Ten years ago it would have been near impossible to gain entry to the monumental power station on Köpenicker Strasse in Berlin’s Mitte, as the building originally created to power East Berlin after the installation of the Berlin Wall stood abandoned for many years. In 2007 however, Dimitri Hegemann, founder of Berlin’s world famous Tresor club and label, re-awakened part of the building as the new home for Tresor, after the club was forced out of its original dwelling on Leipziger Strasse, where it had been an international Mecca for techno since the early 90s. Since then, the rest of the space has been opened up as ‘Kraftwerk Berlin’, and used for a multitude of artistic events; one of these being Hegemann’s own Atonal Festival, which returned to the city this year after a 23 year absence.
Originally held in Kreuzberg’s legendary club and venue SO36, Atonal hosted industrial and experimental music, as well as being a cornerstone of Berlin’s underground arts scene, with acts such as Einstürzende Neubauten and Test Department playing at the festival before it ended in 1990 with the fall of the Wall. Needless to say, Kraftwerk provides a more than adequate environment for Atonal’s resurrection – the cavernous building being perfectly suited to the blend of industrial edged experimental music and gritty warehouse techno taking up the bulk of Atonal 2013’s bill. Coming more than two decades since the last edition, it was only fitting that some updates be made to the festival’s sound, with organiser Paulo Reacho describing the re-booted festival as being “not so much about confrontation, but rather about exploration”. The hallmarks of industrial and post-punk which characterised the festival’s original billings were still present however, despite re-contextualisation from the somewhat dank surrounds of SO36 to a jaw-droppingly vast power plant.
The use of the space as an arts venue feels like a real triumph for values of recycling and re-use, and a real affirmation of the beauty and use-value to be found in an industrially developed society’s forgotten and oft-unloved spaces. Even the most ambitious architect given carte-blanche to design a setting for the music and installations presented at Atonal would never come up with such an astounding venue, with the main hall being reminiscent of Berghain’s huge main chamber, only several times larger. Hegemann’s bold choice of venue demanded bold performances, with nowhere to hide in such a capacious and daunting setting.
Of the six days, Sunday’s proceedings looked most likely to deliver such bold performances, with a Blackest Ever Black label showcase following an afternoon hosted by not-for-profit event series Contort. Contort, usually held in Kreuzberg’s Mindpirates, aims to give its artists total freedom to explore the most experimental ends of their work; and this manifesto was certainly clear on the day – during Russell Haswell’s opening half an hour many in the audience had their hands clasped firmly over their ears, as Haswell produced piercing sirens and grating analogue noise. As the set progressed he slowly worked in cuttingly sparse Alva Noto style rhythms, giving the seemingly unfocused and slightly indulgent introduction context.
A mediation between the danceable and the experimental remained present throughout the event - Samuel Kerridge slowly easing out hissing, hi-end percussion and throbbing kicks from dense, foggy atmospheres and rumbling bass drones. More than anyone, Kerridge provided the most fitting soundtrack to the Kraftwerk venue, creating a soundscape that sounded at times as though it could have been an amplified recording of the power station whilst it was operational.
Visuals also played a key role throughout through Contort’s session, as Audiovisual artist Zan Lyons presented his gritty blend of UK Hardcore tinged rhythms and cinematic ambience, syncing his own clear cut visuals live to the music. For the most part the visual element worked well throughout the rest of the evening, with grainy footage reminiscent of the work of 29th Nov films, well suited the industrial edged sound pallate.
This said, it was slightly unnerving to see Violetshaped running a loop of various B-Movie horror scenes, depicting an assortment of women being stalked and attacked by masked killers – the end result feeling like a cheap shock tactic with little thought given to the implications of doing so. Moreover, such accompaniment was unnecessary - Violetshaped’s music is always an intense listening experience, and was amplified by the setting anyway; so gory footage of women being mutilated, rather than make the experience more overwhelming, actually detracted from it and left a slightly sour taste. What exactly Violetshaped were trying to communicate with these visuals we aren’t sure - the performance itself however was fantastic. Rumbling, distorted, relentless and incredibly hard-hitting; yet after Kerridge’s more freeform set, it felt strangely conventional. A common feature among most of the artists performing on the Sunday was the distorted low end that characterised Violetshaped’s set - kick drums that throbbed rather than propelled.
Following Violetshaped, and continuing that musical motif, was Raime, whose drudgy, slow-motion take on 80s goth, filled the gaping room spectacularly with ominous low-end drones and haunting eastern influenced vocal outcries. The penultimate act was William Bennett performing as Cut Hands. Bennett’s music, despite it’s wild polyrhythms, and despite Bennett’s own dancing, prompted many in the audience to remain seated, evidencing it’s quality as head music just as much as body music. Short sets, early evening performances, and live sets rather than DJ sets, created a more subdued atmosphere than the music presented usually soundtracks; with a crowd willing simply to listen and appreciate the space.
The final and most powerful performance came from Dominick Fernow, a.k.a. Vatican Shadow whose live set of a collection of recent released material was accompanied by newspaper clippings and photos documenting the media’s presentation of global violence and the ‘War on Terror’. Musically, the set was a confident run through of the various strands of Fernow’s Vatican Shadow project. Although some transitions between tracks felt a little awkward, sounding like pieces were being hastily crossfaded, this in the end didn’t matter, as Fernow’s overwhelming passion forced a reaction from the audience - go hard or go home. It was not the sort of performance one could submit to half-heartedly, it demanded engagement - not just with the visceral and physically powerful music, but also with the political content. Unless one engages thoroughly with such a performance, the effect can be jarring, and the whole thing can seem frivolous and even humorous. Bennett’s choice of visuals for his Cut Hands set of a silhouette of a naked woman dancing maniacally was a prime example of this odd dichotomy: let go and give way to it and the effect can be powerful and absorbing; but stay on the fringes and retain too much scepticism, and the sight of a man flailing wildly to pseudo-African rhythms in an abandoned power station with an enraptured crowd of onlookers, can be comic.
Electronic music and dance music can often be accused of lacking content, and the Sunday at Atonal was evidence that electronic music works best when it actually attempts to engage with something. The weaker parts of the programme, such as the comparatively bland Ancient Methods A/V set, and Violetshaped’s ill-thought out imagery, only appeared drab or tasteless juxtaposed with the hyper-political Vatican Shadow or Cut Hand’s cross-cultural collage.
Given Atonal’s stated mission to explore ideas and to challenge, Sunday’s proceedings were largely successful; and even the moments that didn’t quite reach such lofty ambitions still made great use of the extraordinary space chosen to host the re-booted event. With the collapse of Bloc after last year’s crisis, festivals which make use of challenging lineups in unconventional spaces are in short supply, making Atonal’s revival all the more welcome.