Electronic Music Underground Comes Up For Air In Spain

Barcelona's Sonar generates Matthew Herbert, Richie Hawtin, Jeff Mills, more.

BARCELONA, Spain — With a magic spell apparently hovering over the eighth annual Sonar International Festival of Advanced Music and Multimedia Arts, life for the techno lover was as it should be.

Heroes of electronic music's underground such as Matthew Herbert, Gez Varley, Luomo and Andrew Weatherall were elevated, if briefly, to the level of superstars during the festival's final two days (see "Sigur Ros, Aphex Twin Heat Up Barcelona Fest"), where they performed to crowds numbering in the tens of thousands Friday and Saturday nights.

Add to that a three-hour DJ set by Masters At Work and the double-bill tandem of Richie Hawtin and Jeff Mills separated by only an hour, and the result was a spectacle that Barcelona — maybe even the world — hasn't known the likes of. Part rave, part meeting of the global techno cognoscenti, Sonar was a treasure trove of unforgettable sonic delights.

Like the tapas bars peppering Barcelona's crowded streets with delicious snacks, virtually every musical flavor was available for tasting — from jagged abstractions (Richard Devine) and funky concoctions (Jazzanova) to chemical reactions (Matmos) and relentless propulsions (Hawtin, Mills).

Friday night's program presented the sort of dilemma one only dreams of. Simultaneously, at 2 a.m., one could hear the staple platters of Masters At Work's Little Louie Vega and Kenny "Dope" Gonzalez working their soulful magic on a massive undulating froth of a dance floor; Andrew Weatherall (yes, the Primal Scream and My Bloody Valentine producer) and partner Radioactive Man in their Two Lone Swordsmen guise, emitting gritty electro stomps from a bank of wires and consoles, as a swarming crowd wiggled euphorically with each added rhythm; and the skirted Luomo (alias Finland's Vladislav, responsible for last year's epic Vocal City) chauffeuring thousands into the dizzying spiral wobbling around his loose grooves under the night sky in the site's open-air venue.

No less gratifying than the fantastic music, however, was wandering among the three sound arenas and observing the whoops and cheers that arose whenever an older underground — Luomo's "Market," for example — took hold of a dance floor tuned in to every turn of the table, every segue, every knob twiddle and every glitch.

This was nowhere more evident than when England's Gez Varley (a.k.a. G-Man) began his outdoor-stage set just before the stroke of 5 a.m. on Saturday morning. A legend since co-founding the pioneer techno duo LFO (with Mark Bell) in the late '80s, Varley has issued a slew of minimal-techno templates during the past decade to little or no fanfare beyond the underground realm. Justice prevailed at Sonar, however, as Gez churned out tracks imbued with the deft subtlety he's mastered, including a couple from his dynamite 1998 G-Man LP and his upcoming return, Bayou Paradis, to a crowd of cheering thousands, his beats even reverberating in the site's bumper-car course.

Although Saturday night's lineup again tilted heavily toward the lesser knowns, the weight of double headliners Richie Hawtin and Jeff Mills threatened to tip the balance in the opposite direction. Relative newcomers such as Germany's Matthias Schafhauser and Heiko Laux, Britain's Random Factor and Ralph Lawson and Finland's Jori Hulkkonen laid down minimal techno and house in all their futuristic forms. Ultimately, though, they were no match for the scene's stars.

Employing the enormous sub-bass thrust that's become the backbone of his dynamic live set, Hawtin was typically unyielding in his intensity, dropping the beat only briefly in order to work the floor into a screaming frenzy. Much like Mills an hour later (Hawtin hails from Windsor, Ontario, just across the river from Mills' Detroit roots), Hawtin created a massive sound that relied on the minimal foundations of pounding low-end beats and hypnotically looped hi-hats or analog synth grooves. Similarly, Mills stuck to his signature rapid-fire triple-turntable antics, never allowing a rhythm to grow stale while sneaking in snippets from his bag of classic tracks from the last decade, including "The Bells" and "Casa."

Tucked neatly between the two masters was an excellent live set by Phuture 303, one of the originators of the influential acid-house sound that emerged from Chicago and New York in the late '80s. Phuture's DJ Pierre and Spanky, who cut such gems as "Acid Tracks" back in the day, were joined onstage Saturday by two new members, each of whom manned a different console and handled separate rhythmic duties.

If this year's Sonar had one fault, it was that the four-to-the-floor rhythm held too much sway at a festival founded on the spirit of experimentation. Genius English producer Matthew Herbert, billed as "Mistakes," closed out the final night with a DJ set (starting at 7:30 a.m.!) heavy on schizophrenia and free-form, collective fun. After opening with the Ohio Players' "Funky Worm" and segueing into James Brown's "The Payback," Herbert dove deep, excavating treasures that spanned the left field (French house duo Motorbass' "Flying Fingers," Romanthony's "Bring You Up"), hyperclassic ("Billie Jean," "Stayin' Alive") and ultra-new (Green Velvet's red-hot "Lala Land," a mind-bending glitch-techno mix of Missy Elliott's "Get Ur Freak On").

If Sonar is the pantheon of experimental music, Herbert dusted

off its pillars for all to see and love, then brought the house down.