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Saturday, June 14, 2003

Music | Sonar 2003 | Day Two

I wake up late and miss Prefuse 73. Oh well. I saw him in Boston recently anyway.

My first show of the second day of Sonar is Tujiko Noriko. I don't know - her songs, they are sort of... dull. And there's this whiff of the Mego folks (likely white European dudes) probably going apeshit over her, like, "hey, she's a wacky Japanese woman who sings about wanting to become a doll over glitchy abstract beats - it's fantastic!" I mean, I should dig this stuff - it's sort of jpop-meets-glitch. It sounds like a good formula, and in the case of Tujiko Noriko, it stays there, at the level of formula. It doesn't go any further.

I run into Ben from the lab, who is at Sonar to present the fab Audiopad, his collaboration with James.

We watch a tiny bit of Meteorites, who seem to think they're at a Beastie Boys Karaoke Night. Ben shows me around the whole complex of the Sonar By Day site, including the Sonar 10-year anniversary exhibition of digital arts. Hey, there's John's Reactive Square!

We watch a tiny bit of Datarock, the hotly tipped band on Telle (Royksopp's old label). It turns out they wear matching red jumpsuits and play bad Scandinavian electropop. Ben shakes his head and goes off to check out Errorsmith. I give Datarock a few more minutes, before they lose me by launching into synchronized calisthenics. I take off too. Call me humorless.

Pita and Tina Frank (also on Mego) are probably the two most humorless people on earth, or something. The pair stands motionless on stage. The Pitaman produces unrelenting waves of screeching static drones from his laptop, while Tina (responsible for many Mego CD sleeve designs) generates vague distorted graphics for the backdrop. Pure aural evil. I put on my earplugs and bear with it, since Tina is supposed to have some nice visuals. About ten minutes later, I get bored. Once again I am reminded of the reason why I don't buy Mego records. I walk outside, and my hands are still shaking from the noise.

The daytime session is saved by Phoenecia. While their last album was on the abstract side, today they rely on the sweet spot they used to hit previously: the supreme mix of IDM, Miami bass, electro, four-on-the-floor techno, and a touch of hiphop. I think very few people do it as well as they do when they hit a groove like this. Great fun.

I take a short break and come back to catch the last 2/3 of the Schneider TM show. I find his records a bit sedate, but live, like with many bands, the songs gain new muscle. Mister TM and his two assistants wear white lab coats. He sings quite well in an indie-pop sort of way. I'm grateful that I didn't miss his fantastic electropop cover of There Is a Light that Never Goes Out by the Smiths. He sings to the crowd, changing the lyrics to "and if a ten-ton truck / kills the thousands of us / to die by your side / well the pleasure, the privilege is mine". Heh. It's all pop with just enough oddness. Good vibes all around.

I must say, it's nice to be tall. I seem to be a good foot taller than 90% of the people here at Sonar, which lets me get a good look at the stage no matter where I am. Of course, the sad thing about electronica is that there is usually not much to look at besides a bloke behind a Powerbook. But when there are visuals or actual showmanship, it's nice to be tall.

Before leaving the daytime site to get some dinner, I briefly catch Fabio spinning for a sweaty crowd in a side tent. I'm not sure what it says about jungle / drum and bass that Fabio is pretty much the only representative for the genre in the entire festival. Earlier, Ben said that jungle has ended up in two branches in his view: commercial ad music to sell with and buy to, and extreme near-gabba hardcore by folks like Hellfish. Now, I don't know the drum-and-bass scene well enough to really know, and great records, DJs and clubs surely continue to exist in UK and elsewhere. But has drum and bass run out of gas as a genre for exploring new forms? Its influence is felt in all sorts of places, for sure. But unlike techno and house - which continue to mutate and thrive in the hands of people like Herbert and Recloose - perhaps there is not enough there within drum and bass itself for continued expansion of the genre.

Onto the Friday night headliner: Bjork. Woo hoo. Sadly, half of the sellout crowd and I seem to have reached the gates of the Sonar By Night site at exactly the same time. This causes a big delay for entering what seems to be a convention center. By the time I'm in, Bjork has been onstage for half an hour. Ack. I get as close as I can to the stage in the massive and packed main hall. I don't get very close.

I was curious what type of show she would bring to Barcelona, since the new album is not yet finished and a tour for it not yet designed. It turns out that she has gone back in time, back to her Homogenic tour mode of strings-and-techno. I think it was a good decision. The dancier, more open sound of that period perfectly suits the summery mood of this festival. Certainly much more than the fragile alien chamber music of the Vespertine tour. Oddly, LFO's Mark Bell is not playing with her, even though he seems to have been the chief architect of the Homogenic sound, and he happens to be here at Sonar to DJ right after Bjork's show. Instead, Bjork relies on the other usual suspects: Zeena Parkins, Leila Arab, the two blokes from Matmos, and the Iceland String Octet. Bjork herself is in fine form: dressed in black and offset against crimson-lit curtains, she constantly dances across the stage while air-drumming and gesturing wildly - a figure of energy. She yells out the occasional "gracias!" with joy.

The songs? From what I can remember... Joga, majestic as always, with synchronized onstage pyrotechnics. Unravel, with a beautiful widescreen video of Bjork, erm, unraveling. Bachelorette, which gets a loud welcome from the crowd. It's in Our Hands, surprisingly jagged and muscular. Hyper-Ballad, the full-on LFO-style techno version. All Is Full of Love, the crunchy video version. A few that seem to be new songs: brittle, ambient, nearly abstract, very much a progression from Vespertine. I don't recognize the closer, a stomper with lights blazing and Bjork shrieking. The encore includes a gently rollicking Human Nature. A fine show. Wish I'd been earlier and closer.

I'm too tired for the late-night DJ gigs by the likes of Aphex Twin and DJ Krush. I head back to the hotel.

2:23 AM | Comment

Friday, June 13, 2003

Music | Sonar 2003 | Day One

As I approach the site for Sonar in downtown Barcelona, I'm so full of anticipation that I smile at the massive sub-bass action rocking the narrow street - which turns out to be a car revving up.

The three-day festival is in full swing by the time I get there. Christ is a perfect warm-up for my ears. Soothing downtempo electronica with a slight edge. He is the Pete Best of Boards of Canada: the one who left the band too soon to taste the massive success soon to follow. As it happens, he sounds a lot like BoC, but without some of their obsessions like 70's Canadian children's TV. I sit back in the tent and soak it in.

Up next in a cavern-like indoor space is Niobe, a new signing for Sonig. She sings gentle, jazzy torch songs over low-key lo-fi beats. Should have worked well except for the generally horrible sound mix. One ace track was a samba tune with fast, glitchy underpinnings and her singing about Brazil. I think it will all make better sense on record.

I catch a little bit of Patrick Pulsinger rocking the crowd with some choice techno. He looks exactly like a photo of him I saw nearly 10 years ago.

The variety of music from tent to tent and from room to room is just staggering. Everything starts right on published time - very impressive. The t-shirts are lame but I still buy one.

I have to miss the rest of Sonar By Day - and folks like Pole, Hellfish, and Lithops aka Jan Werner from Mouse on Mars (dammit) - because I need to leave for the main event of the night happening elsewhere. As I walk out, under an archway near the festival site, I catch the funny sight of a grandmother and a policeman: madame is gesturing with her hands, complaining about the loud noise rocking her neighborhood. We're sorry, grandma. We'll be done soon. I promise.

Onto the night's big show: Matthew Herbert Big Band. The godfather of microhouse has gone past reinterpreting jazz to making full-on swing music with an orchestra, and he's brought it all to the classy environs of L'Auditori. I got me a third-row seat - sweet.

After the lights dim, Herbert enters alone onto a stage laid out with chairs and music-score stands. He's dressed for the gig, decked out in a long tuxedo coat and shiny black shoes. He takes out a trumpet, plays a few notes, then bangs on it. He samples a bang, repeats the bang into a loop, and throws the trumpet away on the ground. The crowd is already way into this. He builds the trumpet-clang loop to a nice swell of melodies, as the big band enters and takes their place to wild applause. Fantastic. This impish little man is a badass motherfucker, and he knows what he's doing.

The music is swing music, hardcore, no messing about. 90% good ol' big band stuff that my parents wouldn't mind putting on, and 10% electronics. I think the electronica is to be found in the composition and the structure of the songs, not in the elements. He's not just treating the instruments as a sample source: he's dedicated to the big-band concept in a fundamental way.

But, since this is the man who wrote a song composed entirely of himself eating an apple, the sampling fun continues. For one track, he gets the band to tear up newspapers in rhythm with the music when they're not blowing horns, and the crackling of the torn papers adds a layer onto the beats. For another, he starts by sampling the click-click-click's of an instant camera when you reload after shooting a picture. He then asks the crowd to freely use their camera flashes during the tune's performance - as long as it's in rhythm. Brilliant, because the lights go down, we enter darkness, and the crowd provides all the strobe-like lighting. Great fun.

Dani Siciliano, Arto Lindsay, and Jamie Lidell each make an appearance to sing on their respective vocal tracks. Dani is a total revelation. I always felt she was a downfall of sorts for Herbert, since her voice seemed to water down some of his jazzier tracks into noodly facelessness. Live, she is amazingly sexy and confident, visually and vocally. Arto is legendary but I'm not familiar with him; he's got a warm voice and a wonderful playfulness. Jamie is very good at crooning.

By the time all three singers are onstage doing Foreign Bodies, this is one of the best gigs I've ever seen. I'm also just impressed by the level of execution: the good feelings that come from witnessing something new done well. I'm sated for the night.

2:14 AM | Comment

Thursday, June 12, 2003

I'm having a lovely time in Barcelona.

For the next three days, I'll be making daily reports from the Sonar 2003 festival. I didn't think I would blog during this trip, but I've been spurred on by the combination of the free net access at the hotel, the suggestion by an online buddy that I should post regular festival reports, and my own desire to make a record of these memories and impressions while they're fresh.

2:22 AM | Comment

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