Difficult music for difficult times, some might say: the recent few years have brought an appreciation for darkness on the dancefloor and beyond. A myriad of neighbouring and reciprocally cross-pollinating genres: (drone, witch house and new minimal wave) successfully removed the stigma of kitsch from black metal and goth, but perhaps the most interesting phenomenon occurred with the presence of openly noise and industrial-inspired artists.
Industrial and postindustrial, once movements of immense underground relevance, have spent the last 20 years in a curious niche. The artists which helped establish the movement continued to develop their careers, sometimes in a stable, reliable manner (:Zoviet*France, Nocturnal Emissions), sometimes plotting an unexpected course. Graeme Revell of SPK turned towards film music, Chris Carter and Cosey Fanni Tutti developed their feverish, Ballardian sound as Chris&Cosey/Carter Tutti, while Genesis P-Orridge preached dance as ritual with Psychic TV and eventually turned him/herself into an act of perpetual identity transgression. Current 93 became an outlet for David Tibet’s multiple fascinations, ranging from Crowley to Coptic Christianity, outsider art and Victoriana to 1970s rock – and eventually was embraced by the ‘New Weird’ movement as an unsung forefather.
Meanwhile, the ‘industrial’ label was hijacked by the exalted slush of ‘industrial rock’, Nine Inch Nails, Marilyn Manson, Project Pitchfork, later Ministry – which led to confusion on many levels. These artists offered in fact very ordinary, even boorish heavy rock music, enhanced by samplers and overexpressive image, far removed from the intellectual ambitions of the original industrial movement. Further afield, another group of claimants to the industrial heritage appeared: the pretentious, uninformed provocateurs of martial industrial and neofolk underground, with their fancy for epic neoclassical arrangements and imagery bordering distastefully on political extremes. Last but not least, the noise and power electronics limb of the industrial legacy eventually turned into an infantile and ironically conservative loop of gratuitous violence – what Louis Pattison described as a ”grimy little cult of bedroom losers playing out fantasies of murdering prostitutes on limited cassette tapes”. These unfortunate directions mercilessly bared the limits of industrial’s transgressive pursuits. Liberation and taboo-breaking proved to be a vain, disappointing destination.
The sad fate which industrial suffered encapsulates the failed ambitions of 20th century underground movements. Originally, industrial was not merely another rock subgenre, but a subtler, subversive art current, rooted as much in the information war preached by Burroughs, as well as in dada and surrealism, Antonin Artaud, Situationists and the Fluxus movement. Industrial artists used music as only one of their interdisciplinary tools, all of them aimed at provoking, disorientating, decoding and unmasking what they perceived as oppressive, manipulative mechanisms of modern society. The hypocrisy of the social taboo, relationships between the mainstream and the outcasts, postindustrial inertia was deconstructed on many levels: from classic épater le bourgeois and shock tactics (extreme body art, disturbing visuals, references to universal controversies – totalitarianism, mass murder) to spiritual pursuits (ritualism, occult and magick revival, neoprimitivism, technology as a vehicle of meditation and trance). Elaborate image and symbol politics, which played a vital role in the movement, turned out to be a trap. Once-transgressive strategies quickly became codified, repetitively following the same, predictable routes to catharsis and enlightenment (preferably the easiest one, shock tactics). and enlightenment (preferably the easiest one, shock tactics). Tricksterism and elusive masquerade morphed into buffoonery, perhaps best embodied by Boyd Rice’s perennially-puerile stage persona.
The means to escape this impasse came unexpectedly from the dancefloor, with the works of came unexpectedly from the dancefloor, with the works of Dominick Fernow (Vatican Shadow, Prurient), Demdike Stare or Raime. Techno was never reluctant to embrace industrial and noise, even back in the day – the sick, hallucinatory raves of Psychic TV or fierce psychonautical trips pursued by Coil prove that there existed a creative osmosis between the scenes. Looking back at the catalogues of Mille Plateaux or Mego, the proximity becomes even more obvious. The main difference is redefining industrial as a purely musical phenomenon, not an interdisciplinary strategy anymore. Blackest Ever Black or Modern Love-related artists ”avoid form in favour of impression, concoct sythetic wilderness in urban laboratories (…) seek to effect physiological change rather than pursue intellectual rigour, or depict impossible, imaginary environments of beauty or terror (…) music that leads the listener into a shifting zone which Peter Lamborne Wilson described as the sacred drift, a mode of imaginal travel in which the landscape will once again be invested with meaning, or rather with a liberatory aesthetics”, as David Toop wrote in Ocean of Sound about an impression-oriented turn in music.
Applying this definition to new industrial, we can read it as primarily mood-evoking music, and therefore a variety of ambient. Deliberate aesthetical references build an atmosphere rather. Deliberate aesthetical references build an atmosphere, rather than serving as a mind-decoding tool or alchemical formula. Evoking a feeling in the listener, rather than sabotaging social structures („That’s my aim: to make you feel something. Even if those feelings are negative or uncomfortable” – says Dominick Fernow in an interview with FACT; ”The music that I make is about connection and making people feel something, so I would hope that people would be able to latch onto those very raw, human aspects, and that it could appeal to their base inner nature” – Pharmakon, aka Margaret Chardiet, in an interview for Pitchfork).
This ‘dancefloor’s hidden reverse’ is far from superficial wallpaper, though –it has relevance to contemporary life: Kiran Sande mentions “urban dread” as a state of mind Blackest Ever Black artists aim at embracing. Rory Rowan of Metamute finds a parallel between the ominous sounds generated by Raime and common anxieties of the austerity era. In the titles chosen by Vatican Shadow, there lingers a semiotic play with the current political affairs, especially post 9/11 mediaspeak (”a clash of civilizations”) media language. But perhaps the most interesting aspect is the element of ego-dispelling, which becomes its saving grace. The experience of listening to Pharmakon is especially illuminating. Margaret Chardiet deliberately steers away from online presence and speaks little about herself, which nullifies obvious associations with Diamanda Galas or Jarboe. ”If the only thing you can grasp from it is something so superficial as the fact that I’m a woman making noise, that suggests to me that you’re not listening very carefully”, says Chardiet in an interview with Pitchfork.
The development of the original industrial and post-industrial movements may serve as a warning against identity based-music. Its figureheads – Genesis P-Orridge, Douglas P, David Tibet, Boyd Rice – all struggled with the weight of their charisma with varying success; in practically all of these cases, the persona came to overshadow the work. Today’s industrial-inspired music is refreshingly removed from artist image and identity, as techno originally was. By extracting the predominantly aural aspects from the original context of industrial culture, the music itself is allowed to become relevant once again. **