Review: Sónar 2015.

“Barcelona’s a city everybody comes to to fuck, and get fucked up” my wily host for a first of five nights proudly informs me, having traded Detroit for the Catalan capital several years ago. And with condoms as standard in each and every Pro accreditation pack, and sponsored as per always by the bloody delectable local booze that is Estrella Damm, Sónar essentially does precious little to contradict so crude a sentiment…

Offering a plethora of festivals, from Primavera Sound and Sónar, to the internationally lesser-known Festival Cruïlla and Hard Rock Rising, Barcelona has repeatedly proven itself not only to be a very forgiving haven for reckless hedonists, but also a most versatile city, with makeshift stages erected in some pretty improbable places and spaces each and every aestival season. But when it comes to breathtaking (when not downright bonkers) settings, no weekend bender does it better than Sónar. This is thus a perfectly depraved utopia for those hedonists aforesaid – or indeed a commensurately dystopian ciudad for those more righteous amongst us, who’ve presumably long since gone to bed by the time Sónar de Nit hits its stride on Friday and Saturday nights – and so it would seem year on year, and with that year in, year out by the sounds of things. Although it’s the class and crystalline professionalism with which Sónar approaches the art of partying that well and truly sets it apart.

Sónar 2015

You can have the quality of illicit substances checked onsite; buy cerveza with the quickest flash of a cash-charged wristband; get shuttled from Fira Montjuïc to that of L’Hospitalet de Llobregat by night, and back again come the dreaded madrugada, the prevailing impression not unlike a particularly iniquitous school trip presided over by a certain Shaun Ryder. And sure enough, soon enough, pills, ’n’ thrills, and bellyaches ensue…

It’s the (relatively) newly relocated Sónar de Dia, however, that really stars this time around, with the Dalston-based, if Caracas-born producer nonpareil primarily known only as Arca pulling together the three disciplines – ‘Music, Creativity & Technology’ – driving the 2015 festival in ineffably emphatic fashion. Complemented by the comparably indescribable visual indulgences of the seemingly nymphomaniacal Jesse Kanda, Alejandro Ghersi may be at his very best when his sound is most evocative of his once-native Venezuela, but where one world ends and another begins increasingly becomes quite inconsequential. His – or perhaps rather Kanda’s – “piano baby” seems to belong to another place, or indeed planet, altogether; although if there is this one niggling criticism, then at times, Ghersi relies that bit too readily on so much of the hip hop derivation that alas, predominates so much of Thursday’s proceedings, rather than the divine vitality of début album, Xen.

Gijón’s Skygaze, who wears his unmistakable love of Steven Ellison on his sleeve, much like so many fellow admirers now do Leigh J. McCloskey’s Cosmogramma artwork, suffers for an early start time and a disinterested audience more interested in carefreely supping on unadulterated sunshine; fellow Iberian InnerCut’s set, conversely, drags on for rather too long, with even the ecstatic ???? drastically overshadowed by the grim menace cast by the unquestionable brilliance of Arca some moments subsequently. Less ridiculous than Ghersi’s live show, if ridiculously loveable in its very own right though, is that of souf London mainstays, Hot Chip

Hot Chip, Sónar 2015

Of course, for Sónar to have gotten Hot Chip “workin’ night and day” is quite the coup, the Putney five-piece playing both de Dia and de Nit. Nevertheless, their two sets’ (nigh on) identikit lists makes it seem like Alexis Taylor et al. have missed what may well have proven a pretty resplendent trick. They’ve doubtless the material to pull off two contrastive, if similarly vital performances; a purring Alley Cats that slinks out midway through their first plainly suggests as such. However, with that said, both provide (albeit somewhat predictably) joyous occasions, Ready for the Floor benefitting from Taylor’s intense infatuation with the oeuvre of one William Onyeabor. Other moments sound redolent of Cyndi Lauper, with drummer Sarah Jones visibly having oodles of fun on the drums throughout, before Look At Where We Are and I Feel Better together, trace the comparatively recent trajectory of contemporary R&B, with the former mirroring so much of Born to Do It and the latter taking its cues more from the kind of vocoded vacuity that has served so many a kingpin of the genre so well in said timeframe. But that’s all they’ve time for tonight; more on Hot Chip in a little bit.

Because as is so often remarked upon, and to the nauseating extent of an Estrella Damm or a dodgy bump too many, Sónar week is not all about the main event per se, with a positively ludicrous superabundance of afternoon beach parties and BBQs, nocturnal get-togethers and breakfast refreshers scheduled throughout the city. And so, Thursday night takes us to the infamous Razzmatazz – a venue I’d had what I then believed to be the pleasure of visiting quite some time ago, only to now find a generic ‘superclub’ of the sort I’m hoping never to have to set foot therein ever again. “It’s a bit like [Manchester’s] The Deaf Institute,” one know-it-all rather erroneously wisecracks betwixt tokes on a smoking death stick on one of several industrial balconies, but it’s the mystical allure of the inimitable Omar Souleyman that soon has us grinning, making the unbearable blathering of moments before fade away like hazy Barcelonan days. There are certainly those who fail to fathom Souleyman’s incessant, vespine dabke music and gravelled, mantric chanting; and that in spite of some more recent outings having been produced by the likes of Four Tet and Modeselektor, whose Monkeytown Records so kindly put on this particular shindig. But in spite of Rizan Sa’id’s pronounced absence, and Souleyman’s preaching to the philistine, rather than his usual following of fervid disciples, his show is another head-turning triumph in a continually lengthening line of Jazeera Nights likewise.

Owen Pallett, Sónar 2015

But whether there for Sónar or OFF – the vociferously revered, and quietly reviled unofficial offshoot – as Owen Pallett posits the following afternoon, few would “pay to come to [Barcelona] to see a faggot play violin.” Taking this as fact, or at face value, he’s probably right; although Pallett’s irreproachable performance alone is pretty much deserving of the price that’s printed onto each and every ticket. For intricate layers and exquisite loops pour out from his every pore, this one-man orchestra putting forward a further tour de force; one which is now, rather far removed from his first. For if This Is the Dream of Win & Regine – first released in ’05, under his previous nom de plume, Final Fantasy – is most agreeable, then it’s material lifted from last year’s impeccable In Conflict which unites all kinds…

Quite how Song For Five & Six isn’t necessarily deemed one of the “good” ones by its auteur seems criminal, if not criminally insane, with In Conflict itself a more “fun” number. All the more so, meanwhile, is Infernal Fantasy; a song that, with its flittering arpeggi and slick guitar licks, is considerably more in keeping with so many of the other musics which fill the week. But it’s the raging The Riverbed – inaugurated by thundering, souped-up drum machines, that once more feel more like well-lubricated cogs in the exceptionally well-lubricated fun-time machine that Sónar represents – that sets pulses racing as might an amphetaminal bacchanal.

Kiasmos, Sónar 2015

If Pallett is swimming against the tides of conventional Sónar fare – a pretty indefinable thing in itself of course, so unconventional is Sónar in its very essence – then Ólafur Arnalds sounds far more au fait with what’s expected of he and Janus Rasmussen. “Are you ready for some techno? That’s what this is about, right?” he moots, moments before Kiasmos launch into a blip-littered take on Swayed. Although this is about as far removed from the Belleville Three as Reykjavík is from Detroit, with the duo who somehow manage to commingle neo-classical lilts with pulsating electronica tropes as worthy of their berth on this year’s bill as, say, Laurent Garnier. Regardless, the likes of the tech-house-y Wrecked and a wondrous Swept prove they’ve enough to mix it with those names scrawled in considerably bigger font up on this year’s rundown, while also showing that, just as Sónar is about so much more than merely “techno”, Kiasmos quite acutely encapsulate the cross-genre, and indeed cross-generational appeal that this particular festival holds.

Hence it’s held so dear by so many, I suppose. And denoting it being that “little bit surreal,” later on, is another cherished institution of ’90s-inaugurated alternative dance music; aka Moloko’s Róisín Murphy. For reasons unbeknownst to us even today, however, it all feels all too humdrum, whilst Hudson Mohawke – the second of Kanye’s Yeezus co-producers to feature throughout the week – contemporaneously puts together a set that sounds not dissimilar to little more than an inconsequential series of hip hop backing tracks. Redinho, having disappointed earlier on in the day on his own, lends a little vim to Ryderz while Ross Birchard lurches back and forth on gangly limb, but the reality is that Sónar de Nit doesn’t get off to the most propitious of starts this year…

Hot Chip, Sónar 2015

And so, praise be to dios for the reprise provided by the return of Hot Chip. Yes, sure: “The joy of repetition” really is in them, but when so recurrently compelling, it becomes impossible to begrudge them the indulgence. During a suitably exigent, Sinnamon-sampling Need You Now, all seems right with the world – if only momentarily – with elements of both Eric Prydz’ Call On Me and York’s On the Beach interpolated in turn. Ready for the Floor later takes a turn for the Boy from School-astic, its newly equatorial inflexions tropical as the polymathic Rob Smoughton’s shirt. Which takes us onward, to this most pertinent of points: that although Hot Chip have, with time, become something of a scintillating all-star assemblage, it’s such unsung heroes as Sarah Jones and Smoughton who arguably now shine brightest. Hot Chip thus now need them as much as the pair apparently need Taylor, Joe Goddard, Owen Clarke, Felix Martin and Al Doyle.

All the more intriguing, however, is the way in which Hot Chip pace both sets: for with segues and interlude-like segments the order of both day and night, each has – and has pretty unrepentantly, at that – the unrelenting groove of a conventional DJ turn. By that most direct of contrasts, Jamie xx plumps for a DJ set that, antithetically, feels more like a live show. Making his Sónar bow, as The Persuasions’ Jerry Lawson proclaims: “I know there’s gonna be good times, good times”, it quickly becomes painstakingly apparent that these are to be plentiful and fucking pleasurable, Smith with “the world” spinning into the palm of his hands, via the two plates deployed onstage. Revising his recent solo début album, In Colour, he elects to revisit those samples from which it was first constructed, thereby [d/r]econstructing as he goes along. And, to paraphrase the absent Romy Madley Croft, Smith reaches “higher places” tonight than he’s ever been able to alongside she and Oliver Sim.

Jamie xx, Sónar 2015

Without necessarily wanting to sound unnecessarily nepotistic however, it’s when he somewhat narcissistically airs his own material more or less as is, or was, that he’s at his most omnipotent; Stranger in a Room, for one, proves devastating, and sounds the sort of instant classic that, not unlike the preceding Body Groove, is likely to last enduringly, if not unendingly. UKG thus rubs shoulders with smouldering, more tender moments, such as Loud Places: alas, it apparently proved too time-, and with that, all-consuming to recreate this, or any other number as was on French TV recently, with Smith meekly confiding: “It’s more fun to [merely] DJ” on Wednesday evening. But if frightfully sceptical at the time, it seems the good-time guy knew best after all, Gosh a truly grubby beauty, before Idris Muhammad’s Could Heaven Ever Be Like This sees us out.

But wait, what’s this? An encore? The sort to round off what could well be the very best set of its kind seen and/ or heard in recent times? We get Girl and, while some 700-odd miles from Hackney, it makes for a truly “beautiful” moment beneath the jet-black Catalan sky. By night, the vinyl enchantment is left in the eminently capable hands of Smith therefore, but by day, it’s down to Sam Shepherd – aka Floating Points – to bring everything from Nuits Sonores to sensual Marvin Gaye numbers to a packed SonarDôme, which he does with enviably seamless ease.

Ah! Kosmos, Sónar 2015

It’s this same venue that may be that bit less busy the following afternoon, although Istanbul’s Başak Günak – aka Ah! Kosmos – is certainly no less masterful. For in killer stilettos, the Turk throws down some of the most lethal drops of the entire week: perfectly conflating organic and, naturally, more electronic components, trip-hop-py undertones tingle beneath tonalities straight out of her native Turkey to create a sound that is, once more, in complete keeping with the ethics and ethos that Sónar promotes. And, but for those less successful, all-too-tentative forays into more vocal territories, horizons are broadened as beaming smiles do likewise. Because to see an artist in as total a control as Günak is mesmeric in itself; combine this with the blistering grace of And Finally We’re Glacier, or the arresting pulses of the pulsating Melting Into Rise, and you’ve what is already a bloody formidable live show. Factor in some holistic live visuals and the like and, aside from several guitar lines that could be made that bit more imaginative in time, when it comes to downsides, well, they’re relatively few and far between. Günak has therefore been afforded an international platform by Sónar, Red Bull Music Academy, and so on; we’d now be in no way surprised were she to reach for those rather higher echelons of the bill in years to come…

Akin to the myriad tapas dishes tucked into throughout the week, the ability to pick and choose is made all the more doable by dint of your being able to come and go to and from Sónar de Dia as you please. This is, without question, another of its very many strengths, and while the nighttime festivities assume a more chthonic quality, in light of there being absolutely no readmission under any circumstances, another minor qualm with the 2015 edition is that the portion sizes could do with a little bit of redistribution here and there. For all of Günak’s incontrovertible brilliance, for instance, she’s afforded no fewer than fifty minutes, while FKA twigs later gets just ten more. Tahliah Debrett Barnett may be enveloped in dry ice and strobe – and, rather inevitably, arrives late onstage again – but it’s all smoke and mirrors; so much so that, by Give Up, the temptation to give up altogether becomes all but overwhelming.

FKA twigs, Sónar 2015

Hotfooting it over to the considerably bigger SonarClub thus seems the sagacious option, as Duran Duran are hoofing the Nile Rodgers-produced Notorious straight outta the place. Wizened as the decision to ditch ’twigs immediately seems wise, Happy Birthday may be sung en masse to bassist John Taylor – among more filler that’s stodgier than most tartas de cumpleaños – but it’s when they whiz through the likes of Ordinary World, A View to a Kill, (Reach Up for The) Sunrise, Planet Earth and Rio, in that very order, that celebrations begin and, alas, then promptly end.

“How shall we begin, my friends?” quizzes the aforesaid Ellison – known more commonly by the Flying Lotus moniker – from within a blanched cuboid, lysergic projections splattered onto its every side. “So many of you here” he then muses with childish relish, before “summon[ing] the spirit of Captain Murphy” for a brief rap through Dead Man’s Tetris. Less visibly, but still vocally baked as he babbles on about “weird pastrami slices and overpriced drinks,” a tribute to the late DJ Rashad surely ranks among the more poignant of moments. But it’s all a little too half-baked for the likings of most, as the crowd thins to the tune of what is, sonically, a similarly thin Zodiac Shit. Forget Shak[ing] Weight, therefore; for Ellison really doesn’t pull his own here. Because it’s all a little bit of a masquerade, which makes it seem fitting that he should be masked by the smokescreen-like silkscreen behind which he hides…

Flying Lotus, Sónar 2015

Of course, it’s a wonder that the more readily observable Skrillex wants to show his face in such estimable circles as those in which so many Sónar aficionados revolve at all, although here we have Sonny John Moore unapologetically pounding out the likes of Spandau Ballet and Ellie bloody Goulding for the second time in the past three years. If it’s pretty deplorable for him to have been booked at all, then the repetition of this particular error makes it seem all the more so. Moreover, what with the ‘EDM’ disaster that is EDC running concurrently in Las Vegas, you can’t help but feel there’s not only no time for Skrillex at Sónar, but a rather more appropriate place he could be currently. Regardless, I had no notion of what a Skrillex track sounded like before stumbling into SonarClub, and now, I’m none the wiser. Nonetheless, having witnessed forbidding Asturian duo LCC delight a dimly lit SonarComplex, found myself blown away by the force-of-naturist nous of both Kiasmos and Ah! Kosmos, and bathed in the both polyphonic and polychromic creativity of Jamie xx, Sónar has once more managed to form trends, inform trend-setters, and reform the myriad ways in which we set about getting the most out of festivals, and the thriving culture thereof.