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Synästhesie 2019 Was A Unique, Idiosyncratically Berlin Festival

Over the last couple years, there’s been a small but growing festival called Synästhesie taking place in Berlin. Its roots are very much specific to its city. The festival is booked and run by the people behind 8MM, a dive bar and a staple of Berlin’s music community (and for musicians passing through town); the intimacy of its settings allow you to get a good sense of the crowd, and you’ll mostly hear German voices with a smattering of English and American accents. Each year, Synästhesie takes over a very Berlin location, with 2018’s installment unfolding at the historic Volksbühne theater and this year’s iteration moving to a new spot called Kulturbrauerei for its biggest year yet.

While Synästhesie sold out this time around, it’s still an insular experience compared to what most of us would expect from festivals. Occupying four stages spread throughout one of Kulturbrauerei’s buildings, it is more like a two-day concert event than a sprawling, overwhelming festival. And while its setting is a bit of reclaimed ground — Kulturbrauerei is a former brewery turned culture center, which also houses some shops, a movie theater, and clubs from which long lines snaked across the courtyard outside Synästhesie’s main entrance — there’s still a kind of grittiness to its venues that plays well into the kind of stereotypical expectations you might have about seeing music in Berlin.

Over the course of two days and with a fairly contained, manageable lineup, Synästhesie still managed to pack in a whole array of voices and traditions (and languages). On the first evening, Tuareg guitarist Mdou Moctar continued touring behind his newfound international acclaim and his excellent 2019 release Ilana: The Creator. While the songs on the album are already plenty dynamic, onstage they take on an even looser, wilder form — roiling and tumbling, jams often eliding the borders between each compositions. Later that same night, you could exit the main room, dubbed Kesselhaus, and find a smaller club called Machinenhaus tucked away on another floor, where Priests — here introduced as “all the way from DC” — brought their intense live show to one of their final gigs on the Seduction Of Kansas album cycle. (As Katie Alice Greer said onstage, it was also one of their final shows for the foreseeable future, while the band takes a minute to pursue other projects.)

This is how a lot of the weekend played out — you could pass from one venue to the next, through blue-lit smoking corridors or past the bratwurst stand in the courtyard, to varying dark rooms in which you might get a sort of exhilarating whiplash switching between bands from entirely different cultures and genres. At the same time that the festival’s more recognizable names spanned disparate countries, there was also a chance to see homegrown acts that might not make it Stateside quite yet, like local Berlin acts including Laura Carbone, Sofia Portanet, Hello Pity, and Shybits.

One of the most gripping younger German acts was Holygram. The Cologne-based group traffics in a kind of gothic, swaggering synth-pop — the kind of heavy leather jacket iteration of a certain kind of interpretation of classic new wave. On the festival’s second night, the group stood enigmatically amongst smoke and pulsating lights as they snarled their way through a set of aggressive drum machine crashes, Motorik-tinged basslines, brooding guitars, and throbbing synth lines. It was, again, something that felt like a somehow quintessential experience within the context of Synästhesie, considering the history we associate with Berlin (and, more broadly, German) music.

There was another crucial German entry on the festival’s poster this year, this time a godfather instead of an emerging act: Michael Rother, who performed a career-spanning set including highlights from both the Neu! and Harmonia catalogs, as well as solo material. Though Rother has played Synästhesie before, this was the kind of opportunity that was revelatory if you were a first-time visitor. With krautrock seeping into the sounds of so many of the festival’s artists, whether subtly or very obviously, there was a gravity to seeing such an influential figure render songs like “Hallogallo” onstage here, all these years later. The set was often transcendent, all of those insistent, unwavering rhythms and far-seeing synth and guitar motifs feeling both classic and futuristic at once.

In the past, Synästhesie has skewed, in broad terms, towards psychedelic music. Past headliners have included acts like Spiritualized, the Horrors, and Tangerine Dream. This continued to be the case at this year’s installment, but it was another moment in which you could realize the sneaky expansiveness of a seemingly small lineup.

The borders of “psychedelia” were explored in all their permutations. In addition to Rother’s highway space-outs or Moctar’s sun-laced guitarwork, you had the scraggly jams of the Black Lips and the trance-inducing soundscapes of TENGGER. You had Portuguese interpretations (10,000 Russos) and ones that collapsed Bahrain and London (Flamingods). It bears mentioning that one of the core figures of Synästhesie is Anton Newcombe, the psych-rock leader of the Brian Jonestown Massacre and a fixture of the Berlin music community; Sunday’s program kicked off with a conversation between him and Alan McGee, moderated by Art Brut’s Eddie Argos.

In some form or another, mind expansion was baked into the aesthetic of Synästhesie’s 2019 lineup, even when band’s weren’t as obviously psych-rock as others. One of the biggest draws this year was clearly the reunited Stereolab. With hints of krautrock underpinning their psych-lounge-pop, the band grooved and flit through highlights from throughout their catalog. Having appeared at festivals Stateside all summer, chances are Stereolab’s triumphant return was already evident. But to see them recontextualized in a cavernous Berlin club like Kesselhaus, to a packed European crowd, felt different — songs like “French Disko” played like honest-to-God major hits, the band’s revival seemingly greeted as even more momentous when you’re over on this side of the Atlantic.

Given that Stereolab felt like the center around which much of the rest of the weekend revolved, and given the inherent differences between a Saturday night in Berlin and a Sunday night in Berlin, the second day of Synästhesie felt a little quieter. There were no club lines tracing the courtyard, the bratwurst man had left his shop closed; there wasn’t necessarily a big single headliner that all roads led to. But there was still a lot for audience members to dig into, whether it was taking the chance to explore smaller acts — Holygram’s set, for example, was on this second night — or a couple more headlining acts that bridged all the different corners of Synästhesie’s identity.

Earlier on, that was the Black Lip’s scuzzy rockers — with a surprise King Khan assist — and then there was Deerhunter, who drew the same kind of fervent reaction Stereolab had the preceding night. Bradford Cox led his band towards all the artful edges of Deerhunter’s ever-deepening catalog, from wiry guitar passages to more atmospheric crescendos, peaking with an encore that featured “Agoraphobia” and “He Would Have Laughed.” And at the end of it all, the weekend closed with the noisy squall of A Place To Bury Strangers — one more rock ‘n’ roll aesthetic, one more idea of music you could lose yourself in.

Though its placement in November would necessitate it stays indoors and, theoretically, could hinder that much further expansion of Synästhesie, you could already feel the festival’s potential to continue becoming something bigger in coming years. Always well-curated, it seemed particularly evident this year that Synästhesie is adept at bringing together different voices and cultures all within a loosely-connected type of music. And at the same time, you never forgot you were attending a festival in the heart of Berlin. It pulled off a tricky feat, becoming a festival that was unmistakably local even as it welcomed in all these disparate voices.