Sonic Mania 2011: Rant in Meh minor.

I should preface this somewhat-less-than-glowing review of Sonic Mania (aka Summer Sonic for people who dance at night) by mentioning one important detail:

I don’t really like music festivals.

More exactly, I don’t like a certain kind of music festivals (that kind). I think I have spent enough of my youth, dancing half-naked on Californian beaches or through Black Rock Desert that I don’t need to defend my record of appreciation for spontaneous music-oriented gatherings. I just still can’t figure the draw with mainstream music festivals: horrible acoustics, quantity-over-quality line-ups and uninspiring settings.

If I wanted to dance in the middle of stadiums, I’d be a football cheerleader.

Acts at major music festivals fall into two categories: bands that were cool 20 years ago (and whose sole surviving member badly needs to pay his taxes) and up-and-coming bands you will hear a 100 times better at a smaller, more targeted venue. The packaging of the two together, along with laundry-detergent levels of sales/marketing based more on PR momentum than musical coherence (complete with nonsensical stage schedules) are what make music festivals such a profitable deal for major industry players and a miserably pointless experience for everybody else.

Sonic Mania certainly followed that pattern. In fact, every other headliner on the line-up could accurately be summed-up as: “That guy you’ve never heard of, with ties to that band you definitely knew [and perhaps liked], back in the 2000s/1990s/1980s”…

Considering how much whining is liable to follow, I should add I had a perfectly OK night, fun even. But my enjoyment of the event was entirely down to being with a cool group of people and, most importantly, being comped and not having paid 10,000 of my hard-earned yens to attend that semi-debacle of a festival night. I feel I kinda owe it to the poor saps that paid out of pocket to let the world know what passes for top-yen-worthy festival in Japan these days…

10pm-ish: Arrival, Primal Scream

After a thoroughly enjoyable late-afternoon spent chilling at Canal Café with Aya and Yi and some nearby dinner, we made our way to Tokyo’s outer suburbs (well, Chiba’s, really), arriving somewhat early to Makuhari Messe, but not early enough to catch Boom Boom Satellites (too bad: I quite liked them at Metamo, 3 years ago).

Instead, we caught most of Primal Scream‘s live. Or more exactly: those two guys who started the band and have gone through a few thousands bandmates ever since. I have never been an unconditional fan, nor much of a specialist beside their most famous tracks. Overall, their uptempo, technoid soul stuff was nice. Their more alt-emo-rock acoustic tracks: much less convincing.

Sad truth is: Primal Scream’s core duo’s past success lies more in picking talented co-producers and guest-band-members than in any musical genius of their own. At least they kept it light on the emceeing and refrained from any speedball-fueled rant against one segment of the population or other.

At any rate, J.’s personal preference and group cohesion meant we stuck with Primal Scream and passed on what sounded like a fine set by legendary 80s rave act: 808 State.

Also, this is when we first attempted to get drinks.

11pm-11:45pm: the Bar

Upon arriving, festival staff had been quite adamant about selling us Drink Tickets, to be used at one of the many bars and stalls spread across the cavernous Makuhari Messe. Priced at ¥500 a pop, they seemed like a surprisingly good deal and an encouraging sign that festival organisers weren’t going with the usual price-gouging ¥1000 micro water bottle…

That was… until we decided to get our first drink and made our way to one of the bars… or as close as we could get, before hitting upon a wall of queuing people massive-enough to put to shame any Soviets-era breadline.

Let me put it this way: at 11pm, looong before attendance peaked, there were already more people queuing, hopelessly waiting to get a drink, than standing near the main stage.

We stood there, peak-hour-Yamanote-style, for a good 30 minutes until we got within sighting distance of the ridiculously understaffed bar. I was mentally counting the number of tequila shots and G&T I could possibly carry away at once, so as to never have to come back for more… When I realised that the full extent of the bar menu, soft drinks and water aside, resided in: 1) draft beer 2) smirnoff ice 3) chu-hi 4) fuck all else.

Dear Sonic Mania organisers: if your goal was to avoid the slightest chance that anybody, save for 16 year old girls on their yearly night out, could mistakenly get an alcoholic buzz on, while attending your all-night event: CONGRATULATIONS: mission achieved.

That being said, considering that all such events normally make at least half their profits on drinks, if your goal was also to make some cash, you may want to go back to Event Planning 101. Though this might go a long way toward explaining your overpriced ticket/underwhelming line-up combo.

11:45pm-12:15am: the Drinks

Because we had to go pick up G. at the door anyway, I decided to make a run for the nearest combini and get ourselves some actual drinks before going back in. Thirty minutes of walking through the office-building wilderness of downtown Chiba (where even combinis close at 9pm), I made my way back to the venue with a couple cans and a bottle of the cheapest shochu known to man (was that or ¥400 whisky). One good thing to be said about festival staff: they didn’t give a rat’s ass about people walking in with their own booze (had we known that from the start…).

12:15am-1:30am: Underworld

Ostensibly the headliner of the night, despite being long past their peak and short one crucial member, they did OK. Or at least they did, once they stopped pretending they’d made any track worth listening after the year 2000 and reverted to the classics. Unfortunately, by then they had time left for about 3 tracks and forewent their unarguably best material of old, in favour of more mainstream-friendly fare.

2:15am-3am: Vitalic

After a small food-break (catching echoes of a DJ set by Depeche Mode‘s Andy Fletcher… Yes, the famous DJ Andy Fletcher. Hope you enjoy that new swimming pool, Andy!), a quickly-aborted attempt at getting rid of our drink tickets (bar queues even longer than before, if at all possible) and some more traipsing around to hunt for the last non-depleted soft-drink vending machine in the entire hall, we made it back in time for Vitalic‘s live set.

Easily the highlight of the night: being one of the best (and most prolific) electronic artist of the past decade and, judging by his recent releases, still very much alive and kicking. To boot, he has always excelled as both a DJ and a live producer (this time leant more on the latter, which probably made more sense in that context). His set closely resembled his super-awesome 2007 live tour, and was no less awesome.

One and only complaint: too short! Especially with a guy known for his ability to rock crowds on marathon 3h-DJ-sets, and when the rest of the night’s acts ended so unfathomably early (most of the event was wrapped up by 4am)…

As an aside, by the time Vitalic started, the crowd had thinned out quite a bit. Seems a large number of people came only for Underworld and left straight after. Jack only knows where they went, stuck at 3am, in the middle of Chiba’s secluded urban landscape. No complaint here: more space to jump around like a maniac to Anatoles

3am-4am: Joy Division/New Order That-one-guy-from-Joy-Division (who-isn’t-Bernard-Sumner) (and-did-not-hang-himself)

Most transparently shameless part in the aforementioned effort to make the line-up sexy-looking at the expense of anything resembling actual music (pretty sure the next step involved hiring Bez‘s make-up artist for a world-premiere flute solo set), one of the main closing act consisted of that one guy who played bass in two admittedly seminal bands of the 80s, playing his favourite records (or, more likely, his fans’ favourite records).

The result sounded exactly like what one would expect: “80s night at the Rose&Crown pub, downtown Harrogate, Yorkshire”.

And I don’t mean it in a particularly bad way. My man Peter played all the tracks you and I love: perennial Love will tear us apart (not once but twice: one in some sort of self-parodic easy-listening/latino cover, one as a sing-along), slew of Madchester-era 24-hour-party-people soundtrack classics (incidentally, cookie points for sticking in the actual Happy Mondays song in there, even if I was probably one of the only few people in the crowd to have ever heard of them), lost a considerable share of my musical esteem by playing hand-down the most atrocious Blue Monday remix ever made (think: relentless beat à la cheap 90s eurodance, such as last heard at the hands of some spiky-hair-gelled Croatian DJ from your last holidays at Club Med Corfu) but sort of redeemed himself by selecting the cheekiest news-appropriate closing track there ever was.

4am-ish: the End, my Friend

And then it was pretty much over, because in the world of Sonic Mania organisers, 4am (and a full hour before the very first train out of the suburban hellhole the event is taking place at) is a perfectly fine time to end things. I’ve been at high school dances that lasted longer than that.

It bears repeating: above-rant notwithstanding, it was an awesome night… A free-entrance level of awesome night.

The mere idea that some people paid 10,000 yens for the same and left in an orderly fashion, without breaking stuff or rioting through the streets of Chiba, is a strong testament to the resilience of the Japanese people.


  1. Can’t really comment on Sonic Mania, but have been to Summer Sonic a few times.
    And I would have to say that I have pretty much the same opinion; in that it’s good value for money if it’s free.
    Through my ex, I had free (or half-price) tickets for 3 years in a row (then we broke up, so no more freebies…)
    And, yes, lots of aging-in-it-for-the-money bands (e.g The Doors…WTF?!)
    But there were also some cool in-it-for-the-money bands: Duran Duran & Blondie to name 2.
    Also saw some new acts before they became famous (Bloc Party – v. impressive for a band with solely an EP out at that time)
    But the venue – soulless messe & baseball stadium – leaves a lot to be dersired.
    But yeah, good when it’s free. Not so if you’re paying upwards of 10 thou.

  2. Helen: yup, daytime Summer Sonic is not particularly better. A few more bands to pick from (and an even higher ticket price), but a completely retarded stage set-up and schedule (the kind where ‘Destiny’s Child’ precedes ‘Marilyn Manson’, while ‘Slipknot’ is playing at the same time on the other side of town)…

    The part where you have to traipse through half of Chiba (in the sweltering Summer heat) in order to go from one stage to the next, only adds to the injury…

  3. Well, it seems that organization of big events is not the best perk of Japan…
    They stopped and cancelled the big 六魂祭 (meta-matsuri with all Tôhoku prefectures together) on its first day because there were too many attendants. Duh.


  4. Pied: woa… now that sounds retarded.

    Yes, I seriously wonder how these guys manage to be so bad at musical event organisation: where are the guys who designed the train system when you need them…

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