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There's a Riot Goin' On

[whitespace] Atari Teenage Riot
The Future Is Now: In the new century, bands like Atari Teenage Riot will surround the masses with tape hiss.

Atari Teenage Riot rages into a new century on '60 Second Wipeout'

By Gina Arnold

LEGEND HAS IT that the summer before World War I erupted had the most beautiful weather England had ever seen. I feel sure that this coming summer will be like that too. For the rest of our lives, we can say, "The weather was better in the 20th century," and the same will go for the music. Everything pre-2000 is going to sound gentle and kindly; everything after is going to sound worse.

In support of my theory we have Atari Teenage Riot--a German act that has already positioned itself as a band of the future, complete with a radical new sound and confrontational political ideology. The band's songs (so to speak) boast brutally anthemic, millennium-inspired titles and choruses--"Revolution Action," "Destroy 2000 Years of Culture" and "Anarchy 999." The songs are also utterly unlistenable, the kind that would prompt a Reader's Digest joke like "Two garbage cans fell over, and my kids started dancing."

Suffice it to say, the band's latest album, 60 Second Wipeout, takes place in a bath of tape hiss that makes My Bloody Valentine's fascination with feedback sound like an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. One could just write off Atari Teenage Riot as a particularly German form of arty balderdash, but there's a fundamental problem with that tactic from a critic's point of view. Nobody--least of all a critic--wants to be like the dumb old guy who "didn't get" Elvis Presley, who pooh-poohed the Beatles and just hated the Rolling Stones.

On the other hand, nobody wants to be one of the people lining the street, cheering the emperor's new clothes, either. The result is that many critics refuse to take a stance on a band like Atari Teenage Riot, hemming and hawing over the group's possible worth in the future. Critic Robert Ray has a term for this dilemma: "overcomprehension," referring to the unmerited praise of everything, however farfetched, for fear of missing a bandwagon. Now, Atari Teenage Riot's bandwagon actually left Zoostation in Berlin a couple of years ago. The band is signed to hip and trendy Grand Royal Records (owned and thus sanctioned by the all-powerful cultural arbiters the Beastie Boys) and appeared on Lollapalooza's tour last time out. I haven't actually seen Atari Teenage Riot (the one time I tried, the show was sold out before I arrived), but they are supposedly a rather absorbing live act, complete with strobe lights and explosions--like their compatriots Rammstein, only without the tunes.

That kind of show can be fun to attend, especially in a tiny nightclub--and especially if you're under 18. I don't doubt that the Berlin-based combo is utterly fascinating live; it's the record I have trouble listening to. 60 Second Wipeout sounds like a blend of all the worst aspects of industrial techno, lo-fi rock and heavy metal--a soup of sound that's loud, annoying and hard to take.

Nevertheless, ideologically speaking, I like Atari Teenage Riot. The band's anti-fascist stance, politics and super-confrontational act are exactly the things that made punk so appealing. The band says it doesn't make music for people who've been "told what's cool," but unfortunately, it doesn't make music, period. Instead, the new album, like its predecessor, Burn, Berlin, Burn!, offers nothing more than an amalgam of punk samples, distorted shouts and backbeats full of background noise--a style the band calls "digital hard-core."

IN ITS LYRICS, the album comes across as one long slogan--and not necessarily a slogan that makes perfect sense, unless you're reading it ironically, and irony on this level can be awfully tiring. For example, one of Atari Teenage Riot's themes is suspiciousness-of-technology: "Delete Yourself!" and "The Virus Has Been Spread."

Of course, the band's entire sample-heavy oeuvre is totally dependent on technology. That might be a forgivable bit of hypocrisy--we all hate some of the things we depend on--but a more confusing issue surfaces in the band's dabbling with politics. Atari Teenage Riot claims to be against violence, racism and war, but its music--even its name--constantly calls for riots and sounds, frankly, utterly violent.

The songs on the new album traffic in aggressiveness: "By Any Means Necessary" and "Death of a President DIY!" Again, this could just be irony, but if you're specifically writing a "soundtrack to a revolution," you don't really have any grounds to object to one when it arises.

Speaking of irony, according to a report on the Internet, the bandmembers were arrested a few weeks ago at a rally in Berlin against NATO bombings in Serbia. Vocalist Alec Empire objected to the violence used by the police, but at the time, he was in the midst of singing a song titled "Revolution Action." (I think "action" is supposed to sound like achtung, or "hurry" in German.)

So the jury's still out on Atari Teenage Riot. Does the band represent the sound of things to come, a sane yet radical rethinking of the way music can inspire and even instigate social change? Or does it just exemplify a superhyped, exploitive and noisy new form of teenage kicks, the latest version of heavy metal?

Well, you never know. But last weekend, I attended a reunion concert by the 25-year-old punk band the Dictators. In the late '70s, played against disco and songs like "Afternoon Delight," the Dictators' harsh male vocals and crunchy rock guitars sounded horridly angry--positively punk. At the show, however, I was struck by just how poppy the band's music sounds in retrospect. There's a distinct possibility that 25 years from now, Atari Teenage Riot will seem as cute and as tuneful as the Dictators do today, and I'm just too stuck in the present moment to hear the sound of the future. But I sure wouldn't bet the farm on it.

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From the May 20-26, 1999 issue of Metro.

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