It's half past four in the morning, in Barcelona's equivalent of Earl's Court, and a down-the-District-line estuary accent pierces the night air: “Espana! Make some fuckin' NOISE!” Is it a dealer? Is it a wide boy? Is it the cast of Eastenders out on a jolly? Nope, it's the silliest act of the 1990s pop-rave scene. Yes, Altern-8 are back, and they're closing Sonar 2007.

Let's go back a couple of days, to the start of the festival. Unlike most such events, Sonar is split into five distinct parts, with large gaps between them: three day sessions in the centre of town, and two much larger night sessions, at the aforementioned complex slightly out of the town centre. The former is the hipster element, with much head nodding along to unlistenable noise rock, while the nights offer unashamed rave for unashamed former ravers.

Sonar isn't just about music, either: officially, it's a festival of arts, involving visual arts, installations and even a magic show. The magic show turns out to be a bit of a curate's egg: the American card trickster is entertaining, but the Mexican hypnotist ends up passing off a couple of easy stage tricks as complex hypnosis. There are a few clever art installations, as well as several films, some of which feature performers from the rest of the bill. For instance, there's 'Awesome: I Fuckin' Shot That!', the Beastie Boys fan-filmed concert documentary, and 'Zidane: A Portrait of the 21st Century' which is soundtracked by Mogwai.

It doesn't start promisingly, but then festivals never do. Thursday at midday, in the CCCB/Macba buildings in the centre of Barcelona, just a few hundred metres from the city's throbbing tourist-rip-off district, Las Ramblas, and a few hundred people are milling around, enjoying the sunshine. For reasons undisclosed, the festival's sponsors have chosen to go with American brewer Anheuser-Busch as their drinks sponsor, which means that the weak and unpalatable Budweiser is the only beer to be had inside the festival grounds. It's a rare lapse of taste over the course of the weekend, which begins with Baseline, who promise a glitchtronica spectacular, but don't really deliver.

They're followed a little later by a the Chinese duo FM3, who are playing the Buddha Machine. The machine is a small device about the size of a pocket radio, which plays a series of tones that can be changed by pressing a button. What unfolds on stage is the pair of performers, playing what appears to be a very strange game of chess with several of the machines, miked up and relayed over a large video screen. It's a fascinating idea, but the ambient noises were too, well, ambient, for most people, most of whom could then be found at the outdoor 'Village' stage, getting down to The Invisible. This is an avant rock project of Matthew Herbert and brother Tom, melding metal, pop and Japanese classical music, so the programme says. Once again, it's interesting in theory, but in practice it gets tiring after a couple of songs. There are several DJs taking the strain in between bands, but few who really stand out, although James Holden puts in a spirited set at the main outdoor stage. There's no rave-up tonight, so things wrap up with Burning Star Core and Jazzfinger on the Complex stage, both of whom offer a droned-up take on things.

Friday begins with the entertaining Bacanal Intruder, who offers up the first true glitch performance of the weekend, and after a break for lunch (it's very civilised) things take a darker turn with the arrival of Sunn O))), who grind through a long sludge metal set. It's surprisingly engaging, although many of the audience find themselves leaving to sit in the atrium outside the main stage, where it's almost, but not quite, as loud as it is inside. Warp Records' Clark follows on the same stage, with a set that's – surprisingly – much more accessible even than his recent album. You could go so far as to call it pop-electronica, if that phrase didn't have connotations of cheapness.

Saturday's daytime highlights include the always-excellent Junior Boys playing to a packed main stage at sundown, and Wolf Eyes and Sunn O))) side project KTL making a much darker, sludgier, louder (much louder) sound from inside one of the halls. As with the main act the day before, a lot of people seem to find that the best place from which to hear (at least as far as their eardrums are concerned) is outside the hall.

But it's really the two night events that are the heart of Sonar. Held in a giant conference centre on an industrial estate in one of Barcelona's western suburbs, they dwarf the day events in size, with perhaps ten times as many people attending. The vibe is much more straight-up rave, too, with more big-name DJs in attendance (in fact, some festival regulars have been heard to complain about the regularity with which Richie Hawtin, Jeff Mills and Dave Clarke pop up in the listings). But the biggest name is that of the Beastie Boys, who are playing two shows: one is an exclusive instrumental performance, while on the Friday night they take to the main stage to entertain the crowd with an all-hits set. They're able to fill the giant, cavernous SonarClub stage with sound, but while it's still fun, and still funny, their live performance lacks a certain something. Maybe they're just too old to spin it the way they used to.

Then it's off to the Park stage for a truly stunning set from Japanese hip-pop legend Cornelius, who's come fully loaded with band, dancers and a superb video show. Dizzee Rascal is surprisingly good, given the bad press his live shows sometimes get, while the DJ sets from Justice and Simian Mobile Disco pull the crowds in with good tunes.

The most interesting sets of the night, though, are in the Lab stage, to the backdrop of a phone-company-sponsored dodgem arena, where Radio 1's Mary-Anne Hobbs leads off a three-hour dubstep marathon. It takes in Hobbs, Kode9, Oris Jay and the excellent Skream, and gets better and better as it goes on, never letting up once. Who could have foreseen that dubstep would be the ideal successor to rave?

It's rave's turn the following night, although not before 80's US absurdists Devo take a bow on the main stage, delivering a taut, unexpectedly funky set of classics, and Mogwai put in one of their best performances of the last few years on the Lab stage, including a deft vocal tribute to Devo. It's also a learning experience: you haven't truly understood the words “Muchas gracias” unless you've heard them in the original Glaswegian. Rahzel puts in a brilliant beatboxing performance, although, like many current hip-hop acts, he's a little too reliant on the put-your-hands-in-the-air school of crowd pleasing for his own good. Matthew Dear's Big Hands are a lounge-jazz disappointment, while the biggest surprise of the night, and not a pleasant one, comes in the form of Fangoria. The programme puffs them up as “a mixture of provocation, humour, universal truths and synthetic melodies” but what appears on stage is barely Eurovision standard bad disco. The bigger surprise is that the hip Spanish ravers seem to love it. Must be a cultural thing.

And then, to close things up, who better than Altern-8? They're loud, and unsubtle, and everything that the hipster bands of the previous couple of days are not. Like many of those bands, though, the novelty begins to fade after a while. It is the highlights – Mogwai, Sunn O))), Devo, Skream – who stick in the memory, but it is the Altern-8s of Sonar who make the whole thing fun.















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