Melting Hearts and the Concrete - Berlin Atonal 2016 Reviewed (scroll down to view photo gallery)
Berlin met us with tropical heat and thriving greenery. And while all the mild summer evenings were spent within the colossal spaces of Kraftwerk, (the old abandoned power plant, where the festival takes place) you could always feel the warm breeze outside in the shadow of this giant building or sitting by the river Spree in the early morning hours, kebab and beer in hand, contemplating fresh impressions of Berlin Atonal.
The venue suited the mood almost perfectly. The clean sound found its way and resonated well with the surroundings, although at certain times the occasional shift in space would have been a welcome innovation. Five nights provided the ears with a large amount of diverse sonic, visual and social information, and it therefore seems fitting to ditch chronological strictness when talking about Berlin Atonal.
Drones and pulsations
Most of the performances in the main hall were aiming for powerfully charged atmospherics, usually accompanied with extensive visuals, monochrome lighting or just plain darkness. Space explorations, vivid soundscapes, hypnotic waves were correlating, interplaying and forming their own microworlds.
On the first day we were treated to the collaboration between Lucy Railton and Peter Zinovieff. The two masters of different musical approaches merged monolithic cello sounds with Zinovieff’s electronic soundscapes to fill Kraftwerk with introverted and abstract neo-classical sounds. However, the highlight of that night was Recent Arts, a duo of Valentina Berthelon and Tobias Freund and their rough and elegant dark ambient textures with visuals showing cut-ups of old astronomical images, books and schemes. It was an exploration of dark space and its secrets, entertaining the attraction of the mysterious and unexplored nature of the cosmos.
Atonal’s champion in sound hypnosis was undoubtedly Drew McDowall, even though he faced the same lack of volume as The Upper Glossa (see below) - the murmur of the crowd overwhelmed the music at times. Drew’s set began with layers of dark ambient that slowly evolved into tribal modular waves with slow paced subliminal charms. All the beauty of “Collapse” was successfully transferred - dark pulsations constantly lifted the organic layers of drone onto the surface. Drew’s sound is not easy to get lost in and requires concentration, careful listening and the ability to dissociate from one’s self at least for the duration of the performance. Florence To’s contemplative visuals were a nice addition to the whole experience and did not distract the attention from the sound.
Porter Ricks had a similarly hypnotic approach although they presented it in a more accessible form. The legendary duo immersed the public in their signature cosmic dub layers with constant pulsations and an aquatic breeze. The spacious nature of their records and the lively melancholia found their way into the people’s minds. It was a calm, organic and elegant experience, which was nicely extended by Second Woman, the duo of Joshua Eustis (Telefon Tel Aviv, Sons of Magdalene) and Turk Dietrich (Belong). They presented their explorations of melancholia and other emotions in a more edgy way. It was like hearing hard-wired rave deconstructions/abstractions charged with feeling. Emotional circa 2000’s IDM constructed anew.
* The playlist, which reflects the mood of the festival.
Thursday’s Yves De Mey performance showed the full capabilities of Atonal’s sound, light and space. The slow pulsations resonated with concrete walls and erupted into a wild interplay of heavy rhythmics and their journey through the illuminated walls of Kraftwerk. The audiovisual part organically went along with the set - there were no overtly suggestive videos, just abstract lights that acted moreso like a three dimensional illustration of Yves’ expansive, solid and futurist sound.
After that These Hidden Hands did not manage to impress quite as much. The whole narrative of their performance seemed like an accurate knitting-together of various trends in the current techno scene. You can hear bits of noir-like bass a la Raime, industrialized techno or epic ambience, but the overall result lacked focus and concentrated emotion, despite how professionally it was done. Therefore, after that Mika Vainio seemed like an old punk: stark, minimal, raw as he should be, and the currency exchange in the visuals added some additional ciriticism/humour to the game. His uncompromising and timeless heavyweight drones tested the capabilities of low frequencies, but the show was best experienced lying down on the floor and absorbing the resonance - the heavy, solid pulsations of Finnish steel - fully.
Roly Porter’s collaboration with visual artist Marcel Weber contrasted nicely with Vainio’s show. It was probably the most maximalist and ambitious moment of the festival. The project has always been rooted in grandiose, epic topics, usually dealing with space, and his music often has qualities reflecting the overwhelming and majestic nature of the Universe. Atonal’s show was the Roly Porter experience realised to its full potential, creating a mammoth audiovisual journey with epic drone sounds bursting with baroque-ish elegance and three dimensional strobes playing with your senses. It was like a Star Wars soundtrack stretched out and wrapped in steel-wool. And even though Biosphere’s approach to epic subjects has more appeal to me, I could not deny the awe inspired by this show.
After that Raime’s much delayed set was as stiff as their latest album and sounded mostly dull and unimpressive. I understand the creative intention behind the sparse minimalist monotony of Tooth, but it doesn’t quite work over the span of a double LP, or in a live setting. Raime was dropping tracks off Tooth (which I personally find hard to distinguish from each other) and even though the live drums brought some life at times, the overall result was not touching or captivating, especially after the strong main-stage part.
Friday’s Orphx and JK Flesh was a surprising, but rather fitting pairing. Operating on a slightly subtler scale than the below-mentioned UF, they carefully built layers and walls of rhythmic industrial patterns. The set was more rooted in techno, which was filled with hidden rage and intensity. It seemed that the surrounding concrete could start melting any time.
UF (Oake + Kerridge) merged the best of both sides and added a welcome addition of playfulness, humour (see the promotional photo) and punk rock. It was a top notch, straightforward punch of industrialized techno. UF gripped tight and did not let go that easily - all denouements turned out to be short pauses before storms of tribal rhythmic machinery. The atmosphere was heated to the max: Eric Goldstein was headbanging, jumping on the table, screaming to the microphone. Stage-diving wouldn’t have been out of place in this context as at times it seemed like a punk show somewhere in a vault in Mad Max’s world.
The last show witnessed on Friday was Dva Damas. The duo recently underwent a slight shift in style from Americana-infused noir post punk towards colder minimal electro, still retaining the sensibilities of earlier records. The live show was based on this new sound and the pallette felt quite monotonous - it would have fit the smaller room better. There was a lack of texture or it was overwhelmed by bass. It was also hard to relate with the cold nature of the performance in such a context.
Love and Memories Behind the Concrete
My personal highlights of the Atonal were also the most personal, emotional and confessional performances of the festival. It seemed that emotions penetrated the concrete walls of Kraftwerk.They all stood out from the occasionally somewhat cold and techno-laden overall mood of the festival. This year there were several bright jewels in this visage and they were definite highlights for me. Upper Glosa was the first one and it was a slightly misrepresented/underrated show soundwise - at moments the sound of the audience was disturbing the mood. I’d heard the duo of Italian synth wizard Caterina Barbieri and Kali Malone of Hästköttskandalen at previous year’s Norberg festival. The Atonal show was even stronger, with its subtle, nocturnal shoegaze walls of sound slowly shifting into dark guitar washes/echoes, which finally give way to synth lullabies, building the melancholy melodic patterns of monotonous beauty. Moodwise, it was a moonlit drift across rainy city scapes, the magic of flashing city lights transferred through sound. It seemingly even channeled Gigi Masin - rediscovered Italian genius - in its mood, tone and emotional charge, albeit in a much more abstract way.
Croatian Amor was another major point of Atonal. Rarely have I seen such multilayered performances, full of accurate hints and reflections - the illustration of romanticism, the horrors and dualistic nature of generation Y. The three mannequin figures on stage represented a bizarre affection/love triangle, which itself posed many rethorical questions. Their frozen posture was charged with high tension, suspended action and inability to relate, experience the physical touch. Also it was an aesthetically pleasant choice, which resonated well with the tropical pastiche of domestic palm trees. Isn’t it an actual representation of the modern youth’s inability to fall in love, initiate, take action? Wasn’t it an exploration of an inevitable desire to feel, to love, to experience or to escape?
It was Loke’s hazy and surreal exploration of the clandestine emotional spheres of modern man, of escapist tropicalia, where diverse fantasies and dreams can be projected. Soundwise, the set merged soft lullaby-like melodies, balearic neuroticism wrapped in uneasy noise/ambient whispers - it had everything that makes Croatian Amor such a charming, beautiful, haunting and focused project. The visuals were also crucial: Loke, sitting in a rolling chat room with faces rapidly flashing and changing, images from Greek riots, a first person shooter, extracts of Ghost in the Shell - all of these shaped their own weird narrative. It was like a visual representation of the usual internet experience, with diverse and surreal snippets of data constantly spinning in the eyes of a lonely person looking for real emotion. And the subtitles “Life isn’ that good / but it is the only one you’ve got” (sorry for possible inaccuracies here) were like a flash of hope in the mess. The performance resonated with me in many ways. Being a child of the same generation I can easily relate to these moods and layers of references. It might be an odd comparison, but it feels that such an accurate reflection of the emotional Zeitgeist of today’s youth (or at least a part of it) could be traced back to the days of The Smiths. Rarely do you see it presented in such a deeply personal and easy-to-relate-to manner.
Alessandro Cortini’s performance could stand next to Croatian Amor as an interesting comparison point. Contrary to the latter, Cortini’s was a nostalgic Proustian dive into the past. Past rediscovered, reflected, refelt and turned into an awesome synthetic dreamy drone piece. In his interview, Cortini had already hinted at this project, and here it was realised in full scale. If Croatian Amor reflected the surrounding escapist layers of the now and here filtered through a very personal, surreal and haunting vision of one man; then Cortini created something of a sonic/visual memoir, an escapist dive into the sepia toned and beautiful past. People bathing in the sun, children laughing in the snow, sunny afternoons in backyards or near the sea - all this joined with Cortini’s analog drones bursting with warm majesty and shiny melancholia. When listening with your eyes closed, you get immersed into pure organic ambient brightness with signature subtle analog roughness. However, it is one of those performances, where visuals form an essential part of the whole artistic intention. Imaginary Softwoods Saturday’s set of pastoral kosmische/drone wanderings showed similar sensibilities and acted as a nice entry point the day before. It was a beautiful coalescence of futurist nostalgia and past reflections.
Saturday’s headlining performance - Death in Vegas with Sasha Grey as their temporary frontman - reminded the most club-friendly electrified moments of Chris & Cosey. And even though the neon-lit club (or even Kraftwerk’s secret control room) might serve as a more fitting space for their dreamy electro sound, the “Transmissions” sounded well, even with the occasional prolonged breaks between tracks. The 4/4 vocal numbers were changed by more spacious mellow ambient pieces, while “Consequences of Love” blossomed in all its beauty with Sasha’s cold and lonely voice wandering along the spaces of Kraftwerk. All of this faded to cozy ambient at the end of the show.
Overall, Berlin Atonal was a pleasant experience, with large number of nice and beautiful people, an amazing venue and top-notch sound. It seems to be inseparable from its host city and I cannot really imagine it being rooted in any other place. After the long break, it nicely reintroduced itself in the contemporary electronica landscape, uniting different generations of musicians (from such legendary masters as Pyrolator to young up-and-coming talents).The festival has a solid and coherent narrative. And even though slightly more eclecticism and diversity would be a welcome experience, this year provided us with a wider variety of moods and frequencies.
Looking forward to our next visit of the concrete hall in the heart of Berlin.