Berlin Atonal returned for its first full edition since 2019 earlier this month, offering a mammoth 10-day showcase of sound, visual and performance art. Taking place in the Kraftwerk complex, a staggering former power plant that also encompasses Tresor, Globus and OHM, Atonal’s extensive programme served to further entrench the festival, and the city itself, as one of the most dominant forces in the experimental music scene.
Roaming through the GDR-era behemoth offers a uniquely immersive experience, the building’s sheer enormity and labyrinthine structure disorientating the audience and adding to the audiovisual experience. While Kraftwerk’s cavernous main hallway on the second floor served as the focal point for each of the concert nights, the alternation between two stages positioned almost perpendicular to each other, on two sides of the floor, ensured the proceedings remained dynamic; as each act gave way to the next, the entire crowd would shift its attention to the other stage in unison, moving as one. It gave each night a feeling of active participation, as if you were exploring the curious relics of some futuristic wasteland.
Berlin Atonal’s curation gave it the power to push its audience to unchartered sonic and corporeal territories. Each concert felt like it was reaching the brink of some artistic space, only for a completely new set of limits to be drawn and tested with the next act. Complete with a post-concert clubbing programme that was notable in its own right, Atonal offered an artistic experience that was both holistic and audacious.
It is difficult to narrow down the vast array of forward-thinking music to a streamlined shortlist. Honourable mentions include dj lostboi and Torus’ coalescing ambient and trance vapour trails, performance artist Florentina Holzinger’s transformation of the main floor to a hellish cathedral of pain and wonder, and The Bug and Flowdan declaring war on the ground floor’s Stage Null on the final night. Here, however, are five standout moments.
There was a real sense of ceremony as Laurel Halo took to the main stage on the opening night, meeting the crowd’s nervous anticipation with a breathtaking premiere of her then-upcoming album, Atlas. Playing alongside cellist Leila Bordreuil, Halo crafted a mood of contemplative awe, the majesty of her grand piano juxtaposing with Kraftwerk’s spacious main floor to further intensify the performance’s cinematic potential. Bordreuil’s swelling strings soared, at one point giving way for Halo’s piano solo on Belleville to gracefully spread its wings. It was an enthralling display from a formidable artist with an ability to orchestrate acoustic and synthetic details. It made perfect sense to open the main stage with Laurel Halo, her performance a true statement of intent that marked the first tentative steps into Atonal’s unknown.
Caterina Barbieri and Space Afrika
Caterina Barbieri and Space Afrika are two artists with capacities to conjure quite different imaginative worlds – while Barbieri’s are fantastical, intergalactic landscapes, Space Afrika’s are more quotidian, existing somewhere at the threshold of our past and present experiences. A collaborative performance between the two of them, therefore, was always going to be a must. As Barbieri switched between wistful acoustic guitar, otherworldly vocals and swirling synths, Space Afrika carefully layered their signature, emotionally charged soundscapes. Accompanied by spectacular lighting from visual artist Marcel Weber (MFO), experiencing the performance felt like finding your way through a dense mnestic space, grasping for traces of familiar places now obscured with fog. The way both artists’ styles seamlessly merged made for a transfixing show, one that reminded us of just why Barbieri and Space Afrika are two of the most captivating forces in the game right now.
The two concert weekends were bridged by Universal Metabolism, a four-day exhibition offering an array of audiovisual art, sculptures and workshops. Wednesday evening’s programme was rounded out with a concert from London-based musician and multi-disciplinary artist Klein, whose eerie creations continue to defy categorisation. Named after the lead single from her upcoming album, Klein’s DJ drop performance superimposed uneven loops of stuttering keys, meandering pop and R&B vocals, and grunge guitar to form an uncanny sound collage that insistently burrowed into the unconscious. The way she languidly ambled around Stage Null behind a large canvas produced shadows whose weird, brilliant movement only added to the sense of dislocation. Unsettling and entertaining in equal measure, the performance lingered in your mind long after it was over.
Armed with sound systems expressly designed to be felt deep in your core, Berlin Atonal provided a variety of opportunities for the tactile experience of music, from the body-propelling, pummelling drum patterns of Nkisi, to the face-first dive into a brick wall from Pariah and Blawan’s metal- and hardcore-inspired outfit, Persher. Emptyset’s performance on weekend two, however, was nothing short of a precisely executed, full-frontal assault on the senses. Debuting material from their forthcoming album ash, the duo pushed the spatial potential of sound to its most extreme, their pulverising percussion and analogue distortion fusing with the main floor’s strobes like mangled geometric forms collapsing in on themselves. Assembled in Bristol, where the Emptyset project first began almost two decades ago, these sound experiments drew on twisted fragments of the city’s sound system culture. It was a uniquely physical experience in which no eardrum or retina was left unscathed.
Listening to Blackhaine’s music even outside of a concert setting demands a physical response. Experiencing his drill-via-noise wastelands and macabre wordplay live, however, felt like being dragged into an unrecognisably harrowing world of brutality. Blackhaine foamed raw punk poetry over grit-your-teeth industrial dread, channelling the violent body contortions of Joy Division’s Ian Curtis with self-destructive intensity. Most confounding of all was the emergence of multiple Blackhaine-looking figures, who respawned on stage and on top of a freight container behind the crowd. It was as if Blackhaine was choreographing and starring in his own psychological thriller, watching his demons escape from the recesses of his mind to thrash and writhe around him. Truly nightmarish, irresistible stuff.