The Sonar Barcelona Festival is an experience unlike any other. It’s constantly the most attended festival worldwide and pushes the boundaries of contemporary electronic music. With massive line ups ranging from the latest live acts to beloved classic house and techno legends, the festival has earned a reputation for keeping the wheels of electronic music turning. The festival’s popularity has grown so much so that it has branched out to other countries, most notably Brazil, Japan, Mexico, and Argentina. While these countries offer a massively populated and diverse audience, virtually no country offers an isolated cauldron of musical specialty more so than Iceland. With a national population just around 320 thousand and holding the title of “northern most capital”, Iceland is the epitome of a fresh take on the Sonar Festival.
With its first installment successfully held in 2013, Sonar Reykjavik returned in 2014 with a juicy lineup of eclectic talent. While Jon Hopkins, James Holden, Bonobo, Trentemøller, Diplo (and his alter ego Major Lazer), and GusGus held the honors of “headliners,” the festival was as much about the local Icelandic talent as their better known counterparts.
It took about a week to process the sights, sounds, and experiences of Sonar Reykjavik, but after doing so, you’ll find a brief breakdown of the talent that occupied Harpa Concert Hall from February 13th to 15th. I also took some pictures of my trip inside and outside of Reykjavik. If you fancy, you can check them out on my personal blog.
The ones you already know are good: As you’d probably expect, artists like Jon Hopkins, Trentemøller, and Bonobo have spent a great deal of time cultivating and curating a live show. We sometimes forget that a live show can cater to nearly all the senses, rather than just the most obvious one. Seeing a truly talented artist create, craft, and deliver expertly right in front of your eyes is a feeling that can’t be manufactured or trivialized. I can confirm without a doubt that the three artists listed above belong to the upper echelon of live electronic music performers. Go see them. If you haven’t already, go see them. You will witness something special, I promise you that.
The unexpected ones (good & bad): Sometimes the hype is just too much for ones own pysche to handle. Unfortunately this was true for James Holden. I’d love to tell you that he delivered a legendary set comprised of his well known classics as well as some of his more obscure work that blended seamlessly. However, I can’t. His set was flawlessly executed. Almost scarily so. His implementation of a live drummer was some of the best I have ever seen. I’ve never seen chemistry between a drummer and producer work so well, actually. The only problem was that he spent far too much time constructing and deconstructing his beats. So much so that I caught myself daydreaming in the middle of his set… twice. And I wasn’t alone. The mutterings among young and old after the show were generally the same: “it was rather boring.”
On the opposite end of the spectrum, we have GusGus. Some of you may have heard of them, as they’ve been interchanging their lineup and experimenting since the late 90’s. A collective of Icelandic artists and performers, they throw one hell of show. I asked a few locals around town who they were most pumped to see and the general response was GusGus. After 10 minutes of their show, it was easy to see why. They fuse dub techno beats with Icelandic “weirdness” to get people grooving hard. Aside from Major Lazer, GusGus had the biggest crowd all weekend.
The ones you should know: First up, we have Kiasmos, a duo of bright musical minds. I stumbled upon them by surprise, which ended up being fantastic, as they became my favorite act of the festival. Their sound could be described as an evolutionary offshoot of Book Shade, which still doesn’t quite do it justice. Their set, full of melody and minimal groove, kept the crowd engaged and carried a sense of unity with it. Their classically trained background was evident and on display, as each element of seemed perfectly balanced and calibrated. They’ll be touring soon to promote an album release, so if you see their name, they’re most definitely worth a view.
Next, we have Muted. I have to say up front that I love this man for never giving up. His set was plagued from the start. First, his computer froze and he had to reboot about five minutes into his set. Then maybe ten minutes later, his booth monitor started glitching and died on him, so it had to be replaced. By the time he had to restart for the second time, he grabbed the mic in frustration and told us, “fuck it, let’s do this thing already,” to which the room emphatically responded. Muted makes a cross of hip-hop, dub-step, and jungle, which on paper sounds pretty unappealing. However, he uses only the best elements of each to create the type of down tempo’d music you’d want to soundtrack your day with. The highlight of the show came when an Icelandic rapper delivered one the strangest/coolest sounding flows (in Icelandic mind you) I’ve ever heard. It was simply jaw dropping.
Next up, we have DJ Yamaho. As her name implies, she DJ’s. Quite well I might add. She’s well known throughout Iceland and most locals told me that she was worth a listen. Her blend of straight up Chicago house and Detroit techno were a welcome surprise, given all the experimentation being thrown around all weekend. She held down the Car Park room (which was held in the basement of the Concert Hall) with ease and kept the early crowd moving, which can be notoriously difficult.
Next up, we have Hermigervill. His music is the modern take on the one man street band. He stood alone on stage with three keyboards and a drum pad, but with the speed he moved at, you would’ve thought their were at least three people on stage. The music was light and easy to dance to. A tad indie poppy with some old school synths thrown in for good measure, like a cross of Holy Ghost and Friendly Fires, but simplified. His energy alone makes you want to dance.
Last but not least, we have Ryuichi Sakamoto & Taylor Deupree. I must admit, this was the strangest performance of the festival. It was also the first I saw, which set the tone for an eclectic weekend. People were laying down and soaking in the ambient genius of the unconventional duo. Sakamoto used an ensemble of “instruments” while Deupree handled the tones and electronic element. Although being on opposite ends of the stage, they worked together seamlessly. The look on the crowd’s faces was mixed, but for those who were open to the experimental sound, they left satisfied and talkative. Seeing ambient music live is a totally unique experience. One that requires patience, imagination, and curiosity. For some, it was too much (or not enough).
Sonar Reykjavik was a unique and memorable experience. The cold harshness of the winter landscape mixed with the warm embrace of the Icelandic musical stylings creates a sensation of melancholic joy. You look outside the enormous bay windows at Harpa and see snow covered jagged peaks while your ears are flooded with sweet deep melodies pumping from the finest speakers money can buy. It’s an experience like no other.