Rounding the corner from Michigan Ave into Millennium Park, I heard rumblings akin to a sonic apocalypse. Catalonian post-rock band Bradien was blasting out the final notes of its set for Sónar Chicago, and my initial thoughts were No one told me Aphex Twin was performing, and when is the spaceship going to arrive, soak the Pritzker Pavilion in radiant blue light and beam us all up to the cosmos? Something unusual was afoot in Millennium Park.
Such is the atmosphere that makes Sónar something special. The Spanish music festival has been integral to the furtherance of electronic music internationally, so the launching of a Chicago edition has been much buzzed about since its announcement earlier this summer. And it’s promising to be worthy of the attention. Artists as varied as post-dubstepper Appleblim and ambient sound sculpture artist Lesley Flanigan make appearances over the festival’s three days. Despite the excitement around the Chicago edition, we could have used a few more people filling the seats and the lawn at Pritzker as the fest kicked off yesterday.
photo by Dave Knapick
Attendance aside, those that did venture out were treated to some of the most progressive sounds Chicago has seen in one place at one time. Taking the stage after Bradien, glitchy Detroit wave-maker Jimmy Edgar ramped the soundsystem up to such a degree that I was immediately concerned for my eardrums. Thankfully his sonic onslaught quickly settled into his sexed-up sonic sleaze and the volume settled to a more reasonable level. Performing with a pared down live PA set-up, Edgar loaded the front end of his set with songs from his latest LP, XXX, before branching out to the jittery and bugged out concoctions he’s most known for from his days with Warp Records.
photo by Dave Knapick
Next up was Canadian turntablist Kid Koala’s new pet project, The Slew. I thought long and hard during their set about the best way to describe their sound, and I’ve settled on turntabadelia. How else could I capture the mix of stadium-sized ’70s psych rock, audience noise, repurposed vocal wailings, punk basslines and trip-hop breaks? I’ll leave that open to commentary. Regardless, Koala, fellow turntable-rocker P-Love and the ex-rhythm section of Aussie band Wolfmother took us on an unusual trip. The DJs were clearly the main event, cutting up guitar solos and doing tag team juggling of vocal snippets. All the while the bass and drums reinforced what was undeniably a rock vibe seen through the lens of a DJ. It’s most endearing quality was how much fun the players clearly were having. Once done with a particular sample, Kid Koala would simply toss the record to the side like a frisbee and head right back into scratches of applause. When he wasn’t behind the decks, he was running around the stage all smiles. At one point, samples had been dug up to introduce each band member and give a shout out to Chicago. The entire announcement was done on the turntables, which had the audience eating right out of the Slew’s hands thereafter. To finish things off in proper rock star fashion, the band upended just about everything on stage save the drum set, going out in a blaze of distortion, record backspins and drum fills.
I was a touch concerned as The Slew’s equipment was wheeled off stage and replaced with a DJ rig highlighted by a solitary white spotlight. Coming off such a dynamic performance I wondered if the night’s headliner, D.C.-based tech-step DJ Martyn, would be able to hold the audience’s attention. Clearly this was not a concern. Within his first five minutes he had the majority of the crowd in the seating bowl out of its chairs and crowded down around the front of the stage.
photo by Dave Knapick
He’s not the talkative sort, leaving the music to speak its mind, and the set ended up all the better for it. The instant Martyn appeared on the scene back in 2005, he made it clear that, if you could even call his music dubstep, it was coming from a very different place than that of the artists dominating from the U.K. Mixing minimal techno, garage (the British dance variety, not the rock alternative) and even a touch of new wave melancholy, Martyn isn’t so much bridging a gap between these genres as he is dismantling the bridge entirely and building a musical structure all his own. Today I’ve even had a friendly debate about whether or not he played a single dubstep record. While I’ll go on the record as saying he played quite a bit, it’s not the brash bass and breaks stuff most of us are used to. Instead his set was deep, minimal, impeccably mixed and peppered with a handful of techno and house classics to keep everyone on their toes (although I wonder if that had more to do with how hyped everyone was just to be there hearing him).
If the attendance on the opening day of Sónar Chicago portended that Chicago wasn’t ready for a musical showcase as heady as this Spanish fest, Friday proved the premonition to be blind suspicion. As one performance after another at the Chicago Cultural Center was relegated to standing room only (and counting in the pure insanity at Smart Bar on Friday night), it seemed that Chicagoans had risen to the occasion to turn out en masse to take in every last blip, click and bass whoof.
Settling in to listen to Appleblim’s keynote address Friday afternoon, I couldn’t help but text a friend in London to let him know that Chicago was finally giving electronic music due respect. Sure most of the people attending were more keen to hear the music than listen to a conversation about it, but Laurie Osborne a.k.a. Appleblim commanded a modest crowd none the less as he waxed about the burgeoning movements in bass and the other funky permutations that have grown out of the garage, dubstep and house scenes in the U.K. A key player pushing these new developments in sound, he was the perfect choice to lead the talk. Whether working solo or with fellow visionaries like Shackleton or Komonazmuk, Osborne and his label, Apple Pips, are taking bass music sounds and twisting them into fantastically fresh new creations, many of which journalists (like me) haven’t had enough time to attempt to label. In his mind I’m sure this is for the best, so I won’t try to christen any new genres here.
Cruising upstairs to the Claudia Cassidy Theater there was already a queue of eager heads hoping to get front row seats for L.A. sonic innovator Nosaj Thing (think “no such thing” and you’ve got the pronunciation down). The Los Angeleno comes from a long line of producers like Daedelus, Flying Lotus, Madlib and others that have made it their personal musical goal to break the hip-hop mold. Combining glitch, dubstep, and Timbaland-style boom-bap freakouts, Nosaj Thing is in the vanguard of avant garde beats and his reputation has clearly made it’s way here. That theater filled to capacity in under 15 minutes, leaving stragglers to gather in an overflow room to watch his set on TV. On it’s own, Nosaj Thing’s performance isn’t much to look at, but his visual collaborator Julia Tsao of experimental visual design team Fair Enough more than made up for it. With the drop of the first note, the floor-to-ceiling screen on stage exploded with dancing squares, triangles, undulating blobs and stars (the ones in space) first in black and white and then slowly graduating to color, as the soundtrack meandered through Nosaj’s catalog. His was probably the most engaging performance I saw either day.
From Nosaj Thing the crowd migrated to the Preston Bradley Hall and took their places under the priceless Tiffany Dome. Sitting amidst such breathtaking scenery only added to the allure of the night’s final performance, that of Berlin experimental techno producer Oval. His music was the most challenging of any of the artists up to this point—too much for even me to sit through his entire set—but the jazz drums, distorted guitar plucks and other glitchy sound scenery bubbling out of the Void Sound system that Sónar imported from Detroit was undeniably impressive. At points the bass vibrations were such that I couldn’t help but look up, half expecting small cracks to be forming in the stained glass overhead.
Fast-forward six-hours. The party gods were with me this day, and after a DJ set of my own, I found myself descending the stairs to Smart Bar for the Sónar by Night after-party. Turns out I was walking straight into utter mayhem. The place was jammed wall-to-wall and not one person was standing still. As the lights flashed around the bar, I could make out a spilt alcohol sheen that seemed to be seeping across every surface. I was probably the most sober person in the room. Couples jacked in the aisles while others cozied up behind speakers to make out. But most, coupled up or not, were front and center on the dance floor for Appleblim’s headlining DJ set. My day had come full circle, and hearing the sounds Osborne spoke of earlier first hand sent me home with my mind (and eardrums) blown. I can’t remember the last time I saw Smart Bar this hype. At least 30 people hung on well after the lights came up and Appleblim wasn’t going to disappoint them, he kept the records spinning until the absolute last moment. And once silence prevailed, many of his fans lined up to ask about songs played and get his autograph, (I couldn’t believe this last bit either).
Talking with a friend close to the organization of the festival, I found out that the original scope for Sónar Chicago was much greater than its reality. Unfortunately a heavy summer tour season that included DEMF, Pitchfork, Lollapalooza and North Coast threw many a wrench into booking the artists that Sónar originally set out to lock down. The intention was to do two nights of all building events at Metro and Smart Bar in addition to the daytime and evening performances at the Cultural Center. (Fantasies of bills that included LCD Soundsystem, the Chemical Brothers and other big name acts that headlined Sónar Barcelona this summer fluttered around in my head). Seeing the ground swell of support and enthusiasm (drunken or not) of the people who flooded this year’s inaugural run, I can only hope that the brains behind the fest get a jump on things for next year and realize the full potential of their vision in 2011.