The History of Cyber Rock

Atari Teenage Riot's Alex Empire And Carl Crack 1992
Atari Teenage Riot circa 1992. Martyn Goodacre / Getty Images

Electronic elements are so prevalent in rock and alternative today, it’s strange to hear organic instruments. Imagine Dragons, Lorde, Panic! at the Disco and multiple others infuse synths, drums pads and altered vocals into their work, elevating them to Ubermensch artists. Crossover appeal is a given, as are Auto-Tune and “dropping the bass.”

Yet in the mid-to-late-’90s, the amalgam of the tangible and the technical was novel.

The industrial music revolution mated with metal guitars, acid house cacophony and goth fashion to form cyber rock, an apocalyptic scene that was reverent and terrified of computers.

 

Enter the Matrix

"Computers are like dogs— they know when you're scared of them," one citizen told The Baltimore Sun in a 1994 article. Pop culture played up this phobia with aplomb. Scour the Internet Movie Database for the years 1994-1999 and you’ll discover hundreds of films on virtual reality and home electronics gone bad. Flicks such as The Lawnmower Man and Johnny Mnemonic blended man and machine, with disastrous results for humankind. Hackers and The Net seemed avant-garde and sexy, with alluring outsiders like Angelina Jolie tapping into the underground rave and punk cultures. And lest we forget the paranoia of The Matrix and the Y2K bug that would allegedly cause the world’s banks to fail.

Another uniting factor in these works?

Killer soundtracks.

The songs sounded like laboratory syntheses, all bubbly and fractured, with tendrils of guitar strings and frayed electrical cords. Some in the scene, like Nine Inch Nails’ offspring Filter, literally hooked themselves up to Ethernet webs to convey a creepy interconnectivity and captivity.

Their video for “(Can’t You) Trip Like I Do” emphasized the hypnotic dance elements provided by the Crystal Method. Layers upon layers of symbolism and data pile up, while clips from the comic-book movie Spawn cut in. The rhythms and drops disorient. Singer Richard Patrick shouts into the void. A detached woman marvels, “Oh, my god,” throughout the chaos. The Method’s name refers to what was then called speed— the drug methamphetamine, which is notorious for keeping users awake and alert well beyond normal hours. This rush benefited hackers and gamers, powering them through nights of illicit activity and virtual battles.

 

Start the Riot

The 1990s marked the coming of age of the children of 1984. The dystopian novel written by George Orwell in 1949 was made famous by its mantra “Big Brother is watching.” The prophecy became more believable in the ’90s as millions of households logged on to the World Wide Web. The vastness of information led many to fear for their privacy and freedom.

Long before Edward Snowden or the Anonymous group blew open the global data mines of infractions and treacheries, German band Atari Teenage Riot warned fans to Delete Yourself. The pummeling “digital hardcore” tracks featured video game bleeps, avalanches of guitars, call-and-response screams and menacing double-kick drums.

They demanded an uprising of the youth, with songs such as “Kids Are United!” and “Start the Riot!” marrying punk with a gaggle of samples. The information overload mocked the rise of the internet, which ATR saw as a placating opiate of the masses.

Cyber rock found an unlikely supporter in the Smashing Pumpkins. The platinum-selling alternative band began dropping the term in 1995 when they released Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. No doubt, it was a rock record, but prog, metal and even dance traces could be found. Billy Corgan and James Iha said straightforward guitars, bass and drums bored them, so major hits such as “1979” and “Zero” incorporated keyboards and electronic beats.

When those singles took over the airwaves, they opened the floodgates to similar sounds. Tour mates Filter went from modest success (“Hey Man, Nice Shot”) to superstardom when their 1999 album, Title of Record, perfected the cyber rock genre.

Stabbing Westward shot upward on the charts in 1996 with the scathing Wither Blister Burn + Peel. Front man Christopher Hall tapped into the Trent Reznor zeitgeist and injected his self-effacing lyrics with doomy walls of sound. In “Shame,” one could practically hear the electrical current humming and crackling through his veins and his instruments. His voice whispers then shrieks, sucking him into an altered state.

“How can I have sex without you?” was his plea. And though he was begging a human woman, the song came out at a time when pornography spread across the internet. It was an immediate gratification past generations weren’t used to. Young adults ate it up, craved it, needed it to function. Today, up to 99 percent of adult men and up to 86 percent of adult women with internet access watch porn online, according to the American Psychological Association, quoting various studies.

 

Mechanical Animals

When machine and man become interdependent, most soothsayers predict madness. Radiohead, previously known for their mournful ballads and cheeky Britpop, matured with 1997’s OK Computer. Now heralded as a classic, the album admitted defeat to our technical overlords. A spoken-word interlude, “Fitter Happier,” employed a robot to tell listeners the secret behind fuller lives— following a lockstep regimen that sounded all too Orwellian.

Shock rocker Marilyn Manson released his (arguably) best album to date, Mechanical Animals, in 1998. He blended David Bowie glam with the steely bite of metal and industry on “The Dope Show,” which foresaw the rise of reality TV and YouTube.

Fame was a drug and all were susceptible, trapped in a worldwide desperation for the electronic fix that was driving us to oblivion. We had become, as Manson crowed, “Posthuman.”

The cyber rock phenomenon, like too many other musical movements, seemed to edge out women. According to The Baltimore Sun article, females polled tended to see computers as a male-dominated outlet. “Women are socialized to believe they have no mechanical sense and cannot operate a machine,” explained Jo Sanders, director of the Gender Equity Program at the City University of New York. “Obviously, it's total nonsense, but it creates a feeling of guilt.”

But why control a machine when you could be one? That seemed to be the M.O. of Shirley Manson, singer for Garbage. She was the undisputed queen of cyber rock, a frightening contralto who eventually would reveal herself to be a robot (on TV, at least). The persona played well on Garbage’s self-titled 1995 debut, and the band ran with it on the Grammy-nominated Version 2.0 in 1998. Opening track “Temptation Waits” was serpentine and boisterous, with Manson cooing, “You come on like a drug / I just can’t get enough.” The feeling could describe love, but the album title suggested a more synthetic desire. Deep track “Hammering in My Head” was the Manson cyborg breaking down under the pressure of producer-drummer Butch Vig’s command.

The Sneaker Pimps and Republica followed female-fronted suit, with the former dueting with Marilyn Manson and the latter becoming a ’90s soundtrack staple.

 

Termination?

By the end of the century, it seemed everyone was going digital. Grunge guys Bush came out with The Science of Things, with songs such as “Jesus Online” and “Warm Machine” suggesting salvation lay in binary code. Dance acts Orbital and the Prodigy headlined alternative festival Lollapalooza in 1997. Aphex Twin became a household name. And Orgy made many forget that “Blue Monday” was a New Order song.

Though a good number of the cyber rock bands aren’t topping the charts anymore, their legacy remains. EDM megastars such as Skrillex owe much to the scene, as do the emerging bands that trade guitars for battling synthesizers and laptop programs. Big Brother is still watching, but the descendants of the cyber rock movement are embracing the technology as their own act of defiance.