Here is my very personal review of the past Berlin Atonal 2017, and I say very personal because first, it’s always a personal choice and taste, and second because my Atonal experience is always an inner journey, indeed the original title of this review was “Atonal on mushrooms”. But somehow I don’t want to make of this a sensational thing like a vice-kind-of-article.
So first things first, an introduction: Berlin Atonal is a resurrected noise / experimental / audiovisual / performance festival that takes place once a year in Berlin. It started in 1982, lasted until 1990, and after a long break it found a new form as we know it today since 2013, in the massive industrial building that we know as Kraftwerk, exactly where Tresor and Ohm clubs are located. The festival strong identity is based on three aspect: The location (an industrial dream made true), the visual aspect (whether is live visuals, video projections, art installations or amazing lightning set ups) and of course the unique music performances (ranging from pure ambient to harsh noise passing by all experimental generes). In few words and in my personal taste: The best festival nowadays.
Second introduction: [mmmm] The mushrooms. Why this is a fact I need to introduce? Because it builds up my experience, but I feel a strong responsibility in explaining my vision on the use of them. First, I don’t consider mushrooms a “drug” (awful word to stigmatize substances that in fact they are no more dangerous or addictive than tobacco, alcohol, refined sugar, etc.), but I do sustain that is a serious matter, NO recommendable for immature individuals or people having deep troubles and personal issues that are not able to handle by themselves. I have been using mushrooms for more than 15 years, and even though the general advice is to eat them at home or in nature (I did that too), I love taking them in festivals and clubs where I know the music is gonna be a great lead for the trip. For me mushrooms offer a large amount of energy, deep thoughts, extra-sensitivity for my senses, empathic connection with the artists and the audience surrounding me, etc. It’s a natural way for expanding my senses and live more intensively these days. I do not mix it at all with other drugs, I do not sell or deal with them.
Third introduction: Myself, because who I am or how I am defines a lot my opinion and vision. I do graphic design, art and live visuals, so the artistic and visual component of the festival is key for my love for it. And also I have been exploring music genres since I was a teenager, I passed through gothic and tecno-pop music, and evolved through styles in the following order: ebm, industrial, drum’n’bass, jungle, breakcore, rockabilly, psychobilly, rock, noise, dubstep, ambient, drone, post-jazz… to whatever sounds different to my ears in these days. But, I do have a tendency for liking trippy and melodic stuff at the same time than aggressive music, and specially all the music that easily generates landscapes in my mind, or sound like crossbreeds of opposite styles.
So here we go, day by day…
DAY I – Wednesday 16, August 2017.
So, it’s perfect for exploring the art installations selected this year: The kinetic light and sound sculptures from Joris Strijbos and Daan Johan (probably someone made the joke that they seem like scaled up usb LED fans like the ones you can attach to the computer), the explosive visual-trick installation by David Spriggs and the mesmerizing pseudo-scifi video projection from John Gerrard (yes! the friendly flying frog… that you will never know if it’s a real live-stream or a slo-mo video loop that is never fully loaded… “It’s not properly working!” some people might said, but for me that was the key… Did you consider that maybe that’s the question to think of within a festival that aim for experimentation? And we all know that errors, mistakes and glitches are the grandparents of innovation. I like art pieces that puzzle the mind, fool the correctness in art and make you wonder if that’s right or not.) Anyway, here you have some information about this piece:
Beside these ones I will highlight the first floor video projections. Among all the video art pieces projected (each day a different one) my favorite ones were Origin: At Length by Misha Daams and Earthworks by Semiconductor. It also deserves to be mentioned the light installation through all the Kraftwerk by Marcel Weber / MFO, which creates the perfect visual atmosphere to get yourself happily lost between concerts.
But the highlight of this day was not visual… but sonic, the oktophonic sound system used for the first concerts in the main stage was the protagonist of the night. Personally I will highlight the concerts from Ena + Rashad Becker and PYUR who presented Oratorio for the Underworld, both concerts touched me personally, the first one in a more classical ambient style with touches of post-jazz and the second one more electronic based but still quite atmospheric. These concerts where not performed on stage but in the center of the hall due to the sound system. It was quite curious to wander around during the concerts experimenting different composition depending on your position in the hall.
*I didn’t mention it earlier, but I guess this is the right moment: I like to review those things I liked, or that have moved / touched me somehow. I don’t pretend to go thoroughly through all the line up, because some artists / works don’t tell me anything, or directly I didn’t like them. That doesn’t mean their work is bad. They just don’t connect with me at the current time. And thanks God! During the whole festival I hear all kinds of opinions about the different works / artists. And some people disliked things I liked or viceversa, but that’s the beauty of it, to see how different we all are, and there is no right or wrong, maybe in some cases we can agree more in its positive appreciation, but at the end I would not criticize something negatively unless you see that there is a real lack of technique or intention, or just in the case that a work is disrespectful somehow with another form of life, belief or idea.
At the personal level, this day was also a touchdown phase for me. I didn’t take any mushrooms, just enjoyed exploring the new things in Berlin Atonal, meeting the faces I will encounter for the next days and say HI (+smile) to those I appreciate. Exactly this very same day my girlfriend and my twin brother, both left Berlin after a week of holidays together, so emotionally I was a bit down, even though I was pretty excited about what was about to experience…
DAY II – Thursday 17, August 2017.
Not sure if I warmed up enough or not for what was about to come this day… Maybe my favorite day of the festival. Two of the artists I knew in advance were playing this day, and I was really looking forward to see them. On one hand the ambient-noise old master Abul Mogard who was making his first live show ever (!!). I have already confessed my love for his music, specially for his Works compiling the early compositions. And on the other hand Mick Harris, whom I admire mainly for his extensive work as Scorn and have seen live at least 3 or 4 times and always left me deeply impressed with his sound-waves.
Beside my personal motivation, Thursday was the day that combined more AV live acts, so it was without any doubt the favorite day for most of my visual-artist-friends. So that meant that I would encounter a lot of my current friends in Berlin, including some last minute surprises, people I love to have conversations with, people that I admire for their professionalism, people that I want to have beside me in a festival when I’m tripping out or when we get that acid mood and start joking about every single thing (virtual hugs for all of them, little-big family).
So the night started with a new screen set-up (double screen, the classic one behind and a new one before the stage) and shows from Shaun Baron Carvais + Robert Seidel (didn’t know he was in the line-up) and LCC with Pedro Maia. But for me the night was about to start a bit later… I had the mushrooms right before LCC finished, so I could start my journey with my beloved Abul Mogard. He didn’t disappointed me one bit, but also surprised me with tracks much more beat driven and trippy, perfect for dancing, closing my eyes and find myself in a colorful realm of triangular pixels… Did I missed the visuals? I enjoyed them as a source of light for my own inspiration, they looked nice due to Berlin Atonal’s own setting up, but Marja de Sanctis is mainly an illustrator (usually does the album covers) not a visual artist, so it didn’t surprise me that visually the show was quite basic. All in all Mogard’s performance was like quoting Arrival’s Dr. Louise Banks: “Now that’s a proper introduction”. Pure abstract and colorful universe in perfect harmony, he played the sonic gems I was waiting for (from Works) along some others I didn’t know. The music stretched my body and my soul, and a voice in the back was telling me: Enjoy now, we have a long night ahead to go through, there will be time for everything. So I surrendered to the synesthetic pleasure of his music and forgot the rest.
Indeed, the night was still long and even more stunning shows were to come. Stunning? Maybe the words won’t be enough to define one of the very high-highlights of this year: The world premiere of the new live AV from Demdike Stare with Michael England. Or the second highlight of the night: another world premiere AV live from Damien Dubrovnik. I confess I didn’t know any of them at all, and they are not newcomers, but artists with a solid career. That’s one of the great things of Berlin Atonal, that they never cease to surprise and discover me things.
In the case of Demdike Stare and Michael England, I must say that England, the visual artist, totally captured my attention (and also from all my visual friends that were there) demonstrating a great sensitivity for collecting, editing and combining material, creating a powerful and profound statement, at the same time beautiful, creepy, magic, acid, human, funny and weird. Musically I remember a sort of updated version of IDM, combining great sonic landscapes, with heavy turns out, twisted beats and sounds masterfully designed. The combination of music and visuals played with our brains in evil ways, taking us in an infinite boost in order to leave us flying over a massive cascade in all senses, or showing us the limits between darkness and light, evil and good, beauty and monstrosity… The audience were asking themselves: Did I just saw…? Yes, we did! Slow motion close-ups from break dancer twisting arms and legs, athletes with deformed faces due to obvious physical laws, operated models that could be a impish 3D, I was loosing my head or suddenly all beauty was just futile, all gender… what gender? Old and young, all nationalities, being revealed and overexposed. I think I ended up with a selfie stick passing through my eye-ball… But there were also moments for the calm with amazing landscapes, sunsets and sunrises… We even went to Saturn’s rings, dived in colors and got frozen by a green laser in perfect synch with the sound… England didn’t invent the wheel, I knew what he was doing, but he just probed that it’s not enough with knowing how, but the key is having something to say. He nailed it! In fact he was the hammer and we were the nails. Pure and simple. For me, that moment was a profound trip in order to revisit my recent past, deal with my issues and fears, remember all and each of my beloved ones, even death passed by with deep feelings for those who are gone, due to a terrorist attack or to an aggressive cancer, but the message in my mind was clear: All is in its right place, we can’t understand it with our mind, neither with our heart, only one day with our soul.
The rest of the night was a mixture of fragments from different DJ sets and concerts, mixed up with more jokes and conversations all over the place, making time until Mick Harris came on stage. And I must say that although I liked his performance as Fret, I was quite disappointed with the overall. Somehow the sound didn’t punch me as I expected. I didn’t know if it was a problem of the sound system (which it wasn’t judging by how nicely it worked the day after) or some kind of compression used… Or! Most certainly it was me, beside the slow fade out of my trip, I recognize that I came to the concert expecting something it was not. I was looking for Scorn, and I found it under a constrained structure called Fret. So I could see and hear the Scorn soul, he even played some remixed pieces or samples from Scorn in a more techno oriented alias. So, I don’t know if the concert was not as good as the other ones I saw from him (long time ago) or it was my high expectations about seeing the man again. Most certainly was a personal thing, as I heard several comments of people that flipped out with his set… In my case I prefer the minimalism, slow pace and heavy bass of Scorn, so I will keep waiting for seeing his return (please!) one day.
I lasted a bit longer, until 5 or so… and walked back home like a beaten dog. I got what I wanted. Just needed to rest and get ready for the following days. With the pain in my body of a heavy night I decided to take an ibuprofen to block it out until I fell asleep.
[To be continued] – Thanks for reading!
Cover photo by Georg Schroll.
Photos of Demdike Stare + Michael England’s show from Berlin Atonal‘s facebook.