SONICA Music Festival took place at Sidney Myer Music Bowl, Melbourne, on Friday, 17th March. Cyclone Wehner reviews.
K-pop has revolutionised the music industry. There’s now a huge global audience for East Asian artists beyond BTS – the Seoul boy band leading the so-called Korean wave. Since 2015, the New York-based company 88rising has styled itself as a platform for Asian creatives. The Japanese-Australian Joji, who lately blazed Laneway on the back of his chart-toppper ‘Glimpse Of Us’, is its biggest star.
One month out from BLACKPINK’s historic headlining set at Coachella, Melbourne witnessed the inaugural SONICA Music Festival. Promoted as “a music and arts festival celebrating all the best of Asian pop culture,” SONICA’s debut lineup included ZICO, HENRY and Amber, all apparently in Australia for the first time. (American rapper 1nonly cancelled “due to unforeseen circumstances.”)
ZICO – ‘Any song’
Australian festivals have been slow to acknowledge the domestic popularity of K-pop – PSY’s appearance at 2013’s Future Music Festival arose from the viral success of ‘Gangnam Style’ rather than a deeper recognition of an emerging movement. But, with SBS Pop Asia presenter Andy Trieu MCing for the evening, the all-ages SONICA was aimed at the music’s core demographic. The event celebrated not just the artists, but also the culture and community that surrounds Asian pop music, extending to the food trucks (the bubble tea queue was epic).
For a first-time event, SONICA’s production standard was high and the programming never wavered. The festival favoured East Asian names, but while K-pop is generally associated with groups, SONICA showcased solo artists.
With local DJ Small FRY warming up, SONICA’s opening international was Hong Kong’s Gareth.T. Kitted out in orange athleisure, the ‘boyfriend material’ singer performed a dynamic set of Cantopop, bolstered by his band. After an energetic start, Gareth segued into three acoustic numbers; 2021’s ‘honest’ put the spotlight on his vocal chops.
Among the biggest songs was ‘Whole World’, which featured some monumental rock guitar rips. An aspiring DJ, Gareth showed an affinity with EDM. The self-described “Hong Kong pop star” joked about the novelty of travelling business class to Australia. Notably, Gareth led the first of several “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie” chants at SONICA. Happily, there were no shoeys.
Gentle Bones slowed things down. The Singaporean singer-songwriter specialises in nocturnal bedroom soul that evokes both ’90s Babyface- and Diane Warren-penned classics and contemporary avant-R&B. ‘A Day At A Time’, originally cut as a duet with the Filipino vocalist Clara Benin, leans into emo SoundCloud rap aesthetics.
The balladeer carried the show solitarily, a DJ merely playing backing tracks. An early highlight was the tuneful ‘Better With You’. Bones donned a guitar for ‘Settle Down’ before closing with ‘dear me’. The quirky crooner mentioned that while in town he’d visited the Melbourne Museum, enjoying the exhibition Triceratops: Fate of The Dinosaurs.
The SONICA crowd rushed to the front for American-Korean idol Amber Liu, a former member of the K-pop girl group f(x) who’s often known simply as Amber. Dressed in rock chic, with artfully distressed jeans, Amber demonstrated her versatility as a singer, rapper and all-round entertainer.
Joined by a backing band and a group of dancers, she opened with the uptempo ‘EASIER’. Amber got down to a choreographed ‘Hands Behind My Back’ and flexed her voice for the power ballad ‘Numb’. Amber also performed the just-released ‘No More Sad Songs’. She closed with her “jumping song”, ‘Other People’. It was flawless – a concert within a concert.
Amber Liu – ‘Other People’
The Chinese-Canadian HENRY might have been the night’s most revelatory act, being a virtuoso musician in addition to pop star – and a total vibe. Launching his career as a member of SUPER JUNIOR-M, HENRY soon went solo. He’s since expanded into acting and only recently returned to music.
Boldly experimental, HENRY, a one-man band, looped his performances live à la James Blake. He established momentum early with an outlandish cover of Tones And I’s ‘Dance Monkey’. HENRY confessed to feeling “nervous” about revisiting ‘Monster’, a romantic ballad with Twilight overtones, but that trepidation was unfounded.
HENRY personalised Imagine Dragon’s ‘Believer’, repurposing a rubbish bin for percussion, then hitting the piano in a manner he subsequently admitted was “intense”. After revisiting 2017’s sweeping ‘It’s You’ (from the While You Were Sleeping OST), HENRY concluded by venturing into the crowd, playing Lil Nas X’s ‘Old Town Road’ on violin.
SONICA ended with ZICO, a legend in South Korea. The streetwise rapper, wearing black shades, staged a fleeting set with a DJ (and frequent foghorns) yet made his presence felt. He performed 2020’s ‘Any Song’ – a hit on TikTok and streaming platforms – early in the set.
While these days he embraces trap, ZICO’s setlist underscored his sonic range. He pulled off a bouncy ‘Artist’ and journeyed back in time with 2015’s synth-heavy ‘Boys And Girls’ in the encore. At one point he told the crowd, “I hope we can make good memories together.” ZICO delivered – as did SONICA.
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