As soon as I step into Kraftwerk, an impressive abandoned power plant in the heart of Berlin, I realise - Berlin Atonal would become my temporary natural habitat. Having said that, I am (pleasantly) surprised by the intensity and tenebrosity of the festival. Lasting from Wednesday to Monday morning, Atonal drags us into a frightful maw of unimaginable sonic power. In Twin Peaksian terms, those five days and nights spent in immense rooms of Kraftwerk parallel to visiting The Black Lodge. This extra-dimensional enigmatic space trap thousands of dressed-in-black spirits in search of existentialist music. Glowing lights, cinematic industrial surroundings and large scale audio visual installations support the overall feel of a sonic portal to The Black Lodge. If you haven’t been to Atonal, don’t get tricked by the list of big techno names. With some exceptions of programming in Tresor, Globus and OHM, the sound of Atonal is the opposite of functional. Artists, otherwise known for hedonistic dance music, in Atonal are revealing esoteric shadow-selves and inviting us to step into abyss. There are moments we want to rip off our clothes and get completely swept away by sound, although Atonal isn’t exactly a party festival.
Wednesday starts for me with the Japanese producer Ena + the Berlin based artist Rashad Becker. The duo has previously joined forces for New Assembly Tokyo festival. This time producers present a special piece designed for the oktophonic speakers of the Main Stage. Slow crawling drones and rhythms interspersing with sounds of saxophone and guitars evoke the images of spring. Meditative vibrating soundscapes bring a ray of light to the darkness of Kraftwerk, if only for a while.
Ena + Rashad Becker, photo: Helge Mundt
PYUR removes us from the Earth straight to the outer space. Sophie Schnell delivers atmospheric soundscapes littered with tribal vocals and liturgical chanting. From thunderstorm resembling percussion to using her own voice as a tool for abstraction at its finest, PYUR’s hypnotic live is a cosmic jungle.
The night (and morning) is spent with Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe (live), Lueke and Demdike Stare at OHM showcase curated by DS themselves. I have to admit, the Demdike Stare DJ set seems mediocre in comparison to their new A/V show with Michael England presented at the Main Stage on Thursday. The Manchester duo elegantly fills the room with syncopated rhythms, textured electronica and aesthetics of industrial, while visuals display the footage of relaxed people sailing on a boat. ‘Please don’t disappear’ – we hear a woman begging and I beg the duo not to stop playing.
LCC, photo: Helge Mundt
Thursday also blesses us with the performance of the Spanish duo LCC supported by Portuguese filmmaker Pedro Maia’s visuals. The unsettling live of Ana Quiroga and Uge Pañeda distort time and space. You can tell that Ana and Uge have mastered writing music for films, so immediately cinematic their set is. We follow LCC’s murky narrative until the very end, diving into dark ambient and animalistic experimental.
The live performance by JASSS is somewhat a disappointment. Those familiar with her sound are not able to recognise JASSS in Atonal. Perhaps it is trying too much to fit the concept of the festival that brings backlash. I would expect JASSS to dig further into something already explored and exploited, to continue to descend into her authentic abyss rather than trying to step into an unfamiliar territory. Towards the end, however, we are bewitched by the haunting voice of JASSS, so gentle yet sharp as knife.
JASSS, photo: Helge Mundt
Mick Harris is my personal hero of the night. For Mutual Grimness Harris is well known for drumming at Napalm Death. Tonight Mick is playing a live post-techno industrial set under the name of Fret. Ominous yet highly danceable Fret gets our hands and feet moving.
CoH stands out from the line up for his blend of synths, techno beats and Rammstein-like guitar riffs. The sound of the Russian producer is dirty and gritty, yet simultaneously entertaining. Just like vintage clothes bring to life endless possibilities of reinvention, CoH takes what is best from the past, mixes it with punk attitude and creates the most vibrant brutalist electronic music. Littered with tribal elements and inspired by metal, CoH sounds playful and refreshing.
Mick Harris, photo: Helge Mundt
On Friday we are seduced by the experimental charms of Puce Mary. The performance of the Danish noise artist Frederikke Hoffmeier is so visceral that I can’t help likening it to the sonic expressions of the New Yorker Margaret Chardiet aka Pharmakon. Pervaded by hammering percussion, gripping vocals and uncomfortable mass of brute noise, we are left struck in the gut. When your life is flashing before your eyes, you know that is the highlight of the fest!
Main / Regis is a collaboration not to be missed at Atonal. The Birmingham techno forbearer Regis and the former Loop guitarist Robert Hampson put noisy drone and industrial techno on our plate. Deep dark kick drum punches are interspersed with fast and tense build-ups. Bleak but danceable rhythms conjure feelings of a pleasant giddiness.
Main / Regis, photo: Helge Mundt
Next we see ALTAR, a collaboration between Roly Porter and Paul Jebanasam. Their set is characterised by high drifting tones, trembling synthesizers and fractured rhythms. The duo’s heterogeneous and eclectic approach to experimental gives birth to a truly unorthodox beast.
Shed + Pinch bring on dancefloor tsunami to Tresor. Vitriolic breaky techno makes everyone move in a sauna-like atmosphere of the club. Our bodies are dripping with sweat as Shed and Pinch hit our heads with the sickest basslines.
Saturday we start with the electronic music producer Fis and the computer musician Renick Bell. Bell’s live-coded algorithms are projected onto the massive screens of the Main Stage. The code is flowing up in accordance to arrhythmic experimental tunes, masterfully adjusted by Fis. While technologically innovative, Fis & Bell isn’t exactly an algorave in a sense of ‘rave’. The duo utterly digress away from dance-like styles and drown in pure experimental arrhythmia.
Fis + Bell, photo: Camille Blake
After three days of Atonal it is not easy to surprise us. Yet the world premiere of Shackleton + Anika with Strawalde + Pedro Maia makes our jaws hit the floor. Under the name of Behind the Glass, the collective presents an odyssey to an avant-garde electronica. The angelic voice of Anika, the mallets of Raphael Meinhart and the peculiar keys by Takumi Motakawa (who also joins Anika as a back vocals for the moment) is an exemplar of a flawless commingle between live and electronic. Add digital drawing by the Berlin artist Strawalde and voilà, the interdisciplinary performance takes you to an arresting place where different musical modes and visual arts boost one another.
Powell + Wolfgang Tillmans is the most peculiar live so far. The vocals is singing about the year 2017, then his out of tune voice drifts into abstract ‘la la la’. To me lyrics are of high importance, and if they are weak, they may ruin the whole set. This spoken word (or out of tune singing) is somewhat balanced out by powerful eclectic Powell beats. Visuals of dogs compensate the lack of direction but the set is still unconvincing. But who doesn’t like dogs?
Hypnobeat is a duo comprised of the virtuosa of techno Helena Hauff and the dancefloor killer James Dean Brown. Interestingly, Hypnobeat was first launched in 1983 whereas Helena joined James on stage in 2013. The duo exploits drum machines running through an array of effects to produce a kind of prototype techno. As much as I am fascinated with the gear, the soundscapes are very linear. Only towards the end of the set, Hypnobeat executes an artillery surprise of raw banging rhythms.
Shackleton + Anika + Strawalde, photo: Camille Blake
To be honest, the last time I’ve seen Broken English Club, I wasn’t blown away. At Atonal my reservations are gone within the very first minutes of the show. It’s euphoric to hear the old tracks being remade and sounding heavier, dirtier and sweeter. Oliver pours out his heart to a mid-tempo groove as we howl in unison to ‘Channel 83’ lupine howls. Spectacular!
On Sunday, in fairly conservative and sterile dark ambient genre, Belong impresses us with October Language. We magnetise to processed guitar loops, noisy, nostalgic and instantly appealing. October Language speaks to us through reverberation, disintegrating chords and distortion, - 'There are dark shadows on the earth, but its lights are stronger in the contrast'.
The definite highlight of Atonal is Pact Infernal. The duo hides their identity in obscurity of shamanistic ambient, industrial and techno. Flirting with spiritual ritualistic sound, Pact Infernal appears upon us as divine entities showing no mercy. Ear punishing pummelling percussion and enthralling drones are produced in varying tempos and intensity, making us perpetually curious and thirsty for more. Metallic factory-like sounds and chitter add to mysticism and exorcism Pact Infernal performs. The moments we feel (horror) techno rhythms, our bodies convulse from violent eargasms. Primordial beasts are let out as we sign the contract with the devil.
Pan Daijing, photo: Helge Mundt
Pan Daijing serves an antidote to the premonitions Pact Infernal has given us. Chinese artist Pan Daijing walks on stage with soprano Yanwen Xiong. Both sing, scream and perform a contemporary dance. The film by Ekaterina Reinhold and Pan Daijing strengthens the distinctive energy of Fist Piece. Theatrical, conceptual and thought-provoking Fist Piece speaks female empowerment. This very best interdisciplinary performance is my perfect finale of Berlin Atonal 2017.
Atonal can be a festival for party animals, but it offers much more than that. At the vanguard of experimental music, Atonal is characterised not only by excellent sound quality, but also it is rich of multidisciplinary collaborations between the brightest minds in visual and sonic venture. From Wednesday to Monday we have been drawing an audio-visual roadmap of the afterlife in the gloomy corridors of Kraftwerk, Tresor, OHM and Globus. There were loads of more artists on the bill that I haven’t included in this review due to time and space constraints and sites such as Schaltzentrale (the control room of the ex-power plant where various artists were playing modular synths) that I haven’t paid my respect to. Overall, be sure that Atonal’s line-up is meticulously selected to bring the most intelligent and boundaries-pushing electronic music to your ears. Bear in mind that it can feel crushingly dark at times too. Atonal requires an attendee that is as brave as the festival’s programming. Let's see what 2018 will bring about and drown in the darkness of Berlin Atonal 2018.