CTM Festival

Various Venues, Berlin
23 January - 1 February

It’s hard to imagine another city on Earth that could pull off a festival like CTM.

Founded back in 1999, this remorselessly avant-garde audio-visual celebration has become a pillar of the Berlin musical calendar, attended by thousands of devout fans each year. With a booking policy that pulls close to zero punches in terms of pandering to mainstream appeal, this is very much an event for those seeking to push the sonic envelope through as many experimental letterboxes as possible. And, in a city like Berlin, there’s no shortage of those.

Over nine days, close to 200 concerts, workshops and performances take place at various venues around the city. Faced with that formidable prospect, Crack set off with a couple of press passes, several bottles of Club Mate and two very open minds to discover just how many obscure frequencies we could cram down our ears in one week. The answer, unsurprisingly, was quite a few…

Day One

Alas, due to an untimely bout of winter flu, our first two nights of CTM 2015 had to be substituted for an exclusive set by DJ Double Bed b2b MC Hot Water Bottle. Thankfully our man Billy Black was on hand to catch Electric Wizard’s “droning, hazy sludge metal” on Sunday, meaning our inaugural experience doesn’t arrive until Monday evening, when we shuffle over to Hebbel Am Ufer’s HAU 2 for a pair of unique performances making use of a remarkable 12-channel soundsystem installed especially for the festival.

The first of these, In The Darkness Of The World, is a radio play of sorts conceived by Mexican composer and sound engineer Sol Rezza. Combining the alien, otherworldly sounds of the deep ocean with snatches of spoken word and rich, womblike swathes of ambience, the overall effect is something like slipping in and out of anaesthesia – disorientating, but undeniably pleasant.

This is followed by the world premiere of a new piece by producer Pierre Alexandre Tremblay, whose background in complex sound technology and freeform jazz is wheeled out in full force with an elaborate, three-part performance built around guitar, bass saxophone and a live female opera singer.

Split into three movements – one dedicated to each “instrument” – Tremblay wavers between bouts of ordered, formal composition and discordant free radicalism in a manner that seems determined to delight and infuriate in equal measure. A challenging work, no doubt, but just the right side of the good/weird balance to leave us thoroughly satisfied.

Day Two

Returning to HAU2 (the festival’s most brazenly abstract venue in terms of bookings) the following night, we begin with the first ever performance of Lucio Capece’s ambitious ‘RX-11 Space Drum Machine’. Employing a swarm of tethered helium balloons fitted with speakers and small motor fans, Capece’s work aimed to create a listening experience like no other as the various balloons eddy in circles while playing isolated parts of a larger overall composition. Conceptually, it’s inspired, but the inescapably bland and amateurish nature of the music itself means a lot is lost in translation. Pity.

There’s little bland about the following act, however. Pierce Warnecke and Matthew Biederman’s Perspection relies on two large video screens placed at an obtuse angle on stage, onto which an endlessly shifting series of patterns is projected all using only solid blocks of red and blue. Soundtracked by little more than a series of franticly oscillating sine waves, it feels a little like the final sequence of Kubrick’s 2001, or being shown several hundred thousand works by Mark Rothko while shouting into an aeroplane propeller. Not advisable for epileptics.

With eyeballs still cooling we make our way over to Berghain for the late shift. If we were already excited at the prospect of seeing The Bug in this most auspicious of venues, that feeling soon gives way to something altogether more bowel-troubling when we see the size of the soundsystem for the evening. On top of the existing six Funktion One speaker stacks resident in the main chamber, Kevin Martin has brought and mic-ed up another three of his own, encircling the dancefloor almost completely.

Through basswaves so sonorous and bone-rattling they could’ve split icebergs, we stand aghast as every ventricle and air-filled cavity in our body convulses to the point of near collapse. This is, without question, the most intense and potentially life-threatening thing we see all week, but we’d do it again in a heartbeat given half a chance.

Day Three

In search of something a little less extreme than we’d had the pleasure of so far, Wednesday’s double billing of Lucrecia Dalt followed by Liima at HAU1 makes for welcome relief.

Illuminated by three shards of light and standing amid a synth bank and bass guitar, Colombian-born Lucrecia coaxes the room into a kind of somnambulant stupor with a sound built on dreamy loops and disjointed chords, all strained and sustained through long, drawn-out spells of repetition. It’s a polished performance, no doubt, but seems to seep out of the edges somehow, with a druggy quality that tugs us towards slumber on a number of occasions.

On to Liima, and things really start to pick up. The outfit – forged from cerebral Danish folk-popists Efterklang and their long-time friend, Finnish percussionist Tatu Rönkkö – are here to play their first official show ever, and are characteristically modest to begin with. Yet, as the cheers build so does their confidence, and the typical, fey songwriting the band is known for gives way to more experimental flourishes from Rönkkö, such as an ironing board covered in upturned pots and pans or a series of rubber-topped jars played like a tabla. This injects a new urgency into the set, and by its close we’re in little doubt as to why both parties felt it necessary to create such a side-project. Definitely worthy of another listen.

Day Four

Thursday kicks off in mercifully gentle manner with a performance by legendary composer and studio engineer Craig Leon in HAU1. Having previously lent his production expertise to such esteemed bands as Blondie and The Ramones, tonight he’s on hand to perform an exclusive rendition of his seminal ’80 synthtronica album Nommos – backed, for one night only, by a four-piece string ensemble.

With the venue’s colossal video wall whirring kaleidoscopically behind him, Leon embarks on an epic 60-minute meander through shifting galaxies of metallic, reverb-laden percussion and synth work. As the string players soar atop the melodies, at times the two achieve something almost transcendental – a union of natural and organic that sums up CTM’s raison d’être of being both conceptually adventurous and sonically beautiful in one bound.

Back over to Berghain, and it’s a night of future-focused beat music on the cards for the remainder of the programme. First up, Gazelle Twin’s breathy, industrial pop-noir, replete with sultry Fever Ray-esque vocals and angsty on-stage posturing, feels thoroughly at home in the brutalist surrounds of the former power station. Following her is the evening’s main draw, Evian Christ, who wastes little time dialling up the dancefloor hysteria with a very calculated set of trance-informed proto-trap.

Stuffed to the hilt with the euphoric trimmings of ’90s rave, his set is heavy on epic builds and hands-in-the-air moments, yet always stops short of the predictable “big drop” many seem to be clamouring for. This entertaining, if a little maddening, 60 minutes splits opinions like a cheese wire in our party, with fans and haters coming down heavily on both sides of the divide. Thankfully, Suicideyear are all-too-happy to indulge the more overt pleasures for anyone who was left un-sated in the aftermath.

Day Five

Friday heralds a slight change of pace, as we trade sweaty nightclubs for the opulent surrounds of Berlin’s premier concert hall, the Haus der Kulturen der Welt. Tonight this pillar of German society plays host to a joint performance by international rockstar of the laser industry (for yes, there is such a thing) Robin Fox and darling of the electronic pop scene Atom TM, the two of whom have promised an audio-visual feast of ball-tripping proportions.

True to their word, “Double Vision” manages to be both technically brilliant and a joy to behold. Part abstract music video, part retina-melting laser show, the performance maintains just the right balance of cool and kitsch to offset some of the week’s more serious performances. While lasers never really get old, it’s always nice to be reminded just what can be achieved by someone who knows what he’s doing – cue many ‘pew pew pew’ noises and Star Wars fantasising.

Day Six

Saturday’s offering is short, but all the sweeter for it. Picking up the matinee slot at HAU1 is Norwegian avant-garde songstress Jenny Hval, who’s here to perform her much-lauded Meshes Of Voice – arguably one of the most unique works of 2014. Perched at a stately grand piano and flanked by a trio of support musicians, the singer appears thoroughly humbled at the prospect of bringing this haunting take on vocal electronica to so many appreciative ears. Unperturbed, each delicate note and eerie reverberation swells the room with the sound of her Nordic homeland – something almost glacial in its beauty and lumbering intensity. This is another definite highlight of the week, and won’t be forgotten in a hurry.

Day Seven

Exhausted and limping towards the finish line, the final showcase of the week at the Astra Kulturhaus comes courtesy of Red Bull Music Academy, and is basically an exercise in which particular flavour of head-caving industrial music you most prefer.

For Japanese all-girl trio Nissenmondai, it’s ice-cold and clinical, charging the room as if it’s a battery via a single, droning bassline. With the drummer clamping into a vice-tight rhythm, guitars and synths pile upon layer after ominous layer to create something tough, yet relentlessly bleak in its sheer persistence and austerity. Doubtless much of the appeal of a band like this comes from witnessing three women dish out a kind of brutal, pointed music that seems to dwarf them entirely, but a little variation wouldn’t have gone amiss amid the 50 monotonous minutes.

If that was the cold, however, then Carter Tutti Void bring something altogether warmer. Having arguably helped first create the industrial sound in the ’70s and ’80s, tonight they ladle out a hypnotic sonic pummelling – acidic, grungy and stomping from start to finish. Hovering around 130BPM, heads transition from stupefied droop to grateful nod to trancelike groove, as the pressure mounts to take over the cavernous space in its entirety. All too soon, however, the spell is broken, and an abrupt end to the music wrenches many from their techno reverie, leaving us grateful, yet strangely numb in the encroaching quiet.

Trickling out into the cold night, it strikes us that perhaps that’s the greatest souvenir we’ll ever receive from CTM: never quite appreciating silence in the same way again.

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