Germany in the eighties was deeply conservative and pop music in any form wasn’t welcome on TV and Radio. Berlin was an island of creativity and Alec Empire, (then Alexander Wilke-Steinhof), was infused with the invention and liberality that set the city apart.
His mother listened to classical music while his father found refuge in jazz. Neither was a direct inspiration but their record collection made him determined to dig deeper. Radio was his salvation but while the US and UK were awash with music designed to draw in the youth dollar, his only core musical stimulation came from the radio stations servicing the occupying US troops, (they didn't finally leave until 1994, five years after the Wall was dismantled).
Before Empire’s internationally successful group, Atari Teenage Riot released a record, Alec had recorded and released twenty or so twelve inches on Force Inc, and three albums on Mille Plateaux under his own name. Mille Plateaux had been formed in 1993 by the visionary Achim Szepanski who took the name of the label from the critique of social structure by Deleuze and Guattari.
Szepanski released records by artists who would have deconstructed if they had ever got around to constructing in the first place and in doing so liberated true creativity outside any conventions of popular music. In the nineties the new exponents of electronic music particularly in the UK and US are firmly part of the MTV generation drawing their inspiration from exploring the synthesizer’s potential, Detroit techno and Brian Eno’s ambient concepts.
Empire instinctively dismantled structures that had existed for decades and set about finding new approaches within the context of his own compositions. Empire, rooted in mainland Europe’s modern classical iconoclasm, Germany’s summarily, (and incorrectly), dismissed Krautrock experimentation and his own deconstructionist tendency found his own path. There was no outlet for the UK’s underground’s new pretenders in early 90’s Germany and Empire was initially a sole voice in Germany contemporary youth music and heard revolutionary artists such as Oval and Curd Duca long before the likes of Aphex Twin or Prodigy had caught the ferry across the Channel.
Alec’s rock records were released on Digital Hardcore Recordings along with his contemporaries from Berlin’s hardcore breakbeat scene. However his more considered pieces were released initially on Mille Plateaux records and later his own Geist imprint. Empire’s earliest releases Limited Editions 1990–94 and Generation Starwars both came out in 1994. The first collected together pieces that showed Empire delving into the new fringes of electronica. Eighties pop had put it in a box and squeezed the life out of it but Empire was determined to reclaim the spirit of adventure and freedom that had blossomed in the sixties and seventies before commercial pop had bled the life from it.
"Electronic music is not about memorizing - it's about exploring the unknown & experimenting. That's what sets us apart from traditional pop." Alec Empire
Three very different albums followed.
Low on Ice was an extended mood piece evoking the vast expanse of the arctic tundra, it sonorous landscape and sense of isolation dissolved time and space. Recorded in a tent in Iceland using minimal equipment - this was long before the era of the laptop - the result was one of the coldest and sonorous recordings made to date.
Empire described it as "slowly drowning in ice water, seeing the sun moving further away from you."
It was chosen amongst the 50 most important electronic music albums since the last 25 years by German Groove Magazine Hypermodern Jazz 2000.5 deconstructed the sounds of traditional jazz and reassembled it as a dystopian take of the music of the future. It has much in common with the Free Jazz movement of Coleman, Coltrane and Taylor; artists whom Empire had yet to hear).
The final work of the 96 trilogy Les Etoiles Des Filles Mortes was clearly his most serious piece in the contemporary classical mode which derived more from the atonal chamber music of Janacek or the tone clusters of Penderecki than from any of the pop rock experiments of mid twentieth century.
The next five years saw the enormous international success of Atari Teenage Riot which kept him touring. While on the road he conceived his magnum opus, but wasn’t in a position to release it until 2002. The second CD of the set confounded the ATR fans but came as no surprise to those who had followed his solo output from the start.
It has something in common with the previous albums but with the insight and mature vision that the crucial decade had brought. As the UK’s premier music paper wryly put it, “For a man so certain that there isn't a future, he looks like one of its most confident architects.”
Almost 20 years after recording “Low on Ice” Empire, prompted by a request for music by a film director, delved into his archive and found much more music from the same sessions. He digitized the full Iceland Sessions, 175 minutes of music, which will be released later this year on a 3 CD boxset.