The world's most famous electronic music festival turns 26 with standout sets from Four Tet, Holly Herndon and DJ Krush.
As usual, much of this year's most-forward thinking music was heard at Sónar By Day, where artists like Holly Herndon, Lotic and Lorenzo Senni brought concepts to focussed dance floors. But Sónar By Day also hosted plenty of lighthearted acts, from DJ Krush's bass-heavy hip-hop and dubstep through to Perel's '80s-tinged new wave. Punters could also pop into Sónar+D, a sprawling, multi-level gathering for business and creative technologies (highlights this year included musical plants and a VR trip to the moon).
Then there was Sónar By Night, again taking over Fira Gran Via, a cavernous space that played host to reggaeton superstars, house and techno titans and a range of exciting experimental acts, plus plenty more besides. No other electronic music festival mixes sounds and scenes like Sónar.
Here are five key performances from across the weekend.
Holly Herndon: PROTO
PROTO, the latest album from Holly Herndon, blended AI with the human voice, raising questions about the relationship between human and machine. Bringing PROTO to the stage for a Friday evening performance at Sónar By Day, she put those questions into context. An ambitious project that paired singers and collaborators with the AI she developed for the album, the one-hour performance felt more like experimental theatre than a concert, hard to interpret but interesting to unpack when it was over.
Best of all were the sections that resembled Appalachian Sacred Harp singing, a type of choral music not unlike the stuff explored on PROTO, parts of which were inspired by Herndon's musical training as a choir singer in East Tennessee. "I don't want to live in a world in which humans are automated off stage," Herndon has said about PROTO. Her performance was puzzling, but the narrative made it human.
The ubiquity of CDJs means we don't often see artists spinning tunes from a laptop, so watching DJ Krush scratching with two red Serato discs at Sónar By Day on Friday brought on a nice bout of nostalgia. The tunes, which ranged from hip-hop to proto-dubstep, were blended with a veteran's touch, as Krush moved between styles so smoothly that it was impossible to tell the seams. Sometimes the transitions were scratched, sometimes they were blended over a few bars. He played mostly bass-heavy instrumentals, but every now and then a hip-hop vocal—there was at least one Spanish-language tune that he appeared to rap along to—would liven the crowd. Two decades ago, DJ Krush's sound would've been cutting-edge. Though that might not be the case anymore, his set still reinforced the power of the art of DJing.
A focus on forward-thinking music is a big reason why Sónar By Day is so good. But there's also something great about seeing a club act pushing well-executed retro sounds. Perel, a German artist who makes a hypnotic blend of new wave and synth-pop, played one of the weekend's best live sets early on Saturday evening. The song-like structures of her recorded tracks were replaced by the rolling chug of house, the groove only letting up for short moments. She filled the occasional breakdowns with her own vocals, yet another layer complementing the dense synth instrumentation moving underneath. And while the gently swinging beats were simple, there was always plenty happening above, as arpeggios and zapping tones swerved around. The crowd steadily grew throughout the one-hour set, testament to Perel's allure.
Kieran Hebden, performing his only Spanish show of the year, called a media blackout for his no-lights, live/DJ hybrid set at SonarPub on Friday. The space was plunged into darkness, making photography next to impossible. Opening with his own "Planet" and the massive "Only Human," he held a hollering crowd with a vice-like grip for 90 minutes. Basslines sounded turbo-charged on the stage's impeccable soundsystem. His remix of Bicep's "Opal" and KMA Production's UK garage classic "Cape Fear" drew huge reactions. He closed with "Teenage Birdsong" and his most recent single, "Dreamer," before leaving the stage. He was immediately replaced by DJ Koze, who, after a couple tracks, dropped "Only Human," once again sending the crowd completely wild.
Bad Bunny, real name Benito Antonio Martinez Ocasio, has been surfing the phenomenal global success of Spanish-language trap, reggaeton and dembow in recent years, joining Ozuna and J Balvin as one of the world's most-streamed artists. For many, his presence at Sónar represented a pop star encroaching on a space that wasn't his, but Ocasio has a genuinely transgressive quality. Frequently appearing in videos with painted nails and wearing dresses, he's tentatively pushing the boundaries of gender expression in a culture long constrained by toxic masculinity. He has also used his platform to speak out about the turbulent political climate in his native Puerto Rico.
Wearing a bizarre beekeeper-style hood that obscured his face, Ocasio bounded onstage with scant regard for the evening's 82 percent humidity, launching straight into "Ni Bien Ni Mal" from last December's X 100pre LP. For the next hour, SonarClub was treated to the full spectrum of his sound, his inimitable baritone sounding as good on booming trap 808s as on the catchy summer jam "Sensualidad." The crowd lapped it up, revelling in Ocasio's continued call and response games and the pyrotechnics that lit up the show. But despite his stylistic dexterity, there were elements of the performance that left a sour taste. While reggaeton's problems with misogyny are nothing new, it was still jarring to see objectified dancers and frequently hyper-sexualised imagery forming the backdrop to Ocasio's set, particularly given the progressive values that defined many of Sónar's best artists.
We've compiled YouTube and Spotify playlists with some of our favourite tracks from Sónar 2019. Check them out here.