The name Al Jourgensen means many things for many people.
For some, it conjures an image of the dreadlocked metal rustler of the “Jesus Built My Hot Rod” era, clad in shades and cowboy hat. For others, it’s the sludge-metal grind (still bedecked in a cowboy hat, but with dreads graying around the edges) of the Filth Pig era. For others, the name conjures up the dissonant beauty of early industrial rock: the rhythmic gears and searing hammers of the Land of Rape and Honey. There are even those who may remember the time Al Jourgensen resembled Boy George more than the Rob Zombie-Alan Moore hybrid he currently personifies. Yes, Ministry had its dancey synth-pop era, too.
Even when it comes to attitude, Al offers a wide spectrum. There’s the screeching nihilism of “Stigmata” (“Stronger Than Reason / Stronger Than Lies / The Only Truth I Know / Is The Look In Your Eyes”) but then there’s also the fervent environmentalism of the catchy early electro-industrial tune “Over The Shoulder.” Or the classic tongue-in-cheek Goth anthem “Everyday Is Halloween”, counterpoised against the unapologetic politics of “N.W.O. (New World Order)”. And how many other bands can boast of having released an entire anti-George Bush trilogy?
No doubt about it, Ministry has had fun during its diverse career. It’s had drama, and tragedy, too. A poisonous spider bite that nearly killed Jourgensen led him to tackle his heroin addiction and revitalize the band in the early 2000s. In 2012 Jourgensen’s close friend and band-mate Mike Scaccia died of an on-stage heart attack while performing with his other band Rigor Mortis. Having lost his “best friend”, Jourgensen released a final album containing material that he and Scaccia had been working on, and announced that to be the finite end of Ministry.
Of course, a band that spans such a musical gamut over the course of more than three decades doesn’t just end when they stop recording. This is aptly demonstrated by the release of an 8-CD box set containing a diverse range of material – much of it rare, obscure or otherwise hard to find in a single spot – from Ministry’s early era. The Trax! Box, compiled and released for Record Store Day in the US and UK earlier this year, collects early Wax Trax! Records-era Ministry material and a whole lot more.
This is a fun collection, and for those who know Ministry only as the metal mavens of their later years it offers a useful and enlightening glimpse at the breadth of a band whose own ubiquity sometimes overshadowed its pioneering talent. While Ministry had too much of a rock’n’roll attitude to be treated by critics as a band that pioneered new sounds or experimented with boundaries, the fact they were so willing to meld a broad range of styles and reinvent themselves so totally from album to album demonstrates an artistic integrity above and beyond that of the more genre-anchored bands and critics which often looked down on them.
Indifferent to the dictates of genre, Ministry’s shifting crew found a cohort of like-minded spirits with whom they collaborated over the years in equally fun fashion. Jourgensen’s pre-Ministry jamming was with members of Concrete Blonde and My Life With The Thrill Kill Kult. Ministry-era collaborators included long-running colleague Paul Barker, Martin Atkins and Bill Rieflin (Pigface), Nivek Ogre (Skinny Puppy), William S. Burroughs, Paul Raven (Killing Joke), Trent Reznor, and plenty more. He formed the outfit Lard with Jello Biafra, and Acid Horse with Cabaret Voltaire. And that’s only the tip of the iceberg.
Trax! Box features several of these early collaborations. It contains three entire albums from the Revolting Cocks supergroup/side project, which originally comprised Jourgensen, Belgian musician Luc Van Acker, and Richard 23 (Front242). In later years it included Chris Connelly, Gibby Haynes (Butthole Surfers), Paul Barker, Bill Rieflin, and a host of others. In addition, it contains the entirety of RevCo’s 1986 debut album Big Sexy Land, the 1988 live album Live! You Goddamned Son of a Bitch, and the 1990 creative masterpiece of an album Beers, Steers & Queers.
The collection also includes the bulk of the creative output of four other short-lived Ministry side-projects: Pailhead (with Ian Mackaye of Minor Threat, Fugazi), Acid Horse (with Cabaret Voltaire), 1000 Homo DJ’s (featuring contributions from Trent Reznor and Jello Biafra) and PTP (Programming The Psychodrill, which included Chris Connelly and Nivek Ogre).
On top of this, it includes an extensive sampling of early Ministry tracks recorded between 1981-1985. This was the dancey new wave synth-pop era Ministry, an era whose sound Jourgensen would later reject as having been imposed by the label they were signed to. Still, it’s not bad music – and was well-received by audiences at the time – and the collection features several previously unreleased tracks from this era. It also features a number of remixes and demos from this early period, a full CD-worth of previously unreleased rarities, and a bonus live EP from 1982.
There’s so much for the fan, but also for those who might not be familiar with Ministry, or with its early sound long before they approached anything resembling the metal of their later years. It’s about time for a re-appreciation of Ministry’s early career. As someone who considered their metal decade(s) to be more of a rut, I’ve always felt this was their truly creative period: one in which Ministry and its creative network of collaborators weren’t afraid to do something new; to reinvent themselves; to blend genres in ways that enraged purists, and to explore genres nobody ever imagined could possibly exist. The resulting 95 tracks span a wide musical gamut: some of them sound like an ‘80s New Wave dancefloor; others sound like raw footage from an industrial biker rally in a dystopian, post-apocalyptic future. But what links these tracks is pure Ministry attitude – “So What?!” – a devil-may-care over-the-shoulder to critics, genres and musical conventions alike. A nine-hour exploration early Ministry may not be for everyone, but it offers a full-body immersion into a creative era from which today’s artists could learn a lot. And what doesn’t kill you…