Reykjavík’s concert hall and conference center, Harpa, was buzzing as Sónar, international festival of advanced music, was held there for the second time. Icenews covers the highlights.
Sónar, international festival of advanced music and new media art, was held in Reykjavík for the second time. The festival started February 13th and took guests on a good three-day ride of over sixty different performances of the “advanced” electronic music scene.
Sónar originates in Barcelona, Spain and has been held there annually for twenty years. The festival has been organised in many countries around the world in past years and was now held in Iceland for the second time. Like last year, the festival was housed by Reykjavík’s most recent architectural pride, Harpa, the construction of which was amazingly completed despite the economic crisis, offering festival goers five different venues in the same glassy interior.
The concert hall and conference center was buzzing as crowds from all over the country and beyond raced to catch their favorite performances. The lineup was a glorious mixture of critically acclaimed artists from around the world and equally popular (at least locally) Icelandic artists and DJ’s. The venues offered a go at the country’s most advanced sound system so the bass was not to be missed to get the crowd jumping.
Coming to Sónar on a Thursday the 13th of February was a new experience since the festival lasted only two days last year. The first performance I stumbled upon was that of Eloq. Stepping in Silfurberg, the biggest stage in Harpa, I hit a thick wall of vibration emitted by his trap-like performance, and immediately forgot I was there on a weekday. Each drop had the crowd moving more than the last, which I would say is truly a feat in Iceland before midnight. I decided to check out one of the smaller, almost hidden venues, Kaldalón, and found myself sitting comfortably in a very friendly atmosphere at the performance of Icelandic artist Muted. Both the music and the visuals were beautifully hypnotising and complimented each other excellently. In the so-called bay view area, Icelandic band Moses Hightower kicked the tunes until midnight. Having a soul feel about it, the band is not your typical Sónar gig, but plays extremely well. Their lyrics are beautiful and their tunes are well composed and sexy. I abandoned them at their last song to make it in time to the much awaited GusGus. GusGus have been prominent in the Icelandic techno scene since their debut in 1995, with DJs Stephan Stephensen (President Bongo) and Birgir Þórarinsson (Biggo) following it from the start. Their last album, Arabian Horse, which came out in 2011, was a big hit and rumour had it they would present new material that night. Excitement was in the air. The rumours proved true and like so often before they met the crowd’s expectations, providing many with the night’s high point. Getting into their new songs may take their fans some time, because outdoing Arabian Horse is no easy challenge. Vocalists Daníel Ágúst Haraldsson, Högni Egilsson (HE) and Urður Hákonardóttir were stunning as ever.
Choosing where to go on Friday was tricky, since all venues offered a tempting lineup. Running past the second biggest stage, Norðurljós, to catch Bonobo’s performance in Silfurberg, I caught the gist of Icelandic duo Kiasmos. Feeling slightly teased by my little sneak peek, I decided I must give their new EP more time. Bonobo was a blast. His performance consisted of pad-activated electronic beats to go under a varying mix of live drums, vocals and wind instruments, giving you the full experience of a live concert without taking away the danceable feel of electronic music. The crowd loved it. I decided to stick to Silfurberg to watch Icelandic act Gluteus Maximus. Consisting mainly of members of GusGus, Gluteus Maximus is not only a very solid act of dance music, but also a display of sports such as weight lifting and aerobics. The mixture seemed strange at first but as the crowd cheered on the sportsmen on stage the music got increasingly intense and you got more and more into it. Unfortunately for Sónar guests, Paul Kalkbrenner, who was supposed to be next up after Gluteus Maximus, had to cancel, apparently due to an eye infection. This meant that Jon Hopkins was moved to a bigger stage, from Norðurljós to Silfurberg. Jon Hopkins sported some heavily intense electronic tunes served with beautifully fitting visuals. He took the crowd on a scale varying from a very dark atmosphere to a beautifully serene one, keeping the crowd on edge, one build-up after another. Admittedly, I got tired of standing in Silfurberg for the third act in a row, so I checked out Jon Edvald at Kaldalón. What had been such a nice experience the night before, a Sónar concert with seats, now seemed bizarre. Icelandic artist Jon Edvald had a hardcore set of techno and house music going that could easily have been played at a major club. He even had a small crowd dancing onstage, which the other seated spectators and me were too exhausted to join.
Saturday was to be the trump card. Upon arrival I saw Icelandic band Hjaltalín playing in Norðurljós. It’s hard to pinpoint the band’s musical style although you definitely wouldn’t categorize them as techno. They’re doing well in Iceland and usually deliver a good performance. Vocalist Höggni Egilsson was a familiar face; singing at four gigs at Sónar this year he seemed to be everywhere (HE, GusGus, Gluteus Maximus, Hjaltalín). Next up was Icelandic band FM Belfast at Silfurberg. There was a happy electro-pop feel to their songs and their presence on stage was incredibly powerful. Like last year, the car park below Harpa had been turned into a venue and that’s where I was headed next to see Diplo. It had the right atmosphere for a rave and some people had even painted themselves accordingly. In these very raw surroundings, Diplo mixed original material with some familiar sounding remixes to concoct a thumping cocktail of dance music. The type you would easily twerk to. Towards the end of the set, he even had two members of the audience dancing on the table in front of him, shaking it. You could say he was the man of the night, because he not only had a very successful gig in the car park but also gave the single biggest performance of the festival later that night, only under a different guise, that of Major Lazer. He was not alone this time, and the group played for the biggest crowd you could possibly fit into Silfurberg. The more enthusiastic members of the audience had already gathered in a tight crowd before they began playing, and as the music started there was much shouting, jumping and sweating in front of the stage, and Major Lazer promotional material was immediately distributed. They played a roaring concert of dancehall songs, had extremely good control of the crowd and sported various gimmicks like balloons, mascots and a giant hamster ball to walk upon the audience, taking crowd-surfing to the next level. Frankly, the commotion of it all eventually became a bit much for my taste, so I retreated to some smaller venues. Trentemøller was playing next door in Norðurljós, giving his audience a more advanced, more ambient sound to enjoy. I also checked out the downstairs bay view area venue, where Icelandic DJ duo Fknhndsm were kicking the tunes. When I arrived I counted exactly fourteen people in the audience, all of them making good use of the spacious dancefloor. As the set went on, more people came and danced to the constant pumping rhythm of the duo’s techno music. At one point a member of the audience took of his sweat soaked T-shirt, threw it at the DJs and started parading around the audience repeatedly, doing a little dance as he went. After Major Lazer had finished, the multitude came flocking down the stairs, some of them on their way home after a memorable weekend, some on they way to see Icelandic DJ Margeir, who finished off the festival down in the car park.
The Reykjavík Police reported a significant number of drug abuse cases around the time of the festival, but according to their website they “conducted special surveillance for drugs during the weekend, since suspicion had arisen earlier in the week that a considerable amount of drugs could happen to be for sale in the following days.” There were minor searches conducted by security staff before admission and the police did have search dogs in the area but overall the drug problem didn’t get in the way of enjoying the festival. I wasn’t aware of any violence or disturbing activity.
To conclude, Sónar Reykjavík 2014 was a good time for anyone who likes to party. The crowd was quite mixed, with regard to both nationality and age, and everyone seemed to have a good time. You could see about as many locals as foreigners and the most prominent age-group was assumably in its twenties. There were queues sometimes, but you could usually get where you wanted fairly easily. You would probably dance less in a month clubbing in Reykjavík than during this one weekend. The artists met my expectations and proved that the stamp “electronic music” is a much wider concept than one single genre. Having said that, it is worth noting that there are better festivals in the country for the purpose of discovering innovative music. Tectonics and Iceland Airwaves are good examples. I experienced Sónar mainly as a party, one hell of a party at that, but not as much as the “festival of advanced music and new media arts” as it makes out to be. Of course there are exceptions, the first name coming to mind being Ryuichi Sakamoto, but this generally seemed to be the case. I had a blast at Sónar Reykjavík 2014.
Matthías Tryggvi Haraldsson