sonar Dome. Many of his releases were played from start to finish with little noticeable manipulation, leaving me feeling his lengthy stripped-down drum workouts were better left on vinyl.

In striking contrast in the SónarComplex, having made countless guest appearances with different artists over the three days, Jamie Lidell pulled off what was arguably one of Sónar’s live highlights. Like the best comedy shows, Lidell’s spontaneity ensured an unrepeatable quick-fire performance that kept the audience on tenterhooks, assembling huge rhythmic structures from rudimentary beatbox loops and crooning vocals. From the sweetest sonic sonnets to the most ferocious of electro workouts, his performance was a two-finger salute to the inanimate mouse-clicking PowerBook posse. Big Band collaborator Matthew Herbert and experimental guitar terrorist Arto Lindsay graced the stage for a riotous finale, Lindsay’s howling fret-board trickery adding a whole new level of unruliness. The only complaint was that Lidell really should have played outside, as many latecomers were frustratingly unable to enter the hall.

Regrettably this reviewer couldn’t make it to Saturday’s nighttime event. Strangely enough, it seemed those who didn’t enjoy Friday night's agenda had a much better time this evening – and vice versa. Reports of Jeff Mills, Laurent Garnier and The Soft Pink Truth were particularly glowing, while the sprawling party outside the complex carried on well into the afternoon, with people from all nationalities getting down and dirty in the hot sun.

Having a few days remaining before heading home gave time to wind-down from half a week’s partying. Kompakt laid on a beach party on the Sunday, while trips to landmarks around the city – notably Gaudi’s Park Guelle – were definitely worth the effort for those of us who mustered the energy.

All in all things would have had to have gone pretty wrong if you had a bad time at Sónar 2003. Admittedly, though queues don’t normally bother me too much, when I counted over 120 people waiting for drinks tickets on Friday night it seemed something was amiss. Likewise, the transport provision for the night venue seemed ill thought out. But then it’s inevitable that an event of this magnitude will have its downsides, and for any criticism that could be levelled at Sónar, there’s no disputing that this is one event that will just run and run and run. With the majority of festivals, especially in the UK, having such an unimaginative cash-cow approach to musical programming, Sónar really is a beacon that will bring it’s own treats and surprises each year. 
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