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Assimilate: A Critical History of Industrial Music

S. Alexander Reed

More extreme than punk, industrial music revolted against the very ideas of order and reason: it sought to strip away the brainwashing that was identity itself. It aspired to provoke, bewilder, and roar with independence.

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.

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