The Perfect Chord looks back at albums you may have missed when they dropped, or miss now that they've faded from memory. This week's glimpse into the crates:
Carl Crack – Black Ark
The end of the 1990s saw the pop music landscape clearly divided in two. On one side was the emergent crop of pop products gradually beginning to dominate the music charts by design; on the other, the surviving members of the independent music explosion of the late 1980s and early 1990s, clinging determinedly to the attention that had prompted major labels to sign them in the first place. By 1998, with so-called “alternative rock,” electronica, and gangsta rap either dead or gradually staring to assimilate into the monolithic collective of post-millenial pop, the clock was ticking on some of the edgier surviving acts’ time on the lips of those that drove the whim of the zeitgeist.
Far, far on the pop fringe sat violently political, multi-racial German quartet Atari Teenage Riot. The band’s musical approach—equal parts hardcore punk rock, hip hop, metal, drum ’n’ bass, dub, and industrial, thrown into a blender, amplified, and distorted into unrecognizability—garnered enough attention from major-label media darlings the Beastie Boys, Nine Inch Nails, and head Foo Fighter Dave Grohl to somehow vault them onto American MTV in the mid-90s. Packaged as part of the Electronica movement, Capitol Records subsidiary Grand Royal distributed the band’s music stateside. The resultant publicity push also provided the band’s own label, Digital Hardcore Recordings, with U.S. distribution deals, of which ATR frontman Alec Empire took full advantage in true punk fashion; throughout the 1990s, DHR sent hundreds of releases by a variety of bands into record stores in North America. Almost completely overlooked upon its release was Black Ark, an extremely limited-run release by Atari Teenage Riot member Carl Crack.
Born Karl Böhm in Swaziland (a tiny nation in southern Africa), Crack eventually moved to Berlin where, in his early 20s, he co-founded ATR with Empire and Hanin Elias. A fan of dub reggae, soul, punk rock and hip hop, Crack found little inspirational material in the contemporary music scene save for the Beatnigs, an extremely short-lived experimental group fronted by Michael Franti (who had, by then, gone on to front the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy). As an MC, Crack’s lyrics were as caustic and direct as his flow was completely unpredictable and frantic; as a person, he was equally unpredictable, owing as much to his drug use as the psychiatric problems that drove him to it. By the late-1990s, Crack was more of an occasional presence at ATR shows rather than the driving force he had been at the band’s inception. Drugs did little to stem his musical passion and creativity, however, and the instrumental album Black Ark (titled as an homage to the studio owned and operated by dub pioneer Lee “Scratch” Perry), produced and created perhaps as a means to exorcise personal demons, appeared in 1998.
From the opening notes of its first track, Black Ark sets an atmosphere startlingly divorced from the hyperactive cacophony of Atari Teenage Riot. Indeed, “If You Mess With Me” grinds along a heavily-distorted breakbeat, lurching through a reggae sample before dissolving into arrhythmic noise. Most striking is the song’s sound quality; while most DHR releases (indeed, the entire Digital Hardcore subgenre) thrived on some degree of distortion, the music still had a crispness and clarity inherent to most electronic music. “If You Mess With Me,” on the other hand, abounds with analog tape hiss and is EQ-ed in a way heavily emphasizing the bass and midrange frequencies, giving the listener the impression that they’re hearing a low-quality bootleg recording of…something. The overall effect is hypnotic, especially considering how beautifully subtle the song is.
From there, the album only becomes more evocative and beautiful…and considerably darker. “Gangsta” takes a sped-up sample of the legendary “Amen Break” (ubiquitous in drum ’n’ bass) and gradually manipulates filters until it becomes static; three minutes in, a Gil Scott-Heron sample appears out of nowhere, layered over a drumbeat that skips with no apparent relation to any musical meter. “Kr-6200” and “Headcase” abandon rhythm almost entirely, the former sounding like an extremely lo-fi iteration of something that might appear on a My Bloody Valentine album, while the latter (one of Black Ark’s standout tracks) layers a hiccupping Japanese film sample into a rolling stew of noise. “Tin Tin,” the album’s longest (and best track), rides a single-chord drone through each of its six-and-a-half minutes, a RZA-esque breakbeat circling a handful of sampled diminished jazz chords in varying patterns that almost coalesce into a danceable beat, only to stop at random.
Seven tracks in, Crack’s approach turns frantic, albeit briefly. “Indaba” is a fifty-seven second interlude consisting of one repeating loop of people screaming indistinctly; whether the screams indicate fear, aggression, pain, or sadness is deliberately kept ambiguous. “Fu Manchu” and “What’s Goin On” each feature chattering drumbeats—the former from a generic late-80s rap song, the latter with another Amen Break interpolation—but bounce from orchestral to heavy metal samples so abruptly it would seem strange on any other album. After another interlude, “Darling” takes a keyboard sample and distorts it so sharply it sounds like an orchestral piece played through heavy metal amplification; the song is another album highlight, a drowsy head-nodder, and—true to form, provides no warning for its next track. “Mein Geist Ist Dein Geist” is a staccato collage, centered around a distorted male voice reading the title. The phrase repeats throughout the track, while distorted hi-hat samples stab at the listeners’ ears; its meaning, alternately “my ghost is your ghost,” “my spirit is your spirit,” “my will is your will,” or some combination of the three, is especially chilling in the context of Crack’s personal issues.
To say the latter half of the album continues the formula of the first is to do it a disservice; while there are more unpredictable interludes (“Sonnenfreunde”), almost-trip hop breakdowns (“Herbstlaub,” “Drunken Style”) and abstract collagery (“Radio Tschernobyl”), each track carries the listener to a completely unexpected place. “Times Like These,” however, proves to be the highlight of the second half, in which a subharmonic, menacing growl eventually coalesces into a narcoleptic-slow distorted breakbeat that ends as abruptly as it begins; that said, album closer “Durban Poison” is equally stellar, with its muffled drum beat and buzzing woodwind samples. The song—and the album—ends with an alarming hip hop sample culminating with the phrase “this sh*t will kill you fast.”
Tragically, the sample proved prophetic. A year after Black Ark, Atari Teenage Riot recorded and released 60 Second Wipe-Out; Crack frequently failed to show up for recording sessions and shows. During the subsequent, grueling tour for the album, with his drug use mounting in direct proportion to his psychosis, Crack’s performances became increasingly erratic. He managed to appear for the tour’s final, deafening, legendary Brixton Academy show, bellowing into a vocoder during the half-hour set of pure noise; shortly thereafter, ATR went on hiatus. Crack spent most of 2000 and 2001 trying to manage his psychiatric issues, although he began work on a follow-up to Black Ark. Sadly, however, on September 6, 2001, Crack was found dead in his apartment of an apparent overdose on an unspecified medication; as doctors had told him his psychosis was getting worse, it remains unclear whether the overdose was intentional or not. His death effectively broke up ATR; Elias moved to French Polynesia to start a family, while Empire, despite touring and recording under his own name, gradually stopped releasing albums on Digital Hardcore Recordings. Black Ark, like many of the releases on the label, went out-of-print.
In 2010, however, Empire and Elias reconciled their friendship, the latter giving her blessing to re-start the Atari Teenage Riot project. Empire, along with Nic Endo (who had joined ATR in 1996) picked up American MC/producer CX KiDTRONiK and recorded a new ATR album, Is This Hyperreal?. The trio (with CX replaced for some gigs with Rowdy Superstar) began a relentless tour for Hyperreal that continues even today. Concurrent with ATR’s resurrection, surprisingly, came a new and revamped Digital Hardcore Recordings webstore; while Black Ark has yet to reappear, resurgent interest in ATR could result in Crack’s dark, torturous, beautiful album seeing the light of day once more.
A. Darryl Moton is a freelance writer/curmudgeon refusing to answer stupid questions about his hair in Ankeny, Iowa.