Tuesday, June 25, 2013

P039: Cabeza de Vaca – Sonar 2013 round-up.

As well as the aural/oral summary of Sonar 2013 that you can listen to here on Cabeza de Vaca and Scanner FM  my official written report should be out sometime soon at the site of Australian magazine Cyclic Defrost. The magazine has just announced their last ever print issue, but the website will continue for the time being. Good luck to all involved and thanks very much for the chance to contribute, however slight it might have been.

I will include a few extra things here that will supplement not only the show, but the review when it comes out. First up are some artists who didn’t make the review just for space reasons mostly. That said, many of them I also felt I didn’t spend enough time with to really give a knowledgeable opinion. Most of them were those who played at the Sonarcar stage, particularly the Rush Hour guys on Friday and the 50 Weapons people on Saturday. There was a couple of reasons for not spending time there, despite most of these artists being the ones I most wanted to see. One reason was to avoid moving around so much. If there was something good on, it seemed a shame to waste time filtering through crowds and losing parts of two sets. Better one than none. Also the Sonarcar stage was hard to be drawn into, partly for its small size and partly for its poorer sound system. Unless you were really close it was hard to feel the intensity. Couple that to the dodgem cars right behind and you have a poorly respected stage and I have heard that some artists have even declined invitations to play there as they know it isn’t good enough. This is clearly one of the most important questions to answer for future episodes: how to get more out of this stage. It cannot be easily overlooked either as it is essential, even if for nothing more than adding some avant garde names to the line-up. On paper at least the artists on show there certainly make a big difference to how you perceive the billing.

Of the artists I did see there I thought the young Italian DJ Vaal was quite interesting. Her selections were minimal leaning, but with a skeletal sparseness that was kind of fascinating compared to some of the bigger sounds on offer. Maybe they lacked a punch at times and the BPM felt slightly lower, which was both good and bad, but it may also have been normal and just seemed slower as an illusion of the lack of guts in the speakers. One of the other surprises of this is that DJ Vaal was a woman. Why a surprise? Sonar’s artist guide  clearly says:

“Vaal is the mysterious alias of this unusual dj, one who rarely reveals neither face nor identity, and whose background lies within rock'n'roll and jazz rather than in electronica and black, dance-oriented music. According to his biography, Vaal is unaware of the rules that guide the work of a modern dj, and as he isn't aware of them, he isn't scared of breaking them.”

There’s obviously two things there: “rarely reveals face nor identity” and also “According to his biography”. Would the real Vaal please stand up?

I also saw the beginning of Anstam which kind of confused me as well. His albums are great, but like many artists he is now leaning towards a 4-4 sound and maybe he hasn’t quite shed his past enough yet to dominate a new style. He started with some vocoder-led ambience before jacking in the beats. Due to the lack of power in the system and it was quite hard to get what he was trying to do. The set he did a few years ago at LEV in Gijón was exceptional, so I know he can do it if he tries, but this year, from what I saw, it wasn’t paying off.

The same can be said for San Proper. He has some great tracks, but he made a bizarre decision to put vocals on nearly every track on his debut album “Animal” which is probably why it disappeared pretty quickly. Live as well he came across a bit seedy and almost more aligned with Not Not Fun than Rush Hour with his long hair, unkept appearance, vocals and guitar playing. It wouldn’t be a bad collaboration for him in that sense as he is far from a dud, but imbalance is again a key factor.

I only saw a bit of 50 Weapons artists Phon.o who looked brilliant, Benjamin Damage who was winding down and Bambounou who was a lot more direct and 4-4 than his album would suggest. His album was decent enough, but the abstraction was sometimes alienating. Damage looks like a bigger crowd and a darker venue would have helped. Same with Phon.o although his sound was helped by the necessity to come forward and listen closer.

I play a Darkstar track (which should never otherwise be mixed with Karenn) in the show this week, but I cannot emphasise enough how different their live sound is to their discs, and better for it. The muffled and droney “shoegaze” psychedelia is much more gripping than a well-polished pop sheen. Besides, the tracks were also longer which opens them to exploration. The last track, which I think was “Hold me down” which I play on the show, was exceptional.

Just after them was Dominick Fernow aka Vatican Shadow. His performance was ridiculous and poignant at the same time. He spent half the time behind his machines and the other half at the front of the stage punching the air, jumping and egging the crowd on. The mix was so loud, probably intentionally, that it clipped the sound system. The beats were forceful and relentless, but beautifully dubbed to bring out nuance and evolution. But it was his over the top stage presence that really twisted the knife.

An easily pleased techno audience is one who expects and needs a bass drop (i.e. Richie Hawtin et al). You break a track down and then slam on the bass and somehow that is the “joy” of techno. It gets the crowd going again after a psychedelic pit stop in a more abstract sequence. There are always cheers and more movement when the bass comes back in. Fernow made a total mockery of this. Not only did he emphasise that it is just a moment of primitive power at its peak, by playing and making a buffoon of himself he simultaneously worshiped and ridiculed the excess. But he in a passive way also made fun of the crowd who are always moving anyway. And this also is the joy of techno. Its brilliant watching everyone, high on drugs, dancing incessantly even during the breakdown when there is no beat. The body does not acknowledge this fact. This is why the bass drum kick always works a treat, to remind you that you have been fooling yourself. The beat and the metabolism of the floor never stop. Fernow just reminds you who is really in control.

If anyone is also interested in other nitty gritty details, there was some interesting track choices at times. Justice opened their DJ set with “Also sprach Zarathustra, Op. 30” (Thus Spoke Zarathustra or Thus Spake Zarathustra) the “tone poem” by Richard Strauss, better known as the overture to 2001: A Space Odyssey.


Skream also played Donna Summer’s “I feel love” without it sounding silly or out of place which was also an achievement. There was another, bizarre classical music or 80s pop hit moment in the evening too, but I totally forget what it was! Skrillex had a countdown from around 6 minutes to zero that almost seemed like it would be interesting, but by the time one minute remained he had ruined it by showing he had a very limited range and poor sound design. His choice of using the Barcelona Olympics track by Freddy Mercury and Montserrat Caballé as one of his first was deeply misguided, especially accompanied by dodgy tourist images as if we were watching his Facebook account and Twitter feed. His sound as I mentioned lacks design and nuance, plays off hysteria and sounds like eating McDonald’s while playing video games with commercial dance pop like Rihanna playing on the radio. No need for doubts: don’t believe the hype.

Laurent Garnier
The man with the red face (long version)
F Communications
Matthew Herbert
Louie Austen – Hoping (Herbert's High Dub)
Peacefrog Recordings
George FitzGerald
Thinking of you
Hotflush Recordings
Maya Jane Coles
No sympathy (original mix)
Elite Records
Clean it up
Works he Long Nights
Hold me down
Franz Schubert/Endless Endless
Kling Klang

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