Atonal is a Berlin-based electronic music festival that’s enjoying its fourth year since having settled at the Kraftwerk venue and its adjoining Tresor space. Selling out again this year, the fest brings together thousands of listeners who enjoy electronic, drone, noise and otherwise experimental music. On an August evening, black is still the color of choice, and if the first evening is any indicator, the festival will have many fascinating acts to discover.
The venue is an abandoned power plant repurposed to include accommodate multiple simultaneous performances. In addition to the main stage, there is also a large secondary stage, two smaller venues (Ohm and Tresor) and, to my personal delight, a bonus room reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey featuring a modular synth setup. Fog machines on overdrive obscure the entire space, and everywhere people are blissed out on thick electronics, enjoying styles as varied as low dub grooves to more intense trance-inducing drones.
Max Loderbauer kicks off the fest with Steve Reich’s “Piano Phase,” a gently repetitive piece that eases the crowds into the proper mindset. An installation featuring video feedbacks are on loop, visually correlating the infinite nature of the Reich piece.
Rashad Becker, paired with Moritz von Oswold Trio, process single piano notes through digital effects, amplifying them through the space as the smoke descends and covers the crowd. The Rashad-Moritz set lumbers along, allowing listeners to focus on the evolving electronics, a tension teased out over the course of the hour-long performance.
The effect is mesmerizing, and the sound is intense but mixed at the right volume, which of course is not always the case for live shows. It is also too easy to filter everything through a distortion pedal. This is resisted by Pita, whose hard noise set controls the distortion, infusing moments of uncertain ambiences before the beast takes over again.
There’s nothing quite like seeing an entire room concentrating on a drone set accompanied by visuals that could be described as a monochrome flurry of snow from an alien VHS tape. “The History of Darkness,” with sounds courtesy of Recent Arts, are reminiscent of a creaking ship at sea. The thick mass of sound intensifies as the visuals morph and multiply into a prism of repeated shapes. These transform into scientific tables and charts from centuries ago that become censored and scribbled over in stop-motion animation.
Dancier material can also be heard. At Ohm, Jochen Arbeit throws down some old school dub tunes a la Deadbeat, which gradually blends into incorporating a hip hop influence.
Nordwall changes things up from here, playing a type of deconstructed techno in a live set with whispered, burbling beats and cicada-like tones that carry the rhythm through it all. Stick to the back, where you can feel the bass coming out of the massive subs.
At nearly three in the morning, Ena spends his time reaching a beat over the span of fifteen minutes, then tosses in a 6/4 time measure, allowing the groove to shift every other bar. A high-pitched shriek comes out of nowhere and people pump their fists. It hits again, then a third time, out of time and beat, an alien sound even in this alien set. That unadulterated noise may be just a bar away is the allure of Atonal, and that challenging music can be enjoyable is its reward.