Industrial Evolution

Authors’ Note: When MW heard the first blip of industrial music reappearing on pop culture’s radar, he wanted to sit down with a group of industrial legends, producers, critics, and up-and-comers to talk about it. With a thousand U.S. miles between writers, oceans and national borders between sources, we did the next best thing: we emailed everyone. The future is cool. – MW and AD

If you ask Sascha Konietzko when industrial music began, he’ll school you.

“It’s a mindset, to begin with … industrial music is a form of sonic expression that uses, to a more or lesser extent, non-typical sonic sources and incorporates generators of sound that are generally considered non- or even anti-musical. The term is connotative of steam, engines, turbines, machinery, molten metal, big wheels and cogs, gears, steel, concrete, brick, voltage, power. As far as we know, the first industrial piece of  music is Tchaikovsky’s Ouverture Solennelle 1812, which celebrates Russia’s victory over the Napoleonic French troops in 1812. It was first performed in 1882 and incorporated—besides the more traditional orchestral instruments—church bells and cannons. That was a roaring debut, but industrial music is—at least for me—synonymous with Einstürzende Neubauten, who set the bar a little bit too high for anyone else to reach.”

Yellow and black image of a man with a mohawk on stage with a microphone
Sascha Konietzko of KMFDM, photo credit Bobby Talamine

High praise from a high priest; Konietzko founded, fronted, and continues to lead KMFDM, an industrial act that influenced everyone from 1984 forward in perpetuity. This year, KMFDM goes on tour as part of Ministry’s The Mind Is a Terrible Thing to Taste 30th anniversary tour, a reprise of their role on the original outing in 1990. Kraftwerk (industrial music’s ambient electronic uncle) announced 2020 concert dates, and in May, Trent Reznor’s lifespan project, Nine Inch Nails, joins the Rock and Hall of Fame along with Depeche Mode⁠, whose dark, electronic fuck-songs and synthesized requiems positively influenced Reznor’s earliest recordings. It’s enough to make a rivet head wonder, Is industrial music experiencing a revival? And if so, when did it die? Are we seeing a revival or is it all just nostalgia? We asked the bands, the DJ’s, the podcasters, and promoters to weigh in with their opinions, and we’ll let you decide. First, a little history…

The Beginning

Tchaikovsky excepted, it’s fair and common to say that industrial music, as we tend to think of it, was born in the 1970’s in the UK. The convergence of the avant-garde art scene and post-punk noise-making birthed groups like Throbbing Gristle and Cabaret Voltaire, who in turn inspired the next wave when the form crossed the Atlantic in the 1980’s.  

Ilker Yücel, editor-in-chief for ReGen Magazine, elaborated on the origins of the industrial genus, “The tendency does seem to be for people to cite that first wave that stemmed off from Coum Transmissions and Throbbing Gristle … That seems to be when the ‘genre’ or ‘movement’ was given a name, which is valid enough. We always associate it as coming from punk music of the time, which I certainly think is true in terms of the DIY aesthetics and confrontational attitudes of challenging society, but punk was still at its heart just rock and roll—faster, louder, angrier, but still familiar. I always like to look back further at some of the music and art that inspired them, which to me has always been the art rock and progressive rock of the time from people like David Bowie, Pink Floyd, King Crimson, and the like—even John Cage—those were the first artists to innovate with new technologies and recording techniques: tape loops, synthesizers, metal percussion, found sounds and objects, sampling, making music that wasn’t steeped in, as Patrick Codenys of Front 242 once put it to me, ‘Anglo-Saxon norms.’ They were still making what could be recognized as music but were challenging conventions and incorporating new ideas.”

When industrial made it to the States, it found a home in Chicago. 

A man in eyeglasses hugs a man with dreadlocks and facial piercings in a candid photograph
Reid Hyams (right) with Ministry’s Al Jourgensen. Both played key roles in Chicago’s fertile industrial scene in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Photo courtesy of Reid Hyams

“There was magic going on and no one really knew it, yet it was unfolding right in front of our eyes,” said Reid Hyams, president and operations manager of Chicago Trax Recording, when discussing the boom years of industrial. Hyams’ studio nurtured artists from across all genres and became synonymous with THE Chicago Sound, but it was Mecca for recording artists of all walks. Smashing Pumpkins, Liz Phair, Beyonce, Material Issue, Insiders, ’N Sync, A Tribe Called Quest, Frankie Knuckles, David Bowie, Ice Cube all graced the live rooms at Chicago Trax Recording’s studios, and much of the industrial artist canon—Ministry, Skinny Puppy, KMFDM, Chris Connelly, Chem Lab, Revolting Cocks—recorded there during the 1980’s and 1990’s. “People might think I’m kissing [Al] Jourgensen’s ass, but the reality is … we had this music coming out of Chicago which Al was centric to. After his return from working with Adrian Sherwood at John Loders’ Southern Studios in London, [Jourgensen] came in with Jim (Nash) and Dannie (Flesher) from Wax Trax! Records—they were not only very supportive, they were the foundation for Chicago industrial music, and the creativity flowed throughout. I’ve always called it ‘creative insanity on steroids,’ because it was.”

The Nineties

When the decade began, punk rage flowed through three major arteries: industrial, hip hop, and grunge. By the time those forms broke into the mainstream, they had cross-bred and blended (think Filter and Rage Against the Machine), much of it being filed under the moniker “alternative,” a label that persists and, it can be argued, rapidly lost meaning. 

Industrial on its own peaked somewhere between Saturday Night Live’s Sprockets—a running segment that spoofed black-clad, German art rockers—and Marilyn Manson’s media-savvy success. It became a buzzword, then it faded. It’s rumored that in 1996, somewhere in the Texas desert, Al Jourgensen held an impromptu funeral for the form. What had been a strong and vibrant scene for the last decade receded into obscurity, and the world moved on. 

You Are Here

Free music abounds. Bands have lost big studio budgets—the days of the six-figure advance are over. Home recording technology has evolved to a state that allows musicians to be self-sufficient, although that self-sufficiency is more than a full-time job. 

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Pigface founder Martin Atkins. Photo courtesy of Martin Atkins

According to Martin Atkins (PIL, Killing Joke, creator and conductor of Pigface), “It has never been easier to make, polish, and distribute a track, but the idea of distribution is a trick—just putting a song up is not distribution. That only makes it available. 40,000 songs a day are uploaded to Spotify and many thousands—as many as 40%—are NEVER listened to even ONCE. Sit on that for a moment. For me, the post-punk DIY ethic of almost a cottage industry makes more and more sense. Regardless of genre, musicians have had to re-evaluate their business models. They have to do more with less.”

Isn’t this where we started? More with less, DIY—these are the original precepts that were at play in the late-seventies Yorkshire flats where the first modern industrial tracks were conceived.

“My approach is more claymation and paper mâché, blood and sweat and danger than digital and Bluetooth,” Atkins continued. “Having said that, there was a time when I sat and watched every opening band for Pigface and knew what was happening everywhere—now, I’m reflecting on my early days in post-punk and working on that book and teaching and speaking and not as plugged in to the scene as I used to be—I’m sure there are people dismantling and rebuilding the genre and creating new pathways and experiences.”

“This power is a huge step forward in terms of self-reliance, artistic freedom, it also is a half-step backward, because now there are thousands of bands empowered by this that are all fighting for the same crumb. When I put out my first record back in ’86, there were likely between 200 and 300 bands (all genres included) in the Tri-state area around NYC. Now, I’m convinced that there are literally thousands of all kinds in the NYC area alone,” said Athan Maroulis of Black Tape For a Blue Girl and Spahn Ranch and longtime A&R rep for Cleopatra Records. “All are elbowing for support slots, shows, deals, ink, airplay, club play, etc. Similarly, it impacts the relatively small scene of industrial. One cruise through the new industrial titles on Bandcamp finds dozens of new titles added daily. With that also comes the fact that extremely amateurish efforts have equal footing and they are plentiful, although there is something engaging about that—I think Andy Warhol would have been amused. The level of competition is insane.”

“I think industrial is going through an exciting renaissance. The access to high level recording equipment especially for electronic music genres is unprecedented. Anytime you are opening opportunity for creativity without oversight like this you are going to test the boundaries of what genres have to offer. This means you are going to get some truly fresh beautiful sounds,” offered Ken Magerman. Magerman publishes Sounds and Shadows, a Detroit-based music magazine, and fronts the electro-goth band Amaranth. “Even a lot of pop music is feeling the influence of industrial. Danny Brown, Poppy, Billie Eilish—all these groups have these elements that would have just been considered noise 30 years ago.” 

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Ania Tarnowska combines old school industrial aesthetics with 2020 digital marketing prowess as creator and sole member of I Ya Toyah. Photo courtesy of Damian Ghaul

Ania Tarnowska, a newcomer to industrial and the woman/force of nature behind I Ya Toyah, as well as member of the Chicago-based collective The Joy Thieves, shared her take on the current state of industrial music. “What was anti-music 50 years ago is not necessarily [anti-music] today,” she said. “Our brains are processing information differently than when industrial started. Information today is worlds away from what was available back then. And perhaps one could argue that one thing, one sound is more industrial than the other, but it is all about the definition and our cultural and personal association with it. I feel if we keep our minds open we might be surprised where imagination takes us. It might be far beyond the frames of industrial as we know it.”

Rodney Orpheus—singer for Cassandra Complex, author, and producer—noted a different take. ”Most of what seems to be called industrial music these days seems to just be guitar power chords with some distorted vocals about alienation on top. It’s just slightly more modern heavy metal. And that’s okay if that’s what you like, but it’s not what I consider industrial … I’m not sure if the concept of ‘industrial music’ makes any real sense in a post-industrial society. If you take bands like Front 242 or Covenant for example, both of whom I love, I’d consider them to be post-industrial in that they have taken a lot of the themes and sounds of original industrial music and turned them into something that I think is more descriptive of the 21st century.”

New York-based artist and host of the Heavy New York podcast Alexander Haber said, “I have always said, the worst thing for any art is nostalgia. Art is a living organism and therefore, it grows, develops, and eventually dies leaving a legacy. A legacy cannot be recreated. Many people state they want the next this or bring back this—if we put our focus into new art, it will grow bigger and leave more of a mark … Celebrate what we have now, and look forward to what is coming … Industrial has changed, but it certainly never went away.”

What They’re Listening To

Alexander Haber: Contracult is a band that you want to keep on your radar. Travis and Nick of this group bring their own unique sound and vibe with their sound of pure organized chaos. They are familiar, yet fresh, and you are going to want to get on board.

Ania Tarnowska: In the mainstream world, it is definitely Poppy with her pop-turned-industrial style, and Billie Eilish with her EDM and dark pop. Both of them definitely bring a whole new spectrum of sound and expand existing genres into something we have not seen before. They are not industrial by definition, but they both are utilizing a lot of industrial-related sounds and styles. As for the underground world of music, I recently discovered the awesome Eva X with her dark synth electro style, and a very promising artist called Ritchual who entertains with dark melodies mixed with glitch, downtempo electro. The Joy Thieves (haha), with their broad selection of artists, bring different influences and make music that always surprises. But there is so much to the current scene…

Ken Magerman: Curse Mackey, Stoneburner, Klack, Adoration Destroyed, I Ya Toyah, Dogtablet, Chemlab, GoFight, The Joy Thieves, Dead Agent, Moris Blak, The Purge, Sister Sarin, Zwaremachine, Swansect. This is just scratching the surface. In 2020 the problem is not do we have great music—the problem is how do we sift through a million grains of sand? I think the other exciting thing is that of the artists I listed here, you really have about 11 distinct styles of industrial on display. One million flavors in this rainbow, and I am the fat kid lapping it all up.

Image of a man covered in blood with chains wrapped around him
Svart is the vocalist and producer for the metal/industrial Contracult Collective.

Svart: On the more traditional side of industrial music Statiqbloom, Youth Code, and Wulfband are still my favorite bands to drop in the last few years. All three of them write incredible songs and have stellar production that makes me wanna dance, fight, and fuck all at the same time. The true pulse of industrial music. I also have a heavy appreciation for some of the newer EBM/techno projects that have been popping up in the last few years (Phase Fatale, Ancient Methods, Rhys Fulber’s solo stuff). On the other end of things, I really enjoy some of the new trap/witch house artists and producers. I feel that artists such as Ghostemane or IC3PEAK have done just as much interesting work as any other industrial project I’ve heard in the last few years. It’s really exciting to see the genre influence forward-thinking artists.

Who They Want To See

Ania Tarnowska: I look forward to seeing Vader come back to Chicago’s Reggies during their American tour, and then my old time favorites Devin Townsend and Opeth. Can’t forget about 3TEETH going on the road with Carnifex—this sounds like an exciting one for the industrial scene.

Ken Magerman: Of all the big name tours the only one that holds much interest is Einstürzende Neubauten or Rammstein (always a ridiculous fun show). The industrial bands that really get me excited cost 1/10 the price … Plus there is something about seeing a band in a smaller venue and feeling that connection. I recommend industrial fans check out Curse Mackey, Stoneburner, Klack, I Ya Toyah, Dogtablet, Chemlab, GoFight, The Joy Thieves, Moris Blak. These are the bands I want to travel and shell out cash for.

Rodney Orpheus: If I was in the USA, I’d be pretty excited about the New Order/Pet Shop Boys tour, but here in London, I think the one I’m more interested in at the moment is the On-U Sound show with Mark Stewart and Maffia later this year.

Conclusion

Is there one? Are we seeing a resurgence, or are we seeing remembrance tours and hearing echoes? You tell us. Either way, we’ll take it.

AuthorsLast Note: We both remember the first time we heard industrial music, but neither of us can recall when or where we heard the term or a definition of it the first time (is there really one?), but we knew it when we heard it. The mechanical grind, the distortion, drums, the rebellious-anti-everything screams and tin reverb grabbed us and—if you’ve read this far—caught you. The beat pulled us in, and we found places we fit inside it. The industrial we heard was a little bit of everything, and it was against a bit of everything. It was the soundtrack of the Cold War, and it warmed us. Thanks for reading. – MW and AD

About the Authors

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Mark Williams is the executive producer of the MK Ultrasound podcast and has written for MK Ultra since 1998. He is a studio engineer, musician, world traveler, and all around tech geek. Mark lives in Baton Rouge, LA and started listening to electronic music shortly after birth. He takes a mean photograph and loves guns. You can follow him on Instagram @erazir23

Image of a woman looking in the mirror with a lightning bolt painted across her face

Angela Denk danced at Neo and Exit A LOT in the nineties. She has had every hair color. Her short fiction, personal essays, and journalism have appeared at The Sonder Review, Fiction Southeast, SheKnows, The Fix, and Leafly. Angela runs a blog called Coffee or Suicide where she writes about whatever she wants. You can follow her on Instagram @coffee.or.suicide

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About Alex Zander

Alex Zander resides in Chicago, IL and is the founder and publisher of MK ULTRA Magazine, established 1995. He can also be heard on the MKULTRASOUND PodCast www.soundcloud.com/mkultrasoundpodcast

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