Techno’s Labor Force, Rock’s Betrayal, and the Birth of the Fascist Groove Thing

Downsized and Outsourced

Meanwhile, in tandem to the rise of industrial, was a burgeoning scene that came to be known as Electronic Body Music (EBM). EBM was fast-paced stroboscopic ‘arpeggio-laced synth music with pounding industrial-sounding motorik beats. Its major proponents also courted fascist comparisons and flirted with totalitarian imagery as the music of Front 242, Laibach, and DAF at times emphasized tyranny, discipline, punishment, and terrorism, with varying degrees of irony and distantiation. The blood-pumping beats also made this a very masculine music, almost ritual musick for the production of adrenalin and testosterone. This also made it quite popular in gay and/or sadomasochistic communities.

All of these associations make as much of a sonic as a political statement. Yet, if these bands were in character, they refused to break it. Front 242 regularly dismissed the notion that the politics of their aggressive sound could reflect upon who they were as individuals, but noted that its intensity and austerity demanded a corresponding performative and visual supplement. Slavoj Zizek has defended Laibach, insisting that Laibach is playing the straight man when they champion military might, uniformity, and nationalism, using this guise to reimagine pop anthems like Europe’s “The Final Countdown” with ambivalently totalitarian lyrics. Zizek argues that Laibach’s lack of commentary underlines the ways in which the hidden fascistic elements of social democracies go unexamined, thus they are “taking the system more seriously than it takes itself” (see the clip below).

The implications of this aesthetic are that no matter how good we tell ourselves that we are, the shadow of our dark history lingers. In industrial civilization, elements of fascism still exist because, to a certain extent, Nazism was the ultimate expression of an industrial civilization, micro-managed without commentary or debate, concerned with productivity and efficiency to the point of eliminating unwanted members of society in a very custodial manner. The collapse of labor as a political force under late capitalism, coupled with the demonization of socialism and communism, has meant that the undemocratic institution of the corporation goes unchecked (the argument that “voting” shareholders democratize business holds little waters since shareholders are bound exclusively by the profit motive).

The politics of EBM and industrial mirrored those of the early 20th century Italian Futurism movement, which openly celebrated power, an accelerated rate of change, technology, military strength, automotive transport, misogyny, and fierce nationalism. Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto called war “the world’s only hygiene”, and Marinetti and his peers were early supporters of the fascist movement in Italy. It’s worth noting that early fascist literature allegedly sought a contract between social democracy and corporatism until the latter eventually phased the former out. However, despite Futurism’s conservatism, its inspired and radical appropriation of technology was progressive in its perspective. Contrary to the transcendentalism of Whitman, Emerson, the Beats, and eventually the ’60s rock hegemony, which rejected society in favor of a more natural state, Futurism proposed that mankind’s creations were as much a part of him as any organ in his body and that technology need not be feared implicitly.

Musically, this translated to symphonies composed on and by machinery. Luigi Russolo’s manifesto The Art of Noises proved instrumental in spearheading a century of electronic composition, influencing every one for Varese to Stockhausen to Cage. The groundwork for Pierre Schaffer’s notion of using real or concrète sound, which would have great influence on industrial music, was arguably laid in The Art of Noises. However, here was a situation where sonic innovation could be easily divorced from political discourse, as the bulk of the 20th century vanguard of electronic composers were far from totalitarian or even corporatist in their worldviews (though their expensive experiments often relied on significant corporate donations).

Regardless of the intentions of groups like Whitehouse and Front 242, their presentation of fascistic elements in their music and demeanor forces the listener to engage in a critical position. Whether they are presenting a mirror or a model, the question is truly whether a ur-fascist motif blends into the culture seamlessly or whether its acceptance would involve a complete overthrow of our current system of values. Rather than sitting in judgment of the dominant culture from a safe distance as the hippies proposed, these artists attempt to identify with it, in the process highlighting its most troublesome aspects, not least of which being the cold allure of its power, valor, and systems of hierarchical dominance. When DAF instruct you to do “Der Mussolini”, branding one of history’s biggest monsters as a dance craze, it’s hard to resist that beat.

As EBM began to grow underground momentum, many of the original industrial artists began to experiment with their sound, inviting synthesizers and drum machines into the mix. Often this sound was in stark contrast to the harsh sturm und drang of their usual compositions. It’s notable that only rarely did the early industrial musicians morph into rock outfits. Most kept electronics and experimental sound design at the forefront. Throbbing Gristle’s late period found them diverging into proto-synthpop and techno directions with driving synth-based efforts like “AB/7A”, “United”, and “Hot on the Heels of Love”, each of which would signal new directions for the group as they pushed forward individually.

Probably the most commercial of the post-Throbbing Gristle projects, Genesis P-Orridge’s Psychic TV played dark occult synthpop complete with its own cult before P-Orridge became a kind of staple of the American acid house scene. Meanwhile, partners and eventual husband and wife duo Chris Carter and Cosey Fanni Tutti made a mix of sometimes experimental and sometimes melodic electronic pop and krautrock as Chris & Casey, Carter Tutti, and CTI. Finally, Throbbing Gristle member Peter Christopherson explored all manner of dark ambient, neo-folk, acid house, and avant-garde compositions with his life partner Jhonn Balance as Coil.

Cabaret Voltaire continued into the ’80s, forging ahead with a kind of dark avant-funk brand of industrial commercial enough to land them on Ferris Bueller’s bedroom wall. The band’s Richard H Kirk additionally branched off, making electronic listening music under his own name and helping launch Warp Records and the bleep sound with Sweet Exorcist. Other once experimental bands like Clock DVA and Skinny Puppy molded their rough sounds into a more dance-friendly format late in the decade as industrial and goth dance clubs began to proliferate. Robert Gorl of DAF would become involved exclusively involved in techno. His 1998 album Sex Drops was produced by Regis, founder of the industrial-tinged techno label Downwards and current member of the Sandwell District collective.

Industrial’s evolution throughout the ’80s, its peak moment, would be characterized by the competing tensions between noise and order, texture and propulsion, dystopianism and futurism. As techno and house’s sound grew in the gay black urban subculture, the parallax EBM and its later Belgian brand new beat became indistinguishable from artists termed “industrial”. In fact, as house and techno began to emerge, there weren’t enough records to make the rounds, so DJs spun anything in their collection with a propulsive beat and a synth melody, plucking from Italo-disco, Hi-NRG, house, EBM, new beat, techno, Manuel Göttsching’s E2-E4, soul, synthpop, and, yes, Industrial at clubs like Amnesia in Ibiza or The Warehouse in Chicago. Industrial fanzines throughout the ’80s and ’90s regularly featured prominent techno/rave artists and vice versa for the rave zines.

Crossovers or remixes from the integrated scenes were regular so that it became hard to tell Sheep on Drugs from a bad techno act or Meat Beat Manifesto from a good one. Likewise, dance groups like LFO would occasionally cut records like “Tied Up”, which fit not only industrial’s sadomasochistic aesthetic of discipline, but sounded like an intimate tour of a box crusher. Even the more chilled out island scene was once a companion to industrial sounds; the first Balearic Beats compilation on Pete Tong’s FFRR in 1989 featured contributions from Nitzer Ebb and Fini Tribe. Later on, prominent industrial label Wax Trax, at the height of its power, distributed the likes of The KLF, Underworld, Autechre, and B12.

A vast number of those making electronic music got their start in industrial, usually in the noisier end of things. Graham Massey of 808 State fame was in the industrial-leaning Biting Tongues. Omni Trio’s Rob Haigh debuted in Truth Club, contemporaries of Whitehouse, before composing some the lushest jungle ever heard. Mark Van Hoen, who worked extensively with Seefeel, has an album called Natural Composite that shows his work as Locust going back as far as the early ’80s when he sounded more like Coil than a hazy summer day. Achim Szepanski cut his teeth in experimental outfits like PD and P.16.D4 before founding Force Inc., which eventually became the groundbreaking Mille Plateaux, which popularized illbient and glitch music.

In the early ’90s, industrial broke through in a big way thanks to the foregrounding of heavy guitars in some the genre’s bigger acts, particularly Ministry and Nine Inch Nails. The latter retained a machinal and electronic vitality for a while, even becoming an advocate for drum n’ bass and recruiting remixers like Aphex Twin, Porter Ricks, The Orb, and Telefon Tel Aviv. In addition, Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails became the US distributor of various releases by respected IDM acts Squarepusher, Autechre, Plaid, and Plug via his Nothing Records imprint. Yet, it was the metal more than the metallurgy of Nine Inch Nails that garnered attention. Earlier in the decade, halfway above-ground acts like The Butthole Surfers and Faith No More had experimented with industrial sounds with mild commercial success, but the massive victory of Nine Inch Nails’s The Downward Spiral heralded in even the old guard (David Bowie, Gary Numan, Motley Crüe), looking to sound hip and up-to-date with industrial records.

Reznor’s protégé Marilyn Manson outsold him, but much of Manson’s “industrial” output consisted of little more than hard rock with some programming underneath. By the time the major labels got a hold of industrial and shat out Filter, Stabbing Westward, Gravity Kills, and God Lives Underwater, the genre had pretty much become untouchable by anyone hoping to retain credibility. That the genre had begun as a reaction against rock and wound becoming another byproduct of it was an irony that was not lost on many of the scene’s top players. By the time this happened, EBM had dissipated completely into techno, industrial dance, trance, crusty rave, and acid house. The noise community, fittingly enough, remained static, submerged in mountains of limited edition tapes.

Industrial sonics would reemerge on the fringes of electronic dance and listening music in the ’90s and the naughts, as the music began to soundtrack a world becoming increasingly virtualized, where industrial labor was downsized and shipped far away from view, and corporatism and neoliberalism started to conquer all aspects of social life.