Sonar 25, Barcelona – a retrospective and review

I trace it all back to the day of the Sheffield half marathon in 2004. After the race I had been at a BBQ near Hunters Bar and had consumed a number of beers to refuel. Then on the way back home I randomly bumped into my friends Nils and Gina in the street who were encouraging me to join them and a group of others at the Sonar festival in Barcelona that summer. In that moment it seemed like such a great idea – sun, sand, techno music and a load of mates! And it went beyond beer talk as in the days that followed I put the wheels in motion to turn the idea into a reality. Little did I know that I would be sat here writing this blog in 2018 having recently been to my 10th Sonar! The fact that 2018 marks the 25th anniversary of Sonar makes it feel like a good time to reflect on my Sonar experience over the years, and of course give the run down on how I found it this year.

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June 13 2004 was the day when I rocked up in Barcelona for the first time along with my mate Chris, who I’d also talked into joining me and I would be rooming with. It felt great to be there and I still remember it vividly, the little things like going to the tourist information booth on Plaza Catalunya, drinking an Estrella for the first time by Plaza Universitat, and walking down Las Ramblas for the first time to collect the Sonar tickets.

Sonar was a festival that immediately captured me like no other. I’d been to dance music festivals before but mainly things like Creamfields in Liverpool and the long defunct Homelands, i.e. all in the UK and just for one day/night. Combining the dance music experience with the sun that you are almost always guaranteed to get in Spain in summer was a novel experience. And the fact the festival was in a city was great, too, and offered something different to camping in a field in the UK for 3 days. The Euro 2004 football tournament was also on and it was great to be abroad watching bits of that taking advantage of the warm summer evenings before the nights out properly started. Wayne Rooney even looked like he was going to be a world beater back then.

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Sonar for those that don’t know is split into Sonar by day and Sonar by night. Both were great in different ways. The original site for Sonar by day was the grounds of the MACBA (Museum of Contemporary Art) (see photo above). It was really fun just drinking Estrella in the sunshine and checking out loads of cool, new electronic music acts, many of which were more experimental than what I would normally listen to. And you also had access to all of the MACBA – I have great memories of walking around the contemporary art museum hammered! It felt small and intimate there although ultimately the festival was to outgrow the site. I am ashamed to say that I still haven’t been to Sonar by day in the 6 years it has been at its new home of Fira Montjuic, just up from Plaza Espanya. I’ll have to put that right another year.

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If you thought the daytime was good, then this paled into insignificance compared with the night. I was immediately struck by the sheer size of the place. The main room was this giant hanger-type space and walking into that for the first time to hear Hawtin and Ricardo Villalobos playing was just … wow! I’d experienced techno before but this was another level and one of the best sets I’d ever heard with the soundsystem devastating in its power. In my opinion Hawtin was better back then with his sets having both more energy and more out there soundscapes. No set of his that I have been to since has quite lived up to that first experience. Here’s a throwback pic from the archives!

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I was back for more the next night, which again was totally awesome. It was proper straight-up techno with Dave Clarke and Jeff Mills playing one after the other. I particularly remember Jeff Mills dropping DK – ‘Murder Was The Bass’ and the crowd in this huge space going crazy. I don’t know how many people the main room holds but you would be talking in the tens of thousands if it was completely full. Not that I ventured onto it but there was even a dodgem track – a dodgem track! – at the back of the dancefloor. One thing is for sure, when you set foot in the Sonar by night site you know you are in for a big, big night!

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The festival was only 11 years old when I first went and the experience has evolved over the years, not least with the rise of all the off-Sonar parties. And musical trends are also always continually evolving as new artists come on the scene and push the boundaries, keeping things fresh. But a connection with Barcelona and with Sonar was born that year and I have been back countless times since. After the initial baptism in 2004 I was back the following year having driven my car, a clapped out old metro, there from Sheffield to spend the summer living in Barcelona doing a TEFL course and learning Spanish (the car didn’t make it back home but that’s another story!). That was another classic Sonar as I brought my life to the city for the summer and had a great time.

There was then a pause for a few years while I was living in South America before came the Keith Rosser years. Keith, a fellow writer, was someone I had met travelling in South America – at the Argentina-Bolivia border no less! Shortly after he got back from his big South American travelling trip he moved to Barcelona for work, where he has continued to live ever since. Before proceeding I must thank Keith and his wife Sofia for opening up their home to me when I descend on them year on year in the middle of June!

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2018 was to be my 10th Sonar. Even with all the amazing off-Sonar parties on it felt wrong not to check out one of the main Sonar by night events given it was the 25th anniversary. Based on the line-ups Keith and I plumped for the Saturday as the one to check out. French techno legend Laurent Garnier was one of the biggest draws for me this year, and someone I really associate with Sonar as he’s played there nearly every year I’ve been, stretching back to the very first one. Richie Hawtin, the first act I had seen at Sonar by night, would also be on tonight’s line-up.

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We arrived just after midnight. I couldn’t really be doing with getting there early for LCD Soundsystem as I wanted to conserve energy for the latter part of the night. For me, the best part of Sonar is dancing outside in the last hour when the sun comes up. On arrival first up we checked out the main Sonar Club room. Call Super was sounding pretty good playing some quality techno early doors, even if some of the transitions between tracks weren’t entirely to my taste. The tunes sounded great but I would have liked to have heard them play out for longer before the next track came into the mix. The set did, though, get me nicely in the mood for the rest of the night.

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In classic festival fashion I then got separated from Keith and his mates at the end of Call Super. I had gone to the bar as there was a rather annoying, almost half hour gap before the next act Thom Yorke started. When I tried to return the space had been filled by a strong contingent of Thom Yorke fan boys. I was less fussed and so headed off to the Sonar Lab stage, hosted by Resident Advisor, to see Octo Octa’s live set (picture above). This was a set that Resident Advisor afterwards cited as being one of the 5 ‘key’ performances of the weekend – not best but ‘key’. I don’t know how they work that out but it sounded pretty good and was the sort of music I wanted to hear at that point in the night, with melodic sounds to the fore.

I then returned the Sonar Club to check out what remained of Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke’s performance. It is hard not to be stopped in your tracks by a voice like his, particularly when set against a haunting synth backdrop like in the video below. As his voice echoed out across the massive arena this really was a mind blowing track.

But aside from this track what I heard of his set felt like something of a mixed bag, although admittedly I only caught around 15 minutes, so not enough time to in any way judge. For many, though, it was probably a bit too downtempo and experimental for the 2am time slot. Whilst Thom Yorke was the biggest name on the line-up it seemed strange there was a straight-up techno DJ on for an hour between LCD Soundsystem and him. The other stages were by now all quite full relative to the Sonar Club which might suggest others thought similarly.

The line-up from 3am onwards looked more appetising. By now I had met up with Keith again after a failed attempt in the previous hour to meet him in the Sonar Car for John Talabot. We headed to the Sonar Lab for Ben Klock B2B DJ Nobu. Klock did what Klock does best and served up an hour of stripped back energetic, pounding techno. After an hour, though, the punishing assault from Klock was starting to get physically tiring and it was time to head inside for Hawtin’s ‘CLOSE’ hybrid DJ/Live set.

Richie’s performance tonight was trademark Hawtin and the minimalism with its out there soundscapes and bleeps took me back to that very first Sonar and also the sounds he was purveying on his seminal DE9 Transitions CD that came out in 2005. For those that remember that’s the one with the accompanying DVD where he starts moving objects around through the force of the energy emanating from his mind. Here’s a video of him doing this set to his track ‘The Tunnel’.

Whilst there was some great music in Hawtin’s performance tonight, after a while it did start to sound a bit samey. It was now time to go to the other outdoor stage that we had yet to check out, the Sonar Pub. Laurent Garnier was already now over halfway through his 4 hour closing set. This was the place to be to end the night. As I said earlier, dancing outside as the sun comes up really is the best bit and is what keeps bringing me back to the main Sonar.

Garnier, like Hawtin, is a Sonar icon and there was a real feel good factor to the set with lots of classics coming out. I’m talking proper house classics like Marshall Jefferson – ‘Move Your Body’, Donna Summer – ‘I Feel Love’ and DJ Rolando – ‘Knights Of The Jaguar’ (see video above with very bright light!). The biggest classics moment was when Garnier dropped his very own ‘The Man With Red Face’ shortly after 6am as the sun was coming up. Simply a great moment – its special moments like these that make clubbing so great.

Another big older tune he played that got a great reaction was Oxia – ‘Domino’. And as I looked up at the big screens these revealed there would be a new date for Sonar in 2019 – in July. This came as quite a surprise as Sonar has always been in mid-June. I have since discovered this is just for one year only due to a date clash with a big textile fair coming to Barcelona in June next year.

2018 had been a record breaking year for Sonar with the festival hosting more than 126,000 people from 119 countries. This evidences further its place as one of electronic music’s most important festivals. With a mix of old and new talent on display it continues to be as relevant as ever. The overall attendance stat is broken down roughly 50:50 between Spanish and international. It was certainly a cosmopolitan affair, which is something to be celebrated. How on the same weekend the city and scene can support all the off-Sonar parties in addition to the main festival is something I find difficult to comprehend. But what it demonstrates is the healthiness of the techno scene in Europe at the moment. Will I be back next year? I would have thought so! And even Chris, who I went to my very first Sonar with all those years ago, is talking about coming out of clubbing retirement for it!

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