Berlin’s Digital Hardcore Recordings produced a whole host of amazing bands with one aim – to reimagine the anarchic, angry spirit of punk through electronica. They were political, advocating the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism, their members spanned race and gender and more importantly, they were responsible for many great records.
The label’s figureheads were Atari Teenage Riot, who used the money from an aborted major label deal with Phonogram to set up DHR, a move that could have been lifted straight from the plot of ‘The Great Rock ’N’ Roll Swindle’. In their wake came fellow signings EC8OR, Bomb 20, Cobra Killer, Shizuo, Christoph De Babalon, Lolita Storm, and Fidel Villeneuve among others. All the label’s acts were united in a common musical language of hazy, distorted noise via every influence from hip hop and gabber to 60s girl groups and ambient.
All four members of Atari Teenage Riot released solo albums too, and while Alec Empire, Hanin Elias and Nic Endo’s efforts all offer much to enjoy, ‘Black Ark’ is in a league of its own.
Karl Böhm was ATR’s MC and as Crack he was a whirlwind of rage when they appeared at London’s Garage club and later, at the request of John Peel and with Björk among the audience, at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. But this record is closer to the Swazi-born Böhm’s own personality – introspective, shy, and choosing his words carefully.
Likewise, ‘Black Ark’ feels like a tumultuous outpouring from deep within. There’s no sign of his vocals, relying instead on dislocated sampled voices, from a soul singer wailing “Oh boy” in sorrowful desperation on the opening ‘If You Mess With Me!’, to the threatening Yardie chat of ‘Gangsta’. It’s gloriously gritty and lo-fi, sometimes driven by the pendulum swing of a drum machine, at others by degraded junglist Amen breaks careering off at top speed. A rough diamond of an album, certainly, but ultimately one that’s dripping in expression and humanity.
It’s easy these days to read the fact that he was suffering from psychosis into the record’s world weary, sometimes desolate grooves. Crack temporarily retired from ATR’s live line up late in 1999 after an incident when he attempted to exit a plane during take off. He was working on a follow up to ‘Black Ark’ when, in September 2001, at the age of 30, he was found dead in his Berlin flat having consumed a large quantity of medication.
It was a tragic waste of a unique talent, a talent whose full potential was only beginning to be realised. But at least he left us this, an album to turn to for solace when the black clouds gather, and perhaps the ultimate proof that electronic music can be every bit as passionate and raw as any other form of music.