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!