Friday, March 30, 2012

Album Review: Ministry - "Relapse" (2012)



When Al Jourgensen stated his intent to permanently retire the Ministry machine back in 2008, I don’t think for a second that anyone really believed him. Whether as a cash grab or a genuine creative effort, we all knew Ministry would be back. And after a slew of remix and cover albums (some of which were awful but some of which actually aren’t too terrible in my opinion), here we are with a proper new album - the first since 2007’s The Last Sucker.
Our lineup for today features the return of our old pals Mike Scaccia [Revolting Cocks; Rigor Mortis] and Tommy Victor [Prong; Danzig] on guitar (the first time they’ve both been in the band simultaneously, and being that they’re two of my all-time favorite guitarists, this was something that particularly excited me about Relapse) and the inclusion of Tony Campos [Static-X; Prong] and Casey Orr [GWAR; Rigor Mortis] which makes for a pretty decent thrash lineup.
The album’s sound is interesting. It’s definitely the follow-up to Rio Grande Blood and The Last Sucker, but it branches out and builds on that style a bit. The two biggest places the album differs from those, however, are that, firstly, the songs have a bigger punk influence than the previous albums. The vocal delivery deviates sometimes from Al’s usual growl to more diverse shouting, snarling, and even quite a bit of spoken-word lyrics. Also, Al attempts melodic singing for what may be the first time since Animositisomina which is pretty nice. His voice is a lot less heavily processed in general here than is normally is, and there are a lot of 80’s metal-style ‘gang vocals’ which gives the vocal part of the album a more raw sound.
The other way the album deviates from its predecessors is that the ‘industrial’ knob is turned up way higher than it’s been in years (again, since probably Animositisomina). This is of course a pleasant and quite welcome surprise for me, since I love when Ministry makes use of electronics, and this album has a lot of keys, synths, samples (of people other than the GWB administration!) and chopped up sounds. There’s also an oddity in the tracklist; “Bloodlust”, which sounds largely like Prong mating with a Filth Pig song and, even odder, has a chorus almost like a Twitch song.
Most of the lyrics are still tired political ranting (and the worst song on the album, the first single, “99%”, exemplifies this) but there are a few tracks that aren’t, which I guess I’m thankful for. It’s notable that a few of the tracks had lyrics written solely by people other than Al (The second worst on the album, a song actually called ”Get Up, Get Out ‘n’ Vote”, I shit you not, written by Al’s wife/manager) and one such track, “Weekend Warrior”, was written as well as sung by Sam D’Ambruoso, the album’s producer and general production/programming/engineering credits guy on the last several Jourgensen-related albums. His different vocal style makes the song more interesting than it would have been if Al sang it. A lot of the tracks have elements that just don’t work for one reason or another, and some of them have a lot of repetition and feel half-baked. Production took precedence over songwriting on this album, though I can’t really complain all that much since Ministry is one of those bands that’s genuinely great while also being very good for mindless rocking-out anyway.
The best thing about the album, for me, is definitely the guitar work. I was excited about hearing Tommy Victor and Mike Scaccia play guitar in the same lineup, and I wasn’t disappointed with their contributions. They give some good riffs and insane, memorable solos like an industrial Slayer.
The thing about this album is, it’s not ever going to be the best anything, and will probably kind of fall into general obscurity in Ministry’s discog (kind of like other ‘redheaded stepchild albums’ that most folks don’t like and don’t get talked about too often, like Dark Side of the Spoon or Filth Pig), but it’s really not that terrible. Call it a guilty pleasure if you want; but it’s a fun album as far as modern industrial metal and thrash go.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Album Review: Skinny Puppy - "Too Dark Park" (1990)

Skinny Puppy
Too Dark Park

Now this is something. A list on an electronica website talking about this album called it "scarier than any black metal album", and I have to agree. Kind of disregarding Rabies, this album seems more to continue from the sound of VIVIsectVI, which was probably the best thing to do, because while lots of industrial bands would come to sound a lot like Rabies, nobody would be able to pin this sound down. This shit is hard.

Once again featuring the returning lineup of Ogre, Key, Goettel, and Ogilvie, the album's sound is dark and very intense. The beats are heavy, Ogre's voice is perhaps more distorted and robotic than usual, everything is hazy and decayed-sounding and it's perfect. Machines whir and buzz beneath heavily processed synth-pad sweeps and it creates a wonderful atmosphere, with waves of dissonant noise crashing against each other in such a way that everything sounds 'right' and yet it's not so harsh that it could be classified as a noise album (despite what some people with weak stomachs and no testicular fortitude will tell you). This was when basically (or even literally) the entire band was swimming in drugs and getting into the really negative effects of heroin addiction (in fact, the album was named after the local euphemism for a place in Chicago that Al Jourgensen would take Ogre to buy heroin), and I like to think of this as sort of an auditory equivalent of how they were feeling at the time.

The lyrics follow the band's left-leaning politics to a logical conclusion, presenting tracks with lyrics about environmentalism and so on in a very apocalyptic manner. This is pretty much the last time they'd be singing about that sort of thing until The Greater Wrong of the Right 14 years later, but either way it's always been a lot less obnoxious than say Ministry because Ogre's lyrics are so cryptic and abstract anyway.

An apparently rare pic of Skinny Puppy from 1990. At first it’s not what I’d have thought of as a visual representation of the band for Too Dark Park era but the more I look at it the more I like it. Too bad it’s so small.

I suppose there could be a comparison made to the previous album, in that, following the band's tradition of evolving their sound constantly, they go from Rabies' cyberpunk sound to beyond cyberpunk - into some new, otherworldly place where the electronic synth sounds and characteristic samples are emitting from beneath layers of organic material and through the fog of a panicked, alienated, drug-addled consciousness. It's a Shadowrun campaign with David Cronenberg as the DM. It's a live-action version of Akira directed by Takashi Miike. It's a trip.

This album is among my favorite of 1990 and altogether one of my favorite industrial and electronica albums. It's not hard to see why. You may not be too fond of this at first, especially if it's your first outing with Skinny Puppy or industrial in the first place, but perhaps it will grow on you, like it did with me - I never disliked it or anything, but I seem to like it more the more time passes. In fact, I think I'm gonna go listen now.


Sunday, September 18, 2011

Album Review: Ministry - "Twitch" (1986)


Only three years have passed since the release of With Sympathy, but much has changed within the Ministry camp. Tracks from the album become minor hits; Ministry leaves Arista after getting some ridiculous creative suggestions, signs back with original label Wax Trax, and begins releasing standalone singles of a more dark and heavy nature than the first LP. It is during this process that Al Jourgensen finds himself nearly bandless, as the whole With Sympathy-era lineup, including Ministry co-founder Stephen George, are unable to tolerate him anymore and walk out on him (something Jourgensen will not be unfamiliar with as his career continues), aside from wife and keyboardist/backing vocalist Patty Jourgensen. Also, around the time of With Sympathy coming out, Al starts a side project on Wax Trax called Revolting Cocks, which has a more harsh industrial sound than Ministry. For the next few singles, Ministry operates as Al and Patty (mostly Al) until getting a record deal with Sire and getting started on what is basically an Al-solo-with-guests album, Twitch.

Twitch feels like a natural progression from With Sympathy and the earlier Wax Trax singles, having lots of the harsher and darker elements of Revolting Cocks' music with the groove and melody of Ministry; indeed, Twitch sounds essentially like a cross between Ministry's With Sympathy LP and the Revolting Cocks' debut, Big Sexy Land. Produced by Adrian Sherwood and featuring guest appearances by ex-members Patty Jourgensen, Stephen George, and Brad Hallen, renowned producer Keith LeBlanc, and Revolting Cocks member Luc Van Acker.

The album has a lush sound, dated though it may be, that bounces back and forth between industrial madness and pop sensibility; Jourgensen alternatively makes peace with the final vestiges of his new-romantic croon on some tracks and finds the beginnings of his better-known mechanical growl on others. The reason I love this album so much is that, for an industrial album, it's not at all scared to flirt with pop music. This turns a lot of people off the album, particularly people from the Psalm 69 bandwagon, but fuck 'em. The combination of banging-on-trash-can metallic percussion and cyberpunk synths with almost disco-esque grooves and satisfying melodies makes for a great listening experience. It's kind of like Pretty Hate Machine minus guitars (and in fact this album would be a big influence on the sound of that record).

This album, musically and lyrically, essentially strikes a balance between light and dark. The lyrics are a lot more bitter than on the previous album, and there's an overall angry tone even on the more pop-sounding tracks. Jourgensen's leftist politics first come into play on this record in songs such as "Just Like You" and "Over the Shoulder" but it's still vague and well-written enough that it's not nearly as irritating as later political stuff like the Bush Trilogy (and I say this as someone of the left-leaning persuasion). Many tracks on the album recall the greatness of Wax Trax with an aggressive, noisy, gothy dance tone. The highlights of the album for me are "The Angel" with its slow, sinister intensity and the harsh, climactic medley of "Where You At Now?/Crash and Burn/Twitch" which features Luc Van Acker of the Revolting Cocks on vocals and goes in an almost rave direction - electronica you can mosh to. It also hints at the direction the band would take on its next album, The Land of Rape and Honey.

It's too bad this album doesn't get much attention anymore. At the time, "Over the Shoulder" was a hit and the album proved fairly influential in the industrial scene, but it's been overshadowed by the later, metal-oriented material by the band. Still, give this a listen. It's great.

Rating: 5/5

Friday, July 8, 2011

Album Review: Skinny Puppy - "VIVIsectVI" (1988)

Skinny Puppy

Well, this album is an interesting case. This was one of the first industrial albums I ever heard, and, strangely enough, it didn't quite click with me at first. I heard some more radio-friendly NIN stuff, freaked out about the awesome use of electronics, looked up industrial music, and dove straight into this album, seeing that SP were a big influence on NIN and picking their highest-rated album on the music site I was on. I wasn't sure what I was listening to, and though I liked little bits of it, I couldn't wrap my head around it, and thought it was horrible and scary and headache-inducing, with weird Cobra Commander vocals. I stopped listening to SP and went a while ignoring most industrial music. Then a few years later when I got into Marilyn Manson and more into NIN, and started slowly working into less-mainstream industrial stuff, worming through stuff like Throbbing Gristle and Clock DVA and developing a taste for the stranger stuff, I gave SP another chance and was blown the fuck away. I still hold them to a very high level of respect as real musical innovators.

It's kind of weird... I kind of relate several different SP albums to different film genres, for some reason. I relate Bites to old-school sci-fi, Mind: The Perpetual Intercourse to ghost movies, Cleanse, Fold & Manipulate to grungy crime thrillers like Henry or Driller Killer, Too Dark Park to end-of-the-world and post-apocalypse scenarios, and VIVIsectVI to dark cyberpunk and/or biopunk stuff, like Videodrome or Akira. This album follows in the structure of most of the previous stuff, but as with most of their albums before and since, the album evolves from the previous album's sound, edging ever in a different direction. This album features a thick, heavy wall of sound, even more harsh and nightmarish than the last (but still nowhere near as insane as Too Dark Park or Last Rights). With the reliable, sturdy line-up of Nivek Ogre, cEvin Key, Dwayne Goettel, and producer/secret fourth member David Ogilvie, which is a line-up we'll be seeing an awful lot of.

This album has a very gloomy, smoky, grimy sound compared to Cleanse, Fold & Manipulate (not to say that album didn't have one as well). The very cyberpunk-sounding synths, often sounding broken or warped in some way, fighting through harsh percussion, lo-fi samples, and Ogre's tortured rambling, strongly evokes visions well-suited to the realities of things like Akira or Blade Runner or Aeon Flux or Transmetropolitan. Crumbling buildings, others with a postmodern design sensibility, red skies, dark clouds, neon lights and hedonism everywhere, futuristic advances in technology that all suck, polluted forests, heavy atmosphere, political unrest, gangs everywhere with 80's-style fashion, futuristic grotesque cybernetic organisms and mutations... It's a very violent sound, and it rarely lets up. As with the best of Puppy, production plays a heavy role in giving the album its attitude; Ogre's voice is stretched like an accordion and put through an auditory woodchipper to give it a perfect evil rasp, the bass is compressed into brief, urgent, sinister-sounding plunks, the dated synths often reminiscent of video games are put through filters and pushed to the limits of impact, and everything sounds like an amazing drug haze. Tracks like "Dogshit" swagger through it confidently, then we're met with increasingly slow and sinister ones like "VX Gas Attack" and "Harsh Stone White", then a song that sounds like it belongs on the previous album with "Testure", and some amazingly creepy soundscapes like "Fritter (Stella's Home)" that give early hints at the Last Rights sound.

I personally cannot sress how amazing I think this album is. It hits every note right, it's dark and spooky and somehow the sound has rarely been replicated that closely (compared to other SP albums) and even more rarely done well. It's very multi-layered and easy to go back to because you're always finding new stuff in the mix. I think it's a classic industrial album, as well as a classic electronic album in general. I greatly, greatly recommend it, but my only warning is that it's not the most accessible thing, so you may want to get some other exposure to the genre before you give this a whirl if you're new to industrial or experimental music. Otherwise, it's great. Perfect for a Shadowrun session at least!


Monday, June 20, 2011

Album Review: Ministry - "With Sympathy" (1983)

With Sympathy

Now here's an oddity... Many people recognize Ministry as MINISTRY: THUNDERING INDUSTRIAL METAL GIANTS. The unrelentingly heavy band who cuts thrash and punk influences with electronic intensity, the gang of misfits who let loose on drug-fueled chaos and recorded songs like "Just One Fix" and "Jesus Built My Hot Rod" and "LiesLiesLies", leaving destroyed clubs and hotel rooms in their wake and influencing metal and alternative bands for decades to come. And while it's not exactly arcane obscurity like some bands' disparate beginnings are, many people are not aware of Ministry's first several years as a synthpop band, and the sheer, vast difference between Ministry on this first album and Ministry give or take six years from that point is probably the biggest change of any band in history. Seriously, I defy you to show me another band who, in the same decade (or even in their entire career) goes from generally writing stuff like "Work for Love" and "Every Day is Halloween" to generally writing stuff like "The Missing" and "Burning Inside". They even kept the same frontman/principle songwriter.

Young, babyfaced, big-haired Al Jourgensen, far away from his future career as a screaming, hard-drinking, dope-shooting professional Jack Sparrow impersonator, fronts this early incarnation of the band, primarily constructed of little Al and original co-founder/drummer, Stephen George (who stuck with the band long enough afterwards for a guest appearance on Twitch before evacuating and almost fittingly becoming a producer and session musician for R. Kelly and 90's boy bands and the like). Also featuring on a few tracks are the various live members from the earliest incarnation of the group. The few known promo pics from this album always amuse me because the artist-soon-to-be-known-as-Hypo Luxa looks so fucking cute, like a member of a boy band (not that this is too far from that).

The music here is very tart, upbeat synthpop with some vaguely dark undertones, in the vein of Depeche Mode and Soft Cell. It's dancefloor-ready, bouncy stuff with lyrics almost exclusively fixated on love and relationships. Jourgensen actually proves to have a pretty nice pop-singer voice, with a slight gruff edge to set it apart. A lot of the music here is pretty standard-sounding for the time period, but that doesn't mean it's not good. The electronics are great, Al's guitar playing sounds pretty good, and everything is nice and catchy for the most part. Funky, danceable, pre-Wax Trax synth music. "Revenge" still goes down as a Ministry favorite for me, and should totally have been on their best-of (and it has a great video to boot, with Al rocking the Robert Smith look). "I Wanted to Tell Her" is also a cool song, with Al dueting with some pop-backup-singer type lady (hey, she's better than Ty Coon). However... that doesn't mean it's also not cheesy as hell. "Work for Love" is a prime example of being almost unbearably cheesy, but it's almost endearing in a way. The lyrics in general on the record are not that great, but then, Al's lyrics have never been too impressive, so it's no big deal.

The album has a pretty widely mixed reputation... Al Jourgensen himself has a burning hatred for With Sympathy, which he refers to as "an abortion" (leading to an amusing moment in a recent Opie & Anthony appearance where they played him in with "Work for Love") and many fans of his later, metal-oriented output feel the same way. At the same time, this album actually did make a bit of an impact on the American club and dance scene, and there are people who were fans during this period who, if not by Twitch, then by The Land of Rape and Honey had given up on the band. Personally, I enjoy both 'styles'. I like this album a fair bit... It's not my favorite Ministry album, but it's fun stuff, and soundwise a good lead-in to Twitch, which *is* one of my favorites. If there's one thing that can be said for the large stylistic discrepancy, it's that the transition between them was actually very smooth and, listening to each album with context, makes sense. If synthpop is your thing, I say go for this. If you're a Ministry fan just for the metal, you may hate this, or you may find it amusing, but it's still worth a listen for the historical value. It's solid for what it is, and a good bit of foreshadowing to the golden age of Wax Trax Records.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Album Review: Foetus - "Thaw" (1988)


If you're uninitiated to Foetus, then I'll go ahead and get this out of the way, this abbreviated history... J.G. Thirlwell is a psychotic Aussie who came to New York in the early 80's, showed his cock in some movies, and joined the 'no-wave' scene, alongside other artists such as Sonic Youth, Swans, and Teenage Jesus & the Jerks, but rather than forming a band or sounding like anything they were doing, shacked up by himself and recorded some of the most varied, insane, and soulfully frenzied music to ever grace the industrial genre, or music period. He named this one-man project about a million different things, changing every other LP or single, but always containing the word 'Foetus' (ex. You've Got Foetus on Your Breath; Scraping Foetus Off the Wheel; etc.). Since the 90's, all of it has been accepted as simply 'Foetus'. Foetus has been a big influence on many other artists, such as Nine Inch Nails, Mike Patton, and the Melvins. His music is... very weird. So just take things as they come.

Thaw, Thirlwell's fifth LP under his 'Foetus' project, kind of continues where its predecessor, Nail, left off... A slightly more rock-oriented sound than the previous stuff. Now, there's a reason that this clashes with Deaf and Nail for spot as my favorite Foetus album. It's extremely cohesive and keeps a common mood and theme, and it's extremely well-produced... I think of this as the heaviest Foetus album because the production has such a punch to it.

The first track, "Don't Hide It Provide It" springs an aggressive and heavy track on us right out the gate (and I still consider it one of my favorite Foetus songs). Jim's strange wailing had become a very harsh, extremely gravelly Nivek Ogre-style rasp. It's impressive how much it sounds like it must hurt his throat.
Another highlight is "Asbestos", a retro-sounding horror score type deal with strings and creepy synths that sounds like a thoroughly disturbing collaboration between Wendy Carlos and Goblin. Another Foetus favorite.
"Fin" is like an industrial grindcore track, perhaps an early appearance of powerviolence?
"English Faggot/Nothin' Man" is another great, and one of several tracks on the album that showcase Jim at his most Waits, or at his Beefheartiest.... Groaning film noir prose spoken-word over weird experimental jazzy music.


You know what this album makes me think of? Along with its supremely badass cover art (seriously, check that fly shit out), the aggressively 'masculine' feel of the music and lyrics (it sounds like a twisted parody of an action movie half the time) and the tendency to borrow musical and lyrical themes from noir, horror, and action-adventure films makes me vividly imagine some kind of twisted pulp magazine, like a Johnny Quest comic written by Mike Diana. Closest thing I can think of to it would be the Venture Bros., so it's probably no coincidence that Thirlwell is composing the music on that show.

I love this album so much. It has the most 'favorites' of any Foetus album for me, and I feel fully realizes the 'sound' of the project for me more than the others... It has the best combination of the strange Beefheart-style experimentation, film score-style compositions, industrial aggression, and manic structure-bending that all make Foetus great. This one, as I mentioned earlier, also has one of my most favorite 'sounds' of all of his albums. The horns, the percussion (ranging from heavy metallic banging to world rhythms and big-band drumming), the sinister bass, the nervously pinging synths, and Thirlwell's wacky, flexible voice all mesh perfectly here. And the lyrics... They're memorable, I'll say that. All that adds up to this being, in my mind, an absolutely essential industrial album. I'd also say this one is probably a great entrance point if you want to get into Foetus. Do yourself a favor!


Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Stream of Consciousness on Nostalgia

Nostalgia is one thing anyone can find solace in. No matter who you are, no matter what your disposition or philosophy is, you will most likely be able to idealize a time in the past (not even necessarily your own) when you find yourself backed into an emotional corner. Those more depressive of us may find ourselves doing this with higher frequency than regular people. I am no exception.

I can often find myself remembering and visualizing, in ludicrously romanticized terms, things in my past... Even times that I hated when they were going on. It's like watching a film version of your life prior - tight editing, only the correct takes used. Artistic cinematography, evocative lighting. The idea that only your imagination controls what exists outside the frame. No problems, no worries, nothing in the focus other than what we're meant to be seeing and feeling. Well-staged and memorable shots that will remain archived like a video collection only I hold the key to. I apply specific combinations of sight, sound, smell, and atmosphere to certain time periods, including ones before I was alive. I will have 'memories' of these periods that are like admiring paintings from afar. Oftentimes when listening to music or playing a videogame or watching a movie from that period I will apply this extra layer of 'atmosphere', as if I were playing or watching or listening to it from that context - that time period and cultural zeitgeist.

The thing about it though is that it can pull us down into a continuing cycle of depression. We can make ourselves feel even more hopeless wishing to go back to the past, and it can hasten the eventual transition to bitter and resentful that most people don't reach until they're old and cranky. Unfortunately, a lot of daydreaming ties in with the same feelings as nostalgia, so it can be hard to avoid...