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Things Learned At: Pop Kultur
Daniel Dylan Wray , September 7th, 2015 10:55

Daniel Dylan Wray muses on things learned at Berlin's newest festival, hosted across six rooms the legendary Berghain

Photo by Tonje Thilesen

Pop Kultur is a brand new festival in Berlin that takes place over three nights in the legendary Berghain nightclub. It's not however, a techno festival. It certainly features a bit of techno, but it's a much more eclectic, platform-shifting, festival - one that has an equal amount of bands and DJs, as well as those who fall somewhere in between. As well as, perhaps most uniquely, a series of talks and panels, which rather than just running during the daytime at the beginning of the festival also run alongside the music in the evening, meaning that if you wanted to take a break from watching Kane West to see Daniel Miller, Owen Pallet, Stephen Morris and Gillian Gilbert in conversation at gone midnight then you could do so. Some of the other artists featured at this year's festival included: Neneh Cherry, Herbert, Sophie Hunger, Lapalux, Hinds, The Juan MacLean, Inga Copeland, Viv Albertine, Bernard Sumner, Girl Band, Anika, Pantha du Prince, Bianca Casady & the C.i.A, The Pre New, Novella, 18+ , Wooden Wisdom and many more. Here are a few things we learned from the inaugural edition.   

You get guaranteed entry to Berghain three nights in a row

Anyone who even half knows something about Berghain, chances are it's to do with their door policy. It's one that chooses to attempt to weed out tourists and charlatans in an attempt to create an environment in which people are there for the music and not just the day-after tales of hedonism and giggling because they saw two blokes getting friendly in a corner. This means for a Brit who plans to jump on a flight for a weekend of partying there may well be - seemingly arbitrarily - turned away and sent packing. Of course, this unpredictability gives the place a stronger sense of desire and mysticism (especially coupled with the strict no photography rule – still applied during this festival) so for those wanting to experience the venue and not risk the potential rejection and disappointment attached to a regular Berghain trip then Pop Kultur is a superb way of experiencing Berghain extensively for three nights and getting to roam around its every nook and cranny.

And it's pretty much a perfect venue for a festival

There are six rooms within the Berghain used as venues: Berghain, Panorama Bar, Garderobe, Halle am Berghain, Schlackehalle and Kantine but the brilliant thing about this site is that each room completely comes with its own unique sense of character and atmosphere. While you may only be going up and down a few steps to change rooms, when you do so it often feels like you've moved venue or location or even country. Seeing Girl Band hammer out their frenzied, mania with skin peeling intensity in the intimate, sweaty Kantine feels like a whole different world to seeing Herbert blast hugely varied experimental electronica into the sonorous, almost Church-like, Halle am Beghain with ceilings so high you feel consumed by the room to almost humbling degrees. So, whilst you are on one site for the duration of the festival, it frequently feels like you are transporting yourself to completely different places as you enter each room. It's a joyous transition going from sitting outside on the large terrace enjoying a beer or food in the sweltering sun one minute, to climbing the stairs to Panorama Bar the next - with each floor you reach cloaking you in a new layer of thick humidity and sweat, stepping further and further into the darkness. It's quite easy to find yourself in full-on nightclub raving mode at 8pm as the sun still rages outside.

Pantha Du Prince's latest project is a triumph

Seeing Pantha Du Prince and the Bell Laboratory in 2013 at Primavera Sound in Barcelona was a joyous experience. A truly unique live performance and concept that melded the subtle, delicate and fragile sounds of multiple bells ringing from multiple locations within a giant auditorium with a blend of minimal electronics that seemed to have been created out of not only a sonic understanding of its accompanying role to the bells but also a deep-seated respect. The resulting concoction was wonderful, both discreet and restrained, yet also lively and tropical. Anything he was due to come up with as a follow-up, in terms of collaboration, was likely to be under the giant shadow that was his preceding project. He has continued working with the Bell Laboratory's drummer Hovik Kjeldsberg and also with sometime Panda Bear collaborator Scott Mou as the Triad, a smaller group seemingly still intent on using the live or band elements of Prince's electronic music to reach a different level and explore fuller textures. The trio wear large round security mirrors over their heads, which reflect light around the huge room and make for a generally interesting and slightly odd aesthetic. The set dips between quiet techno minimalism to ascending blasts of melodic euphoria and seems to constantly slide up and down between these two states. Usually in such a big room the drums can be lost into nothing more than a dull echo with faint symbols tingling rather than crashing profoundly but here they retain their punch and project the more energetic parts of the set with real oomph, which turns the 7.30pm performance into one that feels more like a 3am one, as it kicks up a pace and gusto that is a real early highlight of the festival.  

The sound is impeccable

There's something of a gross irony attached to the fact that we most commonly associate going to music festivals (i.e a place dedicated solely to watching, listening to and experiencing live music) with bad or inconsistent sound. Yet for a number of reasons and circumstances it is often the case. However, when you have a place like the Berghain, a year-round club with a sound system immaculately thought out and designed for each room, the sound is sensationally good throughout the festival. Other than one minor issue during one set, I didn't encounter a sound problem during the whole event. Not only that but I had some of the most pulverising sonic experiences I've ever had as a result.

Inga Copeland's set is so intensely bass heavy it's like being concealed within a pneumatic drill as it begins to bore as deep as the ocean. The sound swallows you whole, the bass replacing your own heartbeat and the intense vibrations feel like they are dislodging your skull in an incredibly consuming, almost sensual, way. It's the perfect example of good sound, something that moves around your body and filters into your ears, not something that is driven into them with such force you're left damaged and ringing for days afterwards. Perhaps most importantly though, is the sound experience for people who are not techno/dance heads and might not usually go to the likes of Berghain - even hearing straight-up guitar bands like Novella, Hinds or Mourn are given an extra lift and punch as their sound is purified through the monster soundsystem.

Ho99o9 are one of the best acts I've seen all year

A balaclava-wearing drummer takes to his stool and two other men soon follow. One stands behind a small table with a sampling pad on and the other begins to pace the stage. What soon erupts is an incendiary concoction of electronica, rap, hardcode and industrial, filtered through the manic aggression and intensity of the duo vocalists, Eaddy and theOGM, who are carried further forward by the collapsing drums and pummelling, glitchy, bass-heavy electronics. There's certainly an air of Death Grips to the outfit but there's something also noticeably different too, something wilder. The songs themselves are often like snippets or flashes of intense mania that explode and then die out again within a minute or two but the ongoing sample-playing creates a feeling of one continuous set, a perturbingly grubby, violent and electrifying set. The songs switch between bass-y, electronic-backed rap that rattles your bones, to bursts of straight up hardcore, both outlets providing a perfect backdrop for the vocals that come from a place of real seething, brutal anger, as demonstrated on tracks like 'P.O.W' and 'Hated In Amerika' which seem to come straight from the bile duct.  

There's also an enjoyable inversion of forms at play; as the group have no guitars live on stage and whilst they feature quite heavily in the overall sound itself they are all from samples or backing tracks. This allows the focus to remain on the intensely watchable frontmen who, as the set goes on, become increasingly boisterous and raucous. TheOGM is soon stripped to nothing but a pair of blue boxer's shorts, often bent over on the floor in rigor mortis-like shapes, whilst Eaddy is busy running amuck in the crowd and climbing the internal infrastructure of the Berghain. The crowd often don't know how to react and there are moments of awkward silence that fill the room as things grow in intensity.

Part of Ho99o9's entourage includes a very large man in a boiler suit and balaclava who skulks at the front of the crowd, pacing back and forth like a bodyguard, simply walking into whoever gets in his way. He also ignites a monstrous circle pit that erupts from absolutely nowhere and within seconds I go from watching the stage to being clobbered by a pin-balling body and become drenched by a flying beer. It is clearly all part of an orchestrated aesthetic, but it does genuinely fill the room with a sense of fear and unpredictability and there is a real mania, anger and raging force that to it all that's tangible in the densely sweaty air. The show culminates in Eaddy stripping completely naked, throwing himself into the crowd where he roles around on the floor seething viciously into the microphone, bouncing from person to person, sliding off them and crashing into the floor as he drips with perspiration. Drums pound and crash unrelentingly and electronics gurgle and vibrate to troubling levels. When they exit there is a real 'what did I just see' look on most people's faces as they absorb the glorious carnage that has just taken place and probably realise, like me, that Ho99o9 may be the most exciting live act in 2015.  

There's plenty of time to explore Berlin

Having to drag yourself out of bed after only a few hours sleep to see a band that you really love playing a midday slot can be a tiresome slog at many festivals and something that quickly turns what is supposed to be a weekend of enjoyment into a test of endurance. However, Pop Kultur has clearly thought about this. DJs spin until 3am on the Wednesday and 5am on the Thursday and Friday, meaning even if you want to stick it out until the bitter end, you're still left with enough recuperation time to make it back again the next day, where talks start around 5.30pm and music from about 7pm. Most importantly though, is that it allows you time to explore the city itself properly.  

The culmination of all of these above aspects means that Pop Kultur gets off to a most auspicious start, managing to programme and deliver a genuinely varied, innovative and challenging festival in an environment that is close to perfect for its intentions. The fact that all of this has been done in a city that is hardly lacking in excellent music festivals and events as it is makes it all the more of an impressive achievement.     

 

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