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.

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