Do revolutionaries still wear leather pants? It’s an August night at CBGB and Alec Empire–Atari Teenage Riot frontman, Teutonic agitfop, and Digital Hardcore Recordings impresario–is pumping his fist and screaming, “Delete yourself!!!!” The music, a paint-peeling mix of scabrous death-metal guitar, machine-gun jungle beats, and mostly unintelligible screeching, is deafeningly, stomach-churningly, goose-bump-raisingly loud; relentless strobe lights–the kind that make everything seem slo-mo–only add to the collective disorientation of the cramming-room-only crowd.
Empire likes to pronounce that “riot sounds produce riots,” but tonight his trio’s noise attack is eliciting something much more basic–puke, actually, which several woozy hothouse flowers are discreetly emitting in a corner. MC Carl Crack, a doe-eyed 90-pound weakling, points an accusatory finger at the electro-pussies in the house: “You are not hard!” he taunts. Hanin Elias, a mere slip of a death chick, lifts a heavy synth over her head as if she’s going to hurl it into the sea of bodies. She doesn’t, the music comes to an abrupt halt, and Atari Teenage Riot stalk off the stage, the finest example of German engineering since Dieter Sprockets. Delete yourself, and good night!
Most electronic acts suck live; Atari Teenage Riot are best live. The cult fave digi-punks, who are distributed by Grand Royal/Capitol in the U.S., have already toured with Beck, Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, and last summer’s beleaguered Rage Against the Machine/Wu-Tang clan megabill. Like Prodigy (though Empire despises the “clowns”), ATR’s over-the-top apocalypshtick and raw-power rush falls flat on vinyl, but can truly Amp a venue. Both groups graverob the sounds and signifiers of rock, punk, rave, industrial, and hip-hop, then reconfigure them into something that delivers–for a moment or two, at least–the kick of the new. But unlike Prodigy, content to wave their dicks in the air like they just don’t care, ATR and labelmates EC8OR, DJ Bleed, and Sonic Subjunkies want to fuck your mama and the Evil Capitalist System, too. “Destroy 2,000 Years of Culture!” ATR sing on Burn, Berlin, Burn!, a compilation of material recorded from 1994 to ’96. ATR’s “Start the Riot!” sums up the Digital Hardcore ethos best: “fight! war! fire! violence! death! tv! police! fuck you!!!!!!!!!”
As Empire might say, extreme sounds demand extreme lyrics!!!! Subtlety is the luxury of the pseudo-intellectual techno-elite!!@#$%!! At a time when even the rap world has abandoned hardness for cuddly nippers-with-attitude (cf. Mase, the self-proclaimed “black Barney”), the chaos kids of ATR front, “Midi-junkies gonna fuck you up!” Self-serious and trad-rad, they wouldn’t know irony if it smacked their bitch up. They make me want to put on a plaid schoolgirl kilt and smash fancy cars with a cricket bat, just like that scene in Sid and Nancy. Um, that’s a good thing, right?
DHR’s 1995 Harder Than the Rest! compilation is a comprehensive introduction to the music–and nothing can top the back-cover song descriptions. The caption for Killout Trash’s industrial breakbeat anthem “Straight Outta Berlin” reads: “Warning! people will die of an adrenaline-shock when you turn this up!” Actually, they will probably flee the room before you even get the chance. Just 10 minutes into an ear-splitting Alec Empire record-store appearance at South by Southwest in Austin last year, even the most devoted soundboys were excusing themselves for a “smoke break” outside. (“Only death is quiet,” Empire’s said.) But with any semblance of a musical underground on its last, scrawny, Lou Barlow–like limbs, what’s a dedicated obscurantist to turn to but the 100 per cent–guaranteed un-co-optable sounds of digital hardcore (or Japanoise, or skronk)? Like old-time analog hardcore, though, the faster-louder-harder-more ’97 remix has an early expiration date built right in. You can only scream Red Army Faction slogans at 210 bpm for so long before things get a wee bit boring.
Punktronica was inevitable, and Empire made it sound just the way we thought it would. So what if it’s basically ’80s industrial with a neu paint job? However simple digital hardcore might sound, it takes real talent to make it interesting. Take the teenage girl-boy duo EC8OR’s recent All of Us Can Be Rich, an outright snooze from painful lyrics like “We are pissed/we are pissed/we have to resist” to its 14 tracks of indistinguishable blasts of skittering noize (one exception: the pelvic shuffle of–hint hint–“One Track-Minded Fuckheads”). So far only the DHR court jester Shizuo gets the cosmic joke. His full-length debut Shizuo vs. Shizor features cartoonishly run ass-slaps (“Sweat”), kitchen-sink grooves (“Dr. LSD”), and plenty of cheap laffs (“Blondo” riffs on Blondie’s “Heart of Glass”), but even they get stale pretty quick.
Both an ingenious musician and strategist, Empire is the boy most likely to steer clear of the looming dead end ahead. ATR songs like “Atari Teenage Riot” are tubthumping blitzkrieg bops and Empire’s early solo tracks, such as the spooked-up jungle-dub “Destroyer Pt. 2,” could work over a dance floor as easily as any techstep 12-inch. His gift for stealth hooks is no surprise, considering that he’s been recording pleasant space-ambient ditties on the Mille Plateaux label for several years. The recent three-CD box set The Geist of Alec Empire, which inaugurates his new Geist Recordings label, features most of this material, including his contributions to the lauded Electric Ladyland compilation and his solo record, Les Etoiles des filles. With that, DHR, and his Logan’s Run–like Under 20 label, Empire is a busy 25-year-old indie exec indeed.
Though he’s said that “Everything German should be destroyed!”–one of ATR’s best singles is “Deutschland (Has Gotta Die!)”–Empire is ein Berliner to the core, and positively Wagnerian in his gift for bombast. “I am not officially a resident in any country, which makes it difficult for the police to control me,” the would-be public enemy said in one interview. Millennial exhaustion (or is that exhausting millennialism) may have taken over the depressingly escapist pop world, but Empire aims to be an old-fashioned uebermensch, set to “Hunt Down the Nazis!” and pierce the “utter tedium” of the music industry while he’s at it. He’s a classic Angry Young Man, one you can easily imagine muttering “Fuck cappuccino capitalism!!!!” as he passes a Kreuzberg cafe on his way back to the squat.
Meaning, his politics are a ball of confusion. Not only does he jack the tired iconic juice of the RAF like countless Baader-fuckoff gangs before him, he marches in line like a true kraut-punk street solider. In that radical lefty tradition, any societal ill–racism, anti-Semitism, meat eating, paying tort, “fashion-sucking”–meets with equal outrage and calls to arms. Take, for instance, the entire DIR stable’s rabid hatred of…ravers? “Take a power saw and fuck all female ravers thru their fuckin’ tits!!!!” reads a liner note to Killout Trash’s “Signe Says.” So much for DHR’s usually female-friendly aggression.
But ATR’s “Raverbashing” is more than just a flip-off to a “sold-out” scene. This multiracial crew–Crack is from Swaziland, Elias is Syrian, Empire’s socialist grandfather died in a Nazi camp–seems genuinely disheartened by the rave nation’s failed rainbow coalition promise. At heart, Empire’s a cynical idealist who just can’t give up the ghost. Why even bother yelling about anything if you don’t think it will make a difference? I just wish his rhetoric weren’t so simplistic and hyperbolic that only a 12-year-old could take it seriously.
Sigh. It’s not easy to be a revolutionary anymore: should anarcho-punks bomb MTV or “subvert” it with their videos? Can you be both a fight-the-power anticapitalist and a Capitol-ist at the same time? In any case, when Atari Teenage Riot opened for Rage and the Wu-Tang at the Meadowland last August, the trickle-down effect of glib calls to “start the riot” were clear: soon after their set, a bunch of white guys
marauded through the stadium, goosing girls, ripping out seats, and fighting security guards on their way to the mosh pit. High fives, dude–we stuck it to the Man! What did Empire think of the spectacle? My guess is that he shrugged it all off. After all, Amerika is just a wounded paper tiger bleeding Coca-Cola blood!!!!@#$%!!
Atari Teenage Riot, EC8OR, and Shizuo play Irving Plaza November 20.