Jimmy Edgar + The Slew + Martyn at Sónar Chicago: Live review and photo gallery
Photos: Max Herman
Rounding the corner from Michigan Ave into Millennium Park, I heard rumblings akin to a sonic apocalypse. Catalonian post-rock band Bradien was blasting out the final notes of its set for Sónar Chicago, and my initial thoughts were No one told me Aphex Twin was performing, and when is the spaceship going to arrive, soak the Pritzker Pavilion in radiant blue light and beam us all up to the cosmos? Something unusual was afoot in Millennium Park.
Such is the atmosphere that makes Sónar something special. The Spanish music festival has been integral to the furtherance of electronic music internationally, so the launching of a Chicago edition has been much buzzed about since it's announcement earlier this summer. And it's promising to be worthy of the attention. Artists as varied as post-dubstepper Appleblim and ambient sound sculpture artist Lesley Flanigan make appearances over the festival's three days. Despite the excitement around the Chicago edition, we could have used a few more people filling the seats and the lawn at Pritzker as the fest kicked off yesterday,
Attendance aside, those that did venture out were treated to some of the most progressive sounds Chicago has seen in one place at one time. Taking the stage after Bradien, glitchy Detroit wave-maker Jimmy Edgar ramped the soundsystem up to such a degree that I was immediately concerned for my eardrums. Thankfully his sonic onslaught quickly settled into his sexed-up sonic sleaze and the volume settled to a more reasonable level. Performing with a parred down live PA set-up, Edgar loaded the front end of his set with songs from his latest LP, XXX, before branching out to the jittery and bugged out concoctions he's most known for from his days with Warp Records.
Next up was Canadian turntablist Kid Koala's new pet project, The Slew. I thought long and hard during their set about the best way to describe their sound, and I've settled on turntabadelia. How else could I capture the mix of stadium-sized '70s psych rock, audience noise, repurposed vocal wailings, punk basslines and trip-hop breaks? I'll leave that open to commentary. Regardless, Koala, fellow turntable rocker P-Love and the ex-rhythm section of Aussie band Wolfmother took us on an unusual trip. The DJs were clearly the main event, cutting up guitar solos and doing tag team juggling of vocal snippets. All the while the bass and drums reinforced what was undeniably a rock vibe seen through the lens of a DJ. It's most endearing quality was how much fun the players clearly were having. Once done with a particular sample, Kid Koala would simply toss the record to the side like a frisbee and head right back into scratches of applause. When he wasn't behind the decks, he was running around the stage all smiles. At one point, samples had been dug up to introduce each band member and give a shout out to Chicago. The entire announcement was done on the turntables, which had the audience eating right out of the Slew's hands thereafter. To finish things off in proper rock star fashion, the band upended just about everything on stage save the drum set, going out in a blaze of distortion, record back spins and drum fills.
I was a touch concerned as The Slew's equipment was wheeled off stage and replaced with a DJ rig highlighted by a solitary white spotlight. Coming off such a dynamic performance I wondered if the night's headliner, D.C.-based tech-step DJ Martyn, would be able to hold the audience's attention. Clearly this was not a concern. Within his first five minutes he had the majority of the crowd in the seating bowl out of its chairs and crowded down around the front of the stage.
He's not the talkative sort, leaving the music to speak its mind, and the set ended up all the better for it. The instant Martyn appeared on the scene back in 2005, he made it clear that, if you could even call his music dubstep, it was coming from a very different place than that of the artists dominating from the U.K. Mixing minimal techno, garage (the British dance variety, not the rock alternative) and even a touch of new wave melancholy, Martyn isn't so much bridging a gap between these genres as he is dismantling the bridge entirely and building a musical structure all his own. Today I've even had a friendly debate about whether or not he played a single dubstep record. While I'll go on the record as saying he played quite a bit, it's not the brash bass and breaks stuff most of us are used to. Instead his set was deep, minimal, impeccably mixed and peppered with a handful of techno and house classics to keep everyone on their toes (although I wonder if that had more to do with how hyped everyone was just to be there hearing him).
Stay tuned on the blog for more installments from Sónar Chicago