Trent Reznor paved the way for this. Well, okay, Al Jourgensen helped a little, too. The early ‘90s success of bands like Nine Inch Nails and Ministry inspired throngs of would-be musicians to release the machine-like, nihilistic music that had been floating around in their heads for ages, and tiny record labels eager to capitalize on what then looked like the Next Big Thing bit. The early-to-mid ‘90s were a veritable playground for electro-industrial/EBM (that’s Electronic Body Music, as popularized by Front 242) bands, allowing names like Leæther Strip, Wumpscut, Front Line Assembly and Sister Machine Gun some of the most successful sales numbers of their careers. Front 242 itself even got a major label deal. If you were angry and you were electronic, you had a shot in the early ‘90s—especially if you also knew how to play an electric guitar.
Steril first appeared in 1993 with a fairly lackluster debut album called Transmission Pervous as part of that early boom, but found success the following year with a track with better production than the vast majority of its contemporaries. The song is called “Egoist” (from, appropriately enough, the Egoism album), and it combined a house influence with aggressive screaming and explosive metal guitars, meaning that even the electro kids who still held a candle for rock ‘n roll would dance to it. Striving to ride the wave of scene-specific popularity that “Egoist” brought, Steril released one more album a short two years later, the really rather good albeit less successful Venus Trap.
And then Steril disappeared.
Now that the 2000s have hit and George Bush Mach II is wreaking havoc all over the known world, the time would seem ripe for the EBM scene to make a comeback. Slowly but surely, that comeback is happening. Front 242 released its first new studio album in ten years, Leæther Strip just put out its first album since 1997, and there are even whispers of new albums from lesser-known genre mainstays Mentallo and the Fixer and Forma Tadre. And in 2003, Steril released its most varied and adventurous work to date and called it Purification. A new Steril album called Realism will be released this year, and 400 Years of Electronic Music is here to keep the seat warm for it, reminding an audience that might have forgotten Steril’s existence just what exactly was so great about this German trio.
The tracklist for 400 Years of Electronic Music is actually quite well put-together. It would be easy for a band who is attempting to regain entry into a largely indifferent public consciousness to try and emphasize their more recent material in order to push the excitement of what they can do next, but the spread of sources is balanced across all of Steril’s albums, with only Transmission Pervous getting shafted at all with the admittedly deserved count of only one contribution.
The primary problem with 400 Years of Electronic Music has as much to do with release dates as the music that Steril has put together over the years. Given that three of Steril’s albums were released in a span of four years, it’s only natural that an awful lot of the tracks from those albums are going to sound similar to each other. So it goes with tracks like “Shame” (a track from Venus Trap that happens to bear uncomfortable similarities to Prodigy’s “Firestarter”), “No Remission” (from Transmission Pervous), and even “Egoist”. Dance beats, guitars, and grunted / yelped / occasionally sung vocals tightly mix together to create a sinister mélange of highly danceable tunes. These songs are invariably well put-together (despite the hit-or-miss quality of the vocals, particularly the undistorted, sung ones), but it’s difficult to remember after a listen through the album whether, say, “Connected” or “Overgod” was that really fast song with the guitars that you liked.
The one song in the ‘90s bunch that does stick out is the aggressive “Temper”, whose metal guitars are more pronounced and constant than in the rest of the tracks, not to mention the presence of a brief, unintentionally hilarious hip-hop break that actually has the audacity to reference Michael Jackson’s Thriller.
These similarities leave it to the three tracks from Purification to change things up a bit. The disc actually opens with “Strange Pusher”, a strange little song that doesn’t really say much, but does play up Steril’s house music leanings more than anything else on 400 Years of Electronic Music, beat and synth-wise. “Guess” is startling for its inclusion of a female guest vocalist called L-ja, the presence of whom actually gives the track a feel not far off from that of recent KMFDM. Finally, “I Get Closer” is mostly here as assurance that Steril hasn’t deviated that much from what they used to do, though the sung vocals here are more on-pitch than on any other track on the album.
Really, 400 Years of Electronic Music is best identified as a window to a time when the combination of unchanging programmed beats, aggressive synths, and growled vocals was actually gaining momentum as a musical option. The unfortunate truth is that the limitations of such a setup were quickly realized, and transcending those limitations via strong songwriting or varied approaches simply proved too difficult for bands of Steril’s ilk. Now that some of those same bands are finally starting to figure out ways to expand their sounds, a compilation like this is most interesting in that it shows just how far Steril, and the genre as a whole, has come. That said, there’s nothing quite like a little four-on-the-floor adrenaline once in a while.
Steril were neither the best nor the most popular band of their genre in their time—even so, they did solid work and were excellent at appealing to a predefined audience. 400 Years of Electronic Music stands as proof.