Sónar Chicago: A Rundown

Here’s a piece I wrote about Sónar Chicago, the first major American iteration of the well-established electronic music festival in Spain.

by Geeta Dayal

Sónar is now an institution in Barcelona, and one of the largest and most well-respected electronic music festivals in the world. Sonar Chicago, the first major attempt to introduce the Sónar brand to the United States, was a much smaller and less party-oriented festival than Sónar in Spain. While the Barcelona festival has featured many major acts over the years, such as Roxy Music, LCD Soundsystem, Plastikman, Orbital, and Goldfrapp, Sónar Chicago placed more of its emphasis on lesser-known, more experimental acts. (Sónar’s partner event in Chicago, the concurrent Adventures in Modern Music festival led by the venerable UK magazine The Wire, ventured even further into experimental territory.) Several of the artists at Sónar Chicago could have easily played at MUTEK in Montreal – some of them did, in fact, such as the Australian (by way of Iceland) musician Ben Frost. With the exception of a daytime talk by Ron Trent, the Chicago legend best known for heading Prescription Records, Chicago artists did not feature on the agenda.

Detroit, another nearby birthplace of electronic music, recently celebrated the tenth anniversary of its enormously successful Detroit Electronic Music Festival (Movement), but Chicago has nothing like it. The sites of former Chicago house music meccas — like the Warehouse, with its resident DJ Frankie Knuckles, and the Music Box, headed by the legendary late DJ Ron Hardy in the 1980s — are long gone; in their place are bright new condominiums and highrises. Many of Detroit’s legendary spots are gone now, too, but Detroit’s emptiness and crumbling ruins lend a certain cinematic quality, a sense of a faded, mysterious past; sites of famous techno parties, like the huge, lumbering Packard Plant, still lay empty and abandoned. Chicago, in contrast, is a much larger and wealthier city than Detroit, with a relentless capacity to build and rebuild.

Most of the major events at Sónar Chicago happened during the daytime, in the Chicago Cultural Center, a grand converted library packed with marble, stained glass, and intricate carvings. Instead of tens of thousands of people raving through the night, there were a few hundred people sitting in chairs in the Cultural Center, listening quietly to experimental electronic music by the likes of Oval and Ben Frost.

Sónar Chicago began outdoors last Thursday, in Pritzker Pavilion, part of Millennium Park, a huge outdoor park in downtown Chicago. The gigantic stage, poised underneath a swooping Frank Gehry-designed stainless steel trellis, works better for symphony orchestras and big rock shows than it does for electronic music. For one thing, there’s no space to dance, because the stage is encircled by rows upon rows of seats; people tried to dance to Martyn, but had to do so in the aisles. Of the three main acts at the Pritzker Pavilion that evening — Jimmy Edgar, The Slew featuring Kid Koala, and Martyn — Kid Koala’s group fared best in the outdoor venue, because they were structured like a rock band, with a live drummer and guitarist. The Detroit electro impresario Jimmy Edgar made a valiant attempt at a rocking live set, but he would have been much better off in a club. In this huge outdoor venue, with odd timing (he was slated for a one-hour set, at 6 in the evening), any vibe was lost.

The best performance that evening was Martyn, who ripped Pritzker Pavilion apart with a sound so eminently danceable that quibbles about outdoor venues (and cold weather) seemed irrelevant. Martyn, who started out as a drum and bass DJ in his native Eindhoven over a decade ago, is now one of the top names in the thriving international dubstep scene. While Martyn is often defined these days in terms of dubstep, his DJ set was far more than that; his wide-ranging musical taste encompasses every musical genre. With only a one-hour set, there was no time to build up or down; he had to go straight for the jugular, hitting peak after peak. He kicked things off with some old-school ‘80s freestyle — “Lookout Weekend” by Debbie Deb — before blazing through a set packed with mangled dubstep, hysterical house vocals, and buzzing rave stabs. There was an early ‘90s techno feel to his set here — not in the track choice, per se, but in the roiling mass of energy suffusing the set, the rawness and euphoria. Even though it was difficult to dance in the awkward outdoor venue, hundreds of people attempted to anyway; it was impossible to sit down in a chair and listen to this music. Martyn danced as well, ripping off his sweater at one point to reveal a Joy Division “Unknown Pleasures” t-shirt.

On Friday night, Sónar Chicago moved to a proper club: Smart Bar. The club is well-known for good bookings (every DJ from Berlin makes a stop here), and is large enough to house several hundred people while still maintaining a fairly intimate vibe. The bill was heavy with space-disco and Italo (Black Devil Disco Club, Space Dimension Controller), along with Bristol dubstep DJ Appleblim and Ghostly DJ Todd Osborn. By midnight, the venue was densely packed, with plenty of people on the dancefloor.

Space Dimension Controller — a.k.a. 20-year-old Jack Hamill from Belfast — is one of the hottest producers going at the moment. His ascent over the past year following the release of his first full-length album, Unidentified Flying Oscillator, along with a scattering of EPs and singles, has been tremendous; he’s now signed to the legendary (and recently resuscitated) label R&S. At Smart Bar, Hamill was first on the bill, jamming out a live set of funky outer-space disco on his laptop while dancing in his leopard-print Adidas jacket. It was a pity he was on so early in the night; the dancefloor was still filling during his set, which lasted an hour and began at 10 at night.

Hamill seemed extremely pleased to be on the same bill as Bernard Fevre, better known as half of Black Devil Disco Club, one of the most legendary and elusive underground disco producers of the late 1970s. The Parisian duo’s 1978 debut album of futuristic, minimal disco was reissued by Rephlex in 2004; up until then, very little was known about them. Fevre looked older and more distinguished than the rest of the people at the club; at his age, he could easily be Space Dimension Controller’s dad. Like many of the other performers, he had a laptop, but he also set up a microphone and a keyboard. It was a special thing –- something you don’t see much, in the age of ultra-professional Ableton Live sets, where everything flows into everything else as a continuous, computerized whole –- to see someone singing and playing keyboards inside a DJ booth. Fevre ran his vocals and keyboards through a number of quirky effects, pausing between each of his disco tracks to wait for people on the dancefloor to applaud –- an endearing style that reminded me of the legendary Loft disco DJ David Mancuso, a man who also stops between each track, waiting for people to clap and cheer, instead of mixing anything together.

The headliner of the night, Appleblim –- a UK dubstep producer and resident DJ at London’s FWD>> night, perhaps best known for running the short-lived but influential Skull Disco label with Shackleton –- played a strong set, but he and Todd Osborn were both hampered by the fact that the sets at Sonar Chicago were simply too short. In an ideal world, DJs like Martyn and Appleblim would have been permitted to play for several hours. The fact that each set at Sonar Chicago was restricted to an hour was one of the biggest stumbling blocks of the festival.

The biggest highlight of Sónar Chicago, and one of the most hotly anticipated performances of the weekend, was by the German musician Markus Popp, better known under the guise of Oval, a group he founded with Sebastian Oschatz and Frank Metzger in the early 1990s. Oval’s inventive interplay of blips, clicks, glitches, and fractured sounds — most famously from CD skips –- helped define the ethos of the influential electronic label Mille Plateaux in the 1990s. Popp has been mostly dormant since his ‘90s heyday, but has recently come back to the fore with a new album for Thrill Jockey under the Oval moniker, titled O.

What was most striking about the Oval performance was how mellow and melodic it was, a warm bath of ambient sound that brought to mind Fennesz at his most elegiac and romantic. Popp started with some plinks of piano, gradually building into a shower of sounds — some recognizable snippets of guitar here, string samples there -– but all the clicks ‘n cuts on display served a function, as compositional bricks in an intricate layer of percussion. There was a delicate quality to his meticulously conceived music, which leveled off into longer, more sustained tones by the end for a smooth, almost hymnal feel.

Ben Frost was another hotly anticipated act, and his set was practically the polar opposite of Oval’s soft romanticism. Frost appeared onstage barefoot with a guitar, laptop, and various effects boxes; his sound was dense and primal. A repeating keyboard motif was slowly overtaken with noise, which grew punishingly loud and intense, like a helicopter roaring menacingly overhead. Overdriven guitar was interspersed with grunting and heavy breathing –- a recording of a wolf, maybe, or a very big dog. A periodic crashing sound brought to mind the pounding of ocean waves during a terrible storm, of being caught in the undertow of a brutal sea. The ominous clanging of metal and howls in the distance added to the general horror-film-soundtrack vibe.

Several other performances at Sónar Chicago were memorable; of particular note was a performance by the Canadian duo La Chambre des Machines, who create electronic music by tinkering with quirky metal and wood boxes inspired by the Italian futurist Luigi Russolo’s concept of intonarumori. All in all, Sónar Chicago was an admirable start, but there is room for improvement. In future years, it should integrate itself more fully with the city, perhaps involving more local artists. Nighttime events should replace more of the daytime ones, DJ sets should be longer, and venues will need to be reconsidered.

3 thoughts on “Sónar Chicago: A Rundown

  1. Dana

    Love the summary of memorable performances. I completely agree, for an electronic festival to become as legendary as Sonar in Barcelona, it needs to interact with the built environment of the city in ways that connect it to the nocturnal party creatures, dubheads, trancers, ravers, grime-fiends, jerkers, twerkers, etc that thrive in particular urban spaces after dark.

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  2. greyhoos

    Tsk. I leave Chicago after an 18-year residency, and they finally host something like this. You’re right about the city not having a strong history of this sort of thing. Part of that is (I believe) because Chicago’s municipal licensing restrictions are so strict and the fees so steep that they cripple a lot of efforts to organize anything other than events that will guarantee a huge crowd/return. (Unlike Detroit and other neighboring cities in the midwest, where it’s far easier and cheaper). In the past couple of years, it seems like the local Dept of Cultural Affairs has stepped up, attempting to book a more diverse array of events at the Pritzker Pavilion. Wish I’d been there to see this.

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