10 Essential Industrial Albums

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Next month, Throbbing Gristle will release their long-awaited Desertshore album, Trent Reznor’s new band How to Destroy Angels will issue a new EP (and full-length in 2013), and NON, aka industrial-noise pioneer Boyd Rice, will issue a brand new album as well. We hear the message loud and clear — industrial is coming to claim your soul. Or at least your ears for a short time. As a genre, industrial has meant anything from the abstract noise experimentalism of Einsturzende Neubauten and Nurse With Wound to the punishing machine-metal of Ministry and Godflesh. This week, we’re highlighting ten (actually eleven, come to think of it) of the best industrial albums — albums that stand as the genre’s most amazing moments, including one that existed before industrial even had a name.

Cromagnon best industrial albumsCromagnonOrgasm
(1969; ESP Disk)

Industrial proper didn’t emerge into the public consciousness until the mid-to-late 1970s, but it wasn’t created in a vacuum, or because God got tired of Deep Purple. It is as human a product as our excrement, with all the rank filth that comes with it. Not much is known about Cromagnon. The brains behind it were said to be a pop songwriting duo who decided to strike out and do their own thing. Of course simply saying that meant little in the late-1960s if one could not back it up. They did just that in the span of a single album. In truth Orgasm (inexplicably renamed Cave Rock for the 2000 rerelease) is best left not adequately summed up, but perversion of all music ever does cap it off for most people who hear it. Whereas White Light/White Heat was the Pet Sounds of the emerging underground, Orgasm was unquestionably the Sgt. Pepper’s. Its industrial-related innovations include use of sound samples, demonic distorted vocals, indifference to traditional songcraft, and lots of hurtful but brilliant noise. Album opener “Caledonia,” with its blaring bagpipes and proto-black metal vocals, should certainly have set off some synapses in the mind of a jaded hippie from Warwickshire named Neil Megson, later to be known as Genesis P-Orridge, among other wastes of psychedelic space.

Throbbing GristleGreatest Hits
(1980; Industrial)

Though given the subtitle Entertainment Through Pain, this compilation is arguably the least painful TG release in its classic period. Considered, at least semi-officially, the first real industrial band, these former hippies seemed perfectly content transgressing against all forms of compositional tradition and basic decency, which makes most of their material a waste of time when not heard in live performance, but when stripped down to their basic elements, TG proved to be a diverse, beautiful, coherent and inventive band without compromising on the ultra-violence. From the eerie dance number “Hot on the Heels of Love” to the droning “Six Six Sixties” to the collage effects of “What a Day” to the objectively terrifying “Hamburger Lady,” the Gristle laid out the blueprints for pretty much every subsequent incarnation of industrial music in rich detail and chilling efficiency.

CoilHorse Rotorvator
(1986; Some Bizzare)

Neither as transgressive as any of Throbbing Gristle’s output nor as accessible any of its more synth-friendly followers, Coil’s second album is nonetheless one of the best put-together albums of the genre. At times sinister and abrasive and at other times sensual and darkly humorous, Horse Rotorvator (the title of which having come from what amounts to a really awesome dream vocalist John Balance once had) is an aural outpouring of hedonism that coheres where Throbbing Gristle (of which founding member Peter Christopherson was a part) crumbles. John Balance touches upon themes of homoeroticism, the occult, surrealism, the murder of Pier Paolo Pasolini, chemical excess, etc. over samples of giggling children and random radio transmissions, tense string arrangements, erratic saxophones, droning synths, not to mention alternating doses of operatic melodrama and brazen dissonance. There is even a cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Who by Fire.” The album is further rounded out by contributions from peers like Soft Cell’s Marc Almond and J.G. Thirwell (Clint Ruin at that point), making as rich as possible an otherwise (proudly) disease-ridden spectacle.

Killing JokeKilling Joke
(1980; EG)
Big BlackSongs About Fucking
(1987; Touch and Go)

While not strictly industrial, both bands nonetheless serve as a vital missing link of sorts that connects the bleak transgressive dredges of the genre’s forbearers with the streamlined, guitar-infused not-quite-metal-but-not-quite-new-wave electrics-friendly rock bands that rode the wave of industrial’s otherwise improbable success. Both bands were rooted in but constricted by traditional punk rock and sought to move beyond it through then-unorthodox means. The first 12 seconds of Killing Joke comprises a rhythmic synth line that lends a great deal extra muscle to an otherwise cold guitar melody. Songs like “War Dance,” “Change,” “Primitive” and “Bloodsport” go several steps further, taking their grooves from club dance and Gang of Four-style funk. Jaz Coleman’s vocals bellow over it all like a madman with a messiah complex (which he may well actually have) about a dystopian future. Big Black, on the other hand, invigorated its own sound with a drum machine, not to mention some of the most searing, slashing and shrieking guitar tuning then known to man. Songs About Fucking is not generally considered their best album, but it is the most potent distillation of its elements. Songs begin and end with the gentleness of a street ambush, the Roland machine serving as a tension propeller as much as part of a rhythm section. And where Coleman and his followers tried to be doom-laden and prophetic, Steve Albini preferred to be an acerbic, ironic and plain rude storyteller and observer of Middle American pathos. Ministry and Nine Inch Nails have tried to mimic Big Black’s nastiness, but their lack of spunk has elicited little more than worldwide fame and riches. Killing Joke still plays, and plays well. Big Black burned brightly and quickly, and Albini moved on, he now uses flesh and blood drummers.

MinistryThe Land of Rape and Honey
(1988; Sire)

Whether it was the discovery of fellow Chicagoans Big Black (whose frontman’s hatred of Ministry is the stuff of local legend) or simply the heroin, Al Jourgensen had the revelation that there was more to life than crafting dead-eyed dance pop, and so with his third album he jettisoned the fake British accent and ramped up the metal riffing, his underrated hellfire vocals, and random sound bites, all of which would become regular staples of subsequent albums. More noteworthy though is what Jourgensen kept in place: his able craftsmanship of synthetic dance beats. The highly listenable results of the balance struck between these seemingly incompatible elements at the very least makes up for Jourgensen’s prolific crimes against fashion. And though subsequent imitators prevent us from fully appreciating this album’s brilliance, Jourgensen did himself no favors by gradually rejecting it with each new album until, by the release of Filth Pig, he was basically ripping off Godflesh.

Skinny PuppyVIVIsectVI
(1988; Nettwerk)

Where Ministry steadily shifted away from its electro roots, Canada’s Skinny Puppy doubled down with a vengeance. Indeed, Skinny Puppy took the Land of Rape and Honey blueprint and ran with it, crafting songs that seem at least 80 percent sound bite sample. Consider it the anti-Pretty Hate Machine. Though its means were similar to those used on Pretty Hate Machine, its ends were far more maddening. PHM was essentially Black Celebration with a meaner mean streak, and came with its fair share of (mostly dated) hooks and related pop thrills. Skinny Puppy was having none of it, or at least very little of it. It was their understanding that if they wanted to make weapons of those things that, generally speaking, are used for grooves, beats and other sources of hip invigoration, they could do so, and they did. VIVIsectVI is not just mean and abrasive, but vile and scabrous, giving new meaning to the term “infectious,” when it comes to electronic music.

(1989; Earache)

In its lifetime Godflesh surely struck in extreme metal bands everywhere simultaneous jolts of envy and repulsion. Envy for their sheer volume which Justin Broadrick claimed could cause total deafness and orgasms in equal measure, and repulsion for everything else about them. Godflesh were tried and true sadists in the tradition of Throbbing Gristle, rejecting technical prowess for stripped-down brutality. Godflesh songs don’t so much progress as they drag. Guitar chords burn any surface, the bass throbs the temples and grinds the skull, and drum machine beats pound as if from inside a locked cold storage room. When all mixed together it made for a membrane-dissolving, slate-heavy listening experience, the only band that could properly take on the heaviness of Black Sabbath, who were from the same city no less.

Nine Inch NailsBroken
(1992; Nothing-Interscope)

Trent Reznor created Broken when his relationship with TVT records was in a state of flux. In disbelief that they thought NIN to be a synth-pop band, he covertly recorded this EP in hopes of correcting that assumption. It was a pretty ecstatic “fuck you” to his former label, but also a devilishly vicious record on its own merits. Reznor dialed up the guitars to excesses discomforting to most guitar-based alt-rock bands, but also dialed back the electronics from the goth club grooves and into a noisier realm. No Nine Inch Nails song, indeed no alternative song seems as angry as “Happiness in Slavery.” The EP generally lacks the sheen of Pretty Hate Machine and the textures of The Downward Spiral, making it one of the few EPs that don’t exist for purely transitional purposes. Regardless of quality, each NIN release almost seems like it’s trying to make its own point. In this case of Broken it’s a declaration of independence (granted one that was released on a major label) and a challenge to post-Downward Spiral imitators like Filter, Marilyn Manson and Orgy to top with a full album the quality of Broken‘s four full songs.

(1995; Wax Trax)

For a while it seems as if Germany was always a band or so away from being crowned the industrial rock capitol of the world. Combine the less than pleasant subject matter and composition with the even less than comforting cadences of the German tongue and you really have something. It worked for Einstürzende Neubauten in the 1980s and nearly climaxed with Rammstein 20 years later, whose single “Du Hast” got regular play on MTV in a time when it was all but burnt out on any kind of rock music. KMFDM is certainly part of that dynamic, but also separate from it. They were aggressive but not dour, and had the unmitigated gall to sing their songs in English. Nihil is a well-oiled machine of album, armed with slick guitars, club-ready beats and lyrics with a broadly cynical and anti-authoritarian streak. They even had something of a hit with the relentless “Juke Joint Jezebel.”

best industrial albums non god and beastNONGod and Beast
(1997; Mute)

Boyd Rice can be many different things to those who’ve heard of him. He is a provocateur, a philosopher, an ace prankster, a social Darwinist, an “occult fascist,” a regular fascist and a tiki bar owner. He is essentially everything Lady Gaga sees in herself. He is, first and foremost in my mind, a most terrifying manipulator of sound. Happiness will prove elusive when one plays God and Beast, the noisy soundscapes of which are filled with stripped down, repetitive loops and lyrics. Entrancement, on the other hand, will not. All the aspirations to the demonic in the best of Slayer and really any Scandinavian black metal band prove rather flaccid against Rice whose guise in God and Beast is the ultimate voice of unreason. Rice’s barking vocals beckon from somewhere below existence properly so-called, where all light is extinguished, shame is an old wife’s tale, and free will is surrendered upon entry.

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