News / / 16.09.14

Berlin Atonal

Kraftwerk Berlin | 20-24 August

Now two years into its second incarnation, the Berlin Atonal festival does an incredible job of gathering musicians at the vanguard of modern noise, industrial and techno, and at the same time telling the history of the genres. Originally started in 1982, Berlin Atonal has become a reference point in both the history of industrial music and the story of Berlin techno. The festival took an indefinite hiatus in 1990 as organiser Dimitri Hegemann started orchestrating parties in the newly reunified Berlin, going on to found the hugely influential Tresor club and label.

When we met Hegemann to talk about Atonal we found him to be warm, expansive, passionate and nearly impossible to keep on topic. Over an hour and a half in a Kreuzberg café, we talked about his teenage years in rural West Germany, through to the social projects he now leads in Detroit. As we chatted, Hegemann considered why he felt the time was right to return to the Berlin Atonal concept; “[In Berlin] you cannot go to a supermarket, a hairdresser, a bar, without hearing electronic techno. It became really mainstream. It’s everywhere and the structures are all the same.” He says, referencing the bland electronica being piped into the café. “I want to break that with Atonal. I met these groups, and my idea was to bring them together and make a festival out of it. So I founded Berlin Atonal. When I did it in ’82 I said: ‘this festival should really be a challenge for the public.'”

Atonal Ambient

A recurring point in our conversation was Hegemann’s determination to reinvigorate the performance culture of electronic music; “I was very happy to talk to a new generation of promoters last year. They said: ‘What was this Berlin Atonal?’ I explained to them and gave them some examples of what we did; these eccentric and wild elements, these ecstatic things onstage. In the last few years I was really bored when techno artists played live; nothing happened! I want to see something with my eyes. So we started this debate and I said that at Atonal there were people onstage painting each other and a huge screen and there was an aspect of fun.” Many of the live sets at Berlin Atonal come with a complete A/V show as part of the performance, but the most visually striking aspect of the whole festival is undoubtedly the venue in which it takes place. Part of the same complex as the new Tresor, the festival’s main stage is a hollowed out power station known as Kraftwerk Berlin, which is comparable to the London Tate Modern’s turbine hall. At one end of the hall a three-storey high screen backs the stage, providing an imposing and immersive backdrop for the graphic elements of the concerts. “I think the venue plays such an important role. Kraftwerk Berlin is a result of my ‘space pioneering’”, Hegemann explains. “It’s one of my favourite things to bring industrial ruins and abandoned places back into culture. I have the ability to enter a place, a ruin, and find out if this place has a quality. I’m not talking about something material; it’s about energy.” Kraftwerk Berlin is a space with an undeniable presence and, just as Hegemann desires, it never competes with the artists performing, rather lending some of its own charisma to their performances.

No one could accuse Berlin Atonal of being mainstream but what is more striking than the challenge it poses to listeners is the extent to which it represents the state of contemporary industrial music and techno, while at the same time paying homage to the genre’s histories. Pioneers like Cabaret Voltaire, Ike Yard and In Aeternam Vale shared bills with dance music legends Source Direct and Biosphere, as well as a wealth of current performers. The melding of these acts proves their continuing relevance and, by creating a dialogue between old and new, their ongoing contribution to the genre.

The opening night’s performances of Music for 18 Musicians and the first part of Drumming by Steve Reich were as hypnotic as you could hope for, and a perfect way to start the festival. The industrial space played counterpoint to the organic textures and the cathedral like reverb of the immense hall transformed simple repeated percussion phrases into a towering, beat driven wash of sound.

Music For 18 Musicians

Dalhous, too, made excellent and considered use of the facilities, supplementing their bleak, hauntological sound with a hazy video collage of found footage, immersing the crowd in the themes of nostalgia and memory that run through their music. Performing later the same evening as The End Of All Existence was Milton Bradley, whose cobbled together visuals, complete with lo-res images and dodgy fonts, really let his performance down.


Despite the unpredictable nature of noise music, many of the performances given were calm and controlled. Helm‘s composure onstage contradicted the harsh and volatile sounds he produced but gave his performance an air of organised chaos. Tim Hecker, too, was a subdued figure at the centre of a pitch-black stage, spending his set hunched over a mixing desk and flanked by guitar amps blasting out his distinctive droning shoegaze. Neel and Max Loderbauer‘s sets were both arrestingly beautiful, which was all the more surprising at a festival characterised by challenging listening. Abdulla Rashim and Dasha Rush both explored the boundary between techno and noise, reflecting the more ambient sides of their respective outputs and capitalising on the opportunity to experiment offered by Atonal.

Not all of the performances at Atonal were so calm and geared towards chin stroking. Making a live debut, anonymous techno producer Headless Horseman‘s performance was unapologetically brash, roughly mixing live versions of his/her tracks. SØS Gunver Ryberg bounced around the stage to the tune of decimated kick drums and bludgeoning percussion with a truly manic energy. Drum’n’bass pioneers Source Direct proved that they can still bring some serious energy to a performance 20 years into their genre defining career with a vinyl-only selection of their own material. On paper, the prospect of watching some dance music figureheads of yesteryear DJing their greatest hits isn’t too appealing, but Source Direct really were outstanding, working the crowd with a huge amount charisma and some of the tightest mixing we’ve seen in a long time.

Source Direct

Alongside the main performances in Kraftwerk Berlin were a series of night-time events held in Tresor itself. Whereas many of the shows in the Kraftwerk were about serious listening, those in Tresor were about serious dancing. The anonymous and unpronounceable Shxcxchcxsh put on a heavy live show and Diagonal label boss Powell surprised us with his esoteric but perfectly coherent DJ set. Powell played with an energetic blend of technical precision and raw energy that perfectly suited the cramped, manic vibe in Tresor, mixing his own records with new beat and old techno. One potential issue with the day-night balance of Berlin Atonal is the requirement to stay up until five or six in the morning in order to see acts after a full day at the festival. In the case of Millie & Andrea, our endurance was rewarded with a consummate performance that further explored the territory covered on Drop the Vowels, though we were sorely disappointed by Killing Sound, as their 5am live sound simply didn’t match up to the beautiful soundscaping work on their recent EPs for Blackest Ever Black.

Genre originators Cabaret Voltaire, In Aeternam Vale and Ike Yard all paid homage to techno’s industrial heritage with their performances. All three acts played new material and while their performances weren’t exactly retro they were somehow fitting, seeing their influence coming full circle. Cabaret Voltaire’s founding member Richard H.Kirk gave a particularly impressive performance and one with a distinctly British flavour. The influence that Kirk has had on the sound of British dance music as Cabaret Voltaire, and latterly Sweet Exorcist, is difficult to overstate, and despite the fact that he was playing exclusively new material, he drew on a lifetime of experience in electronic music to put together a truly timeless set.

Cabaret Voltaire

Alongside live music there were stalls selling locally made and reasonably priced food, DJs playing all day at Tresor’s Ohm Bar, and freshly made coffee was available deep into the night, making it all too easy to arrive for performances at six in the evening and not leave until six in the morning. With Berlin Atonal, Dimitri Hegemann and his team have managed to make constantly being challenged by music at a festival a genuinely fun experience.

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Words: Thomas Painter

Photography: Camille Blake