In the recession and strike-addled late ‘70s, UK art terrorist Genesis P-Orridge coined the phrase “industrial music for industrial people” to describe a new blues for the worker–music distilled from the numb monotony of the assembly line and the restless thoughts that make sleep impossible after work. However, it is doubtful that the average proletariat could relax to this stuff, with its soundtrack of drills, screeches, snaps, grinding gears, synths dripping blood, snippets of atrocities, and images of an androgynes in fascist garb dancing in the streets.
Nonetheless, Throbbing Gristle and fellow multimedia art terrorists Cabaret Voltaire kicked in the door (sometimes waving the 4/4), granting punk a truly apocalyptic scope well beyond the Sex Pistols’ declaration of “No Future.” Countless bands followed suit in the ‘80s and ‘90s, rising and falling before progressing (and, some argue, devolving) into goth disco and later digitized metal. Yet industrial’s fingerprints are still smudged on everything from laptop noise and breakcore to power electronics and Detroit techno. Given the recent crop of reissues from industrial mavericks, the time has come to provide a primer on the greats.
Cabaret Voltaire [1974-Present]
In their early ‘80s heyday, the Cabs were akin to a garage-funk band heard through a scrambled idiot box. Arisen from Sheffield’s factory yards, Cabaret Voltaire took the trance of dub, krautrock and James Brown, along with musique concrète’s distortions of reality, and built a conch for the Information Age. Farfisa organs and stone-age drum machines kept disjointed time, while tape loops of white noise and media whispers clashed with vocodered pleas. While Throbbing Gristle sprayed repellant in audience members’ faces, the Cabs hypnotized with their din. By the end of the Thatcher age, the band dwelled in electro-funk and Detroit techno. Member Richard K. Kirk further explored tribal house and techno in Sandoz and Sweet Exorcist, while Chris Watson became a field recording artist capable of making Icelandic glaciers sound positively Martian.
Influenced: A Guy Called Gerald, Meat Beat Manifesto, Autechre, Black Dog
Essential Listening: Red Mecca, 2x45, The Original Sound of Sheffield ‘78/’82
Throbbing Gristle [1975 - 1981]
There is something terribly malevolent about noiseniks donning Hawaiian shirts and country club wear on their record covers. Arguably the premier industrial rock band, Throbbing Gristle connected the dots between performance art, coal-blackened distortion, Martin Denny’s “exotica,” and synth pop so generic that factory stamps insure the quality. Frontman Genesis P-Orridge dunked his head into a vat of echo and sociopolitical perversion–from reciting a weak satellite broadcast of a burn victim’s account in “Hamburger Lady” to droning the sleep-deprived slave anthem “United.” Concerts involved tape-loop torture, snuff flick fantasias, and P-Orridge strangling himself with piano wire. These transgressors also happened to influence many techno and new wave artists with their synth pop number “Hot on the Heels of Love.” The so-called “Wreckers of Civilization” disbanded in 1981; afterwards its members explored acid techno and Chicago house with Psychic TV, and outer-limits noisescapes in Coil.
Influenced: Buck 65, Two Lone Swordsmen, Carl Craig, Nurse with Wound, Wolf Eyes, Crack:W.A.R.
Essential listening: 20 Jazz Funk Greats, 2nd Annual Report
Einstürzende Neubauten [1980 - Present]
These German post-punks made industrial music that truly deserved its name. Einstürzende Neubauten (“Collapsing New Buildings”)emulated the pockmarked streets of West Berlin. Utilizing scrap-metal, power drills, jackhammers, shopping carts, discarded furniture and factory detritus as percussion, these urban primitives made art out of the obsolete. Cynics can dismiss EN as predecessors to Broadway’s Stomp, but they were long the standard that industrial lived up to (until Ministry rang death metal’s factory whistle). The band still prevails– they recorded last year’s drone album Perpetuum Mobile under webcam surveillance and amid online visitors’ suggestions.
Influenced: Matmos, Nine Inch Nails, SPK, Ministry
Essential Listening: Kollaps, Kalte Sterne–Early Recordings, Strategies Against Architecture ’80-’83
Laibach [1979 - Present]
“We are fascists as much as Hitler was a painter,” proclaimed Laibach. This art-terrorist unit embodied the aesthetic of horror and pageantry in fascism. They named themselves after a Nazi German term for their native Slovenian village, even dressing the part as mock military officers as they concocted Wagnerian operas driven by steam-blasted guitars and industrial beats that landed like fists. Their subversion attracted state persecution in communist Yugoslavia, making them a cult favorite among Westerners curious about what madness lurked behind the Iron Curtain. Laibach caught even more attention with Let It Be, their 1988 song-by-song cover of The Beatles’ classic–comfort music turned into a rally around the war drum. The band remains alive and well, and has just released Anthems, which collects their touches on classics by Queen, the Rolling Stones, and Andrew Lloyd Webber.
(Unfortunately) Influenced: Rammstein
Essential Listening: Let it Be, Opus Dei
Ministry [1981- Present]
God knows what would have happened if Ministry had continued to ape Human League or Dead or Alive. Thankfully, frontman Al Jorgensen and co-conspirator Paul Barker shed their fey new wave skins when they heard the blood-oiled machine pulse of speed metal–and it’s doubtful that industrial rock would’ve made a connection with the American teenage wasteland if it wasn’t for them. Ministry is best remembered for “NWO,” which translated metal into a robot street riot of tape-looped guitars and samples of Bush Sr. declaring a “new world order.” The Chicago band’s late ‘80s work is still its best: synths, guitars, and piston-hammered beats bludgeon the music into a groove as Jorgensen’s barfly growl catalyzes trashy rock into anthem territory. Ministry rebounded in 2004 with a new album that revisited past glories, a remixed version of their death disco landmark, Twitch, and reissues of their fêted and loathed singles (released on Wax Trax).
Inspired: Every industrial/metal band after them
Essential Listening: Land of Rape and Honey, A Mind is a Terrible Thing to Taste, Side Trax, Psalm 69
Nitzer Ebb [1982- Present]
Alongside Front 242, Nitzer Ebb brought industrial to the warehouse dancefloor during the mid-‘80s. They combined S&M imagery with a metallic disco that now sounds thoroughly pasteurized and chlorinated. These Essex blokes often stripped everything down to Douglas McCarthy’s teeth-torn vocals, David Goody’s nightstalker synths, and Bob Harris’ Teutonic beats. Their 1986 debut, That Total Age, paved the way for Electronic Body Music or “EBM,” industrial’s sulking stepchild, slouching in the corner with clove in mouth. Nonetheless, Flood’s remix of “Join in the Chant” found common ground with Detroit techno and Chicago house DJs, and is now considered a major influence among many producers of said genres and its mutations. Nitzer Ebb then toured with Depeche Mode, had their tastes spoiled by synth pop, and later faded into obscurity until releasing Big Hit in ’95.
Inspired: Richie Hawtin, Sven Väth, DJ Hell, Panacea
Essential listening: That Total Age
Artists and DJs slip in their love letters to industrial.
A Guy Called Gerald
“I think that (Cabaret Voltaire’s “Hypnotized”) was one of the first remixes I did. They were from a Northern electronic sound–crossover indie rock with a clean electro sound. The track they gave me was really raw and even now I prefer remixing raw tracks. That first remix taught me a lot about how to handle a remix.”
(“Beats in Space,” WNYU 89.1–New York, DFA)
“(I play) Throbbing Gristle, early Meat Beat Manifesto, Ministry, Front 242, Nitzer Ebb. They bring an electronic element to a harder, punk attitude. The electronic side brings me into it; they have some synth lines that are really nice. Throbbing Gristle’s “Hot on the Heels of Love” is a classic, and “Radio Babylon” by Meat Beat Manifesto. Ministry is such a funny group, their early work is not industrial–I can play that and then play the crossover industrial. For Front 242, [the anthem is] “Headhunter” and for Nitzer Ebb, it’s “Join in the Chant.” After the early ‘90s, (industrial) loses me. The recent stuff I’ve heard doesn’t click with me in the same way.
“(Industrial) has had a great?influence on my work at different points. Nitzer Ebb has a funky, brutal, and minimal side–for me, they were the real pioneers of techno. The Cabs made really dark pop songs and Neubauten had a really different way of thinking about music. For me, industrial means this scene in the ‘80s around TG, Nurse with Wound, the Cabs, or Neubauten. Most of the things I’ve heard recently sound like shit. I think that industrial is more in bands like Pan Sonic or Autechre.”
(Meat Beat Manifesto, Tino Corp.)
“To me, ‘industrial’ means Throbbing Gristle; it’s not this mass-marketed, commercial music which came on the scene in the late ‘80s. Bands like Test Department in the early ‘80s used a lot of sounds visually, [like] grinding metal or splashing water. But I remember Depeche Mode getting on the Test Department bandwagon and watering it down–bastardizing it. It was ’84 or ’85. I suppose that’s when what we know as industrial exploded from labels like Wax Trax.
[Ministry’s work] to me was wrong–it wasn’t industrial. To me the original groups were very anti-guitar; if they used a guitar it would be in a very abstract way. [Bands like Ministry] were using [the guitar] like a rock instrument and that was a clash that never really appealed to me.
“The very first Meat Beat Manifesto live show was supporting Nitzer Ebb in 1987 show at The Fridge in Brixton. We only did one song, (“I Got the Fear”) because we only knew one song. And then everyone got really pissed off. The promoter wasn’t going to pay us and he wasn’t going to pay them. They smashed their dressing room and we just went home (laughs).”