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A few days ago I got into a conversation with a friend about industrial music when he asked me more or less how to define the sound and what artistic themes run through it. I get the feeling that frequently people who don’t have a lot of familiarity with this rougher side of rock music tend to assume that Nine Inch Nails and maybe some of the louder rock groups (Metallica, Slipknot) can be filed under industrial. The problem is that while Nine Inch Nails (NIN) definitely includes sounds pioneered by industrial groups, thinking this is what constitutes industrial music skips the experimentation fundamental to the musical movement.

Before I go much further I want to qualify this and hopefully future posts. I want to offer some education on the different kinds of music found at this edge of the spectrum, but this is hardly exhaustive. I’m not an educated musicologist, really just a talkative fan with a lot of time on her hands. I’m offering only an introductory look and focusing on a very small sampling of what is available. Also, I’m a bit sloppy about nomenclature. I do want to explain the difference between industrial and heavy metal, but I see very little reason to expound on when and how industrial became post-industrial. So if you’re reading this wondering why I left out your favorite Industrial Records or Wax Trax! (RIP) group in favor of some major label upstart it’s just because this is meant to explain the artistic themes of the sound as a whole. I don’t want this to be a retrospective of industrial music and its offshoots, plenty of people have already done that and probably better than I could.

Now, having said that I should give respect where respect is due. The whole category began when the English group Throbbing Gristle needed to put out their music somehow and other labels had no idea what to do with their sound. So they started Industrial Records.

So, if you’re new to the idea of industrial music and you find this more or less unlistenable, know that Throbbing Gristle started doing their thing in 1975, when all this noise probably sounded louder and more confounding to ears used to the Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd. While the punk sound was starting to take root in the late 70s (which a lot of music’s gatekeepers also found completely unlistenable), the wall-to-wall noise that came from indistinguishable sources was almost less startling than the intentionally garbled vocals deliberately set in juxtaposition to any possible harmony the backing instruments might present.

Obsessively exploring the prurient and violent impulses in humanity didn’t start with Throbbing Gristle, of course. But they established the musical territory.

In a way, industrial was the sound of stagnation and decay in the midst of plenty. It came out of the First World, the Western side of Europe in the midst of the Cold War. The primary players were first out of England and soon also coming from West Germany (West Berlin, to be exact) and America (notably experimentalists Boyd Rice from San Diego and Frank Zappa from Los Angeles). Neo-futurism and fashion’s avant garde had gone by in the 1960s along with the explosion of rock n roll and the sexual revolution. What was left now was a bit of a hangover, not only socially, but economically as England suffered from recession and turmoil leading to underemployment.

The sense of fumbling around without direction, of losing ground economically and the only reprieve coming from vice may be recognizable to anyone who has been poor while living in a rich country. (ahem) Furthermore the theme of disconnectedness, whether from the natural world or from each other persists through industrial music, once noted as “industrial music for industrial people.”

For those who know the rudiments of industrial music, there is a distinctly Germanic feel to it. Something stompy-booted, with the precision of a well oiled machine. A large, grinding, brutal machine. Einstürzende Neubauten, for example, have been one of the standard bearers for industrial music for over 30 years. Their experiments had them building instruments out of scrap metal and intentionally organizing or sampling noise into harmonies that frequently mimic mechanical or technological sounds.

Even though they were formed in West Berlin, there was always something of the oppressive to them, a feeling that I find resonates with the Künstlerplakate of East Germany. Where often times West German artists felt overwhelmed by the race toward the future, as sold to them by various consumer products advertisers, East Germans typically struggled to express themselves free of censorship by government apparatchiks.

From the press release for the exhibit linked above: “Künstlerplakate function both as advertisements for cultural events and works of art in their own right, with most printed either by or in the presence of the artist. Limiting the editions to less than 100 copies, painters, sculptors, and graphic artists were, for the most part, able to bypass strict GDR censorship boards. While painting—with its associations of bourgeois conspicuous consumption―was discouraged by Communist officials, printmaking and graphic design―with their emphasis on reproducibility and visual communication―were encouraged. Artists’ posters thus provided a potent vehicle for individual expression and experimentation.

On both sides of the Wall, however, artists challenged the mainstays and assumptions of art, knocking down rules wherever they encountered them, then writing new ones and knocking them down as well. In this way artists expressed themselves using otherwise limiting tools with an uncommon degree of freedom in an oppressive regime.

Band as Performance Group

The challenges to arts establishments have proceeded throughout the career of Einstürzende Neubauten. Early on they were sponsored by arts institutes and played in venues explicitly for the arts, such as for Vienna’s Academy of Fine Arts’ 300th anniversary in 1992. Of course, Einstürzende Neubauten weren’t the first musical group that created live shows that looked like performance art – Throbbing Gristle came out of the performance group COUM Transmissions, after all.

Canada’s Skinny Puppy have cultivated a completely electronic sound and use audio samples extensively. Their stage shows favor horror themes with Nivek Ogre typically dumping stage blood on himself. Unlike shock rockers, whether Ozzy Osborne or Marilyn Manson, these performances aren’t with a wink to juvenile perversity but with a drive to investigate the danger and immediacy of life and instinct. Skinny Puppy have also been known for their politics on animal rights, drug use, torture and the environment and have consistently expressed these positions from the stage.

The Man Who Flew into Space from His Apartment, Ilya Kabakov, 1981-1988

Their musical M.O. reminds me of Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty and the ideals behind bludgeoning the audience’s senses until the raw subconscious is exposed. Skinny Puppy have assembled their sound through heavy sampling from movies and audio tapes, distortion and “found sounds.” The music comes from such a variety of places it becomes like an aural mixed media piece of post-modern art.

Now it may be all well and good that there is noisy experimental music in the world. But what the heck can you do with it besides let it occupy your ears? Maybe, like any good art, there is nothing much you’re supposed to do with it, just let it reside in you. But hey, it’s music. Even if there’s no dancing to it, it’d be nice if you could at least nod your head and tap your toe to it, right?

The answer, my friend, is rivethead. Well okay, if you want to be picky, a Rivet Head is the person who dresses up in fancy vinyl gear and steel-toed boots on six inch platforms to go to a club and dance/stomp around to electro-industrial rock (or, depending on how picky you are, EBM (electronic body music)).

Former DJ Rudy Ratzinger of Munich began making his own music in 1991 under the name :wumpscut:. It quickly found a home in goth clubs that appealed to the sensibility for morbidity and decay. This eminently danceable music simply married techno with industrial; the samples are clean and layered but still favor minor keys and a threatening ambiance. :wumpscut: made industrial music slightly more accessible by fitting it to a somewhat more typical rock structure.

Ratzinger may have set aside some of the experimental aspects of industrial in order to smooth up the sound until it shone like form fitting PVC pants, but the end result is a crashing sound mixed with samples from horror movies, set to a hard pulsing beat. Just right for the clubset adrift in multiple media interfaces – watching movies on game consoles, listening to music streamed over computers and playing games on their smart phones.

…next time we’ll get into some prog rock.