It is difficult to articulate just how massive Berlin Atonal is. Not just Kraftwerk, the concrete behemoth/former power plant that acts as a venue, but also the lineups on the Main Stage, Stage Null and then Ohm and Tresor as well. It's five days of world class music, art, architecture and of course, parties. Since the festival's return from dormancy back in 2013, each year has seemingly become more impressive and the organizers have done a great job of commissioning rare appearances and one off performances.
This year was no different. As the schedule rolled out, each new announcement had us salivating more than the last. A few of the major appearances included JK Flesh + Orphx, Drew McDowall, Alessandro Cortini, Raime (live), Croation Amor and Optimistic Decay, a Jealous God label showcase. On top of that, Tresor hosted massive sets from the likes of Headless Horseman, Ron Morelli, Veronica Vasicka and others. Also within the Kraftwerk compound is the smaller club Ohm, which was also going the whole time and hosted a blowout closing party with Objekt. It would be nearly impossible to go through the dozens of performances we witnessed over the course of the event but we will touch on some highlights and reflect on our experience.
After a late arrival in Berlin on Wednesday, Thursday was the first official night for The Brvtalist. We were quickly welcomed by the world premiere of Fundament, a new work by a trio known as Upper Glossa. Performing on the Main Stage, artists Caterina Barbieri and Kali Malone performed with twin electric guitars and explored the dramatic beauty of the intersection between sound and visual art, provided by Doron Sadja. This was a beautiful introduction which also carried a bit of irony as we were welcomed to an iconic electronic festival by electric guitars.
After Upper Glossa, we were able to explore some of Kraftwerk (in complete awe). Built during the exact same time as the Berlin Wall (1960-1964), the venue is a legendary piece of Berlin's industrial history. Originally named Mitte, it was a massive power plant whose purpose was to power Eastern German regions during the Soviet era. After sitting abandoned for many years, in 2006 a part of the structure was reopened to host the legendary techno venue Tresor. A few years later, efforts began to reopen the existing main hall and now it hosts Atonal and other innovative art and music events.
For the festival, the ground level contains Stage Null (a smaller, more intimate stage), the entrance to Ohm and a video monitor installation. To get to the Main Stage area, you needed to walk up a flight of steel stairs which revealed the massive hall. Giant speakers are suspended from the ceiling and the biggest video screen I have ever seen is positioned directly behind the performing artists. Also an integral part of the festival were installation rooms which played on the festival's commitment to modular performances and video works. At the first landing of the stairs was an entrance to a room of noise with a long rectangular screen with accompanying visuals. A long seating area sat directly across from the screen for guests to sit and enjoy the atmosphere.
Another festival favorite was the Modular room. Contained on the main floor, this was a big control room which housed numerous pieces of modular equipment for people to try and experience. I would stop in throughout the weekend and found impromptu performances happening and people relaxing on sofas enjoying the sounds.
The rest of the Thursday program on the Main Stage continued with more art-driven, avant-garde, experimental works. Finnish sound pioneer Mika Vaino teamed up with contemporary Swiss artist Daniel Pflumm for a world premiere presentation that displayed the artists' mastery of sound compositions which bridge the gap between multiple genres of electronic music. Closing out the Main Stage at midnight was a striking performance by Roly Porter + Marcel Weber. Porter's latest release, Third Law, marked somewhat of a change for the artist as he dove deeper into encapsulating dark ambient works inspired by modern classical. As a pioneering light artist, Weber was the perfect choice to create the visual element as he blew the audience away with a hallucinatory show that was a literal onslaught of blinding light that caused viewers to see other shapes and forms.
As the Main Stage concluded, the audience descended downstairs to Stage Null, where the second set of programming began. First up was the German premiere of Raime live. This was a very anticipated event for The Brvtalist and we were treated to an incredible performance utilizing live instruments and dark, haunting, techno-infused sounds which was amazing to see on a smaller stage. After Raime, was Prostitutes and then just after 3:00 a.m. Marshstepper - which has emerged as a festival favorite. In true Atonal fashion, this was no ordinary live set. The duo of Nick Nappa and J.S. Aurelius were joined on stage at different points by Silent Servant, Varg, Loke and Drew McDowall to add an extra element of brutality to their already evil live performance. Nappa's vocals and stage presence has long been a Brvtalist favorite and this performance was no different.
Friday was perhaps the most anticipated day for us. Along with Optimistic Decay, a Jealous God showcase, the Main Stage hosted performances by Drew McDowall, JK Flesh + Orphx and Kerridge + Oake. If this sounds like an overwhelming lineup, it was no different in person. Drew McDowall took the stage a bit after 10:00 p.m., accompanied by striking visuals from Rotterdam-based artist Florence To. Unnatural Channel had Mcdowall at his best, treating the crowd to his unique brand of sophisticated and ominous, doom laden electronics. Next up was JK Flesh + Orphx. This was a must see for many at the festival and the partnership did not disappoint. Justin Broadrick's pulsating industrial rhythms combined with the masterful precision of Orphx techno had the crowd mesmerized for the hour long set. UF (Kerridge + Oake) took the stage well beyond midnight and treated us to a massive live show which fused the two artists' apocalyptic offerings into one earth shattering performance which still had the place vibrating after its conclusion. Now it was time for the Jealous God label showcase downstairs at Stage Null. Due to our affinity with the label and performances, The Brvtalist will be presenting a separate Jealous God feature which includes interviews, photos and more coming very soon.
After leaving Kraftwerk at about 9:30 a.m. (I think) on Saturday morning, it was tough to comprehend that there were still two more days left of the festival. A long day-time nap and an excellent Kebab at Original Chicken Gemüse Kebab in Kreuzberg re-fueled The Brvtalist for another epic night at Kraftwerk. The biggest Main Stage highlight was Croatian Amor presents Love Means Taking Action. This was a romantic piece of performance art which included actors on stage with Loke Rahbeck and stimulating visuals which connected the dots between relationships in the modern world, fantasy and reality. The artist's set was beautifully textured with post-industrial, ambient and melancholy experimental compositions. The light work for this performance especially stood out for us as it seemed to spray from the stage, blanketing the crowd with a sonic and visual experience.
Next up was perhaps the festival headliner, Death in Vegas. A bit curious when it was first announced, after revisiting some older works and thinking about it historically, this was a big event which also re-united artists Richard Fearless and Sasha Grey. Set within a Ballardian context, the partnership surprised me with its industrial influences, psychedelic sounds and Ms. Grey's crowd pleasing vocals.
The remainder of Saturday was spent in the basement next door at legendary club, Tresor. L.I.E.S label head Ron Morelli played an insane DJ set starting at 3:00 a.m. and Minimal Wave founder Veronica Vasicka followed until at least 7:00 a.m. Luckily I was also able to pop back inside Kraftwerk for a short time to witness part of the brvtal double performance of Donato Dozy + Lory D on Stage Null. Time seems to disappear when in Berlin and especially while deep in a smoky bunker listening to pounding techno. At this point, I was still alive and felt better after a huge coffee and a surprisingly good American cheeseburger at a nearby all night Turkish restaurant (which also had a casino inside). No recollection of time at this point.
Sunday was the final day of the festival and carried a noticeably more subdued energy. By this time many festival goers were going all night since Wednesday and the shortened program for Sunday was well curated to reflect the energy. Pyrolater constructs Conrad Schnitzler quickly became one of the most talked about performances at the festival. A legend in his own right, Pyrolater re-constructing the works of the Tangerine Dream member proved that his music helped pioneer Berlin techno. An incredible live visual component with the artist manipulating lights on stage resonated with everyone. After impressive performances by Second Woman (featuring Turk Dietrich of Belong and Joshua Eustis of Telefon Tel Aviv) and Porter Ricks, the crowd was packed in for a laser show to end all laser shows. Robin Fox is a visual artist who has worked with lasers for the past 10 years. For the first time in Berlin, Fox presented RGB, an absolutely immersive laser light experience that was one of the most impressive works at the festival. Red, green and blue lasers worked together to synchronize with pulsating electronic works and the audience was treated to a full environment of light and sound that seemed to cover every point in the main hall. You could look up and see lasers streaming above you and all around your fellow viewers.
Italian master Alessandro Cortini closed out the festival with the premiere of a new work titled, AVANTI. This was a truly emotional and majestic piece which had his grandfather's Super 8 films streaming behind him. Feelings of nostalgia and lost beauty pervaded the performance that touched on a lot of nerves in the moment. Sound and memory combined to illicit meditative feelings of a life once lived and the powerful work brought some people to tears as the final note finally faded away.
After descending down the stairs for the final time we got in line for Ohm, a small, but charming venue which played host to the closing party. After tons of rumors about who would be playing, it was revealed that attendees would be treated to a set by techno artist Objekt. With so many people involved with the festival, it was a great feeling to share a small room with fans and artists alike.
A week later and The Brvtalist is still processing everything from the festival. Along with once in a lifetime performance, we also got to finally meet so many of our favorite artists, writers, label-owners, fans and more over the course of our 5 days in Berlin. It was a transformative experience that will surely leave a lasting mark. Berlin Atonal continues to prove it is perhaps the premiere electronic music and arts festival in the world and each edition seems to get bigger and bigger. Now with it full swing we are already looking forward to the announcements for next year. We hope to see you there again. For more information please visit Berlin Atonal.