Berlin Atonal 2013

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  • Most people in Berlin know the monolithic building on Köpenickerstraße, the one with smokestacks you can see across town, as Tresor, though in fact there's much more at that address than just the one club. Above the venue is an enormous and rarely used space called Kraftwerk Berlin. Like Berghain, it's a former power plant (hence the name), and the two venues share a lot in common—poured concrete, metal catwalks, broad staircases and high ceilings—though Kraftwerk Berlin is at least twice the size of Berghain's main room. Dimitri Hegemann, who founded the original Tresor in 1990, has had dreams of throwing parties up there—one involved Jeff Mills and a massive projection of the moon on one wall—but the sheer size of the room made it seem impossible. Instead, it's played host to occasional art installations, opera performances, private parties and the like, making Berlin Atonal its first big music event. Berlin Atonal was another one of Hegemann's projects—he started the festival in 1980 and put it on every year until 1990 when he founded Tresor. It was home to many of the era's cutting edge electronic artists, from local heroes like Einstürzende Neubauten to acts from abroad like 808 State. 23 years later, the festival is back with a similar mission: this year's headliners (for lack of a better term) included Raime, Voices From The Lake, Glenn Branca and Moritz Von Oswald with Juan Atkins. Photo credit: Camille Blake To me this seemed like a dicey bet: great as they are, these aren't the kind of artists you can rely on to fill a huge venue five days in a row, especially on the hottest weekend of the summer and for up to €22 per night (people moan when Berghain is €16). But the festival struck a chord with Berlin's music scene. People were happy to hear interesting music outside a club context, and to devote their weekend to something other than all-night parties (though the festival did provide those too, each night at Tresor and Shift). Most often in Berlin, leftfield electronic acts are shoehorned into club lineups, which can definitely work but is less than ideal—I'm much more likely to enjoy a drone performance at 6 PM than at 6 AM. Atonal, on the other hand, created a situation perfectly-suited to the music on offer. You could watch from the dance floor or sprawl out in a huge sitting area further back, which had its own set of speakers, and let the sounds of someone like Dadub or Samuel Kerridge wash over you as you gazed around the massive room. If you got restless, you could take in an installation on the bottom floor, or pop out to the garden for a meat pie. And of course, the industrial aesthetic of the room fit most of the music to a T. Photo credit: Camille Blake Musically, some acts worked better than others. The best one I saw was Murcof, an ambient producer who devised a stunning A/V show with the visual artist Simon Geilfus. Brandt Brauer Frick Ensemble, who surely had the most star-power of anyone on the bill, were truly avant-garde—their modern classical sound was more ECM than !K7, with no element of dance music whatsoever. Sunday, which was co-presented by local crew Contort, had reams of great artists, but suffered from a somewhat monotonous mood—Ancient Methods, Violetshaped, Samuel Kerridge, Cut Hands, Raime and Vatican Shadow (in that order) is a fairly exhausting run of dark and droney sounds. That said, Kerridge (who co-runs Contort) and Raime both stood out. Photo credit: Camille Blake The act I'd been looking forward to most was Voices From The Lake, and they didn't disappoint. Their set was made up entirely of new material, and had the same subtle drama as their self-titled LP, but strayed even further from the conventional techno framework. The only problem was their visual component, which leaned heavily on footage from the Ron Fricke documentaries Baraka and Samsara. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it was a bit cheesy (this trailer should give you an idea), but in general it seemed a little uninspired to source so much footage from two award-winning documentaries by the same director, especially as other artists, such as Raime, presented 100% original material onscreen. Generally speaking, the visual element was notably hit-or-miss at Atonal. Violetshaped's horror movie loops were tacky, and Vatican Shadow's newspaper montage felt pseudo-intellectual, evoking weighty political issues but using them only for their aesthetic value. Others just felt clichéd—sinister images of warehouses, VHS static, the penetrating gaze of an African tribesman, etc. This might not be such a problem if the video screen were less prominent, but for many in the audience it was far more visible than the artists themselves. The venue could probably benefit from a lighting scheme that would envelope the entire room, rather than drawing everyone's attention toward the stage and, subsequently, the screen. Photo credit: Camille Blake In the end, though, that's a fairly minor point. Berlin Atonal was a significant achievement. It drew a big crowd with an uncompromising lineup, made clever use of a spectacular venue, and generally brought something fresh to the table, which isn't easy in a scene as saturated as Berlin's. Here's looking forward to next year.