Germany’s KMFDM began as a quartet of low-tech living-room musicians in Hamburg who unintentionally found themselves in synch with Chicago’s Wax Trax! label, where groups like Ministry were attempting the first fusions of the strident noise of industrial music with the electronic dance rhythms of disco. The mix of sampled speeches, mechanical funk beats, sound collages and growling, distorted vocals on What Do You Know, Deutschland? still sounds aggressive and innovative — and the song “Positive” may be one of rock’s first statements on the AIDS virus.
Making the obvious leap to Wax Trax!, KMFDM magnified its beats on Don’t Blow Your Top and tried to write more cohesive songs on UAIOE. The band (whose name is, among other things, an acronym for Kleine Mitleid für Das Mehrheit — “no pity for the majority,” the punchline to a German joke that doesn’t translate) entered the ’90s with only two of its original members remaining: En Esch (vocals, drums, guitar) and leader Sascha Konietzko (electronics, vocals).
KMFDM began adding more guitars and personal (as opposed to political) angst to its music on Naïve. Like the striking propaganda-style graphics (by the artist Brute!) that decorate most of KMFDM’s album covers, bluntness is the band’s favorite mode of expression. “If I had a shotgun, I’d blow myself to hell,” they sing through electronic effects on “Piggybank.” A lawsuit over a sample forced the album’s deletion in 1993; KMFDM remade five of the songs and reissued it as Naïve-Hell to Go. With venomous remixes like “Leibesleid (Infringement Mix)” and “Go to Hell (Fuck MTV Mix),” Konietzko and pals don’t seem too pleased about the compromise.
More open to new influences than many electro-industrial peers, KMFDM mixed the tag-team raps of the Beastie Boys with grand orchestral samples to come up with the catchy title track to Money, a wandering concept album about baby boomers, fundamentalists and others battling for the minds of the younger generation. A lonesome steel guitar rings over the Nietzsche-goes-disco chants of female backing singers on “Help Us/Save Us/Take Us Away.” Though half the Money songs are throwaways that pound away far too long, the album marks the beginning of KMFDM’s transition into pure aggression, with ceaseless rhythms and plenty of grinding guitars. This enabled the group to pick up bored heavy metal fans looking for a release in more alternative bands like Ministry and Nine Inch Nails. (Konietzko actually remixed songs for Megadeth and White Zombie.)
Angst is the fulfillment of Money‘s promise, a meld of pop choruses, metal guitar riffs and industrial machine-beats that accompanied the band’s relocation to the United States. The lyrics to the infectious manifestos are KMFDM’s love letter to itself: “Light” describes the band’s music as a “frontal assault on the seven senses” and “deified Dada, hard but true.” The album’s best verbal exhibition is “Sucks,” the antithesis of “Light.” “Our music is sampled, totally fake/It’s done by machines ’cause they don’t make mistakes,” Konietzko screams before listing pop stars that share some of KMFDM’s initials (Kylie Minogue, Depeche Mode).
Sin Sex & Salvation, a collaboration between Konietzko and Englishman Raymond Watts (an early KMFDM member who left to make Foetusized industrial music under the name Pig), comes off as a hasty, regressive experiment. Except for two mixes of “Secret Skin,” a second-rate industrial anthem, the five-track EP’s songs go nowhere and seem to have been made by a random punching of synthesizer and sampler buttons.
As Konietzko returned to industrial’s formless roots with Watts, En Esch (the band’s baldest member, and the one most prone to cross-dressing) explored KMFDM’s other main influence — German electro-pop — on his solo album. The underrated Cheesy is low-tech disco performed with a sense of humor and experimentation. “Love me like an animal,” coos falsetto-voiced Liisa Vihma on “Cum.” The introduction to the twelve-minute “Daktari” has Dean Ween (yes, of Ween) scraping his guitar strings as En Esch drops the electronics for a harmonica (yes, a harmonica) solo.
Watts stuck around when the band regrouped on Nihil, a faster, angrier and less accessible album than Angst; it features up to four guitars flailing away at once. “Juke Joint Jezebel,” later remixed into a great pop single by Giorgio Moroder, matches Watts’ deep-voiced musings on sex and religion with looped guitar riffs and electro-funk beats. So overwrought that one can only hope they’re intended as parody, lyrics range from scenes of self-torture (“These eyes are twitching like a cup of squirming flies” in “Flesh”) to clichéd student politics (“Terror,” an original entitled “Search & Destroy”). There’s even a guilty ode about masturbation (“Disobedience”).
At its best, Excessive Force, the band’s side project, is KMFDM lite, with house-music rhythms, samples and pianos softening the sound. At its worst, Excessive Force is KMFDM lazy. On Conquer Your World, Konietzko teams up with Buzz McCoy of My Life With the Thrill Kill Kult for a collection of uneven song scraps, of which “Conquer Your House II,” full of soulful diva vocals and clubby beats, is the only keeper. Gentle Death stars house singer Liz Torres as a dominatrix caught in Excessive Force’s electronic dungeon. Though the band employs a broader palette on the album, using shards of techno music, the theme from “Hall of the Mountain King” and recordings of a Chicago cab driver, Gentle Death nonetheless plays like a half-finished KMFDM album.