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Things Learned At: Sónar Reykjavík 2016
Laurie Tuffrey , March 1st, 2016 10:12

Laurie Tuffrey heads to the fourth edition of Sónar festival's northernmost outpost, featuring sets from Oneohtrix Point Never, Reykjavíkurdætur and Páll Óskar, and more than a plough's worth of snow

Photograph courtesy of Florian Trykowski

Foresight is a fine thing

It'd be a terrible shame, especially when in the capital city of a country of swimming pools nestling under air traffic-halting volcanoes, creeping glaciers that cover more than a tenth of the land mass and horses that specialise in trotting such that the rider can enjoy a beer without spilling a drop, if the top concert hall in the land wasn't a thing of beauty, and Harpa is just that. The building, partly designed by Olafur Eliasson, he of sticking the sun in the Tate Modern fame, sits on Reykjavík's harbour and is backed to the north by the Esja mountain range, against whose snow-coated screes its geometric exterior fits nicely. Initially backed from 2004 by Landsbanki, the commercial bank that went and fell off a cliff in 2008 when the financial crash hit, the Icelandic government had the nous to pick up the funding of the project, rather than leave it as a half-complete stump. As such, the population's funding-via-taxes of the hall is now reaping rewards; we're told that 60 per cent of Icelanders visit Harpa every year.

As well as the icy-sharp sonics within the individual halls themselves, the interior spaces of the building are a fine setting for, say, Reykjavík DJ Intr0beatz' set of airy, thumping house that ascends up into the rafters while the shoal-like multi-coloured lights of the exterior seem to shimmer in time, all visible at once thanks to the building's natty angles.

As it happens, even going underground in Harpa works well, with Sónar choosing the car park as a spartan and occasionally draughty home for the sinewy and hyperactive selections of native bass-fiend Skeng, Bjarki's piledriving techno and a typically broad-reaching and brilliant set from Ben UFO.

Photograph courtesy of Alv Péerz

Hip-hop and R&B might just be the fastest growing industry in Iceland

Alongside the fine line in native house and techno producers, analogue synth experiments courtesy of TM 404 and prime Eurovision pop (see below), Sónar packs the line-up with a strong contingent of Icelandic hip-hop and R&B. Seemingly all of Reykjavíkurdætur's 19 members (read our interview here) are on stage on Thursday making for a consummately banging opening night, each daughter of Reykjavík taking a verse rapped in Icelandic, delivered with awesome conviction and, especially when the occasional "motherfucker" emerges, getting an ecstatic response from the massed crowd.

Photograph courtesy of Aníta Eldjárn

The next night is the turn of Vaginaboys, whose title of most conspicuously-named in the programme just about holds out against strong competition from President Bongo & The Emotional Carpenters. They roll out low-key R&B with vocals heavily doused in aqueous auto-tune that seems to reflect a lot of close listening to Future and Kanye's more morose hooks. This could be limpid pop mush, but the duo (aided tonight by a small cast, all bar one decked out in the requisite uniform of hoody, white ball mask and shades, including a cluster of three operating the laptop) have a deft way with a hook on 'Feeling' and 'Elskan af því bara' matched to a knack for taking the piss, the accompanying visuals featuring, variously, shagging mannequins and twirling agglomerations of the smiley face emoji cast. Rounding off the weekend is fellow Reykvíkingur Sturla Atlas and his 101 Boys, who have all the apparent earnestness of VBs but less of the self-awareness, and Úlfur Úlfur, whose chant-heavy, EDM-leaning choruses come off less well than previous exploits rapping on horseback/with a car-load of St. Bernards.

Photograph courtesy of Ómar Sverrisson

Oneohtrix Point Never wants to rid you of at least two senses

Part of the joy of Oneohtrix Point Never's music is its patched-together quality, fabricating something from parts that feel unalike. Last year's Garden Of Delete and R Plus Seven before it feature hyperactive rhythms and layers of sound silted up such that the records have a dense, at-times bewildering feel, one that occasionally gives way to moments of gaping beauty; the overall impression is almost akin to making your way through tangled undergrowth only to emerge at a vantage point and see the land fall away for miles in front. It's this contrastive quality that Daniel Lopatin bases his live show for G0D around. Tracks are dealt out with shock-and-awe tactics: it's crushingly loud and the strobes at the front are punishingly wince-inducing. Picking a highlight from the set is a fool's errand, but 'Mutant Standard', the trancey, ecstatic centrepiece of GoD, sounds gargantuan, with its vertiginous climaxes burnished by echoey guitar lines courtesy of visual artist Nate Boyce. The crowd give as good as they get, some moshing furiously – pretty fitting, given that Lopatin's processed vocals occasionally turn him into the finest grindcore vocalist that never was – while others simply bask in the freakish visuals. At the precipice of another monumental climax, you can't help but feel that Lopatin, just about visible behind his gear, must be enjoying the state of affairs in which a man delivering leftfield electronic music accompanied by images of a drone apparently made out of bird claws hovering past a dilapidated house comes second only to the brute force winds outside in terms of physical impact.

Páll Óskar: singer, songwriter, activist, space emperor

Photograph courtesy of Florian Trykowski

Imagine that the Roman Empire hadn't waned, but had held strong, Iceland now just one part of a world long since conquered, the upper echelons of its citizenry updating their tunics and togas to fashion them out of glitter. Now consider that selfsame elite had a particular penchant for Robert Miles' 'Children'. That there is the surface impression of the sheeny pop set that rounds off the first night of Sónar, courtesy of Páll Óskar. A native superstar, with eight albums to his name, and a former Eurovision entry for the country, as well as an outspoken gay rights activist, who's helped pave the way to Iceland having one quarter of the population attending Reykjavík Pride, he's also a fine example of the humour that seems to touch a lot of the Icelandic acts on the bill. A sweeping statement, maybe, but the Reykvíkingurs seem happy to leaven their music with a heavy dose of irreverence: alongside Vaginaboys and the elected head of the bongos, there's also Good Moon Deer's set, where a slow crescendo from stuttering organ groove to subtly banging electronics is accompanied by a cast of performers literalising their name by holding up antlers, a model deer and, well, a potted house plant (the fact that Squarepusher's aesthetic remains IDM beekeeper is perhaps coincidental). The upshot is a festival that reflects this sensibility, where serious, thought-provoking music jostles with a man who looks like he might be the first Roman emperor to explore the galaxy's outer reaches belting out fine-honed pop tunes.

In the battle of Hyundai hatchback versus the meteorological forces of the sub-Arctic, there is only one winner...

... and as such, I'd like to take this opportunity to thank the man in the snowplough at the junction of routes 36 and 48.