Tempelhof is a disused airport in Berlin, a curved slice of monolithic building that cradles several vast hangars and decaying landing strips set across a wide airfield. It’s labyrinthine design imbues the festival entrance process with that familiar feeling of checking-in stress, exacerbated by conflicting signage and confused staff; the sensation is one of being sucked into an unfathomable Kafkan architecture of mysterious processes and power systems. As an interactive artwork on psychogeography, it would be a Turner Prize front-runner, but as a festival entry process it’s as tiring as boarding a busy flight.
After walking through the passenger terminals, complete with be-stilled luggage collection belts, hanging model planes and signs barking warnings in German, we descend the steps onto the runway where the festival is held. The vast open field ahead lies fenced off; the ground is criss-crossed with dormant rails set into the concrete and painted guiding lines that go unheeded. Music blares from several gaping hangar-like spaces containing scaffolding stages, and from countless food stalls, markets and mini-stages, creating an inescapable, disorientating cacophony . Drizzle falls constantly, whipped around by eddies of wind. The whole location and setup has a very strange ambiance, the hulking and somehow militaristic Tempelhof building looming over everything.
Austra seem to have wafted in from another dimension. Katie Stelanis summons up energy with her hands and casts it into the early afternoon throng like a spell, writhing and smiling in a constant rapture of confidence. Her four piece backing ensemble dance throughout, the twin backing vocalists particularly liberated from any visible self-consciousness. They’re a powerful and magnetic unit, and hard to look away from, finally cavorting happily from the stage after a rousing version of “The Beat and the Pulse”. It looks like fun being in Austra.
A short walk to hangar four, and Yelle’s two showmen drummers are running around trying to rouse the sparse afternoon crowd into handclaps while a disconcertingly skinny and hyperactive frontwoman bounces around like a dessicated Teletubby. The sound is banging euro-disco meets FM pop, and they come across like a Eurovision winner with a big-money record deal. The same goes for Oh Land, who carries out a sorry magpie-like appropriation of contemporary pop elements – wobbly dubstep bass, a studied, stagey vocal, and outfits like a Bat For Lashes-themed pantomime. But when her drummers throw on animal masks for a particularly unmemorable number, it’s a step too far – like someone trying to converse in Bjork’s poetic visual vernacular without understanding a word of what it means.
On the main stage, The Drums benefit immensely from the natural reverb of the hangar, their high energy pop given a dreamlike quality as the sound bounces around the cavernous space. Moving closer the spell is broken somewhat, the reverby shoegaze sound evoporating; but still, their perky surf-pop is a winning concoction. “This one’s about having fun”, they declare. It’s about as involved as listening to Drums gets, or needs to.
On the far stage, HEALTH are unleashing a fearsome battery of sound onto the swelling twilight crowd, alternating between metallic stadium noise and in-the-red digital pop with pounding percussion and pulsing synths. At times they resemble a Broken-era Nine Inch Nails surgically attached to the smart NYC indie of Yeasayer, creating huge high-energy industrial jams. The bass player throws more shapes between his shapes than I previously new existed. There’s evil static rumbling and detuned clanging between each barrage; if any band should be playing in an abandoned German airport, it’s HEALTH. Followed closely by Battles, who combine rock solid drumming and pounding glammy beats with wittering computerised birdsong and splintered, pedal-processed bass work. It’s heroically advanced rock music with tightly controlled whirring energy, flitting rackets; like a Max Tundra-produced Tortoise – a truly brilliant performance, and a clear festival highlight.
Primal Scream seem tame by comparison, strutting and shimmying through Screamadelica – an album show that reveals the double-edged sword of the format by not only gifting us the hits, but also reminding everyone about the album tracks that would be better off remaining as such. After “Loaded”, we head over to Santigold, who’s show looks like a cheapo arts council production trying desperately to achieve some kind of urban relevance. There are great tunes in there, but the live presentation is incongruous and awful. After a brief respite, Hercules and Love Affair deliver a characteristically svelte set of NYC fashion music; slick house with vocals that alternate between cheeky and soulful from the triad of charismatic, gender-indistinct vocalists.
We wonder where they’ll be partying afterwards. And perhaps in that we happen upon the trickiest part of running an urban festival in Berlin; that the city itself is a sprawling playground of awesome bars, clubs, parties and gigs. Even with it’s promising lineup and strikingly unusual location, Berlin Festival seems like a stuffily organised and controlled experiment in fun, especially by finding out what the city’s intoxicating nightlife has to offer.