‘It’s strange Atonal happens in August – I always thought it was a festival for people who hated summer!’ joked a friend on my first night in Berlin. Although tongue in cheek, I couldn’t help but agree with him. It’s hardly controversial to suggest that a festival set in a giant concrete monolith of a kraftwerk (German word for a power plant – not the band) isn’t exactly what you’d describe as ‘sunny’. Upon entering the power plant it’s immediately striking how cold and dilapidated the place is, a haunting relic of communism both powerful and intimidating – not exactly a party venue.
That’s actually a great thing considering that so many electronic music festivals can be boiled down to simple excuses for hedonism. There’s been a considered move by many in the past five years towards darker sounds in times of austerity, as well as a rich history of experimental ‘listening’ Techno. This musical palette of blacks and greys on display at Atonal is matched with various art installations sprawled across the many floors. The control room of the plant was kitted out with an impressive set of modular synthesisers which would bloop throughout the night. Fluorescent lights may be randomly sparking, old projectors fire off sepia stained archive at body height and black Anthony Caro type structures watch you as you dance.
Not that all that much dancing occurred in the main hall, except during more typically Techno sets from Ugandan Methods and Shed (although Shed never missed an opportunity to throw in a cheeky break-beat). The festival started off with a surprisingly hopeful piece from The Choir of World Cultures, who surrounded the audience, moving as they sung. A rare European performance by David Borden and Mother Mallard came across marvellously in a retrospective that, ironically, was a celebration of tonality.
Heavy hitters included a frenetic couple of performances by Powell, an overwhelming audio visual show by Ben Frost and the debut of Shackleton’s fittingly named Poweplant project, which presented a sort of Techno version of Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians – Xylophones and all. The one two punch of Bitstream and Coh+Frank offered main stage dark Techno. Coh+Frank’s visuals elegantly projected minimalist geometry in one of the more colour filled displays of the festival. Artists tended to favour black and white A/V shows, perhaps to match the uber-cool German crowd’s designer clothing.
The bulk of main stage performances were by Drone and Noise artists. Lustmord’s awe inspiring set, although marred by slightly pantomime horror visuals, was still suitably sinister. Nine Inch Nails member Alessandro Cortini’s multiple performances were a surprise highlight; presenting commanding and blissful Ambient music. Samuel Kerridge’s Fatal Light Attraction followed suit with unique presentation; strobe lights sent his shadow speeding around the venue.
Ohm, situated in the plant’s old boiler-room, allowed for more musical variety. A hilarious performance from the Small But Hard collective had DJ Scotch Egg making beats up on the fly as DJ Tenshunn scratched over records and Los Angeles rapper K-The-I??? freestyled while dressed as a Street Fighter character. Goth Trad battered out Japanese Dubstep and Tapes killed it with his live set in the early hours of the morning. Not all acts were successful. Jealousy Party gave a garish performance with a moaning vocalist showing off the more pretentious side of the experimental scene. When surrounded by such challenging music, it was reassuring to know that lines still did exist and could be crossed.
If all that sounds too much, Tresor and Globus offered some relief for those weary of the harsher side of Atonal. Shifted, Sigha and a solo performance by Regis were the big names on the bill – possibly put on to entice the less avant-garde visitors into buying tickets. Moritz Von Oswald’s Detroit-eqsue Techno set was a personal highlight, being scheduled at a time when the Industrial ultra-black German Techno was starting to wear a little thin, although I’d make notable shout outs to An-I and Willie Burns.
Given the festival’s rich history throughout the 80s and its recent history, it is encouraging to see quite obtuse music still pull in large crowds from around the globe – even if they were mostly speaking English. Even for the ardent experimental fan, the pummelling of dark abstract music for five days straight was exhausting – although that’s probably to the festivals benefit. Experimentation succeeding depends on new ideas streaming in and the festival will continue to flourish if the musicians continue to adapt. It’s a little worrying however as there are very few sonic places you can push to, as extreme noise becomes increasingly more normalised. Despite the majority of the performances being superb – many covered the same sonic ground as the last and the festival could have definitely afforded shuffling round artists to diversify line ups. Much of the dark magic of the festival depended on the stunning location and it will be interesting to see how the promoters continue to use the space itself in exciting ways. However, as it stands Atonal is currently the best place for musicians and fans alike looking for the noisy soundtrack to their industrial lives.
Images: Camille Blake
Words: William Warren