Berlin Atonal - A Concrete Dream

Berlin Atonal - Concrete Dream

Photo by Camille Blake

Berlin’s heart beats again to the rhythm of Atonal, the festival where visuals, sound and space merge in a communion between artists and the crowd.

Berlin Atonal took place from 19 to 23 August.

The Kraftwerk building once again became the perfect spot to experience some of the most inspiring acts, special projects, installations and documentaries. After its rebirth in 2013, this milestone of modern tendencies and state-of-the-art offerings reached its third consecutive annual edition and did so with a shimmering line-up. From Wednesday to Sunday, attendants had the opportunity to witness firsthand the performances of some of the most innovative and unconventional names in the electronic music scene, as well as a good bunch of emerging artists.

Stepping into the gigantic abandoned and then renewed power plant which houses the concerts is an intense experience in itself. High ceilings, deep darkness and dim lighting are the trademark of an environment fitting Atonal like a glove. The adjacent OHM and Tresor, with their own special clubbing charm, saw a good number of artists perform as well. The Kraftwerk building extends an invitation to get lost in its profoundness, to dive into a dream made of concrete.


Zuzana Friday Přikrylová: Chor der Kulturen der Welt, the opening performance by Barbara Morgenstern, was one of the most site-specific projects in the festival and had singers wandering around the crowd in the darkness. Next up was the concert of David Borden and The Mother Mallard Ensemble. Using purely M-Audios connected to computers loaded with synthesizer sounds and synthetic vocals, they created a musical narrative that combined the 1980s together with a timeless soundtrack to some 1960s sci-fi landscape; the compositions were of a varying nature and all were simply pretty. It sounded as if they were one of the musical inspirations for Vakula's album, “A Voyage to Arcturus”. The collaboration of Max Loderbauer and Jacek Sienkiewicz indicated how well-refined the sound quality in Atonal was – it didn’t fail to impress, especially considering the venue's industrial character. We could perfectly hear all the merging layers of contemplative drone ambient, frenetic noises, occasional rhythmic patterns, angelic voices and a mighty sub bass. For the visual part, the artists chose black and white old grainy footage of landscapes and abstractions.

The collaboration between ex-Nine Inch Nails' Alessandro Cortini and Lawrence English sounded more promising than it actually was. The visual part consisted of cones of light wandering around the walls and people. Sometimes still, occasionally flashing, and sometimes stroboscopic – following the intensity of the music. In the beginning the music was based on Cortini's late works, such as “Sonno”, “Risveglio” or “Forse 3”, but it slowly emerged in high and low drones and layers of sound. Nevertheless, it didn't seem to have an interesting progression or dynamics that would keep the listener curious. Ellen Arkbro at Stage Null played some slow drones on an electric guitar in front of an almost static projection of a pink pixelated 8-bittish pattern, which didn't do much for the music. Yair Elazar Glotman's concert, on the contrary, was quite refreshing, not only because the main and only instrument was a contrabass, but also because of the way Glotman used the instrument. Producing post-techno as Ketev, Glotman kept a similar sonic approach under his real name - he was processing contrabass sounds, layering and looping them into organic, dark structures and even creating rhythmical parts. With only one blue spotlight shining through his silhouette, the view had a mysterious touch to it. The rest of the programme at Zimmer Null merged into one. John Bence's laptop performance was nothing to remember, even though the technique of music-making he employs (rearranging and remixing his own recordings) is interesting in itself. Roly Porter tried to destroy us with layers of piercing, aggressive synths, beats and sounds. Eventually, his (unfitting but pretty) visuals of nature and blurred objects became more interesting than the music, which lacked any compositional variance or structure. Together with Arkbro and Bence, it felt like something that had been performed many times before.


Armando Valdés: The set of concerts that took place on Thursday was again opened by low-frequencies. Chra, a versatile Austrian producer from Editions Mego, used the opportunity to play straight from the main stage to provide the audience with a massive performance. It was early but it was already noticeable that people wanted a high BPM and strong beats. That, however, would have to wait until way later at Stage Null. In the meantime, and still at the Main Stage, attendants had the chance to witness FIS, Varg presenting Ivory Towers and SUMS. Varg led a host of artists from the Scandinavian underground scene — Loke Rahbek (Damien Dubrovnik), Ossian Ohlsson (Vit Vana) and Frederikke Hoffmeier (Puce Mary) with film score composer Erik Enocksson. Their effort was simply magnificent, even epic at some stages. It had everything: eerie quietness and overwhelming intensity, puzzling noise and pure harmony. It was one of those “hey, this is why I love music” gigs. SUMS, the duo of Kangding Ray and Barry Burns (Mogwai), were one of the most awaited acts and the hall was bursting at the seams even before the performance began. People were eager to discover if the formula would work. Unsurprisingly, the performance was a high-level one. The composition suggests that the Frenchman and the Scot chose to find an equidistant point between both of their styles, yet on some tracks they wandered quite far from that formula. Regardless, it seemed the dance-crazed audience expected more. Obviously, it would be quite unfair to say that SUMS’ performance was not a good one. In certain senses it was, in fact, exceptional. However, the general impression was that people wanted more intensity.

Then the breakthrough happened. Diagonal’s showcase at Stage Null added the missing condiment: violent beats. And yes, Not Waving just set the place on fire with his EBM/techno jamming. For his part, Russell Haswell experimented with sound and the audience — sometimes in a quite inexplicable way, and his offering did not have the danceable continuity that the Italian, AN-I or Powell put on the table. However, it did have a certain psychoactive, even nerve-wracking effect on listeners due to the ongoing and unpredictable changes.



Surroundings. Photo by Camille Blake.

Armando Valdés: If the two previous days started gently, Friday would push forth into techno and industrial territory from the very inception. The opening act on the Main Stage, Joanie Lemercier’s jaw-dropping A/V display, was a rare exception to this. The French artist successfully and “literally” converted the building into a sub-bass cathedral. The visuals played with the idea of mapping the transition of ideas from shapeless concepts to full architectural elements, the repetition of the cosmic order and human interaction, and the interpretation of nature. Once it ended, nothing was the same. ENA’s boundless unlabeled offering explored rhythm creation both by orthodox and unorthodox means, which made his sound both appealing and surprising. After the Tokyo producer, it was Peder Mannerfelt’s turn. It was quite intriguing whether he was going to perform any tracks from his latest album “The Swedish Congo Record”. However, there were only hints - an almost evanescent flute or percussion sounds - that reminded of this one-of-a-kind work. Instead, the Sweden opted to focus on “Lines Describing Circles” and other EPs, offering a truly profound, distorted and hypnotic show as a result. His visuals, colorful and psychedelic, were a contrast to the rest of the spectacles displayed at Atonal, which were mainly built upon black and white images. Intensity was increasing as minutes went by. American producer Mike Parker was next. It is quite rare to have the opportunity to see him perform, but it did not seem that he had lost his touch. Deep abstract techno, straight to the point. Attendants were amazed by Friday’s program and evidence of that could be seen everywhere: dance steps, smiley faces, the number of people all over.

The industrial genre also had a key role on Friday. Eventually it became apparent that hard-techno, industrial and noise would make an appearance not only in the clothes people wore, but on stage as well. The terrific and truly genuine Powell showed up again, this time on the Main Stage, and was much harsher than the previous night. The last dish on the menu was the acclaimed Ugandan Methods, i.e. Regis + Ancient Methods. Their performance was truly mind-blowing. They provided the audience with a techno industrial set to close the night on the Main Stage, and showed why they are considered some of the darkest producers in today’s electronic scene. Their elliptical drum lines echoed against the walls of the concrete building, making it tremble to their low-pace industrial power, thus creating a grey harmony perfectly complemented by the black and white visuals they displayed. Afterwards, Acronym, Vit Fana, Puce Mary, Abdulla Rashim and Varg —in that order— performed on Stage Null. Noise and experimentalism made its presence known at the Kraftwerk Building.

At the end of this long third day, the aftershows moved to Tresor, Ohm and Globus. Attendees had the chance to keep on partying with such artists as Regis, Moritz Von Oswald and Peder Mannerfelt with Pär Grindvik, who closed Friday night (or, rather, morning) with muscle, distortion and power.


Zuzana Friday Přikrylová: “Sonno”, Alessandro Cortini's second audiovisual performance at Atonal, was much more engaging than “Immediate Horizon”. The visuals - black and white abstractions and countryside images - matched the music as both were layered and slowly changing. As the name suggests, the music came from his Sonno album, released in 2014, which is based on slow, minimalistic synth melodies and noisy themes slowly and gradually getting richer and gathering layers.

Shackleton's Powerplant was a hard nut to crack. The performance was all drums and percussive rhythms, as he himself was accompanied by drummers and marimba and synth players. Just as the name suggests, the performance generated a lot of energy. It was powerful and massive, but I couldn't connect to it and receive that energy. The sounds of drums and micromelodies somehow were not enough. Some musical aspect - perhaps a dominating melody - joining all the drums together, was missing. To echo the words of Shed (the following act) spoken in his new interview for Crack: “Without a melody, you don't have any emotions… it's just a percussive track”. Indeed, Shed's performance lit everyone on fire with his powerful engaging techno combining drastic beats and pop-ish melodies. The visuals, caught using self-made machines with cameras, showed slow-motion footage of nature seen from below, allowing the spectators to contemplate the slow clouds and the sky.

Sergie Rezza's performance was neither here nor there: the music was neither danceable nor easy to listen to. Polar Inertia got quite minimalistic with their visuals (as did many other projects echoing an audiovisual performance) — they displayed digits in random order (or was it deeply thought-through?) while throwing at us monochromatic techno, enriched with howling sounds, noises and rhythmic bass. Lakker was indeed Lecker, as the Germans say. He was one of the few projects with dynamic and fast-changing custom visuals, which was a refreshing sight among all the black and white landscapes and abstractions. As expected, he delivered great energetic techno. And so did Shifted in Tresor, which was packed to the ceiling. His volatile dark techno was breaking down walls and shaking the bars.


Lustmord-Berlin-Atonal-Festival-2015-Photo-By-Camille Blake

Lustmord. Photo by Camille Blake.

Zuzana Friday Přikrylová: Samuel Kerridge was about to present a piece called “Fatal Light Attraction”. For a while, it was interesting to observe his shadow which was changing, getting bigger and smaller, moving around like a ghost, but all in all, the visuals — in fact only white light creating his modified shadow — weren't that attractive. It may have been more enjoyable if this kind of display was an exception at this year's Atonal. Musically, he served a mix of aggressive synths, pulsating darkness and wraparound layers of rhythm and noise. The king of visuals, presenting how an audiovisual performance should look like, was Lustmord. The piece required patience and attention and fitted Sunday night’s dramaturgy well — evocative dark ambient music with slow transitions, which sounded like the sound of the void of the universe. It was perfect for lying down and observing the visual part. Brian used his older visuals, such as symmetric slow motion digital smoke, Sun eruptions and fire with new animations resembling nebulas and other cosmic phenomena.

Lustmord’s performance was in contrast to that of Ben Frost, who was both beaming a simple projection on the audience and the whole room (with intermittent light discharges) and displaying abstract shapes on the screen. It felt that, had the projection been more site-specific and used the amazing construction of Kraftwerk, it could have reached another level. Musically, there was a main axis of sound around which sounds and noises were floating, sometimes even to the point of discomfort. Apart from the earache, the Australian once again offered a truly insane and intense performance that left fans satisfied no matter the circumstances.


Armando Valdés: Berlin Atonal 2015 was a great opportunity to see some of the greatest artists in today’s electronic scene perform. The mix of genres, which was mainly focused on techno, noise/drone, and ambient, was not that rich. If you are fond of these, this is the right place to be. Otherwise, think twice. Regardless, organizers managed to bring together such names as Lustmord, Ugandan Methods, Mike Parker, Powell, Alessandro Cortini, Not Waving, Varg, Faust or Peder Mannerfelt, and the growing intensity was a clear tendency from the very first moment. Something that is quite understandable given the significant length of the event.

The location is just perfect for the festival. The Kraftwerk building is one-of-a-kind, a huge industrial cathedral located in Berlin Mitte. The architecture allows the sound to travel smoothly around the ex-power plant, inviting those in attendance to dive into the effects and the combination of layers, and to feel the beats and the low-high frequency waves right in the brain and body. The program allows the audience not to miss any concert as they do not generally overlap. Documentaries, such as “Industrial Soundtrack for the Urban Decay” or Tony Conrad’s “Selected Films”, and the installations by Laytbeuis, Pedro Maia or Transforma, provide an academic spin to the program. Nevertheless, that aspect could be more extensive. All in all, this year’s edition has been truly unique. The organization, the sound and the line-up is undeniably one of the best in Europe. The sold-out sign is not a mere coincidence. Most of the gigs were just superb.

Zuzana Friday Přikrylová: The festival site seemed to rely on the use of spotlights (or beaming white light from around the building), which was quite weak. Sometimes, the light was only an added aspect of a live audio performance. But sometimes it was supposed to be an equal visual part of an audiovisual performance, and thus it was quite disappointing. Also, in many of the performances the effects were too similar. And as effective and pretty as it seemed at the start, it didn't bring a new or interesting perspective or it didn't use the beautiful and special architecture effectively enough. When seeing performances by artists such as Lustmord, it was easy to realize that having well-thought out and prepared visuals in line with the music not only conceptually, but also in terms of dynamics and atmosphere, makes a huge difference and reciprocally supports one another.

Another striking thing when observing performers, performances and the crowd was the uniformity. It was all about dark and light (visuals), techno and ambient, monochrome colors, white males in black clothes. More diversity in subsequent years would really be welcomed. Atonal could use some eclecticism, which might allow the viewer to explore fresh and overlooked talent in the niche parts of electronic music, instead of inviting another ambient/drone project with a minimalistic projection or an established name on the techno scene.

About Author

Armando Valdés, the man behind Secret Thirteen album reviews, is a translator, music journalist and a member of noise-ambient + spoken word band “Granny On Donkey”.

1 Comment

  1. herrjames on

    great accurate reviews & i appreciate a balance of both perspectives. i have to say i also found bar a few exceptions, the visual elements were rather weak this year, especially for a festival advertising itself as an AUDIO & VISUAL event. many acts had technical hiccups which completely decimated their carefuly crafted, balanced sets (such as FIS) and the lighting didn't really seem to go far from a basic white spotlight set up. it was a missed opportunity to under-utilise this incredible space. even the between set lighting showed what was possible, to feature the amazing bone-structure of kraftwerk. it was also nice to see the organic mechanic structures hidden in the basement, saving our eyes from the screens and giving an almost steampunk aesthetic, proving it's not all about the digital (yet).

    i agree some further diversity would be great. although it IS a largely drone/ambient/industrial event, and "white people in black clothes" isn't really fair when irish/scottish/english/german/italian/french/even new zealand artists included in this year's festival line-up. shouts out to head high / shed for providing the most unexpected acidic, rave-tastic set on saturday night/sunday morning at stage null. this sense of humour was appreciated to punctuate the relentless ernestness and the sheer fun factor.

    my only real complaint this year, were the ongoing technical hiccups. what's the point in having such incredible sound systems, video projectors and schedules if you're going to run over an hour late and still subject the audience to amateurish mistakes? sure, it's a big festival, but if you don't start until 6 or 8 some nights, why still so many delays? why have a sound desk if they're not gonna pay attention to base-clipping or sound peaking annoyingly throughout a performance (esp. during alessandro cortini)? i was standing in front of the desk as this beautiful sound system popped & scratched anytime a kick drum was added to the mix, while the sound desk staff just chatted away to each other, oblivious. and yes, i know alessandro does feature some deliberate clicks & distortion, but i've also been to enough gigs to know when a speaker system is in pain.

    of course there will always be a few hiccups, but almost everynight the schedules ran over an hour late. turning up on time to be kept waiting, then missing acts due to overlapping schedules was a shame & i hope this improves next year; either by allowing more time for transfer between acts, or simply re-shuffling schedules to allow technical issues to be fixed.

    finally: the film "industrial soundtrack for the urban decay" seemed to instead focus on two bands, rather than cover the range of influences resulting in this movement. this was partly acceptable, due to the documentary relying on interview footage of seminal groups SPK, caberet voltaire and throbbing gristle – A LOT of throbbing gristle in particular. my only complaint is that the name of peter christopherson was never mentioned as a member of this collective, as well as psychic tv, and coil– despite a lot of audio, visual and live footage by this artist being used in the film. a particularly shitty ommission, given that coil were probably one of the few original industrial sound terrorists to completely transtion so effectively into the world of hypnotic ambient drone with such intense and captivating live shows toward the end of their careers /lives, that this year's atonal may have benefitted from.

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