From scythe-sharp dubstep to screeching ambient, the popular experimental festival was a riot of strange and fascinating music.
It was powerful to see so many people standing transfixed for hours on end at an ambient show. At most festivals, midnight is hammertime. But Berlin Atonal is different. The crowd comes to be challenged and inspired by new sounds, no matter how strange, mellow or intense. Yes, it can feel like stepping into a simulator of Berlin nightlife, all black clothes, industrial backdrops and moody electronics. But the programming, spread across a single block of awe-inspiring venues, is like little else out there.
Here are five key performances from Berlin Atonal 2019.
As midnight ticked closer on Wednesday, streams of people buzzed around Kraftwerk's ground floor stage, Stage Null, everyone eager not to end up stuck behind a stone pillar. Up on +4, a mezzanine level sandwiched between the ground floor and Main Stage, groups crowded the viewing platforms, their ears pounded by blaringly loud PAs. Jonnine Standish and Nigel Yang, AKA HTRK, crept into view to much fanfare, their sparse setup—Standish on vocals, Yang on guitar and machines—framed by two fat stacks of Lambda Labs speakers. The sound was immense, crisp yet throbbing, drowning the floor in a dense fog of bass, raspy vocals and shoegazey guitar. Standish's bare-all lyrics hung heavy in the air. "Why do I seem to fall / I fall into it all," she sang on new track "Into The Drama." It was amazing to see so many people enthralled by such intense, mellow music, but then that's Atonal all over.
Atonal's insistence on hosting world premiere performances is eye-catching, but it also raises a question: how many of these shows are actually ready? Take dbridge's live set, dubbed Black Electric, in the early hours of Thursday. It was strange to watch a master DJ fading sheepishly from one track to the next, sometimes with silence in between. World premiere or not, it didn't feel like the finished article.
That said, the music was excellent. There was progression, too, despite the frequent lulls in energy. Obscured by a large table of gear, dBridge opened with a beautiful, spacey melody before unleashing a stripped-back dubstep beat with the kind of throaty film or video game samples that abounded in the mid-'00s. (It wouldn't have sounded out of place at DMZ in 2006.) The intensity of the drum programming increased from there, from scythe-sharp techno and electro through to 170-BPM chaos. The faster he went, the louder everyone screamed.
By the time the crowd was allowed to climb the stairs to Kraftwerk's main room on Saturday, Félicia Atkinson had already started. A series of chimes pinged around the room, as if calling us to the front of the stage like a bell signalling the end of high-school lunchtime. The mood also felt academic: it was dedicated to the work of the American painter Helen Frankenthaler, an abstract expressionist (think distorted figures, bright colours) who died in 2011.
Soft lighting coated the room in shades of red and purple while Atkinson moved through a series of ambient tones and soundscapes. Some were harsh but most were smooth, as though reflecting the soft edges of Frankenthaler's colourful paintings. The occasional vocal, including some in French, added their own colour to the soft tones enveloping the room, memorable moments in a deep, contemplative set.
Objekt + Ezra Miller
Atonal doesn't do headliners, but the festival's main draw was Objekt's new live show. Sunday morning's performance, in collaboration with the visual artist Ezra Miller, was only its third outing—not that you could tell. Main Stage was heaving as the pair, facing each other over a table of laptops and hardware, set off with the gentle melody from the opening of Objekt's 2018 album, Cocoon Crush. Everyone braced themselves for the onslaught.
It came in fits and bursts, a constantly morphing thundercloud of broken rhythms, harsh noise and wicked synth lines. Moments of calm, too, occasionally. The freaky visuals—monsters traversing bleak terrain, a huge woodlouse-type creature eyeballing the audience—were slower and more static, their power perhaps tempered by Kraftwerk's slim screen. (The duo's show at Primavera Sound, for example, looked much more intense.) After a mellow midsection, the rave energy shot back up, first with the slow jungle breaks of "Needle & Thread" and then, finally, with DJ Bogdan's "Love Inna Basement (Midnite XTC)," AKA the VIP version of Objekt's big hit, "Theme From Q." The place erupted, and for maybe the first time that weekend, Main Stage was a full-on rave.
Kali Malone + Rainer Kohlberger
Kali Malone makes and plays ambient music, but not like most artists in her field. Instead of synthesisers or field recordings, she draws her sounds from traditional instruments. The Sacrificial Code, her most recent album, was made up of ten lengthy organ pieces. But unlike that album, a sprawling collection of fuzzy, soothing soundscapes, her 45-minute set at this year's Atonal was intense, screeching with sounds that could've originally been drawn from violin.
The energy rose and fell with Malone's sounds, while the Berlin-based filmmaker Rainer Kohlberger programmed the abstract, disintegrating visuals to the left of the stage. On the final night of a festival loaded with intense, confronting music, it would've been great to hear Malone's softer pieces. That said, the cheers that flooded the room the moment her set finished suggested that not everyone felt the same.