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FESTIVAL REPORT: Berlin Atonal
Albert Freeman , September 8th, 2015 13:16

Albert Freeman reports on a his third successive year in Berlin

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Photo by Camille Blake

Now in its third year, the rejuvenated version of Berlin Atonal is quickly on the rise to becoming one of the world's important contemporary electronic music festivals. Such a fate isn't exactly surprising for an organisation originally created by Tresor founder Dmitri Hegelmann, a cultural innovator whose influence has been heavily felt in the transformation of Berlin from divided city-state to techno party capital of the world. The first two reboots of Atonal provided impressive curation and staging, suggesting an ambition that in these early days was yet to be fully realised.

The early editions of Atonal felt like something put on by devotees and mainly attended by them, with the festival dress of nearly-all black marking out the attendees on the street outside and the music providing a close match. Certain events – the 2014 opening with Ensemble Moderne's interpretation of Steve Reich for instance – had hinted at a greater reach, but this year was the first year I heard the buzz from afar, as a decent number of New York acquaintances turned up either expected or completely out of the blue alongside the European contingent. With sell-out crowds on its biggest nights, expanded and diversified programming, and its most impressive lineup yet, this year's Atonal attained the feeling of an important cultural event.

The changes to the 2015 edition are numerous, with a new stage that enforces the separation between the more thought-provoking concerts at main stage and the often-dance music focused aftershows. More music on an already heavily-saturated program brings expected conflicts and difficult decisions, especially in the later portions of the nights. It also unquestionably changes the feeling as the linear opening concerts progressed into multi-staged night-time programs, and the greatly increased crowds spread out to fill them all.

At points, it feels like too much: on the first day, the Subtext showcase in the new Stage Null area suffers from an underpowered PA that gives the music more a feeling of background ambiance than the power that distinguishes it. Coming after the heavily saturated ambient music that programmes the concert portion of that first day, it also is an over-abundance of a good thing, a too-slow continuation where a little more variety would have helped spice up the proceedings. On opening night, I enjoy most the guitar solos and krautrock leanings of David Borden and the Mother Mallard Ensemble, a set that remains an outlier on the festival program for the duration and remains memorable for that reason.

That same day, the first of Alessandro Cortini's sets, this time with Lawrence English, seems to ebb and throb somewhat aimlessly, closely matched by the black-and-white visuals that constantly morph but give little in the way of direction. Max Loderbauer and Jacek Sienkiewicz's preceding set inhabits similar territory much more fully, its improvised feeling giving a needed dose of human touch. The sounds that hover between background and foreground, situate something sublime to tune into during long breaks between conversations, but rarely reach the point of demanding rapt attention.

Fortunately on later days and even later on in the same evening, the balance is struck more carefully. After Post Scriptum's headlining live PA in Tresor, an hour and a half is hardly long enough to fit in a bit of Roly Porter on the new stage before heading back into Globus for an hour of Deepchord. With the concert stages routinely running over an hour late from the very first night while the club remained rigidly on time, the decisions on where to end up occasionally fall victim to crowd dynamics or the simple desire to stay in one place long enough to absorb the room's atmosphere without rushing from place to place. I run into similar difficulties most vividly on Friday night, where night-time overlaps between Talker, Mark Verbos, Regis and an all-night Northern Electronics showcase forces rushing between the most distantly-removed of the stages and consume large swaths of time. These problems are of course normal at larger festivals, but differences in programming often make them moot; at Berlin Atonal, where every act is cutting edge and the curation is airtight, missing portions or the entirety of sets is felt where in other circumstances it would hardly be noticed at all.

All of this criticism thus far could be called growing pains, and they are for the better part handled admirably by the festival organisation, who in every other respect delivered their best festival so far. Production was noticeably improved, with projectors, smoke machines, and improved lighting and sound filling the Kraftwerk with waves of light, sound, and effects and adding gravitas to the bracing sets. The revival of Tony Conrad & Faust's 'Outside The Dream Syndicate' brings the crowds in early on Saturday, which reaches sellout for Shackleton's unclassifiable melding of electronics with a battery of live percussionists.

Cortini fares better today, his 'Sonno' set occasionally falling victim to soundtrack tendencies but more often hitting a perfect balance of power and ambiance, and his Skarn techno set is dry and academic but pummeling in its intensity. A rare live set from Shed doesn't reach my expectations as he revives well-worn portions of familiar tracks between dramatic breaks that don't quite pay off at times. Lakker's live set mires in a similar place, the beautiful melodies and textures and IDM-laced rhythms never quite reaching the intensity needed to set off the dancefloor. Polar Inertia delivers expectedly patient and stunning techno just afterwards, and Sigha's masterful five-hour closing set in Tresor, after an impressive DJ set from Shifted, seals Saturday as an overall favorite.

It's difficult to trim down the highlights from the remainder with so many performances settling in different parts of the musical spectrum. Although the most straightforward of anything seen on the main stage, Mike Parker's first live set in 15 years is impressive, his puristic take on techno the calmest moment of the stormiest night. Peder Mannerfelt, Powell's live PA, and the divisive performance from Ugandan Methods all take no prisoners. The first runs amok through ambient music and techno before finishing frantically in footwork and jungle, a thoroughly worked vocal sample – 'I'm coming hardcore' – forming the basis of the heavy d-n-b breakdown that finished a show-stopping performance. Powell is expectedly grandiose and cheeky, bludgeoning the crowd with skipping EBM beats that morph before they ever quite square off. Ugandan Methods are pure art terrorists, Karl O'Connor screaming frantically into the microphone while Ancient Methods lays down a full-strength barrage of techno/EBM hybrids, an occasional break thrown in to ratchet intensity higher. Meanwhile, on the massive screen, looped sequences from The Passion Of Joan Of Arc play repeatedly, interspersed with machine gun-quick snippets of rave graphics. The saint is immolated several times, her captors gloating, with the editing drawing out the distinct totalitarian and apocalyptic undertones of the film.

On day two, the unexpected collaboration between Mogwai's Barry Burns and Kangding Ray gives a rare moment of more conventional musicality on a day otherwise saturated in noise. Kangding Ray's music is often beautiful, but the subdued tempos and arcs of guitar are a needed calm in the storm, with the preceding sets from FIS – a highlight and confirmation the festival attendance is going into uncharted waters – and Paul Jebanasam & Tarik Barri both offer different kinds of intensity, the former mischievous and aggressive, squirting out from the edges, and the latter cerebral and gradually lumbering to full-tilt. Varg's all-star 'band' performance with Frederikke Hoffmeier of Puce Mary, Erick Enocksson, Loke Rahbek of Damien Dubrovnik, and Vit Fana, takes that intensity into pure physicality with the suicide-themed film narrative and Rahbek and Hoffmeier taking turns throttling each other onstage while violently shoving a contact microphone down each other's throats.

The Diagonal showcase afterwards downstairs at Stage Null, on the only day when there was no club party, was also laced with fits of outright violence, particularly in Lee Douglas' An-I duo performance with Alessandro Adriani, where Douglas threw himself into the audience screaming at a microphone while Adriani lashed them with electronics. I find myself wishing that Russell Haswell had been billed for a pure live set rather than a hybrid DJ/live set, but it's convincing enough, and Powell's subsequent DJ set took the madness ever closer to the surface in his characteristic style.

As with the previous two years, Samuel Kerridge's Contort events are brought in to finish things off. By day five, energy is at a premium and energetic music receives the most enthusiastic audience, so the valedictory set from Bitstream does a good job of keeping everyone awake. There's no wool being held over the eyes – they dust off their laptops and files and turned up specifically for the occasion – but the mixture of high-intensity breakbeat IDM and the novelty of hearing it again for the first time in 10 years was in of itself engaging. Kerridge's solo set afterwards, lit only by moving strobes, is caustic, the very definition of modern industrial music performed at its apex of brutality and impact.

I wasn't so convinced by Lustmord, whose set, both in visual and musical material, is eerily similar to one I'd seen at Unsound New York a few years prior, and many in the audience are visibly dosing off by its end. The lull in the programming is corrected by Ben Frost's surprisingly industrial 'Aurora', with enormous clouds of fake smoke and three projectors facing the audience creating an impressive visual counterpart to the ominous rumbling and slow, grinding beats. Clock DVA's closing set also proves to be a victory lap, with the trio announcing dates and song titles and taking breaks between pieces to soak it up. For a change, this tactic wasn't offensive though: their music has aged far better than most groups of their era and sounds uncannily close to much 90s techno, and it was a pleasure to hear them bring out faithful interpretations live, very likely the only time I'll ever hear it. It's hard to think of a much nicer way to close a festival, very much in contrast to Richard H. Kirk's aggressive updating of Cabaret Voltaire but very fitting for the moment.

With three years under my belt at Berlin Atonal, watching the festival develop and change year by year is nearly as exciting as watching its success. I hear a word while there this year, "Atonalists", to describe the older, pre-Tresor crowd who were now returning to the festival in visibly increasing numbers for much the same reason they attended the first editions. Given the expanding demographics – most are still the young, well-dressed Europeans I expected, but there is surprising variety mixed in, of many ages and nationalities – this visible sign of breaking down boundaries in audiences is remarkable. Certainly, the programming has succeeded in grasping the zeitgeist of today's experimental electronic music, I think possibly more so than any other single festival, but the festival directors are not concerned only with speaking to a small group of easily converted followers. By taking this music past that audience, and taking other audiences into their own vision, they are succeeding at making Berlin Atonal a cultural laboratory of much greater weight. Before this year, I think a few were watching quite closely, but now that circle has expanded quite measurably. For the sake of the festival and those who enjoy it like myself, I hope it will keep expanding: the world needs more unbridled art like this, and, to these ears and eyes, there's no better place to see and hear it presented.

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