Assimilate: A Critical History of Industrial Music

[22 August 2013]

By S. Alexander Reed

Reprinted from Assimilate: A Critical History of Industrial Music by S. Alexander Reed (footnotes omitted) with permission from Oxford University Press, Inc. Copyright © S. Alexander Reed 2013. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or printed without permission in writing from the publisher.

Introduction: The Front Lines

1. A Fading Vision Lost in Time

It was April 5, 1991, and Gary Levermore was worried. He’d spent thousands flying the band Front Line Assembly from Vancouver to London for a concert he was promoting that night at the Venue, a seventy-year-old stone building in New Cross. “It wasn’t in the center of town where you’d think it would be easy for people to get to. Instead it was a few miles further south; not on an underground line,” he remembers. The first time Front Line Assembly had played London, in July 1989, the turnout was disastrously low—just twenty or thirty fans, according to one concertgoer. On the band’s live LP from that night, the recorded sound of the crowd cheering had to be edited and recycled from track to track just to give the sonic illusion of a packed room.

Levermore blamed that dismal debut on a national strike, “the first since 1926,” as he recalls. Whatever the cause, though, he needed Front Line Assembly to succeed this time around, not just because he was promoting the show but because they were signed to Third Mind Records, his own label that he’d launched as a teenager in 1982, an outgrowth of his self-published zine Tone Death. Third Mind had grown a bit over the years, but in the early 1990s it was still a small operation, and a good crowd at this show would mean important sales.

When Levermore arrived at the old theater, though, it was clear there would be no repeat of 1989’s miserable show. Wrapped in a long queue down Clifton Ride were some three hundred industrial fans, dressed in black. “I knew that was a significant event,” he says. When the band took the stage, they opened and closed their set with the singles “Iceolate” and “Mental Distortion,” respectively— both hard, electronic dance songs that UK music rag Melody Maker had crowned “single of the week” the previous year.

Front Line Assembly, and with them industrial music as a whole, was on the popular ascendant. Members Bill Leeb and Rhys Fulber had honed a formula of mechanized dance music that fused together manic narratives of high technology, global warfare, emotional suffering, and the uneasy promise of transhumanism. In 1991, plugged-in concertgoers all over Europe and America heard this music as exhilarating and dangerous: the sound of the present crashing into the future.

Industrial music, of course, did not begin in the nineties. Depending on whom you ask, the genre goes back at least to 1975, and its preconditions were set in place much earlier, as the first chapters of this book will explore. That having been said, Front Line Assembly’s early 1990s output is a potent starting place for an exploration of the genre because it clearly illustrates some of the conflicts central to most so-called industrial music of the last thirty years. Take the track “Mindphaser,” which was the first new song they released after playing that memorable 1991 show. The single propelled sales of Tactical Neural Implant, the album it promoted, to more than seventy thousand copies—not enough to crack the pop charts by any stretch, but more than enough to cement it as a classic among clubgoers, DJs, and musicians even now, some two decades later.

“Mindphaser” pits two potentially opposing hearings against one another. The first way to listen focuses our attention on the song’s strange timbres and collage-based construction, its foreboding vision of the future, and Leeb’s dictatorial bark, all the stuff of Cold War agitprop. “Mindphaser” here resembles political action, even if the ideology, movement, or state that it stands for is undefined. Lyrically, the song paints a war between machines and humanity— like something out of The Terminator or The Matrix—but the recording’s compelling cybernetic throb and vocal processing make it hard to know which team we’re supposed to root for.

In using the signifiers of political critique like this without clearly articulating their politics, Front Line Assembly is knowingly operating within and even exemplifying industrial music’s intellectual heritage. “Mindphaser” is welded together from disparate sources, recontextualizing media fragments with limited care about their recognizability—a creative hallmark of the genre handed down from the literary “cut-up” experiments that authors Brion Gysin and William S. Burroughs pioneered in 1959 and beyond. For example, Front Line Assembly’s singer and founding member Leeb lifts a few lyrics directly from the 1988 industrial club hit “The Hacker,” by UK act Clock DVA: “Digital murder, the language of machines.” Entering amidst an ever-changing instrumental palette at just over three minutes into the song is the sound of sheet metal percussion, a musical slogan for the genre, instantly recognizable to anyone who’s heard Kraftwerk’s 1977 proto-industrial anthem “Metal on Metal.” Pervading “Mindphaser” are samples of dialogue from the cyberpunk-inspired film Robocop 2. Beyond this, the music video for the song, directed by Robert Lee, inserts footage of Front Line Assembly smoothly into a montage edited together from clips of the 1989 Japanese sci-fi movie Gunhed. Even the track’s title originated elsewhere: in 1976, Klaus Schulze (formerly of Tangerine Dream) released a twenty-five-minute electronic composition called “Mindphaser,” and perhaps more significantly, Whitehouse, an English industrial noise band (whose style is often called “power electronics”) released their own “Mindphaser” in 1980—a featureless brick of buzzing feedback and groaning sadomasochistic lyrics. This couldn’t have been news to Leeb, who in mid-1980s Vancouver had been known to own the deepest industrial record collection in town.

As we’ll discuss later, this kind of reappropriation has some important aesthetic, political, and philosophical implications, but beyond using industrial music’s cut-up blueprints in the song’s structure and creative process, Front Line Assembly chooses building blocks—Clock DVA, Kraftwerk, RoboCop 2, Gunhed, and Whitehouse—that all exist within the world of ideas, images, sounds, and associations that industrial music traffics in and connotes. At both its deep and outermost levels, then, the song is in dialogue with the industrial genre’s trajectory and routines; with a certain self-awareness, “Mindphaser” summarizes and remixes its own historical context.

This sort of erudite assessment is common in writing about industrial music. Scholar Jason Hanley argues, “Industrial musicians, journalists, and fans worked to construct an active, self-conscious history for themselves in a subculture that viewed musical sound as a form of political action.” Postpunk journalist Simon Reynolds writes not quite incredulously that industrial music is frequently “portrayed as the most content-heavy and intent-heavy form of music ever.” But Hanley and Reynolds are talking about how the music is viewed and portrayed, not whether in unguarded moments it’s made and enjoyed with such monumental gravity. Surely even the stoniest true believers in the genre’s purported “information war” against authority at least occasionally take pleasure in the music as an end unto itself.

This matters because the second way to listen to “Mindphaser” is as a catchy tune. Melody Maker called Tactical Neural Implant “melodious and accessible,” and it’s true that “Mindphaser” follows pretty standard pop logic: built on a 4/4 dance rhythm, its two-chord verses and major-key chorus foreground a coherent lyric whose shoot-em-up narrative is exciting and kinetic, if a little grim. The song would be recognizable if performed “unplugged,” and Mark Dery’s book Escape Velocity: Cyberculture at the End of the Century calls it “cyberpunk rock,” suggesting a closer kinship with the blues origins of rock and roll than with the melting formlessness that characterizes so much early industrial music. The aforementioned promotional clip of “Mindphaser” even won Best Alternative Video at MuchMusic’s 1992 Canadian Music Video Awards. Leeb himself certainly advocates for this pop hearing of the song, laughing with feigned chagrin in a 1992 interview, “I think there are actually a few real songs on [the album]. They have choruses and verses! Yes, I know!” In these ways, it’s a departure from industrial music’s past, and its flirtations with wider popularity seem at first glance to have done little to tear down political control systems or to prepare us for its “war of technology [that] threatens to ignite.”

The tension between these two hearings of “Mindphaser” extends to whole eras of the genre, in fact. Go out to an industrial club today and you’ll hear tunes that more closely resemble pissed off Pet Shop Boys than twenty-first-century Dada. There are plenty who believe that industrial music lost its way at some crossroads between the esoteric lo-fi noise of the late-1970s band Throbbing Gristle and the radio-ready singles of mid-1990s Nine Inch Nails, and indeed it’s pretty easy to construct a simple decline-and-fall narrative, no doubt invoking the idea of “selling out” at some point. Arguments of that sort have certainly been made about punk music and hip-hop (interestingly, over nearly the exact same time period).

But this sort of narrative mourns a supposed loss of integrity without really questioning what that integrity was in the first place, or whom it mattered to and why, or whether the music’s changes over time might be more than just dilution or soul selling. It also reinforces the silly cultural assumption that inaccessible music and art somehow bears a special rectitude. The pages that follow look deeply at issues of this sort, and ultimately they offer an understanding of industrial music that reveals otherwise hidden connections over its lifespan.

2. Industrial Politics and the Pan-Revolutionary

Jason Hanley writes that industrial musicians “create particular modernist aesthetics that attempt to comprehend and comment on what came to be known as the ‘modern crisis’ of the twentieth century.” First things first: modernism, largely arising from western educated society, is a worldview that sharply critiques its own culture’s traditional moral and artistic values of truth, unity, order, and a supposedly self-evident (but rarely voiced) hierarchy of peoples, pleasures, and behaviors. Scholars James Naremore and Patrick Brantlinger characterize modernism as “Aggressively individualistic, contemptuous of bourgeois realism, and sometimes nostalgic for preindustrial society… at once reactionary and new.”

That said, the crisis Hanley is talking about has to do with a certain cultural self-awareness that both fueled and was fueled by modernism early in the twentieth century. Take for instance anthropology’s revelation of the world’s vastly diverse practices of music, religion, economics, social politics, gender, and sex. By presenting so many alternatives to the European and American baselines of post-Enlightenment capitalism, Christianity, and heternormativity, scholars chipped away at the position of privilege that western culture had assumed in its own eyes, revealing the simple but remarkable truth that there were other ways to be. Linguists got in on the action too, once they saw that other cultures’ languages seemed to reflect and encode worldviews different from their own. Implicit in all this research was the nagging question of whether we in the west might be merely another people among many, with languages, social rituals, and economic structures that reflect systemic, culturally relative values so pervasive as to seem invisible, so deeply assumed as to resist articulation.

And in fact, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels had suggested something along these lines in the previous century, indicating that wealthy, powerful social classes tend toward tyranny, not because they’re evil but because their unchecked cultural power all but necessarily blinds them to the perspectives and even the existence of others whom they unknowingly subjugate under their own worldview. This line of thinking suggests not only that we in the west might be largely ignorant of our own behaviors but also that these behaviors themselves might seem wicked once we view them from the outside. At the same time, it distressingly suggests that our worldviews and even our free will might not really be our own, but could instead be handed down from past and present bodies of authority. The image of an agent blind to himself, unwittingly acting out both destruction and enslavement, certainly resonated later during the Cold War era of brainwashing paranoia and conspiracy theories.

So to a certain sensibility within modernist thinking, no single nation or economic class was to blame for western culture’s biggest troubles and identity crises, but instead the central problem lay in the act of cultural programming itself, revealing the mind of the individual as a new battlefield. Unsettled by this reality, some artists and activists with a contrarian streak and a poet’s desire for absolute freedom began to perceive western culture’s most fundamental institutions as infections to be purged. Industrial music’s ideologues and their intellectual allies didn’t just want to discard capitalism or Christianity, but they in fact saw themselves as pan-revolutionary: language, gender identity, beauty, the ego, and logic itself were all prime for the chopping block. These entities are, according to pan-revolutionary thought, insidiously transparent filters that shape our perceptions and identities, doing so with our silent complicity. As the Australian industrial band SPK wrote in 1981, “Control is no longer a sinister plot by ‘them’ vs. ‘us’—a paranoid delusion. It is internalized and operates via consent to remain a balanced/integrated/cooperating citizen.” Their argument here is that we in fact have the power to free ourselves from this conditioning, and only by deprogramming can we really know our true selves and act with free will.

But how does one rid oneself of language? How can a person live in North America or Western Europe and genuinely escape capitalism? Worse yet, isn’t any apparent path out of these ubiquitous, invisible determiners just a feature of their very structures? In their anti-everything insurgency, some would-be revolutionaries have taken to direct political engagement or terrorism as methods of change, but considered respectively, the notion of “working within the system” can seem a euphemism for surrender, and real physical violence often proves ethically unacceptable or ultimately ineffective. These difficulties, probed by social theorists such as Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, make clear that deprogramming isn’t easy. We can understand Throbbing Gristle’s 1979 declaration that “we need some discipline here” as both a send-up of control structures’ power over people and also a dead serious reminder of just how hard it is to divorce oneself from those structures—that it takes real discipline to maintain the void left by deprogramming.

For this reason, radical twentieth-century art has repeatedly pointed toward the irrational as a promising aesthetic and political path. This unreason broadly encompasses surrealism, Dada, discordianism, chaos magick, cyberpunk, and the alternative histories of what author Adam Parfrey calls “Apocalypse Culture.” It helps explain the rigidly arbitrary strangeness that some radical thinkers have embraced in their anti-hierarchical attempts to fill the vacuum left by deprogramming—usually as a preemptive conceptual placeholder, but sometimes as the genuine adoption of some alternative way of being, newly availed. Examples include the oddly regimented public clowning of proto-Throbbing Gristle art troupe COUM Transmissions; the practice of orthographically constrained writing—OuLiPo—to which Belgian band Front 242’s lead singer Jean-Luc De Meyer has dedicated himself in recent years; or the bizarre, Pepsi-obsessed thematics of Negativland’s 1997 album Dispepsi. These little reprogrammings highlight their own arbitrary nature, making them safer, more transparent practices than “normal” or “rational” behavior, which otherwise masquerades as identity and absolute truth. The irrational is most easily articulated through art, because art isn’t subject to the practical, ethical, and economic expectations of other kinds of cultural work. Art also has the bonus of affording low commitment and plausible deniability for the casual or merely curious noncomformist.

Different artistic approaches can serve the pan-revolutionary drive. A common tack within industrial music involves the use of noise, which a lot of musicians and scholars believe is emancipatory, destabilizing, and able to overload and undercut our perceptions of order—Einstürzende Neubauten’s ear-splitting 1993 “Headcleaner” serves as a good example here both in sound and in name. Within industrial music, noise is essential as both a sonic and a conceptual building block. Artists can also symbolically disrupt order by erasing the lines that govern certain kinds of meaning, as with the basic division between subject and object—the self and other—upon which western identity is predicated. Some dedicated artists have achieved this in anatomically transgressive ways, notably the genital self-mutilation themes in the work of Rudolf Schwarzkogler and Bob Flanagan, or the Pandrogyne project of Genesis and Lady Jaye Breyer P-Orridge; the goal of destroying the ego similarly lies at the heart of certain drug practices embraced by freethinkers such as Terence McKenna.

All this is the intellectual tree in which industrial musicians and audiences over time consistently claim lineage. The genre uses menacing aesthetics to embrace the combative fringes of twentieth-century thought, but it almost always does so out of longing for a certain utopia that can be found only before the beginning and after the end of control.

3. Theory and Practice

To gauge how industrial music has historically embodied or deviated from these pan-revolutionary notions, a few concepts are worth articulating at this point. In terms of translating radical twentieth-century ideas into real-world change, an especially useful figure to know about is Guy Debord, who was a postwar artist, vandal, author, and social theorist. Leader of the Parisian group the Situationist International, he studied surrealism and Marxism to arrive at a peculiar set of strategies that went well beyond academic theorizing. Through his book The Society of the Spectacle and through the actions of the Situationist International, Debord was crucial in instigating the May 1968 Paris Uprising, which nearly overthrew the French government. Although the Situationists fell short of revolution, the events of 1968 were a testament to the anticontrol power that Debord and his followers had learned to harness; few have come so close to a modern cultural revolt in a stable western nation, especially with an agenda so artistically rooted.

Two of the Situationist International’s most important tactics were derive and détournement. Dérive is a process of exposing the hidden influences in one’s immediate surroundings by instinctually and intuitively responding to a space— a city, a room, a forest, or even a conceptual environment. Simultaneously dominating and surrendering to this “psychogeography,” dérive manifests in Europe’s squatter culture of the 1970s, and more recently in the “Occupy” movements. The practice is a way to identify and traverse what philosophers Deleuze and Guattari dub “lines of flight”—escape routes. The other important Situationist technique is détournement, which is the act of turning the words, symbols, and actions of authorities back on themselves, recontextualized. As we’ll see, this is a primary behavior of industrial music. It also manifests in hip-hop sampling, Adbusters style artwork, and the aforementioned cut-up techniques of both Gysin and Burroughs. Because Debord’s historical sympathies of anarchism, Marx, and surrealism all align with industrial music’s self-declared lineage, and because his practices not only describe certain behaviors of industrial music but are also historically effective as revolutionary tools, dérive and détournement will recur as ideas throughout this book.

Being the very operating system of western culture, the spectacle (as Debord calls it) is our collective, mediated perception of the world, filtered through language, economics, government, technology, and religion. These forces shape our identity and predetermine a range of our possible actions. One reason they collectively have this power is that they are so big and so ubiquitous as to seem invisible, like water to a fish; they masquerade as “the way things are.” A good word to use here is hegemony, which refers to the surrounding social structures held in place by tacit consensus.

Because hegemony’s control over people is wrapped up in its silent invisibility, Situationist and industrial logic demands that to free ourselves from unwritten rules, we first have to reveal them—and this is done by breaking those rules, provoking their enforcement, and broadcasting the identity and brutality of their agents to all. Debord’s approaches are subtle and irrational in some ways, but they’re effective methods in instigating the glitch, the crash that reveals the operating system’s presence. As scholar Mark Nunes writes, “error signals a path of escape from the predictable confines of informatic control: an opening.” This is part of why a lot of industrial music revels in shocking, transgressive imagery and subject matter: where there is transgression, there is law, and where we reveal law, we reveal external control. In the eyes and ears of many artists, fans, and scholars, one idealized goal of industrial music is to expose tyranny’s face and true nature, hoping to render revolt and systemic implosion all but inevitable.

Systems of power adapt, though, even when the people who helm them cannot; it’s what Debord calls the recuperation of the spectacle, and it’s an ongoing process. An example from within recent music would be the taming of punk rock into new wave and its subsequent repackaging in the 1990s as “alternative.” Recuperation is one of a handful of reasons industrial music can sometimes seem less transgressive than it purports to be: it’s difficult to remain the front lines of this anti-everything struggle for any period of time. It’s certainly the case that once-shocking records like Clock DVA’s paranoid “The Connection Machine” and Die Form’s kinky “Shaved Girls” carry a little less punch in a world where The X Files and online porn are yesterday’s news. It also bears acknowledging that the genre’s reputation for transgression sometimes outpaces its audiovisual reality, because for many artists and audiences ugliness and noise are more appealing as badass personal identity traits than as musical features.

4. What Is This Book?

All this intellectualizing isn’t just some after-the-fact, egghead interpretation of the music; as we’ll see throughout this book, countless industrial musicians and fans readily plug themselves into these ideas and their literary heritage. Subculture historian V. Vale, who edited 1983’s landmark The Industrial Culture Handbook, emphasizes that in the days of the genre’s formation, “everyone actually read books, and we knew who was hip. Everyone I know was a huge Burroughs fan, and I turned them on to J. G. Ballard… We were into the French theorists.” Indeed, Burroughs himself took Cosey Fanny Tutti and Genesis P-Orridge of Throbbing Gristle under his wing, and Al Jourgensen of the band Ministry looked up to Timothy Leary as a personal mentor. The Slovenian band Laibach has collaborated with philosopher Slavoj Žižek, and SPK’s Dominic Guerin casually namedrops the likes of Deleuze and Guattari in interviews. Both from within and outside the industrial community, the claims that this music is knowingly more than mere personal expression and public entertainment are innumerable, earnest, and specific. But in the same way that “Mindphaser” functions as pop, we must not forget industrial music is something that people dance to, make friendships over, and talk about aesthetically— not just politically. For all its anticapitalist positioning, this music is something people buy and sell, and they use it to buy and sell other things, too. Indeed, to what degree can we really suppose that Gary Levermore and Front Line Assembly hoped to dismantle capitalism while worrying about selling enough tickets to pay for a transatlantic flight?

Part of what makes industrial music’s story compelling is the tension between all its theoretically rich ideology and the way that people have really engaged with it. This tension is at the heart of debates over what industrial music is and isn’t, what it means, who listens to it, and why. There are lots of musical and historical features of industrial music worth discussing—and this book digresses into plenty of them—but a dialectic approach allows us to see how the cracks that spider outward from the collision of theory and practice don’t neatly divide makers, fans, and scholars into factions, but instead cut each of us down the middle. It’s the reason we can swell with an urgent promise of the pan-revolutionary while simultaneously rocking out to sampled guitars and huge, distorted drums. The idea here is to understand both the finer points of industrial music’s most articulate theorizing and also the more personal, anecdotal, and even anthropological side of the music and its communities.

This book is foremost a history of industrial music, which means that there’s ample information of the who-did-what-when sort concerning Cabaret Voltaire, Einstürzende Neubauten, Skinny Puppy, Nine Inch Nails, Haujobb, and VNV Nation. There are a lot of songs mentioned in the pages that follow, and so finding a way to listen to them will make the book a more rewarding read. There are plenty of ways to do this online. But a history of industrial music goes beyond playlists; it’s also a history of ideas and identity, and so this book looks at the how the music was born, the reasons behind its changes over time, and its past, present, and future effects on the surrounding world.

This history is called Assimilate because as we’ll see, how industrial music and this surrounding world of hegemonies play off of one another is at once a conflict and a mutual absorption. Throughout the book are musical interpretations that demonstrate the forms of this assimilation. Assimilation also describes the kind of pleasures that the genre’s fans experience: self-consciously, the music assimilates listeners and their bodies in a spectacle of control. Just think of the titular commands given in industrial club classics such as Nitzer Ebb’s 1987 “Let Your Body Learn,” Cyber-Tec Project’s 1995 “Let Your Body Die,” and Combichrist’s 2006 “Get Your Body Beat.” At the same time, listeners assimilate the music too: paying attention to the abstract noise of Throbbing Gristle, NON, Brighter Death Now, or Whitehouse can mean trying—even inadvertently—to rein the sound in to some understandable, meaningful form. As with the sadomasochism that industrial music has thematically invoked from its earliest days, there’s a lingering question here of who’s really in control of whom. It’s also worth mentioning that “Assimilate,” a 1985 dance track by the Canadian band Skinny Puppy, is one of the most recognizable songs in the genre’s history.

To be sure, some artists, topics, labels, regions, and eras receive less attention than others throughout this text. Sometimes this is because other authors have already written incisively and extensively on certain subjects—for example, this book doesn’t attempt to compete with Simon Ford’s exhaustive account of the band Throbbing Gristle in Wreckers of Civilisation; Alexei Monroe’s tome on the Slovenian industrial act Laibach, Interrogation Machine; or Jennifer Shryane’s careful theorizing in Blixa Bargeld and Einstürzende Neubauten: German Experimental Music. In other parts of the present book, it’s doubtless that the authorial biases of leftism, of having grown up in the United States, and of having come to love industrial music early in the 1990s have indubitably colored perceptions of what’s historically important. The scholarly bias of this book also means that there’s a fair bit of prehistory in the first few chapters; readers who’d prefer to cut to the chase are welcome to skip ahead to Chapter 4. At any rate, it’s hoped that any gaps in history or understanding here will be filled by others in the future.

5. The “I-Word”

A critical history of industrial music starts with the problematic question, What is industrial music? Though some purists might think it’s ideal to study in isolation only music that is indisputably “industrial”—releases by the label Industrial Records, 1976–1981—the undeniable reality is that there has existed for three decades since then a body of work referred to as industrial music by fans, marketers, and musicians alike. Taken together, this music constellates a reasonably consistent sound palette, a compatible set of visual aesthetics, a commonly understood lyrical code, and the self-declared lineage already discussed.

It’s necessary to say all this because with unnerving frequency many canonical “industrial” artists deny having anything to do with industrial music. “I’m so industrial that I’m not industrial,” boasts a spoof article in the Sonic Boom e-zine, but the caricature is amazingly accurate. Consider the 1992 press release for Skinny Puppy’s Last Rights, which claims the record “surpass[es] and redefin[es] what the ignorant still call ‘Industrial.’” Or take Bon Harris of Nitzer Ebb, who flatly states, “I never really felt like we fit with the industrial label,” despite naming an album Industrial Complex. Cabaret Voltaire’s Richard Kirk insists that his band doesn’t belong alongside Throbbing Gristle and other first-wave “industrial” acts, stating that the term “was a reference to them, not us.” With more frustration, one famous interviewee for this book refers to the genre’s name as the “I-word,” saying, “I don’t want to be associated with it. It’s like a millstone around my fucking neck.” Taking another approach, Paul Lemos of the Long Island–based act Controlled Bleeding dismisses the whole category, saying, “I don’t know what ‘industrial’ means… such stereotypical categorizations hurt music of any form.” Einstürzende Neubauten percussionist N. U. Unruh similarly declares, “I don’t believe in industrial or whatever.”

Despite all this, in most accepted narratives acts such as Einstürzende Neubauten and Skinny Puppy are the textbook exemplars of industrial, luminaries of the genre. So what gives? If all these artists aren’t industrial, then who is? And if they are all so voluntarily specific in their resistance to being industrial, then what is the opposing cultural force that seeks to include them among all things industrial, and whose side of the story should we listen to?

We can understand this inclusionist cultural force with thoroughness and perhaps a little sympathy if we think about how genre works.

First, one of music’s main functions is in affirming or suggesting identity traits (either real or potential) to listeners; the more successfully these traits line up with or steer a listener’s sense of who she or he wants to be at that moment, the more likely she or he is to identify with and respond positively to the music. These identity traits—ideas like “cool,” “misunderstood,” “cultured,” “dangerous,” “British,” “sexy,” or “mourning”—are socially constructed; they have to do with how people see themselves and one another. When people agree on a repertory or a set of musical ideas as offering a reliably predictable array of identity traits that they can consistently tap into, then they have at once isolated a genre and its genre community. Thus when The Wire editor Chris Bohn says industrial “can only ever be a broad umbrella term which lost its credentials once it included the likes of Nine Inch Nails and Skinny Puppy,” he is distancing himself not merely from certain bands but from the people who listen to them and call them industrial. This attitude declares, “I would rather cast off the remainder of the genre’s output than try to account for any connection between me and those people.

Regardless of how any one person uses a piece of music—even if it’s the composer—genres are socially constructed, just like personal identity. No one person or entity gets to categorize a musical performance, recording, gesture, or idea unilaterally into a genre; instead, as scholars Jennifer Lena and Richard Peterson argue, genres are “systems of orientations, expectations, and conventions that bind together an industry, performers, critics, and fans in making what they identify as a distinctive sort of music.” These orientations, expectations, and conventions are part of what musicologist Jeffrey Kallberg calls the “generic contract,” and they could take the form of a repeated quarter-note kick at 140 bpm in trance techno, or the assumption that rap artists write their own lyrics, or that a band called Cannibal Corpse is not a barbershop quartet.

The boundaries of a genre tend to be both hazy and changing over time. Genre in any medium is neither a prescriptive set of features nor is it a circularly defined body of works, canonized and fixed; instead, it’s perpetually negotiated by artists, by fans and commentators, by marketers and media, and by archivists and academics. Roughly analogous to these four voices in a genre’s development are (according to Lena and Peterson) the four stages that genres tend to pass through over time: from avant-garde to scene-based to industry-based to traditionalist.  These stages have to do with how music is used— aesthetic experimentation versus social engagement versus corporate economy versus cultural preservation—and by whom.

In the case of industrial music, it certainly began at what Lena and Peterson call the avant-garde stage: “quite small, having no more than a dozen participants…  Members play together informally in an effort to create a genre ideal for the group.” This was true with the first generation of English industrial musicians. Beyond that, it certainly spawned scenes, and as this book goes on to assert, with this expansion came a shift in the matter of who determined what is and isn’t industrial—itself an important social process among fans and journalists, as it grants subcultural power and defines aesthetic preferences. Whether industrial music ever fully became an industry-based genre is perhaps debatable, but the music and its communities have at least flirted with— some would say hopped into bed with—both the corporate and the curatorial traditionalists. To see this, one need only look respectively to the boom of American pseudo-industrial rock in the mid and late 1990s (like Stabbing Westward and Linkin Park) and to the emergence of “classic” style Electronic Body Music (EBM) in recent years (like the band Autodafeh, or the 2011 workshop given by Front 242’s Patrick Codenys, “How to Build an EBM Track”).

Importantly for the future, the people who negotiate the generic contract also have the power to kick-start a genre back into a “previous” stage, though from the outside this usually looks like a music’s death and rebirth. So given industrial music’s strongly anticorporate agenda, and given that across the stages of genre trajectory musicians progressively cede control over their work’s uses— from private, to public, to corporate, finally landing in the embalmer’s hands at the traditionalist stage—can it really be a surprise that some musicians feel as though the “industrial” tag has been co-opted, even irreversibly poisoned?

Genres also serve the practical function of introducing subcultural artists and communities to one another. For example, the band PTI tells of handing out their 2003 demo CD on a city street to enthusiastic strangers simply by saying “Chicago Industrial,” instantly aligning themselves with a specific genre. But even if genre labeling can build an audience for upstarts like PTI, it can become an economic constraint to acts whose audience potentially extends beyond that genre’s community; hence the journalistic eyeroller that a band “transcends the genre.”

Industrial fanzine Tanz Der Rosen asserted in 1996 that “even a 3 year old is mature enough to understand the simple chaotic gap between industrial, its later subcultures and noise music,” and indeed it’s important to differentiate among these manifestations and to recognize the difference between, say, SPK circa 1982 and Rotersand circa 2009. This book certainly grants that there are real differences in the artistic intent, musical features, and public use of the music discussed in pages to come; nevertheless the broad label of “industrial” has served to group this cultural repertoire over time, and it’s a more honest history to admit and study this phenomenon than to dismiss entire musical practices that are obviously meaningful to people all over the world, even if the generic contract of later industrial dance music might be differently codified from that of the genre’s pioneering moments.

In the case of industrial music specifically, the divide between the rigidly exclusive view of the music and the more inclusive one carries with it some important conceptual baggage directly related to the earlier question of industrial music’s political agenda. Essentially, what’s at stake is whether industrial music was a single event in history or an ongoing cultural project. This idea will get a deeper treatment later, but for the time being, let’s explore—rather than constrain—what has been called industrial music.

Looking at the genre’s wider chronology like this allows us to see some interesting realities. For example, the incestuous nature of industrial musicians’ social communities has oftentimes led to artists who emerged in the music’s early days, such as Adi Newton (of Clock DVA), Richard Kirk (of Cabaret Voltaire), and Tom Ellard (of Severed Heads), appearing much later on album with younger, poppier acts such as Haujobb, Acid Horse, and Seabound, respectively. And for that matter, the last years of the 2000s saw a revival of interest in industrial music’s experimental early days with rereleases on Frank Maier’s Vinyl on Demand label, a boom of new music in the so-called minimal wave scene, and a growing notion that the blogosphere had begun to recapitulate (without nostalgia) the practices of industrial music’s nearly forgotten tape trading communities of the early 1980s.

In its propensity to cut up culture and make meaning anew, industrial music is best understood in relation to people, politics, technology, and other music. As such, we’ll be listening for the echoes that reverberate between industrial music and totalitarianism, war, punk rock, performance art, techno, and technology.

Keep your ears open—it’s about to get noisy.

S. Alexander Reed is Assistant Professor of Music Theory at the University of Florida. He has published and presented research on vocal timbre, embodiment, postpunk music, and the recordings of Nine Inch Nails, Laurie Anderson, Rammstein, and Tori Amos. Reed has released five albums with his own gothic-industrial band, ThouShaltNot.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/174151-assimilate-a-critical-history-of-industrial-music/