A Thinking Person’s Guide to Industrial Music

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Like any musical genre or subgenre, trying to fit an artist into a specific sound is a difficult task, and one that’s often fraught with debate. For the sake of argument and against our better judgement, Wikipedia defines industrial music as “a style of experimental music that draws on transgressive and provocative themes,” which could mean a number of things, save for the fact that we know that the slogan “Industrial Music for Industrial People” was coined for the band Throbbing Gristle’s Industrial Records label, and for that Throbbing Gristle should be considered the original industrial band.

After reading Ministry: The Lost Gospels According to Al Jourgensen, the memoir penned by the lead singer of the popular band that, along with Nine Inch Nails, helped bring industrial music to the masses, I started thinking about not only what a surprisingly good book, but also how many of the artists and bands connected to the industrial tag brought art, literature, and philosophy into their work in a way no genre that came after punk has been able to do as well. From the Singularity to science fiction and a heaping dose of William S. Burroughs, here’s a handful of iconic industrial albums, and a few newer ones they influenced.

20 Jazz Funk Greats, Throbbing Gristle

Throbbing Gristle are the original industrial band, and 20 Jazz Funk Greats is their best album, which should really be considered a work of high art.

“Warm Leatherette”/”T.V.O.D.,” The Normal

Possibly the most important record to bridge punk and electronic music when you consider the fact that Daniel Miller also founded Mute Records. Plus, what could be more industrial than a song based on JG Ballard’s Crash?

“Nag Nag Nag” / “Is That Me Finding Someone at the Door Again,” Cabaret Voltaire

Another one of bands that bridged punk with the synth-driven sounds that would help bands like Ministry and Nine Inch Nails sell loads of records, Cabaret Voltaire’s “Nag Nag Nag” still sounds like the soundtrack to a really good dystopian novel.

Information Overload Unit, SPK

Although probably better known for their more synthpop-oriented later album, Machine Age Voodoo, this Australian band’s earliest album is best enjoyed as an accompaniment to David Lynch’s Eraserhead. Also, how many other bands reference Michel Foucault, Walter Benjamin, and Marshall McLuhan in their work?

Killing Joke, Killing Joke

Post-punk fans, goths, and industrial people can fight over what camp Killing Joke fits into, but it’s hard to deny that this is the perfect dystopian soundtrack to what came after punk, and a big influence on many Wax Trax! bands.

2×4, Einstürzende Neubauten

The thing about Einstürzende Neubauten is that the earlier stuff is the best example of an industrial band sounding positively postindustrial, and this live album basically sounds like a gang of Germans broke into a factory and used the broken-down machinery as instruments.

Bites, Skinny Puppy

While Jourgensen and the early incarnation of Ministry still struggled to break out of their underrated goth phase, Skinny Puppy were laying the groundwork for the future of electro-centered industrial to come, and this album comes complete with samples from Alfred Hitchcock’s 1943 film Shadow of a Doubt, as well as Roman Polanski’s The Tenant. Obviously Skinny Puppy were big film buffs at one point.

Holy Money, Swans

It’s really difficult to peg any one tag on Swans, but this 1986 LP sounds like machines churning in the bowels of hell, which is about as industrial as it gets. And while the themes, song titles, and throbbing sound might be enough to scare off the more timid listener, Michael Gira is pretty much the musical equivalent to America’s “Dirty Realism” literary movement.

Trait, Pailhead

We all love Minor Threat, Embrace, Fugazi, and every other band Ian MacKaye was ever in, but sometimes we forget to mention this side project he did where he basically fronted Ministry trying to do hardcore.

Horse Rotorvator, Coil

“The Anal Staircase” is a great name for a song, but this album is worth it for the cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Who by Fire.”

Pretty Hate Machine, Nine Inch Nails

Before he was a rich Oscar winner with a ton of anger he still needed to channel, Trent Reznor was just a dude in Ohio who was using his time off from his job as a janitor to create this masterpiece.

The Land of Rape and Honey, Ministry

With all due respect to Psalm 69: The Way to Succeed and the Way to Suck Eggs, this is the best Ministry album.

Tactical Neural Implant, Front Line Assembly

Industrial meets New Order.

Burned Mind, Wolf Eyes

There’s the synth-driven side of industrial music, and then there are the groups that make walls of noise that call to mind the end of the world. You can easily draw a line to the most extreme music that Throbbing Gristle made to this Detroit band.

The Horror, Pop. 1280

This Brooklyn band sounds like what would happen if members of Suicide and Sonic Youth got together in the ’80s to put out an album on Wax Trax!

Yeezus, Kanye West

You think that maybe a young Kanye stumbled into the Wax Trax! record store in his hometown of Chicago at some point? “Black Skinhead” suggests it’s a possibility.