Do you like heavy music? Really heavy music? I’m not just talking about “too heavy for radio”, with heavy guitar riffs or some “heavy” lyrics. I’m talking about a “boot made of steel stomping your face into the mud of a blood-drenched battlefield during a thunderstorm on the final day of the apocalypse” kind of heavy. I’m talking about Ministry.
Ministry was formed by Al Jourgensen in Chicago in 1981. They began as a synthpop band that essentially catered to the underground, pre-industrial electronic music scene. With early songs like “Every Day Is Halloween,” Ministry’s dark soul could be heard even then, albeit masked by club beats and eyeliner. As Al Jourgensen would say in later years, “…I sold out first to get the exposure and money I needed to do what I really wanted to do (musically)…”
The first hint that things were heading for a change musically was the release of the album “Twitch”, in 1986. While as hooky as his earlier synthpop work, “Twitch” was darker than anything that had been released by the band at that time. According to Jourgensen, the “Twitch” release was more in line with where he’d wanted to take the music from the beginning, but was forced by his previous record label to keep it pop with the “In Sympathy” album (which Al Jourgensen openly despises to this day). Where “In Sympathy” sounded like radio friendly new wave dance music, “Twitch” was more in line with the sound of early industrial pioneers Front 242.
The next transitional release was “The Land of Rape and Honey”, in 1988. This album introduced heavily distorted guitars and blast beats to the mix, and at the time was considered to be some of the heaviest sounding music out there. Ministry’s club kid fans were getting scared, but punks and metal heads were beginning to take notice. The storm clouds were rolling in…
In 1989 the band released “The Mind Is A Terrible Thing To Taste”, and essentially changed the sound of industrial, hardcore and metal. For its time, “The Mind Is A Terrible Thing To Taste” was downright corrosive in its intensity. This is one of the albums that was instrumental in the birth of the percussive, rhythmical guitar riffs that would chart the path for the groove metal guitar style of bands as diverse as Pantera, White Zombie, Soulfly, Nine Inch Nails, Lamb of God, Rammstein, Marilyn Manson, Dethklok and many others (including Anarchy Club ;-)). From the opening riff of “Thieves”, the album is a rhythmical assault of aggressive blast beats crossbred with almost hip hop groove drum lines, mixed with heavily distorted (but, in an odd way, almost funky) buzzsaw, relentless guitars. Add scathing, politically motivated lyrics sung (?) through heavy distortion, and you have the recipe for what would be Ministry’s everlasting tattoo on the face of rock and roll. While not a perfect album, songs like “Thieves”, “Burning Inside”, “Breathe”, “So What”, and even the trippy dreamscape of “Dream Song” make it an essential piece of the modern music puzzle.
I had the pleasure of seeing them live for that tour in Boston, at the infamous, long gone night club, The Channel (This club was Boston’s seedy home for all ages/18+ hardcore and metal shows). The few club kids that were there were petrified and hiding in the back of the club as the entire place became a giant mosh pit of flying bodies and beer bottles. The stage was surrounded by a tall chain link fence that was swaying back and forth to the music of Ministry as the rabid crowd grabbed at it, while Al Jourgensen paced and roared like a caged animal on the other side. I remember climbing to the top and jumping off, back into the chaotic crowd that would ultimately tear the entire fence down by the show’s end.
With the release of “Psalm 69” in 1992, the band’s sound had cast off the last remaining musical threads of their earlier years and had evolved to become, arguably, the first true industrial thrash metal band (as well as laying ground work for elements that would later be incorporated into death metal as it exists today). This album crushes from start to finish, and is a good place to start if you’ve never heard the band. It’s dark, not only because of its general musical and lyrical tone, but also because it openly marks the beginning of Al Jourgensen’s battle with the muse of so many tortured artists before him, heroin, with the song “Just One Fix”. The band played the main stage at Lollapalooza that year (saw that show, too). Their stage show that year could best be described as a post-apocalyptic punk/metal circus of the damned. And yes, I mean that in a GOOD way.
From 1992 until 2008, when Jourgensen decided it was time to put the beast to sleep, Ministry put out a number of albums, sticking to their patented, face melting formula of doom rock. 1996-1999 saw the band go through a spiritually dark downward spiral on the albums “Filth Pig” and “Darkside of the Spoon”, due to Al’s addiction to heroin, changes in the line up, and the suicide of former guitarist William Tucker (who slit his own throat in May of ’99). Though their song “Bad Blood” (from “Darkside of the Spoon”) was featured in The Matrix soundtrack and nominated for a grammy, this was a dark time for the band.
In 2001 Al Jourgensen was bitten by a venomous spider and almost lost his arm. This incident caused him to re-evaluate his life and kick his heroin addiction. The band released “Animositisomina” in 2003. While essentially flying under the radar of the band’s fans, it was a good record, and was their symbolic foothold for climbing out of the abyss they had fallen into.
2004 saw the Release of “Houses of the Molé”, the first album of what would be dubbed the George W. trilogy, a three-album collection of visceral political discontent with then president, George W. Bush. Ministry was back to form, and angrier than ever.
2006 saw the release of the crushingly bombastic “Rio Grande Blood”, the second album in the G.W. trilogy. With members of Killing Joke and Prong joining the band, this album was (and still is) a tour-de-force of politically motivated, grooving thrash metal fury.
Ministry’s final studio album, “The Last Sucker”, was released in 2007. the final installment of the G.W. trilogy, this album is truly one of their best, a fantastic swan song that perfectly captured all that the band was and ever would be. “The Last Sucker” is a white-knuckle ride on a roller coaster straight to Armageddon and back. The album is crushing from start to finish, kickstarting with the riot inciting “Let’s Go”, and ending beautifully with the haunting “End of Days (Part 2)” which wraps a darkly enchanting groove around a sample from Eisenhower’s 1961 prophetic farewell speech that famously warned America of the dangers of a military-based industrial complex and the government control that we now find ourselves surrounded by. It worked for Eisenhower as a warning to the nation back then, and it’s a fitting “I told you so” that summarizes all that the band had to say throughout its long career.
If you made it to the end of this post, and have never heard the band before, I can say honestly that “The Last Sucker” is a must-own album. Thanks for the music, Mr. Jourgensen…
…And thank YOU for reading. So ends class for today.
Yours in Rock,
PS- I recommend checking out Eisenhower’s original farewell speech on the military industrial complex. Pretty heartfelt, intense stuff…