Taking place on one of the warmest, sunniest weeks that Berlin has seen all summer, the Atonal Festival 2016 lived up to its dark reputation with an atmosphere that couldn’t have been further the polar opposite. Basking at sun filled nearby lakes by day contrasted consecutive nights of tenebrous smoke filled industrial concrete at the world-famous East German power station, Kraftwerk and the affiliated onsite clubs Ohm, Globus and Tresor.
A lineage that stretches back to the 1980s, Berlin Atonal was the front line assembly of progressive electronic and experimental music and art scenes in Berlin until it closed in 1990 with the fall of the Berlin Wall. Markedly, 2016 commemorates the fourth anniversary of the festival’s resurrection.
True to its bequest, Atonal offered attendees five nights of dark howling experimental drones, abstracted electronic noise, banging techno beats, searing blinking lights, hi-tech lasers, overactive smoke machines, loads of black clad urban international types and parties that continued until the early hours of the morning, stylized in Berlin fashion.
An experimental facade, the ‘Main Stage’ harbored artists staring into glowing computer screens, mixers and hardware alike, twiddling knobs, dwarfed by a massive rectangular screen displaying corresponding projected visual accompaniment.
The specific music technology involved was assuredly more onerous to discern. As goes with experimental music, more important are the processes, methods behind madness and complexities than who’s got the flashiest kit and latest, greatest prosumer gear. On the contrary, more often it comes down to über geeked-out DIY kits, invested routing schemes, elaborate patching workarounds, custom designed computer software, modular mayhem or any combination thereof.
As an example, one of the more notable performances, Moritz von Oswald and Rashad Becker performed duo, manipulating a mic’ed piano coupled to involuted routings of intertwined electronic gadgetry. Through varying paths of machinery and electronic manipulation, the natural sound of a single note stuck on the piano was transformed into abstract drones and rhythms.
On the flip side, something noteworthy and not often witnessed at such type events, Raime, London-based duo with an added member, performed on the smaller ‘Stage Null’ downstairs. Being their German premier, the trio performed wielding striped down syncopated, polymeric beats with post punk attitude fueled by guitar, live drums and an Ableton Live Push setup. It most certainly was a welcome change to the incessant exploration of drone and bass rumble. Hopefully an indication that more acts like these will break tradition, following suit, to mix up an otherwise less varied niche.
My favorite location ended up being Modular Schaltzentrale, a smaller room with comfortable seating equipped with retro buttons and switches that were controls of the former power station. Fittingly enough this room was also lined with a plethora of modular hardware where artists presented unannounced jam sessions- part workshop, part performance, part hang session. The vibes were on par with, if not at times exceeding, acts on the larger stages.
Admittedly, I didn’t get much opportunity to check out the super late night/early morning DJ and live performances as I was feeling fairly sun worn from my daytime adventures. A bit of a pity as there were some promising acts in the line up including TM404, Donato Dozzy + Lory D, Imaginary Forces, Headless Horseman, Pan Daijing, Andrea Parker and many many more.