The last day of a music festival is a strange, good time. People skulk into the various rooms and halls having shaken off their hangovers, dressed in the outfit they were saving until last. They’re a mixture of bouncing, grumpy, spun-out, high, low, emotional, euphoric, and heightened in any of those directions. Going into the breach once more, here’s how our review team fared at the Sónar 2016 grand finale.
NWOIHH member Sturla Atlas was the first act I saw at Sónar who filled a room before ten o’ clock. With his slow and chill style of hip-hop, Sturla and his 101 boys manage to bring Prikið to Harpa. On “fuckbois” they were joined by Unnsteinn of Retro Stefson, who proceeded to show everyone how to properly occupy a stage. Maybe they should take him on as a full-time member. The penultimate song about kush got the crowd riled up, and crowd favourite “San Francisco” ended the show. Úlfur Úlfur picked up where they left off (albeit way later, because L31F cancelled their show), delivering a very fleshed-out set—instead of relying heavily on playback, they performed with ¾ of Agent Fresco, and sounded far more organic than I’ve seen them before. They were also joined by singer Arnór Dan, debuting a brand new song, before veteran Kött Grá Pje joined in to perform fan favourite “Brennum allt” to an animated and pumped up crowd. People sang along, broke out dancing, and took copious amounts of selfies. It was ÚÚ at their very best.
I’m gonna be frank: tonight was a bit of a dud. I had planned my evening around LE1F‘s performance, but when that was cancelled, I was at loose ends. I wanted to see what the fuss was about Hudson Mohawke, but I found his performance unchallenging and shallow. !!!‘s live performance was bursting with energy and stage presence—a far cry from the uninspired vibes I feel while watching a silhouette behind a computer in darkness and fog (I’m looking at you, Hudson). Singer Nic Offer, in tiny shorts, filled the stage with his decidedly unsexy dance moves: pelvic thrusts, crotch grabs, etc. I ended the night in the car park, where the warmth of sweaty bodies counteracted the cold of the cave-like venue. Berlin-based DJ Rødhåd‘s precise, driving Dub-Techno finally got me moving after a night of mostly nodding along. As DJ Margeir closed out the festival, the energy of the room was high, filled with people who wanted to bust out one more Sónar boogie. Not particularly moved, I called it a night, ending the festival with a whimper and not with a bang.
I arrived early to see Karó’s first ever live performance. Everything about it was extremely professional, and even though Norðurljós wasn’t as crowded as it could have been, everyone seemed to admire the talented newcomer. Karó sang effortlessly over her crazy cool new songs, and likely attracted a lot of fans in the process. GKR came next, and his performance was colourful and full of energy. I would say it was the most fun performance of the festival, and catching an autographed box of cereal was the cherry on top. Sturla Atlas was next and they were, of course, great—the group has so much energy together, and it’s always such a pleasure to listen to Sturla’s voice. I only wish they would’ve had time to do more songs, like my personal favourite, “Girl from Paris.” Hudson Mohawke was electric. Getting lost in the crowd and dancing felt amazing. Even though someone puked beside me, and I got elbowed in the chest.
Grayson Del Faro
In one of those lovely little strokes of good festival luck, I was waiting for my friends at the bathroom when I decided to pop my head in to the nearest stage, and spotted Dorian Concept. Not only had he managed to pack the seats, but he had even convinced exactly eight people in the first row to dance. This is record in my experience with that room. I’m happy to watch most DJs from below them because there is really no need to see their hands. (I mean, what do all those knobs even do?) But this was a little different. The amphitheatre-style seating actually added to his effect by giving us the tiny details: not only was he mixing funky, moody beats live, but we was pounding on the keyboards too. We could see him keeping time with his feet, adding a dancey little step here and there. These small things that often go lost in the lights and smoke added a certain, refreshing kind of earnestness to the performance.
Hudson Mohawke put on a show that has left The Reykjavík Grapevine divided. As you can read here, some of us loved it and some of us were just kind of confused. Well, I was confused. He jumped from not enough to too much too quickly and back again. I wasn’t feeling it, but I was happy to see quite a full crowd really feeling it and left it at that. I thought I also wanted to see Boys Noize, but it turned out that !!! was the choice for me. I’ll admit I was skeptical of their their irritatingly hip name (pronounced “chk-chk-chk”) but they more made up for it with the dance pop spectacle they put on. The combination of the small army of people onstage, the sassy attitude, the deliriously catchy melodies, and the short shorts was in perfect balance. I guess it could’ve used a tiny bit more short shorts. That said, it essentially felt like the American answer to one of FM Belfast’s notoriously epic shows. Really, that good. It was a little less sweaty but no less fun.
And just like that, despite feeling like I’d just clipped on my wristband, it was the final night of Sónar. In the sparsely populated SonarComplex, Brigitte Laverne’s sound touched on krautrock and 1980s pop. She sang in a distant, slightly disinterested style, backed by a producer and a synth drummer with pink glowsticks. It was enjoyably low-key, but a little staid and stiff–if Sónar is a little bit about letting go, Brigitte really didn’t.
We took a pre-Hudson Mohawke cruise around the different spaces, doing some people-watching as Harpa slowly filled up, checking out DJs playing different flavours of EDM and techno. Hudson began with an epic ambient buildup, hidden behind a plume of dry ice and strafing ranks of lights. So far, so good, but just when it felt like the tension was about to break, the track fizzled out into a second intro. Then, without much regard for breaking us in gently (or at all, tbh), we were suddenly in a blippy, bouncy 140 BPM track that soon broke down into a bass-heavy bumpin’ 70 BPM jam. While I’m all in favour of keeping people guessing, Hudson’s live set felt like an oddly disorganised DJ session of his own material, in sharp contrast to the well-judged, stylistically ADHD approach that Skrillex deployed on the same stage at the 2015 edition. Next door, !!!’s slick disco-punk-funk was a welcome foray into live instrumentation, fronted by the writhing, peacocking, shimmying force of nature that is Nic Offer. This band started two decades ago, but they still have the power to ignite any crowd into action. I wondered what it is that powers Nic’s dancing shell after all these years, but it felt a bit like asking what energy sparked the Big Bang.
It seems like everyone was bringing their A-game to this Sónar, and B-Ruff was no exception. He brought on Ragnar Tómas Hallgrímsson of Original Melody fame (and also the editor of Grapevine’s local competitor, SKE) who acted as a modern day MC – the focus was all on the DJ. SónarPub was an excellent space this year, the dimmed lights inside and better facade lights outside really came together to form a nightclub that could’ve been straight out of sci-fi. We had gotten an internal memo to not all review Hudson Mohawke and I had no problem with that—not knowing the band, I thought it was a failed indie band, only on the bill to sell tickets. But, by accident, I stayed too long in SónarClub and found myself at the only gig I wasn’t going to see tonight. And that set was one of the greatest concerts I’ve been to in Iceland. The pacing was perfect, the lights struck the right chord between not-there and the sun, and it just went on and on – 70 minutes if I got it right. Only thing that felt a bit off was the timing of the gig, the crowd looked like they could’ve taken an hour more to prepare for that set. I thought Le1f (cancelled) was an odd name for a band, and their concert was even weirder – all empty and silent.
Ben Ufo and Rødhåd had a seamless DJ set, delivering thick techno beats to the dance thirsty crowd in Harpa’s car park – SonarLab. Úlfur Úlfur are a local crowd favorite but they’re not on the same level as the rest of the festival if you don’t previously know them and like them. They were among the few bands that I thought didn’t quite bring their A-game. Perhaps during next Sónar they should consider letting their DJ play more—nobody is there to listen to monotonic rap. !!! were also a let down, but that probably had everything to do with timing. It’s weird listening to music that’s that happy that late at night. Back in SónarLab DJ Margeir fell flat after Rødhåd, proving once again that the best in Iceland is often third grade material in an international context. All in all I thought this Sónar was better than last year’s, my only gripe with it was the names of the spaces. No one knew what was SónarHall and what was SónarClub, the solution is easy – just add the real name to the name the festival forces you to use: SónarClub – Silfurberg (I still don’t even know if SónarClub was in Silfurberg).
I’m pretty sure Sónar+D was the highpoint of my sónar experience this year. Although by no means as vast a playground as its Barcelona counterpart, it’s a pretty accurate microcosm, serving up an amazing set of fun activities. I got to jam with Frank Murder on his modular synth gear, try out the fresh new batch of Pioneer DJ gear, see a vinyl record being cut, and attend Q&A sessions with DJ Margeir and Ólafur Arnalds. Other attractions included the Squarepusher VR art piece and a workshop where attendees could build their own synth. If I’d had the time, I’d have spent the whole day there.
Catching the last minutes of Brilliantinus‘ set made a pleasant start to the last evening of Sónar. What little I heard confirms the buzz that has been building around him in Iceland’s House scene. Next stop was the Sónar debut of DJ Katla, the Stockholm-based Icelandic DJ who’s been making waves on the Icelandic scene for a few years. Her set was cool and confident, an undulating, groaning mass of percussive deep house, a perfect hors d’oeuvre to whet the palate for the evening ahead.
GKR has grown by leaps and bounds since I first saw him perform. early last spring in an artists’ studio in the Höfði industrial neighborhood. His boyish charm seduced the crowd, and he’s completely at ease on the stage. Next door, President Bongo and his Emotional Carpenters were living up to their name, banging out ferocious grooves. They’re a dream team of icelandic performers including percussion king of Iceland Sigtryggur Baldursson and drum legend Helgi Svavar surrounding the President.
Dorian Concept was in full-on business mode, playing some menacing trap-rhumba, all the while playing the jazzy trap-Mario Kart lead lines on the tiniest synthesizer—virtuosity both in the playing, and the dexterity needed to operate the tiny instrument. Although the audience was seated, his frenzied energy elicited whoops, hollers and much chair-wriggling, until a dance floor came to life on the edges of the stage.
Hudson Mohawke‘s perfomance presented a disconnect between my ears and eyes. Alone on the stage, with no visuals but the constant blinking lights behind him, the wall of buzzing sounds he put forward early in his set proved a bit much—a constant whirr of buildups, high-pitched vocals, rhythmic changes and other tricks that elicited a level of excitement from the crowd that I unfortunately didn’t share. We headed off to the basement where young Skeng was playing. It’s not that Skeng doesn’t have trickery—he demonstrated clever mixing techniques and he had an MC. But his mastery is of a different type, keeping most people that came down to the basement stage on the floor with an immaculate set of tracks and pretty much perfect segues. It was a masterclass in the main focus of the DJ—creating tension and release.
I took some time off to chill and prepare for an interview with Boys Noize for an hour, bumping into people that all gave Sturla Atlas a glowing review. I also missed out on Ben UFO, who by all accounts had the set of the night. Due to some confusion I missed out on the interview and we could only chat for a minute before he had to go prepare for his show. I went out into the crowd where Annie Mac was finishing her set to a half-full but nevertheless frenzied room.
Boys Noize has stage presence on lock, with whirly background graphics conforming to a strong, consistent, fashionable aesthetic. He entered the stage and starting the set with positive body language that ran over onto the dance floor. The affable German managed to extract the last drops of energy from my body for the week, and I went home very drained and happy after a lovely weekend.
I ran into Helgi from Úlfur Úlfur on Friday. He said, “I have to be careful the day before our show. Sonár is too much fun, but I need to be fresh. We have to put on a great show.” My plan for the evening was simple: see Annie Mac in the SonarClub at 23:20 and then slide over to SonarHall at 23:40 for Úlfur Úlfur. Everything else would be a perk, I thought. I don’t know what it was this year, but as soon as I walked into Harpa, I felt ready to go all in. Rix was holding court at SonarPub, but something about the acoustics of the room made anything the DJ was playing sound like a snare drum finished off each beat, a hard harsh thwap the seemed to get progressively more annoying as you stood there waiting for a beer.
A major factor in the festival’s success is how the oddness of the venue is made to work in their favour. Harpa is used for the symphony and the opera and various other “high culture” events. It’s strange to see an electronic music festival—also, effectively, a rave (a different type of “high culture”)—use the flat, sprawling conference centre as a party space. And they run it incredibly well—I don’t know many festivals that maintain such pristine condition of the bathrooms throughout an evening, let alone a weekend. Maybe it’s something to do with fact that it feels like a privilege to be having the event in Harpa. In fact, for me, the SónarToilet was the last room I attended. I wasn’t drunk or dizzy from dancing. I was having stomach problems and spent 20 minutes in the bathroom just around the corner from the SonarPub. My Saturday was shut down by nature and I drove home.
The acts at Sónar 2016 seemed to skew a little towards the tried and tested. I must admit that I haven’t listened to Dorian Concept much since 2009, when Trilingual Dance Sexperience was running on repeat while I marathon-translated catheter instructions in Rome. But there weren’t many who sounded anything like him seven years ago, and he stands out even more now. The simplest way to describe it would be as club music informed by jazz structures. Think Daedelus, Dimlite and the overall approach of labels like Ninja Tune and Brainfeeder. It was seating-room only, but seeing as his music occupies a space between cerebral and dancey—and therefore not really suited to either standing or sitting—I’d recommend some kind of squatting or leaning area. Maybe tyre swings. I have already sent some sketches to the Sónar people.
Everyone will write about Hudmo so I’ll keep it brief. I really like his stuff—I like his solo stuff, and I like TNGHT. Although, I’ll admit that his particular pudding of hip hop, EDM and what used to be called Wonky is starting to wear a little thin for me, and I could see why some would find his set too frothy. However, Hudmo is still a major talent as far as I’m concerned, and it hit my sweet spot for that point in time on a Saturday night. After all, not everything needs to be Oneohtrix Point Never.
The crowd seemed to be about 95% English (and Irish) at Annie Mac. I realise she isn’t a cultural institution outside of the UK, but I’d still have expected a better turnout for a major tastemaker like her. She did trigger two moments of red-faced shame for me. First at Boys Noize, when I walked up to a nice curly-haired lady and congratulated her on a “great set!” (she wasn’t Annie Mac, and looked at me with dismay) and then, later at the bar, when I walked up to a nice curly-haired lady and congratulated her on a “great set!” (this time she was Annie Mac, but she also looked at me with dismay, mixed with something like ‘tired disgust’). My only regret was that I had to pick between Koreless and Annie—the only major clash in an otherwise well-considered festival schedule.
There were split feelings about Boys Noize in my group, with some opting for !!!. Personally, I felt that BN put on a tight, if unsurprising, set of their acid-esque early aughts tech-house. Of course it would have been more of a nostalgia kick if the Icelandic clubs hadn’t been so relentlessly committed to their brand of tech-house for over a decade. All the same, I was in team Boys Noize as the little I saw of !!! did not appeal to me on any level – it simply felt tired, twee and running on fumes.
We managed to sprint down to the car park (SónarLab) just before the crowd started pouring down through the gates. Rødhåd threw up a dramatic and ingeniously-structured set while DJ Margeir tied off the night with his usual workmanlike house and acid house swirls. I probably would have given it a miss if there had been other options in Harpa at 2AM. But Margeir is fine as long as you’re not seeking any mind-bending novelty—after all, you don’t get to be Iceland’s most popular DJ by scaring off the new media bros flirting with molly on a work outing.
Finally, for those of you who haven’t been but are thinking of attending next year’s Sónar, note that the only way you’ll see the inside of a bathroom or the butt of a cigarette after 2am in the car park is if you’re willing to go to the back of a 45 min line each time. So bring a trucker bomb and an e-cig. Or warm yourself by peeing your pants / escaping security with a lit cigar in your mouth.
Posted February 21, 2016