I was beginning to think that after spending billions of other people’s krónur on the cultural death star known as Harpa Concert Hall and Conference Centre, the only thing that the powers that be were going to use it for was yoga, boring tribute band cover events and for hosting foreign run of the mill acts riding the retro gravy train. With the renowned Sónar Music Festival setting up shop in Harpa, however, we now have an international music showcase that would test the limits of this building’s infrastructure while presenting a great opportunity to see some top quality electronic music in all its forms.
But funnily enough, when I arrive and pass through security, the first act that I find before me is…. the Jack Magnet Quintet! Hmm… Now, the thing with band is that it actually contains some of the finest musicians in the country, people such as guitarist Guðmundur Pétursson and drummer Þorvaldur Þór Þorvaldsson. Despite that, the music they make—a form of dated early ‘80s library music electro jazz that you would have found on late night music shows presented by Rick Wakeman—just left me cold. A fair amount of noodling that, despite the obvious craft, didn’t contain much in the way of real power or soul. It wasn’t the best start to this festival and left me thinking I needed to find some more visceral thrills.
In my search for more fun musical experiences, I (along with many other punters) found myself falling into the classic trap that occurs at major festivals like this. With so many artists of a high calibre playing at similar times, you feel compelled to try and see everything. Then there’s the nagging feeling that while you’re watching an act, there might be something better elsewhere.
Thus for the first few hours of my Sónar experience, it was a case of ten minutes of BenSol, fifteen minutes of Sisý Ey, fifteen minutes of Sóley (who was barely audible at the back of the Bay Area stage), and twenty minutes of Ghostigital (who were so loud and punishing that it affected my eyesight—I think some people might have gotten nosebleeds). Trying to find a natural pace where one could take things easy and just enjoy the music proved hard, with the atmosphere in Harpa clearly affected by the legions of slightly harassed people darting from venue to venue, all trying to catch the perfect performance.
Eventually I make the decision to stay in one place, and the choice for my viewing was Diamond Version. My god, they were brutal. Now Ghostigital were loud, but Diamond Version was loud and had a lightshow that was in danger of re-formatting your frontal lobes. Multiple dystopian images and subliminal words flashed before your eyes while they displayed their music in waveform at the front of the stage. It all just overwhelmed; all you could do was stare and move to the music, a mix of gleaming cyborg electro/techno suffused with threatening voices barking slogans such as “DO YOU SUFFER FROM PAIN?”
Apparently it all got too much for one slightly drunk/pilled up concertgoer who somehow managed to stumble into the sound booth area and then had the burning desire to urinate next to Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto! Even more amazing was that Ryuichi was not fazed by this incident and kept watching the band. Japanese neo-classical composers are badass!
After that, I caught a good proportion of Modeselektor’s set. It’s taken me a while to get into their music, but in a live setting they are so much fun to watch and listen. Their boisterous bovver boy electro house is serious party music and even though they’re Berlin based, their Gallic carefree nature was still evident on tonight’s showing, with the two of them grooving like a pair of jittery gibbons.
As midnight approached I decided to check out some more local musical produce and headed down to the Bay Area stage to catch Oculus. I tend to have a slight love/hate relationship with house music. When it’s done right, it’s some of the most righteous music, it can get a granite block grooving. Done poorly, though, it’s like experiencing slow death. Oculus makes good house music. Very good house music. And he seems to make it make it sound easy, with plenty of catchy pulsing throbs and energetic rhythms. It also helps that he also looks rather classy live, resplendent in his lovely redcoat, as if he’s just walked off the set of ‘Zulu.’
However, there was a problem with his set, which was the main downer for tonight’s experience for me. As with Sóley’s set earlier, the music sounded woefully underpowered in the volume department as the layout of the Bay Area stage meant that there was so much sound loss, with levels dropping by half as little as ten metres away from the stage. I had to feel for the sound engineer as I (and probably hundreds of others) harangued him to make it louder, only for him to show that the PA was already maxing out at full power. Oculus probably would have been better suited for the car park stage below.
Speaking of car parks, as Oculus’ set came to an end I ventured forth to check out Swedish DJ Axel Boman down in the bowels of Harpa. Speaking with local people in the know, I learn that big things are expected of Axel with some saying he’s destined to become a major international name in the next couple of years. With the first few songs I heard him spin, I found some of his blending skills and song changeovers not as smooth as I had hoped for. Eventually these glitches were ironed out, though, and he started producing some rather smooth, upbeat house music sounds.
My night came to a close to 1:45am, with me completely spent. An evening of running around expending a lot of nervous energy, along with some very expensive beer has meant I have to admit defeat and head home. Which was a shame, as the music on offer was of a very high quality.
Hailing from the north of Scotland, via Liverpool and London, long-term expat Bob Cluness has been writing for The Reykjavík Grapevine since 2009, concentrating on cultural issues and music in Iceland. In his spare time he also works for international prosthetic company Össur, as well as running the blog and club night Reykjavík Sex Farm. A confirmed badass, Bob still likes to help kittens stuck in trees and old ladies across the road.