There are many contenders to the crown but only one king. When it comes to festivals, there's nothing else like Sonar — the Barcelona event that places electronic experimentalism and art on an equal footing with colossal stadium dance acts to stimulate minds and bodies alike.
Though it's now a global affair — Sonar hosting events everywhere from Iceland to Colombia, Sweden to Japan — the original is still the motherlode, and it's been at the vanguard of electronic music for over 20 years since its first event in 1994.
Split into two discrete incarnations, Sonar By Day (at Fira Montjuic) is a more relaxed vibe, with outdoor and indoor stages which feature the festival's leftfield and avant-garde acts performing in an open-minded, chilled environment, while Sonar By Night (at Fira Gran Via L'Hospitalet, a little further out from the centre),
set in a series of vast auditoriums the size of aircraft hangars, is custom-built for raving, and features the biggest — and coolest — acts in dance music, eschewing any EDM trash in favour of quality, while also featuring at least one huge heritage band (in the past that's included Madness, Pet Shop Boys, New Order) to mix it up and broaden the audience.
This year the line-up is typically immense, perhaps bigger than ever before. Birmingham's stadium synth pop behemoths Duran Duran top the bill alongside the excellent Chemical Brothers, zero-to-hero, former brostep man Skrillex (now every hipster's favourite), New York trap rap bawse A$AP Rocky and South Africa's oddball Die Antwoord, while the cream of house and techno represent, from Jamie Jones to Erol Alkan, Seth Troxler to Maya Jane Coles, Adam Beyer to Dubfire.
What makes Sonar stand out, though, its USP, is its dedication to the underground and to the arty, futuristic, different and fearless. In that spirit, we've picked out our own personal favourites from the line-up this year, the acts we think you should catch, as well as the more established juggernauts. Read on for our Sonar highlights...
This Colombian duo have made big noise at home and internationally with a sound that links up the Colombian native groove of champeta — itself a tropical dance flavour related to cumbia — with hip-hop and electronic beats.
Liliana Saumet spits lyrics while Simon Mejia holds down the synths, and their latest album, 2014's 'Elegancia Tropical' has thrust them into the limelight. Catch their sultry electro champeta live and judge for yourself.
Check one track: 'Fuego' (Nacional, 2009)
Carreno is LB
With a firm grasp of analogue funk and stripped-back, primitive electronic disco, Spanish producer Carreno is LB injects minimal, acid and plenty of personality into his productions for labels like Correspondant, Items & Things and Days of Being Wild. Fans of Daniel Avery, Red Axes and Matias Aguayo, thank us later.
Check one track: 'Sweet Blasphemy' (Items & Things, 2012)
An obvious choice? Perhaps. But Fly Lo's fierce individualism and tireless experimental drive epitomise Sonar to the core. Far from toning down his weirdness for mass appeal, Steven Ellison has actually journeyed further out, keeping his ethos intact while gaining ever greater audiences. His latest record 'You're Dead!' saw him sail forth into cosmic jazz waters, collaborating with brilliant MC Kendrick Lamar for one of the highlights. His live show is out of this world, so don't miss it!
Check one track: 'Never Catch Me' (Warp, 2014)
Apart they're two of the best producers on the planet. And from what we've heard so far, Jimmy Edgar and Machinedrum (Travis Stewart) are even greater than the sum of their parts when they merge together as JETS.
Though both have been on a 4/4 tip of late, JETS in all about their love of electro, bass and technicolor trap. From cyborg R&B to 808 bass workouts, their sound is exciting, and should come to life even more when they perform at Sonar.
Check one track: 'The Chant' (Ultramajic, 2015)
She's collaborated with UK bass cadets like Throwing Snow, but it's Romanian producer Alexandra Pirici's own work, with its icy electronic pop motifs and vocals (think The Knife or Iamiwhoami), that beguile most. Coming to prominence after a session at Red Bull Music Academy in New York in 2013, she's just getting started — catch her early and feel smug.
Check one track: 'Milagros' (Infinite Expansion, 2014)
For a country of only 329,100 people, Iceland sure produces a lot of wicked music. Kiasmos is just one of the latest names to emerge from the nation. From the increasingly popular Erased Tapes stable, home to Nils Frahm among others, theirs is a synth-heavy sound indebted to modern classical, bass music and techno, but reminiscent of the awe-inspiring wonder of natural phenomena — the cracking of glaciers, wind whistling through canyons — wrapped up in state-of-the-art electronic production. Think Jon Hopkins and you're in the ballpark.
Check one track: 'Burnt' (Erased Tapes, 2014)
Seville's own Lost Twin (Carlos Pinto) specialises in crackly, dusty, sample-based tracks. Tapping into sweeping ambience and beat science that nods at the work of J Dilla and the LA beats scene, while also doffing a cap to more 4/4-based experimentalists like Caribou, his is a heady psychotropic soup that would sound good in the sunshine after a few Estrella Damms. Lend an ear.
Check one track: 'Nothing' (Brownswood, 2012)
Mumdance & Novelist
Their tune '1 Sec' has to be one of the biggest bombs to drop in grime for some time. Equal parts precision beats and raw rhymes, it's an inspired match up between two of the genre's brightest hopes.
Mumdance is fresh from a Fabric mix, and is spearheading a new sound design-indebted mutation of the music that's captured the imagination of producers like collaborator Logos, Mr Mitch and Slackk, while Novelist has been hailed as part of a new wave of grime MCs, who've returned to the genre's underground roots. It should be an explosive and unmissable show.
Check one track: '1 Sec' (XL, 2014)
The third Spanish artist in our recommended acts is Pional, otherwise known as Madrid's Miguel Barros. Coming to prominence through his collabos with Barcelona's John Talabot, on a solo tip he's got a zonked-out kosmiche disco flavour all his own going on.
With a string of dope releases for Young Turks, Hivern Discs, Permanent Vacation and more, he's got a host of cool cuts up his sleeve, and he's on the cusp of getting big. Now's the time to discover him for yourself.
Check one track: 'Invisible/Amenaza' (Young Turks, 2013)
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