Who They Are: Ministry are a long-running American industrial outfit with an evolving membership roster and numerous offshoot bands, all helmed by radically over-the-top Cuban-American singer, musician and producer Alain Jourgensen. He’s a frankly terrifying personage, which is probably why he’s often known as “Uncle Al” to friends and fans, who may have an interest in softening his sharp edges for the sakes of their own sanity. Ministry were founded in the early 1980s in Chicago, initially as a techno-dance flavored electronic outfit featuring Jourgensen singing in a warbly fey voice with an obviously fake English accent. That inauspicious start notwithstanding, Ministry quickly evolved and developed into a slamming hard and innovative American industrial outfit, merging harsh vocals, massed guitars, and brutal electronic rhythms into something unique and awe-inspiring, live and on disc. Their gloriest of glory days aligned with the emergence of Chicago’s Wax Trax Records, which featured Ministry at its dark and cancerous heart, and also served as launching pad for a variety of related acts and artists, including Revolting Cocks (Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor got his start with them), Lard (with Jello Biafra of Dead Kennedys), Lead Into Gold (solo project of long-time Ministry bassist Paul Barker), Pailhead (featuring Ian MacKaye of Minor Threat and Fugazi), and many, many others. Key contributors in the collective’s heyday included Jourgensen and Barker (who branded themselves “Hypo Luxa and Hermes Pan” as house producers for the label), Chris Connelly, Luc Van Acker, Richard 23 (Front 242), the late Bill Rieflin (REM, Swans, KMFDM and King Crimson), the also-late Mike Scaccia (Rigor Mortis), Rey Washam (Scratch Acid, Rapeman), Nivek Ogre (Skinny Puppy) and Martin Atkins (PiL, Pigface). After the tragic demise of Wax Trax (the 2019 film Industrial Accident is an outstanding documentary of the label’s rise and fall, and is highly recommended), Ministry and (less frequently) Revolting Cocks have soldiered on in various formats, typically releasing their finest and most stringent works when the United States is under Republican leadership. I suspect that’s not an accident.
When I First Heard Them: Around 1985, when my regular college days’ weekend haunt was a legendary dance club in Georgetown, Washington, DC, called Poseurs. Ministry’s early singles “I Wanted to Tell Her” and “(Every Day Is) Halloween” were club favorites, guaranteed to make a crowd move, so they spun there often. The lead single for their 1986 album Twitch was called “Over the Shoulder,” another Poseurs’ favorite; it was recognizably Ministry, but harder, and angrier, than anything that had come before it. It also featured a video directed by Peter Christopherson of Throbbing Gristle and Coil, the first of many by him that I have loved over the years. I scored that Twitch album soon after its release, and its second side featured a long suite that (in its time) was one of the most extreme examples of industrial rhythmic mayhem yet put to any vinyl I’d scored. It was, on one plane, just heinous noise, but yet, it also still had a great beat, and you could dance to it, especially when drugs and/or alcohol were involved. Superb stuff. Ministry’s next album, The Land of Rape and Honey (1988), was the point where their intense and insane sound really came into its own, as the core Wax Trax trio of Jourgensen-Barker-Rieflin solidified during its recording and in tours that followed, resulting in an album of ridiculous intensity, but again, with killer beats designed to make a mosh pit or a dance floor move. I bought most everything that Wax Trax issued over the next few years, until they over-extended themselves and diluted the quality of their talent pool, directly contributing to their demise. That was sad when it happened, but Holy Moly, the stuff that came before the end was stellar and hugely influential.
Why I Love Them: The term “industrial music” was originally applied to the likes of England’s Throbbing Gristle, who made brutally atonal art music that deployed traditional instruments (incorrectly) and electronic machinery to create intense, disturbing soundscapes designed to evoke the that Nation’s dark industrial heartland, along with the soul-crushing anomie and atomization that its workers experienced. When Ministry (and the rest of the Wax Trax roster) transitioned from dance-oriented New Wave music into something bigger, darker, and scarier, the term “industrial” was also applied to their work, though it bore only scant resemblance to its English forebears. As it turned out, I was (and remain) a fan of both the former and the latter, deeply so, so I didn’t mind the confusing terminology, as it allowed me to praise and proselytize for different things under a common label. In terms of Ministry (and related bands, who are important parts of the sonic story), what I’ve always most loved about their sound is the way massed guitars, crushing electronically-fortified beats, and lung-shredding vocals are melded into something truly extreme, but yet still featuring killer hooks and anchors and beats which can allow normally extremophobic listeners to engage meaningfully with their music. Jourgensen’s social and political views closely align with mine, too, so when you can hear and process the messages of his songs, that just adds further to their allure for me. As did/does Uncle Al’s ability to boil complex messages down into simple, direct punches to the gut, e.g. their classic environmental justice song “Breathe,” with a chorus that finds Al and his collaborators shouting in rage at the world’s despoilers: “Breathe! Breathe, you fuckers!” Ministry’s 1990 live album and video In Case You Didn’t Feel Like Showing Up is one of the finest concert documents ever produced, a thrilling snapshot of a long-running group at the peak of their powers. A great intro to a particular style, sound, time and place, if you need something more than what I offer below.
#10. “No W” from Houses of the Molé (2004)
#9. “Reload” from Filth Pig (1996)
#8. “(Every Day Is) Halloween” from “All Day / “(Every Day Is) Halloween” 12″ Single (1984)
#7. “Stigmata” from The Land of Rape and Honey (1988)
#6. “Jesus Built My Hotrod (Featuring Gibby Haynes)” from Psalm 69: The Way to Succeed and the Way to Suck Eggs (1992)
#5. “Something Wonderful” from Beers, Steers and Queers (credited to Revolting Cocks) (1990)
#4. “Gila Copter (featuring Timothy Leary)” from Linger Ficken’ Good (credited to Revolting Cocks) (1993)
#3. “Breathe” from The Mind Is a Terrible Thing to Taste (1989) (Note: This version and video are from the outstanding In Case You Didn’t Feel Like Showing Up video).
#2. “The Power of Lard” from The Power of Lard EP (credited to Lard) (1989)
#1. “No Devotion” from Big Sexy Land (credited to Revolting Cocks) (1986)