Returning for its first full edition in four years, Berlin Atonal hit back in 2023 with full force. Now comprising ten days instead of five, the music festival is a marathon of challenging sonics more than befitting of its colossal Kraftwerk arena
When reading commentary about Berlin Atonal, you’ll often encounter the word experimental. Widely used but rarely well defined, it’s an uncomfortable term most of us are guilty of throwing around; be it to explain away a love of Arca to a bewildered boomer, or to hastily describe tracks that defy easy categorisation.
In the 1950s, John Cage argued experimental music was that with improvisation baked into it, but today it primarily seems to be a buzz word for any strand of underground music. Perhaps instead, experimental music could best be defined as a pursuit of newness. If pop music is a language that everyone speaks, the most ardent experimentalism tosses out the alphabet and starts again, making words anew.
Despite initial scepticism of its hyped reputation, at its best, Berlin Atonal’s ten day audio-visual showcase is more than worthy of such a description. And Atonal’s impact is instant. Its Kraftwerk home, an ex-power plant, is an 8,000-square-metre industrial cathedral that leaves your jaw agape. It houses five stages, with the main stage on the fourth floor commanding immediate attention through an arresting, twenty-metre high gap from stage to ceiling. Naturally, the artists selected to play here aren’t picked by accident.
Emptyset used the concrete space to amplify their maximalist sounds, delivering unrelenting and gutturally satisfying low frequencies through the stage’s army of Funktion One subs. Debuting heavily distorted material from the duo’s upcoming album, Ash, its a full-bodied experience that at-home listening could never compare to.
Rainy Miller utilises Kraftwerk’s 360-degree freedom more literally, popping up in all its corners like a Berlin-based edition of Where's Waldo (naturally, he’s clad in all black). Prowling through the crowd, beer bottles in hand as if looking for a scrap, he ascends scaffold staircases while reciting mounful lyrics, before concluding a poignant, cinematic performance on the perpendicular secondary stage.
Miller, and many others here, pair their music with moving visuals and mass amounts of lighting. The main stage has a vertical projection setup, while the secondary stage has a horizontal one, each used depending on an artist’s needs. Sevi Iko Dømochevsky’s captivating CGI graphics best exemplified the former, dovetailing expertly with Aho Ssan’s quivering, metallic sound design on weekend one, and Shapednoise’s hip-hop adjacent work a week later.
MFO took a subtler approach to the secondary stage, lighting Caterina Barbieri and Space Afrika’s world premiere collaboration with coloured hues and rainbows. Their performance was a captivating mix of Barbieri’s penchant for other-worldly, synth-driven repetition, this time relayed through guitar and aural exercises, and the strident, murkier atmosphere founded in Space Afrika’s own work.
Like this, much of the music during this pre-midnight period is naturally more thoughtful and chin-stroking than hedonistically foot-shaking, with many attendees taking refuge on black blocks to the stage’s right that might as well have been clouds during DJ Lostboi and Torus’ oscillating ambient and amorphous trance, or Marta De Pascalis’ warm, sine-wave builds.
Once the clock strays past midnight, however, Kraftwerk’s top floor closes down and with it, a shift in focus. At Atonal, as with much of Berlin, the small hours are for dance. This demarcation is made literal across weekend one when Florentina Holzinger and her team dangle naked from the Kraftwerk ceiling to carry out the acrobatics of Étude For Church at around 12 am each night, slowly hitting a two tonne iron bell while whirring synth grows into industrial techno, as if to signal to Berlin’s partygoers: we are open for business.
While four-on-the-floor techno plays in Berlin’s bars, parks and even hairdressers in almost cliched association, it still has a place in Atonal. Legenedary club Tresor typically provides – although, naturally, the likes of Skee Mask and Djrum, who went back to back, or OK Williams rarely stick to the script, shelling screamo rock tunes into jungle or slower, dubby jaunts and breaks without care of any sonic heritage.
Down the hall and up some stairs, Globus – given a face lift since 2019 meaning the stage now faces a different direction, has a fresh soundsystem, and sits perpendicular to a much larger bar – was the perfect choice for upsammy’s dub and staccato dance rhythms, Kode9’s Burial and breaks session, and even Simo Cell’s ‘fuck it, let’s play anything’ set, all of which wobbled the wooden floor in waves that had the audience moving as one.
Stage Null, tucked away behind heavy-set pillars on Kraftwerk’s ground floor, could be dismissed in cursory glance but is frequently the most interesting of the lot, fusing the absurd live performance of the main stage with the rhythms of OHM, Tresor and Globus. Flore and Peder Mannerfelt are a highlight, going bonkers in a joyous set that mixes Björk, and techno abstractions with no bother. Aya goes even madder, engaging the swelling crowd with quips before abruptly launching into breakneck edits of her acclaimed LP, im hole. Leaving her audience both breathless and smiling, she asks ‘isn’t this better than techno?’; it’s hard to disagree.
While the utter destruction of Blawan and Pariah’s hardcore noise outfit Persher and Prison Religion’s screaming rap-rock hybrid brings suitable balance to Stage Null, it’s ¥ØU$UK€ ¥UK1MAT$U’s serene set that lives long in the memory. Paying tribute to Ryuichi Sakamoto, the typically ferocious DJ, known for his bewildering blends, mixes an odyssey of bewitching ‘80s J-pop, choral numbers and naturally, Merry Christmas Mr Laurence with harder-hitting percussive techno, noise and more. There’s rapturous applause, stares of disbelief and even some tears as he hangs up his USB for the evening; it’s not the sort of genre-spanning and decidedly emotional rollercoaster you expect to take in at just after three in the morning.
These are the sorts of surprises Berlin Atonal can throw at you. Teeming with newness, you’ll struggle to find a club-focused festival that facilitates as many left turns. It’s difficult enough to aptly describe the sets of artists listed here. You’ll be poked and prodded outside your comfort zone on occasion – and that’s without mentioning Atonal’s midweek Universal Metabolism exhibition which ran between the two weekends, replete with a packed, post-event programme that had surprise appearances from the likes of Varg2TM.
Should you ever feel the need to scurry for friendlier sonic terrain, Kraftwerk is the dream venue for that. Where else can you waltz between five fully fledged stages in minutes, without ever leaving the premises? With music running as early as 6:30 pm and as late as 10 am the next day, you’ll need to be tactical to catch the breath of music on offer. Naps and quiet wakefullness are your friends here. But to this end, the 2023 scheduling was as immaculate as Kraftwerk’s soundsystems, avoiding any major clashes or delays.
Sure, Atonal isn’t without fault. Stage Null’s new orientation meant obstructed sight and sound should you not position yourself carefully. OHM, being small, frequently had a queue for entry between 1 am and 4 am (albeit, a benefit for those inside, as Atonal staff made sure there was very welcome dancing space). While Tresor, on the contrary, was occasionally too packed to groove, like when Djrum & Skee Mask went back to back.
But let’s have some perspective. Minor crowding and queues are far more tolerable than the vastly oversold experience that other festivals frequently facilitate, and the sometimes unsafe and unsanitary conditions that follow. For most performances at Atonal, you’ll be able find your preferred position without struggle, all while taking in a stunning concrete setting on one of the highest bars for sound quality you’ll come across – and it’s clear, speaking to Kraftwerk’s pilgrims, that things have never been better.
In the midst of the marathon, it’s easy to normalise such smooth-running extravagance. But take a breath: there’s few other festivals that deliver such an all-embracing lineup in this manner. With its two-week format staying put, as part of a new biennial schedule, you’ll want mark to mark 2025 clearly in your calendar; Berlin Atonal is a must-attend event.