air traffic controllers strike over France delay Sonar arrival

Sonar 2013 review

By Sean Tizzard | Published: Fri 21st Jun 2013

Sisy Ey

Thursday 13th to Saturday 15th June 2013
various venues in Barcelona, Spain, Spain
combine ticket 175 euros
Daily capacity: 80,000
Last updated: Wed 22nd May 2013

Adios Sonar. I'll be back to sample more of your many smiley, sunny surprises. You're an organisational delight, except for some minor glitches; a super, special, succulent sensory overload and I've fallen in love. 

I should have been with you in Barcelona on the Tuesday. If I had been there before the main action kicked off on the Thursday, I might have been able to take in one of the many Off Sonar parties that happen around the city. The cool kids say that these are as much of an experience as the main thing. Rooftop pool parties, showcases for the up and coming and the already there and events hidden away in hillside monasteries, these are unofficial dance epics running in the build up and throughout the time that Sonar is on. 

But I wasn't there. Air traffic controllers are striking over France and it's playing havoc with flights.  We learn about our cancelled flight on the Tuesday in the departure lounge of Birmingham airport. The budget airline project nonchalance at our predicament. Wednesday's rebooked flights get cancelled too but the airline are past caring when I moan to them that if I can't get out on Thursday's jam packed flights, I'll miss the first day of the official festival. They offer me a trip out of Luton early on Friday morning. I take it and try not to cry when I listen to the official radio feed of Thursday's coverage from a wet and windy Leicester. Gold Panda, Sebastien Tellier, and Mykki Blanco – we were destined not to meet this year. 

Sonar is celebrating its 20th birthday this year. It describes itself as an 'international festival of Advanced Music and New Media Art.' This is a pretty fine description of what we get. Unlike anything I've been to before, it's set across two locations linked by a dedicated Sonar bus, a Metro line, buses and taxis. Sonar By Day is set in the Fira Montjuic, a conference centre positioned centrally between the Plaça d'Espanya and the National Catalan Art Museum (MNAC). Those who've travelled to Barcelona before might know this area as it's very close to the Magic Mountain, a waterfall lit by colourful light and sparked by sound. It's a joyous thing to experience when you're queueing for transport to Sonar by Night. Sonar by Night is held in an expansive warehouse-like conference facility about ten minutes drive from the day site. 

Friday afternoon and we step inside Sonar By Day for the first time. We're directed into Sonar +D. This is geeks heaven, a space where new technologies are discussed, displayed and tested. We watch from a balcony as a Music Hack Day buzzes with discovery below us. I consult the programme for I have no clue what is going on in this space and I'm told, "a group of international hackers will have 24 hours to develop new musical applications. MHD Barcelona will have a special neuroscience track and aims to provide tools and API's to create hacks that combine music signals from the brain, brain-computer interfaces, and other physiological sensors." I'm still none the wiser but it seemed a lot of fun.

Elsewhere, there are workshops running where you can learn how to assemble your own synth or an amp. There's a hands on area where I put on a pair of headphones and pretend I'm making sounds out of gadgets with robotic monikers and slender designs. There are panel discussions, meet the expert opportunities, art installations and a market lab where you can investigate new creative, artistic innovations from companies with exotic names like Ultra-lab and Zoom interactivo y Electro-bichos. Sonar +D is like nothing I've ever seen at a festival before. It's a conference of trendies, a healing field for the electronically wired. I could spend a lifetime here and not understand what it's all about but I love what's on offer. 

We step away from the conference into an outside square where the SonarVillage is placed. Here we have a main stage, food outlets and a viewing gallery/chill-out space for those with accreditation. It's a mammoth, tidy and incredibly hot space all laid out with an artificial grass carpet. We're approaching the middle of the afternoon and the area is beginning to fill with beautiful people. La Bien Querida   are playing on the stage and we sit and watch them from a distance. This is electronic shoegaze, a Krautrock symphony played with style and delivered with good grace. It's a fine example of the music that's on offer at Sonar By Day. As long as there's an advanced, electronic bent to it then anything seems to go. Rules and formulas are not welcomed but you don't get the knowing sneers and exclusivity that could follow such an approach if it were attempted in the UK. 

We have accreditation so we head into the area by the side of the Sonar village. I find shade under a plant in a comfy sofa. Others are soaking up the rays that are intensely beating down. There's a bar in here and I order a beer and a water. As with all of the bars on site both at Sonar Day and Night, you need tokens to get your liquid. It's not hard to sort though as you can buy your tokens at each bar. A glass of Estrella at this bar costs two Euros, the same as a bottle of water. Elsewhere on site, the glass of beer costs three Euros, sometimes four. It might cost you an eighth of this price from a supermarket but you don't want to be drinking much in this heat. Blended Margaritas and other cocktails are also on the menu. They're not cheap coming it at circa nine Euros but we realise when trying one on the Saturday (all for the sake of journalistic research) that the cooling effect of the ice is laced with oodles of alcohol. Those Spanish cocktails are to be carefully drunk. 

I mentioned food. We don't eat much on the Friday because we're full on the supermarket bread, Iberico hams and calorific cheeses that we've munched at the apartment but there's a decent range of goodness on offer here too. A basic portion of Nachos sees us through but on the Saturday we treat ourselves to some squid cooked to perfection in a fish stew like sauce. It's backed up with barbecued broccoli and cauliflower and hearty plates of bean based salad. Perfect when washed down with a beer. 

We head out of the village area to check out another of the venues that Sonar By Day offers. The Sonar Hall is in another part of the conference centre. It's decked out in red velvet curtains. I don't stay here long for there is something happening on the stage that is too eclectic, vivid and out there for my Friday afternoon tastes. Christeene is part of the new 'Queer Rap' scene, a drag terrorist kitted out in torn clothing, greasy wig and misplaced make-up. Like Har Mar Superstar crossed with Cher if she were in the Beastie Boys, Christeene launches into 'Fix My Dick'. The dancers on stage aren't leaving much to the imagination with anal thrusts and simulated sexual poses. In hindsight, I wish I'd stayed longer to watch this spectacle. I note that Christeene is on the Shangri-La Hell stage at Glastonbury and the wise would miss the Arctic Monkeys (though perhaps not Portishead) for a piece of this action. 

Back at the village stage, a much more sedate affair is on offer. Icelandic act, Sisy Ey, have taken to the stage. This is Sonar's very own girl band but these girls are allowed here on their merits. It's a spicy house set confirming the promise they apparently showed at Sonar Reykjavik. They've released very little at the moment but I'm sure that record industry types will be knocking at their door after this glorious shiny set. Utterly delightful. 

Atom TM (aka Uwe Schmidt) from Germany is playing in the hall and this is my next stop. His biography suggests that I should know more about him than I do. He's standing motionless behind equipment, his bald head standing out like a full moon in this dark space. The sound is varied, glitchy, minimalist and yet full of frequency. There's a nod to Kraftwerk but it's a varied set and hard to pigeon hole. I'm impressed and make a mental note to find out more about this 'legend'.

I watch Matthew Herbert lay down a DJ set outside which feels traditional but gets the crowd going. He's followed by some super sweet funk slammed down by Jamie Liddell which glimmers in the late afternoon and gets the crowd standing to attention. People are chatting, strangers are mingling and there's anticipation in the air for we're considering how to get to Sonar By Night to catch the 10.45 set of Kraftwerk and their 3D show. There's a logistical nightmare waiting to happen here with the show appearing to be the one that all want to catch. I take a breath and head up an escalator (yes – an escalator at a festival) to the fourth venue of Sonar By Day. I chat to people of so many nationalities whilst waiting for JJ Doom in the Sonar Dome; French, Belgium, Irish, English, Scots, American, Dutch and Spanish; this is a truly an International festival. JJ & Doom take to the stage later than is published and I'd like to stay for more than I do as I'm enjoying the first couple of tracks of this underground hip-hop but I'm conscious that the journey to Sonar by Night could be fraught.

review by: Sean Tizzard

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