Our review team shook off any Thursday weariness and went full tilt into Sónar last night. Despite seeing a vast range of music in all the spaces of the festival, from experimental electronica in SonarComplex to pounding techno at the car-park stage and an array of Iceland’s finest DJs in the SónarPub, our writers united for the dazzlingly modern must-see spectacle of Holly Herndon, which pretty much swept the board with our reviewers to “win” Friday. Hudson Mohawke has his work cut out for him tonight.
This year’s edition of Sónar seems to be as focused on experimental music as four-to-the-floor bangers. I can not fully express how exciting that is to me. So, I decided to seek out the most challenging shows possible. My first highlight was Holly Herndon’s mind-boggling madness. I heard people “complaining” about being both exhausted and satisfied afterwards, which has its own connotation. I liked how she started a beat progression, but silenced the beats within the sequence, so the track stayed in time while we—the dancers—could only keep dancing if we’d been paying attention. I guess that made people tired. I really loved this show—if this would be the only show I saw, this year it would still be my favorite Sónar Reykjavík. So, I decided to call it a night and go home.
Nei, djók, I went to see Oneohtrix Point Never, and continued surfing on the waves of glitch madness—this time complete with hints of black metal. Seriously, how is this not an old genre that has been around forever, and that everyone agrees is amazing? Noise-glitch black metal (NG BM—separated but always together). After that sonic barrage, I went to take a seat in Kaldalón and watch Mumdance. The most exciting thing about his style is that he makes you promises that he deliberately doesn’t deliver on—but gives you something better, that you didn’t expect. Before saying adieu to the festival for the night, I needed to straighten out, so I popped by the lab in the basement and bumped along to some sweet, sweet techno by Recondite.
Last night made me feel all sorts of crazy. Like most of the crowd, I was excited to catch Holly Herndon and Oneohtrix Point Never, two boundary-pushing electronic musicians from the US. I knew I was in for challenging noises and sound-play, but I wasn’t ready for the psychological weight of either show: Holly Herndon, together with Matt Dryhurst on animation projections, cooked up a performance which was as disconcerting as it was enjoyable. Animations of a number of set items danced around a changing backdrop: an onion, the Pirate Party insignia, two two-dimensional men floating and spinning in a concrete room, in outer space, in a sunny fjord. With nods to the Pirates, to data security, and to Wikileaks source Chelsea Manning, the paranoia of the digital era was on full display, not simply in the animations and lines of text typed out on the screen, but in the music itself. Holly Herndon’s music is arresting and intrusive: half of me wanted to dance to the stilted beat while part of me wanted to wax theoretical about digital privacy–no less because of the public debate between Apple and the US government raging in the last few days. Fast forward twenty minutes: Oneohtrix Point Never in the same venue, instilled a different paranoia entirely: projections on three screens harped on death’s inevitability, as gnarly, twisted noises came from the computers—a post-modern memento mori. I certainly did not expect to delve into these dark corners of consciousness ‘in the club,’ but I was pleased that the Sónar lineup serves to challenge expectations of electronic music performance and isn’t simply pandering to bros who wanna roll to chill music or whatever.
Grayson Del Faro
Sometimes you don’t realize you’ve been missing something until you have it again. It’s only day two of this electronic music festival, and I realized tonight that I already missed seeing people play the drums. And I don’t mean drum machines—I mean a person banging two wooden sticks on some large metal barrels in rhythmic patterns. Remember those? There’s just something about banging on shit that brings so much energy to a performance. And tonight got off to a refreshing start on the drums front, with Halleluwah’s quirky but catchy pop hooks. Then Apparat Organ Quartet managed not only to draw a crowd in a surprisingly early-evening slot, but to drum them up into a gentle frenzy. They had a little assistance from a surprise guest, via endearing awkward cameos from dj. flugvél og geimskip, who periodically busted out some Teletubby-like dance moves across the stage. And drums or no drums, it seems like Holly Herndon has already won Sónar, before Hudson Mohawke even gets his chance to try.
Holly Herndon‘s show taxed my mental faculties in a way that I was not expecting at Sónar. Her performance was brilliant. Trying to describe how her music’s aesthetic and the discombobulated video elements worked together to create something at once alien and profoundly human feels doomed to fail. So I won’t. Instead, expect an in-depth interview with someone who truly gets her later on today. Watch this space.
In that same space half an hour later, Oneohtrix Point Never took what had been a contemplative and mesmerising environment and tore it up with a hellish soundscape filled with droney loops, a warped guitar, and flashing strobe lights. It was violent and fast and splendid. In the room next door, the smooth Kiasmos duo was a stark reflection; in place of chaotic visuals, there were colourful and clean images floating gently behind them. Instead of bombarding the audience with aggressive beats, everything was eerily chill, with the crowd clapping and dancing if Ólafur or Janus as much as raised one hand up in the air. When they played “Thrown” and the red lights turned on, a young and longhaired couple started sensually making out as the crowd moved to the beat. Everything fit together perfectly.
It’s a truism that “laptop sets” are sometimes visually dull—but it’s equally true that they don’t have to be. I saw the two extremes of that demonstrated at Sónar last night. Arriving just too late for Gangly (cry), I popped my head into Kaldalón (sorry, SonarComplex), I caught the slightly unnatural sight of a seated crowd motionlessly watching a solo performer belt out big 4×4 rhythms, altering the filters on his mixer with a practiced, mechanical proficiency. It was a square peg of dance music in the round hole of a seated theatre—for the rhythmic electronica that dominates Sónar, SónarComplex is really not the place to be. The SónarPub stage, by comparison, seems to have evolved into more of a club area this year. Nestled inside the frenetically flashing facade of Harpa, it’s lit by a prismic range of coloured lights that dance, skitter, pulse, and morph into a variety of huge, blurry shapes, helping to transform Harpa from a culture hall into an atmospheric party.
But as you’d expect, the biggest names played the biggest rooms. Holly Herndon’s presentation was a superlative illustration of what can be done with electronic music performance when some humour, graft and creative ingenuity are applied. As Holly worked up a mesmerising tableau of chopped up sound and vocals, her stage companion Matt Dryhurst created a projected art installation on the screen behind them, communicating his thoughts on Iceland, MÍNUS, IMMI and the NSA via live typed text, complete with the endearing correction of his constant typos. As the set progressed, fractured sounds and vocal drones bounced around the room, and the visual display imploded into a 3D virtual inner-world, populated by glitchy backdrops and objects that were manipulated in real time, from a laughing sea of Anonymous masks to squares of dried noodles, 2D figures, floating MacBook that nested together like stacked chairs or congealing blood cells, and an ever-present Pirate Party logo (the set was dedicated to Chelsea Manning—”LEAKING WITH TOO MUCH LOVE TO CONTAIN <3”). It was an immersive cross-discipline offering that was completely engaging—visually, sonically, emotionally and intellectually. There are few artists operating at this level, in any genre.
Oneohtrix Point Never took the same possibilities down a different path, and suffered by comparison. They also employed screens with 3D objects and text, but to lesser effect—less like pushing your head through the laptop screen to peer into the innards of the internet than watching someone play a slightly creepy video game. Their sound was aggressive in nature, offering walls of anthemic, ravey synths that were quickly shot to pieces by broken rhythms and a sensibility informed as much by metal as techno. It was an impressive show, and in other company, Oneohtrix Point Never could easily be the best band on show—but tonight, the bar had simply been set too high.
Sónar+D is a side conference going on between 14-18 during the festival, focused on creativity and technology. Atli Bollason and Owen Hindley had an interesting seminar yesterday on the technology behind their eye-catching manipulation of Harpa’s facade, with some deep thoughts on the role of technology in architecture. For those who want to check out the project on github, it’s here. As for the festival: Kosmodod rocked SonarPub, Holly Herndon was a little too calculated for my taste, and Floating Points had awesome visuals. Oneohtrix Point Never felt like future-music should feel, and for the few that got to experience Lone, it was the highlight of the night. Bjarki kept it going down in Harpa’s basement for those still hungry for more.
What can I say about Oneohtrix Point Never that a swarm of nanobots dismantling a beachfront arcade whilst collecting their final words and whimpers couldn’t explain much better. They were helped by innovative visuals, but the set was a little cerebral at times, and never fully snared my heart. I caught some of Kiasmos, who had a lovely light show, but the music had no jagged edges, but a comfortable background-music vibe. We didn’t last long at Mumdance—I’m a big fan of his minimalist grime productions, but he didn’t seem to be playing in that vein, so I left for Lone. It was amazing—after a lot of brainy electronic music, it was nice to indulge the old dancing bones. The experience stood out for me on Friday. I wish I’d been able to corral my people to check out Bjarki in the basement, but I heard good reports.
My night, as I write this, runs in reverse. Sonár was the first festival I ever attending in Iceland so it holds, to me, a special place. Bjarki topped off the evening in the raw basement car-park venue, playing a set that I can only describe as celebratory. I stopped in to check out the intense electronica of Squarepusher, but my heart was elsewhere: Lone‘s live show was my highlight. The SonarPub had something special going on—you can’t help but dance while picking up drinks at the bar. Holly Herndon put on the best visual show I’ve seen. From the first moment I walked into Harpa—starting with the workshops in the afternoon—you could feel the energy of the night building. I don’t know if I can credit Atli Bollason’s efforts for making this evening in Harpa so unique, but the mood lighting certainly didn’t hurt.
Read our in-depth Holly Herndon interview here, and see our capsule reviews of Sónar’s first day here.
Link to the Sónar’s Photo Album.
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Posted February 20, 2016