One problem with Sonar by day is that you always think you are going to arrive earlier than you do. The necessities of sleep invariably take hold and the day starts later than envisaged. Besides, Jack and I, now also accompanied by his brother Lance paid a quick visit to the Miscelanea art gallery where M_nus had set up with a small exhibition of relics, a shop and in-house DJs out back. Label boss Richie Hawtin had already played a little gig from a fruit stand on the side of the Boqueria market on Thursday afternoon.
However, even a short pit stop was too long as upon arrival, the crowd down in the Sonar Hall was capacity and there was no chance to get inside and see the reactivated and mythical Global Communication project of Mark Pritchard and Tom Middleton. Instead we headed to the Sonar Dôme for Manchester’s Illum Sphere aka Ryan Hunn. My first and only encounter of Illum Sphere’s music up until the gig had been his “Titan” single from last year on Martyn’s 3024 label. Yet a few minutes into his set it was clear that this was nowhere near a good enough picture to pin down his style. Hunn seemed more like he was guiding the mercurial course of the music with a deft of touch rather than DJing. Roughly dubstep in terms of genre, yet the overall texture of the music was distinctly more electronica sounding and complicated, like fractured glass catching coloured lights, rather than being indebted to the rampant computer game overload of other brands of bass music. There was plenty of evidence of a signature sound emerging too, such as he showed on his latest 12” for Tectonic which is exceptional. My enduring impression from his set was that this was a guy to watch out for in the future as he clearly had mastered his craft and could entertain without resorting to extremes or to the silliness that sometimes undermines some streams of bass music.
I must confess that Sascha Ring’s Apparat project has never done much for me. I reviewed their “Walls” album for Resident Advisor back in 2007 and received a fairly hefty chain of abuse for panning it. My memory of the time was walking around and around Barcelona with it on my iPod and then putting it back on at home and just looking for a way inside that wasn’t via a safe middle ground. Watching Ring perform many of these same songs plus several new tracks on stage gave me much the same feeling. As much as I appreciated the show it just didn’t change the way I was feeling in any way. I was always watching and listening from outside, even as Ring and his band delved within themselves, apparently, to conjure forth their sounds. Something in the rehearsed playing, the immaculate non-improvised time keeping and the continuous pleading vocals (that sound like they want to be Sigur Ros but sometimes sound like Keane) just seems too artificial for me..and too safe. That is also to praise them for being technically faultless: a crisp sound, a set building to some slightly noiser tracks towards the end and a lot of feeling worn on the face. But like their previous album, it seemed like great music that doesn’t know how to let go from its creators and it belongs to them. Perhaps my opinion is tempered by decades of Indie rock and electronica/techno and Ring’s careful decision to stay on the cusp of both opens him to criticism from both quarters and there are perhaps better examples on either side, but perhaps none that dominate the centre ground so much.
Magnus had been with me back in February when we last saw Darren Cunningham perform a brilliant, but controversial set as part of the Micro Mutek festival. It was with some trepidation that Magnus approached the gig, whereas I couldn’t have been more enthusiastic. In the end we all left overwhelmed and a little changed from the experience, just as we had been the previous time. It was hard to tell if there was some problem delaying the start with lots of fiddling around on stage, moving mixers and pointing to a blank screen behind, but once Actress started it was with sheer and inescapable force. Cunningham was only a silhouette, dressed bizarrely in a rice paddy hat with no lights on him and only the screen behind. Occasionally you would see the evil glint in his eye, even from the back of the room. Looking at those tiny lights in his eyes, especially during the monstrous opening salvo of pure noise techno, you just thought: this guy is only toying with us and he could fuck us up anytime he wants to. I could review forever the first ten-fifteen minutes alone there was so much going on there: a sound system pushed to the red, but unlike Tyondai Braxton the day before, never once getting painful; a relentless four-four beat that seemed to accumulate energy in repetition rather than lose it; and a milieu of fuzzy noise driving home senseless and evolving melodies that stuck in your head forever. Sometime near the end Kane screamed in my ear “This is the shit they should have had on the big stage last night”. The rest of the set was somewhat restrained by comparison, but never dull and always seemingly further afield. One surprise was the lack of vocal samples which only begun to appear a little before the half way mark, surprising given that "Splazsh" is subtlely, but totally dominated by vocal samples in almost every track. Some of Cunningham’s changes too, were not quite perfect, but given the complex nature of the music everyone was forgiving him. Comparisons could easily be made with Aphex Twin’s complicated set the night before and, of the whole festival, these two artists stood above the rest for overwhelming originality, innovation and entertainment. One final word was the use of visuals: I questioned my colleagues about it and they had said there were none. However, it appears there were: nothing but subtle shades of white in the form of the rings from the Splazsh album cover accumulating in intensity now and again and then nothing. Understated, to say the least.
After Actress finished around 9:30 we met up with another new companion, the intrepid Belgian/Moroccan adventurer Jacques and took a quick bite, followed by the magical train journey to the Fira where the night gigs are held. This train ride always has the feeling of a time machine or a spaceship voyaging to another world; the return is the same with the added sense of culture shock returning to civilian life. On arrival it was time for orientation and then a stopover at the new Sonar Car stage for Infiné’s Clara Moto aka Clara Prettenhoffer. Super cool behind the decks she mixed a gently persuasive set of sometimes deep house and sometimes lighter house shimmering with more ethereal electric textures. Her changes maintained a disciplined sense of urgency, capturing the suave forces of her more club orientated tracks like “Hall”, whereas the overall selection maintained true to her more melodic interests, captured so extendedly on last years “Polyamour” album. It was a shame to have the interference of the bumper car lights and noise behind for what was ostensibly delicate music, and again, a shame to pass by so briefly, but to paraphrase the lyrics from her track “Deer and fox”, “At least I have been with you for a while”.
Then it was time for the most difficult moment of the night and the festival: Underworld. Why difficult? Because having been quite a big fan for years, especially “Dubnobasswithmyheadman” which is a hugely influential album and a soundtrack to one of my happier epochs, it was nonetheless a clash of programming with Shackleton about to emerge on the next stage. But more than that, below the surface I was scared of either getting sucked into their set for nostalgia reasons, looking too heavily for the past in the music and not the present or the future, whereas similarly and contrarily, I had not paid the group much attention since “Oblivion with bells” for a certain disappointment in what they were producing. To make it short: it was time to let Underworld go and this was a difficult thing to do for all the personal meaning they somehow embodied. For this reason, I am grateful they opened their set with a mix of “REZ” and “Cowgirl”, which for me could also have been an adequate closer too. This at least satisfied my masochistic urge to be in the past for a moment. The next few tracks were newer and I confess to not knowing them even while the crowd went mad around me. In any case, I was fascinated watching Karl Hyde twist and jerk on stage, much more the frontman than I imagined he would be, whereas Rick Smith and his companion at the decks where relentlessly busy. A spectacle without doubt, and resplendent with hits and communal gravity that I gradually removed myself from. I may have missed “Born Slippy NUXX”, I may have missed “Dirty Epic”, my personal favourite Underworld track, had they played it, but it was time to leave, time to say “adios”.
Shackleton was already underway by the time we left Underworld with Kane, Jack and Jacques; Magnus had stayed behind. We made our way down near the front of the Sonar Lab stage which was like entering into an energy field. The air seemed to vibrate differently, shimmering and bumping like little atomic waves as the bass frequencies and drones collided. Above this almost-hidden layer was Shackleton’s trademark percussive detail, with flickers of drums, distorted voices and the crash of electronics bursting all around. Something in the music put us all silent and refracted, bent inwards to hear closer and yet twisted outwards dancing, and looking up to try and catch sight of the humming air and the tangerine clouds streaming overhead. Shackleton’s music deliberately evokes African and Middle Eastern atmospheres, but burned into your mind in such a way, via advanced technology in such a primitive and yet modern environment, it somehow awakens something ancestral. Listening to Shackleton is to become elevated, to seek a kind of tribalism or an immediate ritualization of the present. The rhythms are built in such a way that you can quickly unravel them in your mind as he builds a counter-rhythm to challenge you and so on. Shackleton demands response and responsibility for your listening just as he delivers a total environment for this to take place. That is should be sparse and atomic does not mean to say it is empty. Within the arena of his sound, there are all the tools you need to build a new world in the mind. Immaculate, but once again, too brief in moving on.
Putting Lucy aka Luca Mortellaro on the Sonar Car stage was perhaps not the wisest act of programming from the organisers. It is doubtful if this influenced his set list, since he wouldn’t have known before-hand what to expect, but nonetheless his performance wasn’t the hour of dark, menacing and politically-motivated techno I had been expecting. Perhaps there was more of this kind of music than I remember, but a clear problem was again the make-shift location of the little stage, the mix of bumper cars and open space around it and the lights which seemed to take the edge off the sound a little. That said, it wasn’t a chore to dance or enjoy the choice of tracks, even if it seemed somehow more conventional, but it was still an experience that would benefit from the cover of darkness. Again, Lucy’s set design, much like his contemporaries Scuba and Surgeon, played little off tricks and gimmickry and focused instead on the drive, with almost immeasurable changes sweeping one track into the next. But next time I think I would prefer and need to see him play in a proper club environment to really “get” the music.
I wasn’t a huge fan of Magnetic Man’s eponymous album from last year, but I could see that its more commercial attitude might work on the big stage. Unfortunately I was wrong. Magnetic Man as a live act were simply abominable, pure hype and little substance. The bass was wielded without force while the beats scattered and disappeared in the mix all too frequently as if lost going in circles. In the big environment, the commercial side of the music seemed to show all its holes, rather than strengthen the forms. But perhaps most disappointing of all were the MCs P. Money and SGT Pokes who failed to form any centre point or stimulate the audience in any intelligent or cohesive way. Their big hit “I need air” should have dominated the crowd, but came across with a wimper, without even a decent bass signature, as a half hearted audience sang along to frequent interruptions and coaxing by the MCs. Sadly, the festivals lowest point.
By the time Anthony Child came on it was almost a godsend, but with so many people in our little group, things were getting a little difficult to keep together which meant parts of Surgeons long-ish set were spent meeting lost revellers, fishing for cigarettes for Jacques or generally holding ground while waiting for others to return. But Surgeon’s 90 minute set was one of the festival’s highlights, interruptions aside. Starting with Alice Coltrane’s “Isis and Osiris”* and then proceeding down a long torrid tunnel of sound, reminiscent of his Fabric mix from last year, but somehow less cluttered. A big contrast with Scuba the night before was Anthony Child’s closer ties to dubstep and bass music styles than Paul Rose seems to have now. Surgeon’s music as well, especially his exceptional new album, seems to follow this line, digging out syncopations and clashing rhythms with rolling low ends and smeared basslines that then jigsaw into straighter 4-4 beat chains. The effect is staggering, like listening to two or three tracks at once (which was probably also the case). However, the first hour of the set was more strictly techno, whereas a long run before the climax completely removed the techno foundation for a long respite in more abstract beat and dubstep terrains. Perhaps more so than Scuba, this was a set that made you want to stay out on the floor, but also sit back in an arm chair and listen to what was going on. Perhaps the only surprise, but hardly a disappointment, was the control and discipline on show: with such a big system on offer, Surgeon stayed well away from the red line and seemed almost polite to a point, a big contrast again with the final act of the night.
* I think it was this track. Surgeon has been playing Alice Coltrane out a lot, particularly “Journey in Satchidananda” from the same album of this name, and the jazz piece opening his set was quite dark, with a slow, almost funeral atmosphere. At first I thought it might have been one of the last pieces John Coltrane recorded which have that “last breath of life” feel to them, but I couldn’t identify it on any of his albums.
The final act of Sonar de Nit was Central American-born, but US-based DJ and visual artist Juan “John” Mendez, also known for his contributions to the Sandwell District collective. His brutal and in some ways violent set was an appropriate and overwhelming finish to events. The fact that he could come on stage and make Surgeon look relatively gentlemanly (I mean relatively) says a great deal about his style as a DJ. His first thought was to get the soundsystem at the limit and then keep it there. The kick drum was simply pounding and unstoppable, barely dropping out at all. Mendez’s work then was to keep it interesting upstairs, working the high hats and upper frequencies particularly, while keeping enough space to desecrate the midrange with clashes, crashes and violence. A truly overwhelming force behind the wheels of steel with a huge soundsystem like Sonar’s and a brilliant foil for his more sublime work under the Tropic of Cancer moniker, that also deserves a lot of attention. When the hour comes close to 7am and the lights are coming on in the main room from the rising sun outside and with Silent Servant in control, you know you are in a good place.