In many cases, when reviewing a festival, there’s a tendency to narrow your focus. Several days’ worth of performances end up boiled down to a handful of tangible highlights, which then serve as a macrocosm for the event overall. Yet, while Atonal’s third edition since returning after its 13-year hiatus certainly wasn’t short on highlights, to distil the event down to a few key acts would, in my mind, do it a broad disservice.
Like very few events these days, Atonal is an experience far greater than the sum of its parts. While attendees flood through the gates of Berlin’s colossal disused Kraftwerk (literally “Power Station”) to see the creme-de-la-creme of avant-garde electronic music take to the stage, the event’s appeal transcends mere booking policy. From the moment you enter the unfeasibly cavernous venue – around four times the size of Berghain, dotted with video art pieces and strategic light installations – it’s clear that this is a sensory experience that takes place on almost every plane imaginable.
The foreboding sight of the brutalist interior, fitted with its 100-foot video projection screen; the plethora of sounds, which range from punishing techno through to lush, somnambular ambience; the feel of the bass as it vibrates the fabric of your clothing and loose strands of hair; the smell and taste of the dust as it permeates the concrete walls and cathedral-like rafters – all of these elements combine to create a sensation so complex that it really must be felt to be fully understood.
Then there’s the music itself, which unites across all five days in a similarly complex fashion. From the abstract and reverential fare of the opening night (David Borden), this year’s music took turns via the sumptuously melodic (Kangding Ray & Mogwai’s Barry Burns), fearlessly abstract (Ivory Towers), indulgently old-skool (Powell), chillingly macabre (Regis & Ancient Methods) and transcendently beautiful (NIN’s Alessandro Cortini) to offer an experience so multi-faceted that no one aspect felt overly dominant or carelessly neglected. Whether you arrived knowing some, all or none of those names whatsoever, the compound effect of such eclecticism was a thrill that only became fully apparent when viewed in retrospective widescreen, like an episodic narrative revealing its grand denouement.
In this respect Atonal can be seen as one epic saga rather than a series of short, self-contained chapters. And, as it reached its close this year, my only thought was for how keen I was for a fresh re-telling of the story. For, truly, it’s one you will not find anywhere else.