In the fickle world of music festivals, 25 years is quite a milestone. That Barcelona’s Sónar celebrated its 25th fest this year with its biggest crowd yet (126,000 people from 119 countries) is a testament to its reputation as one of the best places to see a mix of artists both established and emerging, accessible and avant-garde, in one of the world’s most alluring cities.
The music, creativity and technology extravaganza began as a small electronic music festival in 1994, and while machine-made music is still Sónar’s bread and butter, the lineup these days extends to pop, classical, rock and everything in between, across three days and two separate daytime and nighttime venues. As usual, Sónar boasted some big names this year — among them LCD Soundsystem, Gorillaz, Thom Yorke and Diplo — along with a bunch of lesser-known but equally compelling acts. These were our pick of the festival’s more unique offerings this year.
Naturally, there’s a strong contingent of local talent on the Sonar bill, including a diverse range of the best Spanish underground acts. Veteran Catalan producer Undo, born Gabriel Berlanga, was one of the first artists to play at Sónar Village, the biggest stage at Sónar by Day, on Thursday afternoon. His slowly percolating version of live, moody electronica saw the crowd swell in front of him over the course of his one-hour set. He distorted his own voice into a plaintive, robotic quaver, and won over the AstroTurfed, sun-drenched courtyard with the sort of eyes-down music more commonly heard in nightclubs in the early hours.
Spanish trap music isn’t something all music fans are ovelry familiar with, so it was educational to see the Valencian duo Muevaloreina getting the crowd all revved up on the indoor Sónar XS stage on Thursday. Karma Cereza and Joaco C Fox share vocal duties, similar energy levels, an over-the-top aesthetic that recalls ‘90s Eurodance sensation Aqua, with a distinctively Latin insouciance. Most songs were in Spanish but one English word stood out, repeated at high volume in the chorus of one song. “Ecstasy, ecstasy,” Fox sang over cheesy but impossibly catchy beats. Audience members young and old had no choice but sing and dance along with them.
One of the biggest drawcards at Sónar this year was Diplo Presents…In Love With Africa, a selection of the producer’s three current favourite African acts, followed by a DJ set from Diplo himself. The standout of the showcase though, was Kampire, a Ugandan DJ with electric blue braids, an megawatt grin, and upbeat bass tunes made for summer stages. “Electropical” is how she dubs herself on her Facebook page, and her set was as fruity and refreshing as a piña colada. That she’s so clearly having as much fun as the audience dancing below only adds to her appeal.
Laurent plays Garnier
Laurent Garnier playing a DJ set isn’t exactly a rare event, but this set was different. The legendary French artist, who is usually loathe to play his own tracks during his sets, played nothing but his own tracks and remixes on Thursday night to close Sónar by Day. “Crispy Bacon”, “Acid Eiffel”, “Man With The Red Face”… after sundown, it was two hours of classic after classic and an early high point of the festival. Those who couldn’t get enough of Garnier, who performed at the first ever Sónar in 1994 and has appeared at many since, could catch him again in a more traditional, but no less barnstorming closing set at Sónar by Night in the early hours of Sunday morning.
SOPHIE, the gender-bending Glasgow-born, LA-based producer, doesn’t perform as regularly as other artists, but that made it all the more exciting to take in the sights and sounds of her Friday night set. Releasing her debut album Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides on the same day, she jerked her lean, PVC-wrapped body around like an electrocuted robot, lit by flashing strobes that should have come with an epilepsy warning. Her mechanised, screechy vocals are made more powerful through their genderlessness; with tracks like “Whole New World”, SOPHIE seems to be demanding a recalibration of the status quo. If it was a show you came for, SOPHIE — joined by a cohort of equally lithe dancers — was the act to see.
Making their live debut at Sónar was Decisive Pink, comprising former Dirty Projector Angel Deradoorian, and Moscow-based singer songwriter Kate Shilonosova, a.k.a. Kate NV. Playing the Red Bull stage at Sónar by Day on Friday afternoon in matching pink velour jumpsuits, the pair, both graduates of the Red Bull Academy in Tokyo in 2014, were transfixing. They layered shoegaze-y washes of guitar over each other, locking into a dreamy groove, while Shilonosova channelled Kate Bush and Björk in a playful vocal performance. Don’t expect them to fly under the radar for much longer.
Brilliant back-to-backs, including Ben Klock and DJ Nobu
One is a Berghain resident turned international techno hero. The other is a Japanese techno artist with a penchant for the obscure. Together, playing a back-to-back set on Resident Advisor’s stage at Sónar by Night on Saturday, they played a pummeling set of nuanced, technicolor techno that turned fans old and new to mush. Afterwards, another inspired duo, Motor City Drum Ensemble and Jeremy Underground, sent the crowd floating into the morning with a feelgood house/disco set — while on Friday night, French electro queen Miss Kittin paired up with Hercules and Love Affair singer Kim Ann Foxman (in KIT and KAF t-shirts, respectively) for a sunrise set with plenty of sass.
Six-hour sets, with DJ Harvey and John Talabot
At festivals, sets are usually unlikely to extend beyond two hours, but in recent years Sónar has given two artists the honour of a 6-hour marathon set; in 2018 the chosen ones were DJ Harvey and John Talabot. A longer set is nothing new for Harvey, who relishes the opportunity to showcase his sprawling tastes, with disco often featuring heavily, while Talabot, arguably Spain’s biggest electronic music star, treated the crowd to a cosmic journey spanning genres, speeds and moods. The SónarCar stage, with a circular sound system and opulent red curtains, was the sort of place you were happy to settle in for the duration.
The entire Sónar by Night venue
The Sónar by Day venue was great, too, but special mention must be made of the vast Sónar by Night complex, housed in the Fira Gran Via convention center. So huge it makes use of moving sidewalks to transport attendees from one side of the complex to another, it’s also big enough to ensure that there is no sound bleed between the four massive stages, each with a different setup and vibe. Comfortable footwear was a must; for those attending both Sónar by Day and Sónar by Night, you could expect to be on your feet for up to 18 hours.
Along with Sónar by Day and Sónar by Night, there’s Sónarr+D, the creativity, technology and business arm of the festival. Here, you might hear talks from the likes of Susan Rogers, Prince’s former sound engineer; get lost in immersive storytelling at Realities+D, the virtual/augmented reality area and at Sónar360°, a 19-metre geodesic dome filled with trippy audiovisuals; network with entrepreneurs in the Startup Garden; learn more about SónarCalling, the festival’s ambitious project that sent music into space this year; or discover the latest in music technology in the MarketLabs showcase.
Initiatives like Sónar+D and the festival’s continued focus on technology and development mean that even as Sónar gets older, it always has one eye firmly on the future. The festival market might be more saturated than ever but there’s no event in the world quite like Sónar, where innovation and ideas are celebrated alongside the music. Since around 2002, other unofficial spinoff parties, known as “Off-Sónar” or “Off-Week” events, have been hosted around Barcelona at the same time as Sónar. The “Off” events attract visitors in their thousands, too, but as one local says, “At the end of the day, they’re just another big party. Sónar happens once a year, you get so much different music and different things going on at the one event, and there’s a really unique, magical vibe. Sónar is really special.”