Review: Atonal 2017

Last Friday, my friend Julian and I went to Atonal experimental music festival, which is starting to become an annual tradition. We saw about seven acts there. The whole night was amazing but just the first act alone cast a long shadow over the rest of what we saw. A duo called Belief Defect was just starting when we walked into that cavern of sound, a venue hewn out of the disused energy plant in Koepernickerstrasse that also houses Tresor. The soaring ceilings of Kraftwerk and the muted air had left some unsettling vestiges of a cathedral behind, but with the aid of intense visuals, the place was transformed into something more like a mystic temple.

The music was a layering of ambient and industrial sounds, steadily agitating people to dance. Flickering red water and interference patterns blended with the ambient smoke. Rorschach faces shifted in the wind. Then gradually, they cleared and the effects suddenly made it seem that we'd fast forwarded to sunrise, blinding light shining on overlapping, translucent screens that stretched from the ceiling to the floor on either side of the stage.  Freaky creatures snatched straight from Hieronymous Bosch's famous painting 'The Garden of Earthly delights' cavorted, wriggled and danced across the multiple layers of screens, seeming to meet each other without even being aware... like pedestrians in a surreal, barren metropolis.

These creatures - mermaids, monsters, giant ears - became playful, wandering in and out of the laser-laced clouds of smoke and dancing around us. Rotary dial spotlights sent spikes of light reeling through the fog that wreathed the audience as it stood there, gaping at the screens. It felt mystical, hallucinogenic, sexual, psychological. Spokes of thought swirled the visual tangents around and around until reason just melted. Suddenly, I realised that the medieval dancers on the screen had morphed into rioters wrestling with armed cops without us realising it. It was dizzying. I loved it.

Near the end of the set, a massive hummingbird streaked across the screens. It brought to mind the Aztek god of war, also a hummingbird, but that synchronicity was probably triggered by my own subconscious. I suspect that this transcendence was the whole point of the show.

The music was, according to Julian, pretty standard experimental fare on its own, but I didn't really feel that the music was meant to stand alone, anyway - the point was to be pulled along with the rhythm by all of your senses, including your ears. And it succeeded fully.

All across the vast space there were other dreamscapes being created in the echoing dark. Every time we crossed the lobby we had to stop and stare at a film of a super slow motion frog being slapped down by what could only be described as a self-inflating rubber glove.  Another video featured live feed of guerrillas guarding something in the jungle. What was it? A plantation? A border? A president's villa? Questioning dreams came home with me afterward: animated deviants freaking blissfully in the garden of my subconscious. Atonal has this effect where it felt like my senses had been activated at every level, groping deeper instead of higher for meaning - getting farther, without changing anything at all. How many Berlin clubbers can get such a deep impression froma typical club dancefloor, surrounded by standard, predictable laser sequences and even more predictable beats?

Dimitri Hegemann's ethos is still in plenty of evidence at Atonal: "Make obscurity work for you, and don't be afraid to f*ck up" That's my take on it, anyway. Atonal it unafraid to make mistakes, living up to the epithet 'experimental' in moments like these. It's a shame that music is often the only thing that still takes on the challenge of testing our limits, these days.

More samples from Belief Defect's album Decadent Yet Depraved can be found here


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