May 1st 1999: Atari Teenage Riot are arrested for “inciting violence” after an open-air performance at an anti-NATO demonstration leads to clashes with the police.
Unplanned and unintended, the May Day riot is nevertheless the clearest statement of intent from Berlin’s most politically active, socially aware and sonically confrontational band – a group whose first single threatened to “Hunt Down the Nazis” in the city’s notoriously nationalistic rave scene. By 2000, ATR have unofficially disbanded, in the words of mastermind Alec Empire, “burned out and fucked up”. Swansong Live at Brixton Academy, which records their onstage meltdown when vocalist Hanin Elias doesn’t show up at their all-important Nine Inch Nails support gig, leaves white noise crackling in its wake…
May 1st 2011: A reformed Atari Teenage Riot takes the stage for the recording of a Motor FM television show. The trio that have toured together since 2010 – Empire, singer/screamer Nic Endo and new MC CX KiDTRONiK – showcase songs from upcoming new album Is This Hyperreal? The show feels like a controlled explosion, thanks to pauses for onstage interviews and sets from other bands, and its location away from the epicentre of this year’s (peaceful) protests, but the originators of digital hardcore perform with the same commitment as ever. As Alec Empire explains when we catch up with him, “If you don’t do it with 100% of the energy, it’s very depressing!”
When we ask what prompted the prolific producer to make another album as Atari Teenage Riot, he explained how he got tired of watching the world sleepwalk into the future: “Hacktivism, cyberwars, the Government using technology to control and spy on people, while the music industry is going, ‘Hey, we’ve found the next business model…’ His eyes bug in disbelief when he recalls asking, “Why is nobody saying anything about what’s going on? Are you blind?! It felt like, ‘Sorry, we just have to do this!’”
Empire calls Is This Hyperreal? “the definite protest album for the Google age”. Atari Teenage Riot’s most focused and fully-realised work to date, it explores the power of the internet – how it can be used to promote or to restrict individual freedom, to challenge or prop up corrupt governments, how it is eroding our sense of history, and how we might move beyond it in the future in order to escape monitoring and control.
Smart stuff. But then this is the whole point of songs like the thrash-gabba anthem “Re-arrange Your Synapses”:“if there is no smart thinking behind political activism and it’s purely controlled by hate and anger then it doesn’t achieve much.” Empire thinks of this track in particular as an extension of earlier work, like 1995’s rallying cry “Start the Riot!” – which recreated the sound and the energy of a demonstration with “very simple lyrics and very simple music. You can go only with it, you can’t escape. And even if you can’t sing, you can get involved.” If ATR’s 90s incarnation was the perfect soundtrack to a May Day riot, then Is This Hyperreal? is a call for awareness and independent thought.
“Germans believe so much in the state,” Empire says. “Every problem that comes up, they always ask the government for a solution.” While his band is now as American as it is German (CX is from the States; Endo was born there), he feels that his home country serves as a good example of what can happen when governments are allowed to interfere in their citizens’ private lives. A recurring theme on the album is state efforts to control the internet or use it to spy on the people. Check out opening track “Activate”, free to download since it was released last year.
Empire draws parallels between this current, “very dangerous” situation, and the surveillance states of the GDR and, before it, Nazi Germany. A firm believer that “there is always a positive solution to be found”, he looks back into Deutschland’s dark past for answers to its current problems – specifically, the overthrowing of the monarchy after World War One and the breaking down of the Berlin Wall. The title track to Is This Hyperreal? features Empire shouting down a megaphone in German, addressing his government directly with a threat that he expects to draw the attention of the authorities: “If they continue to be corrupt and act in the interest of a few, rather than the majority who elected them, we as a people can always march up to the Bundestag, arrest them and start a new republic.”
If the nightmare scenarios depicted in it come to pass, Is This Hyperreal? could become a handbook for survival. In a neat demonstration of the “off the grid” lifestyle predicted by Detroit/dubstep pounder “Digital Decay”, the entire album was programmed on an old Atari ST1040 computer not connected with any network. According to Empire, the machine’s “smaller than small” 2MB memory does one thing well, “it forces you to get back to the basic ideas.” In an approach that will sound familiar to the 70s punks who took rock music back to its roots, he did “the exact opposite of how people do things these days, even with a laptop. And I find that liberating.”
Is This Hyperreal? squeezes a surprising amount out of this vintage machinery, from the chip tunes churn of “Shadow Identity” to the title track’s throbbing, beatless homage to synthpunks Suicide, to the more familiar digital hardcore of “Codebreaker”. What’s more, the tag team approach of ATR’s live shows found its way into the studio, allowing Empire’s cohorts room to fight their personal causes – for KiDTRONiK, racism in the US, and on Nic Endo’s lead vocal turn “Blood in my Eyes” (also available for free download), human trafficking and sexual exploitation. This new-found range has led Empire’s friends to reassess the band’s previous studio album (and Bang Bang favourite), asking, “sorry Alec, but why wasn’t 60 Second Wipe Out like this?”
Atari Teenage Riot will be showing off their new breadth and depth with a European tour that kicks off next week with a London show featuring Big Pink and junior Atari pops Kap Bambino. Germany will have to wait until the MELT andMera Luna festivals to catch sight of them, but until then, there’s Is This Hyperreal? itself – out June 12th. You don’t have to be an ATR fan to agree with Alec Empire when he says, “it’s important that certain music exists.”
Is This Hyperreal? is out on Digital Hardcore on June 12th.
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