Live Music + Gig Reviews

Alec Empire @ Underworld, London

1 May 2009

Alec Empire has enjoyed many incarnations, from big name DJ and dance music producer to being part of John Peel favourites Atari Teenage Riot, purveyors of anarchistic thrashing electronic punk.

Empire, or Alexander Wilke-Steinhof to be formal, founded the Digital Hardcore and Eat Your Heart Out labels, not to mention spawning the whole digital hardcore genre itself, and in recent years has launched a successful solo career that throws all of those previous influences into one acidic melting pot.

So, the day before his 37th birthday, the Berliner finds himself in Camden’s Underworld, which is still looking fairly sparsely populated as final support act Modulate bang out their in-your-face industrial techno. The samples are sweary (hardly surprising on tracks with names like Skullfuck) and a bit juvenile, with the end product sounding like it was produced circa 1994.

Alec Empire presents himself on stage to a backing of hard and heavy breaks and beats, as he shouts, “Come on and make some fucking noise!”, before launching into an electro-style offering from his new Shivers EP. Picking up his guitar, spiky waveforms of aggressive electronic noise pound the crowd in the chest, making for a sound that’s as punishing as it is exhilarating.

It’s not all raw and raging, however. At times Empire’s set is so ’80s it’s like being in a new romantic timewarp as Gary Numan-esque synth tracks and stark vocals combine with the neon lights flickering in the background. The keyboard player also adds to the effect, with creative black make-up tramlined across her face.

It’s not long before another thrashing, shouty number though, creating a sound so fearsome it could probably make noses bleed. But the crowd laps it up, dreds flying in the strobelighting as grown men climb pillars to punch the air.

The mixture of synthpop and punk is an intriguing one; an electro track with gunshot beats certainly has an impact. But at times the retro-futurism is laid on so thickly that it’s hard not to smirk and wonder if Empire is about to break into a cover of Mighty Boosh favourite, Future Sailors.

To add to the theatrical air, Patrick Wolf then takes to the stage like some kind of flamboyant panto villain in fairy wings for his Empire collaboration, Vulture. It’s overblown and vaguely ridiculous in nature but all the same is something to be savoured. Empire’s breakbeat-laden, early-’90s-style rave-thrash then triggers a stagediving melee.

As the crowd screech for more, Alec retakes the stage for the encore and dedicates a track to former Atari Teenage Riot band mate, Carl Crack, who died of an overdose in 2001. He crowdsurfs like an angel across the adoring throng before being dunked back on stage in time for Patrick Wolf to rejoin him for ATR classic, Revolution Action.

Overall the set packs a punch but it’s hard to be sure just how seriously it can be taken at times. The bruising dance beats and ear-shredding guitar combine to create an exaggerated sense of drama, but there’s an overwhelming whiff of painfully art-school cool self-parody that won’t dissipate. Empire certainly creates a magnificent spectacle, but he can come across as being too knowing for his own good.

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More on Alec Empire
This Music Made Me: Alec Empire
Alec Empire – Shivers EP
Alec Empire @ Underworld, London
Q&A: Alec Empire
Alec Empire – The Golden Foretaste Of Heaven