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Sonar Festival 2014: A Quietus Preview
The Quietus , June 6th, 2014 06:11

Preparing to spend a few days amidst baking heat and baked Europeans, the Quietus staff run through a selection of anticipated highlights from next week's Sonar Festival in Barcelona, from turbo-charged grime and kuduro to blazing techno and industrial pop

And so! It's less than a week until The Quietus decamps to this year's Sonar, so here we round up just some of the the stuff we're looking forward to under the bracing and baking Barcelona skies at what remains one of Europe's biggest broad-thinking festivals. Read below for choices from the best grime, techno, crate-digging bangers, kuduro, industrial pop, weird shit and cosmic furniture that we'll be getting our ooof on to from next Thursday. Ole ole! as everyone sang along to Pet Shop Boys last year...

Chris Madak (Bee Mask)

 Thursday 12th, SonarHall, 15:30

Chris Madak's music as Bee Mask is ever-surprising: clusters of shimmery tones, melodic fogdrifts, electronic detritus and insectile clicks, all swooping through the air, carving out oblique shapes and summoning up brief auditory hallucinations. Aligned with John Elliott's Editions Mego offshoot label Spectrum Spools, Cleveland-based Madak's last album - 2012's When We Were Eating Unripe Pears - is among the finest recent documents from the US's highly productive post-noise scene, both technically and compositionally dazzling. In the wake of its release he's also been drawn into a long-distance musical romance with the dance music world, with techno artist Donato Dozzy reworking his track 'Vaporware' into seven movements of intricate, pulsating cosmic furniture on last year's Donato Dozzy Plays Bee Mask album, and Madak's tracks also emerging in the sets of DJs like Ben UFO and Morphosis. His own live performances, recently weighted towards his own new music, are captivating, equal parts disconcerting and soothing, prone to shifts in trajectory and flashes of open beauty. Rory Gibb

Elijah & Skilliam with Flava D

 Thursday 12th, SonarDome, 17:10

All hail London's Butterz crew! For several reasons, the first being label bosses Elijah & Skilliam's (pictured, above) tireless dedication to keeping grime on the dancefloor and on 12" wax, which has been a major contributing factor to the genre's current hydra-headed upsurge in activity. The second is the way that their grime-led signature sound of sorts - colourful, bright, electro-shocked, ultra-kinetic - has, in the hands of Butterz crew producers like Flava D, been plugged back into house and garage: witness her and Royal-T's recent summery collaborative anthem 'On My Mind', which really ought to be all over Sonar like a rash. The sum total of these activities has been to blast open a vibrant font of turbo-charged UK party music reaching across stylistic borders, something beautifully crystallised in both Elijah & Skilliam's club sets and their banger of a recent mix for Fabric. Their Thursday set at Sonar By Day (at the unusually bright-eyed hour of 17:10pm) will, one imagines, kickstart the weekend with a swift, sharp shock. Rory Gibb

Chris & Cosey

 Thursday 12th, SonarDome, 19:30

Well, obviously...

Jessy Lanza
Friday 13th, SonarVillage, 15.30

You’d be hard-pressed to find a more perfectly formed 2013 debut than Jessy Lanza’s Hyperdub effort. Bearing traces of Lanza’s beloved 90s R&B and the immaculate synth-pop of the Junior Boys (the duo’s Jeremy Greenspan lent a hand with production), Pull My Hair Back conveys an air of cool, crisp composure that’s almost intimidating. Stick with it, though - and the calibre of Lanza’s songwriting means that it won’t feel like a chore to do so - and you’ll slowly be drawn in by its subtle idiosyncrasies. Such withdrawn music might suggest an underwhelming live show, but anyone who has seen the Hamilton, Ontario native perform will confirm that on stage she’s far from a shrinking violet. Where so many bedroom R&B enthusiasts struggle to command larger spaces, Lanza is assured, compelling, and technically rock-solid. Her afternoon slot on the SonarVillage stage is sure to be a treat. Angus Finlayson

Oneohtrix Point Never
Friday 13th, SonarComplex, 20.00

Oneohtrix Point Never’s R Plus Seven continues to perplex more than half a year after its release. Sacking off the epic synth impressionism of Returnal and the playful plunderphonics of Replica, this time around Daniel Lopatin is sounding more hi-def, and more bracingly abstract, than ever. Released via Warp, the album is also Lopatin’s most high profile to date, and it’s accompanied by a suitably ambitious audiovisual show. Laptop playback this ain’t: album tracks have been reworked extensively to better exploit the immediacy of a live setting, while visual projections are supplied by Nate Boyce, whose uncanny digital forms are the perfect complement to Lopatin’s hyper-glossy "tableaux". Some have noted R Plus Seven’s passing similarities with dance music - if they’re correct then it’s dance music exploded, as in a technical diagram, each sonic object laid out in methodical sequence. Don’t let that rather dry-sounding description put you off though. After all, what better way to regard these objects than thundering out of an enormous sound system on the SonarComplex stage? Angus Finlayson

Todd Terje
Friday 13th, SonarPub, 02.55-03.55

Todd Terje wasn’t on the bill in 2012, the last time I visited Sonar, but his music - specifically jaunty disco anthem ‘Inspector Norse’ - was inescapable. The track must have been played a dozen times over the course of the weekend, making it a tie with Kanye West’s ‘Mercy’ for festival soundtrack - and compared to ‘Mercy’, its sunny disposition was a far better fit for the Mediterranean surrounds. The Oslovian producer has gone from strength to strength since then, churning out yet another summer anthem in ‘Strandbar’ and, with this year’s It’s Album Time, proving that he’s more than just a 12" factory, too. Of all of his Norwegian nu-disco cohorts - Lindstrom, Prins Thomas et al - Terje strikes the best balance between broad accessibility and sly Scandi humour. As such it’s hard to think of an artist better suited to the vast hangar spaces of Sonar by Night’s Gran Via Conference Centre. Though, as it happens, he’s playing in SonarPub - one of the outdoor spaces - so we can look forward to hearing his vast Moroder-esque vistas unfold beneath a blanket of stars. Angus Finlayson

James Holden
Saturday 14th, SonarHall, 20.30
Saturday June 14th, SonarLab, 03.00 B2B with Daphni

In the wilderness years between his first album and his most recent, it was on the dancefloor - or at the very least in his recorded mixes - that you could find out where James Holden’s head was at. Holden is not necessarily considered, first and foremost, a dancefloor concern: his melodic early style earned him as many fans in the indie community as in clubland, and last year’s The Inheritors sounded more like some imagined pagan rite than any techno record you’d care to name. Nonetheless, with years of experience and a bespoke digital DJing setup on his side, Holden has developed a killer instinct for what works on the floor. He’s liable to weave all manner of esoterica into his kosmische-tinged techno workouts, so it’s anybody’s guess what direction he might take things next week. But of his two Saturday performances, it’s probably safe to expect more wayward explorations at Sonar By Day, followed by a serving of bangers back to back with Daphni later that night. Angus Finlayson

Future Brown
Saturday 14th, SonarLab, 01.35

Last year, a Future Brown track popped up soundtracking a show by New York fashion designer Telfar Clemens. The show described itself as "an exercise in ‘mainstream’ surrealism: highly polished, eminently accessible, yet stranger than any underground production," and it’s hard to think of a better description for this US quartet’s music. Consisting of New York’s J-Cush (founder of the Lit City Trax label) and Fatima Al Qadiri (of recent Hyperdub fame) plus LA duo Nguzunguzu, Future Brown gleefully disregard the boundary between over- and underground. They’re as likely to profess a love for hyper-local styles like grime as for chart-facing R&B and rap (the scant Future Brown productions that have emerged to date feature guest spots from both Ruff Sqad and rising Chicago star Tink). Details of the quartet’s forthcoming debut album remain vague; in the meantime, this performance is a good chance to find out what it might sound like. Expect ice cold textures, combative rhythms and maybe - just maybe - a surprise vocal guest or two. Angus Finlayson

DJ Nigga Fox

Saturday 14th, SonarCar, 03:30

A few years back, the melting-down of London's dubstep sound gave rise to a freakishly colourful, rhythmically warped little sub-sound nicknamed (much to most of its creators' chagrin) "wonky". For all its blasé silliness as a genre title it fitted the sound rather well, but not as well as it captures the music of Lisbon's DJ Nigga Fox, who takes the templates of house and kuduro and bends them like putty until they become pliable, messy and almost unquantifiably wrong. It also captures the striking effect of his tracks in a club, where legs contort, waists wind and most dancers swiftly take on the appearance of wan, sweaty marionettes, their limbs frantically attempting to adjust to the murky chaos unfolding all around. He's part of the crew of producers, alongside turbo-charged kuduro producer DJ Marfox, loosely affiliated with the city's Principe Discos label; while loose and gloopy where early grime was still and brittle, there are clear parallels to be drawn with that London sound as well as emergent urban styles such as Egyptian mahraganat - all take well-established existing sounds and subject them to excitingly tough, rough-cut and outsider-ish reshapings, coming up with something distinctly new in the process. Rory Gibb

And here's some we spoke to earlier...

For all the serious intensity of his interviews and new album A U R O R A, live shows from Ben Frost are quite a different bag, even if he never wears any shoes and socks (mind you, our Rory Gibb wasn't wearing any shoes and socks at one point in Sonar last year, which isn't right), with drummers rattling away along with the electronics onstage. You can read our Sonar preview interview with Ben Frost here.

One of our favourite elements of Sonar is its dialogue with experimental music - you might think that at a festival full of half-naked Europeans enjoying the best in club music there wouldn't be much room for more far-out sounds, but that's never the case. We're pleased to see the good people of Unsound Festival represented at this year's Sonar - they're taking over the SonarComplex on the Friday of Sonar By Day to present a fascinating bill ranging from Polish composer Robert Piotrowicz, Lebanese artist Tarek Atoui and Oneohtrix Point Never.

Amidst that is a collaboration between Oren Ambarchi (already responsible for one of 2013's best albums, Shade Themes From Kairos, alongside Stephen O'Malley and Randall Dunn) and the Sinfonietta Cracovia. Especially commissioned by Unsound and soon to be released via PAN, Knots is a piece taken from Ambarchi's Audience Of One LP, and promises as Ambarchi told us something "very rhythmical, [it] almost has this techno vibe underpinning it, but there are many unusual textures used".

Praise be to Sonar for putting a not insubstantial wedge of Euros behind James Murphy and the Dewaele Brothers' Despacio sound system, shipped in trucks from wherever it's been hiding for the past few months. As David Dewaele told us late last year, "No promoter will take on a project like Despacio – it doesn't make financial sense. Nobody wants to take on a system that has the equivalent of power to Glastonbury main stage and weighs ten tons – that's just nuts." Sonar will be getting their money's worth, however, - Despacio will run for six hours a day, every day of the festival.

Another artist who has pioneered the interactive club experience is Richie Hawtin, whose Enter project has been a fixture in Ibiza for a while now... you get Vatican Shadow gigs and loads of high-end sake, which is alright by us. When the Quietus spoke to Richie Hawtin about Plastikman back in 2010, there wasn't a hint of a new album, though he said, intriguingly that "Plastikman live is supposed to be like a Plastikman album". It'll be interesting to see that, with an album soon-to-be released as he takes to the stage to close Sonar By Day on Thursday, how this will manifest itself. As Hawtin said back then, "it's supposed to suck you in and draw you fully into this immersive environment for one hour. So where a DJ set can go all over the place from funky house to techno to minimal or whatever you want to call it, Plastikman is quite intense, it's a tighter focus, and it's supposed to really grab the power of that moment and create a very unique experience."

Click the artist names to read our preview interviews with James Holden (playing Sonar Hall on Saturday By Day, then later b2b with Daphni at Sonar By Night), Neneh Cherry (playing Sonar By Day on Saturday), Royksopp and Robin (playing Sonar By Night on Friday), and Evian Christ (ditto). Luke Turner