Sunday, July 13, 2008

I'd Buy (Almost) Anything By...Ministry

Having written many of these "I'd Buy Anything" posts I think I can solidify my musical watersheds in the following way:
  1. The music my parents and other elders listened to when I was very young. All that stuff has a "living on the farm" resonance which involves wood paneling, flipping through stacks of dusty vinyl, and watching birds through the windows.
  2. The small selection of oddball music videos I saw when we first subscribed to Superchannel.
  3. The groups I discovered while watching "City Limits" on MuchMusic. This was a desperately adolescent time of "pushing the envelope."
  4. The music I heard while working at CKMS...this was a more gentle time of discovery.
I haven't mentioned many City Limits discoveries, partly because most of those groups -- who tended to be permanently angry -- either stopped releasing music or stopped resonating with me. But I'll never forget the night in 1988 when I saw the video for Ministry's "Flashback." It was the first big smooch in my industrial dance love affair.

I love Ministry's sheer ear-gouging power. I also love Al Jourgensen's ability to combine angst with humour, and his desire to try out new ideas, evolving from vapid synthpop to brain-dead metal in just about twenty years. During that time he hit a lot of highpoints, the first of which was certainly "Over the Shoulder." The song makes me think of an out-of-control oil tanker, something which started as a slick little ditty but then got covered by giant remix barnacles. I think this is one of the most interesting songs ever...a highly underrated dancefloor killer and a big part of the birth of the "Wax Trax!" monster.

Next came the guitars, and Ministry began edging industrial culture into heavy metal territory. It was a slow process and it produced a lot of great albums, as well as bulldozing the wilderness so that young folks like White Zombie could take over. I saw Ministry's "Psalm 69" tour, which -- in retrospect -- was a teaser for the band's troubled future. The fans ripped up the chairs in Maple Leaf Gardens to build a forbidden mosh pit and the opening bands were...Sepultura and Helmet. Hmmm.

By the time their next album came out ("Filth Pig") I had already lost much of my enthusiasm, and the album itself seemed like a messy metal goof-off. It didn't help that the cover was so ugly. I totally dismissed "Filth Pig" and its follow-up ("Dark Side of the Spoon") and figured my Ministry love affair was over.

But it turned out the band was just changing faster than I was. Years later I bought both albums and discovered that I loved them. They really ARE messy metal goof-offs, but they're also eclectic and fun and multi-layered, not to mention way ahead of their time. I give you the last TRULY great Ministry song, "Reload."

Given my backtracking on "Filth Pig" and "Dark Side of the Spoon," I should be more careful when I dismiss their subsequent albums, right? Wrong. Coinciding with the slow eclipse of bassist Paul Barker, Jourgensen's musical vision seemed to narrow down to two simple variables: "harder" and "faster." Forget melody or creativity or careful production, just throw out a bunch of albums which sound like...well, generic metal. As much as I appreciate their anti-Bush lyrics I can't enjoy -- let alone recommend -- anything after "Filth Pig."

Albums to buy: as with any band which went through several musical metamorphoses, I have to recommend several: "Twitch" (dark electropop), "Land of Rape and Honey" (perfect guitar/synth balance) and "Filth Pig" (crazy-nutso-loud). Albums to avoid: everything post-"Filth Pig." For fans only: the billion-and-one Jourgensen side-projects and collaborations.

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