Sónar Festival (2018) Review


Upon entering Sónar, I immediately bolted towards Despacio. It had been just under a year since I’d seen a James Murphy live performance and I was itching for it. My itch was scratched as I approached. I walked up a long ramp with security and queues where lines would form later in the day. Luckily, this early in the day we were able to walk straight in and immediately towards that glorious disco ball. The chamber where it took place was a large warehouse with bathrooms, a bar, and a large black shape that melted into the dark warehouse around it. As we approached, we heard James Murphy’s voice echo from the chamber and instantly knew we were in the right place. To walk into the club we had to walk down a pitch black hallway so dark that we couldn’t see more than a foot in front or behind us. While some people took out flashlights to light the way, I wanted the experience as Murphy had designed it, so I struggled and felt my way through the passage.


The music slowly got louder and louder until I finally came upon a large octahedral room. Eight identical speaker decks with green LCD screens and orange lights lined the top, flashing on and off. The LCD screens were the only consistent form of light in the room with the lights on top flickering to the beats and lights on the ceiling illuminating paper mache planets which hung from the ceiling. The space was easily 100 meters across extremely dark and besides the occasional lighter on a cig or joint the room stayed practically pitch black throughout most of my initial hour inside. Along one wall there was a 5 foot tall divider separating the dance floor from despacio soundsystem. They (James Murphy and 2manyDJs) were in a little cove of sorts with easily 250 records in boxes behind them and 4 record players all spinning. James Murphy stood there stoic and deep in concentration working to make beautiful music. Whenever someone attempted to take a picture of him he would stick a hand up and attempt to hide and sometimes point to a sign in front of him with what appeared to be the closest thing to a motto that despacio has, “The party is behind you’ and on a neighboring sign, “Maybe Don’t take pictures, maybe don’t shoot a video, maybe just be here, just for today”. Throughout the show this truly felt like what Murphy had meant by this entire endeavor of his. He didn’t want praise he didn’t want recognition, he wanted to provide a party, a place for people to truly and finally dance themselves clean. The room was purposefully kept as dark as possible so as to eliminate any shred of embarrassment that would be felt by dancing how your heart told you to dance, it was truly a sanctuary for those who just wanted to let loose and it had been crafted masterfully for that exact purpose. Murphy stood up there (in his normal ensemble of gray/blue loose fitting shirt, jeans, and unshaven, unkempt hair and beard) combining all kinds of music from reggae to rock to psychedelic to soul but the most prominent sound was jazz. In any truly beautiful music there must be an element of jazz I believe, something about the randomness and spontaneity of it really held with Murphy’s goal of a place to truly dance yourself clean. All three dj’s would switch off record for record just crafting a minute or two of every era and genre in music history all blended beautifully with driving beats and soul. After an hour in the club, I was out of water and in need of some fresh air so I headed out.


Upon leaving I walked downstairs with the hopes of seeing a little bit of Sinjin Hawke who I had never heard but my brother told me was worth checking out. What followed was one of the coolest visual pieces I’ve ever seen at a show along with some of the most intense techno I’ve ever witnessed. I walked into a huge room easily 200 meters across by 500 meters long lightly packed with people all the way back, one of the most interesting things was just how much dancing room everyone gave, lots of people felt no need to push forward and were content just dancing hundreds of meters back so even though there was easily a thousand people in the room I just walked along the edge and found myself standing in the front row along the gate ten meters or less from Hawke. The visuals were very simple but at the same time very intriguing. They were made very simply by taking a video of the two dj’s with simple psychedelic filters placed over them that made them look like everything from quicksilver puddles bouncing to the beat to human forms that had been morphed almost past recognition by strange bubbles making certain parts of their body appear bigger and smaller. Though it wasn’t a very hard thing to create I’m sure, the effect it created along with flashing strobes and dancing lights truly made me feel like I was in a rave in a dark warehouse late at night, despite the fact it was just tolling 4:30 and still mid day. Sadly I ended up leaving this to head to Jenny Hval because I figured that was going to be a very unique performance, and I was extremely correct.


The first giveaway that this was going to be a unique experience was the venue, it took place in an auditorium where everyone filed in and took seats. No one stood, it was a sitting only show which was already very strange compared to the rest of the festival which was very obviously crafted for people who wanted to dance. On the stage there was just a black table with two laptops and some dj equipment and then there was also a large inflatable clam just lying open a couple feet away. I couldn’t recognize the first song they played but the presentation and build up of it felt very similar to a Nicholas Jaar performance. The trio  slowly added bits and pieces with haunting beats and cryptic glitch noises until they had a beautiful ominous song built which is when hval began singing. Hval had a very interesting stage presence, whenever she wasn’t crafting a song she felt very similar to Frankie cosmos or lorde with this awkward, shy, and sweet girl who was just happy to have anyone at all listening to her music let alone hundreds of people. But when she was crafting music she went into this strange trance where she would close her eyes and gaze at her shoes while hopping on one foot and dancing around the stage in a very childlike skipping fashion that just seemed truly freeing. Not long into this show there was a sort of exodus of people who either couldn’t see the beauty in Hval’s craft or just couldn’t sit still. These deserters were eagerly replaced by the people that were constantly streaming in. The second to last song they performed involved all three members sitting in the inflatable clam with a microphone and handheld noise makers which they slowly moved into and away from the mic to create what felt like a siren song, it almost felt like a call from the deep. The song only had three distinct noises but by using the space around the mic they would fade into and out of each other creating a literal soundscape that was transfixing. For their final song they played ‘Sleep’ from Hval’s new album and, being the most well known song they had played that had lots of heads bobbing to the beat and transfixed by her haunting ominous voice.


After finishing this performance I headed to a little chamber I had passed on my way to Hval which was advertised as sonar zero g. A band had gone into a zero gravity environment and learned about it and attempted to craft a 360 audio visual show that made the viewer feel as if they were in zero gravity. It was a small dome which fit maybe 20 people all lying on the ground with speakers mounted every 45 degrees in a dome completely surrounding them. Having a complete 360 degree sound system allowed the band to craft a truly unique experience where sounds would shoot around you at what felt like light speed followed quickly by lights flashing and noise echoing in and out. There truly were moments where I forgot my earthly body and felt as if I didn’t have any weight.


Soon after this Yaeji was set to go on and so I headed out to the main lawn where this was happening. Hundreds of people were crowded on this massive lawn many with a drink in their hand just dancing freely and openly, enjoying the weather and enjoying being in their friends company. For an hour and a half yaeji went on crafting songs in front of us with her usual drops in and out of heavy bass, minutes of light techno with her speaking over them in Japanese were broken up by 45 second long periods of intense driving beats that made everyone in the crowd instantly just break out into an intense dance. When she played ‘raingurl’ you could hear most of the crowd singing along and feeling the song. By the time Yaeji ended, Despacio had maybe an hour left so I went there to get my fill of James Murphy’s genius as I had no idea when I’d have the honor of being in his presence again, it may be years.


Again I walked in through the dark tunnel but now when I got there there was a definite mood shift in the environment. More lights were being kept on and now as the songs crescendoed into their driving beats, the lights would stay on for longer and the two foot radius disco ball in the middle of the room (which hadn’t been getting any use before) was being used fairly often to create a true wild club experience. Upon approaching the DJ booth there was also a shift in Murphy’s appearance and mood. He was visibly drunk at this point (I heard a worker speaking to another after the show had ended that the three DJ’s alone had gone through 4 bottles of wine within the 6 hour period) and you could tell as now whenever the music took off instead of standing there almost stoically like a doctor giving meds, he joined the crowd in dancing himself clean, truly letting loose in exactly the way that you would expect the self proclaimed ‘old accountant’ to dance. With no worries of judgement or any thought other than simply wanting to let loose and allow the music to take him over, he was the exact face of LCD and Despacio soundsystem that he wanted to portray. He wasn’t trying to be anything he wasn’t, he was enjoying the music the same as everyone else. He was proud of the experience he had crafted and he wasn’t hiding it, he was truly letting loose up there. For the last few songs when the bass dropped they let the disco ball spin freely completely lit up and you caught glimpse of a room that had been completely impossible to glimpse before and you saw a crowd of ragged tired looking people who couldn’t stop dancing for the life of them. They were happy to be there and much like at the one LCD performance I’d experienced prior I I felt a palpable feeling in the air that we were all in it together. Once the music had stopped and Murphy had left I found myself hugging random strangers and not really being sad but more so just being happy that I had been able to witness that moment in time. For that moment we had all been one, we had been a single being. And that, is the genius of James Murphy and the purpose behind both LCD and Despacio Soundsystem. To bring people together to forget about everything else in their life to just dance, to truly and infinitely let the music take over.

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