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Things Learned At: Primavera Sound 2013
Daniel Dylan Wray , June 5th, 2013 12:07

Barcelona's Primavera Sound festival was an endurance test for Daniel Dylan Wray, who reports back on an incendiary Death Grips performance, muddy sound and a late-in-the-day epiphany

If Todd Trainer hits the snare and nobody is able to hear it, do Shellac still make a sound?

Seeing the acerbic, spring-loaded, drop-kick fury that was Shellac at last year's Primavera reduced in 2013 to nothing but a wimpy, muffled blast of air with faint scratchy guitar is seismically disappointing. It's like visiting an impenetrable, pharaonic castle one year only to return the next year and find it a crumbling pile of rubble, surrounded by opportunists selling pictures and mugs showing the castle's once magnificent prominence. But this isn't watching the self-imploding demise of a once great force, it's simply terrible fucking sound.  

Of course, uncontrollable, arbitrary and head-numbingly frustrating sound problems are as synonymous with outdoor festivals as the inevitable porta-loo horror show you witness at precisely the second you don't want to. However Primavera, as a general rule, have remained pretty strong in this department with consistent - if not often outstanding - sound over the years, but with their mounting quest to become ever more behemoth in both size and scope with every passing year, they risk toying with an already proven formula and dynamic that was already ingrained into the layout and sonic structure of the site. This year they've extended the grounds yet again and moved the snug ATP stage - the one on which Shellac played last year with all the rampant, screaming vehemence of a group who would simply collapse if they slowed down for one second - further afield, relocating it next to the towering main Heineken stage. Put simply, the stages are too close together.

On more than one occasion the cross-over is painful. Mount Eerie's drone-laden, doom-soaked blissful melancholy is clattered into submission by the saccharine bounce and perpetual back-slapping of Adam Green and Binki Shapiro (the former currently playing dress up as Serpico it would appear). Jim Jarmusch and Jozef Van Wissem don't stand a chance sat down with acoustic instruments on their lap; the second they begin, the perfectly okay - if not a little workmanlike - assault of the Jesus & Mary Chain renders them completely inaudible. The wind whips up such a blustery treat during Kurt Vile's main stage set that his woozy, looping melodies actually gain a bizarre inadvertent layering, as the sound spirals manically like the dozens of bogus drug dealers endlessly scooting through the crowd.

However, the greatest sound mishap-turned-revelation is My Bloody Valentine. Reports vary drastically from person to person, depending on where they're stood in the audience, but the one ubiquitous agreement is that of the treatment of the vocals. At times there are literally no vocals audible whatsoever - all you can hear are thunderous drums and screeching samples, coated with enough mushy guitars to rumble your innards. However, somehow whatever whisper is left of the vocals imparts a teasing, ghostly aura on the music, making it inviting rather than alienating.

Voodoo magic

Blur take to the main stage and launch into the rather dated-sounding intro of 'Girls & Boys', to which thousands of people either ignite on the spot or flock towards the crowd with all the intensity and drive of fleeing fugitives. It's like watching a Tibetan sky burial advance, vultures swooping all around. I can't help but feel cold and disinterested listening to the group enter their fourth year of reunion period, hammering out their youth with taut ease. The first thirty minutes of their performance – much like The Jesus & Mary Chain, of whom I saw considerably more of – can't really be faulted, but in the year 2013 I'm not sure either band really has anything to say that hasn't already been said many aeons ago.

While it's infuriating that Swans and Goat clash, I venture to see the Swedes, having seen Gira and co. four times in the last eight months. It being the ATP stage, trickles of Blur float over from the main stage at times. But by the time Goat plunge back into their Stooges meets Funkadelic whirlwind, Blur are rendered a long forgotten memory and blasted back to the 90s by a sonic fury that simultaneously pre and post dates them. The masked group tear through World Music with sizzling gusto and grace, with a performance that exudes so much unrelenting and groove-ridden vigour that the audience descend into flailing madness. It's anvil-heavy in its tone and execution, the guitars and bass scream mercilessly, but the hand drum that a gimp-masked man sits and plays at the front adds a percussive ferocity that makes this 2am party performance a gripping triumph.

Remember Death Grips?

Since Death Grips started drawing on erect cocks in felt pen, intentionally sabotaging their major label record deal and releasing music videos that contain nine-minutes of near silence before the song starts, they've largely disappeared from the media glare. Perhaps it's the fleeting nature of some modern day music journalism, the numerous cancelled shows, people generally being fed up of their antics, or even it all being part of their master plan - but whatever the reason, post-No Love Deep Web they seem to have gone off the boil.

However, as they take to the pitch-black, smog-clogged stage (with the initially crushing disappointment of performing minus Zach Hill) they don't unleash, or unload or even explode; they exorcise. The ravaged, curdled screams that MC Ride emits are the stuff nightmares are made of. Not the capricious, psychological, money-worrying, bereft-induced kind of normal nightmares that plague us all as adults, but the ones that everything we are told is scary consist of, produced by a figure so manic and ferocious that they invoke sheer, unadulterated, monster terror. It's the loudest, most gut-rotting sound I hear all weekend, and a frightful reminder to not forget what made them so enticing to begin with.

Clawing out of the black hole

The Forum Building - or, as it's known during Primavera, Auditori Rockdelux - is a peculiar place. It's the only indoor venue for the whole festival, it has a 3,200 capacity, it's possessed of a long, angular shape - designed by Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron (who did the Tate Modern, amongst numerous others) - and it's supposedly a source of great dispute amongst city officials, due to spiralling costs when it was built (reaching around €112m) in 2004. Its powers grip far stronger than just bureaucratic tensions, however. It is single-handedly the most life-sucking vessel of a building I have ever entered. Even spending entire weekends in Butlins, in pitch blackness during the day, where carpets are doused with that putrid concoction of cleaning products, vomit and beer, can't even come close. If you enter the Forum in even a remotely fragile state, be warned. Its gigantic, Cimmerian, sonorous-yet-hollow space can bring you to your knees in minutes. In 2009 I left My Bloody Valentine shaking, dizzy and almost brimming with vomit; watching John Cale in 2011 was like being slowly tortured; and Nick Garrie and Jeff Mangum sent me over the edge of the edge last year. Perhaps it's the ban on any liquids, coupled with the fact that most of the shows are during the day (and because the festival doesn't end until 6am, liquids during the day are pretty important), that makes it so hellish, but in any case it's possessed of an unearthly, draining power.

Pantha du Prince and the Bell Laboratory play at 4pm, approximately two hours after I wake up. All signs point toward a swift downward spiral and a tortuous fog filling up my head. It's rare that an audience alone should be commended, but this is one of the best I've ever been a part of, teeming with energy and respect in equal bounds. The group, meanwhile, are quite astonishing, flipping between soft, lingering bell tones that soar through the cavernous room, and full-on rave calypso. It's beautiful, stirring and occasionally downright euphoric. The audience are often unable to contain themselves, a mere drum kick or quick flurry of escalating electronics is enough for them to holler, scream maniacally and dance. The group exit to an impassioned standing ovation and I leave the Forum Building, for once, not wanting to kill myself.

The healing power of Talk Talk

For all the room for musical epiphany that Primavera Sound 2013 provides, the most powerful revelation arrives at a far less fun and festival-located juncture for me. Descending into the Passeig de Gràcia station heading to the airport to leave the country, five nights of marathon drinking, drug taking and occasionally questionable food consumption suddenly combine into one single tumbling, building-implosion pile, square on top of me. I'm going under. I sit crumpled on the floor, waiting the thirty minutes for a train, gradually sinking moment by moment. Another train goes past and I catch a glimpse of myself in the reflection: a bloated, lugubrious mess so weathered that I look like I'm bleeding into the dusty brown tiles I'm propped up against. My only preoccupation at this stage is not to be that British cretin that pukes all over the place in public. My stomach is rising with the same speed and intensity as my head is filling with sludge. 'The Rainbow' starts, my mind is suddenly locked within a soundscape so vast and limitless it's as though I'm being transported. The sounds hit corporeally, almost matching the uncontrollable, indescribable, gurgling wobbles and pains that are taking place throughout my body. Within minutes I'm crying uncontrollably. I have to put sunglasses on so that strangers don't call security on the seemingly collapsed, weeping tourist who looks like his eyes might close permanently at any stage. It's a perplexingly strange moment. In an instant that I was sure would end in a rancid mess, I got through it.

Festivals, as fun and marvellous as they can be, are all too often rooted in physical tests, wrestling a balance between enjoyment and endurance: paying too much money for things, forgoing sleep and comfort, exposure to unpredictable elements, spending money that could get you a week in a tropical paradise in the space of a frivolous few days, all for the sake of hearing music we love somewhere that isn't home. And then afterwards we eventually come away from our holiday feeling like we need a holiday. While my body rages with furious anger and my liver screams at me for being such an antagonistic prick, that crumpled moment, as a broken, beaten down and battered human being, listening to Spirit Of Eden blow my fucking mind is – as if it were ever needed anyway – proof of why we do it. The sheer, unexplainable magic of music can grip you when and where you least expect it, so the only way to ever recapture or create new moments like these is through relentless, undying exposure to the source.

I guess there's also the option of just pacing yourself, being sensible and not overdoing it, of course.