“The idea of turning away from electronic music completely, in order to unmask and let the elixir of life flow through the veins. In the end the flames of life will suffocate the conservative. Nobody can bear to be locked in a blue box. Those who wait for the revolutionary moment, rather than creating it, miss out on life. One can only aim for armed resistance - it looks more serious than the miserable attempts of the so-called ‘pacifists’. Those who risk their life for political change, really mean it. The symbolic effect is more powerful than the attempt or the action itself. We always felt like a burning lance.(...) We are not interested in pop stardom, even though (to be honest) it is sometimes quite flattering.”
- From Alec Empire’s manifesto Das Paradies versteckt sich jenseits der Bildschirme (Paradise Is Beyond the Screens), 1998
Alec Empire (born Alexander Wilke in 1972) is not afraid of big words, bombast, or a monochrome world view, but as the end of the quote above demonstrates, his sincerity is disarming. The quote continues: “Those who put themselves above others are in danger of being hanged on the spot.“ This ethic is familiar from punk (and the French Revolution), and Empire’s roots, both spiritual and musical, can be traced back to the anarchist punk scene of West Berlin. As a teenager he played in punk bands himself, but the city’s thriving underground techno scene soon drew him in. Empire’s first recordings were danceable, rather typical house and techno.
Within a couple of years though, the output of Empire & co. became more politicized, when they grew tired of the escapism of the rave culture and its passivity before the rise of the new German racism. In 1992 Empire, whose grandfather died in a concentration camp for his socialist convictions, formed the electronic Atari Teenage Riot trio with Hanin Elias, whose family is of a Syrian descent, and Carl Crack, who was born in Swaziland. Their debut single Hetzjagd auf Nazis (Hunt Down the Nazis) was ultimately inspired by the East German skinheads’ attacks on the asylum-seekers’ barracks while the police looked on and Aryans cheered on in the background. Musically ATR did not yet stand out from other techno artists who made uptempo rave music, and the big English label Phonogram offered them, rather out of the blue, a liberal record deal and organized some extensive European tours. During the making of the debut album the band’s interests inevitably conflicted with the record company’s as the latter tried to forge them into something more commercial. In a classic rock business rebel style ATR got to keep their hefty advances, which they invested in setting up their own label Digital Hardcore Recordings in 1994.
At this point the sound of ATR’s and Empire’s solo records began to shift towards a genuinely futuristic megamix of furious jungle (before the name of the genre was gentrified into drum’n’bass and the music itself became wallpaper for clothes boutiques), punk, speed metal, noise, and hardcore techno. Now they caught the attention of the American hip hop superstars Beastie Boys, whose Grand Royal label released a slew of Atari Teenage Riot and Alec Empire records. In a couple of years both acts became global rock stars, and ATR absorbed influences from hip hop and punked-up 60’s soul music. They would not compromise the revolutionary content of their slogans, though: Deutschland Has Gotta Die!, Death of A President D.I.Y.!, Revolution Action!
In Finland, Alec Empire remains rather unknown, even after much hype from the British media, which is usually devoutly followed by Finnish scenesters. This may encourage some discouraging generalisations about the state of our cultural climate. Or can we imagine Bomfunk MC’s becoming radicalized, should the skinhead MP Tony Halme’s demagoguery lead to action? Now seemingly on the wane, the Finnish electronic music scene was dominated throughout the 90’s by mindless hedonism and cursorily post-modernist pseudo-philosophies, with the approval of the media and even some art museums. These sorts of connotations may even have caused the alternative activists’ scene to shun experimental electronic music as well.
Another side of Alec Empire’s output is his mostly sombre, existentially-tinged experimental electronica, which the German Mille Plateaux (named in honour of the philosopher Gilles Deleuze) label started releasing in 1994. Empire elaborates: “My motivation to compose or produce music is always political. Atari Teenage Riot and my solo stuff on DHR like The Destroyer have only one function: riot sounds produce riots! My Mille Plateaux records have the same intention but are different, e.g. on Hypermodern Jazz 2000.5 and Les Étoiles des Filles Mortes I went back to a certain point where I think that this certain style of music (free jazz, bebop, musique concrète etc.) had a moment where it had produced what I call a revolutionary energy. I developed it from there into our time. Because it was not its ‘real’ development the music gets a surreal effect.”
Atari Teenage Riot disbanded in 2001 after Carl Crack died from a drug overdose. Since then Alec Empire has released only one solo album, Intelligence And Sacrifice in 2002. His next topical statement in the form of a solo record is due out in early 2005. In his interviews Empire has always emphasized the importance of strategies in the context of the current musical/political situation, which makes it intriguing to see what kind of conclusions he has drawn from the Great Game this time.
Alec Empire at the Avanto Nightclub in Gloria on Saturday, November 20th.