by Rick Heffernan

There is nowhere quite like Barcelona and there is nothing quite like Sonar, the two combined for the past 25 years have pushed the Catalan capitals cultural agenda through the roof, whilst placing Sonar firmly as a world festival leader in terms of advanced culture, creativity, tech and music built on a firm foundation of pure electronica.

More popular than ever it has morphed from a one-day party started by friends in 1994 into a three day, two-night monstrosity that just hosted over 126,000 visitors from 119 countries at this years silver anniversary edition.

Split into a day and night affair, Sonar De Dia takes place across six stages close to the picturesque Plaza Espana at the Fira Montjuïc complex, which pushes a more experimental and daytime party style, whilst by night is in the vast Fira Gran Via space on the outskirts of the city via four large stages geared towards the all-night session vibe.

This years line-up included over 150 artists ranging from classics like Richie Hawtin and Laurent Garnier to Diplo and Goldlink right through to Young Lean, Helena Huff and Kode9. Sonar by day also houses the Red Bull Dome, part of the whole Red Bull Music Academy which has been giving a platform for new artists to be mentored by established names since 1998. For example, Nina Kraviz, Flying Lotus and Aloe Blacc have all been past students of the RBMA which also houses Radio Bull Radio. Celebrating 20 years, their Sonar stage is a mix of new artists, past alumni and legends evident by this years line-up including acts as diverse as Tony Allen, Sophie, Dj Stingray and Yuzo Koshiro x Motohiro Kawashima live, a highly unique show from the Diggin ‘in the Carts video game music documentary series.

Placed amongst the nighttime edition’s bars and stalls is also a booth for testing party supplies, whilst this isn’t a promotion for bringing illegal substances onto the festival site, it’s certainly forward thinking in that the staff manning the booth will test whats given to them in their pop-up lab. Booths like this should be a fixture in all festivals health and safety agendas as they promote an aspect of responsibility and care towards the audience.

With doors opening daily at 14.30 pm at Sonar by day and closing at 07.00 am the following morning at Sonar by night, you’ll need a PhD in partying to pass this endurance test. Luckily when it’s all over your not too far from the nearest beach to put yourself back together again.

A recent edition also to the by day aspect of the festival since 2013 is Sonar + D. Billed as an international congress that explores how creativity is changing our present and imagining new futures, it provides a platform for over 6000 professionals from the world of tech, art, music, film, design, science, making and hacking. You’ll likely see a lot of very cool and interesting projects here with highlights having included a focus on how the blockchain will affect the future of the music business, Kink doing a live demonstration of Pioneer’s new monophonic synthesizer TORAIZ AS-1 as well as Google’s new Google Magenta which uses neural networks and deep learning to augment human creativity.

Always aligning itself with the advanced future, the festival even ran a marketing campaign called “Sonar Calling” where by they blasted 18 pieces of curated music 12.4 lightyears from Earth towards the exoplanet Cj273b via a huge antenna in Norway in a bid to make contact with extraterrestrials!

With so much going on across the festival, below is a brief selection of some of the musical highlights and key shows.

Roll on Sonar 2019!

DJ Harvey (Sonar by night)

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Six hours sets might seem a lot by today’s standard but for the legendary Dj Harvey its second nature. Famed for his late 80’s pioneering house, techno and disco sets in Europe to his early 90’s residencies at the then-new Ministry of Sound, his infamous Sarcastic Disco parties in L.A later became a thing of legend as did his iconic Black Cock Records label. The once surfing native of Hawaii glided through the usual anti-shazam disco gems, house burners and “WTF is that I need to have it” tracks whilst occasionally picking up the pace with some high energy fueled disco to keep the Sonar by night crowd on their feet. As always any Harvey set is special but six hours was bliss from the man who once maintained “you can’t understand my music until you’ve had group sex on Ecstasy”….sadly we’ll have to take his word for it.

Laurent Garnier (Sonar by day)

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Having played the very first edition back in 1994, Laurent Garnier is a classic Sonar act and has delivered the festival’s closing set at Sonar by night several times over the years. Coming around full circle and 25 years later, the French techno icon performed a show titled “Laurent plays Garnier” which consisted of his early material, remixes and recent productions over the course of two sets during the weekend. Thursday nights slot closed the first day of the festival in beautiful style for the capacity crowd. Dropping classics like “The Man With The Red Face” and “Crispy Bacon” was a healthy dose of nostalgia and relevance amongst “Coloured City” and “Mg’s Groove” as Garnier weaved in and out of some of the finer end of his discography. With night falling and the giant outdoor Sonarvillage throbbing the surrounding Plaza Espana with kick drums and techno, it was the perfect way to end day one and set the tone for what Sonar is all about.

Despacio (Sonar by day)

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For those who know their Larry Levans to their David Mancuso’s and for those who don’t, Despacio is a dream come true as well as an education in how a nightclub experience was and should be. With a dedicated custom space been given over to the exclusive project of 2manydjs and James Murphy (LCD Soundsystem) for three days, the most beautiful disco and disco influenced slow-mo house combined with a few musical surprises along the way were all kept as the name suggests, at a Despacio pace of no more than 112bpm for six hours per set. Upon entering the pitch dark room, the eyes slowly adjust to find seven towering stacks, purpose-built by Mcintosh speakers and perfectly positioned to produce 80,000 watts of clear custom sound you’ll not likely hear anywhere soon, a larger than life disco ball and models of the planets swayed from the ceiling with occasional amber lighting dimly illuminating the crowd. The focus has been taken off the deejays on purpose and all attention given over to the room, speakers, fellow dancers and most importantly the music. Murphy and the Dewaele brothers pushed through several crates for the vinyl only sets of stomping dance-floor magic occasionally pausing to let the crowd applaud the music, a la David Mancuso’s Loft.

Certainly one of the weekends highlights was their dropping of Talking Heads “This Must Be The Place” to a massive sing-along reaction. The only negative aspect of Despacio is you’ll likely forget about time and miss all the other shows.

Bawrut (Sonar by night)

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A recent feature on DHA via his latest mix and steadily climbing the ranks these last few years, Italian born, Madrid based and Ransom Note signed Bawrut first graced Sonar by day in 2017. Such was his set he was welcomed back to grace the huge main stage on Saturday night as the warm-up for LCD Soundsystem, no pressure then.

After a steady flow of releases including 2017’s workout “Rumba” and the recent “More Cowbell”, Bawrut selection of percussive laden house, electro-funk, disco not disco and elements of italio, proved a well-thought complement to LCD frontman and DFA label owner James Murphy’s own influences as well as the huge crowd gathered on the stage front. Tracks like Hugh Masekela’s “Don’t Go Lose It Baby” and Brett Johnson’s” Slow Down Baby” set the pace on top of Bawruts forth-coming remix for Alexander Robotnik.

As an artists on the rise, 2018 will be an interesting year for his studio output and touring.

Bonobo (Sonar by night)

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A slot on Saturdays main-stage of Sonar Del Noche saw Ninja Tune favourite Bonobo alongside his full band deliver a range of beautiful soundscapes, pulsing beats, warm vocals, guitar textures, subtle horns and multi-genre drums to create a dreamlike space, early on in the evening’s line-up. Hypnotic visuals wrapped around the show with tracks from his sixth studio album “Migration” dominating the set-list and highlights included “Bambro Koyo Ganda” who’s drop set the crowd off in a big way as well as the haunting “Break Apart”.

Simon Green (Bonobo), a trained bassist, has been in the game now for over 15 years and progressed from initial trip hop offerings to the current wide palette of jazz, world music and pure electronica influences via the latest music tech, vocals and classic instruments. Currently on tour till mid-September, it’s an unmissable show.

SOPHIE (Sonar by day)

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After recently releasing her new album “Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides” SOPHIE took the Red Bull Music stage for a full onslaught of the senses under an umbrella of strobe, vogues and a minimal stage set-up which suited her tracks like “Not Okay” down to a tee. Clingfilm acid pop bopped out of the speakers in the form of “Immaterial” which got the crowd jumping while another album offering “Pretending” had a near doomed rich sonic landscape ensuring the room stayed mesmerized and full at the same time.

SOPHIE was a classic debut Sonar moment and is currently touring her latest LP.

LCD Soundsystem. (Sonar by night)

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Kicking off Saturday nights Sonar by night proceedings to what seemed like an endless sea of screams, hands in the air, shoulder monkeys and sing-alongs, James Murphy led LCD Soundsystem down a flowery road of back-catalogue classics, nostalgia, recent material and beautiful moments. The DFA boss and bandmates stage setup looked right out of the Old Grey Whistle Test with the far from traditional boxy set-up trapping the group amongst a plethora of vintage synths and equipment like some clock-work human powered music machine. With a cult-like following, complete with throwback overexposed, glared and misty live visuals, new tracks like “Call the Police” and “Yeah Baby” from last years LP “American Dream” flowed into classics like “Dance Yourself Clean” and anthem “All My Friends”. The band was perfect in every sense of a band and with a knack for creating memorable moments around each track.

Yaeji (Sonar by day)

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One of Sonar’s opening day highlights was Korean-American Producer/DJ/Singer Yaeji. Signed to Godmode, the young Brooklyn native drove through an eclectic genre-spanning set of house, techno, chill-step, beats etc. whilst fusing her live vocals in both Korean and English over her own material like the instant classic “Raingurl”.

Yaeji has a lot of hype behind her and rightly so, fresh vibes combined with sheer diverse talent had Thursdays Sonar del Dia crowd whipped up for a weekend of party. With just a few releases under her belt and 2017’s break-true “EP 2” she’s already spawned a huge following with a hectic tour schedule in front of her to prove it.

Bicep (Sonar by night)

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Hard to believe it’s been a full decade since Feel My Bicep became a main-stay blog for the digital digging generation looking for hard to find classics, house and techno rarities. Fast forward and the impeccable taste of Irish men Andy Ferguson and Matt McBriar who run the blog, party and label, have morphed into fully formed main-stage artist. the Ninja Tune signees took to the Sonarlab stage for a full live show off the back off this year’s self-titled debut LP “Bicep”. It’s easy to trace back the steps of how their highly influence blog laid the foundation of their sound as they pushed through a set of house, breaks, euphoric drops, glances of psychedelia and electro, amidst heavy streams of multi-coloured rave-esque lasers to a capacity crowd. Highlights included the halcyon “Glue” alongside tracks like “Just” and “Opal” which over the large sound system and under the Spanish night sky produced special times.

John Talabot (Sonar by night)

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With massive local support, the Barcelona native packed out Saturday nights Sonarcar stage to a capacity crowd delivering a home-coming six-hour set, following in the footsteps of Dj Harvey the night before. The Hivern label boss has remixed the likes of the XX, Bicep and Peaking Lights in the past and on top of his own healthy discography he is well known for having a vast knowledge of modern music styles and genres, so comfortably built the marathon set from the ground upwards. Skipping through tempo’s and including tracks from Fango’s latest LP GEA to offerings like Tony Carey “Enjaw J”, Talabot packed the six hours with influences and rarities from the world of Balearic vibes, cosmic funk, slow-mo house and percussive heavy numbers making this set highly anticipated if/when it arrives online for streaming.

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