We went to an all-night gabber party at Berghain for CTM Festival 2018. Here’s what happened.
By Derek Opperman
“Hardcore brings me back into this place. It makes me feel my anger. My sorrow. My ecstasy.” These words, spoken by Swedish artist HAJ300 with absolute sincerity, welcomed me when I arrived at Berghain. Blasting kick drums and a stroboscopic hell caused her writhing body and nightmare-inducing shark-teeth makeup to flash like a vision from another dimension. By that time, CTM Festival’s gabber extravaganza, Adrenalin, had already been in full swing for a good three hours. The night’s intriguingly curated mixture of old and new artists who explore the limits of hardcore constituted one of the most anticipated events of this year’s CTM Festival, which explored the theme of “turmoil.” While that word may describe a broader theme (and aesthetic dimension) to the week-long Berlin event, sincerity might be a more accurate description for what unfolded at this party in particular.
I say that because it feels like we’re in the beginning stages of what appears to be a re-evaluation of taste, authenticity, aesthetics and even genre within underground electronic dance music culture. Up to this point, the entire wing of dance music that falls under the hardcore banner had been mostly treated by “mainstream underground club culture” as house and techno’s scary, ostracized—yet strangely popular—relative. For a number of reasons that go beyond the scope of this review, hardcore aesthetics are being played with and reexamined in a way that feels as sincere as HAJ300’s performance. That evaluation was reflected in CTM’s lineup, which mixed first wave veterans like The Darkraver and Marc Acardipane with futurists like the Country Music-affiliated HAJ300, avant-trance practitioner HDMirror, Janus-affiliated DJ Kablam and Poland’s WIXAPOL S.A.
Marc Acardipane dropped his first track while waving a champagne bottle around in the air. Boom. Boom. Boom. Boom. The kick drum started like a shitty gas chainsaw before revving up to gabber speed like an overtuned VW Golf. Familiar samples from the olden days of rave floated through the room, inducing ecstasy grins and fist pumps from the juiced-up dudes in Thunderdome t-shirts preparing to dance Hakken all over the Berghain dance floor. The tempo increased beyond comprehension, the drums became a solid glitching drone that vibrated out of the club’s speaker stacks before breaking into a violent assault of pumping kicks and the sound of vacuum cleaners being turned on and off again really fast. The euphoria in the room was so real that it was practically consumable.
Though the club was far from its usual Klubnacht capacity, there was an unusual crowd dynamic at play. Tribes from Europe’s regional hardcore subcultures seemed to converge on the space like it was some local convention for gabbers—a “gabbercon.” The fashion was, in this regard, outlandish, colorful and diversely tribal. This was probably the most “Thunderdome” gear ever worn at Berghain in the history of the club. A whole contingent of WIXAPOL S.A. dancers from Poland took over a corner in full black and yellow regalia. And I saw all sorts of apparel emblazoned with the word “hardcore” (a personal favorite was a bootleg Fred Perry with the word subtly embroidered on the collar). People addressed me in Dutch instead of German. Switching to English, one Dutch girl made a point that seemed to be shared by quite a few: “Oh, I don’t go to Berghain, but I had to go to this!” Everyone from this contingent seemed surprised that the party was happening at all.
Mixed in with the hardcore faithful was the all-black central casting techno majority that populates the club on any given weekend. The dichotomy between these two sub-sects was actually pretty amusing. I found myself in conversation with one of the party’s co-curators, who speculated that “a lot of these people came for Berghain—like 50 percent don’t know it’s CTM.” If that’s true, one can only wonder what some of those people must have thought about what was happening. I’d like to imagine that some of them will fly back to their home countries with stories about how Berghain is actually WAY MORE intense than the legends would have you believe. But that being said, the party kept going, which could be considered at least some kind of indicator of approval.
There was also a dichotomy at work in the music. Every hour or so brought an entirely different take on the sound at hand. The sequencing of the evening gave a sort of weaving historical narrative between “classic” and “contemporary.” Acardipane’s set closed appropriately with the anthemic chant from Bodylotion’s “Always Hardcore” sloppily cut in and out around the chorus so the crowd could chime in, “Ahhh yeaa, always hardcore!” This nostalgic reminder of the ironclad fact that hardcore will never die evaporated immediately, however, when nu-school avant-rave producer HDMirror materialized on a stage close to the DJ booth. With razor sharp sound design and an approach that blended aspects of trance, EDM, breakcore, hardstyle and gabber, his set offered brief glimpses of a possible direction for dance music beyond its current frontiers. Lush, rushing trance build-ups collapsed into pressurized metal blast beats laced with overdriven jungle breaks and air raid sirens. The only thing missing was a dazzling laser light show.
A flag bearing the iconic Thunderdome logo obscured the DJ booth. A proud fan held it high as fists pumped and screams pierced the air. Dutch legend The Darkraver took over and launched into a sequence of samples that included Frank Ski’s “Whores In This House” and 2 Live Crew’s “Face Down Ass Up”. His set brought back an aspect of tribal nostalgia to the party. All over the floor, people began to shuffle with the kicking fluidity of gabber dancing. A crew from Poland, who I later learned came with WIXAPOL S.A., claimed a portion along the catwalk beneath Panorama Bar to execute impeccable Hakken kicks and moves with inhuman energy. During both Acardipane’s and Darkraver’s sets, I was struck by the sensation of how similar these classic gabber and hardcore sets were to some of the more intense Dutch techno that gets played at Berghain. If not in completely the same spirit, the semi-regular nights featuring artists from Mord—a Rotterdam-based industrial techno label—have a similar sort of straightforward intensity.
“Tonight, we are in Wixapoland,” said DJ TORRENTZ.EU as he shot some vodka at the Berghain bar sometime before 6 a.m. It was easy to believe him: He was surrounded by a small mob decked-out in gear bearing WIXAPOL S.A.’s ubiquitous black and yellow tribal smiley face. To commemorate the evening, they’d made a few memes—one of which is featured above—and brought custom gym socks and football scarves to sell. They’d also brought a full crew of dancers and fans to help recreate a bit of the ecstatic vibe they’ve established on their home turf. It was like an alternate dance music universe had managed to invade Berlin’s famous holy temple of techno. In letting WIXAPOL S.A. close the party, CTM effectively gave the trio of MIKOUAJ REJW, DJ SPORTY SPICE and DJ TORRENTZ.EU the longest spot on the bill at three hours.
One thing missing from the majority of the evening was humor. This was quickly rectified as soon as MIKOUAJ REJW kicked off the closing. Fans held their WIXAPOL scarves high; t-shirts bearing the logo seemed to manifest everywhere; a few bright yellow flags waved in the air like some weird version of the Raising of the Flag on Iwo Jima. A traditional Polish ballad crooned softly. This hushed Slavic singing faded away into a faint yodel, and then the morning became so absolutely twisted that it’s still hard to believe it even happened.
WIXAPOL S.A. sets are almost unfair in their relentless absurdity. It’s like being stuck in an infinite fun house of bizarrely euphoric extreme music. Over the course of the night, as DJ SPORTY SPICE and then DJ TORRENTZ.EU took over, the room’s collective mind became totally eviscerated by a track selection that included the aforementioned yodel hell gabber track, a tweaked-up remix of Alice DJ’s “Better Off Alone”, multiple John Paul II hard bass cuts, a happy hardcore track by S3RL called “Cherry Pop”, some PC Music b-side, a gabber retouch of “Bamboleo”, a brutal remix of Papa Roach’s “Last Resort” and even a million-beats-per-minute version of “Do Your Ears Hang Low?” After the party I told a friend about it, and they said they couldn’t last for even a minute of this insanity. What’s amazing is that said insanity just got crazier and crazier. I caught The Darkraver hanging out in the eaves, and he had a look on his face like he’d seen something completely inexplicable.
And, in a sense, we all had. The night really felt like something special: This was the first party dedicated entirely to gabber and hardcore at Berghain. It was populated by heads, randoms and the truly curious. No matter where this strange underdog aesthetic of dance music goes in the coming years, we can at least say that this party actually happened, and that it was glorious.