Sonar has been hosting an Icelandic edition every year since 2013, and while the bitingly-cold capital of Reykjavik may seem as far as you can get from the sunny Mediterranean climes of Barcelona, Sonar’s presence in the city makes perfect sense.
Clichéd as it may be, Iceland really does seem to have an inclination towards the eccentric when it comes to music, and Sonar’s remit of offering the best in cutting-edge, leftfield electronica seems to fit perfectly with the appetites of the country’s music fans. Taking place in the city’s Harpa Music Hall (think a more modern version of London’s Barbican Centre) the action is split across five rooms of the palatial, multi-level concert hall.
With the music only going on 'til 1am on day one, Thursday acts as something of a warm-up. But that doesn’t mean the crowd isn’t intent on going for it. First we head down to the car park-come-rave den, Sonar Lab, where the Black Madonna is holding sway. The Chicago DJ has risen from local resident with a cult following, to a name that seems to crop up on almost every festival bill in the last 12 months, and it’s not particularly difficult to see why. Firstly, her track selection’s great, with her ability to flip between well-worn classics and eccentric oddities seamlessly, meaning her sets are always fun and unpredictable. And secondly, she looks like she’s really enjoying herself. And we all know fun is infectious, and, to be honest, much-needed when you’re in a basement car park with an unwelcome arctic wind whipping round you. While the SonarLab’s car park setting is the event’s solid attempt at bringing a down and dirty feel to an incredibly plush feeling venue, the SonarPub two floors up offers a more lighthearted and relaxed approach to clubbing. Nestled in a corner of the building, under the sky-high ceiling of the Harpa, mainly local Icelandic DJs spin on-point house all weekend, while punters flip between dancing and tackling each other on the foosball tables at the back of the room.
Thursday finishes up for us in the seated Sonar Complex where rapper Zebra Katz has an over-capacity room eating out of the palm of his hands. Weirdly, throughout the weekend the Sonar Complex offers up some of the most intense and excitable sets. While usually the formality of a seated venue can stifle the atmosphere, at Sonar it seems to add to things, with the initially seated crowd often making trepidatious steps to the front midway through sets, with things building to a raucous crescendo of dancing. In the case of Zebra Katz, the crowd are literally holding him aloft by the time he finishes on the sparse and pummelling ‘Ima Read’.
One of the benefits of partying in a country like Iceland, is that you can escape into the breathtaking countryside in the day, rather than lingering around town desperately trying to shift your hangover. And after visiting the stunning Selijalandsfoss waterfall in the day, we’re back at Harpa on Friday night to sample local culture of a decidedly different kind. The cheekily named Vaginaboys are a Reyjkavik crew whose white hoodies and face masks make them look a bit like a Blazin’ Squad splinter group out for a nights trick or treating. And as you might have gathered from the name, you get the sense that they don’t take themselves all that seriously. Their sweeter than sherbert melodies and vocoder vocals, (a little reminiscent of the PC Music roster) may be an acquired taste, but acts as an antidote to some of the more pensive music on offer at Sonar. They even elicit a few singalong moments from their dedicated local following.
Over in the larger Sonar Hall room, Floating Points’ ensemble offers an enrapturing performance drawing largely from his debut full-length album ‘Elaenia’, while back in the Sonar Complex Mumdance matches Zebra Katz ability to have almost the entirety of the seated audience on their feet within 10 minutes.
One of the bones the local crowd seemed to have to pick with the festival this year was the lack of a genuine huge headliner after the likes of Major Lazer and Skrillex played the festival in previous years. The closest to a star turn is Hudson Mohawke’s Saturday night set, and while maybe he doesn’t have quite the pull of a Skrillex or Diplo, his well oiled live show is a bit of a masterclass in raising an audiences adrenaline levels with the likes of ‘Bugg’n’, ‘Higher Ground’ and ‘Chimes’ all being certified stone cold bangers. Faring less well in the same room is Annie Mac. While her selection of UK house and bass music is solid enough, you realise so much of her appeal lies in the reciprocal nature of her relationship with a UK audience who hold her in high regard and without that, things seem to fall a little flat.
Over 20 years after throwing their very first event, Sonar Reykjavik proves that when it comes to programming a bill of wide ranging and forward thinking electronic music, few do it as well as the Sonar crew.