Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Where to start with the harsh, mechanized beat of industrial

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Pop culture can be as forbidding as it is inviting, particularly in areas that invite geeky obsession: The more devotion a genre, series, or subculture inspires, the easier it is for the uninitiated to feel like they’re on the outside looking in. But geeks aren’t born; they’re made. And sometimes it only takes the right starting point to bring newbies into various intimidatingly vast obsessions. Gateways To Geekery is our regular attempt to help those who want to be enthralled, but aren’t sure where to start. Want advice? Suggest future Gateways To Geekery topics by emailing gateways@theonion.com.

Geek obsession: Industrial

Why it’s daunting: Industrial was never meant to inviting. A form of music spun off in the ’70s from post-punk, krautrock, and a morbid fascination with the mechanized dehumanization of the 20th century, the genre pounded away in self-manufactured obscurity for decades before Ministry, Nine Inch Nails, Marilyn Manson, and the one-hit wonder Rammstein helped launch it into the mainstream (thanks to an infusion of heavy metal and/or pop). It never dwelled comfortably there, though, and since its brief ’90s heyday, industrial has retreated into the same shadows where goth lurks. A small-scale resurgence is currently underway thanks to new groups like Youth Code and Yvette, and reissues of classic albums by groundbreaking groups such as Throbbing Gristle and Cabaret Voltaire are continually being released. And subgenres like power electronics and EBM (Electronic Body Music) have continued to be reassessed and reincorporated into everything from metal to shoegaze.

Possible gateway: Ministry, The Land Of Rape And Honey

Why: Although Nine Inch Nails’ 1989 debut, Pretty Hate Machine, may seem like the least abrasive, most friendly point of entry when it comes to industrial, it’s also just as likely to wind up being the lone, token industrial album that many people check out. Ministry’s 1988 album The Land Of Rape And Honey isn’t as immediately accessible, but it actually straddles a huge shift in industrial at the time—and it has one foot on almost every strain of the genre. With vestiges of the tribal, dance floor-aimed EMB that Ministry had previously dabbled in, The Land Of Rape And Honey is mastermind Al Jourgensen’s first stab at incorporating more metallic elements. He would take things much further down the industrial-metal route starting with 1989’s seminal, thrash-influenced album The Mind Is A Terrible Thing To Taste, which marked the point when metal was becoming an inseparable component of industrial. But The Land Of Rape And Honey has it all: hooks, riffs, and angst, all of which Nine Inch Nails shrink-wrapped in Pretty Hate Machine, but with more of a grounding in the tradition of steely, austere, European industrial. Conscious and corrosive, it feels like a primal scream translated into ones and zeros.

Next steps: Only a decade separates Cabaret Voltaire’s first releases and Ministry’s The Land Of Rape And Honey, but the differences are dramatic. Early Cabaret Voltaire singles are raw, jagged, and aggressive in a surreal, alienating way—a method that become more focused and coherent by the band’s 1981 album Red Mecca, poised halfway between its industrial origins and its more synth-pop-oriented sound later in the ’80s. The same year, the German collective Einstürzende Neubauten released Kollaps, a clanging-yet-hypnotic record as indebted to the chanted ritualism of Can as it did Throbbing Gristle’s confrontational, hard-wired art experiments. And by using actual industrial tools onstage, Neubauten installed itself as the genre’s quintessential band—if not always the easiest to dance to.

The utility of industrial as dance music became an increasingly essential part of the sound in the ’80s, which helps explain the rise of EBM—and also the rise of two of its most compelling practitioners, Belgium’s Front 242 and England’s Nitzer Ebb. Front 242’s 1988 album Front By Front is lean, sculpted, and infectious, with beats programmed to mimic some kind of nanotech infiltration of the human nervous system. Nitzer Ebb sounded bigger and bolder—at times almost like a caricature of industrial—but the group’s 1987 high point, That Total Age, is immaculately designed to turn the dance floor into a factory floor, a brutal new incarnation of disco for the discontent.

In Canada, Skinny Puppy spearheaded a creepy take on industrial best heard on 1987’s Mind: The Perpetual Intercourse, an album that lays the ghostly aura of goth over the cyborg skeleton of electro. An edge of savage guitar riffs is also evident, and after Ministry amplified that approach with The Land Of Rape And Honey and The Mind Is A Terrible Thing To Taste, veteran industrial acts like KMFDM went even heavier—such as on 1993’s coldly bludgeoning Angst, on which the band’s stentorian frontman Sascha Konietzko sang often about his favorite subject, KMFDM. But industrial opened up enough room for funkiness—and even traces of hip-hop. Meat Beat Manifesto’s 1990 album 99% has more flesh and flow, and far less bleakness, than the majority of industrial, and it helped push the unabashedly insular genre into new territory.

Where not to start: Industrial began, ironically, as a lo-fi movement. Pioneers in the mid-’70s such as Non and Throbbing Gristle incorporated as much grainy hiss and homemade electronics as it did synthesizers, drum machines, and samplers, which were either barely existent or far too expensive and elaborate compared to the more advanced yet user-friendly hardware (and software) that was on the horizon. Throbbing Gristle’s 1978 album, D.O.A: The Third And Final Report Of Throbbing Gristle, isn’t as developed and eclectic as the band’s masterpiece, 20 Jazz Funk Greats—but it’s TG’s most potent and prescient distillation of early industrial, one that incorporates avant-garde drones and passages of ethereal ghostliness as well as thudding, robotic ferocity. That said, tackling the early industrial greats right out of the fate is like diving, sight unseen, into the deep end of the pool—it’s possible to survive, but not always advisable. Conversely, don’t start in the kiddie pool. Pretty Hate Machine is great, but it will barely get your toes wet.