[23 August 2006]
Is rock’n'roll dead? No. The beast has just grown tired of your games. It’s imagination is long since exhausted by endless variations on sex, drugs and controversy . . . all that’s left now is to vomit one last time in the face of heaven.
Alec Empire, from the liner notes of Futurist
The last few years have found Alec Empire conspicuous in his absence. While it is true that he never really went away, as he’s continued to record and release music throughout the current decade, the lack of an American distribution deal has meant that his music has gone unheard and his reputation has languished. This is especially unfortunate, because if ever the English-speaking world needed a prophet of unrestrained and articulate politicized anger, it’s now. Thankfully he’s back, and none too soon.
But I should probably back up a bit for the benefit of those who came in late. Back in the late ‘90s, Empire was the mastermind behind an agitprop electronic music collective called Atari Teenage Riot. During the very brief heyday of so-called “electronica” in America, Atari Teenage Riot presented themselves as the hardcore answer to the chart-topping punks of the Prodigy: far more angry, for more violent, far more pointed in their aggression and just plain meaner. If ever punk rock found true expression in the world of electronic music, it was Atari Teenage Riot, where comfortable pop hooks and danceable grooves were demolished by waves of painful white noise and jackhammer beats, the sound of computers in significant distress. Anti-fascist, anti-capitalist, anti-racist and anti-apathy, the group wanted nothing less than to use their music as a battering ram against the hypocrisies of western civilization. Of course, like every punk band in history they also faced the brutal realities of just how little musicians can actually do to effect change. When the Beastie Boys’ boutique label Grand Royale went under, the group, and Empire, lost their American distributor. With the general recession of American electronic music at the turn of the century, the group faded from the spotlight. The corridors of power had escaped, for the most part unmolested.
Atari Teenage Riot went on permanent hiatus following the death of sideman Carl Crack. Empire’s solo material has never been as directly political as that of his group, leaning towards a comparative asceticism. 1998’s The Destroyer is still an absolute marvel of sheer destructive energy channeled into electronic expression—shorn of any but the most indirect political connotations, the album is a masterpiece of personal aggression and violent darkness.
But Futurist is every bit as political as the best Atari Teenage Riot material. The underlying question behind the album seems to be: why the fuck are all these young and otherwise able-bodied punk rockers stuck singing these vaguely misogynistic rants about girlfriends and bad relationships? Now that they’ve got something to actually sing about, why are freakin’ Green Day the only dudes with cajones enough to actually do something about it? Not without reason is the album partially dedicated to the late Joe Strummer, a musician who certainly understood that every decision was a political decision, and that even a decision to be unpolitical was a decision for political apathy in favor of the entrenched interests. “This record was a homage to the time when British rock music was straight and fearless,” he says, and listening to Futurist it’s hard not to see what he’s talking about. This is fierce and uncompromising stuff, not something you’re likely to hear playing on the MTV.
Futurist is ostensibly a rock album. You won’t find any of the drum & bass rhythms of his earlier material here (well, maybe a couple of brief breakdowns), just straight forward rock pounding. If you listen hard enough you can tell that the album was constructed digitally—there are slight digital adornments around the edges, and the drums do betray a tellingly programmed precision. But the whole point here is to put the music forward in as simple and percussive a manner as possible. The overall effect is much like what you would expect if Ministry decided to pare down to a three-piece group and play a set of Black Flag covers—it’s got a bit of industrial swagger to it, but mostly it’s all razor-sharp guitars and screamy vocals.
As such, the album’s weakness is its lack of variety. That is not necessarily a cardinal sin in rock ‘n’ roll (or else the Ramones would be broiling in rock hell), but the intentionally stripped palette does prevent it from reaching the surreal and even psychedelic heights of his previous violent-noise manifestoes. Still, you can’t help admire Empire’s single-minded dedication as he lays into his object with brutal precision over the course of these twelve tracks. You can guess the sentiment on display with track titles such as “Night of Violence” and “Make Em Bleed”. “Terror Alert: High” makes the target of his wrath even more transparent:
Pillaged, murdered, raped,
I’ve become so immune,
Their statues will fall down and break,
With nothing left to consume.
Laws of disorder will apply,
Screaming will echo bursting flames,
So loud your own faith,
Will leave you naked,
And that day is comin’ very soon.
As if there was any doubt as to his feelings, he later says: “A stronger man will kill you when he can, / Without any notion of regret.”
Empire is German and although he speaks fairly fluent English, his diction can still betray a slight awkwardness of execution. But it works, because what he lacks in subtlety he makes up for in brutal precision. This is the kind of punk album that you really wish you heard more often, a pure expression of the same righteous anger on which punk rock was built. Empire may use samplers and drum machines (most of the time), but when it comes to punk he is definitely a traditionalist, leaving the album’s title not a little bit disingenuous.