Compared with the standardised vision of a European electronic music festival that exists in the British collective imagination as beach bars, sunrise sets and Mediterranean decadence, the prospect of one taking place on a volcanic rock in the north Atlantic, with uncompromisingly brief daylight hours and an ocean view that comes with giant Viennetta mountains in the place of palm trees, is, to say the least, rather intense.
And don’t Sonar know it. Perhaps aware that they’re incapable of offering the untrammelled house joy and scorchio vibes of their parent weekender in Barcelona, the website for the festival’s Reykjavik edition unapologetically offers a “stark contrast against the Icelandic winter and the arctic darkness outside”. In fact, Sonar Reykjavik turns out to be more of a compliment than a foil to Iceland’s extreme environment, and for the better: instead of a weekend meandering around various venues in a balmy, tourist-friendly European town, Sonar Reykjavik is three nine-hour blasts of, variously, experimental art music, gratifying hands-in-the-air jamboree and even the odd band, all concentrated into Harpa, a hulking multi-room concert hall complex that feels like the architectural realisation of Picasso doing set design on the Crystal Maze.
Top that cake with the cherry of a largely local crowd eager, it appears, to reinforce their international reputation for being any iteration of burly and top-knotted, impishly beautiful or simply relentlessly chiselled and hardcore, either dressed to the nines or raving in hiking boots, and the stage is set for a gloriously overwhelming sensory blowout.
Because Harpa’s five rooms are metres rather than miles apart, too, Sonar Reykjavik resembles not so much a boutique city festival as a sort of choose-your-own-adventure style superclub, offering hugely varying levels of brain-melt depending on what you’re into, and thankfully rendering an enforced schlep through each act on the bill in any given venue entirely avoidable. Instead, extreme picking and choosing was the watchword, and the careful programming meant that each time there was mind-fucking white noise in one room (in particular Oneohtrix Point Never’s set, accompanied as it was by 30 minutes of strobes fired straight at the crowd), beatifically accessible minimal electro was the antidote next door (in this case courtesy of Kiasmos, playing a triumphant homecoming set). Similarly, what appeared clashtastic on the programme (Holly Herndon vs Floating Points; Squarepusher vs Lone) simply encouraged a rather luxurious feeling of dilettantism as you dipped in and out of different rooms.
By the same token, while each night the building’s basement car park offered the experience most analogous to a sweaty techno box, all low ceilings, low light and low end paired with a rolling array of DJs that ranged from enticingly inclusive (The Black Madonna) to the unforgivingly pounding (local hero Bjarki) via seductively studied eclecticism (Ben UFO, with potentially the set of the weekend), the SonarPub area had DJs offering something a little lighter alongside, incongruously, table tennis and pinball tables. And as if all that didn’t offer enough experiential permutations, splitting the difference between those extremes was an intimate 150-seater auditorium clearly designated for peak chin-scratchin’, head-bobbin’ think-piecin’ intellectual appreciation.
Of course, the frequent complaint about prestigious electronic music festivals, and indeed about the wider genre too, is that it can have a tendency to take itself a touch too seriously: after all, an air of pseudiness can sometimes linger when furrow-browed men (and, usually, it is men) start to deconstruct music that, at its origins, at least, was designed to facilitate total cerebral abandon. Although Sonar Reykjavik is by no means immune to this phenomenon – Squarepusher’s phantasmagoric display of addictive drill’n’bass drew gently appreciative yelps, yet it was the encore of uber-noodly live bass voluntary which garnered the earnest applause and, improbably, lighters held aloft; equally, Koreless’ magnificent chest-rattling techno was confined to the sit-down auditorium, inevitably trading most of its visceral punch for considered discourse – another of the festival’s programming virtues was in its continual lightness of touch via a seam of delightfully preposterous (and preposterously named) acts that ran through the schedule.
President Bongo and the Emotional Carpenters offered dreamily drifting motorik psychedelia with a sense of the absurd, the none-more-Nathan-Barley VaginaBoys, a local band of mask-clad pranksters playing PC Music versions of Bon Iver songs, presented ludicrous projections generated from emoji, and !!!’s barnstorming set was as much Gary Lineker at Italia 90 as it was Nile Rodgers at Studio 54. (Also: is it against the spirit of Sonar's crate-digging underground coolness if I nominate Hudson Mohawke dropping Higher Ground at the end of an utterly rabble-rousing set being, if not one strictly for the heads, probably the single best moment of the festival?).
Elsewhere, too, there was plenty of entertainingly bizarre performances to counteract any dangers of it all getting a bit too heads-down, not least in the form of Zebra Katz’s pairing of a stab-proof vest with leather hot pants and a stage invasion, Angel Haze giving out red roses to the front row of her audience, or in Holly Herdon’s mesmerising interactive projections.
But for all the praise of the festival’s eclecticism, genuinely something-for-everyone approach and skilful pricking of potential pomposity, perhaps Sonar Reykjavik’s organisers were right, and its crowning achievement does indeed lie in its intensity after all. And usefully so, too: as the first night wound up, revealing the sort of snowstorm that downs planes, with gales blowing multi-direction blizzards against the poor bastards at the taxi rank and other more gung-ho types attempting to walk home, leaning into the hoolie at 45 degrees to the ground, it becomes abundantly clear that a good festival isn't made or broken on a series of performances, but by something more intangible to do with the people and the place. Where such extreme weather elsewhere in the world would’ve sodden any residual euphoria at the end of the night, in Reykjavik’s slightly extra-terrestrial setting, with its colossal background geography, it appears only to further warm the soul.