CTM Festival 2017: Five key performances

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  • CTM is the quintessential experimental music festival. Performers from all corners of electronic music—in 2017 that meant hip-hop from Turkey, drone from the UK, downtempo from Palestine, footwork from the US and plenty more besides—descend on Berlin venues large and small for a ten-day programme of concerts, club nights, lectures, workshop, panels, screenings and exhibitions. Some of the music is thought-provoking and difficult to dissect (Amnesia Scanner, Elysia Crampton) some is about pumping beats and a party atmosphere (Miss Red, Lady Starlight), and some sits somewhere in between (Actress, Monolake). This balance makes CTM one of Berlin's most popular festivals, attracting thousands of music geeks from all over Europe. Many of them come not only to let their hair down, but to think while they do it. This year's edition offered plenty of chances to do both, whether you were trying to unpack Elysia Crampton's time-travelling audiovisual play, or attending a talk on the connection between music and emotion, or sweating on the Berghain dance floor to DJ Stingray's electro bangers. Here are five key performances from CTM 2017.
    Yally (AKA Raime) Following last year's Tooth LP, Raime appeared to transform into a full band, performing with guitar and live drums. For fans drawn to the London duo's dance side, this was a disappointing development, though their knack for distilling 20 years of London rave history has found new expression in Yally. The project's debut 12-inch drew on "late '90s garage and early '00s grime," but didn’t live up to that description. The Yally live show, in front of a packed Berghain, opened similarly. Songs were stitched together part by part, in time-honoured Ableton Live tradition, and oblique beats formed and seamlessly disintegrated without saying much. But things slowly picked up, as indicated by the intensifying screwface poking out the top of Joe Andrews' black windbreaker. The duo's grime-tempo abstractions had Raime's trademark elegance and a whiff of early Shackleton: each element was crisp, cool and placed for maximum rhythmic impact. The tempo stepped up at the close for 15 minutes of Raime-meets-darkside jungle—a combination every bit as satisfying as you might imagine.
    Lady Starlight The path that led Lady Starlight to a 4:30 AM set at Berghain was anything but normal. A longtime friend and collaborator of Lady Gaga, she made her techno debut in a bizarre performance with Surgeon at ArtRave Paris in 2014. Since then, she's played solo on Boiler Room, locked in an upcoming 12-inch on Stroboscopic Artefacts and, on Friday, February 3rd, made her debut in Berghain's main room. Musically, she seems to have a vaguely Surgeon-esque approach, wringing lean and mean techno arrangements from a hulking array of gear. The rhythms were spartan and linear, the tempos north of 130 BPM, the feeling one of rapid forward motion. This was techno boiled down to its bare fundamentals: fast, hard, carefully engineered, almost Kraftwerkian in its tidiness. Lady Starlight may be a newcomer to techno, but she's also an accomplished artist with a bold aesthetic sense. Her take on the familiar sound puts it in a refreshing new light.
    King Britt A sense of narrative adds another dimension to a live set, giving the audience something to ponder as they sway from side-to-side. King Britt, perhaps the only producer with ties to Hyperdub, Strictly Rhythm and the world of big room tech house, merged hypnotism with social commentary at Festsaal Kreuzberg on the final Saturday of CTM. His low-slung, repetitive approach was sneaky—you'd be lost in a looping pattern of pleasant low-range frequencies one minute, and then hit with snippets of chilling dialogue between police and suspects the next. (I later realised these included Sandra Bland and Michael Brown.) The interplay between Britt's soothing basslines and the intermittent violence had a disorienting effect, all while a flashing light shot bursts of blue across the room. The hypnotic patterns were soothing, but the issues addressed—police brutality, racism, violence—were anything but.
    Elysia Crampton Elysia Crampton's live set at Festsaal Kreuzberg on Saturday was as confusing as they come, but it was also rewarding. Her latest show, which is untitled, is more performance art than concert—it's been called an "audiovisual play"—and was developed as the live companion to Crampton's 2016 album, Demon City. The music, which began with delicate piano keys, was easy to grasp, heavy on dark synths, bursts of noise and syncopated drums (there was even a section of four-to-the-floor beats). Understanding what was happening onstage was tougher. The illustrated backdrops, which showed landscapes from various periods and places, changed with the music—it was a journey through time, South American folklore (Aymara to be exact) and Crampton's own identity, but that wasn't always obvious. The fun came from trying to work out what it all meant afterwards at home.
    The Bug VS. Dylan Carlson Dylan Carlson is an icon of Seattle's '90s rock scene, a former friend of Kurt Cobain and subject of the Nirvana song "In Bloom." He also pioneered the sound of drone metal—or "ambient metal," as he once called it—primarily with the band Earth, whose album Earth 2 is considered a landmark of the genre. The Bug, AKA Kevin Martin, though known for his mutations of dub and dancehall, has deep roots in guitar music, having made his debut in a jazzcore band called GOD. The duo's 2014 12-inch for Ninja Tune sounded a bit like a record in split-screen: Carlson's guitar on one side, Martin's colossal drums on the other. At CTM's finale event, they jelled more nicely. Onstage in Heimathafen Neukölln, Carlson looked utterly metal, a long-haired silhouette wreathed in smoke, lightning-bolt shaped guitar resting low on his thigh, while Martin manned a cockpit of more ambiguous equipment. Their walls of sound were more soothing than abrasive, drifting heavily through the cavernous theater. It was a while before any drums came in—long enough for the crowd to wonder if they were coming—and when they did, they were slinky and syncopated, evoking a trip-hop-like aura of mystery and dread. For many people in the room, this was the tenth, 11th, 20th performance of the week, and it filled that role nicely, giving us something dark and hypnotic to zone out to. In what might have been a rock/electronic culture clash, Martin and Carlson surprised everyone by finishing and then coming back onstage for an encore. Many of us had our coats and scarves on by then, but gladly stuck around for a few more waves of undulating fuzz. Photo credit / Udo Siegfriedt - Lead, King Britt, Elysia Crampton Will Lynch and Angus Finlayson contributed to this piece