Sónar Reykjavík 2014: Day 1

Reviews

Sónar Reykjavík 2014: Day 1

Sónar Reykjavík
Hermigervill. Photo: Sverrir Rolf Sander.

I made the mistake of looking at the schedule for the weekend. The scheduling this year is, frankly, a disaster. With Saturday being the worst, where five of the biggest international names are competing for our love simultaneously. Thereby fragmenting a crowd which was likely to want to catch all four.

But sometimes this can’t be avoided for reasons that I’m not privy to. But the most egregious error in judgment is the mistake in atmosphere of each stage. Electronic music is all about rhythm, texture and the ebb-and-flow of build-ups and drops. It’s about how you withhold the beat and release it, how you build a pattern and then break it up intelligently, it’s about making an emotional rollercoaster without resorting to lyrics. So I am going to hold the schedulers of an electronic music festival to greater scrutiny in this regard.  I am quite surprised at the hodge-podge of genres I saw sharing the same stage in seemingly no specific order.

The first mistake was to start the festival with a down-tempo Thursday night, I’d think the best thing for Sónar Reykjavík would be to either just stick to the two days (Friday, Saturday) and make it a two day rave OR throw in a third “come-down” party on Sunday where people can listen to ambient music and nurse their hangover and shrimp cocktails.

Ryuichi Sakamoto for all his wonderful qualities is not really the right way to set the tone for a festival being headlined by Major Lazer. There was a time where I had a great deal of appreciation for ambient and modern classical music of the sort Sakamoto and Taylor Deupree were serving up. I still listen to a wide variety of genres and I definitely lean towards the experimental.  But back when I was a teen I used to read The Wire religiously and zonk out to Sakamoto, Susumu Yokota, Brian Eno, John Cage and the rest. But I think my ability to detect or tolerate subtleties in music has diminished with age, similar to how my ability to detect certain frequencies is known to deteriorate with age. These days, whether it’s film, music, comedy or fashion—I tend to go for the overstated, maximal, chaotic and garish. At this point I doubt I’d pick up on a song being about love unless it had a singer literally belting out the word “love” at the top of their lungs. And I find myself laughing at fart jokes in a way that my overly-serious teenage self would find deeply worrying.

So part of why Sakamoto didn’t work for me could have been that I have personally drifted away from this style of music but I have a sneaking suspicion that it was actually really dull. When photographers are getting self-conscious about the sound of the shutter disturbing the performance then you might need to step it up. And the calmness of the set meant that the bass of the techno act downstairs started to seep in through the floor and created a strange, but not wholly uninteresting, contrast.

Introbeats, formerly of hip hop production but morphing steadily into one of the most gifted House producer in Iceland. A highly-experienced and talented DJ which delivered a rollicking house set.  Improved acoustics in bay view area meant that the sound wasn’t as diffused as before but Introbeats would have fared better in a darker, more claustrophic setting on a Friday or a Saturday night. However, he was helped by a responsive crowd where some had clearly dipped into their weekend pharmaceutical reserve early. DJ Yamaho (aka Natalie) joined him on vocals for 'Release Me'—a great little old school soulful house jam.

HE, at his best, reminded me of a late period Scott Walker—a his worst he sounded like a bargain bin Sting. The atmosphere was operatic at best—like an amateur theatre troupe staging of Jesus Christ Superstar at its worst. The backdrop was beautifully done but combined with Högni Egilsson’s larger-than-life character it frequently veered towards the melodramatic and, well, messianic. The songs had moments of character and honesty but the overall picture was a shambles. HE needs more time to work on the material and an editor to pare it down.  Finally, for a solo performance over what was mostly playback (aside from occasional piano flourishes) I’d expect a much tighter production.

Kiriyama family—formerly the teenage band Nilfisk which was famously brought on to open for Foo Fighters for their first live performance after Dave Grohl stumbled on them playing in a garage—took to the stage after Introbeats woke people’s house music thirst. And while I had a soft spot for Nilfisk, I can’t say it extends to Kiriyama. It’s nuts-and-bolts 80s synth pop rock and poor fit for the festival. And why they let the precious mood they had managed to build up die down like this is anyone’s guess.

Back to the Silfurberg stage where HE had wrapped up and the baton had been passed to Eloq and his variety of hard EDM bass music.

The sound system handled his assault admirably and there were moments that really got the pale rumps twitching. Personally I’ve missed walking right up to the speakers and hear bass music the way it was supposed to be heard—in the gut.

The downside to the performance was the stage persona of Eloq. The intermittent banter was insufferable and transitions and backdrop was gauche in the extreme. This kind of banter belongs on a Blackpool carnival ride or David Guetta. Not at Sónar.

The night concluded with Hermigervill. He started off by showing off some impressive Theramine skills and during the set it was a delight to see a retronaut like him twiddling out sounds from 30-year-old synthesizers. The sound belongs to the 80s and he makes no apologies for it (think Dead or Alive meets library music). The performance was thoroughly enjoyable despite a small turnout (most of the people were upstairs watching GusGus). He played mostly new songs and the overall feeling was still whimsical, fun, oddball dance music.

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