Dance Dance Dance: Things Learned At Sonar Festival 2013

Mad dog Englishmen Rory Gibb and Luke Turner go out in the Barcelona sun for Sonar Festival 2013, where they muse upon fantastic performances by the likes of Skrillex, Kraftwerk, Raime, Pet Shop Boys, Karenn, Diamond Version, Vatican Shadow, Liars, Prins Thomas, Todd Terje... all together now... OOOOF! Photos thanks to Sonar Press

Sonar is a vortex

The path into the new Sonar By Day venue at Placa D’Espanya, takes you through all the exhibits for the side of the programme not devoted to an epic party. There’s music and digital tech, hands-on experimentation – as we arrive, a device called the Billaboop Vidibox that allows the chopping and mixing of audio and visual content is being demonstrated. The combined bleeping – and one woman doing rather ecstatic karaoke – is rather like being in a high-end gaming arcade, and makes for a discombobulating entrance, a sensation that’s only heightened when you emerge, blinking, into the sunlight in the main courtyard. Here, under a blazing sky, Icelandic lunatics Gluteus Maximus are sending an already packed SonarVillage stage crowd potty. It’s 25 degrees in the shade, yet the bare flesh all around usdoes not care one jot, stopping by for a dance before disappearing off elsewhere. It’s an energy that doesn’t let up for the rest of the weekend, as we head off down into the spiral… LT

One should never underestimate Liars

You might not think there’s much room for Mute’s premiere gothic electronic group on an evening such as this, but the red draped (appropriately) Sonar Hall has sucked in a respectable crowd from the blazing heat. There’s no lighting on the band, with just a Liars sticker on Aaron Hemphill’s keyboard glittering through a fug of purple smoke. They begin with a new track, all hi hat hiss, nasty whistles and Angus Andrew’s vocals entirely chewed up. He raises his arm, drops it, and a massive beat kicks in. Liars’ transformation from instrumental drummers of doom to an increasingly electronic group has been immensely brave, that they’ve done it in public (tonight with a set almost entirely made up of brand new material), especially so. When they play the organ vortex of ‘WIXIW’ or ‘Number One Against The Rush’ (that has one gyrating lady waving her phone for a Shazam), it’s clear that WIXIW was merely a calling card before Liars leapt forward again. Another track is a nasty sewer rumbler, basically They Were Wrong… or Drum’s Not Dead aesthetics running through channels of titanium and things as yet unknown. "Is there no better place in which to die?" Andrew screams. Frankly, no. LT

In The Beginning Was The Word & The Word Was Kraftwerk

It goes without saying that Kraftwerk’s influence is writ large throughout Sonar 2013, as it is through every edition of this festival and just about every form of contemporary electronic dance music you can imagine. Ghosts of the German group’s legacy crop up everywhere, from the fragmentary few seconds of melody that usher in the explosive climax of Objekt’s ‘CLK Recovery’ in the early hours of Saturday morning to Elektro Guzzi’s man-machine techno explorations that utilise nothing but guitar, bass and drums. 

But Diamond Version are the most potent reminder, due both to their skillful interweaving of audio and visual content and the conceptual pop heart that beats at the core of their sleek and mechanistic electronic grind. It’s gratifying to see Carsten ‘Alva Noto’ Nicolai and Olaf ‘Byetone’ Bender, whose Raster-Noton label output tends to err to the side of seriousness, in such physically expressive, even rock star-ish mode: posturing, pumping fists in the air and headbanging in front of strobing screens, while strafing the audience with lumbering hip-hop and electro beats and hunks of steely distortion that feel like ten-ton blocks of wrought iron dropped onto your head. 

Across their series of EPs for Mute they’ve approached those basic building blocks from several different angles, from severe to goofily subversive (‘Science For A Better Life’s depth-charged pharmaceutical ad soundbites sound particularly absurd tonight: "WE GUARANTEE YOU’LL FEEL A SIGNIFICANT DIFFERENCE IN JUST THREE DAYS"), but this evening’s performance integrates them seamlessly, adding a few new gleaming, technoid tracks for good measure. The overall effect is something akin to being trapped inside a flat screen TV as it experiences critical system malfunction, while simultaneously feeling like the loosest and funkiest either has sounded to date. Near the end of the show, images of high-spec sports cars fill the screens behind the duo – a moment beautifully mirrored during Kraftwerk’s show later that evening, when an extended ‘Autobahn’ is backed by blocky videogame visuals of vehicles cruising beatifically into the distance.

Like their shows at London’s Tate Modern earlier this year, Kraftwerk’s own performance is billed as a 3D show. However, unlike the Tate – where the room’s fairly small size ensured that the ‘K R A F T W E R K’ branded glasses worked equally well for everyone – here the main hangar is so indescribably vast that the show’s 3D aspect only applies to those within close proximity to the stage. Equally, the four robot figures onstage are miniscule from a distance, and it’s tough to feel fully connected to what’s going on. Nonetheless, while it’s frustrating, it doesn’t do much to dull the potency of the show, which is undeniably great. The whole of The Man Machine makes an appearance, including a deep-space drift version of ‘SpaceLab’, while ‘Autobahn’ seems intended to toy with the patience of the more, erm, medicated members of the crowd. It’s a trip through the group’s legacy and a triumphant one at that, a reminder of how many great pop songs Kraftwerk have written over the years and, in the context, a performance that reasserts their profound relevance to so much that’s come since. RG

Even goths thrive in the sun

Last time I saw Chromatics, at an intimate performance in the damp June of 2012, their set was a romantic take on the sounds of Manchester. They stood glacial in the gloom. How can this possibly work in bright sunshine in Barcelona? The answer is in Johnny Jewell’s longstanding love of European dance music, which comes to the fore as, with black tears painted on his face, he leads his band through a set taken largely from last year’s brilliant Kill For Love album, alongside superb covers of Neil Young’s ‘Hey Hey, My My’ and Kate Bush’s ‘Running Up That Hill’. Something about the romantic sophistication of Chromatics makes a massive connection here that I think they struggle to achieve in the UK, and the scorched hordes swoon.

After that, getting to see Dinos Chapman in an air-conditioned theatre space with gloriously soft deep seats provides merciful release from the raging heat. Chapman’s music too gives solace. This is dream music par excellence, some of the rhythms – that pulse and tremble through the heavy PA rather than bang out – are reminiscent of Carter Tutti or Coil, while the submerged, indecipherable vocal elements are like snooping in on a phone conversation with the Burial track played by Mary Anne Hobbs outside in the furnace earlier. In a recent interview, Chapman revealed that he’d mislaid most of the music that made up the great Luftbobler LP. So it’s fair to surmise that there’s a lot of new sounds coming out of his table of gear, and they bode well for a continuation of his musical practice. If this wasn’t made by a hugely successful Britartist (role out the enfant terrible clichés that hound him), a lot more people who have until now ignored Chapman would be getting down like the Sonar audience, some having a chair rave, others holding fists in the air, another wandering and weaving in time with the music down the front of the auditorium. The visuals that play on the screen at the back of the empty stage to the side of Chapman display a tinted skyline, disembodied heads, sunlight glowing from behind grey clouds, and add to the otherworldly sense of an interior journey.

Would Dominick Fernow have predicted in his early days of releasing Prurient noise tapes that in June 2013 he’d end up playing live to a crowd of tanned Europeans, who’d greet his music with exactly the same enthusiasm as they’re simultaneously expressing for Josh Wink labelmate Nacho Narco outside. This summer I’ll be seeing Vatican Shadow umpteen times (about as many as the frequency at which I forked out for his vinyl last year) so more words to come, suffice to say that Fernow’s set is veering further and further into pure techno brutalism accompanied by a visceral performance from the man himself: he occasionally emerges from behind his ammo crate to exhort, shout, gesticulate, rage. It’s further evidence that (not that you should need it) Euphoria is often best found in the supposedly bleakest sounds. LT

Sonar pings open minds

Such things means that over the weekend, it’s often easy to forget that essentially we’re at a mainstream dance music festival that even had the risible Two Door Cinema Club on the bill. Incidentally, the only bit of crowd annoyance comes from a bunch of English #ladsontour asking for directions to go and see that slab-of-shit-indie-out-of-water, who took it upon themselves to shout anti-Semitic insults at the Quietus’ Gentile co-editor. For these bellends, Espanya, we apologise on behalf of our nation. Anyway, Sonar being a chaotic, whirling space, boundaries between genre are well forgotten. It’s heartening to see, time after time, an entire room of people losing their shit to something brutal and intense and way out of their comfort zones.

Take Raime, for example, who greet everyone arriving at Sonar By Night for Kraftwerk. It’s a bold booking – two men playing cadaverous booms of bass noise as, on the main screens, there’s just slow motion footage of a man in a military greatcoat dancing with an upturned table in a ruined building not exactly dissimilar to the one we’re in. It feels, looks and sounds decidedly high art, and the great response from the thousands already gathered at the altar of Kraftwerk can perhaps be taken as evidence, once again, of Europe’s refreshing lack of fear of mixing the intellectual with pleasure. Compared to more indie-focussed festivals, where people men dutifully troop around ticking off a list of bands while looking like they’re hearing their death sentence being read out, this is certainly refreshing. LT

Pet Shop Boys have the brains, Pet Shop Boys the looks

If last night’s performance in the gigantic main hanger space eloquently sealed Kraftwerk’s place as the instigators of all things, there’s an entirely different feeling for Pet Shop Boys tonight – celebratory and sensual. People stream in from the entrances, and cram their way to the front. Without the 3D glasses – which felt like Kraftwerk exerting a control on the audience that rather stopped them dancing – people are already moving to the support DJ. They begin, rightly enough, with Electric-opener ‘Axis’. A massive screen covering the stage shows projected images of Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe’s disembodied heads, inside which there’s a wiggling human form, as if in a James Bond introduction sequence. Then it collapses, and they’re revealed in conical hats and cyborg jackets made of black straws as they launch into ‘One More Chance’.

It doesn’t really let up for the next two hours, a perfect blend of tracks old and new, accompanied by a pair of dancers with horned animal heads. ‘I Wouldn’t Normally Do This Kind Of Thing’ is given a futurist boost, that brilliant line "dancing to The Rites Of Spring" another echo of their "Che Guevara and Debussy to a disco beat" art pop manifesto. They do everything so perfectly, including politics via the Euro Springsteen cover ‘The Last To Die’ that provides an unexpected connection with Vatican Shadow earlier, while ‘Integral’s "if you’ve done nothing wrong you have nothing to fear" is NSA-timely. These things are better done out of the hands of protest singers.

The rest of this is a blur, a joyous performance unlike anything else all weekend, and pretty much one of the most glorious audiences I’ve ever been in. There’s a glitter ball on Lowe’s  head… a bowler covered in reflexive tiles on Tennant…. New track ‘Thursday’ sees footage of semi-detached 30s houses, dancers in suits and, with its celebration of weekend naughtiness, easily stands up to its cousin, ‘Suburbia’. Example appears to do his rap as a hologram, a canny bit of connecting PSB’s 80s escapism to something more contemporary. It’s bold playing ballads in a festival like this, but they pull it off; and then there’s ‘Rent’, the Soviet choir Village People pomp of ‘Go West’, a burly man gives me a sweaty high five in ‘Always On My Mind’, and in ‘Domino Dancing’ I’m sure everyone is singing "all day all day" as "olé olé".

Perhaps the best reaction comes for an incendiary rendition of ‘It’s A Sin’, a song that for so many feels as if its been written for them, the moment they hear it. Is it telling that it goes down so well in a predominantly Catholic country? Tonight, everything about the Pet Shop Boys is bigger, louder, smarter, sexier, more relevant than ever. For all of dance music’s communality, it’s Pet Shop Boys who bring the most love to Sonar 2013… music for the masses, so cleverly sung.

I Can Dance, Dance Dance

The strains of Lykke Li’s ‘Dance Dance Dance’ drift from the onboard speakers. Outside, high speed crosswinds rattle the wings and the plane jolts violently again, the pilot clearly grappling with the prevailing weather conditions. My traveling companion is starting to look rather rattled and sinks deeper into her seat, eyes intently focused on the magazine propped in her lap. Outside the window, though, everything still seems so calm: the sun is still beating down with relentless force, as it has been for the past few days in Barcelona, lending the fields below a hot yellow glow. Industrial machinery and what look like mining conveyor belts jut out of the earth in small, spidery clusters, aggregations of metallic antlion legs reaching outward to clutch at those that dare stray too near. Back inside the cabin, it’s only just possible to pick out Li’s lyrics over the roar of the engines: "Oh dance / I was a dancer all along…"

"I WANT TO SEE YOU FUCKING DANCE!" screams a tiny, lank-haired figure, dwarfed both by Sonar By Night’s colossal stage and an impossibly huge crowd of ravers gathered in the event’s cavernous main room. At that moment the track’s warm, trancey glow abruptly turns to hell, as it plunges into a blast furnace climax of robotic screeches, belches and bellows, and Skrillex throws his hands up into the air, a diabolical preacher inviting his congregation to physical communion. Right on cue, the room goes apeshit, in a way that dwarfs any other crowd response I see throughout the festival. Tens of thousands of people are pogoing en masse, limbs are flailing in all directions, drinks are flung upward into the air and, illuminated by the lasers, transform briefly into glowing arcs of fluorescent blue, red and green, before soaking some poor unsuspecting dancer nearby. 

Sonar By Night is a rave on a scale I’ve never experienced before, taking place in a series of interlinked hangars that presumably were formerly used for constructing jumbo jets or hunks of underground train tunnel. It takes some getting used to. But this – this is bodyshock dance music at a level I’d barely even imagined was possible, all presided over by a small, affable man DJing from within a comically Red Dwarfian alien spacecraft cockpit prop. Witnessing the feedback loop of joy between performer and crowd – Skrillex is clearly loving this, an emotion amplified thirty thousand times over by those he’s facing – I find it tough to understand why so many people get their knickers in a twist about what he does, especially as musically it’s not really that different to the blog-house/fidget-house explosion that emerged in Ed Banger’s wake a few years back. It’s an enjoyable spectacle, albeit pretty exhausting from my perspective – but then try telling that to the crowds of glowstick’d up dancers swirling all around me. And then, in amidst the mass of twisted EDM wreckage, he abruptly drops Blawan’s meat-grinder techno anthem ‘Why They Hide Their Bodies Under My Garage’, and thousands of people lose their collective shit all over again, and I’m wondering who drew the boundaries between these officially delineated styles anyway, because from where I’m standing it’s fucking difficult to prise it all apart.

It’s a handy cue to nip through the corridor into the next hangar along, too, where Blawan is currently onstage alongside Pariah. Their Karenn project’s motley rack of hardware sends daggers of acidic techno splattering outward through the room, all locked to a relentless kickdrum thwack that shudders through the chest four times a bar. The set’s intensity is unwavering throughout – poised with a pendulum-swing momentum that Skrillex, with his carefully sculpted builds and drops, could only dream of achieving – but an equally irresistible invitation to physical motion, and a welcome wave upon which to coast at an addled 4am.

The night before, within the relatively less ego-exploding surrounds of Sonar By Day, I’m moved to shuffle barefoot on the astroturf by Norse disco heads Lindstrom and Todd Terje. Their Thursday evening live performance provides the day’s only real dancefloor kick up the backside, its glowing keys and slow, stately percussion pouring outward, wave upon wave, with gentle but unstoppable force.

And in the early hours of Sunday morning Lindstrom’s friend and sometime collaborator Prins Thomas provides the dancing highlight of the entire festival weekend, while DJing back-to-back with Donato Dozzy at a Resident Advisor Off Sonar party. On the surface of things it’s not the most obvious pairing in the world – cosmic disco meets oceanic techno hypnosis – but it’s an inspired one. We arrive in the basement club early enough to catch the early stages of their all-night set, which begins teasingly slow and soft before undergoing a prolonged escalation, the duo’s selections delicately overlaid and woven into one another, disco and techno through darkened house and stranger curios, melting through clear track boundaries, questing towards an extended peak that’s still going strong by the time we exit around 5:00am. Someone bring this to the UK as soon as possible, for all our sakes.

Lykke Li’s still singing softly as our plane touches the runway in Madrid, a soothing presence during a rocky landing that marks the final end point of this year’s Sonar. But quite aside from the sheer strangeness of hearing her voice piped through an airline’s PA (this ain’t Ryanair anymore, that’s for sure), she’s an appropriate aid to festival memories, her mantric chants recalling club music’s eternal pulse long after we’ve departed Barcelona’s airspace: "Dance, dance, dance…" RG

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