Although Cuban-born singer/writer/keyboard player/producer Alain Jourgensen launched Ministry in Chicago as an obnoxiously collegiate modern-dance alliance, he didn’t stop there and wound up becoming a leading pioneer of industrial noise, ripping up rock’s floorboards with a maniacally harsh intensity rarely heard outside sheet-metal factories. It took a while for him to move from point A to point B, but once Jourgensen reached meltdown potential, there was no restraining Ministry. The group became a beehive of spinoff activity (issuing forth Revolting Cocks, Pigface, Lard, Pailhead, 1000 Homo DJs and other bands) and a crucial source of stylistic inspiration. It’s safe to assume that Nine Inch Nails would never have gotten where it is had Jourgensen not gone out on the sonic limb first.
Ministry debuted in 1981 with an EP built around the cloddish “Cold Life.” (That song and “Cold Life Dub” both appear, along with three other long tracks and their remixes, on the half-good/half-bad developmental Twelve Inch Singles compilation.) Signing to a major label, the group — here consisting of Alain Jourgensen and drummer Stephen George, with session guests — made the similar-sounding With Sympathy, co-produced by Ian Taylor and Psychedelic Fur Vince Ely. (The British edition, Work for Love, resequences the record and replaces one track.) A sophomoric dose of yuppie-funk, the LP (which AJ has since totally disowned, blaming coercion by his record label for its contents) is filled with brutish singing and scanty, derivative ideas stretched by numbing repetition beyond any reasonable limits of listenability. Most heinously, “I Wanted to Tell Her” (a finished version of the Cold Life EP’s vocal-less “Primental”) chants the title lyric like a litany, as does “Work for Love,” which adds moronic lyrics to the numbing two-chord vamp.
Fortunately, that was the end of Ministry’s polite attempts at dance-floor accessibility. Produced by Adrian Sherwood, ‘Twitch’ is a far different beast, and the first steps into a murky swamp that subsumes Jourgensen’s distorted, nearly spoken vocals within a pounding electronic rhythm onslaught, with found-sound tape bits and barrages of scratch-mix noise effects. Although much of this unsuccessful experiment throbs along dully, with haphazard intersections of good new ideas and bad old ideas, the militaristic “All Day Remix” (an inter-album single that appears in a better mix on Twelve Inch Singles) offers a cogent demonstration of the direction Jourgensen is headed.
Ministry’s triumphant emergence in The Land of Rape and Honey is heralded by “Stigmata,” a queasy synth riff and a blood-curdling shriek. Co-produced by Jourgensen (calling himself Hypo Luxa) and bassist/keyboardist Paul Barker (Hermes Pan) — Ministry’s two official members — the album steps off the ledge of rock convention for an unnervingly powerful assault. William Rieflin’s thundering drums underpin burning layers of sound, leaving Jourgensen’s deranged vocals fighting frantically to be heard. The Land of Rape and Honey is a spectacular monument to man’s capacity for ugliness.
The Mind Is a Terrible Thing to Taste — on which Jourgensen began listing his given name as Alien — compresses that explosive energy into a tightly wound punk-guitar attack that constantly threatens an explosive catastrophe. If less chaotically unpredictable than its predecessor, the album is no less obsessive in its diabolical power. When Jourgensen chant-roars the title of “Breathe” over and over, obedience seems like the safest course. Chris Connelly (of Fini Tribe and the Revolting Cocks) sings lead on “Cannibal Song” and “Never Believe.”
Six songs with a running time exceeding 40 minutes, In Case You Didn’t Feel Like Showing Up (Live) is a speaker-shredding souvenir of Ministry’s ’89-’90 North American tour, a memorable extravaganza that saw as many as nine musicians — including drummer Martin Atkins and Skinny Puppy’s Nivek Ogre — onstage. Storming through a devastating précis of the two previous LPs, this incarnation of Ministry is a punishing beast, furiously thrashing to a runaway piledriver beat.
As other bands (and horror movies) began to catch up with and even surpass the brutality of Ministry’s overkill, the duo stuck to its guns, ignoring the potential for self- parody, redundancy and the gravitational pull of speed metal with a sensual racket of an album whose title appears only in hand-written Greek. (Officially, it’s known as Psalm 69, with an unlisted and unexplained subtitle of The Way to Succeed and the Way to Suck Eggs.) Amid the shred guitar, jackhammer drums (Ministry has made a virtual religion of unaccented rhythms), samples and cruelly torn vocals of such nihilist outbursts as “Just One Fix,” “N.W.O.,” “Hero” and “Corrosion,” one-song guest Gibby Haynes of the Butthole Surfers makes an inspired choice of collaborator. On a samey album that upholds the band’s creative convictions rather than advance any new ideas, Haynes raises the ante appreciably on “Jesus Built My Hotrod,” which he co-wrote and sings.
The long layoff between albums — accompanied by a temporary move to Austin — didn’t recharge Jourgensen, it aged him. Meanwhile, the competition had consolidated its power, leaving Ministry sounding rattled and unsteady on its feet. Filth Pig has some of the old bark, but the bite is mainly a memory. Sounding more like Suicidal Tendencies or Rollins Band in the thrash-rappy “Dead Guys” and “Crumbs,” Ministry (getting its last work from Bill Rieflin, who was replaced mid-project by Rey Washam, most recently of the Didjits) goes through its paces — the chanted antagonism of “Useless,” the blunt instrument riff moving “Lava” along — like a slow-witted fighter, displaying none of the old heart or fervor. The pointless exercise of covering Dylan’s “Lay Lady Lay” as reverently as possible further undercuts the band’s personality and credibility; “Brick Window” is a good enough song to end with, but the performance allows the final bell to ring without landing any solid blows.
Lead into Gold is Paul Barker’s solo project, a needless opportunity for him to write, perform and sing his own material electronically, with only a guest guitarist chucking in chords here and there. Wrapped in a nifty embossed cover, Age of Reason puts grimly pretentious lyrics (a random couplet: “Covered in mud for glory/Belies our sense of fun”) to plodding songs which Barker sings in an artless voice. The Eno-oriented “Faster Than Light” (also available on a three-song 12-inch entitled Chicks & Speed: Futurism) is the closest thing to a real song you’d want to hear twice.