Sónar 2018: Five key performances

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  • It's hard to believe that an electronic music festival still manages to draw more people with each edition after 25 years. That is even more impressive when you consider its emphasis on cutting-edge music, the definition of which seems to change every year. But that's Sónar, a massive event that you could safely say is the most important electronic music festival in the world. This year, the Barcelona giant reached a new milestone, hosting more than 126,000 people from 119 countries, the audience roughly split between local and international guests. It's easy to see why Sónar continues to attract young, music-obsessed crowds every year. Its combination of world-class production and a lineup that presents forward-thinking experimentalists alongside revered veterans is unbeatable. For many attendees, it's the most powerful festival experience they will ever have. Here are five key performances from this year's edition.
    Despacio "The best sound is in the middle of the room," said James Murphy, his mildly annoyed American twang ringing out across the room. "Not in front of the DJ booth. No one needs pictures of three middle-aged DJs." Murphy was looking over a crowd spread across a near pitch-black space surrounded by massive speaker stacks. For the next few hours, he'd be playing records with 2ManyDJs as part of Despacio. The concept? A dark room, a fat soundsystem and crates of vinyl records played no faster than 112 BPM. Hosting a club night within a festival, the trio moved through slo-mo disco, acoustic guitar jams and krautrock. Sometimes they would beatmatch, other times there would be silence between the tracks. This was a retro-themed highlight at an event stacked with cutting-edge music.
    Kampire Flanked by two friends, Kampire played the biggest slot of her career on Friday afternoon at the sunny SonarVillage stage. As part of the collective behind Nyege Nyege Tapes, an exciting label pushing sounds from across East Africa, Kampire is driving forward electronic music in her home scene. She represented with percussive house and disco, played off CDJs while her friends danced—and live-streamed her set using their phones—alongside her. The daytime slot suited Kampire's sound perfectly, as an energised crowd swayed to her shuffling beats and disco licks. As her set showed, whether dancing in Kampala or some European capital, no crowd can resist a killer rhythm or catchy vocal.
    DJ Harvey For six hours on Saturday night, DJ Harvey turned SonarCar into a nightclub. Playing one of the festival's longest slots, the veteran kept it smooth and steady, blending tribal-tinged house tracks with sun-kissed Balearic. Where many festival DJ sets are about high-impact bangers mixed in quick succession, Harvey let the tracks play out, mixing them with smooth transitions and a steady hand. This created a relaxed vibe in the crowd, so instead of everyone facing the front of the stage, friends huddled around in groups, dancing with their backs to the DJ. The closest Sónar came to a sunset beach party, Harvey's six-hour slot was a masterclass in restrained festival DJing.
    Octo Octa Octo Octa's vibrant house tracks hit hard, but they don't have obvious big-room appeal. Rather than booming kicks, rumbling basslines or epic chords, which are usually the kind of things that keep festival crowds going, they're based around lush, jazzy synth melodies. As it turns out, those are the sounds that can win over a packed dance floor at Sónar, uniting thousands of people with bleeps, zapping acid lines and the occasional breakdown. Playing live with tunes from her catalogue, the mood shifted often, channeling summer with tracks like "Fleeting Moments Of Freedom (Wooo)" while regularly dipping into more chaotic sounds. This set showed that a melodic touch can also dazzle at big moments.
    Ben Klock & DJ Nobu About one-third of the way through his first back-to-back set with Ben Klock, DJ Nobu pulled off the craftiest transition I heard all weekend. Following a driving, vocal-laced tune from Klock, "All This Was Fire" by Héctor Oaks, Nobu cued up Regis's "Purification," a percussive '90s techno track with a looped vocal snippet. The vocals synced perfectly, the intensity building as Nobu brought the fader up. At the transition's climax, Klock raised his hands and the crowd screamed, responding to the power of a great selection and a well-timed mix. The rest of the set was full of similar moments, reflecting both DJs' decades of combined experience. Where Nobu favoured more subtle, loopier tracks, Klock's understanding of big-time situations shone through, the Berghain DJ unafraid to reach for the filter or cue up a tune with a massive bassline to reenergise the crowd.
    Photo credit / Ariel Martini for Sónar - Lead, DJ Harvey Nerea Coll for Sónar - Despacio, Fernando Schlaepfer for Sónar - Kampire, Diplo, Kode9, Laurent Garnier, Little Simz Alba Ruperez - Octo Octa, Ben Klock & DJ Nobu, Jeremy Underground & MCDE Nash Does Work - Absolute Terror