Sunday, June 20, 2010

Night and day



So for those who have never been, what is Sonar By Night really like? Well, if you can imagine one of those massive aircraft-hangar-like exhibition halls where they hold car shows and the like, located in the 'burbs, filled with tens of thousands of wasted youth, with drink queues a mile long (first for your drink ticket and then the drink itself), bumper cars and food stalls, and a cheesy rave atmosphere.... well, there you have it. Except the quality of the music is always superior—straddling the cool end of current pop and EDM tastes as well as delving into the more experimental and obscure.

But like any festival, there is always too much time spent facing crowd crush to get between stages (luckily only three this year, whereas I seem to recall there were four when I first went), and making choices that mean you get to sample more than experience those acts you want to see. So here is my blow-by-blow account of the night I had, but there were so many other nights that could've been had.

First up I caught the end of Hot Chip, pushing their cheery pop-electronica sound in a slightly tougher and more dance-y direction than I was expecting. Following that I scooted over to check out Dubstep-meets-tech hero of the day, Joy Orbison. Tight mixing and interesting sounds, but with an MC who seemed to be unable to move much beyond "Hello Barcelona" and "This is Joy Orbison" in his vocal stylings.

Then it was off to catch the first bit of LCD Soundsystem's set. James Murphy looked resplendently shaggy in a creased white suit and belted out favourites from Sound Of Silver and the new album like "Us v Them" and "Drunk Girls". As I'm seeing LCD soon in Sydney I took the opportunity to check out the return of Richie Hawtin's alter-ego Plastikman. Now this was clearly one for the fans, accompanied not just by a fantastic light show but a dedicated iPhone app that streamed track names and times and even BPMs! It was solid, dependable acid house and techno, but I've gotta say it washed over me a bit. As someone once sang, "Is That All There Is?"

Then it was off to see Barcelona's John Talabot (not his real name—does anyone know who he really is?), whose sound would probably best be described as intense, trippy and distorted nu-disco. While he was only holding a relatively small crowd (a couple of thousand at most) this was interesting, emotive and trance-inducing DJing. Even when big, obvious disco samples rose in the mix there was a modern, techy edginess to them that was truly exciting (and groovy at the same time).

Back to see Dixon (of Berlin's Innervisions label), I was very happy to see he was pushing the darker edge of his sound, with big tribal beats and techno influences—all very appropriate for 3.30am. And a great lead-in to Booka Shade, also playing darker and less euphoric than when I've seen them before.

But as 5.30am rolled around it was time to stumble out the door and look for the SonarPro bus promised to those of us with "accreditations". But where the hell was it? Happily I took Option B and entered the very modern Metro station Europa I Fira. It was a fitting and humorous end to the night as many hundreds of truly wasted dancers sitting on the platform heard the first train of the morning approach, getting their feet and cheering as if they had just been hit with the end of a massive breakdown in the middle of an epic DJ set.


After an incredibly heavy six-hour sleep (could the jetlag finally be banished?) I headed out for the CCCB to catch the one last Sonar By Day act I wanted to see—Detroit's living legend Moodyman. Now this guy is an acquired taste. Last time I saw him, he performed behind a white sheet for the first 30 minutes of his set. This time it was a white towel draped over his head (pictured above). Characteristically, this was a performance that went well beyond playing records, with Mr Dixon Jr. engaging in between-track and during-track patter, much of it hilarious.

He started with a story about how the "lady at Customs" had looked at his records and said they were the biggest CDs she'd ever seen—and what sort of CD player does he own that plays them? And as if to prove the point one of the SL-1200s he was to play on had a fault and needed to be replaced, delaying the show by 10 minutes.

Now, trainspotting is not something you get to do at a Moodyman gig*; he tells you what most of the tracks are. And this being a daytime Sonar set, he stuck with a classic sound dominated by soul, funk, disco, new wave and some hip-hop. There were De La Soul and J Dilla, Fred Wesley, James Brown, BT Express, The Clash, The Whispers and even Nitzer Ebb. Finally he had to be prised off the decks after his all-too-brief 90 minutes, accompanied by the sunshine breaking through after a downpour in the early stages of his set. For all the tired, post-Sonar By Night refugees, this was the perfect metaphor for the way he'd lifted our spirits on a steamy afternoon.

*That said, he played the original track that Daniel Wang's "Free Lovin" is based on—with the weird Afro instrumentation—or maybe it was Danny's own version. Can anybody help?

Saturday, June 19, 2010

The sun is shining...


The jetlag, the bloody jetlag. When you stay up to after 5am after virtually no sleep for 28 hours, surely the payoff is a long snooze. But, no, after four hours was all I managed and so I headed off for a late breakfast at Mercat de Santa Caterina and downed two cafes con leche, quickly recalling just how good the coffee is in Spain.

Then it was Sonar By Day, meeting up with my friends Ant and Lisa and their entourage, sitting in the lovely summer sunshine. Sonar By Day is always a mixed bag: art exhibitions, movies, technology demonstrations and musical acts. This year's robot exhibit was very fun, and I saw an American musician knock out a terrific 30 minute acid house set simply by twiddling the nobs on three little boxes produced by Elektron.

I found both DJ Annie Hall and up & comers Nedry a little flaccid for my tastes, and the dubstep oriented goings on in the Red Bull Music Academy also not my scene. But the standout for my brief day at the CCCB (apart from the great Sangria) was Aufgang. This French trio has a German name—roughly translated as "emerging" or "rising"—and their energetic and supremely tight use of their two grand pianos and one drum kit is a sight to behold. Their sound is somewhere between classical music, techno, sweet Air-like pop and storming piano house, but none of those descriptions do them justice. And they've already proven their coolness by getting Barcelona nu-disco wunderkind John Talabot to remix their track "Channel 7". Check them out!

PS Just a little aside, on the way out I watched Booka Shade getting interviewed at the Sonar radio tent and finally got to do the fanboy thing and tell them how great they are. A true groupie moment, and they are such sweet, funny guys.



The odd thing about clubbing in Spain is that the clubs tend to be located in the most out-of-the-way spots you can imagine. So, por ejemplo, the techno generation would often drive hundreds of kilometres to massive constructions named for how many km they were located down a particular inter-city highway. Needless to say, the road toll was uncomfortably high at the end of weekend-long benders. Then there is the Monegros Festival, an annual pilgrimage to a remote mountainous region in northern Spain, and featuring some of the biggest names in techno.

It's true even in big cities like Barcelona, and last night I went to the opening of a new venue called Ghoa Beach Club, located just outside the city outskirts on a beach adjacent to Parc Litoral. The occasion was the Desolat off-Sonar label party and the headliners were very impressive indeed: Martin Buttrich, Loco Dice and Marco Carola. It took our taxi driver some time to find the damn place: even the street was not in his navigator device and we bumped into several other partygoers on the way, all searching for the mysterious venue.

Finally we arrived to find an outrageous episode of crowd crush occurring at the front door, with hundred heaving back and forth, some breaking into boos and hisses. The Spanish know how to queue politely. Not.

I had a ticket, but Dave and Andy didn't and we almost turned back but then realised that we would be let in... and when we got inside there was only a small crowd and the whole incident had been about poor organisation. In fact, there were more hangers-on in the spacious DJ area than on the dancefloor at that point, although that would rapidly change as the large space—replete with a massive resort-like pool (briefly used by some brave punters before they were dragged out) and multiple bars—filled comfortably.

Sadly, Buttrich finished his performance just as we managed to get inside and we were treated to an extended warm-up by Davide Squillace. It was a well thought-out and prolonged warm-up set of generic tech-house that helped set the scene but lacked anything really special. But it gave us time to imbibe overpriced mixed drinks (even small bottles of water were 4 Euro) and admire the amazing ability of the crowd to smoke so heavily in the open-air venue that the cigarette fumes were at times almost overpowering.

With Loco Dice on, the music continued in a locked groove, techy fashion without many highlights. But as Andy observed, Dice's drugs must have kicked in at the 30 minute mark and suddenly it was all EQs, filters and effects. He was soon joined by Carola and they pumped out music that would have been positively banal if it wasn't for their ability to play with every effect parameter on a Pioneer DJM-800 mixer and their undoubted ability to read the crowd. It's not that the music was bad, and it was certainly danceable (I managed a lot of grooving despite being stupidly overtired and running on Red Bull), but it was just that big modern European techno sound, pioneered at clubs like DC-10 in Ibiza. In some ways it was musically akin to what Luciano was playing a couple of years ago, but delivered without his panache and talent for layering unexpected elements into the sound.

At just before 5am Andy and I called it a day, just in time to see the first tram of the day arrive at its stop and to catch a taxi with a nice Indian driver who we talked sport with (football and cricket)—leaving Dave to power on for at least another couple of hours.

For a long time in Sydney, Lost Baggage ruled the roost as the premier techno night, pulling high-visibility European DJs who play very much in the style we saw at Ghoa. This party was like the super-professional, highly competent and more pleasantly populated version of a Lost Baggage night, run at a pretty venue with an excited crowd. This is Euro techno clubbing—it's fun but it really may just be the funky house of its generation.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Lost my dog (and my sleep) in Barcelona


Here I am, baby... but only just in one piece. That jetlag is a killer!

I arrived in Barcelona (which has a very new, very big and very sexy airport) on Thursday afternoon local time in a very underslept state after over 24 hours in transit and went straight to get my SonarPro media accreditation for this here blog. With suitcase in tow, I negotiated some side streets between the Aerobus stop and the place the take your photo and give you your pass, this year in an old convent building that has been subsumed by the cultural centre, the CCCB, where Sonar By Day is held. Only got lost once on the way!

Whilst waiting in an irritatingly long queue I was shouted to a hawked beer by the crew of UK deep house label Lost My Dog and got into conversation about the state of the UK scene with label honcho and DJ, Pete Dafeet. Further to my controversial post on the oversaturation of festivals in Australia, Pete indicated that the once-bloated club scene in the UK (and especially London) was fast mutating into a more fragmented space with much more modest and underground-oriented nights pulling punters. Most shocking of the big club failures was London's Matter, which had essentially collapsed, taking the owners of still-successful superclub Fabric with it (they had apparently put Fabric up as the guarantee against which Matter was financed). So Fabric, still pulling in the masses, is up for sale. Erk!

Pete has an interesting off-Sonar party on Sunday, with US house legend Joshua Iz at the top of the roster. It seems that Lost My Dog is referencing the classic deep house stylee that first got me hooked on dance music just over a decade ago. I will try to review some of their output here in the near future.

Then it was a 30 minute sojourn inside Sonar By Day and catching a sneak of Pete Tong in the main outdoor area. The BBC Radio One institution was playing a more indie/underground selection among older favourites (I think the Henrik Schwarz version of MJ's "Wanna Be Startin Somethin" was there!), but he still seemed an odd inclusion in the normally overly cool selection.

But then it was off to stay at my long-time Barcelona friend Gemma's place, meeting her flatmate, taking a much-needed 20 minute powe rnap and going for a cool 4 euro Mojito & tapa deal at a local bar with her and our mutual friend Luke—let me say the Patatas Bravas was superb, and who could argue at prices like that?

Then off to Gracia for dinner at a very traditional local Catalan restaurant, where perhaps the meat was too much (Luke ordered a 500g steak after our entree... and I had an amazing smaller steak with foie gras sauce, which I know is un-PC but was spectacular).

Finally, it was time to dash across town to meet Dave and Andy and head off to my first off-Sonar event at the newly constructed and much-hyped Ghoa Beach Club. Stay tuned for the skinny on that...

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Festival blues

Sometimes everything goes wrong but it all works out anyway. That was my experience of this year's We Love Sounds festival, held (as usual) in the Hordern and surrounds. All the portents were poor—a less impressive line-up than previous years, poor ticket sales, cancellation of the Perth leg of the festival's national tour, downsizing of the venue, etc, etc. 

I was lucky enough to get free admission because my friend Phil (pictured above) was playing. When Dave and I arrived we soon realised how limited the sales had been, with only a hundred people barely making their presence felt in the Royal Hall of Industries. There was a sedate atmosphere and very short lines for drinks all day. Things did pick up as the evening progressed, and the Hordern was apparently inaccessible for 2-3 hours because of the massive electrohouse crowd rammed in to see Crookers and Steve Aoki.

Nevertheless, the music we did catch was excellent. Seth Troxler, following the Bang Gang in the RHI, miraculously managed to shift down several gears from their noisy, ravey nonsense. Sure he lost half the crowd at first but then expertly built atmosphere without resorting to obvious choices (the "Angel Eyes"-sampling bleeptastic techno monster he played was nothing short of thrilling). Soon the empty hall was filling up to genuine underground sounds.

Off to the Forum, we then caught most of The Revenge's set, which was a slow-building, pitched down house sound warm-up (ridiculously programmed after the hideous blare of Sound Pellegrino Sound System). Unlike the last time I saw him, at La Campana last year, there was a cohesion and flow to what he was doing that suggests growing maturity as a DJ. It was a perfect lead-in for M.A.N.D.Y., who have not been on our shores since 2007.

Sadly the promised live show was not to be as the airline had sent their equipment to some misbegotten part of the world. But, after not having played together for some time, Patrick and Philipp played a storming set that started a little shaky (too much Dirtybird-style stuff for mine) but then tore the roof off the now comfortable full Forum. That massive Angelique Kidjo track by Tim Green was the absolute highpoint in terms of energy, but seeing the boys having a ball behind the decks reminded me that tech-house DJs don't all have to be mopey and serious all the time.

Then it was Ellen Allien's turn: she who had blown me away with her festival and after party sets two years ago. This time she was much more eclectic, mixing indie sounds with techno and even old Chicago house. The musical selections were always top-notch but the set was all over the place. And one does wonder whether she, dressed in oversize t-shirt and bright red leggings, is more fashionista or DJ?

Finally, we decided to brave the queue for Underworld and to our surprise we were allowed in to find... a near deserted Hordern. It would seem the electro kids had moved on after Aoki's set finished and while the room filled up again it was disappointing to see that it was far from packed (as it had been last time I saw the band here). Underworld, of course, didn't disappoint, mixing more recent material including the euphoria-inducing "Scribble" with classics like "Rez", "Cowgirl" and "Two Months Off". The visuals, their amazing stage presence (Karl Hyde > Peter Garrett on the gangly dancing front, any day) and the musical production were all stunning, letting us leave on a high note.

I wish I could be as kind to the after party (and I didn't stay to see the worst of it).

So what to make of the poor ticket sales for WLS? In late 2008, just after the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the onset of global economic crisis, I speculated that we were approaching a fin-de-siecle moment in the Sydney electronic music scene. At that time it seemed to me that the overpriced hedonism being offered by increasing numbers of promoters in proliferating venues was unsustainable. But the unexpected economic revival under the influence of government guarantees of a fragile financial sector, the stimulus package, the reflating of a residential property bubble and the continuing good fortune of exports to China seems to have not only staved off the collapse of the economy but the restructuring of a bloated EDM scene.

In 2010 things are not looking so good. Quality nights like Future Classic's Adult Disco are pulling small numbers and there has been a string of festivals performing below expectations (Shore Thing, the tiny Space Ibiza event and now WLS). It would be too easy to blame this on the specifics of the events—even if their quality is variable. Rather, it seems to me that what we are seeing is a classic crisis of overproduction in the Marxian sense.

During the good years, promoters used profits to expand and upgrade their operations and thereby created larger markets for their product. When I seriously got into clubbing in 1998, international acts in a particular genre came around every month or two, but in recent years a minimal head (for example) could almost see a different international every week. 

Yet as more players entered the market, a saturation point was reached—more was being put on than could possibly be absorbed. Such expansion need not stop as long as the factors which allow promoters to find a large enough market willing/able to consume the product persist, most importantly a growing economy where employed wage workers can fork out pricey entry fees.

There is a paradox in how these economic processes work themselves out. Even while too much is being produced across a sector of the economy (here, too many club nights and festivals), for each individual business person it is in their interests to keep expanding in order to beat the competition. It is my understanding that WLS tried to expand this year in particular because there was a new festival on the block with a similar type of line-up, the same venue and a well-known brand (Creamfields).

In a different time, with Sydney clubgoers happier to spend their hard-earned pay for a fun day out, perhaps both festivals could have done well. But I am speculating that the relative failure of WLS this year is an early warning that we are heading for a double-dip recession, initially being reflected in a contraction of discretionary spending by consumers. Given that retail sales in general are sluggish, the headline unemployment figures (generally a lag indicator anyway) may be lulling us into believing that old cliche that "the economic fundamentals are sound".

A red view of The Greens

Now available in full online is my article on "The Greens, the Crisis & the Left" in the latest issue of Overland journal.

There was also a lengthy discussion of it on Mark Bainisch's blog Larvatus Prodeo.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Back on the ones and twos

Hey, what the hell happened there? More than three months between posts so undoubtedly there'll be nobody reading this. Which is probably a good thing as writing about music has been the last thing i've wanted to do. Instead I've had a political article published in the latest Overland journal, on "The Greens, The Crisis & The Left". Get yourself a copy, why don'tcha?

But for the first time in months I did feel inspired to lay down a mix, reflecting my penchant for melodic and somewhat trippy nu-disco and tech-house, with a few classics thrown in for good measure. Enjoy!

Dr Tad's Disco-Techy Mix by Dr Tad

John Daly - Aurora
Mark E - RnB Drunkie
Cole Medina - Red Hot
Mugwump - Tellakian Circles
Tensnake - Need Your Lovin (Dub Mix)
Lindstrom & Christabelle - Baby Can't Stop (Album Version)
Marc Poppcke - Destination Disco
Luther Vandross - Shine (Mixshow)
Greg Gow - The Bridge (Late Night Grand River Mix)
Tevo Howard - Without Me (Boogiedisco Mix)
Dennis Ferrer - Sinfonia Della Notte
Manolo - The Answer (Gipsy Kink Remix)
Spirit Catcher Feat. Ilija Rudman - Secret Stranger (Instrumental Mix)
Ellen Allien - Lover
Daryl Stay - My Groove (Vincenzo Remix)
Nomi & Rampa - Inside (Dr Dunks aka Eric Duncan Remix)
Pet Shop Boys - It's Alright