"To escape the horror, bury yourself in it."
In the mid to late 1970s a new musical movement, known as punk, emerged in the United States and England, quickly spreading to other countries. The history of Punk itself can, and has, filled volumes, and my purpose is not to recount or critique it here. For our purposes, Punk is significant for ONE reason: It blew the lid off established musical forms and opened the door for a resurgence of innovation.
The number of genres and sub genres that look to punk as musical forefathers is vast. Post-Punk, Hard Rock, Goth, Death Rock, Industrial, EBM, Indie Rock, Emo, Grunge, Metal, Future Pop, Power Noise, etc... all owe a greater or lesser debt to the accomplishments of a rather small number of people banging their fists against the mainstream for a couple of years in the 1970s.
The purpose of this document is not to explain all of them, or even to explain the rise and fall of different bands, labels, individuals, and scenes within Industrial Music in depth. For that I will refer you to the rather good Wikipedia article on this topic. Here I am only providing a rough outline to convey the basics of what different phases the genre has passed through, from its origins, to its current parodic death throws.
This transformation can be appreciated by focusing on five distinct periods of development.
I) The First Wave of Industrial Music
II) Electronica + Sampling & The Golden Age of Industrial
III) Evolution + The Aggro-EBM of the late 1990s
IV) The Wilderness
V) Parodic Phase
I The First Wave of Industrial Music
Industrial has traditionally be characterized as a percussion- intensive genre. This is generally true, however it has been as much focused on simple audio experimentation as it has been with the aesthetic of people banging on things. Take Throbbing Gristle- one of the first "industrial" bands. Using effected guitar and bass, primitive synthesizers, tape loops, and random additional instruments, they created very strange sound-collages that did not generally fit into the traditional "song" structure. If Richard Wright of Pink Floyd was one of the first to use synthesizers as an integral part of pop music in the 1970s, Throbbing Gristle, and their peers in this time (Bands such as Cabaret Voltaire, SPK, Monte Cazazza, Einstürzende Neubauten) were still trying to use- anything and everything - to push and break the limits of what we consider "music".
How about replacing an electric guitar with a Jack Hammer? How about using bits of pipe, scrap metal, and oil drums, instead of traditional drum sets? What better way to reflect (or encourage?) the decay of late industrial society than by appropriating the actual material, and organic sounds, of this society? Punk had thrown open the doors for intelligent people to think about fashion, music and art in different ways... but for all its rage and fury punk has also remained one of the most musically conservative of all genres, hardly ever deviated from the traditional "rock" instrument line up. Industrial people were too creative and adventurous to limit themselves to this.
In the early days, synthesizers were A LOT more expensive than they are today. As a result, few people could afford them. There were no computers and Midi Controllers to set up in one's bed room and "mess around" on. Furthermore, Digital Samplers were not readily available until the early 80's and even by then they were in short supply, very expensive, and had very limited memory and sampling rates. If, instead of a traditional "snare" drum, you wanted the sound of metal on concrete, or metal on metal, you had to actually get those real objects and carry them to a show and bang on them then. As a result, live performances of "industrial" bands in the 70s and 80s were generally more interesting than those of "industrial" bands today.
For an example, see the following early Neubauten clip:
Chaotic noises, the clanging of metal, "industrial" clothing, situations, etc... and some tortured screams to boot. The elements are here in place.
Meanwhile in England a very similar group, Test Department, also could not afford synthesizers. As a result they were able to create, in a far more structured and upbeat way, some of the greatest performances in the history of this genre. The following three videos, for Total State Machine, Compulsion, and Gdnask, will leave you with a good idea of what "Industrial Music" was able to accomplish in its early days.
At this point the basic political / worldview that has been shared by most industrial acts since the beginning should be clearly evident. The world is an unjust furnace of heavy breaking things where people toil and die and are kept in check by a system of official repression as well as ideological confusion. Banging on scrap metal "for arts sake" is always fun... but ideology and political confrontation, whether it was in Test Dept's support of the anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa, or Skinny Puppy's animal rights focus and antiwar messaging, Leatherstrip's anti racist and anti religious album Underneath the Laughter, or Laibach's entire existence... a polemical, political agenda has usually been present.
Laibach, the Slovenian group founded in 1980, began in a very similar situation as Test Department, although on the other side of the "Iron Curtain". Living in "Communist" Yugoslavia, a likely method of rebellion would have been something as predictably degenerate and Western as punk. But these four were a lot more subtle in their rebellion. Instead of frontally attacking the edifice of Stalinist dictatorship, they emulated it even more thoroughly than their own Titoist rulers. Officially, Yugoslav society rested on an assumption of shared ownership, sacrifice, and cooperative living. In reality, social class did exist, and it was upheld with force. Laibach seized on the darkest, most extreme totalitarian impulse and developed it in their music, which was a lot harder for the authorities to understand (let alone repress, when outwardly the band was proclaiming their reverence for the state... even while their own exuberance betrays its brutality and shortcomings).
Here is the music video for one of their best songs, off the Opus Dei record. This song, Geburt Einer Nation, is a cover of One Vision by Queen.
The stunning visuals are no isolated coincidence. In 1983 Laibach helped to found Neue Slowenische Kunst (NSK), an artists' collective with architectural, graphic design, videography, and musical departments, that assumed the identity and structure of a universal, planned "state", far out doing the official totalitarian one in the thoroughness and order of its vision.
Not surprisingly, Laibach's first releases in the west were met with skepticism, with many confused observers writing them off as some kind of Fascist or Communist hobgoblin. For more on the interesting early days of this project (up to the early 90s), see this wonderful 6 part documentary.
II Electronica + Sampling & The Golden Age of Industrial
If synth-laden "New Wave" secured a dominant position in the pop of the 1980s, the growing accessibility of keyboards and sampling technology brought with it an evil twin who would lurk the shadows throughout the decade. Skinny Puppy, Front 242, Ministry, Revolting Cocks, Numb, The Legendary Pink Dots, KMFDM, My Life With the Thrill Kill Kult, Die Warzau, X Marks the Pedwalk, Leaether Strip, Front Line Assembly... to name a few. Several of these acts originated in Canada, and as this "second wave" of industrial grew into a more coherent scene, the memberships of many different acts would overlap, spinning off a series of guest appearances, side projects, and "supergroups" like Pigface and Revolting Cocks who've left their legacy in countless youtube videos, fanatically collected and traded bootlegs, rare vinyls, and general nostalgia.
Listening to any of these bands you'll quickly notice the important of synthesizers. In addition, the use of samplers meant that, rather than dragging an entire construction site on stage a la Neubauten, one could simply take a tape recorder to the construction site, and later re-create "industrial" soundscapes in the studio. Bands needed less (though still a few) members, but fewer people could sonically accomplish quite a great deal more, running synthesized and recorded ambiance, "found sounds", and yes, even disturbing vocal clippets from films, radio, or television, through a series of filters and multi effects.
This video from "Worlock", is probably Skinny Puppy's best known song. It was banned when released to due to inability to get clearance from so many film studios for lifting clips from horror films. Bootlegs used to be sold back and forth over ebay by fans. Now youtube finally brings it to everyone:
A good way to characterize skinny puppy's sound is "Wet". Erie strings, bloody samples, reverb, delays, etc... are literally dripping off and over a steady beat, as they set out to portray a frightening world as seen from the standpoint of, well... a mistreated dog. This style was developed within Puppy and a series of spin offs and side projects (aDuck, Hilt, Doubting Thomas, the Tear Garden, CyberAktif, oHgr, and Download, to name several).
A bit of a counter point maybe found in the rise of "EBM", or "Electronic Body Music". Using drum machines, at times live drummers, and fast, arpeggiated bass lines and synth leads, this term was first coined by Front 242. While similar in a lot of ways to "wetter", more experimental bands like Numb or Puppy, EBM has generally been "tighter", faster, and more specifically made for the dance floor.
This is really a terribly over-played song... but as pretty much all of 242's official videos are pretty cheezy & 80s, this one is at least a bit more interesting than many.
If you're wondering why the guys in that film look like they are fighter pilots or something, well, that is part of the martial EBM aesthetic. It's ironic that many "industrial" nights now a days alternate playing bands like this, and playing "80s" music that bands like this were in their own time rebelling against. If Duran Duran and Tears for Fears were writing pop songs to dance and have fun with, 242 and Front Line Assembly were interested in a more "martial" approach that engaged with all the frankness (and influences) of a war correspondent what exactly was happening in the world. Naturally many of their songs happened to be about war, and were rather a bit dark with post - apocalyptic themes predominating. Alternately, synthpop was always more concerned with trying to hide from reality- preferably in the comfortable arms of a lover.
As another example, here we have the hit "Plasticity" by FLA:
Within EBM, not all the focus was as dark. A few "Funk-Industrial" bands, like Nitzer Ebb and Die Warzau, developed out broader musical influences in the late 80s:
EX: Strike to the Body by Die Warzau:
In a similar vein, My Life With the Thrill Kill Kult took satanism, drugs, sex, and a drum machine, and turned it all into a rather upbeat dance act:
III Evolution + The Aggro-EBM of the late 1990s
In the 1990s many different things happened to Industrial- some good and some bad- but all were transformative, and it would be impossible to understand the genre today without a look at these processes as they unfolded over the decade.
Of course, a few bands from the early days broke up or took long breaks (though a surprising number continued), and a few drug related deaths did occur (leading most notably to the demise of Skinny Puppy in 1995). Of the bands that remained, a lot began to change their sound, perhaps bowing to commercial pressure by breaking into more commercially acceptable genres, or perhaps simply because it is unrealistic to expect an artist to make the same album every time. Sometimes this worked for the better and sometimes for the worse.
However, commercialization and the watering down of experimental origins certainly did take place.
For example, many fans of "metal" music today know about and love Ministry, which ever since The Land of Rape and Honey album has pretty much relegated electronics to the far sidelines... for all intents and purposes Ministry has been a metal act since then. Prior to this occurrence, here is a song off the EBM/ industrial album Twitch (1986):
Here's "New World Order" of the later Psalm 69 (1991) album.
You'll notice there's a few faint repetitive sampled sounds that add to the rhythm. But by this point, electronics are pretty much gone, and guitars have taken over.
For an oft-note-and-denounced of example of commercialization, see "Down In It", by Nine Inch Nails, which lifts the rhythm and guitar part from "Dig It" by Skinny Puppy. While Puppy's track was generally dark, distorted, and far less accessible to the masses, the NIN track is far more polished. If Marilyn Manson cashed in on the latent commercial potential of Goth, NIN more than any other band can be said to have done so for industrial.
* * *
On the plus side, a new generation of musicians who grew up listening to Puppy, FLA, and the Wax Trax! record label were now making their own music, and a lot of it in the mid-late 90s seemed promising. Changes took place both in aesthetics as well as technology. Synthesizers continued to fall in price and by the mid to late 90s a lot of production could be done in the home. Where as before, alienated young creative types wishing to make a dramatic impact literally picked up scraps of the industrial world around them, a new generation had grown up in a very different world, most notably with computers.
It is the opinion of this writer that- while this did result in the creation of a lot of good electronic music across the decade- these technological advances worked ultimately to the determent of Industrial music. The scrap metal pounding lived on as a sample laid over a snare on a drum track to give it a bit of an edge. But live shows began to suffer greatly. Gone were dramatic line ups of several people all banging on things to give a show its live energy. More and more "bands" consisted of two people- one of them singing, and the other playing a keyboard over backing tracks (including drums) pre-recorded onto a DAT tape- or more recently- an ipod or a laptop. Even if they are dressed up to be scary, the clothes and camo netting has about a 99.8% failure rate to make up for the amount of energy lost by
1) Having no drummer to bang on stuff
2) Having "musicians" stand in one place throughout the entire show
3) The audience's inability to determine whether or not the "performers" are actually playing anything live at all, just standing there doing nothing, faking it, or what.
* * *
Subject matter shifted a bit as well. Part of this was driven by the natural inclination of any scene to innovate, but it is important to understand the material changes taking place in the societies where this music was being written. The neo-liberal, "post industrial", world of computers and subsequent alienation brought with it a different set of themes that what had predominated earlier. Laibach was formed in mirror opposition to a state which after 1991 no longer existed. The threat of world war between the super powers that was the principle inspiration for 50 years of apocalyptic fiction was for a time rescinded, and above all the "industrial" jobs had since the 70's been increasingly exported from the developed world.
Dirt, sweat, repression, steel toes, and cold hard machinery were increasingly disconnected from the every day experiences of western citizens in the days of Clintonoid complacency. The alienation of computer life, with the corresponding fantasies of cyberpunk, serial killers, and cybernetics combined to update "clunky" 80s apocalypticism with a colder, more efficient dystopian vision. The 1980s gave us The Terminator. By 1999 we had The Matrix.
Electronica became an ever more dominant form within the scene and by the late 1990s it had pretty much pushed the old "banging on scrap metal" aesthetic out completely. The long term negative impact that this trend would have upon the quality of live shows was not immediately appreciated. An identity crisis was brewing, but for a time a period of uncertainty and potential predominated.
Among the most promising and interesting bands of this period I will mention Velvet Acid Christ, Haujobb, Wumpscut, Funker Vogt, Das Ich, and Brain Leisure. For audio examples:
Malfunction by VAC:
Defect by Brain Leisure:
The aforementioned Wumpscut and Das Ich were part of the "Neue Deutsche Todeskunst" (New German Death Art) movement in the early 90s, where much of the darkest "goth-industrial" music of the decade originated.
Soylent Green by Wumpscut:
Jericho by Das Ich:
These groups all showed a lot of potential. Unfortunately, much of it would be drowned out and sidelined by the rise of new challenges in the 2000s.
IV The Wilderness
As a counter cultural movement, Industrial Music's trajectory became ever narrower the more it grew and began to institutionalize itself. As with all movements, the growth of this scene to a broadness sufficient to justify structural organization would ultimately encourage conservatism and stifle experimentation. Independently minded creative people, interacting with an ascending scene and with each other, can push themselves to all sorts of fascinating results. When industrial grew and became club centered, participants were pressured to abandon "doing one's own thing" with regards to fashion or life style. Patrons expected DJs to furnish danceable hits and DJs expected to get paid and be invited back the next week. This naturally elevated certain forms and discouraged others.
Along with clubs, commercialization led to the marketing of a certain image, and the centrality of dance clubs reinforced its importance. Pretty soon young people looking for something to rebel to were getting sold a way to dress and a music to listen to that they themselves had contributed to very little. The same thing of course happened to the Hardcore Punk scene. Any 15 year old wanting to fit in with it today has no choice but to wear exactly the same thing that people thirty years ago were wearing (many of whom are today quite dead).
* * *
In the 2000's two things happened which I believe have firmly entrenched "Industrial" within the final, parodic phase of its own death agony.
1) Future Pop took over
VNV nation is a band that released a kind of interesting war inspired electronic album called Advance and Follow in 1995. It then became a synth pop band with super repetitive synth parts and super repetitive drum patterns, and a bald fat singer who sings prettily about how much he is in love with you. This crap is totally lame and at least one song from them has been played every night at 90% of "goth-industrial" clubs in the United States for the past nine years.
EX: Beloved, from the album "Futureperfect"
The album "Futureperfect" coined the term, "Future Pop", which can be used to describe this kind of stuff. Other synthpop bands, such as Apoptgyma Berzerk, Beborn Beton, Diary of Dreams, Blutengel, etc... have a similar sound and feel. They are not industrial at all... yet they have taken over a lot of Industrial's market share.
2) Terror EBM
The sardonic twin of Future Pop is "Terror EBM". It has a very similar musical form of repetitive synth parts, and repetitive drums, and a singer. However it is slightly "harder", and the songs attempt to be a bit "scary". Suicide Commando's 1999 "Mindstrip" album is a good example of this sub genre's emergence.
However, so many bands imitated this sound, with white face make up and fake blood to boot, that they very quickly killed any interesting potential in it at all. A good example of the depths to which it has sunk sense then is CombiChrist, probably the quintessential generically "hard" and "scary" band with super repetitive songs and beaten to death fake blood, white make up, and "goth chick" / club sex(ist) glamor. For example:
What the hell kind of message is that? Basically... "here is something that's easy to dance to. Look weird and go fuck some goth chick". This kind of objectifying sex-centered ego stroking belongs at a hooters' wet t shirt contest, not an "industrial" club.
A third new emergence, similar to Terror EBM, is to be found amid the "Noise" and "Powernoise" sub genres. Characterized by loud distorted drums, static, and little else, this promised to offer industrial a third, more interesting alternative in the early 2000s. However what actually occurred was that several thousand musicians across the world were all creating very similar albums, and with few exceptions many such "band"'s performances just consisted of one person sitting behind a laptop.
A lot of effort (at the computer) was put into creating an "intense" song. Very little social effort was put into recruiting bandmates to make live performances worth watching.
One good examples of a power noise bands operating today that actually points on a decent show with live drummers is Alter Der Ruine.
This brings us relatively up to date. Music at established dance clubs (For ex: The Church and The Shelter [milk bar] and Disintegration [Benders] in Denver) spend 90% of their time playing Future Pop, some generic Terror EBM, or just some random crappy mixture of the two. To see what I mean... here are two of the worst songs ever written by a band so terrible I will not even mention their name:
These two songs tend to get heavy rotation at most "industrial" nights in the United States.
People there tend to dress almost elusively in clothes that are not suitable for wandering around in any actually industrial place.
Occasionally an old school track is played, but for the most part DJs like to stick to predictable hits.
Around the margins and off the radar there are a few artists creating interesting music, and there are more than a few zines with passionate, unpaid staff writers spending a lot of time trying to get the word out about them. But it is always an uphill battle to shift anything as stuck in its ways as the beast with whom we are now dealing.
V Parodic Phase
The above picture is what "cyber goth" people look like. This is how many people are dressed today when you go to an "industrial" club. You will notice
1) Shoes are completely unsuitable for protecting one's feet from fuel spills, equipment falls, the shin of an enemy you must kick, etc... and will not help you to run away efficiently from security guards / police / Christians / cyborgs.
2) Hair would be a safety hazard in any "industrial" environment, past, present, or future. So how does wearing safety goggles make sense here?
3) Woman looks a bit sexually objectified
4) Woman would appear a mystically deep, intelligent spirit-guide at Burning Man.
How would you sarcastically mock a club full of people who look like that? Perhaps by dressing as they do but even more ridiculously outlandish so as to draw attention to the absurdity of what they are doing? Well, that isn't really possible... and even if you tried, they'd think you were just trying to be a slightly hipper version of themselves.
When you can no longer mock a scene by sarcastically over inflating its own pretensions, the scene has entered its Parodic phase. Any attempt to "seriously" continue along its own trajectory is indistinguishable from what an attempt to satirize it would be.
Does this mean Industrial is dead?
( Courtesy http://www.baditudemusic.com/ )
Those were two clips from bands that are truly embracing the current period. By this I mean their members are thinking people, and they realize this established scene has become pretentious and terrible, and they have broken free from the expected cyber-goth-future-pop-terror-ebm hell. Instead they are consciously subverting these conventions. Baditude does this by coming up with a unique, steroid and weight lifting pro-wrestling approach to EBM. And the second clip, from Alter Der Ruine, escapes the "dark", "scary", "futuristic", "sexy", etc... pretensions by bringing through this video industrial / EBM back to its roots: a few people sitting around who want to have a little fun and dance. The simplicity of the video, decent lighting, apartment setting, and "funny" facial expressions / editing make this way more, well... human and entertaining than the "are you hot enough to fuck me" vibe one gets from watching the earlier CombiChrist video.
It is likely that as more and more "industrial" people with brains catch onto the fact that their scene is completely ridiculous, they will feel the urge to mock it, and we can look forward to the emergence of more parodic industrial bands.
* * *
Epilogue: What's a rivet head to do?
If I knew the answer to this question I would be too busy off doing whatever it is famous and rich people do instead of writing long articles about the shortcomings of the scene I am a part of.
But here are a few options
1) Try and write the next terrible club hit. Sound as much like CombiChrist as possible. Take yourself seriously and hope people don't notice how ridiculous you are. Make lots of money and have sex with many cyber goth girls. Then kill yourself out of guilt.
2) Write good "old school" / "real" industrial music. Take the effort to put on a real decent show with real drummers and parts being played live and if you must have a singer make sure he isn't ego centric or pretensions. Make real art and bring it to people. Then, starve. Make sure you keep starving and don't do anything rash like applying to Law School which might hinder your ability to starve for the amusement of others.
3) Start a Parodic-Industrial band. Find a unique niche, or invent one like Baditude did. Fuck with people. See if they notice. Maybe they will act differently. Try not to think of Don Quixote comparisons too much. If you develop decent social support networks it might stave off overwhelming despair upon the realization of what your life has become long enough for you to actually get some exposure.
4) Do something new and different that I haven't thought of. Maybe just play guitar a lot and sing. Go find a different genre to hound, or start a new scene. Remember- the best "industrial" musicians were constantly changing and updating their sound, not content to be bound by anyone else's expectations! Controlled Bleeding, anyone?
For Further Reading:
The following is a list of writing / editorials / music on (/against) the state of industrial that I endorse... because I like the ideas, or because I have written them myself.
Bryan Erickson interview with Baditude
Wounds of the Earth Webzine
Misanthropy vs Activism in Industrial Music
Guide to Saving Industrial: Chapter 1
Review of Unter Null + C/A/T
Should I Hate the DJs or the Club People?
Buried Electric Records
How to go to a Goth Club