Sunday, April 24, 2016

The Rise and Fall of Industrial Rock

          I think it's safe to say that the 90s was a strange time for rock music. We saw the more or less linear evolution of Punk and Metal in the late 70s and 80s, two genres that, despite their anti-authoritarian or subversive message, were pretty well-defined. Even the Goth scene, a movement that at times dips into genres beyond Punk and Metal (such as Electronica), was pretty formulaic in its approach to what constitutes "Goth" music. Once the 90s came along, however, rock musicians began to experiment. The traditional formulas of Punk, Metal, and Classic Rock were left by the wayside and we saw the advent of things like "Progressive” rock and "Alternative” rock and “Grunge”. Songs like “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “Losing My Religion” signaled a paradigm shift in the approach to rock music in the early 90s, and the quick rise of bands like Nirvana and R.E.M. paved the way other Grunge and Alternative rock acts such as Pearl Jam, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Primus. Everything else was more or less pushed back underground and Grunge was left to define the decade – that is, until the response finally came in the second half of the decade, in the form of Industrial Rock.
           Industrial Rock can trace its roots back primarily to the Goth rock and Electronica scene of the 1980s. One can point to the dissolution of Joy Division and the advent of New Order as an early example of where we begin to see the crossover between rock and electronic music. The Cure were also reputed to implement things like synthesizers and experimental noises into their music (the albums Faith and Pornography can be cited as early examples of this). Covenant and Kraftwerk are also sometimes cited as more electronic influences on the genre. By the late 1980s, the groundwork had been set and we begin to see the genre take shape; Ministry had released their album The Land of Rape and Honey in 1988 and Nine Inch Nails had begun writing Pretty Hate Machine that same year.
          However, the fledging Industrial rock genre, serving as an evolution of the Goth and Electronica scenes of the 1980s, became a casualty of the rise of Grunge and Alternative rock in the early 1990s. The popularity of Nirvana’s Nevermind and R.E.M’s Out of Time brought about an abandonment of the now well-established Punk, Metal, and Electronica, or any off-shoot of them, in favor of things like the down tempo, gritty guitar sounds of Grunge, or the introduction of non-traditional instruments in Alternative rock (such as the mandolin in “Losing My Religion”), or even the fusion of rock with funk and slap bass that we find with the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Primus. Despite the success of Pretty Hate Machine, Industrial rock remained something underground.
          Fortunately, the experimental nature of the early 1990s didn't last long. Around the mid-90s, we begin to see Industrial rock rise in popularity, mostly as a response to popularity of Grunge at the time. Nine Inch Nails is usually credited as being at the forefront of the Industrial movement; The Downward Spiral is considered one of the band's finest albums and they found success with songs like "Closer" and "Wish". 1996 saw the release of Marilyn Manson's second album, Antichrist Superstar, in which we can see a return to the dark aesthetic and "shock" performance that we saw with Metal and Punk bands of the 1980s. Adding on to the snowballing success of the genre, Rob Zombie released his debut solo album, Hellbilly Deluxe, in 1998, bringing with it such definitive tracks as "Dragula" and "Superbeast" ("Meet the Creeper" was also notably featured on the soundtrack to Twisted Metal III). It is also in 1998 that Orgy released their cover of the New Order song "Blue Monday", which ranked highly on numerous top 10 and top 40 charts.
          Then, at the turn of the century, everything went underground again. This new century seems to have brought with it the rise in popularity of such genres as "Metalcore", “Post-Punk”, "Post-Hardcore", and “Emo” rock. And while there has been a renewed interest in Metal and Punk (the success of bands like The Casualties and Rancid is testament to this), these genres aren't experiencing growth like they did in the 1980s, and the advent of Industrial in the late 1990s seems to have fizzled out with it (it also probably didn't help that Industrial was briefly associated with a certain high school shooting in the late 1990s either). I think it's safe to say that there hasn't been a new definitive entry in the Industrial genre since the late 90s, and any success that the genre has seen since then has come from its already established acts (for example, "The Hand that Feeds" and "Came Back Haunted" are both successful tracks from Nine Inch Nails). It's a shame insofar as Industrial was perhaps the best innovation in rock music from the 1990s (better than Grunge - sorry Nirvana fans), and songs like "Sin", "The Beautiful People", and "Superbeast" are infinitely better than most things making the stage at modern rock music festivals. This is not a call for Industrial to be given the same kind of mainstream attention as other contemporary acts. On the contrary, much like Punk and Metal, Industrial rock is not designed to have the same kind of mainstream success as certain rock acts today. Rather, this is simply a lament that, while we have started to see renewed interest and innovation in Punk and Metal, Industrial has more or less been left derelict.
          Still, there may be hope yet. Like any other genre, Industrial seems to be evolving. On the one hand, there are those acts that stay true to its rock roots, using heavily distorted guitars and acoustic drums - Godflesh is a good example of this, as well as Millennium-era Front Line Assembly. On the other hand, there are those acts that have gravitated more towards the electronic elements of Industrial, minimizing the use of distorted guitars and relying more on creating the oppressive atmosphere associated with Industrial through the use of synthesizers, keyboards, and drum machines. Sometimes referred to as "Aggrotech", one can usually find the likes of Suicide Commando, God Module, and Combichrist in this camp. It may also be worthwhile to point out that there seems to have been an increased interest in this "Electro-Industrial" genre in recent years, interestingly coinciding with the advent of electronic music in general this century. As long as we recognize these two evolutionary branches of Industrial, we may yet see a resurgence in the near future; the Rivethead culture often associated with Industrial seems to be making a comeback, and the persistent success of acts such as Nine Inch Nails seems to be drawing continued attention to the genre. Perhaps we will even see a repeat of what we saw in the late 90s, where Industrial re-emerges as a response to the current obsession society has with "Metalcore" and "Dubstep" (one can only hope).

Originally written for LIKEYOUSAID Magazine 4/15/2016.

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