Sonar's experiments delight again

Sonar Festival review

By Sean Tizzard | Published: Tue 4th Jul 2017

Around the Site

Thursday 15th to Saturday 17th June 2017
various venues, Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain MAP
165 euros
Daily capacity: 80,000
Last updated: Tue 9th May 2017

Her skin accidentally grazed against his. It was the slightest of touches. The hairs on his arm, thick dark and dense, were dowsed with a casual layer of sweat. He had been dancing wildly in a world of his own but after this subtlest of nudges he looked up and acknowledged her apology. Wide-eyed, they smiled at each other and in that glance there was a connection. He would remember that moment forever. 

Five minutes later, he looked in the pocket of his shorts for his mobile phone. It was gone. Immediately, he knew what had happened.

Sonar is one of my favourite festivals. But you've got to have your wits about you when partying in Barcelona. It's easy to lose things here; the late nights combine with the hot days to make it an experience of battering proportions. If you're lucky you might just lose your metro pass - they're easier replaceable. If you're really unlucky, you might lose your mind forever. For most of us who return year after year, it's somewhere in-between. You're guaranteed to temporarily lose your friends, especially those who have their phones pinched. My hearing is just about re-tuning to the real world as I sit on the plane, returning to the UK, piecing it all together.

windtubeThe format is tried and tested: two venues, one for the arguably more experimental stuff that happens by day and one for the EDM names up in the epic expanse of the night venue. As a bolt-on to the day, there's the Sonar +D exhibition, a true smorgasbord of the latest technological advances. Some don't even venture into any of this and stay feral in Barcelona itself where a series of off-parties keep them at rooftop pool parties and in the darkest of nightclubs. But, this year, our apartment is mere minutes from Sonar By Day so that's where we play.

Whilst the layout of Sonar By Day stays the same, there are subtle tweaks. Since when did the sponsors of the festival become so interactive? In stalls, dotted around the site, you can get all manner of freebies. Perhaps, a festival kit from a Tezenis vending machine which consists of rub-on tattoos and stick-on colourful beads is your thing? Or tester size lipsticks and gloss from Chanel? Golden tickets from Stubhub which you can try to pick out of one of those Crystal Maze wind tubes? Or free measures of beer from Estrella during a delegate happy hour? Some UK festivals might see corporate sponsorship as a big bad wolf but Sonar positively embraces it. 

As per previous years, one thing that it's hard to lose is your ability to pay. Cashless technologies work seamlessly here reducing the need to carry your wallet around. Attached to your wristband is a tag which you can top up with cash at one of the many pay points. You then flash your wrist when buying food, drink, merchandise or bumper car rides. You hope that you've still got money on your tag to avoid embarrassment when buying rounds of beer for friends. 

Drinks remain reasonably priced, despite the fact that we get less Euro for our pounds now. Estrella is still the beer of choice; you can either get a small one or a large one. When it's so hot, it's best to go small unless you're particularly partial to the warm dregs. Icy mojitos with generous measures of spirit go down a treat in the sunshine as do the red bull cocktails, the new flavours sticky and sweet and full of perk-me-up energy. 

The food on offer has got much more varied over the years. As the popularity of street food grows so do the number of vendors selling from wooden huts and reconditioned vans. We snack on sushi and pick at pepperoni pizza. Burgers with top quality meat sizzle in their buns. A neat and fragrant portion of curry and rice works well alongside a cold beer. Dishes tend to cost anywhere between 4 and 8 euros. Reasonable without being exceptionally cheap. 

There's a new stage at Sonar By Day this year. I only get to the Sonar XS stage once. It's a small venue hidden away in one of the many conference-centre spaces that make up this site. I know nothing about Oblique and Carlos Bayona but took a punt on them. I'm glad that I did. They're not just influenced by the 80's; they're reliving it. In front of a glittery gold curtain and a sign that declares 'Sonar 1987', they take us back to their future in a virtual DeLorean. It's so retro it hurts but, as memories of Molly Ringwald zap into my head, nothing much matters. Sonar, often at the cutting edge when it comes to breaking beats, has gone all nostalgic on us. I shut my eyes and everyone looks pretty in pink.

jacquesConcrete music - I'd heard about the genre but not really seen it played live before. Organic sounds produced by everyday items are sampled, chopped and played about with to make something we can dance to. The finest exponent of the genre that I see over the weekend is Jacques from France. His is not an easy name to google so we take a chance on his style based on the odd-looking haircut he appears to sport in the phone app picture. And, it is undeniably odd in real life. Like a modern day monk, he captivates with a mix that touches on house, funk and techno. It's hard to take your eyes of Jacques as he uses all manner of utensils to make his beats. From kitchen colander to badminton racket, he produces them all with a gleeful smile. He adds simple chants and phrases which become choir-like when he squeezes them through his mangle of a deck. It's really something astonishing to see. 

The concrete genre is further reinforced by Matmos on the Red Bull Sonar Dome stage. They bring a white good onto the stage with them - a sort of washing machine/dishwasher hybrid. Delighted to be here, the three of them proceed to perform a thing of mad science. They stand over the tub and frolic with the water inside like mischievous kids at an infant school water play session. The splash and eddy they make in the water become sound waves that are then stretched and messed with even more to make the most luscious of beats. It's not for everyone and some leave in search of a more traditional DJ but for me this is where it's at. 

For the past few years, Sonar has fallen the weekend before Glastonbury. That's the case this year as well. You can't help feeling that you're getting a bit of a sneak preview of the shows about to be hits in Somerset. In one of the super-sized warehouses up at Sonar By Night, you know that the wild flashing lights of the Justice show will go down stunningly on West Holts. I see enough of Moderat to suspect the same when they do their thing the night before. It's hard to imagine that the prog-jazz noodlings of Thundercat can ever be the same from show to show, such is the complexity of the music yet I'm pleased to report no discernible difference. Even his glossy, red shorts are the same. Guitars were once dirty instruments at Sonar. But Thundercat is one of many who's able to push boundaries on the most traditional of rock instruments in order to come up with something new.

I wander around the Sonar+D exhibition. Universities, programmers and start-up tech companies display their innovations to an attentive crowd of geeks and potential investors. Increasingly, it's beyond me. I try on headsets and attempt not to stumble into virtual realities. I press some buttons and hope that I've unwittingly done nothing nuclear. I find a space on the cold floor and sit down to talk with four lovely Korean people who are here on a promotional trip. It might be under-rated in these parts but chatting remains the best way to communicate.

aroundIt's by chatting that I find out about the Valgeir Sigurdsson show in the Sonar complex. Accordingly, I queue with others to get into the comfy theatre in which he performs. A producer and composer who has an incredible back-catalogue, this is the most dream-like of shows. For an hour, we allow soporific bliss to rush over us as the haunting haze of a live cello permeates throughout the room. At times I do doze off yet the rest is perhaps a good thing; an afternoon siesta puts me in the most relaxed of moods for the night-time party that's about to come.

Many acts have given lots of thought to their stage show this year. It's no longer good enough to stand behind a deck getting the crowd to scream if they want to go faster. Nowhere is the stage show more illuminating than with Evian Christ. The black and white lights punch out in time with harsh beats. This is the most punky of dance sets; so vibrant and so tough but so incredibly engaging. You imagine that it's the aural equivalent of being a bad boxer. Those punches are landing and there's nothing you can do but consume this sensory overload. 

Estonian hip-hop gets an airing courtesy of Tommy Cash. He's got a full-on, extreme, video montage showing behind him and some over-the-top dancers flexing their bodies on stage. I'm sure Tommy is much more than a novelty act but, today I can't stop giggling at his ridiculous poses. Nothing if not entertaining. 

Here I am at the night venue. Despite being something of a Sonar veteran I still managed to get lost within these inter-connecting warehouses. My confusion isn't helped because the bumper cars, a point of orientation in years gone by, have now moved from the Sonar car arena. Now in the Sonar car space, there's a big marquee-like tent. People queue to get into six hour long sets in here on Saturday from Seth Troxler and Tiga. It's a space with the happiest of vibes. I vaguely recall fighting tiredness and dancing here. Later in the evening, we do find the bumper cars elsewhere in another warehouse and spend silly amounts of Euros crashing into friends and strangers. Wide-eyed, we giggle and scream as we attempt to jolt in time with the beats. I cannot stress how much of a laugh this is. 

There's so much more I could talk about. From the hyped-up and ultimately disappointing set of Princess Nokia to the more laid back and exquisite chill put on by the consummate Fat Freddy's Drop, this is a festival that has it all. From the 'where've you been all my life' revelation that is Juana Molina to the glossy sheen of Roosevelt, you feel that disappointment when you can't be in more than one place at a time. 

Haruki Murakami, esteemed Japanese novelist once wrote that, "Every one of us is losing something precious to us. Lost opportunities, lost possibilities, feelings we can never get back again. That’s part of what it means to be alive.” 

Suddenly, losing our phones seems like a small cross to bear. 

review by: Sean Tizzard

photos by: Sean Tizzard

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