A Beginner’s Guide to the industrial rock of KMFDM
The ‘80s and ‘90s were hot times for industrial music, and a core group of artists maintained a relentless release schedule trying to lift the genre up. If there’s one act who continues to maintain the spirit and sound from the heady days of labels like Wax Trax!, it’s probably KMFDM. Despite lineup changes that have left Sascha Konietzko as the sole original member, this German collective have somehow managed to release an average of five studio albums per decade since the 1980s (not even counting compilations, standalone singles, remixes and collaborations). KMFDM’s catalog is deceptively deep, and not just in numbers. They incorporate rap and dub alongside their machine-gun guitar riffs and processed screams, and their political screeds come peppered with bits of self-deprecating comedy. You wanna go to hell? Let’s map out your trip with five of the best KMFDM albums to start the descent.
What Do You Know, Deutschland? (1986)
KMFDM may have started out playing vacuum cleaners on stage, but their musical skill began to shine through in the studio rather quickly. Their second proper album had new forms of aggressive synth-pop, with the band growling their way through dancefloor material like “Kickin’ Ass” and “Me I Funk.” But it also bent circuitry into art-pop (“Itchy Bitchy”) and noise rock (“The Unrestrained Use of Excessive Force,” “Positiv”), the kinds of genres visited and then clear-cut by their contemporaries in Einsturzende Neubauten.
Much like De La Soul, KMFDM’s entry into the mainstream was hampered by catalog- and industry-shifting legal trouble. Naïve arrived as a near-flawless interpretation of metal rebellion—the humor (“Go to Hell”) and hedonism (“Naïve”), the hate (“Piggybank“) and hope (“Friede”)—run through with digital processing and edgy dance rhythms. But sampling issues in tracks like “Liebeslied,” a riff-filled powerhouse that won the band wide exposure as the theme song for MTV Sports, forced KMFDM to delete the original tracklist in favor of the remixed Naïve/Hell to Go in 1994, and then a remastered version in 2006. Still, even as a ghost in the shell Naïve remains acknowledged as a landmark of electronic body music (EBM).
Concomitant with the embrace of industrial music at the earliest Lollapalooza festivals, MTV gave KMFDM niche rotation spots with a frequency rarely seen outside the hit factory triumvirate of Nine Inch Nails, Ministry, and Marilyn Manson. Chief among these was “A Drug Against War,” promoted with a video animated by their frequent album artist Brute. It appeared three years after Naïve on Angst, part of a trio of the band’s biggest-ever singles alongside the remix-friendly “Light” and “Sucks,” arguably the finest entry in KMFDM’s library of self-referential theme songs. If Naïve properly introduced the band to the general public, Angst might be the yin to its yang, a point in the KMFDM timeline to walk up and feel welcome.
By the turn of the century, most of the band’s longest serving members like En Esch had left due to creative tension or the call of other projects. The band had even released a 1999 album, Adios, intending for it to be a harsh goodbye to fans and to each other. Konietzko couldn’t let it go, however, and fleshed out a new lineup with American musician Lucia Cifarelli and English drummer Andy Selway. Unencumbered by old friends or returning guests, this 2007 album marked an entertaining apex of KMFDM’s third decade, highlighted by the title track and “Looking for Strange” as well as a rare cover (Liaisons Dangereuses’ “Los Niños del Parque”).
Hell Yeah (2017)
It makes sense that KMFDM’s most electrifying modern LP came with celebrity politicians and malicious conservatism present on a scale not seen since the band started in the 1980s. Heavy-handed global misanthropy led by Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin mirrored and replaced that of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, and the band rose to the challenge of making music again meant to address the issues again raised by such leaders and their followers again. Hell Yeah is fun but not cloyingly comic (“Freak Flag,” “Fake News”), as diverse as they’ve ever sounded without feeling disjointed (the late Madchester feel of “Shock”), and justifiably angry without dipping too far into caricature (the scorching “Total State Machine”).
Listen/Buy: Spotify | Amazon (vinyl)
Next Steps: KMFDM have never really been a popular band per se, so you have to hunt through their discography to get a picture of what the underground loved about them and how that would eventually translate above ground. UAIOE in 1989 featured “More & Faster” and “Rip the System,” two of their first cuts to get significant dancefloor treatment and wide exposure. Nihil from 1995 is their best-selling album and home to their best-known song: “Juke Joint Jezebel,” with multiple media placements and a remix stamp of approval from none other than Giorgio Moroder. And that album’s rep clearly helped Xtort become their only album to hit the Billboard 200 the following year.
Advanced Listening: The band’s 1990s were strong enough that even the hit-or-miss nature of 1992’s Money might find you reaping rewards between its four singles (!) and the underrated “Bargeld.” After that, it’s probably high time to explore the darkest corners of their history—start with the rarities collected on 1998’s Agogo and the remixes on 2020’s In Dub that show off their love of reggae and love of fucking with it. There’s also a weird, wide web of side projects and collaborations first spun during KMFDM’s tenure on Wax Trax!, including Esch’s work with Pigface and Konietzko forming Excessive Force with Buzz McCoy of My Life with the Thrill Kill Kult.
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Adam Blyweiss is associate editor of Treble. A graphic designer and design teacher by trade, Adam has written about music since his 1990s college days and been published at MXDWN and e|i magazine. Based in Philadelphia, Adam has also DJ’d for terrestrial and streaming radio from WXPN and WKDU.