Festival Frolics: Sónar 2011.

From handshake drugs and endless Estrella Damm on La Rambla to further lawless debauchery at Razzmatazz, a slew of Gaudí strewn across its sprawling centre all atop a blissfully blithe attitude, Barcelona is the city of dreams, if your dreams are relatively raunchy and meritorious of a selection of BBFC restrictive classification stickers. A city so inherently diverse of course needs a focal point for its excessive energy and excitement, and the multi-faceted multi-sensory overload that the quite simply exceptional Sónar has seemingly become constitutes an integral part of the shady counterculture of El Raval Barrio and beyond...

Sanitised professionalism and sordidness evidently aren't quite as starkly contrasting as they may seem to the uninitiated Brit, as all formal reservations are convulsed and contorted beyond recognition before Chazwick Bundick swings into sultry funk action at Thursday's Sónar de Día. The salubrious internal/external surrounds of both the Centre de Cultura Contemporànea and the Museu d'Art Contemporani are a far cry from gunky once-verdant pastures, as Mojitos in plastic cups are clinked to the Hot Chip by way of Controversy-era Prince guitar chink slink of Toro Y Moi. Still Sound is apt summertime slump, as skin begins to peel in the sweltering mugginess of the city centre.
Floating Points, aka Sam Shepherd, then takes to the shaded decks beside the courtyard-engulfing SónarVillage stage to deliver a vibrant hour of spring-heeled, periodically tropical disco, dropping Love Me Like This to hysteria similar to a gallon of blood in the shark pool. Again, the juxtaposition of sounds so cutting-edge they practically sear ears and a particularly picturesque Barcelonan backdrop creates an atmosphere equal parts eclectic and electric. However hysterics dwindle, as all and sundry gravitate towards the vortex of hype that hurtles about Nicolas Jaar in our current musical microclimate. The New York-via-Chile wunderkind packs out the subterraneous SónarHall with a haunting live interpretation of his ethereal yet organic back catalogue, as queues snaking halfway to L'Hospitalet form overground. Submerged in shadow, Jaar is every bit the understated, undervalued prodigy many have now come to recognise him as, Colomb bolstered by cymbals bursting with clarity and seductive guitar lines. L'instrument du jour, the saxophone, is later reared, before a quite superlative rework of Wouh works up veritable frenzy amidst the perspiration-stained. Yukimi Nagano of Little Dragon, meanwhile, somehow remains moistureless throughout an hour-long romp centred heavily upon new material from forthcoming LP Ritual Union. Cocooned in what looks like a piece of rudimentary '80s videogame, she's an incontrovertibly alluring, highly mesmeric frontwoman as she clatters away on woodblocks and a customised kaleidoscopic drum pad. Machine Dreams opener A New epitomises the Swedes' ability to conjure chameleonic wonk pop as beards bluster and drummer Erik Bodin sweats out a sea, particularly to the hypnotic Little Man.
Equally majestic on paper/record is Tyondai Braxton. Once of Battles, his avant-garde experimentalism is as effervescent as it is unnerving, 2009's Central Market something of an anonymous opus. However live, sat cross legged on a sci-fi perch and encircled by myriad pedals and triggers, mess and melée supersede creativity and the Mirrored man is intermittently unlistenable, occasionally insufferable. Devoid of orchestral accompaniment, much of Braxton's material is left wanting, and the overriding impression is that you're left gazing at an art installation centred upon a concept that's all but unintelligible, merely documenting one man's descent into madness to the soundtrack of abrasion in surround sound. The result? A packed out SónarHall being almost entirely evacuated. Leyendecker in place of claustrophobic, crazed loops would presumably have been preferable.
The beginning moments of Friday too are doused in disappointment, as oOoOO, recently on the verge of pulling the entire European tour following a rather lacklustre showing at London watering hole The Old Blue Last, delivers a highly generic witch house set barely audible atop the incessant multilingual chattering of the disinterested, whilst the disingenuous falsetto and oversized vest combo renders the prospect of How To Dress Well equally disengaging.
It's the perpetually humble, if hugely inspirational figure of Kieran Hebden however that offsets creeping tedium, as he tweaks his Four Tet song choice schedule to reflect the Balearic vibes and humid climes of Barça. Like unravelling origami, it's a set that becomes increasingly expansive and as it crescendoes, we're ushered welcomingly into an aural portrait comprised of subtle tones and intermittently hefty rhythms, There Is Love In You off-kilter enough to hang crookedly in many a revered Montjuic gallery.
If Sónar de Día is hot, Sónar de Noche is heavy, thus it's somewhat disarming to stumble into SónarClub and to be greeted with the weary vocals and outrageously '80s sounds of The Human League. A little like Roxy Music twelve months previously, the Sheffield synth pop pioneers aren't perhaps the most foreseeable booking, but a racy The Sound Of The Crowd and a predictably raucous Don't You Want Me Baby elevate the trio just about beyond parody. The Lebanon, backed by martial video footage, lacks edge, its monumental guitars lost in a bass-orientated mix, whilst Philip Oakey's binliner/hood combo, twinned with his aloof stage demeanour isn't altogether awe-inspiring although somehow, somewhere, there's enough to ensure they remain vaguely relevant in this day and age of fads, fazes and mutated musical commercialism. Anders Trentemøller's set over in SónarPub meanwhile is entirely captivating for an intense hour of strobe and electronic strife: devastating lights and an elaborate stage set-up revolving around slatted cord banishing inactive band members from view aid in transforming Trentemøller into Friday night highlight, as guitars clatter and dip to opener The Mash And The Fury. A brooding portentousness is invoked by the segueing Shades Of Marble, before the minimal balladry of ...Even Though You're With Another Girl permeates like a subduing spanner in the Catalan cogs that churn out the city's extensive hedonism year in, year out. Swoonsome croon is then exchanged for the rampant bass onslaught of Vamp, and you could quite conceivably be rollocking it out at Sonisphere as Anders scowls and shrieks in a Bauhaus t-shirt like a professed professor centre stage, the centrifugal force of all things Trentemøller. Eclecticism once again here defines the Sónar experience.
Whilst M.I.A. too ought to provide a similarly culturally universal SónarClub blowout, as she swaggers onstage to bound about relentlessly for an hour-plus her political diatribe comes across like particularly squelchy Worthy Farm mud laced with unidentifiable objects as the likes of Paper Planes, Boyz and Bucky Done Gun ooze awkwardly through the gargantuan speakers that line the ceiling. Twisted Krishna visuals, Arulpragasam's Gaga-esque bob and a gratuitous stage invasion ensure there's plenty to gaze at in hazy stupor, yet from atop her prime ministerial pedestal it's the music that's missing in action as her meticulously engineered, tinny warehouse aesthetic bizarrely doesn't translate to the warehouse setting. Steve Aoki meanwhile proves just how short an attention span he has under the stars and smog of SónarPub, crowd surfing and head banging unremittingly in place of spinning much vinyl. He drops Warp 1.7, the vast throng suitably loses it in synchronised accord, and then departs as he continues to trawl through Fatboy Slim records and the like. From Warp 1.7 to Warp Records stalwart Aphex Twin, if recent live shows may have been considered the proverbial two-finger salute to those in attendance, he's not fucking around in SónarClub as initial ambience is swiftly mangled into pure abrasion, dated visuals combining with mind-splintering lasers that hurtle towards a monstrous disco ball overhead, before shattering off into shards of ominous viridescence.

Saturday, as with Friday, commences with disgruntlement, as it's all but impossible for all those eager to experience Apparat Band to cram into the quite restrictive capacity of the SónarHall. Finally squeezing in for Actress, as he glares out from beneath a paddy hat, whilst the sounds he exudes are relatively entrancing a nicotine haze cultivated over the passing of several days transmutes the Hall into a less than pleasant haunt, thus the attraction of Sónar de Noche and the sensory offensive that Chris Cunningham is to provide becomes infinitely more overpowering. Here, grizzly remixes pound away to gruesome images of corporal mutilation and much of his visual portfolio, all to the throb of heady strobe.
Much ado has been made over Janelle Monáe, and her featuring on a largely electronic bill embosses quite tangibly the festival bookers' audacity, the paragon of a so-called Audacity Of Huge. Emerging cloaked and hooded as per, following a stereotypically grandiose introduction from an orator in a tuxedo, top hat and menacing grin, she rifles through a brief history of..., drawing almost exclusively from the seminal The ArchAndroid LP of yesteryear. Backed by The ArchOrchestra, her live show has evolved into increasingly arresting spectacle as enough to flesh out a football squad pile onstage for melodramatic closer Come Alive (The War of the Roses). Prior to all that however, she splatters sanguine red over a canvas before scrawling "LOVE" across it, augmenting the "love" already being felt for Sónar by the largely seething masses, and showers the front few rows of her relatively modest crowd in ticker tape as her perfectly coiffured quiff progressively goes totally haywire. A touching rendition of Charlie Chaplin's Smile, accompanied solely by her fiendishly talented guitarist and James Brown doppelgänger Kellindo Parker, is enough to shatter hearts and indent beaming expressions on multitudinous faces, providing respite from the persistent tap-dancing soulful funk stylings she's rejuvenated, spicked and spanned (Cold War, Tightrope, Faster etc. all astound).

If Monáe reenvisages the musical legacy of New Orleans however, Romford duo Underworld, joined by long-standing live accomplice Darren Price, recreate early '90s rave culture on the coast of the Med, the likes of Cowgirl and their latest electropop anthem Always Loved a Film inducing suitable pandemonium. Karl Hyde's still capable of snaking those hips behind a Les Paul with aplomb, his deadpan delivery increasingly redolent of Gahan's as an indubitably, if unsurprisingly climactic Born Slippy has every arm raised skywards. Thank the Lord for Sónar; best hope and pray Barcelona's repenting of the sins engendered by the overwhelming sleaze of La Rambla...