Published March 18, 2018
Saturday was Sónar’s finale, and Harpa filled up fast. The festival wheeled out a stellar array of forward-thinking experimental stars, up ‘n’ coming talents, and some big names of dance music. It was a night to remember: here’s what went down.
Vulnerability, emotion, shaking retinas
My must-sees at Sónar Saturday were early in the evening. Behind a desk laden with cables, blinking devices, and a Korg MS-20, CAO eased us in gently, with looped bird song samples, textured beats, and, eventually, some vocals that swam through the mix beautifully. The crowd slowly trickled into Silfurberg for Högni, who had prepared a Sónar-ready electronic iteration of his excellent solo album for the occasion. “Komdu Með” grew a skittering ‘Vespertine’-influenced rhythm, and the set progressed with inventive spins on each song, such as a treated orchestra track that phased in and out of existence. It was a confident show: Högni’s solo presentation is coming on leaps and bounds.
The highlight of the night was Baltimore-born, NYC-based Serpentwithfeet, aka Josiah Wise, who arrived onstage in a colourful ensemble and with an intense stare. His metallic shoes gleamed and his giant nose ring wobbled as he started to shimmy around the stage, eyes searching the faces of the crowd. His opener was the stunning mini-opera “Blisters,” which, like every song he played, was thoroughly reworked for the live setting. Josiah’s one-off falsetto voice floats somewhere between Frank Ocean and Jeff Buckley, with a huge range and a natural gravitas. His dextrous approach to improvisation was impressive and at times comedic—he weaved funny, pithy and wise thoughts about life, Iceland, the festival, and the general situation into the songs as he went.
Some particularly vivid lyrical lines—“The darkness of the leaves has come; forgiveness has not”; “Pretend me loving you is not a big deal”—were held over from song to song, joining them into an overall arc that was rich with poetry, humour, vulnerability and emotion. Josiah is very much at ease in his seemingly boundless talent, skipping between the mic and piano, whipping up impromptu interludes, cracking jokes, getting the audience to sing along, and creating a stream of vivid, memorable, affecting moments. This was absolutely the real deal, and it felt like a formative set from a star in the making.
Up in Silfurberg, Ben Frost dared to ask the question “So, how loud does this thing go?” In front of a shimmering silver sheet that rippled and vibrated with the sound, he delivered a set of pulverising bass drops and in-the-red synth stabs that sounded like the scream of a circuit board being slowly sawed in two. His abstract set packed such a visceral punch that it was hard to look away, even when it felt like my spine and retinas were vibrating from the sheer volume. Ben reaches for lofty, ambitious, euphoric heights when he plays live, and it’s thrilling to watch.
After that, I drifted through the festival, dipping into SYKUR‘s joyful jump-up electro-pop party, Underworld‘s accomplished retro techno rave, and JóiPjé x Króli‘s lightweight hip-pop, before drifting out into the night happy and sated. JR
Guttural beats and intellectual rigour
I run into Harpa late on Saturday night having barely missed Klein, but just in time to see Underworld begin. I book it upstairs to the SónarClub right as they launch into their set, kicking things off in all their 90s brit clubby glory. The room is already full of nostalgic ravers, lifelong fans, and smashed kids dancing and jumping around, all anticipating the joy of getting to shout “lager, lager, lager, lager, lager…” However I do not make it to this point in their set, because more important things are happening downstairs.
In the SonarComplex, Moor Mother is about to command us to listen up and pay attention. Setting the scene with an intro of noise and anxious, angular synth riffs, a sudden wall of heavy chugging metal guitars drops down and she confronts us with real, raw, powerful rage. Shrouded in darkness and heavy smoke and flickering dim lights, she shouts at us the terrifying dystopian experience of black Americans living in the slavery industrial complex of a militaristic white supremacist nation. Backed by pounding industrial noise, each lyric is a call towards awareness, with words of precise clarity and poetic nuance. Are we watching the pornography of racialized murders over the internet while devaluing the actual lives of black folks? Are we choosing to pull the wool over our own eyes to mass-scale systemic racism, ongoing imperialist wars, and genocide? And at what cost?
Moor Mother creates Afro-futuristic landscapes of sound, time travelling between slave devotionals and modern soul, jazz pioneers and rock’n’roll underdogs, political poetry and gospel choir. The set is unbelievably intense. I switch from being completely transfixed, eyes pulled open and mouth slightly agape, to rocking back and forth with the guttural beats as though powerless to this force. It is sonically brilliant, intellectually rigorous and deeply important.
Although I find it a bit hard to pull myself out of the very serious mindspace, friends around me keep saying “Are you gonna stay for Lorenzo Senni?” I give into peer pressure (who am I kidding, I just wanted to sit down) and keep my butt parked in the SonarComplex. When the super handsome DJ comes out to the stage he gives us this weird look and says “Why are you in here? You know Underworld are upstairs!” to which some loud Scottish man replies, “We want the future, not the past!” And with that, Lorenzo launches into a crazy nearly hour-long set of hilariously extended arpeggios, neo-tech power-chord synth anthems and copious amounts of frog-leg dance moves. It started slow, but he won me over, and I’m glad I stayed. RX
Intense rituals and noise exorcisms
For the second night, I stayed mainly at the intimate, seated SonarComplex stage. It was an ideal setting for intense, ritualistic performances by two powerful women which left me feeling moved to the bone. I wasn’t alone in this impression, as the whole room seemed to be under their spell, including Björk, who moved frantically to their sounds two rows in front of me.
The first mistress of the ceremony graced us with a deeply personal set. Accompanied by a noisy background of glitches, cut-ups, strange samples and weird sounds, Klein’s voice sounded loud and clear, oscillating between gospel-like incantations and R&B vocalizations. With a minimalistic setup of only a microphone and a laptop, she didn’t need anything more to make a lasting impression.
The intensity only escalated when Moor Mother entered the stage. This woman is a force to be reckoned with. She is a storyteller and a poet, a punk and a witch. Through her sound collage, she tells the story of the Black America, and you could hear the ghosts of her ancestors speaking through her as she rapped about political events, past and current. You could feel the demons being exorcised by the walls of noise, and the future showing itself in the beats.
Afterwards came Lorenzo Senni, deconstructing 90s rave and trance tropes in a futuristic manner. The familiar melodic bass lines were cut up into pieces, beginning and ending unexpectedly, giving us the pleasure of being surprised and not knowing what was coming next. Again, the last gig at SonarComplex incited people to rise up from their seats to dance. It was inevitable—there were green laser lights, so it was obvious that a mini-rave was about to ensue. KK
You know that thing where you mean to take a pre-festival, 20-minute power nap but the nap overpowers you for two hours instead? I did that thing, and not even a frantic bike-ride in the pouring rain could undo the thing. And that’s the story of how I missed Serpentwithfeet.
Luckily, I arrived just in time to have all that self-disappointment physically rattled loose and shaken from my body by the apocalyptic din of Ben Frost. I have never felt such a perfectly violent vibration of sound in all my concert days. My entire body was vibrating so hard that I couldn’t help both laughing and shuddering, unsure of whether I was having regular fun or possibly an orgasm. With this vibration and the way the strobes reflected off the giant glimmering curtain, causing bright flashes and electrical shimmers, I thought/feared/hoped that another dimension was bursting forth into ours.
The curse of Serpentwithfeet followed me throughout the night, where I walked into Klein and Nadia Rose each during their last song and found myself thinking “where the fuck have I been the last 45 minutes if not here?” After that, Underworld was a 90s techno timewarp so classic that it was even a little bit cheesy–but no less euphoric.
Bjarki, however, was the name on everyone’s lips last night and I wanted a taste of it. I got that and more when one of his silver-bodied, faceless dancers slunk up to me in the audience with a video camera, offering me a bite of a half-eaten cucumber that I politely accepted. I’m sure that video will surface online to ruin me later but I don’t even mind. It was strangely satisfying, by the way, so feel free to add “rave refreshment” to your long list of alternative uses for cucumbers. TroyBoi was exactly the sexy surprise I needed, dropping booming, beefed-up hip hop beats made less for fist-pumping than for hip-swinging. It just so happens that hip-swinging is exactly my speed. It was the perfect cocktail of slow-jam soul spiked with a hefty helping of bass and a pinch of funk. Okay, maybe even a splash of funk. And I think that’s exactly how every Sónar should end: getting funked good and hard. GDF
My Sónar Saturday started in SonarClub at Underworld’s much advertised set. These UK electronic music pioneers delivered a set of pumping, classic techno. At the same time in the basement, an up-and-coming producer mixed tracks for a small but pumped crowd. Jónbjörn is known for his work with Icelandic house-label Lagaffe Tales, but tonight his focus was on tasteful industrial techno, which he did with style.
Next up was Bjarki, whose performance I was very excited for. His live set proved to be a unique experience in both an aural and visual sense that brought together music, creativity and technology. Bjarki has amassed a strong group of followers—all easily recognisable in Harpa, wearing matching sweaters and t-shirts with the bbbbbb label insignia. The sound was a jagged and experimental mixture of techno and breakbeat which kept people on their toes—quite literally, because the crowd was dancing the whole time. Bjarki’s stage setup didn’t only include musical hardware, but also unconventional visual elements such as a family of mannequins with TVs instead of heads, and a huge projected visual which seemed to revolve solely around nonsense. Bjarki’s trusty ‘B-men’–wearing skin-tight silver morphsuits and a ‘B’ on their faces–fed the hungry crowd with fresh cucumbers. It was insane.
The crowd that made it to the end joined forces at Cassy b2b Yamaho’s set in the basement. They played a sweet, sweaty and groovy set which kept the crowd in sync until closing. It was a cool and beautiful ending for a beautiful and cool festival. Thank you, and see you next year Sónar! AJ
GV Team: AJ: Alexander Jean, JR: John Rogers, GDF: Grayson Del Faro, KK: Kinga Kozłowska, RX: Rex Beckett