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.

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.

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