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++ Needle Drops is now an occasional music column that a number of Neumu writers take turns writing. All columns prior to March 2004 were written by Philip Sherburne.

++ Recently ++

Tuesday, November 29, 2005 = The Stooges Unearthed (Again)

Tuesday, November 8, 2005 = Documenting Beulah And DCFC

Tuesday, November 1, 2005 = Out-Of-Control Rock 'N' Roll Is Alive And Well

Tuesday, October 25, 2005 = Just In Time For Halloween

Monday, October 3, 2005 = The Dandyesque Raunch Of Louis XI

Monday, August 15, 2005 = The Empire Blues

Tuesday, August 9, 2005 = David Howie's Sónar Diary

Monday, July 25, 2005 = Hot Sounds For Summertime

Monday, June 27, 2005 = Overcoming Writer's Block At Sónar 2005

Monday, June 4, 2005 = Cool New Sounds To Download Or Stream

++ Needle Drops Archives ++

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Tuesday, August 9, 2005

++ David Howie's Sónar Diary

By David Howie

++ Thursday, June 16
In order to accurately reflect reality, all times are approximate.

13:41 The runway presents the shattered possibility of Scotland's summer: the plane accelerates out from underneath it, toward the dim, gull-grey distance. I close my eyes and wet my lips; then I do something extraordinary. I leave this century.

03:13 To access The Loft, which is situated at the top of Barcelona's Razzamatazz club, you have to walk across the building's roof: it provides welcome respite from the rest of the club's kneeling before the great God Hedon. Faced with the magnitude of Sónar's rooms, microhouse plumpening and the emergence of electrohouse theme-tune futzing make a certain queer sense. I have only ever encountered the space and lack of the most minimal techno in the most cramped environments: a haunted ex-theatre in Glasgow's east end, an office at the back of a disused lace factory in Nottingham, my bedroom, etc. In these spaces where the edges of the room are familiar with its center, and the sound is "true" throughout, microhouse seems to fit: it makes an almost personal statement that other musics are too big here, and that it will show you how to make sense of the room.

"No, no… no difference…" James Holden is so small against the black at the far end of the room, easing his set out into the world, conquering the space of the room by melting its time. He is playing Superpitcher's remix of "The Difference It Makes" while spontaneous ululations ring out around the hall. My friends have raved and enthused like machine guns for the whole of last year over this song, and I never quite understood its full glory until now: it's possible you can't properly understand its magnificent, roiling beauty or its part-astral, part-intestinal rumble until you hear it out, taking the room apart from its center. I hold on to my feet and dance against its tide, wishing physics back into existence... The highlight of James Holden's set comes 23 minutes in, and it is a moment of pure theatre. Toying with Lawrence's remix of Michael Mayer's "Happiness" for the past 10 minutes, the music drops quiet: the drums purr and gurgle like a motorcycle, the room decelerates like a lift, Holden takes the music by its sides, stretches it to make its synth seesaw, and then… "I want happiness." The man specializes in providing reliable maps of the human heart.

23:14 The night begims at the hands of Diplo, who is very, very disappointing. I realize later (I'm a bit slow) that this is a room for whom Sónar has not yet properly begun. This is the pre-Sónar launch party open only to the invited and the press, and it's occupied by a lot of people standing around supping expensive drinks with folded arms. Diplo is my only source of this music (variously called: carioca funk or baile funk) and he, very questionably, doesn't give out tracklists with his mixes. For what it's worth, it sounds like he just sticks the MP3 of "Favela on Blast" in iTunes and kicks back. His boring breeds our boredom. (He is much better as the last DJ I hear at the festival, Red Bull shoring up my blisters for one last go, but more about that later.)

The rest of the evening until the Border Community showcase (Avus, James Holden, Nathan Fake) is spent walking between Razzmatazz's many levels: access to The Loft is via the roof, the night is cool against the heat of inside, and people are milling around smoking, relaxing, and having fun. The Pop Bar is dead, and not even the myth that Richard X is in there can draw my attention; in one of the upstairs bars, Spanish criminal and hero-to-the-people El Dioni, arrested for making off with the contents of the armored van he was driving, sits on a couch having his photo taken with anyone who is interested, etc. It's the usual strange club atmosphere of drugged-up dancing love and smoky social drinking.

04:10 This is where the night begins to fuzz up, where the story sticks, cauterized by fatigue and drink. I have, like most, a finite number of angles of approach to what I remember, more or less equal to the three ways I have to walk home: the room melts, Tiga is already an hour into a set that lasts till 6, I am tired, the floor is moving, the walls are moving, my feet are moving, I'm dancing and I'm dancing and so I keep on dancing. I have no idea what Tiga plays, but I enjoy it immensely.

Walking home from Razzmatazz (06:40), we stop to sit on the steps of the Metro as my friend Mark enjoys a cigarette. Philip Sherburne appears from the morning and I'm too tired to properly talk to him or to ask him all, or any, of the questions I would love to. He is shorter than I had imagined and accompanied by less lightning or fireballs than I'd been made to believe. (I heard he has turntable lights for eyes and slipmats for hands, but I can see now that that is plainly a lie.) As the morning's first commuters filter out of the station, Philip graciously says his goodbyes and makes his long way down the steps underground. He carries the night's memories, in sweat and smoke on his sleeves, and in fatigue and joy on his heart…

++ Friday, June 17

I spent most of Friday on the terrace outside my apartment. Frightened by the previous night's excess, I decide it's a better plan to leave myself more to Barcelona than Sónar today. I learn that I don't like anchovies and that Gaudi's "Sagrada Familia" stuns me: I am no more powerful than what I can express in words, can I express this in words? I'm left without an answer, which is answer enough. I take another nap, and wake up with the words of the late Susan Sontag ringing round the room ("I don't take naps!"). The city is as busy as I have ever seen anywhere. Protesters march up La Rambla, but I can barely make out their cause using my scant Spanish. There is a bird market on the pavement and a seemingly endless parade of shops selling watches. I decide I love Barcelona, though that's not something I really get to decide.

A sample of the satellite events I wish I could have attended is telling of the prodigious talent local to Barcelona at this time of year. These have little actual affiliation with the official Sónar, but they are just as delicious, if not more so. Berliners-on-Playhouse Captain Comatose (whose recent record, Up in Flames, is an early contender for best of 2005) performed in town on the Saturday night, and after a power cut threatened to end the show early they trashed the stage; B-pitch Control Vs. Kompakt Night was on the Thursday, starring Ference, DJ Koze, and more; Kompakt Beach Party was on Sunday, featuring Michael Mayer amongst others. The dual lunacies of smiles and hallucination…

Come night, come Sónar and after dinner, Mark and I make for Fira Gran Villa, the venue of Sónar by Night. I've already described [in a previous Needle Drops column] the weird scenes outside the venue, so perhaps I can explain a little more about the venue itself. Fira Gran Villa is a couple of miles out from Sónar by Day. The outside façade of the building is similar to a multiplex without its customary posters and showtimes, or a mall without its kids and windows: it is a large, white block with central doors, queues funneling in and out of the venue from left and right of center. A main hall greets you through the door; it is the size of Tate Modern's turbine hall, large enough to house a plane or hide a person, or both. This room, strafed by lasers, tunnels off into three venues: one medium indoor dance floor (Park); one large indoor club (Club) replete with bumper cars and video screens; and a replica of the entrance hallway with its roof torn off (Pub).

Another James behind the decks: this time DFA's James Murphy has burst the room, as everyone wobbles like meat sacs to his buggered vision of disco dance. I am never anything less than impressed with Murphy's capacity to excite and confuse me: in my mind I am always quick to dismiss LCD Soundsystem as nearly-rans, but the truth, when I'm presented by them live, almost always seems to confound such easy dismissal. They are kinetic energy wrought large: loud and confusing, an encyclopedia of the many ways to wriggle. Their Saturday-night set finishes with the acidTON of "Yeah," which almost boils the room. Tonight, however, I am down for more dancing and smiling, less chin-stroking and worrying.

Soulwax's "E Talking" is a song about the (trans)lucid state of control ecstasy users perceive as ludic becoming, a state ironized in the song as both dangerous and unreal. The song's key refrain is, "it's not you, it's the E talking; it's not you, it's the E talking…" There is something very disconcerting about the tinge of judgment and disrespect that comes over the song when it is played in a room full of loved-up raving lunatics. It leaves a bitter taste in my mouth when I think about 2manyDJs' set later in the evening, and it's a question I can't resolve, viz., should dance DJs mock their fans in such a disdainful manner because at that point they're in too silly a headspace to completely comprehend the message? (Or, to put it more obliquely, taking sides: "How well can you dance with a drink in your hand?" vs. "It's not you, it's the E talking.")

I won't let a couple of Belgians spoil my night, however, and I head out into the open air and sunrise of the Areal showcase, featuring label founder Basteroid (recently comically and affectionately renamed C*nteroid by Optimo DJs, Twitch & Wilkes) and winner-of-the-world herself, Ada. If you can track down the Basteroid set online you should, for the track he plays 13 minutes in: it is vicious like machine guns in a fireworks factory, its synths working themselves up to the resolvable knotted drama of its crescendoed frenzy. Only Ada's live version of "Believer" (which my friend Ronan astutely points out is sheer Secret of Mana fare — "You must leave the forest forever!") surpasses it for my "track of the festival."

This is where I wanted Friday to end and, thankfully, because I am both a writer and a spoilt brat, now's my chance to fuck with history STOP

++ Saturday, June 18

"What comes to a rabbit at the moment of its death?" All of my psychological breakthroughs come to me on the dance floor: there is the sense that to consider yourself a writer necessitates a certain remove from the world, a scrim of attention and care erected around and over the immediate world. Always observing and taking notes, the editing process is continual and forever. Dancing cuts through this, and on the dance floor the world is no longer piecemeal and irresolute. The editor is slain and I am riven with fire! It happens like this every time, this episodic psychological burrowing that goes to the fear at the very base of me: "Is this all I am, love-seeking pleasure reaper?" It is one of the fears that motivates me to write.

Prior to my leaving for Barcelona, two events had sparked me to thinking about what I would write should I make it home: my pet rabbit died on the Wednesday prior; and, on the Thursday morning at work I watched the incommunicable dread of this dead century fan across an old lady's face as she searched for the correct change in her purse. The latter was all projection, of course, and the former had very little effect on me, but they both got me to thinking, and it was to them I turned as Ada beeped like a bat in the dark. A better writer would be able to provide you with a guided tour of the synth-line in Ada's "Believer," as it provides the snakes-and-ladders rush at the center of Ada's set here but…

I usually listen to the music represented at Sónar by Night in the mornings, arranging the day before me in my head, organizing my lunch, etc. It takes little attention for itself, so it takes little attention away from those other things which are so important in the composition of my day: those things that seem important in the morning ("Do I have my keys?" "Have I had enough to eat?" etc.) and to whom — antsy fucker that I am — I need to commit myself each day with worried fervor. Divorced from the usual concerns of my ordinary life, I am free to commit myself instead to the music in its original context: the dance floor. This brings with it the dual lunacies of smiles and hallucination. All this talk illuminates the veracity of Frank Kogan's recent claim about people's capacity for story vis-à-vis their capacity for analysis: telling a story, people skip into and trip over analysis with abandon, freely and inadvertently providing honest reviews of life, unmediated by thought and attention to any or all notions of criticism and writing.

Earlier in the day I sat in the dark of SónarComplex and watched Fonal's Islaja (Fonal is a label from Finland who make the usual free-folk noises) fight the room for her say. Their visuals were cute though: a projection of acetates with watercolor paints on them, manipulated live by a fourth member of the band, into funny faces, moons and discord. I took another nap. (So I live a very boring life and here it is invading the excitement of Sónar.) I was in an altered state by this time, having earlier in the day watched Alexander Sokurov's "From the Military Diaries" (in Russian, with Spanish subtitles).

Sokurov is a director I actively distrust. His notions of the "poetic" are questionable, for one, and the attitude announced by his films is actually quite genuinely scary — the film embodiment of the reeking piss-stare of his portrait. This particular film is scored by Toru Takemitsu and features lots of slow-cut shots of soldiers' rifles at awkward angles. It's difficult to understand a film when you don't speak any of its languages, but I was caught here by Sokurov, whose film was the perfect mimic of the state I sought: slow, thoughtful and baleful. (A couple of days of techno techno techno and I'm like this.) After giving up on Hood, whose engineer has ears full of mud, I catch some Canadian rapper. I'm sorry I didn't catch more of the daytime performances, to be honest, especially Matthew Herbert's "Plat du Jour" (which I missed by arriving too late) and the manic My Robot Friend, whom Drew Daniel commended, in the brief, uh, "chat" I had with him. (The driving heat makes it hard to muster up the something-approximating courage it requires to take on Sónar by Day though.)

Sónar by Night on Saturday is trapped by the mechanics of the clock, and each of us has to perpetrate some inadequate juggling act. Magically, I manage to see a danceable snippet of everyone I want to: Ellen Allien, LCD, Troy Pierce, Magda, M.I.A., Luke Vibert, Richie Hawtin, and Diplo. An act per hour for eight hours = ow ow ow. M.I.A. is fine but vaguely disappointing: a skeleton of the bravura displayed on her album, she's unable to pitch it up to the other level she frequently and very vocally promises to, her producer/friend Diplo videoing from the sidelines (get a room, you two). I can't wait to see her when she's on the cusp of her greatness though, assuming she ever ascends any. Mark assures me she's come a long way since he first saw her in Canada, more confident across the stage, bolshy and direct. I can see it, fleetingly in threats and glimpses, but it's not fully there: the ghost of a memory of a song of a whisper.

In retrospect (i.e. having listened to their album) I wish I had gone to see Captain Comatose. I am happy that I saw Allien (muggy and pounding, a shame she can't play the set I want her to) and Magda (brrrr it's freezing in here shivers) and Vibert ("I will have those reports to you by 5 a.m.") and Hawtin mixing what sounds like one song into itself over and over at 7 a.m. on a Sunday as the dawn comes up on the potential of the working week. I am happy that I saw all this, but I feel like I missed out, and it's what I missed out that I'll go see next Sónar, next year, same time, same place, hopefully same people.

"Don't come back from Barcelona without a mugging story!" It's here in the airy lull between Saturday evening and Sunday proper that I pick mine up. I'll spare you the details, but I was lucky I was aware enough I managed to avert the intent in his eyes. I jump over the gate to the Metro without hesitation, dust myself off and kick along the road towards my bed and eventual slumber. I've never before felt like I've earned a sleep until now.

++ Sunday, June 19

My weekend had begun, oddly enough, with me thinking about an old woman looking in the bottom of her purse, as if somehow lodged there, between the notes, were the dregs of her 20th century. She looks with unquavering intent, as if somehow she could shake it from being lost in the rough of time, by sheer will alone. She no more knows that Scotland's 20th century never ended than she knows my middle name. Across her slides the shadow of the 21st century's unwoken subtlety, its science of remove and advance. The uncanny is a holdover from cliché's nocturnal recesses, yes, OK, but I tell you, I see it. I sit in a seat at a till in Britain's most venerated, failing department store when I see this, and I become bewitched. I watch it.

I see nothing but a woman fishing around for adequate change, of course, and all of the above is just mystical bullshit. But when I think about my day later on, peering into the black mirror of my disappointment, the unguarded realm of my own failings and my own worries, the woman becomes a useful cipher for all the queer faults I've projected upon this, my slovenly and trenchant nation. The unknown century licks at the corners of my vision, somewhere just beyond the edge of me, where excitement takes the taint of boredom, and knowledge warps into ignorance. I have become so proud of my own stupidity and know-nothingness recently, trumpeting it wherever I go, my own boorish herald. The possibility of another century, going on elsewhere, contiguous and asymptotal, taunts and tempts me; quite frankly — it terrifies me. I am Scotland and I am flush with my proud inability and its middlebrow notion of availability. I had to leave.

I left the 20th century. When I return to Scotland on the Sunday, I return to the 21st century. I returned to a new feeling of possibility.


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