If you ever need a heightened sense of our dystopian present, attend an Atari Teenage Riot show. Certainly the long-running German trio — now consisting of Alec Empire, Nic Endo and Rowdy Superstar — has had progress in its sights for a long time. The group began in Berlin in 1992 as a proactive response against neo-Nazism in Germany and has been fighting the good fight through techno-juiced hardcore (and strobe lights!) off and on for two decades. (The band took a decade-long hiatus in 2001 after the death of founding member Carl Crack before returning last year.) But no length of fandom or YouTube-by-proxies is quite like being in Atari Teenage Riot’s present presence: through hyperreal energy and palpable political resolve, the group acts as cheerleaders for resistance, and the constant indictments of skewed global politics are actually transformative. We’re living in a time of tumult, but ATR’s imagining a better future, if we want it. The crux of their music, battering, insistent, and of the rabble, is just a reminder that along the path there, chaos is tantamount. And fun.
Controlled chaos was at the forefront of their Tuesday night show at Manhattan’s Highline Ballroom, and the rabble was indeed in full effect. Though somewhat sparsely attended — the half-full concert was no doubt infringed upon by day-after-tax-day activities and related actions, including marches all across the city — it was one of the more diverse, racially, age-wise, even subcultural, I’ve been to recently. Many audience members were rocking black hoods, but there were also industrial goths with technicolor locks, bearded t-shirt dudes, feisty youth, a couple people in suits (inspired by Occupy, or maybe just coming from work). Atari Teenage Riot’s political spectrum obviously hits a nerve, and when they’re eking out charged tracks like 2011’s “Black Flags,” which transforms an anarcho-sympathetic treatise on corporate greed into a super fun punk singalong (“Are you ready to testify? Black flags!”), it’s clear why everyone in the crowd knows the words. Even after a long break, they’re one of the most politically vital groups around, and yet unlike a lot of other musicians who put their ideology at the forefront of their art, Atari Teenage Riot doesn’t make it feel like work. Even as they spanned 20 years of material — a highlight was 1993’s “Delete Yourself! (You’ve Got No Chance to Win),” a junglist’s cyber-screed — their urgency held relevance. They’ve been hacked-in since the cyberpunk days, and it was telling when Empire declared the group “Anonymous Teenage Riot” (the amorphous hacker group figures prominently in their “Black Flags” video), and the entire audience screamed appreciatively. Their sociopolitical relevance comes not just from their music, but because they’re insiders as well. In March, Empire donated money the group received from licensing to FreeAnons, an Anonymous legal support group. Empire’s also written thoughtful pieces on the debt crisis, and group members have supported and attended various Occupy protests — including the appearance of former front-woman Hanin Elias at Occupy Oakland.
Again, tons of other musicians are overtly political, but few do it in a fashion that doesn’t feel heavy-handed. ATR’s message is underscored by kinetic pogo’ing, most prominently from the awesome Endo, whose physical delivery and contrarian face paint (not the Coachella sort, but the Chinese word for “resistance” drawn over her eyes) give her an electric cheer captain vibe. With that the strobe pulse, it was rave for the proles, and it didn’t matter that the venue was half-full: people were feeling it, hard. By the time they closed out their set with the 1999 track “Revolution Action,” which chants (of course) “Revolution action! What are we gonna go for!” over super-punk speed guitar and distortion ascending like a mushroom cloud, Empire had pulled nearly the entire audience onstage to dance, resulting in an awesome human bouquet of populism and sweat.
“Black Flags” was dubbed the first Occupy anthem by political/pop cultural website Dangerous Minds. As the movement evolves, careening towards the global general strike on May 1, Atari Teenage Riot’s profile will increase, though at the show I found myself wish protesters would take ATR lyrics more seriously as chants. (I’ve been to several Occupy events, and while I feel them, aesthetically I kinda can’t get down with shouting recycled ‘60s movement platitudes.) Meanwhile, as the U.S. gets more familiar with dance music, it’ll be interesting to see how an inveterate group like ATR spreads, particularly when its existence is so vital, after such a long hiatus. But as they showed on Tuesday night, as long as even a few people believe, they will press on.
Check out photos from the show below, from Hive photographer Loren Wohl: