When Atari Teenage Riot were last together, I was still in high school. This was, according to Agent Smith in the first Matrix movie, the peak of human civilization. Francis Fukuyama imagined that The End of History had been reached. Seemingly, all that middle-class punks like me had to protest was corporate-controlled globalization, a nebulous term whose parameters I was never quite sure of. Ten years later, the global political landscape has become vastly more complex, or, at least, my understanding of it has (I hope), and Atari Teenage Riot, in many ways the soundtrack to the No Logo-reading, Adbusting, Battle-in-Seattle-style activism of the 90s, have reunited for a new album. How have they developed over the last 10 years? Their political rhetoric was always questionable, but what mattered most was never the content of their lyrics, but the sonic form of the music, a sound leader Alec Empire branded Digital Hardcore: an encounter of hardcore techno, anarcho-punk, and metal on a rapidly-mutating skeleton of anarchist pep rally chants set to punishing breakbeats. This form literally enacted the political values their sometimes cringe-inducing, badly-translated slogans could not. On this new album, it’s not so much a problem that they remain stuck in the 90s politically, but more that their music seems so irrelevant sonically and willing to wallow in a mid-tempo techno-metal goth-night ghetto.
Alec Empire and ATR have roots in hardcore techno as much as hardcore punk. First single “Hunting for Nazis” was released on Force Inc., and is a competent breakbeat techno track. Alec Empire’s compositions would explode along with the rise of gabba in the early 90s, utilizing the distorted kick drum running at speeds of 180 to 250 BPM that is the characteristic sound of gabba to bring an unprecedented mix of chaos and militancy to the basic midrange rock template. Gabba artist The Original Gabber arrived at a remarkably similar sound with Headbanger , but at that time, ATR’s embrace of hardcore techno was extremely forward-looking for a group with a rock-band setup. However, in the era of the ubiquitous laptop mashup DJ, not to mention the mashup iPhone app, ATR’s sound is less singular and essential. It takes more than this to start a riot.
Songs such as “Activate” pick up exactly where the band left off, with the same speed-metal riffs, same power-up sound effects, and same abused drum-machine beats, but too many of the songs sound too formulaic, and there is way more rock in the formula then I remember. ATR have also lost a crucial dimension of their co-ed “gang shouts,” as they now lack founding member Hanin Elias’ crucial shriek. The most satisfying moments on the album are the songs that really crank the BPMs like in the old days, such as the frenetic “Codebreaker,” with its pleasingly vague chorus, “I broke the code/ The code broke me” and deconstructive returns to their Sex Pistols-sampling glory days such as “The Only Slight Glimmer of Hope.”
ATR’s vigilance against the machinations of a global, corporate-controlled police state probably makes more sense if you consider that Empire grew up in Cold War Berlin, beneath the turrets of the Berlin Wall. In a fascinating interview, he points out that although those from East Berlin could hope to escape to the free side, there was no possibility of escape to someplace more free by West Berliners. The freedom enjoyed by those in the West was and is, according to many radicals, only a freedom to buy things. ATR asks, in the album’s title and on its most moody track, “Is This Hyperreal?” Post-Marxist theorists such as Guy Debord and the Situationist International saw the field of life shrinking and people increasingly living in a hyperreal, ideologically-correct world made visible that Debord dubbed “the spectacle.” The spectacle, according to Debord, is the force in society that reduces people to spectators in their own lives. It is where “fragmented views of reality regroup themselves into a new unity as a separate pseudoworld that can only be looked at.” We live, according to this theory, the most visceral moments of our lives in a dream-world that is just trying to sell the real world back to us, and the aim of revolutionary activity should be to escape the alienated relationships of capitalism by getting back to the real world, to our real desires.
This idea of the spectacle comes out of the birth of mass media in the twentieth century, a moment that has passed with the rise of the internet, and in many ways relies on a neo-Romantic view of the human subject; like in the Matrix, a movie that seems to have been a huge inspiration inspirationfor the band, the machine is seen as a threat to the freedom of the human individual. This is a liberal, kill-your-television response to the potent images of the media. However, the audiences are not just watching passively anymore; we are now filming and creating media ourselves, recomposing this hyperreal world even as we are surrounded by it, as this recent live performance, in which their audience seems composed mostly of video-camera-wielding bloggers, attests. ATR’s recent extra-musical activity, such as Empire’s embrace of Twitter, the streaming of ATR’s entire discography on a free iPhone app, and an Apple-baiting threat to release an app that would generate sub-bass, supposedly riot-inducing frequencies, show a willingness to engage with the spectacle even as they oppose it, but ATR’s music, as much as their revolutionary agitation, must become willing to enter into the Matrix if they are to have the impact they once had.