Imagine a cold, bleak dystopia set to music. Now try dancing to it.
Perhaps more than any other genre, ‘80s industrial rested upon a fundamental contradiction, in fact worked best at its most contradictory. It took years for stalwarts like Skinny Puppy and Ministry to fully drown out their synth-pop origins in onslaughts of noise and metal, while Einsturzende Neubauten and others followed a roughly opposite trajectory, beginning with ear-splitting experimentation, then becoming progressively more listener-friendly with each album. Spanning continents and influences, they met (or at least overlapped) somewhere in the middle: an artistic and commercial grey area, the ultimate successes and failures of which have never been (and may never be) fully mapped out. It is as much a feeling as a sound, danceable but with dark edges, as though the synthesizers and drum machines might turn against their human owners at any moment. And when the sound/feeling worked, as on Ministry’s “Where You At Now?/Crash and Burn/Twitch” (from 1986), it really worked.
Only rarely do the 28 Reagan-and-Thatcher-era tracks on the two-disc Trevor Jackson Presents Metal Dance reach such lofty heights. But nor were they always aspiring to; such is the nature of a rarities collection. Jackson (of Playgroup fame) casts a wide net, wisely avoiding assigning any one label to the proceedings—the words Industrial, Post Punk, and EBM are all included as subtitles—and throwing in everything from Alien Sex Fiend to a surprisingly appropriate selection from John Carpenter’s Escape from New York soundtrack. The collection leans heavily on English groups, at least a couple of which may be questionable inclusions given their relative fame and acknowledged influence (Cabaret Voltaire, Nitzer Ebb). Fortunately all doubts are cleared by the presence of rarer material from elsewhere in the Continent—in particular, Diseño Corbusier’s “Golpe de Amistad”, a Spanish track whose tight synth groove co-exists in strange symbiosis with mildly orgasmic, semi-shouted female vocals reminiscent of Ennio Morricone’s more avant-garde-leaning soundtrack work of 10 to 15 years prior.
The passage of time serves only to amplify a sound equal to more than the sum of its cheesy parts. Significantly, the most inventive moments on Metal Dance make an impression not because of any real or perceived influence on 21st century dance music, but because of the way in which they could only have occurred on EBM or industrial records of the period. The funk fragments enlivening 23 Skidoo’s “Coup (In the Palace)”, the creepy sped-up voices popping up in the middle of Portion Control’s “Divided”, and the church-bell samples haunting Fini Tribe’s “De Testimony (Collapsing Edit)” like ghosts of a pre-industrial past are all effective in large part because of the datedness of the ‘80s production. Therein lies the paradox—and its converse; for the sheer Eighties-ness of the compilation’s weakest track, “The Bubblemen Are Coming” (not surprisingly the work of The Bubblemen, a Love and Rockets offshoot), does nothing more than underscore the groan-inducing novelty lyrics.
As a listening experience, Metal Dance is necessarily inconsistent; as a cultural document, it is invaluable. Which is not to say those interested in actual dancing will be disappointed—there is no shortage of hooks, and some are irresistible—but rather, that potential purchasers are most likely to be collectors, individuals with pre-existing attachments to the genre and fans a few years too young to have experienced the records in their original pressings. A peculiar sort of nostalgia kindles their interest— warm feelings for cold synths, comfort taken in primitive visions of a foreboding future which nevertheless feels somehow infinitely preferable to the here and now.