The History of Rock Music: 1989-1994

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(Copyright © 2009 Piero Scaruffi)

The Second Coming of Industrial Music


(These are excerpts from my book "A History of Rock and Dance Music")

Chicago's Industrial Music, 1989-92

Towards the end of the 1980s, Chicago became the epicenter of the new industrial genre (Ministry's, not Throbbing Gristle's), thanks to a plethora of bands. The most infernal atmosphere and beats were packed on Disco Rigido (? ? - aug 1989), the debut album by Die Warzau (1).

Chicago also benefited by the work of former Killing Joke's drummer Martin Atkins, whose supergroup Pigface (1) interpreted industrial music as a producer's product, not unlike the producer of hip-hop: rhythm and noise form the foundation for a slew of guest vocalists such as Chris Connelly, Trent Reznor (Nine Inch Nails), Nivek Ogre (Skinny Puppy), Mary Byker (Gaye Bykers On Acid) and En Esch (KMFDM) to deliver shocking lyrics on albums such as Fook (? ? - oct 1992).

From this fertile soil Trent Reznor's Nine Inch Nails (12) were born, and the fate of industrial music changed dramatically. Reznor created a persona that was a cross of Dostoevsky's "demons", Goethe's Werther, Nietzsche's "ueber-mensch", and De Sade's perverts. Technically, Reznor took elements from Throbbing Gristle, Pere Ubu, Foetus and Ministry and filtered them through the new computer technology. Reznor thus changed the very meaning of "rock band": the band was him, singer and arranger. Brutal music, nihilistic lyrics and claustrophobic atmospheres turned Pretty Hate Machine (may/juin 1989 - oct 1989) into the manifesto/diary of an entire generation. Few albums better summarize the spirit of the 1990s than The Downward Spiral (jul 1992/ late 1993 - mar 1994). Each song is both a battlefield for the highest possible density of truculent sound effects and a largely-autobiographical ode-psychodrama. The thundering polyrhythms, the chaotic and cacophonous orgies, the grotesque "danse macabres", the chamber blues pieces, the harsh counterpoints and the mournful melodies were carefully assembled to deliver the sense of a man without a past or a present or a future, a man who was a pure abstraction in search of meaning, pure form in search of content. Reznor's industrial music was never a well-defined genre: it was merely a label for heavily-arranged post-guitar rock music when sound-sculpting becomes mood-sculpting. Reznor retreated towards a simpler format, albeit using the same tools (psychotic screaming, killer synths, metallic percussions and brutal distortions), on the double album Fragile (jan 1997/feb 1999 - sep 1999). Reznor showed that he was not interested in angst for the sake of angst, and cared more for meditation on his own angst; that he was not indulging in insanity but merely puzzled by it.

Followers of Nine Inch Nails in Chicago included Filter, i.e. Richard Patrick and Brian Liesegang, who were most effective on Short Bus (? 1994/? 1995 - apr 1995) and Stabbing Westward, with Ungod (? 1993 - feb 1994).

Electric Hellfire Club, on the other hand, indulged in the gothic-dance version of the genre with Burn Baby Burn (? ? - oct 1993).

But even in Chicago the fad was dying out. A few years later the cyberpunks were already old-fashioned, and "industrial music" was mutating into something far less consumable. Illusion Of Safety, the project of Dan Burke and Jim O'Rourke, specialized in macabre anguish on albums such as Cancer (nov 1990/feb 1991 - apr 1992).

Post-industrial music, 1989-92

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New York's Cop Shoot Cop (12) carried out a devastating attack against the conventions of popular music with Consumer Revolt (oct 1998/oct 1989 - ? 1990). Their songs were terrifying kammerspielen of the post-industrial age: noisy, percussive and unstable bacchanals. Ominous bass lines wove fear against a wall of guitar distortions and lugubrious organ drones. Melodies were torn apart by sudden bursts of noir-tinged big-band swing a` la Foetus, by demented collages of sound effects, by piercing guitars and obsessed drumming. Proving that their fury was not only an incontrollable urge, White Noise (jun 1991 - oct 1991) was an encyclopedic work, whose songs quoted the most disparate traditions without belonging to any of them. The band learned to play on Ask Questions Later (nov 1992 - mar 1993), and thus revealed their "blues" soul, despite drowning it into a catastrophic landscape of fractured rhythms, grotesque noise and desolate vocals.

Texas' Angkor Wat (11), led by guitarists Adam Grossman and Danny Lohner, coined the futuristic grindcore of When Obscenity Becomes The Norm. Awake! (sep/oct 1988 - mar 1989) that was both epic, hysterical and apocalyptic, while Corpus Christi (dec 1989 - may 1990) was a more psychological work of morbid atmospheres.

Steel Pole Bath Tub (2) in San Francisco adopted an abrasive and psychological sound/stance that basically fused psychedelic trance, anthemic punk-rock and heavy-metal bloodshed on Butterfly Love (feb 1989 - ? 1989) and the EP Lurch (? 1989 - may 1990). An even darker mood envelops their most mature album, Tulip (? 1990 - apr 1991), the definitive document of their depressed hyper-realism.

Their tape-oriented side-project Milk Cult (2) made ample use of samples, loops, rhythm boxes, filtered vocals and electronic sounds, but, unlike SPBT, the results are humorous, not tragic. Dada and Salvador Dali would be proud of the sketches on Burn Or Bury (? ? - oct 1994) and Project M-13 (jun 1997 - mar 2000), that deconstruct and satirize genres while offering a different take on reality. Humor and avantgarde coexist and complement each other.

Boston's Think Tree's Like The Idea (? 1991 - jan 1992) mixed folk, cacophony, free jazz, dance beats, orchestral sounds and electronic techniques.

The most original group was Girls Vs Boys (11), formed in Washington by Soulside's guitarist Scott McCloud, drummer Alexis Fleisig and bassist Johnny Temple, plus Edsel's keyboardist Eli Janney (Silas Greene). Their hardcore roots were erased by Janney's bleak, noir and jazzy soundscapes on Tropic Of Scorpio (aug 1991 - dec 1992), a work that explored the morbid, expressionist backdrop of industrial music rather than its brutal undertones. Janney doubled on bass for the more cohesive Venus Luxure No.1 Baby (feb 1993 - aug 1993), which alternated between calm, atmospheric meditations and devastating bursts of power, the former radiating infernal spleen and the latter charging with atonal guitar and dissonant keyboards on top of spasmodic rhythms (hammering bass lines and catastrophic drumming). Nick Drake' mortal anemia met Big Black's harsh, abrasive psychodramas. Cruise Yourself (may 1994 - oct 1994) and House Of GVSB (sep 1995 - mar 1996) focused on the ugliness of that sound, leveraging denser kaleidoscopes of sound effects. McCloud later pursued his sonic research with a new project, New Wet Kojak (2), whose New Wet Kojak (sep 1994 - oct 1995) and Nasty International (dec 1995/feb 1997 - jun 1997) were dark, textural studies that mixed electronics and jazz to create eerie atmospheres reminiscent of Robert Wyatt and Morphine.

Aggro and beyond, 1990-94

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Born as one of the sub-genres of the new wave, industrial music had explored a wide and wild spectrum of styles, from dance music to white noise.

Throughout the 1990s, the brutal style of Nine Inch Nails (NIN) was pervasive in the USA. Industrial music became a mass phenomenon with NIN's visceral punk ethos applied to mechanical rhythms and arrangements. At the same time, the influence of KMFDM's "aggro" style was less obvious but no less ubiquitous, with most bands trying different variations on the idea of fusing heavy-metal guitars and machines. Finally, Ministry's epileptic style was the equivalent of a cultural totem.

Texas' Skrew (2), formed by Angkor Wat's frontman Adam Grossman, propelled the hysterical frenzy of Burning In Water Drowning In Flame (? 1991 - ? ?) with keyboards, samplers and drum-machines, while the Ministry-like synthesis of torrential dance beats and sinister grunge riffs achieved a claustrophobic sense of grandeur on Dusted (? ? - may 1994), an album that sounded like a diary of madness via the many voices of the leader (rap, gospel, opera, etc).

New York's Sister Machine Gun (1), the project of keyboardist Chris Randall, offered a more melodic version of KMFDM on Torture Technique (? ? - jul 1994).

San Francisco's Grotus showed new ways of fusing industrial music and rock music by utilizing a battery of synthesizers, samples, turntables and real drums on Slow Motion Apocalypse (oct/dec 1992 - mar 1993).

New York's Chemlab, with Burn Out At The Hydrogen Bar (? ? - may 1993), Los Angeles' Ethyl Meatplow , with Happy Days Sweetheart (? 1992 - apr 1993), San Francisco's Hate Dept, with Meat Your Maker (? ? - jun 1994), Los Angeles' Drown, with Hold On To The Hollow (? ? - may 1994), were among the pioneers of a genre that was rapidly replacing hardcore as the vehicle of choice for venting existential angst.

San Francisco's Xorcist (Peter Stone) was the most successful of the gothic dance acts, best heard on Damned Souls (? 1991 - ? 1991).

Texas' Mentallo & The Fixer (2) fused synth-pop, EBM and dissonant electronics for the infernal visions of Revelations 23 (? ? - feb 1993) and Where Angels Fear To Tread (? ? - end 1994), a case of unstable retro-chic.

Britain's Cubanate (1) blended anthemic guitar riffs, devilish electronic pulses and sub-human screams like noone else on Cyberia (jul/sep 1994 - oct 1995).

In Europe, aggro progressed thanks to works such as Excluded (jan/apr 1992 - oct 1992) by Denmark's Klute (Claus Larsen of Leaether Strip), and Transmission Pervous (? 1993 - sep 1995) by Germany's Steril.

EBM or "electro" (Cabaret Voltaire, Front Line Assembly, Skinny Puppy, Front 242) became more abrasive, brutal and visceral with Brainstorming (feb/jul 1992 - dec 1992) by Germany's Yelworc (Domink van Reich), Solitary Confinement (jan 1992 - mar 1992) by Denmark's Leaether Strip (Claus Larsen), Stored Images (sep/oct 1995 - nov 1995) by Belgium's Suicide Commando (i.e., Johan Van Roy), Bunkertor 7 (? 1995 - sep 1995) by Germany's :Wumpscut: (Rudy Ratzinger).

Industrial nightmares, 1990-96

Several "industrial" musicians were turning to the original concept of Throbbing Gristle: pure noise.

Namanax, the project of Philadelphia-based multi-instrumentalist Bill Yurkiewicz, produced loud noise through the layering of multiple sources of sound on Multi-Phase Electrodynamics (apr 1993 - may 1993).

The percussive pandemonium of San Diego's Crash Worship (1) was quite unique and hardly documented on Triple Mania II (? ? - oct 1994). Their live raves in warehouses were based on ritualistic non-stop drumming.

Seattle's Tchkung, too, staged tribal shows that offered vivid views of industrial decay, accompanied by political rants on Tchkung (? ? - ? 1995).

Germany's Genocide Organ, the brainchild of Wilhelm Herich, used power electronics to terrifying effect on Leichenlinie (? 1987/? 1989 - dec 1989). An affiliate project also devoted to electronic industrial horror, Anenzephalia (German electronic musician Michael Rief) progressed from the naive Fragments Of Demise (? ? - ? 1993) to the imposing eight-movement symphony of Noehaem (? ? - ? 2003).

Britain added relatively few new names to the ranks. Perhaps the only significant addition to the canon came from Towering Inferno (1), who summarized twenty years of experiments with the terrifying multimedia opera Kaddish (may 1990/jun 1993 - nov 1993).

Omit, the project of New Zealand's isolated electronic musician Clinton Williams, refined a hybrid of Throbbing Gristle's early industrial music and Klaus Schulze's cosmic music on bleak works such as Interior Desolation (jan/dec 1996 - ? 1999), recorded in 1996.

Digital hardcore, 1992-94

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Several bands had been toying with a fusion of techno and rock. For example, Los Angeles' Babyland played techno with the fury of punk-rock on You Suck Crap (dec 1990/mar 1992 - ? 1992).

A far stronger synthesis was achieved in Germany by Atari Teenage Riot (10), the project of Berlin's programmer and anarchist Alec Empire (Alexander Wilke) and two vocalists (Carl Crack and Hanin Elias). The "digital hardcore" (supersonic beats, heavy-metal riffs, agit-prop lyrics and videogame-ish sound effects) of 1995 (oct 1993/feb 1994 - feb 1995), later rereleased as Delete Yourself, straddled the line between punk-rock and techno. On his own, Alec Empire (2), the angry young man of techno, toyed with all sorts of styles, notably: the all-electronic Les Etoiles Des Filles Mortes (aug 1996 - fall 1996), which displayed the influence of avantgarde composer Karlheinz Stockhausen and had gothic overtones; the glacial ambient noise of Low On Ice (aug 1995 - fall 1995); the cubistic, psychedelic downtempo music of Hypermodern Jazz 2000.5 (jan 1996 - ? 1996); the "drill and bass" of The Destroyer (aug 1994/apr 1996 - jun 1996); and the nightmarish free-jazz electronica of The Curse of the Golden Vampire (? ? - jun 1998), a collaboration with Techno Animal's mastermind Kevin Martin.

"Gabber" was a subgenre of hardcore electronic dance-music that evolved in the Netherlands by fusing elements of industrial, techno and punk, and therefore strictly related to digital hardcore. It was characterized by frenzied pace, overdriven bass drums, distorted synthesizers and brutal vocals; and indulged in the kind of violent themes usually associated with the punk-rock or black-metal scenes. The single that pioneered it was We Have Arrived (1990) by Mescalinum United (German producer Marc Trauner).

Japanese cacophony, 1993-94

Space Streakings (11) were the greatest disciples of the great tradition of Zeni Geva and Boredoms. Hatsu-Koi (? ? - ? 1993) concocted an ebullient amalgam of jazz, noise, electronica, hip-hop and hardcore that sounded like a music-hall sketch performed on doomsday. And the end of the world came with 7-Toku (? ? - ? 1994), the soundtrack of absolute chaos, of Babel-like confusion, of decades frantically played back in the last few seconds of civilization. Its cacophonic fantasies were the last rational beings in an ecosystem of grotesque mutations.

Ground Zero, the brainchild of guitarist and turntablist Otomo Yoshihide, transposed Zeni Geva's noise-core to the age of sampling. Null And Void (jul 1993/mar 1994 - ? 1995) was typical of their improvised symphonies for noise and samples, while Revolutionary Pekinese Opera (mar 1995 - ? 1995) was virtually a post-modernist essay, a piece of music constructed out of samples of an opera and of snippets of television commercials and soundtracks.

A few bands specialized in fast-paced noise-core that mixed the speed of hardcore and the cacophony of industrial music. Representative albums of this brutal, possessed, loud and frenzied style included: Scratch Or Stitch (jul/aug 1995 - may 1996) by Melt-Banana (1), God Is God, Puke Is Puke (apr 1995 - jul 1995) by Ultra Bide (1), and Missile Me (? 1994/?  1995 - jul 1995) by Guitar Wolf.


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