Arenal Sound Festival 2014

author MN date 08/08/14

Fuelled by curiosity and hopes of new discoveries, and a vision to expand into unseen territory amidst the myriad of festivals across the globe, our exploration of Arenal Sound inaugurates the first Rockfreaks.net visit to the Iberian peninsula. More specifically to Burrianas, Spain where more than 100,000 party-thirsty souls enter into a four day celebration of indie music and electronica. The festival is settled next to a beach, which is the definitive characteristic of Arenal. This year marks the fifth Edition of Arenal Sound, a gathering that has risen astronomically in popularity here in Spain, but not so much on the international scene. In fact, I did not encounter a single other international media within the festival grounds. My impressions of this festival are characterized by polar-opposites defined by mostly awe but some distaste. A festival that has an extreme potential to compete internationally is suffering heavily from organizational problems. That being said, I adored being at this festival, which, like our local Roskilde Festival, is best described as a festival driven by atmosphere, communitas, and most importantly, hedonism. The party takes main stage, whilst the actual musical experience serves as the backdrop and social lubricant to the masses, along with vicious amounts of alcohol, of course. This year’s headliners were a selection of relevant rock names such Biffy Clyro, Mando Diao, and Bastille. Veteran rockers Placebo were also billed, whilst the remaining headliners are mainly Spanish indie names and thumping house/electronica acts. After a recovery period of three days, I am now ready to tackle the impressions gathered at this cultural phenomena. First up, lets discuss the organization and camping.

Camping in the Spanish sun

The festival contains two days of warm-up camping along with some upcoming bands performing at minor stages. The following four days focus on the main music. The camping area is divided into two areas named Arenal and Malvarossa Camping. Arenal camping area lies next to the festival grounds while Malvarossa, regrettably, lies a solid 4-5 kilometers from the festival ground. Arenal camping tickets were swooped away with good reason as Malvarossa camping is a complete organizational disaster in my opinion. There are shuttle buses that bring you back and forth, but the lines are sometimes long and ones restlessness resolves in braving the storm by walking in the scorching heat. It cannot be emphasized enough how painstakingly annoying it was to make this journey every time, mainly because sleeping in tents in Spain is the equivalent of naptime in a sauna. The actual camping area is quite simply organized and does not reserve any distinct charm, people do their pre-drinking (no cans or glass bottles allowed) but there is no homemade sound systems, which other festivals usually allow. I would have loved to share some photos of the camping experience but the press is strictly not allowed to. Now disposed of the negative, lets talk about some of the very positive aspects of the camping. First of all, I feel inclined to make an honourable mention and commend the toilet cleaners for their extremely consistent work. Here, all the toilets are maintained clean and contain all amenities needed. Other festivals should take note of this. The Spaniards know how to keep their hygiene in order.

Organization

Arenal Sound is in many ways similar to Roskilde, but differs greatly in one distinct aspect, namely its reliance on sponsors and commercialism. It is clear that the festival does have a great deal of volunteers running the show, but a lot of the necessities, such as mobile charging is all privately owned. Arenal Sound should take note and consider increasing the user-involvement as it has proven to work at other festivals. Instead of hiring the Guardia Civil to take care of the entrance, then consider one supervisor instead of sixteen paid officials at the entrance. This would leave more resources to develop music profile and festival organization, which should be run directly by the organizers. The parking problem is something that needs to be improved as it took us an extremely long time to get settled and therefore we missed a couple of relevant shows. The stages are named Desperados, Negrita and Inside, the first two being alcohol products, showing their reliance on sponsorship. Desperados is the main stage and has double pits and can probably fit up to 40,000 visitors at shows. Negrita is the secondary stage with approximately half the capacity. The inside stage is settled on the beach next to a large shipwreck, giving some much needed identity to the stage. Thankfully, shows are organized in such a manner that they rarely coincide with each other. We had virtually no clashes in our schedule. Furthermore, first shows of the day are as late as 18.00, probably due to the heat, this does however mean that shows continue till as late as 9 in the morning.

The Sounders

Arenal Sound may not have the strongest line up to compete with festivals such as Sziget, Exit or even the local Primavera Sound, but the festival is inhabited by a very loveable crowd of jolly Spaniards who are affectionately called sounders for the duration of the festival. Much can be said about the Spaniards, but their ability to party, dance and drink like no other is undeniable. With a beach setting, extremely low drink prices and a reinvigorating sunshine, Arenal Sound sometimes feels paradise-like. The people were generally friendly and helpful, I did not experience any violence within the grounds, which is a good sign of a collaborative culture that is fuelled by compassion for others and a common mission to party it up as hard as humanly possible. Again, like Roskilde Festival, the socializing aspect takes a front seat to the musical experience.

The Musical Side

Arenal Sound boasts an interesting blend of indie pop/rock bands and a big array of electronica acts for the endless night parties. In terms of headliners, names such as Mando Diao and Biffy Clyro would never be certified the headlining stamp at bigger festivals, this probably reflects a lack of budget for really big names to grace their stage. Perhaps this is a conscious decision by the organizers, and it doesn’t seem to have bothered anyone. The late evening shows feature a big rock band, then the stage is taken over by the electronica heavyweights like Knife Party, Die Antwoord and Buraka Som Sistema.

Food and drink

Festival food is always mass produced and therefore the quality is never completely optimal, therefore Arenal Sound does not present a gastronomical adventure, but it does have a couple of successful booths present. Sandwiches are plentiful, the kebabs are surprisingly good, but the first prize goes to Koh Tao thai food that have the best Pad Thai I have tasted in a long time. That being said, this is Spain, a country with one of the richest culinary traditions on the planet, and there is plenty of time during the day to venture out of the festival area and find yourself something delicious that is not overpriced or mass produced. In the actual festival area, drinks are exchanged for tokens, which works perfectly fine, and the prices are very low. A liter of rum and coke sets you back four euros, whilst a beer cost two euros. It really is stupidly cheap. The selection is however based on what sponsors are present at the festival. This can make the experience of liquoring up a bit boring, to say the least.

DAY 1

Due to extreme organizational problems and a delay during the travels to the festival, the first day will only present a review of one band:

French Films @ 02:00 on Negrita Stage

Having performed at Roskilde Festival in 2012, the world has opened eyes to this Finnish indie-pop rock quartet. French Films play an ambient and optimistic take on indie rock with clear nods towards the simple melody. Inspirations can include The Beach Boys, but also more modern acts such as Arcade Fire. This is the first show at Arenal Sound and I stand excited to see what this festival has to offer. French Films enter on stage with broad smiles and unleash the first couple of songs and to my gratitude, the sound is nicely balanced and the soothing melodies of songs like “Take You With Me” and the big hit single “Golden Sea” are warmly received and mark the first settling feeling in me that the festival has officially started. Swaying rhythms and full-bodied guitar tones, yes please! Bassist Tuomas Asanti packed a great punch in tone as well. French Films is feel good music and a befitting start to the festival. [7]

DAY 2

After waking up in a scorching tent, most people immigrate to the beach of Burrianas where a light breeze can help sleep the impending hangover off. The beach is truly beautiful, the sand is clean and the cold beers sold by vendors cost only one euro. Secondly, the atmosphere is great and provides a perfect relaxing and lounging period before the music which for us today starts with arguably the biggest rock name of the festival. Namely, Scotland's hottest indie rock band Biffy Clyro.

Biffy Clyro @ 00:45 on Desperados Stage

Having recently become a great fan of their music, I stand eager like a child on his birthday, awaiting the trio to enter the Desperados Stage. Biffy Clyro recently released the mammoth double-album “Opposites” and their choice of tracks on the setlist has risen dramatically, having transformed themselves from a midsize band with a dedicated following into a stadium rock band with stardom written all over it. As the lights drop and the screen commercials fade out, Biffy Clyro walk on stage with the charismatic Simon Neil leading the way. The first trio of songs presents the epic “Different People” and the classic Biffy tracks “That Golden Rule” and “The Captain”. The last one really getting the crowd fired up and singing along commences. After the twangy track “Sounds Like Balloons”, Biffy Clyro drop one of their biggest hits in “Biblical” where Simon Neil greets the audience with the recognizable and amicable Scottish accent.

Now sporting a full beard, Neil is becoming much more raw in his performance and has a true rockstar look. His partner in crime, bassist James Johnston is his own foot-stomping self that plays his bass with penetrating force, but also provides good background vocals. There is a session guitarist somewhat hidden next to the drummer, and of course his guitar strokes give that extra depth that the trio clearly cannot pull off alone. Upon the onset of “Bubbles”, the crowd is completely immersed in the show and Simon Neil mesmerizes with his voice that is arguably better live than it is on record, perfectly proven on the acoustic “God Vs Satan”. On a technical aspect, the sound is larger than life and seamless in production.

With the more poetic tracks like “Many Of Horror” and “Black Chandelier” being performed, Biffy Clyro prove that their songs are not only catchy, they are also very well written. Closing the set, the epic “Mountains” provides the ultimate finish and a singalong that rings out into the night. I really don´t have much negative to say about this show, as Biffy Clyro truly rock on the live stage, especially with the undeniable presence of both Neil and Johnston, but drummer Ben Johnston also impresses with his tight and precise drumming. [8]

The Wombats @ 02:45 on Desperados Stage

Following Biffy Clyro are the Liverpudlians The Wombats, a band with youthful exuberance channeled through an indie-folk rock driven concoction with a focus on catchy choruses and new age britrock along the lines of Arctic Monkeys. Tonight, they play to a very packed audience at the Desperados Stage and as the intro commences, the first couple of songs are riddled by lower volumes and bad calibration, but luckily things seem to get fixed quite quickly.

The trio have an enjoyable energy on stage and move vividly around the stage greeting all the attendees. Lead singer Matthew Murphy is eager to impress and as we learn, this is also the first show he has performed in front of his American girlfriend who surprisingly ended up standing with our group of friends.

The Wombats are a lot of fun and their music is, like French Films, fuelled with a sense of optimism, especially heard in songs like “Your Body Is A Weapon” and “Moving To New York” which really get the crowd going. One of my personal highlights is “Techno Fan” which is performed with gradual intensity. The set closer is the hit single “Lets Dance To Joy Division” that is clearly the song that everyone actually knows, despite the obvious language barrier when performing in front of a Spanish audience. This show was a good effort from these Brits, who deserve their respect. [7]

DAY 3

The great thing about Arenal Sound is that it does not contain a myriad of things to do. Where other festivals overload on the sporting activities, creative projects, spoken word, politics and games. Arenal Sound is all about relaxing during the day and partying during the night. In essence, it is the only way one can survive this four day test of endurance.

Russian Red @ 20:15 on Desperados Stage

As I enter the festival area, I look towards finding something interesting to hear and Russian Red fit the bill. Russian Red is an indie singer songwriter project fronted by the beautiful Madrileña, Lourdes Hernandez who has very distinct vocal abilities, like a mix of First Aid Kit, Florence And The Machine and Lindi Ortega. Her stage presence and performance skills are commendable and it is big surprise for me to hear a local representative write and sing in English convincingly. One of the more rocking tracks is “Casper” where the distorted guitar drives up the energy level at a show which is otherwise quite melancholic and calm. On the contrasting end, Lourdes impresses with her vocal abilities during the calm “Cigarettes”. The suited guitarist and bassist handle their instruments well whilst Lourdes serenades the crowd. A good surprise for me. [7]

Placebo @ 00:15 on Desperados Stage

Todays biggest name is Placebo, one of the most interesting rock bands from the 1990´s. Some may argue whether or not Placebo still remain relevant to this day, but I for one feel that Placebo retain a timeless place in rock music history because of their uniqueness. Brian Molko is without a doubt one of the most original and iconic rock singers of his generation, and his high notes with a slight nasal touch is instantly recognizable and luckily, he is a pretty damn good songwriter as well, even David Bowie, the king of androgyny, can attest to that. As we approach the stage in good time, it is clear that this is one of the most anticipated shows and our photographer got very lucky to get the last place in the pits for this show. As the heavy synth-bass of the track “B3” starts off the show in style, Brian Molko and his companions enter the stage ready to take on the Spanish crowd. The crowd roars with euphoria as the newest single “Loud Like Love” is lashed out quite early in the set.

The hit parade continues as “Every You, Every Me” is performed, this being Placebo's most popular track, the crowd reacts accordingly. The punk-driven guitar riffs delivered by Molko are nicely combined with Elsdals´ bass work, especially in “Rob The Bank”. However, most impressive tonight is the drumming skills of Steve Forrest who really bashes the living hell out of his drums - Truly a great musician who deserve recognition. With over six records, the setlist spans an entire career of a band that should be inaugurated into the British hall of fame for managing to differentiate themselves from the grungy scene of their predecessors. Another highlight of the evening comes when the trio starts to play a beautiful rendition of a Kate Bush cover “Running Up That Hill”. Placebo deliver thus far, along with Biffy Clyro, the best show at Arenal Sound 2014. [8]

Bastille @ 22:15 on Desperados Stage

What was once a solo project of Dan Smith, Bastille have developed into a household name in the indie scene. Dan Smith, who was born on 14th of July, named the band after the storming of the Bastille which happened on that exact day back in the French revolution, hence the project's name. Despite being formed into a quartet eventually, Bastille largely remains the brain work of Dan Smith. As I stand awaiting the band to enter the stage, I look around and see what immense pop value this band has as the girls scream their lungs out as the star of the night walks out to the tunes of “Bad Blood”. Things quickly get heavier with “Weight Of Living, Pt. II”, where the synthpop sounds so very characteristic of Bastille vibrate the foundations of the stage.

Dan Smith has become a very seasoned performer and I rarely see any missteps in his vocal abilities. Upon the onset of “Laura Palmer”, it is clear that this song has received some sort of cult status considering its relation to Twin Peaks. The crowd sings along heavily during this song, but especially during the onset of “The Things We Lost In The Fire” there is a collective aura surrounding the crowd who many are completely mesmerized by Smith´s charm. The amount of focus that this singer gets is astounding,

Dan Smith is more like a famous pop star than the lead singer of a band. To the conservative minded, this egotism is perhaps a bit revolting, but I hold my guard down because Smith can sing and he performs with conviction. During the encore, Bastille return to perform their two absolute biggest hits. First up is the cover of the SNAP! 90´s track “Rhythm Is A Dancer” that really gets the crowd dancing collectively. Ending the set is the inevitable “Pompeii” which has tremendous sing-a-long value. Bastille are more pop than they are rock, but at least it is performed well and clearly with no backing tracks etc. It will be interesting to see how far these youngsters will go and how their sound will evolve. [7]

Mando Diao @ 00.45 on Desperados Stage

Upon arriving to the jam-packed Desperados stage, I realize that Mando Diao is one of the bands I know least about. I know they are Swedish and that they have two singers. So with a clean slate, I venture through the crowd to witness a stage covered in an arctic theme with icebergs protruding from the stage. The crowd seems extremely excited to see this band so I look up in anticipation as the first member walks on stage wearing a white Bedouin-like costume.

It is then revealed that it is exactly a year ago a friend of them died in a car accident and in fact tonight's show will be dedicate to the ones affected. The first song “If I Don´t Have You” is performed in a cloud of ice smoke spreading around the stage. The theatricism of the show tonight is a clear indication of where they are going with this. Mando Diao are kind of hard to label, and with this theatricism of their show, their originality is further accentuated. The song “Sweet Wet Dreams” is one of their newer tracks and garners great support from the crowd. “Mr Moon” is performed at the midway mark of the show and I start to notice the considerable variety in their music. One of the singers, Gustaf Norèn, is a very poetic character, who proclaims his hatred for violence. A respectable recognition of the conflict in the Gaza Strip is delivered with the words “Please no violence here, kids are dying in Gaza”. It is usually dangerous for musicians to start bringing in political conflicts, but Gustaf manages to sound highly convincing in his rhetoric. Towards the end of the set I start to realize that I actually know quite a few of these songs, especially the last two in form of the hit single “Dance With Somebody” that sees the euphoria reach sky limit, and the set closer “Black Saturday” which brings in some real rocknroll.

The last two minutes of the show are very strange as the duo start to bounce around as if having a stage party along to some electro music. This was a bit of an awkward but funny ending to a show that surprised me at every level. The sound quality was very good, and they closed the festivals rock performances with style. [8]

Closing Remarks

Festivals like these have a strange cleansing effect. They allow you the freedom to retire the time/space relation of domestic life into a lucid dream where impulses reign free. You can kiss, drink, hug, sleep, laugh and eat at your own pace and style. This often leaves one slightly black and blue by the end of it all, but strangely enough, you feel reinvigorated after the obligatory two day rest. Arenal Festival was one of the most exhausting experiences of my life, but it was very inspiring as a writer and I enjoyed myself at almost every moment. Organizational problems are of course frustrating, but the smiles of "sounders" and the euphoria in the air pulls you out of your nitpicking. As tradition dictates, the following section will discuss some of the “good” and “bad” and the “ugly” of the festival. Therefore I leave you with these last impressions, and I thank Arenal Sound for one hell of a party and it certainly won´t be the last time I venture out to the beaches of Burrianas for a week of sun-soaked revelry.

The Good

The Sounders – The Spaniards know how to party and respect each other.

The weather - Tough at times, but sunshine is always better than rain.

The Beach – The definitive aspect of Arenal Sound is the easy access to the refreshing waters. Without the beach, the camping experience would be absolute hell.

Prices – Arenal Sound had some of the cheapest deals I have ever experienced in Europe. The beach area was also plentyful with cheap bars and vendors selling you anything you can imagine.

Clean Toilets – The hygiene level at this festival is pretty impressive, the toilets even flush so other festivals TAKE NOTE.

The Bad

Lack of extra entrances: It was very tiring to have to walk around the festival area constantly to find only one entrance. Perhaps it is possible to make smaller but more entrances.

Lack of Water: The weather is scorching and drinking water should be a human right and easily accessible everywhere. In the festival grounds we were forced to buy bottled water constantly.

Better mobile charging stations that stay open 24 hours.

More variety on the drinks menu, too many sponsorships.

The Ugly

Distance to Malvarossa camping: Anyone having to stay at the second camping area constantly had to go on a massive pilgrimage to arrive at the music. I would like to see Arenal Sound investigate how to solve this problem.

Photos by: Allan Mutuku

Hasta luego, Arenal!

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