Hazy Euphoria: Things The Quietus Learned At Sónar 2015

Gather some of the world's finest electronic musicians and DJs, scatter them around two gargantuan sites in Barcelona and fill in the gaps with electronic wristband-donning people slowly getting basted by Estrella and sunshine, and you've got Sónar 2015, one of the festival calendar's consummate highlights. Christian Eede and Laurie Tuffrey report back

Koreless and Emmanuel Biard – photograph courtesy of Ariel Martini

I’m still weak to the pull of trance euphoria

Anybody who may have witnessed both Koreless and Evian Christ‘s sets at Sónar By Day will know that they both delivered very different highs, but hear me out for one moment as I draw a link between the two. The most obvious common strand between them is the contribution of Manchester-based visual artist and lighting designer Emmanuel Biard, but both also revel in their ability to induce a flutter of euphoria. Arriving on Thursday afternoon, having been through the rather purgatorial settings of the festival’s media accreditation area, my first port of call is Koreless and Emmanuel Biard’s ‘The Well’. Gaining my bearings of the site, I soon find that the SonarComplex is in fact a barely-lit cinematic auditorium, which can be found just past some glass-lined offices from which locals continue to work as the festival’s attendees filter past. The room full to the brim, I find myself seated on the floor among the aisles of chairs, unintentionally finding the sweet spot as Biard’s complex, staggering laser constructions, the only light present in the room, shoot straight towards me from a circular contraption positioned in the middle of the stage, vibrated by the sounds coming from Koreless’ barely visible set-up. As he works through an extended ten-minute interpretation of ‘Sun’ – a track most fittingly described to me by a friend as "the perfect comedown soundtrack" – a scan of my notes simply reveals I hastily typed "tears" into my phone, a perhaps clichéd memory of repeatedly mouthing "wow" still lingering in my head now, as green light darted around the room sucking me into a state of euphoria.

On the final day, and in the more cavernous SonarHall, a black wall has been constructed at the very back of the room for a rare live outing from Evian Christ, blocking out any external light from the entrance. Backlit by five panels of carefully designed visuals and lighting (again the work of Biard), Josh Leary often taps into the concurrently ironic and earnest ethos of his infamous Trance Parties, brief glimpses of light revealing the man on stage, wearing a white t-shirt emblazoned with the Tiësto logo as he rolls through highlights from last year’s Waterfall EP with nods also to his early Kings And Them mixtape.

Each track flickers between trance-infused synths and antithetical, abrasive beats and bursts of noise, rounding off with the simultaneously dancehall, trance and noise gestures of ‘Waterfall’, dissolving into a tumultuous wall of drums. And then it’s all over, possibly too quickly, as Leary’s 45 minutes on stage roll by without a single dip in ferocity. Again, I’m all too easily sucked in by the decontextualised citing of trance’s euphoric qualities, most closely found in the turn of the millennium trance that ruled electronic music’s more popular corners pre-‘EDM’ – the leviathan surroundings of the hall seem the apt setting for such a ride. Christian Eede

Evian Christ and Emmanuel Biard – photograph courtesy of Ariel Martini

Unrelenting heaviness reigns supreme

There’s something pleasingly dissonant about the solid presence of blisteringly heavy acts on this year’s line-up. While there’s no shortage of people having an excellent time jigging around outside in Plaça de l’Univers’ courtyard, step away from the summer party and into the darkened dimensions of the indoors stages – the semi-enormous SonarHall (in most festivals, this’d be the big room; here, it’s second from the bottom size-wise, yet still the kind of place that could happily house a small fleet of executive jets when it’s not hosting forward-thinking electronic musicians) or SonarComplex, a seated auditorium that’s plunged into pitch darkness for most of its events – and there’s some aural crushing going on where the sun don’t shine. Admittedly, the first encounter with such dreadnoughts in fact takes place on Thursday in SonarDôme, where the sunshine floods in through rooflights, greenhouse-like, gently frying the floors, which are carpeted in something like AstroTurf. A few errant hails of feedback from Keiji Haino soundchecking his guitar signal the imminent arrival of improvisatory trio Nazoranai. It’s a no-frills start – Haino is soon joined by Stephen O’Malley (strapping his bass on over an outfit that’s entirely black barring some bright red boots) and Oren Ambarchi behind the drum kit – but in mere seconds, they’ve coaxed a vicious maelstrom of noise. What’s the old adage? There ain’t no party like an abrasively, ragingly, rip-this-face-from-my-head-and-call-me-Nicolas Cage-level loud party? It’s unfortunate that the sound system is such that the bass is a little lost, more a physical presence thrumming your chest than the kind of low-end drilling you’d hope for, but it’s a minor gripe. On their recordings, the group pay heed to space, but here there’s no room to budge in the electrified noise-field they erect. When it does quieten down, it makes way for Haino’s singing, a high-pitched, silken vocal thread that takes some gorgeous melodic pathways through O’Malley and Ambarchi’s rhythmic interlock, though it’s not long before they return to that wellspring of noise. It’s a fine complement to O’Malley’s second set at Sónar 2015, when he joins Peter Rehberg on stage in SonarComplex for their KTL project a day later, as part of a showcase by Rehberg’s Editions Mego to mark the label’s 20th anniversary. Brilliantly unsurprisingly there’s no defocusing in intensity, but rather than coursing with the freeform movement of Haino’s flailing, this music is more statically monolithic. The air of the auditorium is filled with searing metallic drones – if one were to congregate circular saws into an orchestra and pitch them way down, you’d imagine the effect wouldn’t be dissimilar. O’Malley picks up his guitar and out of the row of three neatly lined up Fender amps comes the haunted call of something ancient, swept up in solar wind. It’s one of the final layers to be added, and one which pushes the erstwhile capable-seeming PA to its very limit. Klara Lewis, also part of the Mego showcase, taps a sense of tacit heaviness, finding it in negative space. Mournful, low-register brass gets swaddled in spectral reverse sounds of indeterminate origin, seguing into massive bass rumbles that underpin the ringing of bells, the moment of tintinnabulation artificially extended and held and shot through with something uncanny.

Mika Vainio – photograph courtesy of Ariel Martini

Mika Vainio also busies himself in punishing the sound rigs the day after, his mid-afternoon set of stony electronics probably the most diametrically opposed to the cornea-broiling sunlight outside. A bassy wash envelopes the lobby outside SonarHall, and once in, Vainio draws the whirl of a jet engine out of his equipment. Followed by terrifying, mutated gun reloads, the slabs of sound combust into rhythms that seem to roll with their own mechanical momentum. If it doesn’t quite connect, that’s probably intentional; it feels cheekily obfuscatory when Vainio brings things to a dead halt, only to reignite them when the audience start to applaud. You sense that there may be a wry smile hidden beneath his hat, but if there is, it’s certainly gone by the time he unleashes the kind of insidiously high-pitched whir that make Life (…It Eats You Up) such a bracingly enjoyable listen, and properly wraps up.

With a pleasingly crescendo-like climax, all of this leads up to The Bug‘s set, bringing to a close proceedings at SonarHall on Saturday night. Aided and abetted by Flowdan, Manga and Miss Red, it’s glorious. Out of the murk of the opening dread-heavy dubs laced with Flowdan’s distinctive timbre emerge furious bursts of bass-traced noise, flung out with a very human intuition, Kevin Martin grinding the sound out of his tableful of gear. Whatever Martin does to make his music feel so solidly steel-girded, when the bass kicks in, it’s denser, darker and just about more satisfying than anything this weekend, which is saying something. As if any was needed, it reminds what an embarrassment of riches last year’s Angels & Devils was – ‘Mi Lost’, ‘The One’ and ‘Dirty’ all get an outing, as does ‘Function’, which, with its one-finger-raised-obnoxious brass riff and touch-of-mania bars from Manga, is primed for losing one’s shit to (a quality amply exemplified by the Sónar crowd). But it goes beyond that and into the point of world-creation that the best moments of this festival achieve: it’s dealt out with such conviction that it’s completely immersive, beautiful in its brutality. When it ends, it feels like being spat out, wandering – staggering – out into the shearing sunlight, genuinely a touch disoriented. Laurie Tuffrey

Alternative EDM is a ‘thing’

After taking in the pleasures that Friday’s By Day programme has to offer, entering, for the first time, the gargantuan expanse of the night site’s warehouses offers up a wholly different prospect. Arriving a little later than planned and stumbling through the main warehouse housing the SonarClub (hosting headline performances over the weekend from Skrillex, Duran Duran and The Chemical Brothers) out into the SonarLab, I happen upon Hudson Mohawke delivering one of his first full live sets, accompanied by on-stage band members Redinho and drummer Ben Thompson (of Two Door Cinema Club). When I arrive, Hud Mo is tearing through a selection of his TNGHT material, produced alongside Lunice. Recent album Lantern was billed by the man himself as a push away from the ‘trap’ bombast that TNGHT offered, but the pair’s ‘Higher Ground’ still packs its punch years on as the on-stage trio roll through its striking drops, a patent contrast to, say, the show offered by Autechre at By Day’s SonarHall earlier that evening or across the Editions Mego showcase that had taken place throughout the day.

Hudson Mohawke – photograph courtesy of Fernando Schlaepfer

Following rapidly on from Hud Mo on the same stage, PC Music affiliate SOPHIE touches on a similar tone, the set’s purpose built on crescendoing builds and climactic drops, much in the same vein as the biggest names in ‘EDM’. Tiga‘s debut live show straight after SOPHIE, while not quite so obviously striking the same chords as the previous two performers, still hits home a sense of Sónar’s ability to offer an alternative ‘EDM’ experience with accessible and pop-driven electronic music, particularly ‘Bugatti’ and ‘Plush’, tracks with rely on their approachability and almost jingle-like refrains.

The culmination of all this back in the main SonarClub warehouse and the formaliser of my initial thoughts on Sonar’s ability to offer an alternative ‘EDM’ experience is Skrillex‘s headline performance. I say ‘performance’ because that is exactly what Skrillex offers: not content with merely handling the bracing, riotously and unashamedly fun musical selections (special mention must go to his inclusion of Fetty Wap’s ‘Trap Queen’), but also opting to shout words of encouragement into a closely-grasped microphone as he bounces up and down on the table that houses his set-up, all in front of giant multi-coloured visuals of alien motifs. By the time we reach the giddy heights of Skrillex and Diplo’s Justin Bieber-featuring ‘Where Are U Now’ in the final five minutes, all scepticism has gladly wilted. Skrillex is a skilful performer and I leave firmly in the knowledge that I have witnessed one of the highlights of this year’s festival. ‘EDM’ doesn’t have to be a dirty term and it has links far closer to the ‘underground’ than most people think as proven by the array of sets witnessed over the four or so hours of that night. Wandering dazed from the high provided by Skrillex into a 6 am drunken round of dodgems (as Roman Flügel plays in the distance no less) also makes for another thing learned: dodgems are fun no matter how old you are. Christian Eede

If "Colin Self is light", then so are Owen Pallett, Holly Herndon and Mat Dryhurst

Holly Herndon – photograph courtesy of Ariel Martini

Owen Pallett‘s set is the aural equivalent of the vapour-dousing delivered by the micro-sprinklers watering the vertical shrubbery placed around the By Day site: replenishing and very, very necessary. Glorious torrents of violin emerge, sharp angles to balance out the Estrella-powered mass of bodies gently basking in the speaker-spray, a performance of ‘Song For Five & Six’ feeling particularly skywards-bound. It’s soul-bolstering and touched with levity, a fine means of keeping buoyant amongst all the 4×4 pummelings being unleashed elsewhere, and mines from the same vein that Holly Herndon does a day later. Just before she plays ‘Home’, the San Francisco composer takes a break to answer a few text message questions that have been sent in by the audience, all projected onto a screen behind her. No, she’s not a lesbian; the meaning of life – each other. One’s a statement: "fuck troika, Barcelona is anarquista", which gets a massive cheer. There’s some further TextEdit rabble-rousing (the document is named "metafiction") when Herndon answers the question, "What’s the sexiest piece of information you’ve ever happened to process?" with: "when you decide to stop sitting down", at which point the entire Complex crowd get on their feet for the first time I’ve seen in the venue this festival. Colin Self, who contributed vocals to ‘Unequal’ on Herndon’s recent Platform album, has joined her and constant collaborator Mat Dryhurst for the performance, and all are dressed in the ‘Free Chelsea Manning’ shirts that Herndon, talking to Kate Hutchinson in an onstage interview the day previously, had explained were designed especially for their performance at Berghain the week before. As the music frenzies, Self starts dancing, circle-spinning his below-shoulder length hair, holding a torch in his mouth, which, at one point, he drops, rapidly diving to collect. It’s a touchingly unperfected moment – "Colin Self is light," Herndon types after the song finishes – of unrestrained expression, a very human complement to the humanising tech-techno Herndon trades in. Laurie Tuffrey

Sometime all it takes is listening to music in-between giant aircraft hangars

It’s probably fair to say that no one really needs to expend many more words weighing up PC Music, though equally, it does feel that SOPHIE‘s tracks are perhaps the most well-crafted emerging from that orbit; daft, but deft (in the same way that managing to stuff Haribo with serotonin would be deft). Framed in his live set, when ‘Lemonade’ and ‘Bipp’ rear up out of the glitchy overload, it’s hard to deny that they feel like bangers. It’s music of natural extremes: ‘Bipp’ basically all chorus, undercut with strobey, hardstyle bass and the swiftest of trance build-ups, ‘Lemonade’ even more of the former, none of the latter. Watched on SonarLab, the stage set up between the two gaping warehouses housing the rest of Sónar By Night, this quality gets set in relief: feet moving on industrial precinct concrete, lights strafing prefab office units, essentially sanitised anti-place, the super-aspirated hyper-pop burns with a neon brightness. It’s definitely a sugar high – the buzz of ‘Lemonade’ lasts for me for all of the track’s 1:59 – and in fairness, that’s all in there ("I get that fizzy feeling/ Now I’m lemonade"), but when QT walks on stage to close with ‘Hey QT’, it goes off, the crowd taking another hit of pop infatuation immediacy ("I’ve got this new song and it’s all I want to play"). Anyway, enough of this, I quite fancy a Red Bull. Ah, I see how this works… Laurie Tuffrey

Sónar isn’t for those lacking in stamina

Having previously visited Barcelona for Primavera Sound in 2014, I liked to think I was relatively prepared for the 7 am finishes that Sónar’s By Night programme offer, with the former running through until much the same time also. However, where Primavera only gets going in the evening, Sónar’s combination of both day and night line-ups make for a very different adventure, marking it out as a festival very much designed for the more dedicated festivalgoer. It perhaps didn’t help too much either that each intensely hungover day began with brutal assaults of the senses that cared very little for the state of my head. Friday afternoon saw the turn of Vessel to pummel the fiercely sweaty SonarHall with the severe brand of noise and techno offered up on last year’s Punish, Honey, combined with some, at times, questionable, and always disturbing, visuals, ‘Red Sex’ undoubtedly working its magic in the latter part of the set. The next day it’s the turn of a fedora-clad Mika Vainio, in the same venue, to deliver a round of sonic punishment to my dishevelled body.

What’s more, the presence of Barcelona’s ‘Off Sónar parties’ across the city from Wednesday through to Sunday, offering up a selection of the world’s best DJs converging on Barcelona for an assortment of label showcases, do their best to deprive me of sleep even further. Thursday night’s lack of By Night programme offers an opportunity to head to Sala BeCool with its low ceilings and minimal lighting where Hessle Audio and Hinge Finger are hosting a joint party, the labels represented respectively by Ben UFO, Pearson Sound and Pangaea, and Joy Orbison and Will Bankhead (alongside guests Blawan and Barnt). Cramming that much talent into one room makes for a selection of rapidfire sets from the moment I arrive, as Blawan works his way through a set of heavy, industrial techno, followed up by a characteristically, effortlessly on point set from Ben UFO, the key moment in the night at which I wish so much hadn’t been pushed into one party, shortening sets as a result. With Joy Orbison and an unannounced Barnt playing back-to-back for the next hour, building to 2014’s universal club banger, ‘Chappell’, from Barnt himself, it becomes clear that the attraction of Sónar also lies outside of the site’s walls, with so much else also on offer to its revellers during the festival’s downtime. Fast-forward to the end of the weekend and Ben UFO is playing in the rather different setting of a monastery courtyard as the sun goes down, an experience perhaps not offered in the more illiberal license formalities of other European cities. Of course, the Sónar experience isn’t hinged on attending these unaffiliated off-site events too, but what’s stopping you otherwise? Christian Eede

Skrillex is the exception to most rules

Skrillex – photograph courtesy of Ariel Martini

Opposite the dodgems on the SonarCar stage, Randomer is trading in hands-in-the-air fun of a different kind. We get to his DJ set at around the halfway mark, by which time, it’s hammering techno going at full tilt – a play of the London producer’s own ‘Ruffa’ nicely slotted in – gratifyingly relentless. Helena Hauff, following, picks up on the stern bent, with MPIA3’s ‘Acid Badger’ making an early appearance, both hour-long sets drawing on a similarly darker-hued, deeply after-hours core. Around 75 minutes later, on the impossibly massive SonarClub stage, a man will play the opening vocal of The Lion King‘s ‘The Circle Of Life’ just as soon as he’s done waving around a pirate flag. Skrillex‘s set is nothing less than a massive treat: 90 minutes of deeply silly fun that makes no bones about being 90 minutes of deeply silly fun. It’s a madcap collage that jumps about through time and genre with giddy abandon. Eurythmics’ ‘Sweet Dreams’ is swiftly followed by Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ ‘Heads Will Roll’; there’s a snatch of ‘Fat Lip’ by Sum 41, from which he gets to Shakespears Sister’s ‘Stay’; he mixes his own ‘Bangarang’ into ‘Macarena’. ‘Barcelona’ booms out at one point, the Spanish flag emerging out of an ‘Area 51’ graphics-splurge on the cluster of screens that surround him, Skrillex punctuating the whole set with shouts of "Barcelona! Ay ay ay!" and Kanye’s "uh huh honey" ‘Bound 2’ sample. If there’s any shortfall, it’s that he doesn’t get to the second drop on ‘Where Are Ü Now’, but by the time there’s a closing stage invasion led by A$AP Rocky and Novelist, there’s no one who isn’t at the very least in fits of laughter at the sheer blast of it all. You’d have to be possessed of a heart of pure jet to not enjoy it. Laurie Tuffrey

Grime certainly works in Barcelona

RBMA’s SonarDôme venue, one of the immense, high-ceilinged halls that make up the innercity By Day site and standing airily and well-lit, in stark contrast to the darkness of the other inside music spaces on site, finishes on both Thursday and Saturday evening with some of the UK’s finest names in grime. On Thursday, it’s the turn of Mumdance and Novelist alongside collective The Square. The first 40 or so minutes of the 90-minute billing see Mumdance move through a selection of stark techno and rave music including a number of tracks Proto, his collaborative album with Logos released earlier this year, as well as a slew of his own productions such as ‘The Sprawl’, ‘Springtime’ and Pinch collaboration ‘Turbo Mitzi VIP’. Moving into a selection of grime instrumentals, the relatively subdued crowd becomes something entirely different as Novelist steps out. What follows is 20 minutes of reloads, gleeful reactions and outings for the Nov-featuring ‘1 Sec’ and of course ‘Take Time’, which receives the expected frenzied response from the swelling SonarDôme audience. With 30 minutes left, Mumdance steps aside, handing over to The Square’s General Courts who continues at much the same pace for the remainder of the set, the energy levels not dipping once both on stage and off.

Sure, a huge proponent of Sónar’s crowd is British, but in a mix of various European nations and beyond, the music still gets the same amped-up reception as it does at home in London, as is the case with Skepta and JME‘s joint appearance on Saturday night. It’s hard to see their set not going off having previously witnessed the intensity of Mumdance, Novelist and The Square, with the Adenuga brothers bouncing off each other’s presence throughout, Skepta in his trademark all-white, as they run through each other’s respective arsenal of solid classics, as well as BBK material (‘Too Many Man’). There are outings too for Meridian Dan’s ‘German Whip’ and a burst of ad-libs over Dizzee’s ‘I Luv U’ instrumental, all building up to the victory lap that is ‘Shutdown’, and that’s, perhaps predictably, exactly what the pair do – "man’s never been in Barcelona when it’s shutdown eh?" Christian Eede

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