The month of May can often be an unpredictable month in Barcelona, with the often constant runs of rainy days souring the optimism that usually heralds spring and the imminent arrival of summer on the Mediterranean coast. Unusually, May was bright and warm, hot even, with the rain arriving at the start of June and seemingly about to threaten Sonar, who’s daytime events, particularly on the Sonar Village stage, need the bright sun to thrive and catalyse the party atmosphere. Thankfully, the clouds parted true to form and in the nick of time with Sonar week kicking off with its traditional warm weather and the first sun burns of the year.
Despite the good fortune with the weather, the only downside on a personal level was the overwhelming pressure of a demanding day job and the unpredictable behaviour of my paranoid boss who made the ability to come and go freely difficult or impossible, compromising the day time events in particular (and by that I mean the ability to stay out all night as well). This meant horrendous hours, up to 16 hour days, and changing deadlines which is not conducive to relaxing, sleeping well or preparing mentally and physically for a three day music festival. Also in somewhat traditional fashion was the proliferation of thieves with the hot weather (who sometimes seem so ubiquitous here) who robbed my English friends Magnus and Kane (not their real names) hours after arrival in the city. Their arrival on my doorstep at 7:30am after a torrid and minimal night’s sleep with no money or address was not what the doctor ordered, but was nonetheless a good primer for things to come.
Work and the dentist meant a later than desired arrival at the usually quiet Thursday opening day. Missing sets by the intriguing Toro y Moi, Nicolas Jaar and Floating Points was already a blow, but one more than easily tempered by arriving just after the start of Little Dragon. Despite being my first show of Sonar 2011, Little Dragon was easily the best new find of the festival. The quartet from Gothenburg, Sweden delivered an absolutely magisterial set of motoric and down tempo disco electronica that enthralled for their stage presence and the unexpected twists in the music. Yukimi Nagano’s movement and voice was absolutely magnetic, drawing you in, but never once over powering the musicians, Erik Bodin (drums), Fredrik Källgren Wallin (bass), and Håkan Wirenstrand (keyboards). Their simple, but tight interplay kept the groove propulsive for long periods and sent the breakdowns, when they came, into unexpected territory, using genuine, but understated virtuosity to eke out contrasts, angles and recreate new rhythms seemingly from nothing. Having trawled through their back catalogue on record, they are enthralling with a glut of hits and catchy songs, often more down beat than their live show, but too many to post. A sample of what they are like live is here:
They have a new single “Nightlight” out now from their forthcoming album “Ritual Union” (due out later this month)
An intriguing Interview can be found on Canada’s Q TV can be found here:
Finally, for those who don’t know the group directly, you may have some across them via one of their many collaborations that most notably includes Gorillaz on the tracks "Empire Ants" and "To Binge" from the “Plastic beach” album:
Nagano’s vocals were also used on the tracks “Bright Nights” and the eternally optimistic and immensely classical “Summer Sun” from Koop’s seminal 2001 Nu Jazz album “Waltz for Koop”.
After Little Dragon, we headed to the Sonar Hall to catch the end of Nicolas Jaar, but to no avail and instead waited for the onset of Tyondai Braxton’s set. Tyondai is the son of celebrated free jazz musician Anthony Braxton and a former member of Warp group Battles, but now works as a solo performer. From the back of the room in low light and with little movement on stage it was not always easy to divine what he was doing. But with guitar perched on his lap and other instruments at hand he slowly built up a cacophony of loops into a piecemeal collage of noise. Whereas his recorded pieces often have grace, inventiveness and enigma, live he was almost unlistenable. To be fair, this was largely due to the poor mixing which was extremely loud and at times physically painful and prevented any penetration of the music. Intriguing passages would emerge, but then become uncoupled beneath the pressure of volume and the desynchronisation of the loops and after 15 minutes we had had enough.
It was a tough call between Ninja Tune and Big Dada on the Sonar Village stage, or Belgium’s San Soda out back in the Sonar Dôme, but in the end we elected for the later. The light still up, Nicolas Geysens’s equally light and uplifting set was marred only by the use of well-worn records that refused to stay in the groove to the jeers of the crowd. He recovered well by dropping crowd-pleasing tunes like the Friendly Fires' “Paris” and plenty of smoother cuts, like his own releases for We Play House. San Soda was a brief, but welcome, relief from the intensity of Tyondai Braxton, and enjoyable, but somehow a little vacuous as well. Perfect then, for the bridge between afternoon and night.
As the sky finally turned dark (but not a blackest ever black), London duo Raime took to the stage back down in the Sonar Dôme. But much like Braxton before them, they failed to deliver on the promise of their recorded sound. Starting well with some gut wrenching bass, gradually rising drones and buried, echoing beats, they nonetheless failed to map out any particular direction nor effectively evoke the dark industrial moods of the singles. Unfolding too slowly, they tested the patience even for music bordering on ambient and rather than highlight contrasts and attack with hidden menace they instead overfilled their mid range, suffocating any subtlety or craftsmanship from the music. As much as you wanted them to be more, they were still somehow dissatisfying.
With work the next day, it was not a possibility to head out late, despite the immense line-up in the off-Sonar events, particularly the Eastender mini-festival that must have been causing the Sonar organizers a headache in potentially lost ticket sales. Thursday’s line-up alone included Desolat and Moon Harbour showcases, while Saturday featured the Planet E 20th Anniversary show, headlined by Carl Craig, in itself a frustrating gig to miss, despite being at Sonar.