We Love Music: Atari Teenage Riot @ Sonar 9/24/10

Last Friday, Atari Teenage Riot performed on the Club Stage at SONAR in Baltimore. It was their only DC-area concert and one of their first shows in the United States since 1999. The world has changed quite a bit since this digital-hardcore terror cell was originally active and their reformation and reactivation in 2010 is as random and surprising as their debut was so many years ago. Their Baltimore show was a chance to see what Alec Empire and his crew have in store for audiences in 2010 and an opportunity to answer the obvious question surrounding ATR’s return. Why reactivate now?

The performance Atari Teenage Riot delivered on Friday night was an inspired evening of sonic brutality that was less about breaking new musical ground or politics and more about celebrating ATR’s and Alec Empire’s legacy in music. It was a blistering ear assault that revisited ATR’s original 1990’s noise-campaign and showed that even after eleven years the music world has still not completely caught up to their intensity or creativity.

In the 1990’s, I was a fan on the leading edge of the emerging Digital Hardcore scene as it crossed the pond from Germany to dive bomb the U.S. underground. Something about Digital Hardcore’s blend of punk attitude, DIY know-how, and hard-edged electronic music really spoke to me and I flipped for it. I bought up everything I could find and totally submerged myself into the DHR sound.

Alec Empire founded the label that defined the genre and led the charge with his outfit Atari Teenager Riot; easily the most successful or recognizable act to come out of this movement. When Digital Hardcore Records did their showcase tour in 1997, I was first in line buying tickets to the show at the 9:30 Club. Seeing Shizou, Ec8or, and ATR in the near empty club was a revelation to me; it showed me levels of musical intensity I could not even have imagined at that point. DHR was beyond industrial music’s chilly power machinations and beyond metal or punk rock’s fury; it was something entirely unique and mind-blowing made out of familiar parts reconfigured and injected with the energy of a new electronic music movement. At their pinnacle, Atari Teenage Riot returned to the 9:30 Club in 1999 on my 24th birthday and played a sold out show that to this day is the most insane crowd I have ever been a part of. For Digital Hardcore, Alec Empire climbing the club’s old speaker stacks was like Neil Armstrong stepping on the moon. DHR took electronic music in an entirely new direction and for a few fast and hard years it seemed like the future of music.

Then Carl Crack died. Atari Teenage Riot’s charismatic MC died of a drug overdose in 2001 and his passing split up the group that was already beginning to fracture under the strain of continually pushing the envelope. With the end of Atari Teenage Riot it seemed that the wind was taken out of Alec Empire and Digital Hardcore’s sails as well. The label became less and less active until effectively disappearing in 2007. Alec Empire continued to record and perform but not nearly at the level of ATR in terms of intensity or influence. And so it has been for years. ATR disbanded, DHR on hiatus, and Alec Empire quietly watching techniques he and his band mates developed be incorporated into countless indie bands as the indie world increasingly embraces technology.

I have no way of knowing this, but after attending Friday night’s amazing concert, I suspect that a big factor in Alec Empire’s decision to reactivate Atari Teenage Riot and conduct the current tour is to remind the world of how influential their work has been. Midi decks and laptops may be familiar things to see on stage now, but back when ATR were originally using them, it was down right revolutionary. They even have the song “Midi-Junkies” about DHR’s heavy use of new technology; which they performed an awesome version of on Friday. I have often detected echoes of Atari Teenage Riot in the music of the last decade. Certainly Electro-Clash owes a huge debt, but so too do other bands that one might not immediately or ever associate with ATR. With their noise holocaust dance music, Atari Teenage Riot demonstrated a whole world of possibilities in sound but also in technique and tools.

Watching Atari Teenage Riot on Friday was a wonderful experience for me. Of course there was the nostalgia factor. As Alec Empire, Nic Endo, and new MC CX KiDTRONiK rotated vocal duties and tone terror equipment, I along with the other one hundred or so attendees were taken back to those titanic and insane ATR shows of the 90’s. The set list on Friday night heavily featured tracks from their US debut album “Burn Berlin Burn” as well as other die hard fan favs like “Midi-Junkies” and “Get Up While You Can”.

Beyond the trip down memory lane, the set of phase-one ATR tunes also put a rather startling spotlight on how positively unmatched Atari Teenage Riot still are after all of these years. Right before I completely lost control and gave in to the sonic madness for the rest of the night, I realized that there is still nothing that I have heard in the past eleven years that sounds anything like what ATR did on Friday night. I have not encountered one new band in all of that time that quite matches ATR’s kamikaze mix of overwhelming noise and rhythmic intensity. Their performance offered up challenging, muscle contorting music that I think the sonic landscape has been missing out on for far too long. ATR sounded just as revolutionary, just as ground-breaking, and just as entertaining as ever.

The crowd were completely possessed by these long lost attack frequencies. Bodies convulsed and passionate fists were raised with more force than I have seen in years. People don’t even dance to other music like they do to Atari Teenage Riot; a combination of stomping and saluting, swaying and jumping, fueled by fight-or-flight impulses driven haywire by sound. Of course everyone was screaming along the words and their cries were lost in ATR’s oppressive wall of physical sound. The show was a sonic manhandling; ATR’s sound was so dense that you could hardly breath as it crowded the oxygen right out of the room. By set’s end the majority of the crowd were on the tiny Club Stage, bodies flying around, mashing together, a mass of arms and legs and hair throbbing to the music. Alec Empire dove into the crowd that remained on the floor and throttled several of us in thanks for coming out to honor the legacy of his revolutionary band.

Michael splits his free time between defending the little guy and championing the underdog. He has been haunting the concert halls, dive bars, and greasy spoons of DC for the last 16 years. His interests include live rock music, researching obscure military/political conflicts, and good hamburgers. He is a friendly grump, has wisdom beyond his years, and is on a life-long quest to attain music nirvana. Follow him on Twitter if you dare!

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