The 1980s and early ’90s were a crazy, mixed-up, and ultimately magical time for Al Jourgensen. But this is a story that has been told several times before. It was told comprehensively, too, in the form of the unmissable Ministry: Trax! Box set that was released in 2015. Aside from the major label releases, everything you wanted to know about Ministry, Al, and his clown car full of side-projects was there, including a trove of rare and previously-unreleased material.
Trax! Rarities collects four vinyl sides’ worth of the Trax! Box rarities and adds one “ultra rare” exclusive as collector bait. But that exclusive is just a totally inessential Revolting Cocks instrumental, making Trax! Rarities redundant. Because, if you are a Ministry or Wax Trax! Records fan, you really need the entire Box.
What Trax! Rarities is good for, at least in vinyl format, is enunciating the drastic artistic shift Jourgensen made in the mid-’80s. (In)famously, Jourgensen has claimed Ministry “sold out” to commercial considerations early in their career, rather than the traditional other way around. Trax! Rarities‘ first two sides are devoted to this nascent, synth-poppy period. None of the nine songs made their way onto Ministry’s 1983 Arista debut, With Sympathy, but they certainly cleared the path for it.
To listen to some of Jourgensen’s past pronouncements, he and the band were forced at gunpoint by Arista to record glossy, Brit-inspired dance-pop songs for With Sympathy, rather than the far more left-field material he wanted to explore. Trax! Rarities puts that storyline to bed once and for all. Here is Al, on these pre-Arista live tracks and finished-sounding demos, in full-on New Wave mode. The Cuban-American singer has already instated his faux-British accent, rhyming “again” with “refrain” with gusto. On live tracks like “What Is the Reason” and “America”, Jourgensen’s ultra-nasal sneering does suggest a latent anger, but it never really comes across in the music. If there were ever any doubt about Jourgensen’s ascetics, the faithful cover of Roxy Music’s tres romantique “Same Old Scene” settles the matter.
There are a couple of minor revelations, in the form of musical colors Jourgensen tried on but never committed to vinyl. “Never Asked For Nothing” is brooding, Joy Division-inspired post-punk, and the superior “Game Is Over” is sweeping, grandiose Europop, in many ways more produced than even With Sympathy. And, in Trax! Rarities‘ most shocking turn, “Let’s Be Happy” is not ironic at all! Instead, it’s a strangely pertinent put-down of the doom-and-gloom news cycle. The problem is, Stephen George’s awesome drumming aside, most of these songs ultimately are forgettable, a fact borne out by their lack if inclusion on With Sympathy.
Sides Three and Four of Trax! Rarites catch up with Jourgensen and Ministry in 1985 after industrial music had become their primary influence. The pulsating, apocalyptic “Self Annoyed” is the best thing in the collection, as Jourgensen reveals a strong Skinny Puppy fixation. That band’s Nivek Ogre actually shows up on the skittish, electro-tinged “Show Me Your Spine” from PTP, just one of the many collaborations Jourgensen and Ministry cohort Paul Barker released on the iconic Wax Trax! label under different names. Revolting Cocks’ perfect trashing of Olivia Newton John’s “Physical” here has the original’s lyrics restored. The 1990 RevCo release featured alternate lyrics after the songwriters took issue with the irreverent take– and quite possibly punishing music, too. Probably the best of the side projects was Pailhead with Minor Threat/Fugazi leader Ian MacKaye, represented here by an alternate version of the manifesto “Don’t Stand In Line”.
What you won’t get on Trax! Rarities is one of the most sought-after Jourgensen outtakes. Under the 1000 Homo DJs moniker, the Ministry gang teamed up with Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor for a cover of Black Sabbath’s “Supernaut”. Reznor did the vocals, but Reznor’s label refused to allow a release on Wax Trax!. The original Reznor vocal version eventually surfaced. You’ll have to shell out for Trax! Box for that, though. The upside is your money will be better spent than on a listenable but ultimately money-grubbing exercise like Trax! Rarities.