Impressions: Sónar Reykjavík 2018

April 8, 2018

Travelling with a sinusitis lurking around the corner is anything but fun. However, when you know you’re about to see a massive show by the legendary Underworld if you survive your flight, there is definitely something to look forward to. Between 16-17 March, Sónar Reykjavík managed to get together some major names in the world’s northernmost capital, and together with all the astonishing sights Iceland has to offer, this was one damn special event to remember.

Going abroad for a festival is always a unique experience. Checking out the local venues, meeting the local audience and seeing how things are done in other parts of the world is always exciting (especially if one is also involved in event organization). One thing that we already knew is that Icelanders love to party. One thing that we just realized is that Sónar Reykjavík is more than needed in such an isolated place where people are hungry to be entertained and to be able to get at least a taste of what mainland Europeans can get any given weekend, swimming in headliners and festivals all year round.

The festival marked the beginning of Sónar’s 25th anniversary celebrations, in tandem with Sónar Hong Kong. Music, creativity and technology came together across four stages at one of Europe’s most unique venues, the Harpa Concert Hall. It was really everything you would expect from a big festival but without the hassles of a big festival – it was really well-organized, staff was extremely helpful while at the same time it remained intimate and not overwhelming. As it usually happens at festivals, we did not manage to see every act we wanted to, which was pretty frustrating sometimes (sorry, Lorenzo Senni!).

Yagya at Sónar Reykjavík 2018

Yagya at Sónar Reykjavík 2018 (Photo: SOATC)

Two days, four stages, dozens of great performances. During the first day, the SonarLab stage (curated by Resident Advisor) was one of our favourite places to hang out. They have turned a small part of the concert hall’s underground parking lot into an ad hoc club where in spite of the cold of the unheated space, the massive line-up managed to properly heat up the dancefloor. Local Yagya (Aðalsteinn Guðmundsson) has been a dub techno favourite for more than a decade – Will I Dream During the Process? on Sending Orbs was a musical milestone back in 2006. To our biggest surprise, his DJ set had little to do with dub and was really focused on proper techno. He did not only bring an extremely good selection of tracks but also had an energetic, effortless flow to his whole set. This guy should not be tucked away in Iceland, he could easily be playing with the big names in Berghain.

Having quite recently seen Helena Hauff, we were really excited about Lena Willikens, another uncrowned queen of electronic darkness. These German ladies never disappoint, and all the energy radiating through her eclectic set really disengaged us from reality, transporting us somewhere dark, somewhere unpredictable.

Norwegian groove lord Lindstrøm must have been one of the audience’s favorites for sure. When ‘I Feel Space’ started playing in the massive sound system in the SonarHall stage, the crowd went crazy. It’s always a pleasure to hear those favourite ‘hits’ from a proper sound system, and if you looked close enough, you could see how much he enjoyed playing for such a grateful audience, a genuine entertainer.

GusGus at Sónar Reykjavík 2018

GusGus at Sónar Reykjavík 2018 (Photo: SOATC)

Honest to be, in the last decade, we haven’t been keeping an eye (ear) out on GusGus, one of the biggest electronic groups in Iceland. Since then, they have gone through some quite massive changes when it comes to band members, with the exception of core member and one of the founders of the collective, Birgir Þórarinsson who can still surprise a crowd after 20 years. Together with Daníel Ágúst they pulled a highly enjoyable show, mixing genres you would never imagine that would go well together, playing around with everything from pop to acid, great vocals and some impromptu dance moves.

But taking the cake when it comes to seniority is of course the festival’s main poster name Underworld,  who – after more than 35 years of existence – can still perform Born Slippy with such an enthusiasm as if they’d written the track last week. And when this grand finale arrives, the crowd is not slow to respond, ecstatically raising a myriad of waving arms into the tropically heated air of Harpa’s main stage. During the course of a highly energetic one and a half hour set, veterans Karl Hyde and Rick Smith pile dance music classic after the next in a veritable “best of” parade though their long-spanning career that leaves us in awe of their dark, moody, and forward-thinking electronic songwriting, that still holds up far beyond 90s nostalgia. For the crowd filling the jam-packed SónarClub concert hall to the point where you could nearly not move, this seems to be the obvious highlight of the festival – and we tend to agree.

Underworld at Sónar Reykjavík 2018

Underworld at Sónar Reykjavík 2018 (Photo: SOATC)

In the other end of the crowd-pleasing spectrum we find Australian-turned-Icelandic experimental composer Ben Frost, who earlier in the evening treated a significantly smaller SónarClub audience to rumbling sub frequencies and brittle noises, conjuring imagery of mighty glaciers breaking apart in slow motion. This slightly out of place performance would probably have benefited from a rougher, more intimate setting as in our previous live encounters with Frost, but was nonetheless a refreshing break from the ever-present dance beats, that somehow encapsulated the raw beauty of the Icelandic nature.

We’ve seen Bjarki perform in a club environment before, but this time it seems like Iceland’s premier DJ export wanted to close the SónarClub stage with a proper bang. Having set up his own bbbbbb Records label last year, focusing on promoting Icelandic artists, the DJ hypnotized us with local references in a gargantuan epilepsy-inducing mashup video backdrop, flirting heavy with IDM aesthetics in general and Aphex Twin’s dito in particular. Joining Bjarki on stage was a family of mannequins with video monitors for heads, as well as a collective of masked dancers in bodysuits showing off funky dance moves and undertaking various antics such as offering a bite of cucumber to front-row dancers. This over-the-top stage show performance paired with Bjarki’s ever-changing jungly set managed to check all boxes for campiness and good fun, separated from the artsy black-clad techno scene by light years.

Bjarki at Sónar Reykjavík 2018

Bjarki at Sónar Reykjavík 2018 (Photo: SOATC)

All in all, Sónar Reykjavík was a pleasing experience for us in every way, despite some logistical flaws and missing out on some great acts (and others that we still don’t know). You can surely tell that the Sónar brand has 25 years of top-notch event production under its belt. Next year’s edition of Sónar Reykjavík has already been announced, and will take place April 25-27, and if you act quickly there are a limited amount of early bird tickets released for a discounted price. We recommend you grab them while you have the chance, as a visit to Iceland will undoubtedly be a memory for life!


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