Features | Retconning

XII :: Industrial and its Ancestors

By Mark Abraham | 3 November 2007

I don’t know anybody who only listens to industrial music unless the only thing they listen to is Nine Inch Nails. And maybe Skinny Puppy and KMFDM. And maybe a lot of people wouldn’t even call those bands industrial. And most people aren’t 15 for their entire lives. So let me start by saying that this column is about the long view, where we examine the routes music took to get to a concept of industrial music and a few of the hurdles it leapt immediately after. Of course, tracing industrial precedents and the genre itself is complex because industrial music is as reliant on a kind of gothic, medium-less tone as it is a normally-but-not-always adoption of electronic techniques. By which I mean, the only real gauge for industrial music is whether or not it sounds industrial, combined with some basic concessions to the kinds of electronic acts that paved the ground upon with industrial, komische, and Psychic TV sprung from. So it’s pretty meaningless at the same time that it’s pretty easy to point out.

Which is why talking about industrial music sort of necessitates a historical view mediated by the use of the term in the first place: “industrial music” was, when it was first lobbed around, a term meant to denote the music of artists rostered at Industrial Records. So it really just meant Throbbing Gristle. And no 15-year-olds listen to Throbbing Gristle.

I tend to think about industrial music more as a mix of several different ideas: it is predicated upon ambient concepts of sound without accepting the limitations ambient imposes upon music. In other words, it goes for the same gut-change tonal shifts that ambient goes for even though it’s pretty clear that Nurse with Wound sounds nothing like Eliane Radigue. They share the same headspace though, I think, and the process of recording industrial music, no matter how loud it might be, is similar to ambient: it’s about repetition and minute changes, and both genres are stealing that headspace from minimalism even as industrial kicks the pulse on the back of industry. Industrial is also, normally, influenced by the metallic sheen of krautrock groups like Tangerine Dream and Kraftwerk; however, I’d also suggest industrial reflects the work of krautrock groups it is less associated with. Neu!, for example, in the sense that the most basic industrial music is the roboticization of the index groove Neu! employed, rubbing the creases down until any motion is simply 1s and 0s in lock step. Finally, the most typical industrial music tends to employ the same artistic concepts as the gothic new wave of groups like Bauhaus and Joy Division, cheerfully rankling consumer capitalism with celebrations of sadomasochism, torture, and genocide. 

The albums on this list are not all industrial; rather, they represent an arc of electronic music that supported the growth of an industrial form. This group is bookended by a whole spate of minimalist/ambient/Varése-based electronic composers on one end and a whole new group of composers and bands on the other that include Radigue, Rylan, and probably Lightning Bolt (simplistic, sure, but the point is more that the firm repetition is again being stamped out). Kraftwerk looms over this arc like a silent moon, grinning at the sounds-of-industry that form the rails that Trans Europa Express could carry weight upon.

Oh…and I should probably refer to it as mechanical or something. So: do you like metal?