Atari Teenage Riot / Alec Empire
Atari Teenage Riot: 1992-2000 / Futurist
B+ / D+
s musical punchlines go, Alec Empire is getting there. But it wasn’t always this way. Back in the 1990’s, Empire was at the forefront of a genre he helped name (Digital Hardcore) and codify (via his band Atari Teenage Riot). But perhaps even more impressive was the fact that Empire had numerous side projects, each charting different musical landscapes. Recording under his own name, he produced harsh drum ‘n’ bass (The Destroyer), ambient dub (Low on Ice), and freak jazz (Hypermodern Jazz 2000.5). Each had varying levels of success, surely, but it pointed towards a restless ear, a wandering spirit, someone who desperately wanted to change the status quo.
At their agitpop best, Atari Teenage Riot seemed capable of such a revolution. You only need to hear “Atari Teenage Riot,” “Deutschland Has Gotta Die,” or “Delete Yourself” from their greatest hits compilation, Atari Teenage Riot: 1992-2000 to remind yourself of that. Fusing buzzsaw guitar samples, drum ‘n’ bass and techno beats, and all manner of detritus, the group was able to aurally tap into the political uncertainty of 1990s Germany. The reunification of the country meant confusion, the further encroachment of a stultifying and gluttonous democracy, and a vacuum of art rising up to meet the challenge. Much like the dearth of post-9/11 art that reacted in some way to the event or its effects, the focus for most Germans at the time was on an endless party soundtracked by mindless happy hardcore or vapid pop music.
Which is why a track like “Into the Death” touched such a nerve. It’s probably one of the best distillations of the group’s greatness. Like any great pop song it begins with the chorus, working its way backwards to a verse in which Carl Crack adds his two cents: “Life is like a video game with no chance to win,” while Hanin Elias offers this surprisingly penetrating nugget: “Maybe we sit down and talk about the revolution and stuff / But it doesn’t work like that / You can’t turn back now / There’s no way back.” All of this is, of course, screamed at a breakneck pace and soundtracked by the looped guitar from Thanatos’ “Body Dismemberment” and a drum that alternates between deadening headbanger thud and inhumanly fast breakbeats.
But for all their posturing, Atari Teenage Riot never made much of a cultural impact: aside from an opening slot for a Rage Against the Machine / Wu-Tang tour in 1997, the closest the group came to receiving major support in America was their distribution deal with the Beastie Boys’ Grand Royal label. Now sadly defunct, it’s harder than ever to find the group’s releases initial releases—unless your local record shop has a healthy used section. In it, you’re more likely to find ATR’s third proper LP and major label debut 60 Second Wipeout, though, whose noise-addled second-half is (rightly? sadly?) barely represented on Atari Teenage Riot: 1992-2000.
What is here in ample supply is a number of rare tracks. The late-period bore “Rage” hardly holds a candle to the unrestrained and unpredictable “Midijunkies” or “Hetzjagd Auf Nazis!”, but then again what would? It was in these untrained moments that ATR were at their best and it’s exactly why Alec Empire’s career since that band’s demise has been so abysmal.
Neither gifted as a true noise artist (i.e. his collaboration with Merzbow) nor as charismatic as someone like Trent Reznor (despite their eerie similarity), Empire is currently mired in an unfortunate position: just well-known enough to be respected and just respected enough to never be more than just well-known. With releases like Futurist, you can’t imagine this situation changing any time soon. Much like the first disc of Intelligence and Sacrifice, it sees Empire acting like the rock star he’ll never be, spouting slogans that might’ve once sounded fervent and impassioned, but now come off as sad and worthless. It’s a fine line, to be sure, but with no Hanin Elias or Carl Crack to provide counterpoint, it’s a hard slog. What once was anarchic and fun, now has become business as usual.
The liner notes to Futurist are ultimately the most revealing things about the record. First, it explicitly states that “for the avoidance of doubt all the music on this record is comprised of sounds originally created by the musicians involved.” Second, Empire writes in a message to the listener, “Convention is submerging innovation….I am different. I do the difficult things.” Could it be? Alec Empire? Hoary rockist? There’s a revolution to be had—but it doesn’t begin with a guitar anymore. Empire, more than anyone, should know this.