Alec Empire - Low On Ice | CD3 The White Zone | The Trilogy (digital release)
In 1995, Atari Teenage Riot played the Icelandic UXI-Festival, held in a large field outside Reykjavik. Björk, The Prodigy, Underworld were the headliners (and Bobby Gillespie and Aphex Twin were hanging around), and ATR played their first really big crowd. Logistically, it was a peace of cake, as Atari Teenage Riot toured with a minimal amount of equipment: a TB-303, SH-101, MC-202, TR-808 and an AKAI- Sampler. It was the standard of most techno and acid productions of the time, and served as ATR’s on-the-road studio aswell. The TR-909 drum machine is not audible on Low on Ice, as Empire used it as a master sequencer to synchronize all the other gear: “I had my tent relocated so I would look out at the mountain. No fences. A few feet from my tent, nature began.”
In hindsight, the converse argument is an interesting one: Although, over the course of the first half of the nineties, most producers were using, due to similar incentives, almost identical equipment, how was it possible that their individual personalities became so apparent in their music? The producers had begun to play their studios like an instrument. The differences might lie in nuances—yet they are enormous. Maybe it was similar to jazz: If everyone is playing bebop, the only way to set yourself apart as a horn player is your own, distinct tone of playing the trumpet.
Or to proclaim the revolution.
On Low on Ice, Alec Empire transformed the machines into man-machines able of conveying personality. You didn’t even have to particularly like the record to understand that here, someone was lashing out at conventions, radically altering the established use of familiar equipment. The message got through to everyone. The delays and echoes on Low on Ice are essential—not random. The attentive listener will recognize Alec Empire moving in Lee Perry’s realm, in the dub continuum.
Alec Empire recalls the recording process with a crystal clear mind: “After the Atari gig I was back in my tent, alone, winding down and paying attention to my breathing. The body has its own rhythm, dictated by the heartbeat. It was like meditation. I like to think that it works both ways now: back then, the music synchronized to my spirit, and today, the listener attunes to the mood of Low on Ice.“ That, of course, is especially true with the three hours of the Complete Iceland Sessions: You enter a trance-like state, getting drawn into the sound the more you open yourself to it.
Iceland’s nature was the antonym to Berlin, a city of ruins: “I was able to completely ignore the bustling festival behind my back, focusing solely on nature, my heartbeat and the machines. I lived in my own timeline, like a person with autism. It was summer, but the night was extremely cold. When I think back to the sessions, the icy cold is the epicenter of my memories.”
Alec Empire translated that mood into music: “I programmed the machines and off I went. I recorded everything, every improvisation I went through while programming, the whole process. Today’s software often takes that away from us, the improvisation. But back then... you couldn’t even edit the improvisation later on, as everything was recorded on to tape. It was making music without a screen. I was limited to four audio tracks. And, how it goes with making music, at some point, a bass line takes shape out of the rubble, and pretty soon, very likely, the other machines will fall into place, creating something new as a whole. And all of it is being recorded.”
With the band, Atari Teenage Riot, there had never been any jamming. They never met in the studio just to make music. It was always a conscious work of musical translation: ATR built concrete, brutal atmospheres. Outside Germany, many people’s idea of Berlin was a wild mash-up of Blade Runner, Mad Max and 1984. To Americans and the Japanese, the post-wall Berlin of 1990/1991 was a bizarre projection, a dystopian metropolis, populated by a fantastic troupe of crazy jugglers that had successfully fled from Desolation Row—and Atari Teenage Riot provided the soundtrack. Comparable in their contemporary significance only to Einstürzende Neubauten, who had embodied and shaped the sound of eighties’ Westberlin like no other band.
But because Low on Ice was in fact not expressing the sound of post-wall Berlin, but a hyper-specific, enlightening experience of nature five years later, it’s all the more brilliant that this reissue finally encompasses the lost two hours of the Complete Iceland Sessions as well. An implosion in slow motion; nothing less than a milestone in the history of electronic music.
The album’s title tells the story of a moment on Iceland, at dawn, in the icy cold, that Alec Empire describes in evocative words: “I was lying down, surrounded by
machines and imagining what would happen if time stood still—if we all froze to death and only the machines kept running, until, slowly, they finally shut down, too. It reminded me of Stanislaw Lem’s tales, that I am a big fan of. I imagined the only thing left was the red light of a 303, blinking in a snowdrift. And that picture is Low on Ice’s silver lining, its prevailing mood. Not euphoria or energy, but the opposite: isolation, deceleration. To this day, this album is an exceptional one in my own discography, an outlier, and incomparable to anything I have produced since.”
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