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Industrial Music: A Journey Through Its Iconic Artists and Records

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Industrial Music - iMusician

The 1970s were a highly influential decade in music history, giving rise to several genres and subgenres. Among them is industrial music, which has dazzled society (or perhaps rather shocked) with its unmistakable, harsh nature and bold, provocative sounds and themes.

In this article, we’re looking at the emergence and evolution of industrial music, setting off on a journey through the most iconic industrial music artists and records. Will you join us for a ride?

TRIGGER WARNING: The following text contains mentions of addiction, mental health issues, and suicide.

What defines industrial music?

Industrial music is characterized by a vigorous and abrasive fusion of electronic music with elements of other genres, typically rock, hardcore punk rock, punk, and metal. Industrial music artists often use instruments commonly applied in rock music, such as the guitar, bass, and drums, and pair them with sequencers and synthesizers, which are more typical for dub, dance music, or hip-hop.

The result of this crossover of divergent elements and instruments traditionally leads to a harsh, menacing, and transgressive sound, further incorporating vocals, high repeatability, tape loops, and intentional mechanical qualities.

The genre’s provocative and strident personality is also often reflected in the subject matters of the compositions and the aesthetics associated with them. Industrial music artists often deal with rather controversial themes and taboos. Musically, lyrically, and visually, they address topics such as sexual perversion (like in Nine Inch Nails's song "Closer"), addiction, dehumanization, alienation, cultural violence, fascism (and other extremist political ideologies), or the occult. Notably, J.G. Ballard’s provocative works exploring abnormal sexuality and the cut-up technique popularized by William S. Burroughs have often been cited as key literary influences on industrial music.

Some industrial musicians approach the genre as an avant-garde art movement and may blend literal industrial sounds from machines and other experimental sounds and noises into their recordings. This was notably seen and heard in Lou Reed’s 1975 album Metal Machine Music, which was deeply misunderstood by both the public and music critics.

Sampling and using previously recorded sounds, including recordings of musical instruments, human voices, and the natural environment, is extensively applied in industrial music tracks. Musique concrète is one of the genre’s characteristics, referring to a type of composition that uses recorded sounds as raw materials. Such sounds are often manipulated and modified through the application of tape music techniques and audio signal processing that are then assembled in the form of an audio collage.

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Emergence and early stages of industrial music (1970s)

The origin of industrial music dates back to the early-to-mid-1970s in the United Kingdom. The term ‘industrial music,’ however, was coined much earlier — in 1942 when The Musical Quarterly called Dimitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 2 "the high tide of 'industrial music.'" Later, in 1972, the New York Times also used the term to describe works by American composer Ferde Grofé. While these compositions did not mirror the genre that industrial music would ultimately become, they are considered the first musical depictions of "machinery noise and factory atmosphere."

It is said that industrial music emerged as a response to an age that was first to be visibly dominated by the overflow of information and in which the control of information was becoming the primary tool of power.

For industrial musicians, particularly in the early stages of the genre, music served as a form of expression, communicating their view of and relationship with the world and society (often of a dystopian nature). When listening to the music, listeners were invited (or potentially awakened) to question the world around them and make their own assessment of the social changes and waves at the time.

Additionally, by experimenting with technology, implementing harsh, assaultive sounds, and writing disturbing lyrics, artists aimed to tear apart the preconceptions of what music should be and sound like. This way, they countered the rules that aimed to dictate its musical form.

Crucial in developing and expanding the genre was the establishment of two industrial music record labels — Industrial Records and Wax Trax! Records. Industrial Records was established in 1976 by the British band Throbbing Gristle, which later became one of the genre’s most noteworthy acts. Although the band created the label primarily for self-releases, they also signed several other groups and artists, including Cabaret Voltaire, Monte Cazazza, and Clock DVA. Calling the label ‘Industrial Records’ was also the final step in officially naming the genre ‘industrial music.’

While Throbbing Gristle’s label played a crucial role in getting the works of industrial music artists out into the world, Wax Trax! Records was instrumental in the genre gaining widespread attention in the early 1980s. Based in Chicago, the label became essential in promoting the local industrial music scene as well as releasing music from several European bands. Among the most prominent industrial acts released by Wax Trax! throughout the years were Minimal Compact, Sister Machine Gun, Chris Connelly, and Cubanate.

‘D.o.A: The Third and Final Report of Throbbing Gristle’ is the second album by Throbbing Gristle following their debut (and one of the very first industrial music records) in 1974.

The album is considered an essential recording, featuring haunting and nauseous guitar-and-string scratching, immaculate bleeps and bloops, and psychedelic sound collages. The song ‘Hamburger Lady’ featured on the record is often highlighted as the band’s greatest release.

Expansion of the genre (1980s)

Industrial music expanded considerably between the end of the 1970s and the beginning of the 1980s. The genre saw the birth of bands like Nocturnal Emissions, Spk, Nurse with Wound, and Whitehouse, which was mainly known for composing "brutal and extreme music."

Industrial music in the 1980s was also greatly influenced by experimentation, particularly with elements of different genres. While Monte Cazazza was intrigued by white noise, Cabaret Voltaire was deeply interested in funk music. In Germany, the band Einstürzende Neubauten embraced metal music aesthetics and was known for creating music by crashing metal pieces against each other. Artists like Test Dept, Laibach, and Die Krupps adopted this music style, too.

It is also noteworthy to mention that after the breakup of Throbbing Gristle in 1981, some of its original members went on to form a new band called Psychic TV, making their music more accessible in sound and incorporating elements of disco music.

The general trend of moving away from industrial music's original sound ultimately resulted in the emergence of numerous substyles and genre fusions, such as power electronics, industrial rock, industrial metal, industrial pop, industrial techno, dark ambient, and witch house.

The Canadian band Skinny Puppy released their fourth album, VIVIsectVI, in the autumn of 1988. While the band’s work was generally overshadowed by its often ludicrous and obscure onstage theatrics (e.g., interaction with a crucifix or eating something to represent raw meat), the album received critical acclaim and recognition as a landmark piece in industrial music.

The record's disturbing, rigid, mechanical, and sample-heavy sound perfectly mirrors the characteristics of Skinny Puppy’s style. Musically and visually, it tackles controversial themes and topics, including animal rights, environmental waste, and chemical warfare.

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Soliloquy for Lilith is an album released by Nurse With Wound, a British experimental project (originally a band). The project is known for tapping into drone music, using sustained sounds, notes, or tone clusters called drones.

The album represents some of its most exquisite works. It is particularly renowned for utilizing the chance music method of composition, in which some elements of the composition are simply left to chance.

The album Front By Front by Belgians Front 242 is considered another masterpiece of industrial music. The record is a perfect example of electronic body music (EBM) — a style that the band pioneered, blending industrial music and synth-punk with elements of dance music.

Particularly, the song "Headhunter" has been culturally celebrated and is considered an industrial dancefloor hit. Due to the song’s great success, Front By Front became the top-selling album in the history of Wax Trax! Records.

Mainstream success of industrial music (1990s)

While expanding into new territories, particularly across the US, Europe, and Japan, industrial music was long overlooked and criticized by music journalists. It was in the early 1990s that the genre, no longer a new artistic wave, grew popular with middle-class youth in suburban and rural areas and finally broke into the mainstream.

Several acts associated with industrial music achieved great popularity and commercial success during that period, many of whom have remained prominent musicians to this day. Among the most widely-known industrial musicians are Ministry, Orgy, the German band Rammstein, and Nine Inch Nails.

Nine Inch Nails (NIN) have become the pillar of modern industrial music and are one of the genre's most commercially successful and critically acclaimed acts. They have sold over 20 million records worldwide and have been nominated for 13 Grammy Awards, having won twice.

Pretty Hate Machine is their debut album, which, for the first time, reveals the remarkable creative mind of Trent Reznor, who composed, wrote, and produced the record (as well as most of the band’s later work).

Pitchfork describes it as the one that "brought industrial to the masses and is a great unifier of them." The album features a heavily synth-driven electronic sound that blends rock and industrial music elements and lyrically tackles themes of lovesickness, angst, rage, and betrayal, which the band often explores in their work.

While Pretty Hate Machine was a well-received debut album, it was the band’s third record that hijacked Nine Inch Nails on a trajectory towards universal praise and recognition. As a conceptual album, The Downward Spiral takes us on a life-or-death path of self-destruction of a man, detailing his journey from the beginning of his "downward spiral" to his suicidal breaking point.

To a certain extent, the record follows the life of Reznor, who frequently struggled with drug abuse and depression. The protagonist, assumingly Reznor himself, deals with several issues and subject topics throughout the record, from religion to dehumanization to drugs, violence, and, finally, suicide.

Unlike Pretty Hate Machine, which draws on synth-pop influence, The Downward Spiral features techno, industrial rock, metal, and ambient music elements. Drawing artistic inspiration from David Bowie's Low and Pink Floyd's The Wall, the record was praised for its dark motifs and biting, eclectic nature. Among the album's most popular songs are "Closer," "March Of The Pigs," and "Hurt."

In their fifth studio album, Psalm 69, Ministry lyrically dives into religious, social, and political topics, wrapping their thoughts and reflections in elements of speed metal, rockabilly, and psychobilly.

While the making of the record was reportedly strongly influenced by the growing substance abuse of some of the band’s members and worsening relationships between each other, the album managed to achieve similar success as their previous work, The Mind Is a Terrible Thing to Taste. The album was featured on Rolling Stone’s "Top 100 Greatest Metal Albums of All Time" list and made it into the book "1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die."

Conclusion

Industrial music has often been perceived as a controversial and chaotic genre, drawing on strident sounds and typically exploring abrasive motifs. However, it was the work of several artists and bands that showed that there could be some kind of revelry in the chaos, harshness, and darkness.

Throughout the years, industrial music has not only received significant commercial success and popularity but also influenced many artists of other genres. In more recent times, this has been the case of Carly Rae Jepsen, who collaborated with Skinny Puppy’s former member Dave Ogilvie, and Halsey, whose 2021 album If I Can't Have Love, I Want Power was produced by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. Also, Lady Gaga is known for blending influences of other genres into her work — her album Born This Way incorporated, among other things, elements of industrial music.

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