Day two of Sónar went off like a firework. Into the fray went one seasoned Grapevine veteran, Ragnar Egilsson, and our brand new intern, Joanna Smith. Here’s what went down.
My Baptism Of Fire In The Upside Down
By Joanna Smith
I moved to Iceland two weeks ago, and know pretty much nothing about Icelandic music. I mean, I know about what’s-her-face with the swan dress, but other than that I’m clueless. So, wristband clipped on, I was ready to plunge headfirst into the baptism of fire that is Sónar Reykjavík.
First up was Berndsen, and they were amazing. Like, a-mazing. But really, can a red-bearded giant stomping around singing beautifully to 80s synth-pop be anything but amazing? No, of course not. The energy they brought to stage was contagious. I left beaming and totally pumped—it was the perfect start to the night.
Next up was Samaris. I was really excited to see them perform because, would you believe it, I actually knew some of their music already. They did not disappoint, and were my pick of the night. Their other-worldly, ethereal sound, full of synth echoes, made me feel like I’d been transported to the Upside Down, and I didn’t want to leave. Jófríður Ákadóttir’s captivating and evocative vocals combined with Áslaug Rún Magnúsdóttir’s clarinets and Þórður Kári Steinþórsson, aka Doddi’s, electronic elements left people stumbling out of the room, as if coming out of a trance. It was pure magic.
Ok, so a couple of different people told me that I simply had to see GusGus. So, the novice that I am, I complied. And, sure enough, the room was packed and I was buzzing in anticipation. But once they started playing I found myself confused. This clubby, dancey, poppy act complete with green lasers and feather collared jackets had me wondering—was this one of Europe’s coolest musical festivals, or Eurovision? Anyway, I slunk out of there and stumbled into Oddisee’s set. This Washington DC born rapper totally brought it. With lyrics like “I love my country, hate it’s politics,” it was an impassioned, moving performance somewhere between rap and spoken word poetry. He did all this whilst having an engaging stage presence and a sense of humour… and there wasn’t a feather collar in sight.
I rounded my night off with Sleigh Bells, who describe themselves as noise pop. And they were certainly noisy—their music is like the love child of Britney Spears and Metallica, and I was really into it. The lead vocalist, Alexis Krauss, was a true performer, pirouetting about the stage and bantering with the crowd—you simply couldn’t take your eyes off her.
My baptism of fire was complete, and I managed to come out unscathed. I had such a great evening, and I’m counting down the minutes until I can get back out there tonight.
Not What You Had in Mind
By Ragnar Egilsson
You know those friends who don’t see the joy in being a nicely-tuned German party machine? Getting everywhere just on time? People who just can’t seem to tick-tock-Ben-Klock-ing along like good little party soldiers? Well: that’s all of my friends. So I missed Forest Swords, and opted for the second half of John Grvy instead. I know his name is probably supposed to be “gray” with a kvlt upside-down ‘A’ but I will never call him anything but John Gravy because the man brought the gravy by the boatload (also, it’s funnier). His smooth neo-soul wears its love of the 90s on its sleeve, not unlike Awful’s ABRA. He delivered a passionate live show in the seats-only Kaldalón, but still managed to create a small circle of dancers within arm’s length, and to involve them in the performance. A very promising artist, and I look forward to seeing what he does next.
Next, I caught a snippet of Sturla Atlas. While I’m not his biggest fan, the two songs I caught were tight, and seemed well suited to the festival’s biggest room. Unlike last night’s Tommy Genesis, for example.
Sin Fang spent the whole set performing from within a tent pitched in the middle of the stage. His gradual transformation from the frontman of folksy indie band Seabear to the barechested, tattooed, gold-chained person hidden away in that tent has been interesting to witness, but not as strange as you’d think. He seems more at ease playing M83-style electronic soul, and the set was a nice mood cleanser to ease your way into the bigger beats to come.
I figured I’d give Sleigh Bells a miss because it’s 2017 and we’re good. A trip to the car park filled our sinuses with the dank, idiosyncratic set of Helena Hauff. Electro grooves weaving in-and-out of the Dutch Bunker records sound, she constantly kept us on our toes with more mood changes than a Real Housewives reunion show. It was a beautiful set, and her moment in the shit-hot, must-catch club is far from over.
I wasn’t about to cram myself into the basement at the end of the night with every person in the Greater Reykjavík area, so Moderat would be the final high note for me. I’ve loved this band for about eight years now. And their brand of soaring, almost cloying, dramatics-over-complexity broken beats have had me survivor-shuffling the tears out of my eyes more times than I care to admit. Their sound is perfect for those who need an undercurrent of challenging production and strangeness, but still want all the big room action of someone like Moby (I was trying to think of a more recent reference but couldn’t, and anyway, Moby is in deep with the CIA these days so it pays to get on his good side).
Sure, the lyrics are naff if you think about them too hard: so don’t. Because, as reductive as it might be to the craftsmanship on display, Moderat really are a wonderful rollercoaster for people soaring on sensory-enhancing drugs. Not that you need to be high to enjoy it, but boy do they know how to pied piper a crowd of rollers. From the stuttering UK dubstep anthem of “Rusty Nails”, through the pupil-pulsating “Running”, past the hip-hop-inflected techno of “No22”, to the big extended encore of “Bad Kingdom”, they had the crowd in the palm of their teutonic hands. And those in the know could pick up on the references to “as above, so below”, occult sigils, and sinister references to global cabals. Just a little icing on the cake, or a subtle way to trigger a bad trip for those of a sensitive disposition. If you enjoyed last year’s John Hopkins set then odds are you came out of this all smiles.
I came to a conclusion at Sónar, after colliding with a few stragglers that seemed desperately out of place at some of the more esoteric gigs. You see, the Sónar brand is a left-of-centre electronic festival, and there are no two ways about it. It’s not always balls-out weird with the curation, but you can always expect an eclectic mix. However, seeing as Iceland has no Ibiza-big-fluffy-hat-with-a-glowstick festival to call its own, Sónar will attract a similarly eclectic clientele. You will always have the stern-faced manchildren chugging along on their cheap coke, and packs of nervous girls with eraser-thick eyebrows and tight Khloe braids. Now, while you might think that their ill-timed whoops, darting eyes, and self-conscious dancing would bring the atmosphere down—but I’m coming around to it.
See, to me it’s like an away game for a UK football fan who, if it wasn’t for football, would never have left Sheffield, let alone his country. So he goes to Turkey all full of piss and vinegar, ready to support his boys, but ends up taking home an unexpected hummus addiction and a grudging liking for Istanbul. It’s the same for the people who came to Sónar to rave their asses off to big house beats and explosive bass drops. They find themselves in Kaldalón, where it’s seating-room only, being confronted by Pan Daijing droning into a mike like a sinister monk; they’ve already necked the molly, so the uniformed cops wouldn’t get it, and the only other option is to fuck off home, and they’re not about to do that. So they make the most of it, and get turnt to some sounds they never would have otherwise. This is good, because comfort zones are for mattress salesmen and shit pornos. In the words of Moderat: “This is not what you wanted, not what you had in mind.”
And maybe that’s exactly what Sónar is for.
Read more of our Sónar coverage here.