Sónar Festival

As the world's best-known electronic music festival reaches its eleventh year, Jeremy Slacksworth decides this sun-soaked melange of the industry and raver is reaching its eleventh hour.

By Jeremy Slacksworth

The electronic music scene has more than its share of image sluts, freeloaders and general media schmooze – elements that suck the blood of artistic essence. Take the Miami Winter Music Conference: if David Morales lording it around the poolside in a G-string whilst Tiesto's on the turntables is truly moving the music forward then my cock's a cuckoo. Maybe that's curt, but you get the point – forward-looking music starts to take a back seat to more marketable entities.

Sónar's 2004 promotional campaign – apparently parodying Miami booty bass (glad someone pointed that out to me) – certainly didn't discourage those 'in the scene' already predisposed to style crimes and a bit of materialistic self-pleasuring. Every email-shot in the run-up to the festival seemed to flash a bronzed leg or a boob falling out of a sports car. Any irony was certainly lost, as was the relevance of the Sonar Accreditation bag with silky brochures for Motorola, Hewett Packard and Miami Boutique Hotels; it would have been nice to actually get a timetable!

Okay. It's possible that memories of festivals past distend trivial criticisms. Having missed out on Sónar's formative years it's both facile and foolish to contest the huge wave of optimism that has come about through Barcelona's highest profile event: parties uniting nodes of the global electronic music community each summer in one of the world's most exciting cities. But a burgeoning festival bears new issues with each edition; direction becomes less clear-cut; compromises juxtapose opportunities; it starts to become a victim of its own success.

With each year having more appetites to sate than the last, programming such a beast is no mean feat. Despite many saying this year's line-up wouldn't cut it, the programme was still light-years away from cash-cow ulcers in the UK calendar like Creamfields and Homelands. The usual suspects were in place (Mills, Hawtin, Cox) with enough big-name leftfield/hip hop acts onboard to keep technophobes from complaint (Massive Attack, Roots Manuva, Madlib). In addition, the daytime events hosted diverse label showcases (Shitkatapult, Electrix, Lex, Accidental, Broklyn Beats, Botanica Del Jibaro...), with a splattering of Spanish names ensuring home-ground representation.

There's no denying that Barcelona is an outstanding location for a party. The whole place has the feel of a living art exhibition – even the tagging on the streets is crazed, intricate, beautiful. So when Sónar takes place, the whole centre becomes a festival. Numerous fringe events showcase excellent music and the feeling about town is generally upbeat and enthusiastic. Except, that is, from locals living close to the Centre de Cultura Contemporania de Barcelona venue, where 'Fuck Sónar' graffiti adorning walls and banners hanging from windows signalled a strong anti-festival sentiment borne of pollution to the neighbourhood.

Whether a neighbourly gesture or not, music on day one of the festival was, like the previous year, pretty laid back (or lacking drive, depending how you look at it). A significant proportion of the schedule was given over to folk-ish noodlings and hum 'n' bubblewrap electronics – nothing to really get your teeth into.

Last on the main stage (SónarVillage) the Botanica Del Jibaro/Beta Bodega crew showcased some heady hip hop flavours, culminating with Force.fed from the mysterious Megadebt faction spewing out heavy chopped-up rhythms, gritty breakcore and swooping sound design. An intense spoken-word section in Spanish, denouncing George Bush and his iniquitous war effort, evoked charged applause from the crowd, with creeping tones and crackles finally giving way to a magnificent mashed techno groove. Then there was no bass. Noise complaints forced the volume to an almost inaudible level – a real shame for the first day of the festival, not to mention the Miami-based collective who were headlining.

Friday was kick-started with the Electrix showcase out in the SónarDome. Label-runner Billy Nasty span rather polite techno and electro to an admiring crowd before Transparent Sound dropped a delicate live-set of a housier breed. Not with enough continuity to avoid the pull of Francois K in the Sonar Village area however; the NYC-based Frenchman, famed for his deep disco blends and on-point remixes, might not be the finest selector of techno, but his two-hour set in the afternoon heat provided a much-needed rhythmic backbone to the day. At the same time, out in the Escenario Hall Pan Sonic's set was apparently heavy beyond belief.

The Broklyn Beats showcase in the SónarDome was excellent. With five recent releases on as many labels, NYC's Luca Venezia aka Drop The Lime has a stage presence almost as mentalist as his music. Sporting a vest pronouncing 'trouble & bass', his vocally laced laptop set married pneumatic bodypopping with beats ever poised on the brink of collapse. To the pleasure of the crowd, though clearly not to the stagehand, his set long overran due to the airline loosing the record box of label-mate Criterion (who later went on to play a superb variable tempo DJ set with whatever discs he could muster).

On to Friday's Sónar by Night, which takes place at a gargantuan complex some miles from the centre. It was a shame to miss Magda from the M-nus camp, arriving at the venue just as she stepped down from the decks. Next up, Tim Wright, known for his eponymous Novamute material and Tube Jerk moniker, crafted a dynamic live sound from behind his desk: wonkish techno peppered with electro and breakbeats rhythms that forced you to dance.

Richie Hawtin and Ricardo Villalobos took to the stage and banged out two and a half hours of seamless, driving, loopy techno. They were clearly enjoying themselves immensely, as were the sweaty wide-eyed hordes that packed the hall solid.

One can only assume that So Solid Crew's 'performance' in the SónarPub area had mutilated the sound system, for when Matthew Herbert followed with his charismatic mix of wonky house and squelch-laden electronics the speakers were distorted beyond a tolerable point.

It was upon leaving the venue that a conversation with members of a visiting showcase sadly cast a grey cloud over Sónar 2004. That showcase acts don't get paid to appear is one thing, but that they must pay for their own flights is wrong indeed. In the early days of Sónar this would warrant less scrutiny, but when a festival sells out, grossing millions of $$$ – not to mention the sponsorship deals – it seems preposterous that half the daytime acts have to pay to play when others get an abundant payout. Small grassroots labels certainly benefit from a promotional presence at Sónar, but their involvement is crucial to a healthy dynamic within the festival. Of course, it's a balancing act to ensure good attendance, and without the insight of a full financial breakdown some may argue this a moot point. But with labels lining up for a ticket to play the festival, it would seem the organisers have many of the best acts over a barrel.

A very long day finally terminated after hours of cross-cultural caning at the nearby Anti-Sónar after-party, where local and European sound systems raised another one-finger salute to the commercialism of Barcelona's biggest music event. Last year's after-party proved the highlight of the weekend for many, and, despite a few shady happenings, there was no disputing that this multi-rig assembly again provided the festival with party elements no DJ fee can secure.

Saturday was a write-off I'm sorry to say. Reports of Max Tundra and Kid Koala were both first-rate. Jeff Mills too, some people said he was best they'd ever seen him (though others said he was particularly sloppy, funnily enough).

An unfair appraisal then, given that so much of the festival was passed by? Once again, it was only when stumbling around the inside of the Centre de Cultura Contemporania needing the toilet that any of the visual art got so much as a peek. But then it's a festival – there's no point in rushing about beyond the point of feeling comfortable even if you are a freeloading hack.

The bottom line is I've yet to hear from anyone who had a bad time – in fact, many people seemed to have the time of their lives (you'd have to try bloody hard to have a bad time at Sónar – it's a huge party in a sunny city packed with hedonists). So, why the long face you may ask?

Because I care, that's why.
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