On May 9, 2008 I attended the Dissonanze festival in Rome. The festival was held in the neo-classicist behemoth Palazzo dei Congressi in the EUR neighborhood, a fascist fever dream constructed seemingly overnight by Mussolini. Two leftfield electronic artists who played the festival are also connected to this year’s Sónar Reykjavík line-up. Switch played Dissonanze the year he went on to found Sónar 2014 headliner Major Lazer with DJ/producer/heartthrob Diplo, although they have since parted ways. Daniel Snaith was also playing as Caribou but he will be featuring his side project Daphni at at Sónar 2014.
The Icelandic currency had been in free fall in 2008 and the EUR 50 euro was starting to look like something more than colorful WC paper to be thrown around at the local bars. By September of that year the Icelandic banking system had been nationalized after it blew up like teenage stoners with a homemade pipe bomb.
Construction of the Harpa concert hall began during the boom years but it was in 2008 that the conservative government decided to step in and allocate public funds to finish its construction as their buccaneer buddies in the banking sector, who had pioneered Harpa, were finding themselves a little low on funds. Since then the Harpa concert hall is frequently regarded by some as a monument to the blind confidence in the financial markets and the result coke binge of materialism and overspending. And all of it ushered in by a conservative government in bed with the bankers responsible for the boom and subsequent collapse.
From Rome to Reykjavík the city finds itself stuck with a large, publicly funded, controversial building, funded during a wildly different set of circumstances and no clear idea on how to make it serve the diverse group of people who ended up paying for it. So what do you do? Of course you stage an electronic music festival, you dingus!
Last year’s Sónar worked like a charm. Harpa has not worked well as part of an array of concert venues during the Iceland Airwaves festival. The Airwaves festival was modeled on urban bar-hopping music festivals like South by Southwest in Texas or Sonar Barcelona and Harpa is just a bit too big and sanitized for that. But for a music festival which is showcasing a certain overarching genre (dance and electronic music) it makes sense to stuff it all into one place. Last year it had the effect of effectively turning Harpa into one big nightclub—overpriced beer and draconian security guards of course included.
There have been three main issues in connection with the festival.One was that the selection was a little narrow considering the rich tapestry that is the overarching genre of ‘electronic music’ and leaned too heavily on the side of intellectual Euro techno. But I feel steps have been taken to address that in 2014. The selection is still heavy on atmospheric techno (James Holden, Paul Kalkbrenner, Jon Hopkins) and tech house (GusGus, Trentemøller) but with the inclusion of artists like Major Lazer (dancehall/trap), Eloq (trap/glitch), and Evian Christ (experimental/ hip hop) we’re seeing them address the problem and starting to cater to the bizarre hybrid bass music which dominated the scene in 2013.
The second complaint has been that Sónar Reykjavík 2014 is headlined by artists which either played Sónar last year or have played Iceland Airwaves recently. Jon Hopkins played Airwaves in 2013, Ryuichi Sakamoto and Trentemøller played Sónar Reykjavík 2013. Kenton Slash Demon and When Saints Go Machine have also both played Iceland Airwaves in the last five years. Most of the Icelandic artists are already veterans of both festivals. When the pool of headliners is relatively small and catering to a niche genre, a lack of variety can become very problematic.
But overall this is looking like a hell of a festival, so put on a pair of booty shorts for Major Lazer, get your glow sticks out for GusGus and strap on your thinking cap for James Holden. Have a great weekend!