Berlin Atonal 2018 In Review

Berlin Atonal Festival 2018 Germany Berlin Mitte

Photo by Frankie Casillo

From the bright brilliance of Klara Lewis to the punkish synth expressiveness of group A, Berlin Atonal 2018 was a diverse, adventurous, yet coherent experience.


Berlin Atonal provides not only a range of diverse artists, but also a specific sense of space and light. Taking place in a defunct power plant on the border of Mitte and Kreuzberg, it employs the concrete vastness to the max. Whether it be electroacoustic experimentation or the monolithic rhythmics of industrial, the festival manages to accommodate it all within Kraftwerk.

Astrid Sonne was a very high starting point. She immersed the concrete surroundings in sounds both sharp-edged and airy, floating with pointillist elegance and bright melancholic undertones. At times, the soundscapes reminded some of the more refined moments from Lorenzo Senni or Theo Burt, but soaked in Scandinavian urban romantic moods. The performance changed subtly from more rapid synth attacks to a sublime denuouement accompanied by a few additional female singers. These were electronic soundscapes with a humane touch, though icy at times.

Lucrecia Dalt maintained a similar tone of intimacy, though it was one of those rare performances that perhaps required a smaller space. Her spoken word passages echoed in the softly-toned droney loops, carrying the listener into her otherworldly space.

Klara Lewis rode on almost shoegazey heights, sunbathing her drones in dreamy layers of vocal snippets and visuals that created an even more organic feel with images of plants and nature. It was one of the most elevating moments of the festival and quite a rediscovery for me as I have not been following her that much lately. In some sense, the whole atmosphere reminded Alessandro Cortini’s Avanti project (one of the highlights of the 2016 edition, albeit conveyed in an emotionally less explicit and more minimal form), merged with some haunted dream pop deconstructions of Mark Van Hoen.

berlin atonal 2018

Photo by Frankie Casillo

The Neon Chambers (aka Kangding Ray and Sigha), an upbeat and mellow emittance of IDMish techno, reminded Sigha’s early output. In a way it was a bit of a nostalgic voyage with undercurrents of golden age of intelligent dance music, especially when it came to the melodic part. Kangding Ray part was particularly felt within the rhythms, which provided a heavier backbone to the constructions and occasionally shifted into 4x4 gear. Visuals were ironically charming, with cuts from Instagram ASMR videos of soap cutting or noodle slicing, providing a shot of hedonistic triggers for your neurons.

Pariah saw a pleasant detour towards the Orb’ish realms of ambient in his Here From Where We Are album which he performed during his live set. He operated in slightly similar (although more predictable and a bit less engaging) moods as Huerco S on his last LP. But these loops drifted nicely across the concrete space with a bright nostalgic ‘90s ambient twist.

However, Friday’s main star for me was Hiro Kone, whose recorded output sounds great, but I did not know what to expect from the live set. It exploded with a subtle heaviness and punchy industrial rhythms stretching to an almost hypnotic pace and putting you in a trance-like state. With Atonal’s wonderful sound system, every tone and layer went straight to the brain. The crispiness and three dimensional quality of the sound allowed to embrace the full impact of Hiro’s music, something that may not always be possible when listening to her releases. The delicate emotional layers gave more depth to the immersive rhythms.

hiro kone berlin atonal

Photo by Frankie Casillo

Ora Iso in Stage Null reminded early HTRK with their no-wave-like abrasive guitarscapes, gothy hysteria, intense melancholy and monotonous slow-paced beats. Their live set had some krautish vibe to it as well, with distorted shrieks building gradual tension over Kathleen Malay’s vocals, at times sounding like an unpolished version of Nico’s singing. But these elements formed a coherent whole, which, despite its gritty elegance, still retained a hypnotic element.

After the theatrical and haunting performance of Prequel Tapes, Kolorit (Lowtec and Kassem Mosse) did not make an exceptional impression, which didn’t surprise me due to the fact that I am not the fan of either of these artists. The rhythms seemed flat and the narrative always remained static.

The same can be said about Claude Speeed with his slightly cliched big room space ambient that had traces of vaporwave and trance-like buildups. As ambient or more atmospheric forms of experimental music for me have always been about minimalism and subtlety, I have never been a fan of such blockbusterish sounds. For the same reason I intentionally skipped the Lanark Artefax show on Thursday. Next day’s performance by Outer Space gave more hope, but disappointed in the end due a rather overused sound palette (that is so typical of quite a number of kosmische revivalists) and the gradual build-up towards more pompastic and epic moods.

berlin atonal 2018

Photo by Frankie Casillo

But Kassel Jaeger and Stephen O’Malley’s ambient explorations were a different affair. It brought to mind some imaginative joint venture between the likes of Windy & Carl, Fennesz, and Nadja. O’Malley was in his most refined mode, carefully weaving the delineated textures and the brittle wall of sounds which together with Jaeger’s amplified soundscapes built a beautiful structure. There was no heaviness that you might expect from O’Malley, but rather a lush, lullabic and electrified ambience.

Caterina Barbieri was another major high point. Focusing on the aesthetics of her amazing Patterns Of Consciousness LP, she sculpted elevated mellow landscapes with that minimal analogue craftsmanship - those oscillating melodies are so simple, but so powerful and touching, that you almost get reminded of the power manifested in Manuel Göttsching’s music or Brian Eno’s ambient records. Not sure whether Caterina got those influences, but the effect she created was in a way similar. At the same time, however, they had a sharpness, energetic impact and high-voltage effect that comes from somewhere else entirely.

caterina barbieri berlin atonal

Photo by Frankie Casillo

Japanese duo Group A gave one of the most punkish and performative moments of the festival. Their performance proves that the group has morphed into a giant, emitting monstrous sound that’s quite hard to classify. From the rhythmic point of view, the performance built up from slow machinist minimal synth pulses into an attack of fast industrial techno. But the whole atmosphere was unlike any of those genres, with violin screeches inducing an additional layer of eeriness into the chaos. Tommi’s hysterical screams into the mic and pacing along the stage and Sayaka’s ghost like presence was a crucial element for the whole effect. This was some haunted/eerie and highly emotional display of avant/synth/punk.

Before wrapping up, I would like to point out that in this article I focused on the performances that either made the biggest impression on me or were within the scope of my competence. Honorable mentions for sure go to Actress, who provided an alien and strange experience, as well as LABOUR’s closing performance, fusing shards of glitches and bringing to mind Draft 7.30 era Autechre with salves of intense drumming and extensive visuals. The final part of the performance also showcased the acoustic possibilities of the space, with drummers situated at different points of Kraftwerk, using the echo of the space as an instrument. It is hard to absorb so much music over so little time, but the best musical adventures mature with time in the same way best memories do.

About Author

Paulius Ilevicius is a Secret Thirteen journalist, editor and occasional DJ focusing on more dreamy and melancholic soundscapes. Born in post-industrial town of Pavevezys, currently he lives and works in Vilnius, Lithuania.

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