Live Review

Sonar 2012: Day One

Bolan-esque platforms, neon hotpants, black-mesh tank tops and oversized gold jewellery.

For anyone who’s ever been to Sónar, you’ll know that it’s not your run-of-the-mill festival. For a start, it’s run for the benefit of industry professionals as much as punters, with three separate areas and a vast array of events aimed at labels, multimedia experts and tech whizz-kids. Hardware companies come to hawk their latest wares with interactive demos, workshops, and the hard-sell very much to the fore, although it’s not just big hitters like Ableton or Native Instruments who get involved – top of 2012’s I-can’t-believe-it-exists list was the German-invented DIY vinyl cutter (yes, mp3 to vinyl), a snip at €3,200. Clearly, weekend knob-twiddlers need not apply.

The other half of Sónar is equally hardcore; the denizens of clubland who, despite the blazing sun and muggy 30°C, are resplendent in their disco threads. By 2pm, I’ve already spotted Bolan-esque platforms, neon hotpants, black-mesh tank tops and oversized gold jewellery… and that’s just the chicos. There aren’t many names that jump out and grab you at SónarDay, but it doesn’t stop pangs of recognition for the likes of Lapalux, Doc Daneeka, and Eltron John (the latter bang on trend for bastardised names; later days see Zora Jones and DJ Harvey) and no matter what is pounding from the PA, there’s plenty of action to be had down the front. Indeed, the Dome is rammed all day, providing plenty of hands-in-the-air, beat-dropping highs. Lord knows how the majority plan to keep going to the small hours, but I suspect they’re relying on more than just Red Bull.

Stephen ‘Thundercat’ Bruner is the first of the “names” to appear in the Village, and he draws a suitably large crowd. Backed by a live drummer and a dude prodding various keys and black boxes, he gives a virtuoso performance that’s an exploration of rhythm and pace. His meandering jams flow through peaks and troughs, and while the arrangement are far looser than what you’ll find on ‘The Golden Age Of Apocalypse’, the extra space allows him to run his favoured six-string bass through a number of effects, from synth to funk to chamber bells. It may be slower in tempo to the rest of the fare on offer, but it’s no less intriguing and warmly received. Perhaps that has something to do with the Spain strip he’s wearing, perhaps it’s the soothing nature of his unique style of jazz funk – either way, most people are thoroughly mesmerised. Given the dexterity of his fretwork –up close, it’s truly wonderous – it’s easy to overlook his vocal skills, but he has a smooth, soulful set of pipes, capable even of a few, well-placed falsetto moments and good enough to hold his own against soul pro Jesse Boykins III, who guests on several of the opening songs. He also drops just the right amount of spazz-outs to showcase his skill and avoid lapsing into muso-noodling just for the sake of it. It’s a fine line to walk, but he manages to stay just the right side of it.

Described variously as “post hip-hop” and of taking his cues from J Dilla, it’s somewhat surprising that Flying Lotus drops a set of straight-up, bass-heavy hip-hop and rap. Billed as a live, as opposed to a DJ, set, but perhaps with one eye on the party atmosphere, he keeps the beats tight and, in-between a dizzying array of samples and overdubs, ramps up the gathered with a series of stone cold crowd pleasers. Kanye & Jay Z’s ‘Niggas In Paris’, a few Tyler, the Creator tracks, and even Radiohead’s ‘Idioteque’ all get the FlyLo treatment; skilfully mixed in with some whomp whomp dub-step breakdowns, it all adds up to an eclectic mish-mash of feel good ghetto fabulousness. By the time he airs the Jackson 5’s ‘I Want You Back’, he’s joined on stage by Thundercat, giving that famous bassline an extra dimension. Larking around and mugging for the cameras, they look like they’re having the time of their lives. Even the frequent requests for more whisky – duly fulfilled by his crew running to the bar – don’t distract them from being locked in tight, and hitting a groove through a more playful suite of material. ‘Cosmogramma’ is a challenging, difficult listen, and I’m not sure what most people were expecting, but judging by the joyful abandon and a familiar, sweet smell wafting in from all directions, such a populist, free-wheeling set was expected and incredibly well judged.

Costume of the day would have to go to Orlando Higginbottom, in his customary get up as Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs, which is quite a feat considering some of the exotic garb wandering around the grounds. Unfortunately, his set doesn’t quite deliver the same level of excitement. It’s competently put together, and his vocals sound particularly good, but it doesn’t venture very far from being a straight up reproduction of his album. There’s little variation in pace or length, and despite the array of equipment on show, it’s hard to escape the feeling that he’s merely singing over a few background tracks. Of course, he’s relatively raw when it comes to live performance, and I’m sure his show will get better over time, but as good as ‘Trouble’ is, he needs to work out how to connect more and inject a bit more passion.

That’s not something that When Saints Go Machine lack. The Danish four-piece, being cheered on by a boisterous Nordic contingent, slink on through a fog of smoke and intense, rhythmic strobes. The eerie setting adds to the air of oppression and menace, and as the Pagan-esque incantations of ‘Konkylie’ slowly hover into view, Nikolaj Manuel Vonsild’s weird falsetto pierces the gloom like some mystic shaman. It’s a peace that doesn’t last long. Like a Depeche Mode for the web 2.0 generation, industrial synths rumble and pulse instead of soar, while the beats are crisp and metallic. Their medieval futurism is lifted with ‘Kelly’ which, at its heart, is as shiny a pop gem as you’re likely to hear. Vonsild can’t quite reach the trill highs of the recorded version, but it’s still the obvious highlight within what is an intense, suffocating listen. While their more experimental tracks have a tendency to drag, it’s an intriguing blend and perfectly captures what a dystopian nightmare might sound like. They’d be the perfect fit for the Robocop reboot – are you listening Jose Padilha? – and are exactly the sort of leftfield genius that Sónar is all about.

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