Industrial Revolution by Jonny Steiner

Posted: May 11, 2008 by Maximum Mike in The Rocking Chair Blog
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I knew the song “Closer”, but nothing could have prepared me for the opening track on Nine Inch Nails’ epic 1994 release “The Downward Spiral” where a man get shot to death. I was thirteen when I picked the album up and it scared the hell out of me. The violence, the intensity, the barrage of sounds and textures were a little more than I could handle. The truth is that I liked it because of its ability to instill the darkest fears in me. I would lie in bed listening to the album, shivering in my jammies even though it was the middle of summer. The music, if stripped of its lush aural soundscapes, would probably seem very straight forward, but with Trent Reznor’s creativity it was anything but. Combining the hooks and crunch of Heavy Metal with a solid dose of Electronica and odd time signatures, Reznor created a musical envelope for his dark brooding personality. In short he was not about Industrial Music, he was of it.

Certainly not the first person to experiment thusly in Rock, Reznor can be accounted as one of the few who was able to make the sound mainstream. Some of the earliest influences came from avant-garde composers like Luigi Russolo, whose manifesto “The Art of Noises” argued that the human ear had grown accustomed to the modern urban soundscape; therefore, new approaches were needed in order to push music forward. He often incorporated household items in his compositions as a way to approach “Noise Sound” (engines, rustling trees, car horns, etc.) and break from conventional music methods. While this was a more abrasive way to enrich the sound palate, other composers were approaching the idea of sound as music from a more ambient perspective. A quick definition, Ambient is a style of music that focuses on sound and atmosphere more than the notes themselves. The immortal John Cage (who any artist dabbling in ambient productions owes their livelihood to) was instrumental in taking everyday sounds and using them in a way to “affirm life – not an attempt to bring order out of chaos nor to suggest improvements in creation, but simply a way of waking up to the very life we’re living.” The best example of this is his 1952 composition “4’33”. A pianist (or an entire orchestra) sits with their instruments without sounding a single note; the point being that the surrounding sounds of the concert hall, people coughing, the air conditioning blowing and so on, create the composition itself.

In this examination of early ideas of Industrial music, it is interesting to note that as the music began to grow in popularity and scope, the songs became about nihilism and despair. The very style that was created as a source of hope for the future of music began to be its death knell. If we look at the idea of the Industrial sound as a deconstruction of known forms, the growth of pain and hopelessness as underlying themes in the music is a natural deconstruction of the love and sex themes in Pop Music that have become familiar. It is Rusollo’s idea taken from the realm of sound and applied to lyric.

Industrial music was still more of a curiosity then a viable movement of its own. It was during the 70s when bands began to take the idea of the music to its potential. There is a trio of bands considered to be the founders of the genre; each brought their own creativity to the form. The first, England’s Throbbing Gristle (yes that is really their name) made powerfully distorted and twisted music; however they were more known for their live shows which were more about performance art. The second band, Einstürzende Neubauten from Germany, focused on the sound itself, pushing the boundaries to their most extreme by using power tools and construction materials. The last, England’s Cabaret Voltaire experimented with Electronica as a tool with which to dig into the harsh sounds the movement was obsessed with. It was raw and unfocused but it was Industrial, and it was something new.

That bands like Nine Inch Nails and KMFDM (more on both soon) were able to create their own tonal landscapes speaks to their predecessors who gave them these very singular musical experiences to draw from. Interestingly enough it was another form of music (that was also viewed as a breakdown) that helped the New Wave of Industrial acts find their voice. Punk’s raw, explosive power was exactly what Industrial artists needed in order to polish their music. Where early Industrial music had a tendency to ramble on in unfocused directions, adding the terse manic energy of Punk directed all of that noise into a more constructed package. Beyond that, bands like England’s Nitzer Eb and Canada’s Skinny Puppy injected pounding Electronic beats that pushed the music forward.

It was bands like Ministry and Germany’s KMFDM who were able to take all of these precedents and create what is considered the true blueprint for Industrial success. KMFDM did it by tapping into Electronic Music and highly distorting it. Consider it Disco music for a generation of audiophiles raised on feedback. Ministry took it to the other side. They filled their music with hammering Heavy Metal guitar riffs, and through that were able to appeal to a much more vast audience.

So the table was set for Nine Inch Nails (whose only real full-time member is Trent Reznor) to take the world by storm. By using his musical talent and charismatic personality, Reznor was able to bring the music into the mainstream and influence an entire sub-genre of imitators with limited talent. The only Nine Inch Nails follower that had any true and lasting success was the Richard Patrick-led Filter. Patrick had toured with NIN as a guitar player on their first couple of tours, and as such drank directly from the Well of Knowledge that is Trent Reznor. Filter’s first hit “Hey Man Nice Shot” had them pegged as a one-hit-wonder, but as they have developed as a band they have successfully distanced themselves from that song, growing lyrically as well as musically.

Industrial music grew from early avant-garde roots to briefly top the charts as the most popular music in the land. As it stands today it is a mere niche, a small footnote in music history. What is interesting about Industrial music is how it grew from a style hell-bent on deconstruction to another cog in the great machine of the music industry. What is even more interesting about that is that none of the artists mentioned here would compromise their sound in order to sell records. So in that respect they made the industry bow to them, if only for a brief period of time.

What I’m listening to: Army of Anyone: Self Titled

Comprising of Robert and Dean Deleo of Stone Temple Pilots and the above mentioned Richard Patrick, the band went a bit under the radar with this, their first release. The music is straight-up Hard Rock, with added nuances courtesy of the Deleo Brothers who seem to play off one another with an almost psychic gift. The music is tight and Richard Patrick’s vocals soar above. A great album.

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