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Living it up at Sonar Barcelona 2016

The European cultural extravaganza brought together the biggest trends in music and technology; witnessed slamming performances by both legendary and rising talent

Naveen Deshpande Sep 22, 2016
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Sonar by Day. Photo: Asis Gonzalez

Sonar Barcelona has been by far the best-sounding and most perfect-looking city festival that I have been to. Apart from the fact that this event has been around for almost a quarter of a century (the June event that I attended was its 24th edition and my first), what makes Sonar different from other music events is that is a part of We Are Europe (WAE), a cooperative organization of eight major festivals who have come together to create and develop innovative ideas and cultural practices. These are festivals that foresee a big social and political change using culture, technology and entrepreneurship as the medium. Thus, there is a huge focus on the technological aspect of the festival i.e. sound, lights, installations, tech shows etc. A more-than-keen attention to sound at Sonar also means two very important things: that artists can enjoy pristine quality no matter which stage they play at, and that fans needn’t worry which side of the stage they should stand around to have the best experience.

DAY ONE

Martin Messier at his FIELD show. Photo: Madza Rebels

Martin Messier at his FIELD show. Photo: Madza Rebels

I was lucky to be in time for the amazing show by Canadian artist Martin Messier. Titled FIELD, the performance saw Messier, who is a composer and installation artist, creating sounds from electromagnetic fields by continuous plugging and unplugging of connections. In a nutshell, his performance was a live sound-and light show.

Sonar Village, a pretty outdoor stage sponsored by Barcelona’s favorite beer Estrella Damm, saw a great evening set by Mad Professor (UK). The dub legend featured a few Spanish MCs on his set, setting the pace for the evening. His gig was followed by American house producer The Black Madonna, who brought her signature four-on-the-floor fare. I am not a big fan of her music but she did get a bunch of people grooving in the audience. I was really looking forward to German electronic legend David August’s set this summer and I am very glad to have seen him at Sonar. His tour documentary David August & Ensemble has inspired many and it is beautiful to see the results of all the hard work he and his band have put in. The exceptional fat bass lines on the L-Acoustics’ K2 sound system added a sharp edge to their live electronica act and the simple-yet-effective lighting by Tim Vermeulen proved that you don’t need a big inventory to make your show look massive.

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DAY TWO

American singer-songwriter Kelela. Photo: Ariel Martini

American singer-songwriter Kelela. Photo: Ariel Martini

Day two at Sonar by Day did not really see that many interesting acts””or rather, they weren’t of my taste. I was looking forward to London-based DJ Kode9’s show but it turned out to be a little disappointing with some vague sights on the screen, which didn’t really complement the music. Not having to spend a lot of time during the day turned out well for me since I had all the energy to go all out for Sonar by Night. It saw a magnificent performance by English singer-songwriter James Blake who has been topping rosters of all the major festivals this season. There was also a groovy set by Australia experimental producer Flume and a completely boring show by English singer and visual artist Anohni. The highlight of the night was English post rocker Four Tet pulling off a seven-hour set for the first time at the Sonar car stage. Loaded with a treasure of genres, Four Tet was the right choice to test the crunchy Funktion-One sound system. I heard some Fela Kuti in there too!

DAY THREE

London hip-hop crew Section Boyz. Photo: Ariel Martini

London hip-hop crew Section Boyz. Photo: Ariel Martini

On day three, I was happy to be part of German electronic music label Raster Noton’s 20th anniversary celebrations at Sonar. The bash witnessed performances by some of their key artists such as glitch producer Alva Noto, digital/music act Cyclo (which comprises Japan’s Ryoji Ikeda and Germany’s Carsten Nicolai) and of course the boss/label co-founder Byetone. Although Byetone faced difficulties during the first couple of tracks, the rest of his set displayed a precise synchronization between sound and images. Cyclo, on their part, put out a highly technological sensory show that mixed repetitive algorithmic techno with powerful visual interpretations of their sound. This essentially means that the images not only accompanied the music, but, in most cases, became the music itself.

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UK experimental drum ”˜n’ bass legends Ivy Lab had a slow start with their show, 20/20 at the changeover stage at Sonar Village. Midway through their set, it started pouring and even the handful of people present vanished. But when Ivy Lab decided to move to the main Sonar Village stage, they had already figured that good old DnB was the way forward for them. They only had to drop their first track to attract thousands of people towards the stage, never mind the rain. The day ended with the highly anticipated act Howling, which comprises RY X and Frank Wiedemann (Australia/USA). They played material from their albums Sacred Ground and Spiral To Victory, both of which released last year. Howling collaborated with Children Of Light, a well-known lighting duo from Holland who have worked with producers like Nicolas Jaar (from the New York based band Darkside) in the past. Although Children Of Light’s visual concept here looked similar to what they did with Darkside, it didn’t really matter much ”“ the band performed well and the red curtains/mood lighting added an extra appeal to the venue, SonarHall.

My next stop was Sonar by Night, where the favorite festival headliner this summer, New Order played a tight set, followed by XL Recordings’ Kaytranada from Canada. His visuals for the set were the best I have ever seen. Garage legend DJ EZ lived up to his name””Barcelona saw its first mosh pit of the festival during his set. I also managed to watch [UK house/big beat veteran] Fatboy Slim’s entire set, which, right from the first beat, was such a brilliant journey, both sonically and visually. The man might be over 50, but he packs in some solid energy.

All in all, my experience at Sonar still gives me goosebumps when I think about it!

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