We sent our resident punk expert to a festival showcasing experimental jazz and avant-garde electronics. They were pleasantly surprised.

Outside of a couple of Huerco S records, a Second Woman album, and a Youtube playlist called “Ambient//Noise”, my knowledge of the world of experimental Jazz and electronic music is pretty limited. Anything in that realm I generally reserve for use as mental Drain-O in work. With this in mind, I was not sure what to expect before attending A L’ARME! festival this year. Honestly, I found the unusual design of the poster and the lineup of difficult-to-pronounce names to be slightly intimidating. While I always enjoy going to new music events, I thought I might find myself bored or “not getting it” after four days. However, these concerns were quickly dissolved by the arresting and inspiring range of new sounds which this festival exposed me to.

It all took place across two large halls in Radial System V, a former pumping station on the banks of the Spree – also a strong contender for ‘Venue with the most “Berlin” name’. Each room had a distinct atmosphere. One, more traditional with a large stage and tiered seating, the other, a more relaxed square room with a central stage around which people could sit or lie on the floor. The one common trait of both rooms was intense heat, but that was not the fault of the organizers (assuming they recycle their plastics) – my awareness of the temperature actually became an interesting benchmark of how engaging I found each show.  The acts alternated between both rooms with a ten minute break between sets. This was great as there were never any schedule conflicts, allowing me to go and see everyone.

First on the lineup was Maja SK Ratkje, a solo “avant-garde composer and improviser” from Norway. Words can’t describe how mental this show was. It launched at me with a building-shaking explosion of noise and voices that continued ruthlessly for 45 minutes. Every time I thought the layered sounds of shuttles launching and bombs exploding had reached peak intensity, another, deeper bass tone would enter the mix. I have never felt so anxious from sound alone. It brought to mind the feeling you get when you accept that your friend isn’t moving the glass and you have actually summoned a malevolent spirit. Despite this chaos, however, Maja seemed to be in full control, and every sound was manipulated with precision and intention. Needless to say, I did not once notice the heat once during this show – I was fully engrossed throughout. The set ended as quickly as it began and Maja left the stage without a bow. Starting the festival with such an intense performance seemed like a bold move, but it left me very excited to find out what else was in store. I knew from this moment that A L’ARME! was not going to be what I expected.

Next up was Laurie Anderson and Bill Laswell’s “Method of Defiance”, a fusion of Dub, Hip Hop, Drum & Bass and Jazz, with a few “avant-garde” moments thrown in. While this had a good vibe overall, it came across as slightly “normal” after the first show. This was not a bad thing, though, and the contrast between different acts proved to be a compelling aspect of the festival. I spoke about this with Karina Mertin, the concept and planning director of the festival, and she said that she didn’t want A L’ARME to fit into a box. She wants people to be surprised by what they see and hear. This really showed. The constant changing of genre and mood between shows kept things interesting and exciting even after seeing five consecutive acts. She also said the festival aimed to expose people to things they had not seen before. This was achieved partly by booking acts who have never played live, such as Jessop&Co from Kolkata, and by booking artists to do performances created specifically for the night, like Andrea Belfi and Valerio Tricoli’s “Drums Fried Tape Fried” performance.  Without reading the program, there was no telling from an artist’s appearance, reputation or setup what kind of music was to come. Even seeing the instruments themselves provided no indication.

A prime example of this, and the highlight of the festival, came from Gordoa-Malfon-Edwards-Narvesen, a “fully improvised music quartet” from Mexico, Barcelona, London and Norway respectively. Seeing the double bass, vibraphone, saxophone and drum kit, I found a nice spot to lie down and prepared myself for some smooth jazz. However, I was quickly shaken back to reality once Emilio Gordoa proceeded to beat the shit out of his vibraphone in every way imaginable. This set more closely resembled a percussion piece than a jazz show. Each instrument was played in a way that focused more on short pulses and rhythmic transients than melody. The four men seemed to be in perfect sync with each other. Every pause and crescendo was executed with such precision that it was hard to believe they were improvising. The energy was high in the room, with people whooping and hollering at moments of particular ferocity. For me this show channeled similar feelings to that of a punk or metal show – the rebellious noise filling the crowd with excitement and energy.

There wasn’t a single act over the four days that didn’t have some merit. Aside from the two I have already mentioned, Klein, Ksiezyc, Wanda Group and Radian + Billy Roisz resonated particularly well with me. My office listening is now sorted for weeks and I feel like I have a whole new world of music to explore. I would highly recommend attending A L’ARME festival next year and if, like me, you don’t recognize a single act on the lineup, then that’s all the more reason to go.

photos via A L’ARME