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Things Learned At: Sonar 2018
Ben Cardew , June 19th, 2018 19:11

As the venerable Sonar Festival reaches its 25th anniversary it shows no sign of losing its edge, as Ben Cardew discovers in a line-up packed with forward-thinking DJ sets, visual art, and space for defiant, marginalised voices. Photos by Alexandra Sans Massó

Light plays wonders on the musical mind…

 As a festival of "music, creativity and technology", Sónar provides a timely insight into the past, present and future of an electronic music world that remains awash with ideas, even as the EDM bubble deflates like a mangy balloon. At Sónar 2018 a fascinating conversation played out between two conflicting ideas at the heart of club music, namely the light and the dark: the mind-moulding visual spectacle designed to amplify the impact of live electronic music versus the clever use of visual deprivation to concentrate the mind on aural stimulation. 

The wider tendency within electronic music is for ever-more impressive visual backdrops and Sónar saw a lot of these, from Lorenzo Senni's strafing lasers to Lanark Artefax's strobe assault. SOPHIE's dazzling, daring set, meanwhile, arguably owed more to performance art than to live music. But the prize for the most compulsive live visuals went to Fractal Fantasy dons Sinjin Hawke and Zora Jones, who debuted their live AV show in quite spectacular fashion.  

As befits an act who surround their work in arresting visual image, their live show tightly integrated music and spectacle. As the duo teased out their unique, brilliant and thoroughly elegant fusion of rap, footwork, electronics and Jersey Club, drawing on their solo tracks, remixes and collaborations, their faces were projected onto the vast screen of the Sonar Hall behind them, distorted by effects that were, in turn, angelic, ghoulish, psychedelic, pastoral and liquid metallic, the images reacting in real time to the music they created. So a series of vast orchestral stabs - courtesy of a new and as-yet-unreleased Sinjin Hawke tune - turned the screens into towering sheets of vibrant red, while a beat dropping out would plunge the Hall into darkness.  

Perhaps even more impressive was the way in which the duo knew how to work their own bodies in order to get the most out of these effects. The Sónar show saw the duo debut a "visual theremin" and Hawke and Jones took turns to operate this new instrument, their movements timed not just to create esoteric instrumental lines but also to produce maximum visual effect, music and image working in perfect harmony, rather than one swamping - or even apologising for - the other. The effect was devastating, a futuristic symbiosis of sound, image and technology that represented all Sonar stands for.

…but dark can be hypnotic

 The beauty of Sónar is that a set from Madrid producer Francisco López on Friday afternoon took precisely the opposite approach to Hawke and Jones with an equally arresting impact. López' VirtuAural Electro-Mechanics set was an "immersive experience", using sounds he has collected over the last 25 years from industrial environments, mechanisms and electromagnetic systems, which López manipulated in the dark. Fearing that the audience would get distracted by the ambient lighting in the indoor Sónar Complex, López provided sleep masks to wear for the duration of his set, so that we might enjoy the mono-culture of his music as a lone stimulus. The experience was wonderful, something like the natural psychedelic feel of drifting off in a flotation tank, only with the warm touch of the salt water replaced with the ebb and flow of metallic clanking, which left the mind free to wander on its own wonderful excursions. My friend experienced visual hallucinations, while my own thoughts became so intense it started to feel like a waking dream. We both emerged thoroughly refreshed.

 No one drifted off to James Murphy and 2manydjs' Despacio sound system, despite its six-hour-a-day run time. But Despacio, too, offered an argument for the powers of sensory deprivation. Despacio's circular sound system is well known for its incredibly clarity and power, which the trio exploit by playing records pitched down to a level where every beat counts. At Sónar, though, the trio also drew on the power of the dark, with their bespoke club space plunged into the kind of darkness that made you bump into strangers and make new friends. The experience was almost stressful at first. But when you gave way to it, the impact was beautifully enveloping, as the eyes ceded control of the cerebral cortex to the ears. When the Despacio team then raised the lights as musical punctuation - to welcome the chorus of a brilliantly languid edit of David Bowie's 'Young Americans', for example - it created a glorious rush of euphoria among the crowd, who howled their appreciation. 

The art of the DJ is alive and kicking

For all the good the EDM boom will have done for the bank balances of the DJ community, its impact must be measured against the shoeing it has imparted to their collective reputation, a legacy of pre-planned sets, pre-recorded mixes and general Las Vegas-style fuck-about-ery. 

Three DJ sets in rapid succession on Sónar's Thursday afternoon served to illustrate how the three key strands of the DJ's art - selection, animation and reinvention - are still alive and kicking. Portuguese duo Violet x Photonz proved masters of the art of selection, their energetic set displaying the vital knack of choosing just the right tune at just the right time, digging up Future Sound of London's 1997 breakbeat techno classic 'We Have Explosive' at a time when I expected to hear it least and when, it turned out, I wanted to hear it most.

Yaeji, who played later on the vast Village stage, was a wonderful example of the DJ as animator. She was a one-woman party starter, mixing a selection of fresh, melodic and often rhythmically tricky techno tunes, to which she added live vocals. What was most notable, though, was the connection she established with the crowd, her inherent enthusiasm and tireless energy a reminder that sometimes the DJ really is there to move the crowd, 

Best of all, though, was Principe Discos artist (and Fever Ray collaborator) Nídia, whose set showed a DJ at the very top of her game. Using four CDJs and a world of echo-ing effects, she chopped, changed, looped and generally reinvented the music her disposal to create something new and unique to the moment, at one point cutting up Drake's 'Hotline Bling' into a kuduro beat frenzy that stunned the crowd. 

A good festival can give visibility to the unseen

Most people who have visited Barcelona will know the mantero - the people, frequently African immigrants, who sell bootleg goods from improvised blanket stalls on the city pavements, fleeing with their merchandise in vast, ungainly bags when the police take an interest. 

Unusual as this spectacle might be for tourists, for most Barcelona residents the manteros are invisible, not so much people as an inconvenience to be avoided on the way to the underground. That made the appearance at Sónar of Lory Money, a mantero turned YouTube musical star, an important sight. His trap-lite tunes are funny, poking fun at former Madrid mayor Ana Botella on 'Relaxing Cup of Café con Leche' and politicians on all sides of the Catalan independence debate on 'Independent' (which he released as Lory Puigdemoney). But perhaps the most significant thing for a Barcelona audience was simply to see a former mantero up there on stage in all his human glory, in what felt like a slyly political move from festival programmers.  

The vast crowd at the XS stage sang along to every word and, naive though it may sound, you wonder if some of them will reflect on their shared moment with Lory Money the next time they curse a mantero for getting in their way on a crowded street. Sónar may be a three-day party but Lory Money's appearance showed how a festival can play a role in making people think. 

An absence can be telling in the dark days of Spain

The last year has been a difficult one for Spain. While the country has lifted itself out of an economic mire, the battle for Catalan independence has divided the nation, with police brutality at the region's contested referendum on 1st October playing out to shocked TV audiences worldwide. At the same time, draconian laws have seen a number of rappers sentenced to lengthy prison sentences for criticising the Spanish monarchy in their songs.  

Valtònyc is one of these, sentenced to three and a half years in prison in February 2018 for insulting the crown. He fled the country in May, just before he was due to enter prison, and his exact whereabouts are unknown, although he remained on the Sónar bill for the Saturday afternoon in what felt like a challenge to central Spanish authority.  

At the time his set was scheduled, a 200-strong crowd gathered at the XS stage to see what would happen. Would Valtònyc appear by video link, as Edward Snowden did at Sónar 2016? Would he actually show up for the gig in person? Or would Sónar organisers use the slot to publicly back Valtònyc in his case? In the end, none of this happened: the stage simply stayed empty until the crowd realised nothing was happening and drifted off. 

You could argue that this was an opportunity missed, that Sónar organisers could have used the slot to educate the crowd about the importance of the freedom of expression. But, in the end, maybe Valtònyc's absence in itself was enough, a reminder of the devastating silence we face when freedom of speech is attacked. 

In the kingdom of the indie side project, the less grumpy man is king

In 1992, when Blur released the disastrous (if brilliant) 'Popscene' and Radiohead debuted the Drill EP, you would have got long odds indeed on their respective frontmen headlining one of Europe's most prestigious electronic music festivals with their respective side projects, Gorillaz and Thom Yorke solo. 

Half way through Thom Yorke's set, you wonder if maybe he was wishing he wasn't. It's not that Sónar and Thom Yorke are a bad fit, as such, rather that a late-night appearance on the huge Club stage in front of boggle-eyed, cheek-munching locals who have been warmed up by Call Super's techno storm felt like a step too far for his elegantly melancholic electronics and soon the crowd started to drift away in search of more uncomplicated pleasures. 

Gorillaz, by contrast, fit right in with Sónar's Friday night, their day-glow, more-everything, magpie pop approach providing easily-digestible - if not necessarily simple - thrills that burst with energy. It may be easy to be cynical about Gorillaz' guest-laden approach but the site of a Spanish man hyperventilating in front of me in excitement at the appearance of De La Soul for 'Superfast Jellyfish' suggested it still works wonders.