If you read already the first part of this review of Berlin Atonal 2017, you already know I’m taking you through an audio-visual journey spiced up with some mushrooms, just to refresh your mind.
As I commented in part 1, my vision of the festival, my highlights are extremely a personal choice, and I’m happy that I shared conversations during the festival where other people have different views. Also I would like to repeat that I didn’t know most of the line-up and I consider myself a cultivated listener, always looking for new things to listen. These two facts together make me arrive to a conclusion: Music scene is perfectly alive, continuously evolving and dropping always new interesting stuff to listen to. In opposition to those who think all is the same or everything has been done already. Indeed I’m the kind of person that usually studies the program before attending a festival and in the case of Berlin Atonal I decided to surrender and trust the good taste that Laurens Oswald, Harry Glass and all the team bring together. That’s what a curator is in my opinion, someone you can trust in order to discover new things along re-visiting the past and your own taste.
Now, let’s get back on track…
DAY III – Friday 18, August 2017.
If you remember I went to sleep with an ibuprofen, big mistake… That soft sensation that it produces to the senses it’s not the best friend of mushrooms, as it blurs the experience, like if your feelings and emotions were under a soft but thick layer of cotton. But I usually see this events as a signal of how things have to be and as lessons. So, in this sense, although I took mushrooms on Friday, I took it all slow and quietly, didn’t drink any alcohol, etc. I was perfectly awake, with all my senses sharp enough, so I could enjoy the festival but it felt good to slow down a gear, as there were still 3 days to go.
So, beside enjoying the concerts, I used the day to socialize. Friday had 5 concerts in the Main Stage and it was 5 world premieres, and beside being announced most of them as live sets, not as AV concerts, every single concert had a strong visual component whether with lights and smoke or with video projections. The night started softly with Yair Elazar Glotman, continued with a pretty classic industrial set by Belief Defect and went into visceral noise with Puce Mary and her new A Feast Before the Drought. I was curious about the collaboration between two big ones, Main and Regis, and the set was like a mixture of noisy drone with industrial techno. I particularly enjoyed their music with the beautiful companion of some abstract videos from artist Coté, that as soon could be soap bubbles, as molecules or viruses, or even faraway galaxies.
The highlight of this night for me was the last performance in this stage, and I guess a lot of people were looking forward to this one too. Roly Porter and Paul Jebanasam are well-known artists for Berlin Atonal’s audience, both have performed already in previous editions (still remember the mind-blowing collaboration between Jebanasam and visual genius Tarik Barri two years ago). Their new collaborative effort is called ALTAR and sounds like a perfect marriage of their personal styles, combining melodic soundscapes with noisy passages, always with the masterful sound design that distinguish both artists separated. For an hour or so they presented a totally abstract non-danceable music piece that continuously evolved in surprising ways. If there is some kind of free jazz sub-genre made with electronic music, these guys just branded it. A friend of mine commented that it sounded like a dying transformer… And in a way he was absolutely right, there was melancholia, sadness, but also beauty, combined with metallic sounds and mechanical echoes. This show was announced as live AV, there were no visuals but an incredible show of lights and smoke that created the right atmosphere for such a soundtrack. Many musicians are afraid of the visual side taking too much relevance and stealing the audience attention, but this concert was an example of how a visual show can upgrade that attention and perfectly complement the sonic experience.
DAY IV – Saturday 19, August 2017.
This year the fourth day was another personal peak in this journey. Recovered from the previous day and full of energy after sleeping a few hours my mind and soul were asking for some more action. As usually I warmed up with the first concerts and waited to have my astronaut-dinner right before something will strike my heart. Warming up with Fis + Renick Bell was nearly impossible for me, no doubt this concert was for other kind of people. Bell proved on screen his skills as live coder, writing lines of code one after another. Don’t ask me what he did, because there was no obvious outcome for a profane in coding language. And the music from Fis was an exact reflection of this geek and cold aesthetic, seeming by moments just pure generative music. My conclusion is that their result was a pure cerebral work, and I’m more driven by emotions.
In the antipodes we found the well-known Shackleton in a new exciting collaboration with Anika, joined in stage by Strawalde and Pedro Maia doing the live visuals. They presented Behind the Glass, an album I had the chance to listen and enjoy in advance. The work of Shackleton, as the work of Anika (which I recently discovered in the last edition of Krake Festival) are not those easy to listen, you need to pay several listens in order to fully dive in. The live set as it usually happens with Sam Shackleton turned into a whole new world, always heavily influenced by psychedelic and tribal sounds, I already found myself in this one with him, but this time the companion was absolutely delicious and enriched the whole meal, live percussions and female voice are perfect match. The already known work of Pedro Maia got also enriched with live drawings that he masterfully transformed in a three-dimensional canvas using good-old feedback. I also enjoyed seeing him going colorfully wild joining that psychedelic mood being spread through the speakers.
My highlight of this night, and probably my favorite along Demdike Stare + Michael England and Damien Dubrovnik, was about to come to the stage. Again, I didn’t know anything about Roll The Dice before Berlin Atonal, but their enigmatic name got totally stuck in my mind, their setting up reinforced the same feeling (what are they building up? why? what are those mirrors for?). That’s what I call to create anticipation, and once everything was ready to start the show, they did it again, another step up for anticipation with a dark stage and an old classic circus song welcoming boys and girls to what was about to come. Over the regular stage they built up several floors, being the last one the table where their instruments where placed. What for? For me is an statement, is part of the show as they are the projections, the lights, the way they were dressed, the smoke, the mirrors, etc. Every song of the concert had a different visual aspect, elegant compositions that made me wonder about how someone come up with such complexity and made it perfectly work at such scale (Atonal’s Kraftwerk scale). I guess the answer is not just someone but a whole team with stage designers, light technicians, visual artists, etc, etc. OK! the whole aesthetic was impressive, but what about the music? Their body of work is equally impressive, orchestral and cinematic, and their latest album Born To Ruin (you can stream it above) adds a marvelous and perverted jazz touch to their genuine style. Their live version is a middle ground between danceable electronic music and epic soundtrack, where they even had a moment to smash some jungle beats, that instead being obvious and easy, they deconstructed them in a magic new way, sounding still fresh. But if there is a moment from their concert that needs to be remembered is their (again) epic ending. They built up a song as they built up a massive cloud that covered the stage completely, and then they let it vanish slowly while some banging sounds came along rays of light passing through the smoke… When the cloud was mostly dissolved we could appreciate one of them standing up in the last table, he was banging a flexible mirror that produced sound and reflected distorted rays from a spotlight. Of course it finished with the mirror being dropped off the stage and a massive ovation from the audience.
DAY V – Sunday 20, August 2017.
Usually I like to take Sundays quietly and Berlin Atonal is no different somehow, we arrived to the end of the festival and even though there were still some powerful acts left, I had the feeling that musically we were approaching the end. So less dancy, more intelectual… After all I was there after 4 days full on, so even though that night I was about to make another trip, I didn’t want to go wild.
Visually each day we encountered a different set up for the projections but Sunday was the day they tried a totally new concept in Berlin Atonal, having three massive screens over the audience, hanging from the celling. This new design had its good and bad sides. On one hand it was pretty inspiring to see how you can use a projector not only to project images on the screen but how it could work at the same time as spotlight element, but also how combined with smoke it could simulate a three dimensional projection system. The problem is that not every visual artist is skilled enough to get a fine result with it. It’s a big risk for an artist and sometimes worked out amazingly and some others not so much. The only bad side I would say is that such set up affects the perspective on the massive architecture, and it also blocks the vision over the enormous vertical screen behind the stage (that somehow has become a symbol of the festival). But I fully understand that the festival and the visual director have to try different things in the years to come. Why? Because other way it would become repetitive for the audience and for the people behind the festival, and after all Berlin Atonal is about trying different things and taking risks. So, they did it and I’m cool with that, even though I prefer to somehow keep the full dimension of the hall as clean as possible.
I think the way Sunday started music wise was a good way to show that the festival is open-minded. Instead more drone, noise, ambient… We found a selection of artists curated by Varg under the title Nordic Flora, a series of releases published in the pretty interesting label Northern Electronics. It started in the Stage Null and continued on the Main Stage… without any doubt they left the most interesting of this batch of artists for the big hall, starting with a solo by Ecco2k, then a collaboration with Matti Bye, and ending with the beautiful voice of AnnaMelina supported with the electronic background of Varg. If I said open minded is because their style brings together pop music, romantic synths and some r&b, hip-hop and trap references, but still with a decent level of experimentation. So it was a perfect slow-mood opening.
The night continued quiet and ambient with Belong that played their October Language album, published back in 2006. They proved that after more than 10 years this album still sounds fresh and interesting, specially if you would close your eyes and let your imagination make the rest. Indeed there was nothing better to do, as it was the only concert in the whole festival that didn’t have any visual component, not even lights moving, neither smoke, just a blue screen behind. In this particular case I guess that’s a request from the artist to the festival, and I wonder about the intention of the artist with such request. My bet: The artist wants you to pay fully attention to the music, just the music. But in my opinion this is a huge mistake nowadays, you are loosing a chance to reach a wider audience and communicate at different levels, specially in an environment like Berlin Atonal, where before and after you there gonna be performances that people will remember for the rest of their life due to the complexity of different medias combined.
Pact Infernal rose up the level with an audiovisual world premiere. Their name is already quite explanatory of what their music and visual component is all about, between ambient and ritual, quite industrial, pure black and white… Or certainly more black than white. Their darkness fits perfectly with such environment and visually they matched such magic high contrast.
The next step in Sunday was a piece that could fit perfectly in a contemporary art museum or in a theater, and certainly in Berlin Atonal as a white canvas for unique performances. Pan Daijing presented Fist Piece, an extension of her last album featuring soprano Yanwen Xiong. On stage it was a combination of dance, theater, video art and music. Between Chinese tradition and Berlin’s current trends, their show incarnated somehow the weird moment of the night. The best definition for it: Pure art.
And last (for me) but not least, this year Emptyset was the responsible for closing the Main Stage for 2017. A position totally deserved regarding the big expectation that most of the audience had. They were without any doubt one of the highlights of the line up for many and they were arriving with a new album to display in full effect, indeed Borders has been composed thinking in the live performance. And that was exactly what caught my attention: the very distinctive string sounds (a six-stringed zither-like instrument) and the percussions, uniting ancestral sound references with their personal sonic universe. It sounded absolutely electronic but at the same time organic, like hand-crafted sound. The visual aspect was minimal and simple but effective for its purpose, to illustrate that abstract harsh world, and the Atonal new set up fitted perfectly with the whole proposal.
The night was still young and there were interesting acts for those who wanted more, but my mind, my body and my soul had already enough inputs for the following months. The festival fulfilled once again my personal purpose: Be inspired, think out of the box, recharge my creative energy and dream big for the future. So I went home in order to rest properly and re-start the creative process.
I know this review is already long enough, but I don’t want to miss this chance to draw some conclusions. These conclusions could be applied to this edition or any other editions of Berlin Atonal, and of course is also extensive to other similar events and festivals.
First, there are small but very important details that make a festival a human entity and not just a business machine of selling tickets. I will mention just two of them: 1. Even though festival passes and single day tickets get sold out quite fast, there is always a chance for you to come and get in, as every day there are tickets left at the door for those who really-really want to attend. You will have to wait, make a long queue, but you will get it. 2. I noticed a quite balanced level of male / female artists between the different stages. I don’t want to fall in the eternal discussion of gender equality, for me art and music is abstract, it has no gender. I care about the work itself, its quality and how it touches me emotionally. But is quite pleasant to the eye to see that the person on control, in the stage, could be as many times a woman, as it could be a man, or… whatever gender label you want to define with.
Second, the festival is a universal microcosmos, maybe a representation of Berlin’s best open minded and plural culture. It’s absolutely amazing to spend 5 days wondering between all kinds of people, nationalities, aesthetics, genders, tastes, etc. All in a pretty harmonic, respectful and peaceful environment, where you lose the sense of borders and races. You can hear all languages and accents just standing still in one spot between concerts. And visually is the same (beside the über popular black, or black and white color code) regarding tattoos, fashion, styling, etc. Everyone is free to be whoever they want to be and find the right ones to appreciate it.
And third, each year the festival becomes more and more a big reunion for all kind of creative people, so it’s not only about having fun, dance or party, but also about meeting interesting people, making contacts and new friends, bring together new ideas, have interesting conversations about art and creation. The inner side of the festival has become as interesting as the external side that the audience bring with themselves.
I want to end this review thanking and congratulating the amazing work the people behind the festival has done once again. I will be looking forward for what 2018 edition will bring to my journey.
Thanks for reading!
All photos from Berlin Atonal‘s facebook, except cover photo by Georg Schroll (coloured by Geso).