More work trouble and the frustrating situation of watching the clock tick down while knowing that Agoria had already started. A mad dash got me there too late, with Minneapolis rap group Atmosphere already on the Sonar Village stage to promote their new album “The family sign”. I’ve seen only a handful of Hip Hop shows in my life and would never count myself an expert, but vocalist Slug (aka Sean Daley) and producer Anthony Davis aka Ant’s show was pretty compelling despite the all-too-familiar need to get the crowd clapping, putting their hands in the air and calls to make some mother fucking noise. Towards the end of the show they paid tribute to the Beastie Boys, by repeating an act they had seen at one of their shows: getting the crowd to hold up their Adidas in the air. The response may have been lukewarm, probably because everyone was wearing sandals and flip flops and not closed shoes, but nonetheless the music was hot enough to kick start the day.
Out back in the Sonar Dome, drum and bass stalwart Zinc had already been and gone along with Agoria and a brief effort to catch his younger prodigy Katy B was met with resistance due to the overflowing crowd, the biggest I had seen at the festival. Meanwhile oOoOO had put in a miserly 30 minute set of Witch House in the new Sonar Comlex space between the Dome and the Village which meant it was over before it began and was thus another act to cross off the list without seeing anything. By default then, it was time for DJ Raff in the open air as we were also joined by Jack, a DJ for Perth’s RTR FM. DJ Raff is a Chilean born, but Spain-based, DJ and producer, who has contributed to a range of projects over the years including the recent release of the track “Latino and Proud”. Unfortunately he failed to impress with a messy set of bass music and the occasional 4-4 intervention that showed little logical continuity or cohesiveness to the style. Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of his style was his ability to catch the crowd and lift them up with a great track or mix and then abruptly dump them by switching too quickly or too far afield with the next selection and then having to start all over again.
Kieran Hebden’s late afternoon slot was one of the first big surprises in a day of sets that exceeded expectations. While having perused his catalogue from time to time, I have never been an active fan of Four Tet’s music, but his set was heavier and much more driving than I would have expected. At times he crossed the threshold into techno, at others staying back in more break beat territory with occasional embellishments of cathartic noise, but always underscored by his trademark emphasis on funk and feeling. Hats off to the man as well for catching the crowd again after the relative disappointment of DJ Raff. There were plenty of big, long build-ups to drag the audience from conversation into contemplation and dancing, and then a lot of space to switch directions and start again. Almost effortlessly he was able to reinstate something of a celebratory air to proceedings that was exstatically received. In addition, while not part of the official festival, there was a screening of a documentary film called “Tongues” on the Wednesday night to celebrate Hebden’s collaboration with jazz drummer Steve Reid.
The first thing that took me about Sonar by Night was the sheer size of the crowd, much higher than I had ever seen at the festival before. Big cues for drink tickets and every stage rammed to capacity, especially early in the evening meant some logistics to get everything comfortable, but in the end, there was no detraction from the spectacle. Our first full show of the evening was also another that was more than I had imagined it would be. Mathangi "Maya" Arulpragasam’s debut album “Arular” from 2005 was a personal favourite of the time for its catchiness and its deceptive simplicity, but I never stayed in touch with her work. Several live reviews and recent reports of her poor professional attitude and negative response to some videos has led me to expect little. But an over the top stage show mixing all those catchy, blatant and of course, controversial elements of her persona, proved a hit. M.I.A. was sexy, violent, commercial, trashy, catchy and, dare I say it, entertaining. Her show made Magnetic Man the following night look lame. She opened with a long, almost ambient track of Sri Lankan traditional music before unleashing a restless barrage of both newer material that I wasn’t as familiar with and some of the cracking hits off the first album like “Galang”, “Bucky done gun” and “Paper plane”. Helped by several guest MCs and screens showing images of sexy girls and sexy guns M.I.A. delivered a genuine spectacle and provided an astounding start to the evening.
Last time I saw Scuba play back in January he played a complete techno set from beginning to end with not a dubstep track in sight. This surprised me a lot at the time and was a big talking point amongst some others I knew who had also been at the gig. The fact that he did it again at Sonar wasn’t then such a big surprise, but it does suggest that he is now batting for the other team. The direction his label Hot Flush has taken (exemplified particularly by his own and Sigha’s releases) would also seem to suggest the same. Their recent label compilation Back and 4th was one half older tracks caught in the process of evolving from more traditional dubstep stylings into the newer 4-4 variations present on the second disc of new material. To be fair, Scuba’s change in direction may reflect as much dubstep’s restless mutation into UK funky and beyond, in addition to its earlier flirtation with dub techno, than it does any sell out from Paul Rose himself. Nonetheless, as a techno-styled DJ he still delivers a master class of track selection and set design. Crammed into an hour, his set had the feeling of being longer for its patient emphasis on detail and momentum over psychedelia and cheap tricks. It was only towards the end that he employed one or two bass-dropping breakdowns to make his point before finally setting down on his own track “Feel it” from the aforementioned compilation. Distinguished and egoless, Scuba commands for his ability to incite the dance floor and challenge you to listen closely at the same time, the only shame was he couldn’t play for longer.
Much like M.I.A. earlier in the evening, you never really know what you are going to get with Richard D. James, but perhaps more so. Would it be gabba, ambient, techno or breaks? Would it be ground breaking, irritating, mischievous, arrogant, reverent or irrelevant? In the end it was perhaps everything and more and was simply astounding, one of the best, perhaps the best live electronic set I have personally ever witnessed. At times disturbing and restless, at others serene and contemplative, Aphex Twin crossed boundaries, distorted genres and generated seemingly new combinations and bewildering juxtapositions at will. Most impressively, he stabbed and fractured beats to the point of arhythmia only to catch them again at the critical juncture and send them back in phase and the crowd mad again. Somewhere in between there was still time for some of classics to enter the fray. Another intriguing aspect was his minimal presence, reduced to pixelated images on the screen, without ever resorting to egotistical self-promotion, complicated videos or worse, an overdose of the Chris Cunningham-derived monster faces. An elaborate performance that was brilliant to the point of genius and satisfying to the point of gluttony.
After Aphex Twin and the whole night spent in the massive Sonar Club, it was time for something of a rest out doors in the Sonar Pub with South Africa’s Die Antwoord. For those unfamiliar with the group, they came to fame (or perhaps infamy?) for their ludicrous fashion and videos, purportedly representing a new style of gangsta rap and “next level beats” called Zef. Perhaps a joke, perhaps not, but from our sitting position at the back, certainly hilarious from the ground up, clothes, hair and that helium voice, but not anything to stay too long for or to willingly seek out again. Well done to them anyway for getting such a good gig.
Last stop for us at least was German DJ and producer Boys Noize (aka Alexander Ridha) back in the main Sonar Club. Catchy for a time, Ridha nonetheless sold himself short and fell into the trap of many of the big acts to play the Club over the years (I am thinking of SebastiAn in 2009 and 2 Many DJs last year) who’s one trick is the breakdown. Decent enough beats and electro sounds for a time, but never a run longer than five minutes before the invariable breakdown and the bass which come slammed back in. The contrast with Scuba for example, or Surgeon the following day is markedly pronounced as their use of the technique was particularly restrained and concentrated more specifically on the narrative design of the set. While Boys Noize was ok to while away some time, it was still not enough to keep us there until the bitter end.
As an afterword, here is a video of said performances by SebastiAn, Ed Banger’s resident chain smoking DJ, which is musically poor, but interesting from the point of view of the stage design, reminiscent of an early 20th Century dictator (ala Fritz Lang’s "Metropolis" or perhaps the evil dude from the original Battlestar Galactica tv show). Note the hand gestures to signal the bass drop.