It’s with the sun beating down on a roasting Cataluña that my Alta Velocidad Española service from Madrid glides into Barcelona Sants station and I mentally prepare myself for this, my third pilgrimage (and Dots & Dashes’ fourth) into the chaotic majesty of Sónar. I’ve been gearing myself up gradually for weeks, if not months now, and I can’t help but sense that this will be the year I really conquer its lengthy days and longer nights.
Walking from the station up toward Fira Montjuïc – the newfound home for this year’s Sónar de Día festivities – there is little sign of the impending debauchery doubtless to soon unfurl: with fewer branded backpacks on display and scarcely a rumble of the festival’s now trademark bass thump, the windows surfacing the plethora of apartments adorning the surrounding streets of Sónar’s newly acquired castle barely even so much as ripple. I pass a prison, sanctimoniously crossing my chest in the hope that nothing will wind us up within its stonking concrete walls. But then slowly, emerging from the streets, a softened thrum as I stumble upon the unmistakable throb to come from a kick drum. It builds and builds, until stentorian once inside.
And so what of Sónar’s new abode? Well, it’s bigger this time, for one. Gone are the floral decorations and sapphire blue tiles of its former home, replaced instead with a series of enormous hangars nestled adeptly behind the kind of façade a multinational advertising agency would be proud of. This is Sónar de Día pumped up on steroids: its outdoor section an AstroTurfed football pitch filled with revellers from all over the world, they flick their arms skywards with increasing vigour at every last drop. And to kick things off, I’m here to see a man I’ve meant to since I first heard Super_Collider some fifteen years ago. That man is Jamie Lidell.
He too is newly appeared as I find my spot, opening potently as he sets about constructing a techno beat bound to thrill this archetypal Sónar audience. As it comes to climax, he remarks: “I first played here in 1999, so I dedicate this song to Prince” before launching into Multiply number, A Little Bit More. Here reconfigured as a thumping dance track, Lidell attempts his best Prince impression only to then revisit recent single You Naked – a song that seems a little disconcerting when emitted from his mouth. He certainly doesn’t seem the sort to eulogise the female form as such and although the performance is composed, it loses momentum with time.
Which, ultimately, leaves me with the feeling of having seen something toward the decent end of the mediocre spectrum. That is not to say that Lidell is by any means a poor performer, and he certainly succeeds in providing the perfect atmosphere to ignite the revelatory experience that this year’s Sónar truly proves to be. However the distinct lack of energy to his show is reflected in a somewhat lethargic spectatorial reaction, all of which results in a significantly more tame ending to Friday’s Sónar de Día when set beside that of previous editions. My anticipation, however, rises above and remains propulsive as I power on into the night.
Sónar de Noche, by contrast, still finds itself situated out amidst the strangely commercialised hinterland that is Hospitalet. Entering the main hall, the vast SónarClub, Kraftwerk are on the verge of welcoming us into their pseudo-futuristic matrix of Krauty reverence. This is a show I’ve wanted to witness since those now notorious Tate dates were first announced and, armed with a delightful, Sónar-branded pair of 3D specs, I take my pew and prepare for a sermon on electronic minimalism from the high priests of the genre. What follows is, visually speaking, something of a spectacular but in terms of the aural element, they fall a little flat on a typically ebullient Sónar throng. With every novel, über-minimal Ramsian ocular escapade comes increasing sensorial wonderment and yet the crowd bobs on almost oblivious – intently, if a tad impatiently awaiting the proceeding drop. Alas, it’s one which all too frequently Ralf Hütter und Co. fail to deliver.
Personal favourite Autobahn impresses immensely as sparse, if retrograde images of motorways speed across every visible screen although I can’t help but feel that Kraftwerk’s set never quite computes with such a cavernous expanse and as pounding beats spill over from neighbouring stages, inundating the Germans’ attention-commanding spectacle, it becomes all too apparent that this was a set belonging to la madrugada and not 10:45pm.
Though no matter, as next up is the festival’s resident darling, Nicolas Jaar. Now freshly graduated and evidently loving life, he nonchalantly strolls onstage at SónarLab before two vast screens – his smile broad as most Catalonian horizons. Greeting the crowd in his native español, he proffers the best performance I’ve yet seen of him. Having scrutinised his shows in this very same setting these past few years, it’s been intriguing to see him develop as a performer and if last year’s showing was marked by an exemplary composure a little lacking in bite, then that of this edition certainly rectifies that. He now has a significant amount of material at his disposal, and decorates the set with past hits and the previously unexperienced alike. Overheard atop the incessant, euphoric chanting of “Nico! Nico! Nico!” highlights include El Bandido, Mi Mujer and With Just One Glance You – all of which see him on top of his game. But truth be told, the set is first and foremost a resplendent blend of well-timed twists and turns throughout Jaar’s aural odyssey thus far. As a consequence, it’s over all too soon, as acolytes and newly acquired revellers are forced to seek out an act to match such superlative…
Passing back by SónarClub, the festival unites in the Harlem Shake under the questionable guidance of Baauer himself. Decidedly dreadful, as is the remainder of the abrasive Yank’s set, there’s plenty of bang for absolutely no buck whatsoever and whilst YouTube may well have boosted his career quite stratospherically, what kind of career it’ll ultimately transpire to be remains to really be seen.
Up next are French turntablists C2C, who lighten the mood considerably with their emblematic bombast à la française. Tuning in to every ’90s hip hop act under the sun and eventually turning to the Beastie Boys’ Intergalactic, their idiosyncratic rendition never disgusts as one can’t help but fear it might and in truth, C2C prove to be one of the highlights of a somewhat bottom-heavy Friday night. With the benefit of hindsight, however, it’s perhaps not overly surprising given that which was to follow.
Skrillex: a name in need of no introduction which will, without question, conjure expletives of either joy or contempt depending on the ears to which the word is uttered. Certainly in my case, the artist formerly known as Sonny John Moore is one I most readily associate with complete and utter mediocrity though his show is I suppose, in its own individualistic way, quite incomparable in that it most closely resembles a video game. As the ‘artist’ spins out lecherous, distorted effects and clumsy drops, footage of first-person shooters, skulls and God knows what else is splayed across the screens before the stage shoots up to reveal its central protagonist sat on some Japanese anime-reimagined Iron Throne. To call it a mess is to compliment, as Skrillex continues to perplex and perpetuate the distaste in equal measure.
Sónar itself, however, remains utterly spectacular as ever, with every element of the festival that makes this experience so inexplicably wonderful still fully intact. That I’m already a half way through the skewed weekend only saddens me further come the early hours of Saturday, but little did I know that this was just a delectable appetiser for what was to come…