Revolutionary Times

From the amp-straining bursts that introduce Is This Hyperreal? through the robotic reverberations that close it, Atari Teenage Riot’s comeback album forcefully reminds listeners that technology has a history. But this is no conventional exercise in nostalgia, like records that fetishize guitar pedals from the late 1960s or synth effects from the early 1980s. The sounds on Is This Hyperreal?” are theatrically dated, but thrown together like the odds and ends in a costume trunk.

So are the half-spoken, half-screamed slogans that periodically bob to the surface. Atari Teenage Riot invoke the specter of revolution without irony, like radical pamphleteers of a century ago, while repurposing the self-consciously ironic retro-futurism of Kraftwerk. At times this tension becomes unbearable, the results hopelessly awkward. But no matter how boneheaded the band’s message might seem, there’s something refreshing about the sincerity with which they hammer it home.

That’s where nostalgia enters the picture. Because even if Atari Teenage Riot isn’t trying to evoke a particular era, Is This Hyperreal? inevitably conjures their own past. Despite a hiatus of more than a decade and the loss of two of their three founding members — Carl Crack died of a drug overdose in 2001 and Hanin Elias felt that she could no longer manage the banshee-like “singing” required in live performance — mastermind Alec Empire and Nic Endo manage to pull off a convincing simulation of the band’s mid-career sound. But because they never sounded like anyone but themselves, the effect is uncanny.

When Atari Teenage Riot first arrived on the scene in the early 1990s, they somehow managed to seem both behind and ahead of their times. The term “digital hardcore” that Empire applied to the band’s music captured this tension. So did its visual aesthetic, which integrated a play on the Red Army Faction’s gun-on-star logo into the sort of high-contrast, diagonal frenzy that we might now be tempted to call “early Photoshop.” Even the band’s name, which references their use of an Atari 1040ST computer, marked them as somewhat out of step.

But it was Atari Teenage Riot’s unapologetic embrace of radical leftist politics that most contributed to the impression that they were at odds with history. The reunified Germany in which they got started was even more saturated with “post-ideological” fervor than the United States. The East now seemed like a dystopian fairyland, an alternative that had only existed in theory. To boldly invoke the RAF in such a context was simultaneously daft and dangerous.

The world looks a lot different now. Indeed, it looks a lot different in early August 2011 compared to how it did only a month ago, when Is This Hyperreal? first hit stores. During that short time, the American political establishment was badly shaken by the difficulty of coming up with a debt deal. The financial crisis that began on the periphery of the European Community, with Greece, Ireland and Portugal, has spread first to Italy and then to France. And a week of rioting throughout the United Kingdom has raised questions about the stability of David Cameron’s government. Simply put, calls for revolution seem a lot more realistic than they did in 1995.

But there’s something odd about calling for revolution in the language of 1995, as Atari Teenage Riot do on Is This Hyperreal? While not entirely ignorant of the technological changes that have occurred in the past decade and a half — the lyrics reference mobile phones and social networks — Atari Teenage Riot still seem to believe that it’s possible to opt out of the internet age, at least as we know it. “Let’s abolish the existing grid,” they tell us, while advocating a return to a less trackable mode of resistance.

While it wouldn’t be fair to call this a Luddite position, Atari Teenage Riot don’t come off as the most subtle of political thinkers. Then again, they never did. Is This Hypperreal? is meant to rile us up, not to make us ruminate on fine points of radical theory. The sloganeering functions like the call-and-response portions of a hip-hop concert. In other words, it’s meant to inspire a show of solidarity. Atari Teenage Riot want us to abandon our misgivings about hoping for revolution, instead of abandoning all hope in this era of “capitalist realism”,

Perhaps the datedness of their approach, the sense that they haven’t evolved past their mid-1990s heyday, is actually an advantage in this regard. Given how difficult it was to advocate for alternatives to global capitalism back then, when the economy was booming and even “communist” China seemed to regard its governing ideology as a joke, Atari Teenage Riot’s boldness was a bracing tonic. No, it wasn’t subtle. Sometimes it was even cringe-worthy.

But we now live at a time when corporations and their allies in government have themselves dispensed with subtlety. Conservative politicians make public pronouncements that their predecessors in the 1990s would have feared to even whisper in private. When Atari Teenage Riot declaim that, “there’s a class war going on and it’s the rich who are waging it,” they aren’t just regurgitating the rhetoric of the seminar room or the marginalized revolutionary cell anymore. You can read as much in op-eds published by The New York Times. Maybe, just maybe, the band that always seemed to have come too late or too early is finally in sync with the zeitgeist.

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