Berlin Atonal returns for a sixth time to Berlin’s Kraftwerk, an abandoned power plant that once served the East German regions of the capital. Inside its cavernous main rooms, the harsh air of industry remains. Atonal can be a similarly harsh environment: artists know that here, they’re free to try things they might otherwise avoid, and few hesitate to push things into more challenging territory. High-concept club sounds, improvised electronics and punishing soundscapes all feature. It’s by no means an easy festival, but judging from the thousands that pile through the doors over the course of five nights, it’s one that’s needed and wanted.
A bill of 170+ artists is a daunting thing to summarise, but first to say something about the DJ choices. One thing that makes this year’s roster particularly exciting is the commitment to truly weirdo selectors, whose sets are a reminder that beat-matching is just a tool, and neither a requirement nor the hallmark of a good DJ. A great example is Netherlands-based DJ Marcelle: playing vinyl across three decks in Ohm, she creates a joyous mess of worldly, bass-driven sounds incorporating far-flung disco and DIY dance tracks. Her style is prone to quick but thrilling tempo changes, and littered with alien sounds. Then there’s Osaka-born Yousuke Yukimatsu, who brings avant-leaning bangers from across techno, electro, ambient and beyond. He works at a furious pace, changing things up so quickly, frequently and unexpectedly that you get the impression it could all come off the rails at any minute. It’s exciting DJing.
Further selector highlights include Courtesy, who on the Friday night packs out Tresor with high-pressure, high-emotion techno. Bristol’s Batu gives us possibly the set of the weekend, his lean and thoughtful future-rhythms stirring up a Thursday night frenzy in Ohm. Finally, a special mention to Saturday’s Stage Null line-up, curated by Regis’ Downwards label – not only are the sets all excellent, but the jarring, Blackpool Pier-style patter delivered between acts (“Boys and girls, are you ready?!”) is some much-needed irreverence for a night of tough-guy techno.
Some standout live performances this year include Gabor Lazar, Hiro Kone and Group A. First Lazar: Unfold is surely one 2018’s best records, and live, the Hungarian producer is in complete control of his uniquely urgent strain of club music, propelled by elastic beats and crystalline synths which land like glass mallets. Meanwhile on the main stage, Hiro Kone builds incredible tension with her modular synths, performing dark and pulsing cuts off her new Pure Expenditure release. Her mastery is such that there’s never a boring moment, making for a deeply cinematic set. Then there’s Japanese duo Group A, who deliver the festival’s most merciless experience: dressed all in white, they conjure a storm of heavy-handed industrial rage, before mounting the tables to raise hell. Violinist Sayaka Botanic rocks on the spot as she forces screeching waves of noise from her instrument, over which vocalist Tommi Tokyo howls and roars, thrashing freely about stage with chains in hand which, with the help of a microphone, she uses to hand out more punishment.
Atonal’s commitment to artistic freedom and daring work necessitates that not all performances measure up. Actress’ Saturday headline slot falls flat, a ponderous sequence of drones and texture largely devoid of the adventurous spirit found on his records. A collaboration featuring influential producer Leslie Winer is similarly lacklustre; live percussion and vocals add little to her brooding instrumentals, which suffer from muddy sound. Another collaboration featuring Broken English Club, Shifted and Ilpo Vaisanen proves forced and awkward, with painfully loud, fractured electronics dropped carelessly over all-too-familiar sounding beats.
But one brand new collaboration proves a weekend highlight, and it comes at the very end. It’s still not clear who comprises LABOUR – all I can offer is one of them looked a bit like William Basinski – but their performance closes the main stage on the last night. Together they blend harsh electronics with mournful, droning sax. On a few occasions, the performance is interrupted by a brief but thunderous blast of live drums, and the music changes direction. Its an erratic and stirring performance. As the musicians leave the stage, the sound of unamplified drums fills the length of the huge main hall – hidden above the crowd in the darkened stairwells and rafters, some 10 to 15 performers play call and response with each other, a chorus of blows that reverberates through Kraftwerk. Stood in the dark, it’s the stuff of nightmares, and the perfect finish to what remains one of the city’s most important festivals: one that would never dare to insult the intelligence of its attendees.