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“Sight, Sound & Sensory Saturation” Berlin Atonal 2016 Festival Review

This year’s instalment of Berlin’s Atonal was suspended between boundary breaking, ineffable and dully repetitive. At times it was visually captivating with the live acts showcasing creativity of a kind of Digital expressionism. But a little too often  the audio-visual presentations lack in their ability to sustain a momentum; there was a tad too much emphasis on depressive darkness, and its futility. And not enough consistency musically. What BA succeeded in was crafting tangible synaesthesic experiences, bombarding the senses with visuals, strobe lights and sound. The 5 day long intrepid, meticulously curated festival set the bar in delivering a massive catalogue of electronic and experimental collaborations, but there were a few tired out repetitions. BA delivered as much on the sinister doom theatrics as on the intermittent sounds would rupture haphazardly through the darkness. In the smog clouded Kraftwerk power-plant, metallic drones, digital distortions, otherworldly screen projections and abrasive and brain numbing sounds created the atmosphere of an subterranean deep space. Super cinematic

The positives:

  • The sheer magnitude of Tresor, and the majestic Kraftwerk cathedral. The sound, oh my the sound. Germans do not mess about when it comes to quality, there were a host of prime Sound-system PA’s on display. The colossal Kraftwerk evoked the ambience of a Subterranean cathedral with ringing acoustics. It was difficult to not picture the masses of crowd as the few remaining survivors of a dystopian apocalypse, existing here as a secret society.
  • The size and density of BA’s line up; pretty exceptional. Every electronic experimental artist, musician, producer, sound engineer you could imagine was here.
  • Berlin’s default 22 hour levels of partying, the feeling the music and the vibe could continue on through the night, till next day perpetually was something to be relished. Berlin’s Kraftwerk warehouse was an ode and perfect accompaniment to the dizzying, awe-inspiring catalogue of electronic experimentation.

The Negatives:

  • Having to miss the Sunday (which many touted as the most consistent of all 5 days). But man, return flights to London for Monday almost quadrupled in price. Sorry, no can do. But it was for the price of a consistently polished line-up of artists. To top it all off, there was a confirmed guest appearance from beloved eccentric Mark Heeder…urgh.
  • The disruptive queuing required to get into OHM, almost every evening once the clock struck 12. A real vibe killer. This was especially infuriating when, it provided a safe refuge from the plague of raw uninspiring noise and drones.
  • The spatial dimensions, a curse as much as it was cinematically impressive. Too much space left unfilled, it felt like a never-ending industrial cavern, almost too big to fill. It was easy to forget where you were stood around the darkened crowd that encircled Stage Null, which at times was trippy and electrifying, at others annoying. This made it somewhat of a difficulty to venture off alone, unless you were prepared to lose your group for a good few hours, maybe even longer.
  • There was a little too much darkness. Although I’m sure the sub-world was never brilliantly illuminated, perhaps a few more alcoves of concealed candle light would make it easier to navigate the fortress and make the line-up leaflets visible.

Berlin Atonal 2016 from Leah Abraham on Vimeo.

(Camera: Eduardo G.I. & Leah Abraham)


On Thursday night The PROJEKTIONSRAUM; a newcomer ‘site specific panoramic installation space’ hosted Berlin-based artist Carla Chan’s gorgeous, grayscale projection “The Melting Black”. It was a vision of digitally distorted tides, serenely calming and affecting, it provided the perfect chill-out for those who’d peaked a little prematurely. After chatting for a while with Carla, she explained how the waves moved her: “I think for me, I just see it as white noise coming over me. In my mind…The more you wanna get it the more you lose it…It’s a lot like waves. They come and go away, and you can never catch that same wave”

The SCHALTZENTRALE room was a visual reincarnation of Star Trek. Pretty special to have a control room/studio kitted out with modular synthesisers. All the while line-up artists would alternate between manning the controls, and being audience members of impromptu jam sessions. A nice touch, very special.

Ascending to the main-stage on Thursday, Recent Arts presentation of a History of Darkness made for a compelling spectacle of manipulated sound and visuals. Compiling scans of marker pen edited book pages, photographs and images, and transmitting them onto the vast projector screen. The sound was momentous and the audiovisual trip intensely psychedelic. Looking around at the mesmerised crowd staring transfixed, and in awe of the spectacle made it feel somewhat like a church service.

On the other side of the spectrum, charismatic noise-core veteran Russell Haswell’s world premiere (Recapitulate) made for an uncomfortable 20 minutes of debilitating destructive noise and scream disturbances. 20 minutes of the show was all we were able to hack. Amid the assault of raw thrashes and distorted noises was an epileptic strobe light show, there was something weirdly credible and engulfing. It was a powerful attack, intensive and abrasive.

Advancing from the main venue Wednesday evening, we were eager to explore the 3 other clubs that would also play hosts to Europe’s most adventurous of techno-lovers. Intimate club OHM provided a much more conventional standard of House/Techno deliveries coming from Latency Record´s crew of DJ/producers. We managed to sashay right to the at the front of the dance-floor, adjacent to the DJ box to catch Nuel. Swaying to the enjoyably smooth house classics, Jeff mills spinning. The vibe feeling much lighter, enjoyable maybe even a little luxurious. Followed on by a captivating oddity in the history of DJ sets. A 30-minute hypnotism from Joachim Nordwall; ringing bells and foreboding mantra from Timothy Leary: “Think for yourself and question authority…”

Later on we take the plunge, and enter the realms of maximum bass and sensory intensity. The sound at Tresor is completely indescribable. It almost takes a back seat as you stumble onwards through the blinding white lights and staggered bodies. The bass pounding through your skull and the sound travels up your hairs. Its an orgasmic intensity, but to remain there would require many more substance use. The impact of sound, light and smoke in Tresor forms a breaking point between the ultimate club experience and ear/visual decay.

Thursday’s round: Not much so much to report, we arrived a little later than intended. We reentered Kraftwerk to catch the murky depths of Roly Porter/Marcel Weber’s (MFO) collaboration Third Law. An epic visual journey centred around earth and space and exploration.  Sound-wise it was a quick descent into thunderous, invasive chorus of synth rendered choirs, metallic shredding; raw reverberations felt like the recreation of an apocalyptic abyss. Tracks entitled 4001 and In Flight plunged listeners into visceral soundscapes of earth and galaxies collapsing, being sucked in. With exploding shreddings of metal, thunderous booms and uncomfortable pulsations, offset against blinding strobe lazer show. A triple attack of sound and light and images; the combined forces that were captivating and moving.

Friday night really picked up: With Orphx + JK flesh delivering an unforgiving nature themed presentation with yet more sonic overthrow debilitating  blinding, disorienting strobe light floods. Bristol native Headhunter’s set was the first set to deliver something coherent, genre distinctive and easily enjoyable back in OHM. Cinematic hypnotic sounds of darkened industrial dubstep resonated well with the dancers, gravitating towards heavyweight levels of Deep Medi Musik Sessions. The crowd seemed energetic back at Stage Null, tuning into a succession of Kerri Le Bon, 51717 and December’s, I was mildly enraptured by the showcase of post-punk, industrial experimentalism and debauchery. A real moment of exuberance came from Marcellus Pittman, who really livened up proceedings later that night. The Globus crowd welcomed a divinely funked up set of Detroit laced techno and 80’s boogie shuffle. A good few hours there, provided the classic ambience of dancefloor euphoria. Cuts selected were from the conventional house/techno standard; Motor City Drum Ensemble Send A Prayer intermingled with the odor’s of sweat and sweet Jagermeister.

Saturday evening was special: In anticipation for Death in Vegas, the excitement and energy had resurged. With guest collaboration from erotic artist Sasha Grey on the album, the psychedelic maverick Richard Fearless’ was clearly not the main focus of the show. Transmission was a distinctive make-up of 80’s inspired synth pad electro-techno, paired with live breathy vocals and ad libs. Beautifully ethereal visuals and  However Grey’s seductive coo’s and utterances were flimsy, and unfulfilling. However soft, blue-hued and danceable the tracks, the reception was pretty lukewarm and Grey’s appearance felt somewhat unnecessary.

Back to the safer option of Globus with a more discernible and danceable narrative, Chicago-born producer Ike Release gave a firing thudding techno fire with thudding toms, ringing hit-hats and house shuffles. It was a wicked prelude to the creative antics of Cologne-based enigma Lena Willikens who complimented the session with a minimalist techno, industrial and more obscure antics. Well played

Final Thoughts: Yes it’s Berlin’s Atonal – cutting edge experimental festival born out of a post-industrial revolution. And whilst you’re here to appreciate the boundary-breaking avant-gardisms of tonalities/composition’s erosion, there were few too many anti-climaxes. Maybe a little bit more ethereal light-heartedness amid the mainstage curations would have been better considered. Better tailored to suit the changing dynamics of BA attendees. Was the festival subversive? Yes, immersive most definitely, but freshly innovative? Not entirely sure about that one. But considering the diversity of music, the incredible Kraftwerk bunker as BA’s mainstage venue. The fluid interchange between visuals, art, sound and music. I’m counting I’ll be back at Kraftwerk next year.

Words by Leah Abraham 


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