Sónar Festival 2012: inthemix goes to Barcelona

The scope of the dance music frivolities taking place across the spectacular Spanish city of Barcelona across the duration of the Sónar Festival are nearly too spectacular and far-reaching to even get your head around. The main component are the official activities of the Sónar Festival itself, a sprawling three-day cultural event that includes both the ‘Sónar by Day’ events in the center of Barcelona’s museum and art gallery district, as well as the stupendous ‘Sónar by Night’ parties at the sprawling Fira Gran Via conference centre. All up, the official Sónar Festival activities entertain more than 150,000 people over the three days.

However, this is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what goes down across the different corners of Barcelona during the week surrounding the Sónar Festival. ‘Off Sónar’ is the label that is slapped on all the events that take part outside of the actual festival itself, and the sheer mind-boggling number of parties happening is enough to utterly overwhelm even the most serious dance music enthusiast, stretching from the clubs situated across in the dazzling Spanish charm of the Old Town area and Gothic Quarter, to the bubbling energy of the street parties in Las Ramblas strip, over to the beach parties on the pristine Nova Mar Bella beach. And don’t forget those blue skies and sunshine, weather that never drops below 20 degrees, as well as Spain’s legendary reputation of knowing how to party, get loose and have a good time.

Otherwise, the amount of DJs, live performers and record labels that are in town during the Sónar Festival borders on the ridiculous. Joris Voorn and Nic Fanciulli unofficially kicked off the festivities on Wednesday afternoon with a free Saved and Rejected Records beach party, a day before the Sónar Festival itself actually begun, and the number of label nights tht followed were simply too many to mention – think Get Physical, Innervisions, Kompakt, Minus, Cocoon, Desolat…and that’s just getting started.

At one point during the weekend, someone made the astute observation that if a zombie apocalypse swept through the streets or Barcelona during Sónar Festival, global dance culture would pretty much be completely wiped out in one fell swoop. Gone. Terminado. Despedida! Morbid observations aside, if all this sounds like a dance lover’s paradise – it’s because it is.


With tens of thousands descending on the city and already raring to party earlier in the week, the first official day of the Sónar Festival action kicked off in Barcelona on Thursday, with the first ‘Sónar by Day’ activities taking place in the open-air confines in the center of the Raval area, part of Barcelona’s Old Town. Situated across the grounds of Centre de Cultura Contemporánia and the Museu d’Art Contemporani, Thursday made for a chilled start to the three days of festival, a chance to soak up the relaxed joys of the day party without any interruptions, before the blockbuster ‘Sónar by Night’ aspect kicked off alongside it on Friday.

The beauty of ‘Sónar by Day’ is that it allows visitors to witness a massive posse of underground electronic talent, with the three-day party showcasing a wide array of undiscovered sounds, amongst a handful of already established and celebrated experimental performers. If you’re into discovering new sounds, this is probably one of the premier events you could go to anywhere in the world. And the coolest thing is how much it’s been sanctioned by the local authorities, who’ve given the promoters access to their prized museum and gallery spaces, giving the parties the air of a genuine cultural event.

Upon walking in you’re greeted by the open air SonarVillage mainstage, where US bass maestro Flying Lotus was hosted as the headliner among an eclectic selection of live-focused acts. Out around the corner of the grounds alongside the Museu d’Art Contemporani was the SonarDôme tent, a stage hosted by the Red Bull Music Academy, which offered them the opportunity to showcase some of the burgeoning acts it had discovered this year, with a focus on the tougher end of the underground club spectrum.

Elsewhere, inside the Centre de Cultura Contemporánia was the SonarHall stage, whee the highlight of the day was Ninja Tune audio/visual specialist Daedelus, who showed off his spectacular mirrored audio-visual show ‘Archimedes’, that combined an assortment of reflective surfaces to such a spectacular degree that it looked like a giant mirrorball.

Moving into the evening, the fact that ‘Sónar by Night’ wouldn’t be launching until Friday evening meant it was the perfect opportunity to hit the streets and sample some of the ‘Off Sónar’ excellence that was blowing up around the city. Where to even begin? Well, that afternoon, Minus heavyweightRichie Hawtin had announced on his social networking channels that he would be performing a surprise set in the open-air square that adjoins the Boqueria Markets, just a stones throw from the famous La Rambla area, and where the local Spaniards go to procure a fine selection of delicious meats, fish, spices and other culinary delights.

On any other day, there’s already a bustling energy to the Boqueria Markets; but after 5pm on Thursday, the adjoining square was absolutely rammed with thousands of punters who’ve turned up to enjoy the heaving street party, with Hawtin’s throbbing beats sounding throughout the square and out onto the surrounding streets, cheers erupting as each new bassline slammed into the mix. Open-air techno at dusk, amongst a pumping street party with a cast of thousands, made for a treat indeed.

Hawtin’s impromptu gig was done and dusted by 8pm, but for anyone wanting to party into the evening, there was plenty to choose from; over near the water was the open air East Ender Festival that stretched from Thursday to Sunday, hosting a mammoth amount of names that included Loco DiceMarco CarolaChris LiebingMarcel DettmannAudiofly and Tommy Four Seven on the first day of the festival alone. For us though, the only possible choice was the Poker Flat vs 20:20 Vision beach party.

Set to go down in the spectacular surrounds of the Boo Beach Club, it’s a venue that is a restaurant by day with its entrance situated right on the sand of the city’s gorgeous Nova Mar Bella beach. This leads into an indoor room that’s stocked with several bars, a roped-off VIP section, as well as an upstairs loft area that hosted the party’s second room. Walk out the back though, and it opens onto a vast open-air terrace, with a wide wooden pier-type structure that stretches right into the water. If it sounds like a fucking amazing venue, that’s because it is.

The decks were situated right at the edge of the restaurant, facing out along the stretch of the pier, with a setup that allowed the several hundred punters to gather on the dancefloor of the pier, enjoying the balmy breeze and sunny skies. Early arrivals were greeted with the sounds of Vincenzoperforming back-to-back with Phonique, before Steve Bug stepped up at 9pm for a sunset performance, with a set of deliciously deep and melodic house grooves that made the most of the sumptuous weather as the sun slowly sank into the sky.

Featuring a little more glamour than the otherwise shorts-and-thongs summer vibe that was seen in the city over the weekend, the energy was still nothing less than euphoric and wonderful, there’s no other way to describe it. With the likes of Deetron and Ralph Lawson taking the party through until 3am, it made for pretty much the best beachside clubbing experience you could possibly imagine. Day #1 of the Sónar Festival had drawn to a close, and we were already on a winning streak.


One of the greatest tragedies of the Sónar Festival is that you can’t be everywhere at once, and for this reviewer, all the wonders of the ‘Off Sónar’ parties had to be put aside from Friday onwards, simply to the fact that the Sónar Festival itself is so good that it deserves your unwarranted attention. And realistically, unless you’re a titan partygoer who can power through from 12pm to 7am, there’s only so much effort you can commit to ‘Sónar by Day’ on Friday and Saturday if you’re serious about the evening’s festivities. This didn’t stop us giving it a crack though during the twilight hours of the day party, with Nina Kraviz drawing a particularly big crowd as the weekend’s headliner in the Red Bull Music Academy arena.

Tonight though, the festivities stepped up a notch, with the stupendous ‘Sónar by Night’ launching at the sprawling Fira Gran Via conference centre, around a 20-minute cab ride out of the city centre. To give a reference of what the venue is like, the cavernous warehouse-style SonarClub room that greets you upon arrival shares a few similarities with some of Melbourne’s indoor stadium venues, or some of the sprawling warehouse-style spaces in Sydney’s Olympic Park, along with another two similar SonarPub and SonarLab open-air stages.

At a guess, there were around 50,000 punters pulsing through the venue from opening at 10pm to closing time at 7am across the venue’s three main rooms – each one easily capable of housing 10,000+ punters – wo were all there to witness one of the world’s most cleverly balanced festival lineups, in terms of juggling mass appeal with underground cred.

US pop princess Lana Del Rey brought the mass appeal to SonarPub shortly before midnight, one of the party’s carefully selected crossover acts that ensured a few extra thousand punters were summoned through the doors, while over at SonarClub Amon Tobin was simultaneously presenting his dazzling ISAM show; reflecting one of the defining trends of he festival, in terms of otherwise underground acts transforming their performances into blockbuster audio-visual spectacles. The same approach was showcased post 4.30am by Warp Records’ experimental veteranSquarepusher, with a similarly brainbending visual show that seriously messed with the crowd’s heads at that stage of the evening.

You were spoilt for choice though, as right next door at SonarLab Nicolas Jaar was playing a mesmerising live set of deep melodic build that hit all the right emotional notes, and showed him worthy of all the hype. For this punter, the genuine connection that Jaar forged with the crowd had the edge over Tobin’s audio/visual spectacular.

This had al gone down before we’d even reached 1am, with an eclectic range of musical treats still to follow, with James Blake next up at SonarPub performing a varied and somewhat odd DJ that curiously transposed tough-edged bass music over Beyonce. Friendly Fires followed immediately after, bringing an exhilarating injection of indie-rave euphoria, while over in SonarClub Richie Hawtin was taking control, filling the dark warehouse with some tough and very deep techno over the course of a two-hour set.

With a variety of other A-grade DJs and live acts across the evening like James MurphySimian Mobile DiscoBrodinski, Nina Kraviz and Jacques Lu Cont, the big surprise of the evening wasFatboy Slim who played an impeccable party set in SonarPub from 4am onwards. While a lot of people might have their reservations as to whether he still deserves headline status (particularly after his infamous meltdown on the Good Vibrations tour in Australian in 2009), at Sónar he garnered the best crowd response from any act all night.

The set might have been full of party tunes, and fairly straightforward in its appeal, it was still packed with plenty of exciting surprises, brimming with all sorts of bootlegs and edits that hadn’t been heard before. Not unlike some of the more underground performers over in SonarClub, he was backed with his own colorful synced audio-visual show, and it felt for two hours like the Sónar Festival had been transformed into the Big Beach Boutique, with hands-in-the air galore.


By Saturday even the clubbers with the most stamina, drive and dedication were being tested, but fill yourself up with some delicious Spanish tapas and you’re on your way back out to the Fira Gran Via conference centre for final edition of ‘Sónar by Night’. The largest of any of the events that happened across the weekend, an even more massive crowd returned on Saturday for the biggest night out of the festival.

The marquee acts were kicking off barely after the front doors even opened, with New Order lighting up the SonarClub warehouse space, with early arrivals treated to the blissful sounds of Crystal andRegret that the veterans opened their set with. Flanked by beautiful visuals that further heightening the nostalgic vibes, they most definitely made for the perfect legacy act for this kind event; hearing them love just emphases how much of an impact they’ve had, and their rock/electronic crossover sound is still relevant to this day.

Following this, it was an eclectic selection of musical treats across the three different stages, again with a heavy focus on the audio-visual splendour. Pretty Lights was one of the fresh acts on theStereosonic bill last year, and he took over in SonarClub immediately after New Order with his epilepsy-inducing light show, while The Roots hit the stage of SonarPub stage with their live rock and hip hop show around the same time; always a solid choice, and a good indication of the variety we’d see across the sprawling Fira Gran Via up until 6am.

Hot Chip followed on SonarPub to showcase their critically acclaimed new album, while a massive crowd had gathered for indie-dance hipsters Metronomy next door at the open-air SonarLab. The house scene’s hot-new-thing Maya Jay Coles followed with some rolling deep grooves that put everyone in in the zone, followed by disco-techno rogues Azari & III, both a good indication of the promoter’s talent in picking those ‘hot right now’ DJ acts.

Madeon was one of the bigger surprises of the evening over in SonarClub, with his bubbly, Daft Punk-inspired melodic electro hitting all the right notes, so much so that the selections ofDeadmau5, who followed, seemed a little flat, and even dated in comparison, in spite of the big colourful ‘cube’ stage show he’d brought along for the ride.

Another of the festival’s supremo live acts Modeselektor then exploded onto SonarPub, ripping out over the stadium with their bangin’ party vibes, 100-percent on point in terms of juggling their underground techno sensibilities with the right energy to rock tens of thousands of people, dropping plenty of material off their Monkeytown record from last year and with Pretentious Friends making for the perfect in-your-face set opener.

Laurent Garnier took over next for something slightly harsher next with his LBS live show, his unique brand of techno big enough to fill that massive space, though he still brought plenty of melody along for the ride. At the tail end of the evening, Luciano finished up over in SonarClub with an appropriately pumping set that took the crowd up until 6am.

The parties continued over the weekend in Barcelona, with a Minus beach party going down at the Boo Beach Club on Sunday afternoon that received rave reports, the East Ender festival drawing to a close with headline sets from Sven Vath and Steve Lawler, as well as a Drumcode party featuring techno titan Adam Beyer, among countless others. It was enough to make you wish you could be in several places at once, and definitely more than enough to encourage a return visit to Barcelona in 2013.