Now in its fourth year, Berlin's rebooted Atonal festival seems to have found a rhythm. The 2016 edition featured five nights of music exploring the crossover between experimental and dance music. There were plenty of legends (Moritz Von Oswald, Mika Vainio, Justin Broadrick, Porter Ricks) and several special commissions, often audiovisual. And of course there was the venue: the former power plant Kraftwerk, a 100 metre-long cathedral of stained concrete, and the family of venues tucked in its nooks and crannies, including the clubs Tresor, Globus and OHM.
These are formidable raw materials, but Atonal's organisers didn't quite manage to shape them into a world-class festival. Some reasons for this, such as the logistical challenges posed by such a big and unusual space, were partly out of their control. Others weren't, namely a lineup lacking surprises (not to mention women). Still, there was plenty of engaging music to be heard across the week. Here are five of the key performances.
Many of Atonal '16's performances were shadowy and dread-filled, aspiring to induce a similar feeling: a chill of dark wonder at the scale and spectacle of the thing. Awe is a powerful emotion, but five consecutive nights of it risk dulling the senses.
Roly Porter is a poster boy for this aesthetic, and his performance on Thursday evening was a roiling smog of epic crescendi, synth choirs and those sub-bass booms you get in movie trailers. Porter rocked animatedly over his gear while visual collaborator MFO sent light-forms swirling across barren digital landscapes on the 15 metre-high projection screen behind them. In a climax moment, we ascended from one of these landscapes into the clouds to a soundtrack of celestial chords. Shortly afterwards, we were bombarded with light from a bank of powerful strobes, the intensity of which caused patterns to skim across the insides of your eyelids. A striking effect, but after a few minutes you'd sort of got the measure of it.
"So where should I start? I just got back from America. It was really gonzo but I wasn't very impressed. Erm…" Russell Haswell paused to fiddle with his clip-on mic and pulled up YouTube. On the projector screen we watched him locate the trailer for 1978 thriller The Medusa Touch. "I think this is the first film where you see a plane crash into a building," he said. "I had my 30th birthday dinner in the restaurant at the top of the World Trade Centre." There was a silence while the video buffered and the 100-strong crowd, sat at Stage Null on folding chairs, followed that train of thought to its conclusion.
It was early Thursday evening and the event was "stream of consciousness YouTube jockeying with commentary," a format Haswell devised partway through a live RA Exchange with Ryan Keeling at 2014's Unsound festival. (In the end, that Exchange became this feature.) What followed was an hour or so of directionless browsing, with insights from Haswell drifting between the informative (praise for a guitar pedal called The Unpleasant Surprise) and the ill-considered (a rant about AV shows at festivals; there were four AV shows on the evening's schedule). His performance proper the night before was the noise music equivalent of a wet willy, and one of the most satisfying moments of the week.
Headhunter and Pinch
Atonal was a festival in two parts. The evenings were dominated by events in Kraftwerk's main hall. That stage closed at around 1 AM (or later—it was often delayed by as much as an hour), and the club-leaning night programme would take a couple more hours to gather steam. In this lull period, ravers descended on the tiny OHM, which could fill up within minutes of the main stage closing. The packed dance floor and the queue outside could give its tiled interior a claustrophobic feeling, and the mood on Friday night was a little edgy. But the music, from a pair of Bristol dubstep veterans, was refreshing.
Now better known as Addison Groove, Tony Williams dusted off his Headhunter alias for a 2 AM set, drawing for classics of the dubstep-dub techno crossover like Appleblim and Peverelist's "Circling." A guy in a FWD>> T-shirt danced his way to the front, but Williams didn't indulge the nostalgia for long. As he veered into brasher recent dubstep, then trap and drum & bass hybrids, the crowd response was mixed. Following him, Pinch cut between roots destroyers (a VIP of Dawn Penn's "You Don't Love Me (No, No, No)") and a more convincing vision for modern bass music: an intense salvo of disorientating grooves, dissonant melody and throbbing bass pressure. During The Bug & Riko Dan's "Iceman," Russell Haswell appeared in front of the booth doing a theatrical doom claw. Pinch smiled shyly back.
Earlier in the evenings, OHM offered escape from the dizzying scale of Kraftwerk. Smaller acts performed, and listeners relaxed at the bar or on the seats lining the walls. Three of these sessions were presented by Berlin experimental collective NK; Berlin-based Chinese artist Pan Daijing, performing on Friday, might have been their most anticipated booking. Prior to her set (which, in keeping with the rest of the festival, ran late), a sizeable crowd clustered around the front and side of the DJ booth. They seemed keen to get a view: perhaps they were aware of the performativeelements in Daijing's past shows. Tonight, though, her wildest move was to climb onto the low bench behind the booth, fixing the crowd with a stern glare. She sang in an ominous alto while her machines ran on angry autopilot; later, she teased their klaxon tones into a series of technoid grooves. OHM's soundsystem didn't give Daijing's beats much punch, but the crowd stayed attentive. As the set climaxed with a barrage of gabber kickdrums, bodies rocked at the front.
Sunday was Atonal's strongest night, with a diverse programme on the main stage and an excellent (if, once again, oversubscribed) afterparty in OHM. The show stealer was Editions Mego artist Robin Fox. Fox has been working with lasers for years; his latest show features three (red, green and blue), all retina-burningly powerful and programmed to dance in synchrony with his digital noise compositions. At Kraftwerk they were arrayed along the wall behind the main stage, pointing out over the crowd. Fox was somewhere beneath them, but the lasers were the stars, carving the hall's smoky interior into a rapid sequence of dazzling geometric shapes. Tron-like grid patterns; hypnotic cones that throbbed in phase with the audio; laser-gun beams firing salvoes at the back wall: each new mode was so tightly choreographed to Fox's abrasive sonics that the combination of sound and visual seemed to tickle some third, underworked part of the brain. A woman in front of me, trying to make sense of the lights whizzing over her, tipped her head so far back that I thought she might fall over. After 30-odd minutes, the lasers flicked into a particularly mind-blowing mode—a trio of spinning discs which left a crosshatched mist in the air—and then, PFUTT!, they were gone, and we all picked our jaws up off the floor.
Photo credits /
Camille Blake - Lead, Pan Daijing, Kraftwerk aerial, Laptops, Light beams, Max Loderbauer, Blue lights, Red Kraftwerk, Cherry picker
Helge Mundt - Roly Porter, Pinch and Headhunter, Robin Fox, Lasers,