Spectacle, Excess & Experimentation: Berlin Atonal 2017 Reviewed

Art & Culture

‘Power stations are wicked…if you just stand in the middle of a really massive one so you get a really weird presence and you’ve got that hum. You just feel electricity around you. That’s totally dream-like for me…it’s just like a right strange dimension’ Aphex Twin, 1992

There are times at this year’s Berlin Atonal when this reflection, from Richard D. James, is powerfully confirmed as an incontrovertible truth. The Kraftwerk complex, a post-industrial cathedral of monumental scale and the chosen site of the festival since its reactivation in 2013, resounds with an electricity that at its best moments, feels less like an unreal trip than a forceful violation of prescribed limits and expectations. 

This year the uniform is invariably black (spot the Posh Isolation tees), piercings are prolific and people seem to be perpetually rolling cigarettes. But looking beyond the reductions of the surface level there’s a sincerity of appreciation here, balanced with a relentless appetite for hedonism, which distinguishes Atonal from what can often be the undemanding gratifications of dance music festivals and the abstruse conceptualisations of more avant-garde minded ones. With the headline programme and the afterparty sessions there’s parity between both these compulsions. 

In the main hall of the complex, extensive alcoves lie at the side of the stage, concrete girders frame the crowd area and the ceiling seems to stretch on forever. It’s an imposing space to step into, unlike anywhere else, and on the first night the hall hosts a programme that acknowledges a cerebral prehistory of modern electronic music with a series of performances conceived around Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Oktophonie score and a later billing for the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. It’s a testament to the innovatory prescience of both that their work sounds ideal in this context and there’s a sense from each of these airings that the future has only just caught up with their respective visions. The workshop sound particularly enlivened, less defined by their association with soundtracks and library music cues and more of their own entity, rewired for something longform and contemporary. 

As the night trails on other spaces come into play, including Ohm, the intimate club that sits next to the main hall behind a few discrete steel doors. Tiled walls, a plush retro-futurist wraparound bar like something out of Rainier Werner Fassbinder’s ‘World On a Wire’, and a heated throng throughout the festival give the club a more confidential and inviting atmosphere, at least where the more immediate dynamics of the dancefloor are concerned. Tonight Demdike Stare acquit themselves well throughout two separate DJ sets, precisely because they diverge from the general template of 4/4 techno often seen elsewhere. Chris SSG sets them up well with a set in the same vein, playing Ciccone Youth’s (aka Sonic Youth) version of Madonna’s ‘Into The Groove’ in the closing moments of his appearance, a choice that sounded like an inspired contrast to the uniform momentums you’d expect in these after party zones. 

From there paths lead to Stage Null – an open lower level stage below the main hall – where Carla Dal Forno doesn’t disappoint, adding a dubwise fragility to the innovative early electronics, predominant forge and occasional arrhythmia witnessed in the main hall and in Ohm at other times during the night. Yet by this time the temptation to wander around this space on a first visit proves a compelling activity in itself. Commitment to any one area for a newcomer is difficult, not because of any navigational inconvenience, but on account of the overwhelming aspect of it all. 

Other smaller spaces attest to that notion too. In the Schalzentrale (‘Control Center’), another room set aside from the main hall behind a steel door, what looks like the ‘brain’ of the former power station (a league of switchboards on each side of a small room) has been turned into an improvised lab filled with banks of modular synths. With plants situated in many of the controls disused recesses it’s like something straight out of JG Ballard’s ‘The Drowned World’, a dystopic and surreal technological interior characterized by obsolescence and new sub-tropical growth. Lurid green lighting helps to affirm that evocation. Meanwhile in the Projektionsflaeche (‘Projection Room’) transfixing iridescent visuals and a seated area provide some psychedelic solace, or none at all, depending on your level of inebriation. 

After attaining some semblance of bearings, the second night accommodates a more settled itinerary, in the sense that an introduction to Kraftwerk’s various spaces means paths are more fixed, less digressive. However the sounds that open proceedings are far from benign as the Trahnie Farewell, a trio comprised of Lucio Capece, Mattin and Morten Olsen, veer into a clamorous chaos built on excruciating screeches of saxophone, electronic noise and rusted sheet metal. The percussionist becomes the central focus, alternating as he does between single drum machine strikes and a pounding of said scrap metal. A concerted listen reveals how each of their contributions – a peal of saxophone, a leak of noise, a smack of synthetic and nonsynthetic percussion – all individually beat their own path of prang and turmoil but at climactic moments miraculously coalesce. 

They set a formidable tone, yet the sense of spectacle continues with Shaun Baron Carvais who’s performance is comprised of moving broad strokes of ambient. Otherwise known as Shlømo (the Taapion Records owner and techno producer who performs another set under that alias at Null on Friday) Carvais’ set attains the semblance of a worthy prologue before Abul Mogard, possessing a cinematic scale and conveying a surprisingly warm sense of affect. Mogard is no less introspective but establishes a heavier undertow, mirroring the crepuscular landscapes displayed on screen with a clouded, bone-rattling 
performance which seems intent on demolishing the foundations of Kraftwerk in slow motion. Both Carvais and Mogard represent an apotheosis of grandiose melancholia that seems somehow both sparse and minimal yet dense and devastatingly impactful. 

Although these performances certainly leave favourable impressions the stunning highlight of the second night and possibly the finest performance at the festival belongs to Demdike Stare. They take to the stage and immediately a pulverised concrète signal rings out, setting off a backdrop of luminescent green waveforms that pulse and ripple like a sonar frequency sent from some unimaginable crypt. They remain in a similarly abstract mode for an extended period before crowd favourites from their latest record Wonderland resound, opening up a contorted rush of screwed voices and frenetic percussion that, in their wild trajectories, approach the manic surges of jungle and juke. Yet even while evoking these templates there’s an unpredictable edge to everything they conjure, and there’s a fathomless resonance to their delivery that confirms that their performance is one where they make the main hall of Kraftwerk utterly their own. The visuals, provided by Michael English, are a fascinating display which are, in many ways, a key factor in their success, veering through an identity parade of fierce drag queen voguing, slowed down footage of selfie-stick wielding tourists at Niagara Falls and breakdance duels that, again in slow motion, take on the semblance of ecstatic exorcisms. It feels like the first time at the festival when something both kinetic and upfront yet meticulous and formulated is performed, with sound and vision synchronized magnificently. A finely struck balance between urgency and deliberation. 

Complementing the images of enraptured states displayed by English, a few hours later in Ohm Yousuke Yukimatsu embodies euphoria in a DJing style that is as eclectic as it is frenzied. Symphonies, hard rock, glitch and heavy techno are all blended into a mix that, if not exactly seamless, is far more interesting than a straightforward after party set. The moments that set the crowd off are offset by just as many moments that defy a fixed momentum. Rather than remaining stoic he gets involved too, fitfully headbanging, taking his shirt off, displaying all the signs that he’s immersed in the activity but still having a good time. It’s this freewheeling approach that defines and heightens the enjoyment here. 

As the night progresses proceedings get concertedly heavier. Snatches of Mick Harris (drummer with Napalm Death) and his performance as Fret confirm that his first new material under the moniker is a welcome return, as industrial rhythms jostle and pile up into a busy, percussive-heavy roar, as if this former power station’s dormant machines were being resurrected by the zeal of one man from the midlands. Judged by his performance it makes sense that his last material under the moniker came via a specially conceived sub-label of Downwards (the short lived offshoot Resonance) as there’s a rough yet highly defined engineering here – one that vacillates between halting syncopation and uninhibited power – that places this alongside the later period work of Regis and Surgeon. 

Afterwards I witness Nene Hatun, a pseudonym inspired by a female Turkish revolutionary. She comes out onto the stage dressed in a burka and, without any backing, proceeds to wail an aria that sounds like an anguished call to arms. She proves to be an interesting and necessary inclusion on a line-up that up until this point had felt well curated and sequenced yet largely European in scope. Saying that after this seething, captivating introduction the set diverges into familiar territory with robust, slightly warped techno that makes for perfectly compelling viewing but feels like a lost opportunity, a compromise that could have been so much more given how intense a full performance in the same vein as her introduction could have been. 

Ending the night on a rude high, Pessimist rolls out icy, abyssal, three-dimensional soundscapes brusquely invigorated by assertive D&B lurch. For a few too-short hours spectral currents of UK rave and soundsystem sonics are transplanted into the gut of Kraftwerk adding moments of roughhouse unruliness to the predominantly earnest, grave and brooding aspects of what I’d seen so far. Despite the tenebrous and chasmal aspects of his sound and the restrained way in which he envelops vestiges of rave, hardcore, jungle and D&B in an underworld of coruscating expanse, his set comes as a relief after some serious investment earlier. That’s not to say there’s not depth here, there’s plenty. But valid appreciation can be found just as much in the throng as it can at a safer distance. Countless trips to the bar ensue as do unashamed gun-finger salutes. Drenched in sweat. Mad eyes. Pilsner, prosecco and hastily inhaled fags. A high point for him. Probably, in the eyes of everyone else at least, a low point for me. 

The third evening heralds a beginning which is tough and physical from the off but somewhat underwhelming. I can’t help feeling Yair Elazar Glotman’s presentation of his project Blessed Initiative suffers from a ponderous tedium. There are plummets of signal glitch and swathes of atmospheric drone in abundance yet there’s something missing which makes this an unremarkable conflation of what you might hear on the PAN label these days and what you always hear in the overlap between dark ambient, drone and noise. There’s not much to shout about when the Raster-Noton signed project Belief Defect come on either, just a bit more heft and more of the same stern conformity. 

This only serves to heighten anticipation for Puce Mary’s set which is a short sharp shock of obstreperous lethality. At certain points the machine noise that rings out sounds as if she’s circumvented any use of electronics for power tools. Her vocals are just as harsh, an uproar of vocal mutilation that prompts her to make several visits to the barrier separating artist and audience. She exhibits a vicious lack of control which is thrilling. Instead of a fixed glare at her equipment Frederikke Hoffmeier writhes, rotates and howls suggesting that this is an outpouring which simultaneously purges mind and exhausts body. However abrupt the ending is the brief duration and the sudden finish is judicious as it leaves a lasting aftermath. Besides, she does more in half an hour than many at Atonal manage in a much longer timeframe. 

The overriding feeling after her set is that this is more like it and that notion is consolidated by a collaborative performance helmed by Main and Regis. As with much of Atonal’s program, the duo begin by outlaying cavernous tracts of ominous ambient. The atmospheric overture. Though before long the strident influence of Regis is felt, shifting this set into another gear and giving this the feel of something that could just as well be suited to the basement heat of Tresor. From what I can tell it’s Robert Hampson (not Stephan Mathieu, his former acolyte) that handles the shadowy, delicate shades of ambient that constitute the background and serve as an atmospheric basis for O’Connor to unload eruptive clusters of drubbing percussion. In this I don’t discern much of Main’s identity but this feels like a moot point at the time as the performance progressively invigorates the crowd. Halfway between the astonishing podcast Regis delivered for The Bunker’s mix series and the canonical 12”s of the British Murder Boys, this, along with Puce Mary, is outstanding in how it maintains a fierce sense of direction throughout. 

Later on I’m introduced to Tresor with a preliminary walk down a tunnel that makes the whole experience feel like a gladiatorial encounter. An entrenched runway of flashing lights opens out into a pitch-black cell of smoke, bodies and overpowering bass. I’m greeted by Anastasia Kristensen’s set, which motors along in a headlong hard techno blur making only occasional detours, including an airing of Joey Beltram’s ‘Energy Flash’. There is, however, a greater range in Shed + Pinch’s set, where Berlin meets Bristol in a back to back with as much slam and kick as there is drop and rumble. A seamless combination, this represents one of the more relentless and intoxicating flashpoints during the after-party hours. The memory of a topless man scaling the cage that divides the booth from the crowd flashes across my mind as I exit. 

Globus, a venue upstairs from Tresor decorated in gaudy neon but a fine enough place to get some air, is divided into a bar and dancefloor. After Shed + Pinch’s ruthless display downstairs, in the darker confines of the latter area, Intergalactic Gary provides respite in the form of a more colourful but just as coherent variance between acid, italo, disco and proto-house. It’s exactly the sort of exuberance that’s needed after the unwavering levels of noise, BPM and bass tonnage that have emanated from each stage tonight. This time, the night ends on an unexpectedly light and jubilant note. 

The penultimate night at Atonal sets out on a different course than the previous evenings with Shackleton, Anika & Strawalde’s presentation of ‘Behind The Glass’. Positioned between two screens which display Pedro Maia’s mysterious scans of mythic symbols and phonetic script, Sam Shackleton & co develop a layered, minimalistic, tribal energy intermittently lifted out of its recondite and hypnotic elements by the Anglo-Germanic sprechgesang of Anika. It sounds far more convincing live than it does on record, especially with a visual counterpart to strengthen the enigmatic primitivism that the sounds convey. With Atonal frequently offering a challenging programme of music centred on transgression and physicality, this accommodation of a more mind-altering experience is refreshing. Something lysergic and psychoactive smuggled in amongst the brute force and reality of the rest of the line-up. It proves to be a set that has more in common with Atonal’s opening sets – the Octophonie performances and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop – than anything else that transpires. 

Then with Roll The Dice I witness a fascinating conclusion in which Peder Mannerfelt stands on the table where his and Malcolm Pardon’s equipment is laid out and proceeds to hammer what looks like a degraded mirror. Dazzling reflections shimmer out into the crowd and the set concludes in a shower of noise. Even seeing only part of this performance proves striking and this unconventional performativity becomes somewhat of a prelude to one of the more controversial appearances at the festival, the linkup between Powell and renowned photographer and artist Wolfgang Tillmans. Like Yukimatsu the attitude and energy of Powell is infectious. Behind a bright orange module and with an accompanying duo handling electronics behind their own respective workstations, Powell bounces around with a lairy sort of glee. As on his debut full length coherency is sought through incoherence as the set fluctuates rapidly, a series of spiky jump-cuts often built on Russell Haswell-like conflagrations of acidic fizz and interruptive beats that sound like they’ve been torn from the repositories of EBM and post-punk and spontaneously reassembled. At one point Powell bellows ‘ARE YOU READY?!’ as if impersonating a low-rent wrestling announcer. Some of the crowd greet him with a cheer, others look bemused, a mixed reaction that can probably be applied to how this performance was generally received. From where I was standing there was a lot of fun to be had, a mixture of irreverence – the kind often found on his Melon Magic show on NTS – and heavy-handed sincerity. The latter comes from Tilmans who’s vocals – at least the ones expressed in English – are awkward, vague, repetitive, almost cringeworthy. Vainglorious ideals about the dichotomy between highs and lows and democratic participation. His visuals skirt on the side of insipid too but are a lot more tongue-in-cheek with a slide show of puppy photos memorably arising at one point. I’m fucked if I know how or why but somehow it all works. At certain junctures Powell sounds completely different, even, at one point, moving into a stirring beatless phase, demonstrating a surprising sensitivity with a sound more in the way of affective shimmer than his usual roughly hewn mutant designs. Tilmans words and images leave more questions than answers but are similarly compelling all the same. There was an entertaining exuberant impulsiveness in this set that was refreshing, an attribute that can be sorely lacking in contexts not dissimilar to Atonal. If nothing else it lightened things up a bit. 

Saying that, when proceedings do get dour, in the hands of Broken English Club there’s little cause for criticism. Over the last few outings for Jealous God, Cititrax and now Ron Morelli’s LIES, BEC aka Oliver Ho has managed to carve out an identity that draws on the provocative lineage of industrial music without resorting to derivative conventions. Tonight concentrated waves and churns of noise sit alongside a dystopian club music that has, in recent times, looked to the esoteric currents lurking in dismal realities (‘Suburban Hunting’) and desolate landscapes (‘The English Beach’) for inspiration. The performance here, although keen on detours and interludes, is tight and coordinated, with the noise serving as both an ideal harbinger for the ensuing havoc of Ho’s more floor-ready moments as well as a mesmeric full-scale disintegration once the thump dies out. In either sonic capacity, noise or techno, Ho exhilarates the crowd, affirming the notion that the deterioration, decay and dystopic concepts that have characterized his last two records are capable of being conducted into something irresistibly charged. 

As always the parties continue in Null and Tresor later that night where a brief sighting of Shifted confirms his coldly atmospheric techno is similarly geared towards intimate immersion as it is vigorous ascension but there’s little else that stands out. More serviceable techno into the early hours. It’s left to the last evening to provide the appropriate climax. 

The first part of the evening, as it was in similar fashion last year with Silent Servant’s Jealous God takeover, is handed over to Varg and his Nordic Flora series, the title for a trio of records he’s released on Northern Electronics and Posh Isolation. With this takeover the concept appears to have become a banner for a host of new artists and collaborations. A spoken word precis opens it all delivered in a deadpan drawl and sounding like wanky artspeak before Sky H1 appears. Development is gradual but once her synthesis of trance and pop shaded techno accumulates energy and gets into its stride its disarmingly poignant and there’s as much expressive weight in her performance as there was on last year’s ‘Motion’ EP. 

If there’s one characteristic that links her with the next performer, Chloe Wise, it’s a sense that pop forms are being played with. In Sky H1’s case, the colour of such forms is finely warped. In Wise’s case, the reference points and attitudes of pop culture are perversely parodied. Her execution is built on a sardonic stream of anti-maxims that seem to simultaneously skewer and celebrate the superficial intimacies of the internet era. As on her appearance on the third part of the Nordic Flora series, Wise voices one-liners so shallow and insouciant they become profound, pitched somewhere between The Philosophy of Andy Warhol and Melissa Broder’s so sad today Twitter persona. Varg handles electronics, conjuring vaporous airs around her. The visuals display Wise and her friends exercising in the park with an embarrassing vigorousness. Varg turns up in the visuals too, at one point his arms round three senior ladies. The words ‘Whose Mum is this?’ flare and fade like a tawdry clipart castoff. I can’t help grinning. It’s meme culture, Adult Swim, confessionalism, facetiousness and experimental electronics all rolled into one. Serious about insincerity it seems to be intent on ironising everything, yet there are moments when the armour chinks and you feel Wise is genuinely reaching out for meaning despite fears, failures and reluctance. 

After such audacious quality things take a turn for the worse when the takeover moves upstairs to the main stage. I’m perplexed by the tail end of Ecco2K’s set. A rapper versed in the ‘Sad Boys’ autotune of Yung Lean & co with productions that evoke the crushed refractory distortions of Lotic and Amnesia Scanner, he jumps onto the tall table where his gear is, often remaining crouched over but frequently making more dramatic gestures with the mic. Yet for all I can tell he’s not actually singing. I’m at the front and there’s a disjunction between the movements of his mouth and what’s actually coming out the speakers. It all seems a bit pointless and the sounds that back them lack direction too. Before any strength and flow accrues the beat is too often diverted and he disappears down overly erratic avenues. The miming gets wearisome too. I get bored and imagine myself attempting this kind of spectacle in my local Wetherspoons. Top off, standing on a table, doing a half-arsed impression of Yung Lean. I speculate that there wouldn’t be much difference between the two. Though I don’t have a six pack and I’d probably get glassed. Needless to say unlike Lean’s appearance on Varg’s ‘Red Line II (127 Sätra C)’ it all falls awkward and flat. 

One redeeming factor was that this could be considered part of the risk that pervaded Varg’s curation, which overall was admirable, a point demonstrated by the raw autotuned poignancy of his set with Anna Melina, who like Lean made an impressive turn on this years ‘Gore-Tex City’. Their set errs just on the right side of overwrought and, like Sky H1 and Chloe Wise, opens up the expansive heft of Varg’s productions to a pop and polish which, although familiar, still feels singular, twisted and profound. It doesn’t exactly chime with Atonal’s predominant remit but still soars, imposing but beatific. An archway of flowers hang over Melina who holds a smaller bouquet of her own, casting a mournful figure amongst smoke and stage lights. Screens have been placed overhead too, all the better for total absorption. The performance has a ceremonial aspect which feels elaborate but funereal and after all the aggravated frequencies it’s a fitting penultimate conclusion made especially affecting when ‘Blue Line (112 Rådhuset)’ comes on. 

From the extended few hours within the Nordic Flora vision there’s a sense that Varg & co are carving out an entirely individual identity and are obliquely engaging with, diverging from and reshaping what a sometimes stale techno scene can be receptive to, from the fluorescence of reimagined trance to sardonic spoken word to subtly contorted vulnerability. 

To a degree the same notion of an artist establishing a space wholly for themselves applies to Pan Daijing who, for me at least, represents the final curtain at this year’s Atonal. It’s not the ideal antidote for an addled mind but it’s certainly a heady and disturbing way in which to end things. Resembling the performance art of Cosey Fanni Tutti if reimagined for a phantom geisha, her performance, entitled ‘Fist Piece’, is utterly committed to a disquieting choreography. She spars with a dancer who appears on stage and both enfold their bodies into a twisted display of disorder, almost like the scene in ‘Possession’ when Isabelle Adjani turns rabid and demonic in the underpass. Daijing’s voice meanwhile is often tortured, chopped up, found discharging the same syllables in increasingly charred and torn tones. On screen, an elderly woman throws ambiguous glances around that look half-lustful, half-terrified. Eventually she crushes blood oranges with her hands, opening up all the crevices and leaving chunks strewn in the vicinity. I’m bewildered but captivated by what I recollect now as an elegant sort of nightmarish ballet. 

As I make my way out of the venue I struggle to encapsulate everything I’ve seen over the last five days. From the mesmeric dissonances of Demdike Stare to the loutish assertion of Pessimist through the concussive menace of Puce Mary and the staunch intensity of Regis and Main, there was plenty of power; performances that rose to the occasion and were ideal for the setting. But just as Atonal accommodated severe forms of exhilaration there were just as many subversive surprises, a notion decidedly attested to by Varg’s Nordic Flora takeover, Powell’s collaboration with Wolfgang Tilmans and Pan Daijing’s presentation of Fist Piece. Far from gratifying expectations these performances seemed to mould the crowd and the venue to stranger intents and purposes, beyond the grinds of noise and thumps of techno. The range displayed between relentless 4/4, transgressive electronics and outré conceptual performances is what made the 2017 edition of the festival a special event to witness. There’s not really anywhere else that could bring together a line up like this. 

At the exit I see more people streaming in, necking Pilsners, eager for more in Ohm and Tresor later that night, all refuting the melancholy of acknowledging the end of the festival. It confirmed, in my mind, the unique appeal of Atonal as a permissive all-hours feat of spectacle, excess and experimentation. Power stations are wicked. 

(Photos by Camille Blake & Helge Mundt)

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