Howling At The Endless Freezing Grey: Berlin Atonal Reviewed

Luke Turner reviews the likes of Ike Yard, UF, Source Direct, Cabaret Voltaire, Dalhous and Powell as he spends the weekend exploring all things stern in a Berlin power station

The Kraftwerk power station on the banks of the River Spree really has no parallel as a bracingly spectacular place in which to encounter electronic music. It feels even bigger than the Tate Modern turbine hall, and where in that venue even the might of Laibach was somewhat tempered by the feeling that there was a lot of staff terrified at what bass might do to the expensive shit hanging on the walls, there are clearly no such fears here. The human flesh of the audience feels insignificant with such vast space above, like a thin spread of margarine on a concrete slice. Everything else is poured into straight lines, reinforced, grey. Giant pillars are pierced with octagonal holes, like an industrialised Playschool window. This has a strange effect on the senses – the lights and sound become more intense, the mind more receptive to abuse. To reach the main performance space the audience must ascend a two storey concrete staircase (there are two rather unhappy-looking trees at the bottom), and half way up a side room hosts the Parsec installation, a row of 16 spinning arms with bright white bulbs on the end. Based on the behaviour of swarms, it makes a strange humming buzz which, coupled with the disorientating sense of the lights, wipes away traces of the outside world.

This is the second year of the revived Atonal Festival which, as Albert Freeman explains in this excellent feature, was a crucible in which the German avant-guard, industrial, noise, art and club scenes bubbled during the years of Berlin’s division. With the Wall gone and Berlin’s pre-eminence as a – if not the – global capital of electronic music assured, what place does this celebration of all things hard, dark and punishing hold in 2014? Could it not be a week of cliché, a few hundred smart and sternly dressed individuals accepting a bludgeoning in a brutalist womb, studiously refusing to look as if they’re having a nice time.

Who knows what wattage they must have to make the volume in such a vast space work – but production-wise this is nigh on flawless. Taking notes, my phone screen occasionally blurs slightly as eyeballs are hit by bass, higher frequencies swish overhead, a giant steel swan wing. A defective EasyJet aircraft meant that, frustratingly, I am forced to miss the opening night’s performance by Ensemble Moderne of Steve Reich’s Drumming and Music For 18 Musicians – it would have been a treat to hear those magical tones appearing from rhythm in this huge space. It’s remarkable that, throughout the weekend, nobody ends up rattling around like an errant ball bearing. Where in their recent performance at the Farnborough Wind Tunnels Dalhous’ sampled aviation noises felt a little too stuck on, even if they were a noble attempt to pay tribute to those who worked there, here their glassy melodies echo around thoughtfully, perhaps hinting that a Jean Michelle Jarre revival might not be too far off.

In Berlin there’s clearly a massive appetite for music that’s self-consciously tough – indeed, downstairs in Tresor at 6am on Sunday morning, Bristol’s Young Echo collective get off the decks after twenty minutes thanks to a rather unfriendly reception to their (you’d have thought) excellent idea to drop some Moondog. It’s a shame, though I for one could have done with a sonic halfway house between their bass music explorations and the unremitting kick of Sigha down in the basement. That balance is provided by the ever-brilliant Diagonal top dawg Powell, whose judicious deployment of libido-heavy bangers has as a high point a drop of Blacknecks’ Taps Aff Tune Of The Year contender, ‘To The Cosmos, Let’s Go’. Despite this, however, the whole experience far from a room of nodding dog techno ‘n’ noise spods – this is a gender mixed crowd, open-minded for anything with which they might be basted. On Thursday evening, Miles Whittaker of Demdike Stare thunders out bass against mangled synth lines, like a Pennines free party falling into a lava pool during an unexpected Lancashire geological tumult.

Much as the thousand or so people here on Friday night are attentive enough for the slightly perplexing hissing meh of Abdulla Rashim and Donato Dozzy’s watery ebbs, it’s when gigantic self-decapitated knights start flying forth on the huge screen before the mysterious Headless Horseman that the dynamic of the room shifts. Perhaps it’s the advantage of nomenclature and anonymity, but there’s a bit of an unhinged sense of fun to this scree, groan, roll and stab, rather rough around the edges, an automaton onion chopper going about his weepy business. Again – and it’s something that comes to mind a few times during Atonal – that hammering it out like this in a huge former power station can, should and does have an element of the ridiculous about it. One of the visuals is a 60 foot high shimmering constellation depiction of the Horseman, pirouetting on the summit of the Matterhorn at night. You have to have a chuckle.

Similar variety from the rattling comes on Saturday afternoon. Germany has always excelled at making electronic music that gives the feel of technology passing through a pastoral landscape or spectacular vista, from the likes of Neu! to The Notwist. On Saturday, Max Loderbauer melodies suggest a sleepy church organist randomly playing notes on a hot afternoon as specks of dust play in the beams of light above the pews. Other moments twinkle like Coil’s Red Birds fluttering over the River Weser at Forst to commune with Michael Rother.

With that in mind, I’d love to one day see Chris Watson booked to play at Atonal, not as part of some OMG original Cabs! lineup on the Saturday night, but because his unsettling, potent, sublime (in the romantic imagination sense of the world) music would have made for a beautiful and strange juxtaposition with this venue. In the years of seeing and hearing him soundtrack paintings or explain how he makes BBC nature documentaries come to such vivid life, what’s always been so striking is how those painstakingly recorded sounds of nature stand up so powerfully to much experimental electronic music being made today. So while Dasha Rush’s Antarctic Takt, a response to the strange extremity of the Continent, is musically compelling and well thought out – cracks and pops as ice structures show on the huge screen, the hum of vast spaces on 3D computer renderings of that unknown continent’s violent topography – it might perhaps have been even more powerful to have heard the real thing.

Come Saturday night, and it’s clear that the biggest draw for many had been the much-mooted live return of Cabaret Voltaire – or at least, Richard H Kirk operating under that moniker. With Stephen Mallinder off in academia and pursuing his excellent Wrangler project and Watson off in a jungle, ear pressed to an anthill, it’s Kirk who explores the direct line from post-industrial Sheffield of the late 70s to now, as evidenced by his enthusiasm and support for new artists like Factory Floor and Perc. Compared to the screensaver vibes of some of the other AV performances at Atonal, KIr’s visual display is compelling. The three tier screen shows a classic Cabs Ballardian flickbook of Historical Bad Stuff – Jimmy Saville, jihadis, Nazis, crashes, British police violence, tooled-up American soldiers, surfers – mixed in with images of the day-to-day. Musically this is strong, indecipherable vocal samples over beats that clatter along until the cylinders split and blasts of steam herald everything grinding to a halt. I suppose I would personally liked to have heard more of the mutant fusion of pop, dub, dance, funk and racket that characterised Cabs’ 80s sound, but the strafing pianos and powerful forward-looking rhythms that suggest this new incarnation of Cabaret Voltaire can hold their/its own in a contemporary noisy techno context.

Out of any of the more senior groups playing over the course of the festival, Ike Yard arguably put in the most forward-looking performance. On Sunday afternoon, they create the soundtrack to the sort of film you’d probably rather not end up in, the three men onstage architects of your doom. Stuart Argabright has a particularly compelling presence, all liquid hand gestures, rolling fingers to rhythms and opening palm as we’re lashed by an insidious hiss. "It’s a nomansland it’s a nomansland it’s a faraway place now" he croons, Alan Vega-style, in a demonically heavy track that shakes over an exploding breakbeat. There’s such variety to what Ike Yard do, such sonic range to their arsenal, from pranging guitar to chants, the occasional live drum roll on a full kit, submarine propulsion rhythms, a welcome swing away from the four four (and, whisper it, a goodly injection of something rock & roll) that it becomes utterly unsparing, entirely without mercy. That this set is culled from a forthcoming new Ike Yard album bodes well. "Blown away blown away blown away" Argabright intones over the splintering rhythm of the final track, a bootleg jungle cassette fast-forwarded. He’s not wrong. We were.

Ike Yard’s set is part of Sunday night’s line-up curated by Contort, the Berlin promoters who like to bring some darkness into the afternoon of the LORD’s day -past celebrants have included Russell Haswell, Rashad Becker, Ancient Methods and Regis. Unfortunately Helm is on earlier than I was expecting, but frustration at one’s own idiocy is swiftly dispelled by SØS Gunver Ryberg. Normally known for sound art and installation work, she absolutely bangs it out, a thunderous Sci-Fi racket, space pilots blasting their way through a meteor field, a punch in the nose to those less enlightened members of the audience took it upon themselves to catcall and whistle as she took to the stage. Twats: they’re everywhere. In Aeternam Vale, the French electronic group founded in 1983 and recently rediscovered by Minimal Wave and Silent Servant’s Jealous God (check out this excellent recent EP on that label). Like Ike Yard, Laurent Prot is aging at no expense to edge – these are growling, sticky, translucent pulses, a car wash with steel rollers with militant chain gang vocal: "drag drag drag pray for me". Prot an endearing presence too, in too-tighty-whitey coming out from behind his gear to leap around at the front of the stage.

A similar hoot comes when the mischievous spirit of the Downwards label is brought in via an alliance of Oake and Samuel Kerridge as UF. Their performance sums up why Atonal is such a success. I’m a fan of both artists on their own terms – Oake’s birch-forest-howling-at-the-endless-freezing-grey vibes are hard to do well, but their recent, gothic electronics tracks for Downwards have had it spot on. Tonight, Oake’s Eric combines with moors-and-sooted-mill techno man Kerridge create something far greater than the sum of their parts, still gloomy and booming, but with a greater black hooded lunge towards the dancefloor than alone. The pair duck and bob frantically (it is weird in Kerridge’s case seeing a mod doofing it out and at one point stretching up so it looks like he’s trying to hump the mixer), but this sort of flair and showmanship gives the performance its thrill on a weekend where theatrics have been in short supply. It’s a cheeky display yes, but an aggressive, intense one too – there are trapped in a grain silo booms, marching band snare rattles, nods to the pent up clanging of Cut Hands. It’s massively over the top, the set ending in a guttural power electronics vocal screaming "FLIGHT FLIGHT" over a crescendo of groaning noise that rises to a blast of extreme treble. Short, to the point, intense, strangely sexy and cheeky. All hail the Anglo-German Slap & Tickle Boys.

After the unexpected sauce of UF, Tim Hecker’s drones suck the energy out of the gigantic space, the sounds of Ravedeath frustratingly similar to as they are on the record, the presence of panpipes and intense fug of weed above the couples clutching each other all over the floor giving the vibe of a New Age shop that thinks itself above stocking Enya. The concept of headphone music is a strange one, and surely in the ears of the beholder, but I’ve always found Hecker’s work to succeed when listened to in the dream state of air or rail travel, conducive then to thought and reflection. Or a doze.

I’m about to head, whimpering, for the Berlin night bus network but within the first few barres of the first record dropped by Source Direct I’m at the bar, banging down a Pilsner, taking off my jacket and screaming at the roof. Jungle, as ever, is the unifier. Back in 1994 or ’95 I had my first clubbing experience in the form of a jungle night held in Harpenden Rugby Club, of all places. It was the first night I ever got drunk, so memories are hazy, but I do recall that (aside from the air of imminent violence and just dodging a headbutt in time to see the ‘butter swivel round and hospitalise someone whose reactions were slower than mine) it was the first time I ever really was faced with the power of music that I didn’t understand but compelled me to move. Since discovering that Source Direct were, like me, from St Albans, I’ve always wondered whether it might have been them playing. It does, after all, seem surprising that a home counties venue popular for party hires because they’d serve anyone would play host to a pioneering D&B rave. Tonight, gaunt and slithering around slamming down 12" after 12" Jim Baker slices the tops of our heads off, pent up energy cranked into place by a night of four four and grinding noise suddenly released in flailing limbs and grinning faces.

Gentrification hand-wringing goes on here in Berlin as it does everywhere else, but from a Londoner’s perspective Atonal Festival, the conversations had, the energy and spirit of the place suggests there’s still a huge amount to be positive about when it comes to the survival of an underground, a potential to do big things away from the mainstream. The road from Kraftwerk east along the spree is still lined with the knackered and overgrown, sites of dereliction not yet boarded off by hoardings. Aesthetically I might be irritated by the crusties drinking and selling trinkets, bands, weed and other 60s archaeological ephemera on the beautiful Oberbaumbrücke at the end of that walk, but perhaps they’re the tip of the iceberg. A goodly collection of braiding and bongs means that elsewhere in your city, more exciting, progressive currents flow.

The Quietus Digest

Sign up for our free Friday email newsletter.

Support The Quietus

Our journalism is funded by our readers. Become a subscriber today to help champion our writing, plus enjoy bonus essays, podcasts, playlists and music downloads.

Support & Subscribe Today