The festival notably attracted a much older, edgier crowd, complete with full body tattoos, unnatural hair colors, studs and painted faces, than one typically spots on or near the University Park Campus. The bass shaking the gothic windows and the cavernous auditorium for the event only added to the dark-in-every-way feeling.
The lineup featured five groups of similar genres — Nic Fanciulli, Paul Kalkbrenner, Die Antwoord, Azari & III and Seth Troxler. All are popular in their respective countries; the Sónar festival travels around the world spreading the unique sounds to places like Tokyo, Sao Paulo and Reykjavik, in addition to its American tour. The music was mostly in the veins of novelty hip-hop and electronic dance music crossover, organized such that the high-energy South African rap group, Die Antwoord, performed in the middle, preceded and followed by more traditional house music. Sónar Festival was one of the few that placed its headliner in the middle of its set list; though it helped rev up the energy for the early on, many attendees left after that performance.
Sónar seemed to be somewhat hastily set up; granted, they aren’t being funded by a massive music corporation, but the lack of a hard-copy set list and awkward pauses between sets made it seem a bit unprofessional. For example, the website indicated that the show began at 9 p.m., but Nic Fanciulli began performing at 8:20 p.m. His beats, steady with a bassline typical of house music, provided a decent pump-up for the crowd that was already present and a nice background while people mingled, drank and settled into the concert.
Soon, Paul Kalkbrenner, a German DJ and actor, took his place and proceeded to amp up the crowd even more with his EDM sounds. His music featured electronic melodies over an ever-present thudding bassline, the subwoofers so intense that the bass could be felt in listeners’ hearts. The trippy visuals, almost like the iTunes visualizer, enhanced by the strobe lights and body-moving beats created a psychedelic vibe.
Kalkbrenner knew how to work the crowd, dancing while working on stage, lighting a few cigarettes and having fun with his listeners; it seemed he was out to create an experience for his listeners rather than make his set all about his performance. Still, his somewhat awkward transitions coupled with his set’s lack of musical cohesion weakened his portion of the festival.
After a 30-minute intermission, Die Antwoord finally entered the auditorium. The South African “rap-rave” group, comprising MCs Ninja and Yo-Landi in combination with DJ Hi-Tek, provided an almost outlandish hip-hop and rave crossover, which is part of the Zef counter-culture movement in their country. Their music is designed to be futuristic and shocking to audiences, and it certainly was.
The group made full use of the stage, moving to its music in an almost African dance, including signature hip thrusts. Highlights included its version of Mims’ “This Is Why I’m Hot,” “I Fink U Freeky,” and a closing performance of “Enter The Ninja,” a much more house-inspired track. Still, more enunciation could have improved an already strong performance.
The trio started strong in neon orange and surrounded by African images. The two vocalists unexpectedly complemented each other well despite Yo-Landi’s high-pitched chipmunk sound and Ninja’s growling raps. They maintained a high energy throughout their performance and were highly interactive with the crowd; Ninja crowd-surfed twice, gave Los Angeles a few shout-outs and conversed with the crowd, adding to the vibes reverberating across the high ceilings.
Die Antwoord is truly unique and novel in its edginess, in a way that is not over-the-top like Nicki Minaj or Rihanna; it has freshness, rawness and swag. Many popular rappers nowadays tend to have negative or harsh vibes to them, but Die Antwoord’s tracks, and the Zef movement in general, can evoke a positive, feel-good time, despite explicit lyrics.
Azari & III followed and moved the festival into a more electronic feel. The Canadian foursome essentially transcends all genres; the group’s wonderful variety and range of capabilities defies a definitive label. The set started with background bass covered by psychedelic strums and urgent rapping by the two vocalists, Fritz Helder and Starving Yet Full. The music, at first listen frenzied and disjointed, successfully and unexpectedly bridges the rock, rave and almost ritualistic African scenes.
Though the music was incredible, the performance wasn’t as entertaining. The group did not work the crowd as well as their preceding acts, possibly because their set felt more decidedly low-key with standing mics and little movement. The group’s hit “Manic” as well as its final songs, which contained more of a ’90s pop and Michael Jackson feel, were the most entertaining parts of its act.
Seth Troxler, the last act, provided the perfect end to the experience of the Sónar Festival; in most other cases, the highest energy performer should have gone last, but Troxler’s intensely futuristic house music was a good transition for coming down from the high of the previous acts. His deep, minimal house music gave off a more relaxed, trance vibe rather than that of raging dance music. Troxler himself, however, did not seem entirely excited to be performing; he lacked the energy necessary to fully engage the crowd.
Sónar serves as a refreshing music festival; it is one of the more personal and casual festivals out there due to the smaller venue and lesser-known artists. Instead of prioritizing attending a music festival, Sónar put the emphasis on the music, an idea that’s refreshing and welcome in today’s mainstream concert scene.