Ministry - ΚΕΦΑΛΗΞΘ [Psalm 69] (1992)
The industrial metal sound was essentially invented by two fairly different but no less forward-thinking artists on opposite sides of the globe during the late 1980’s. On the one side you had former Napalm Death guitarist Justin Broadrick’s Godflesh project coming out of Birmingham, England which was potentially the first to combine a genuine metal sound with industrial music. And on the other side of the globe you had Chicago four-piece Ministry who had slowly integrated a metal component into their sound over many years after beginning life as something entirely different. Both have maintained their presence in the scene for the more than three decades that have since passed &, as is so often the case in music, the originators have not only retained their relevance but are still the benchmark with which all industrial metal is judged. I love them both but it’s interesting that the emotions they are each capable of drawing from me are quite different &, despite utilizing similar tool sets, I wouldn’t say that they sound particularly alike either.
Ministry actually predate Godflesh by many years, having first formed as a synthpop act way back in 1981. The band is centred around the musical genius of multi-instrumentalist Al Jourgensen who is a complex & constantly evolving human being, not only from a musical sense but also from a personal one. It’s interesting that he’s given drastically contrasting accounts of how his extreme change in musical direction took place. At one point Al had downplayed his early stylistic approach & he was quoted as saying that his original record label Arista Records had assumed total creative control over the product that Ministry were producing & that the musical direction was the result of Arista having engaged external writers & producers. During another interview he changed his story slightly by stating that Arista had pressured him into adopting a sound that was more likely to be commercially successful in the market of the day. Then thirdly, there are various accounts of Al simply saying that his discovery of hardcore punk in the mid-1980’s had led to him consciously making the decision to change his style which would indicate that he had actually never had any ambitions towards a heavier sound during the early 80’s. The third option sounds the most likely to me & also seems to be backed up by his ex-wife Patty Marsh. Regardless of which story is true though, Ministry’s transition to a new label in the Warner Brothers affiliated Sire Records would see the new wave synthpop of their 1983 debut album “With Sympathy” being converted into a noticeably more industrial, electro-tinged sound for 1986’s sophomore album “Twitch” with the influence of his co-producer Adrian Sherwood & some recent touring with EBM masters Front 242 having a significant impact on the result. It would see Al becoming progressively more open to aggressive & abrasive sounds over the coming years with 1988’s “Land Of Rape & Honey” testing the waters with a significant metal component before 1989’s “The Mind Is A Terrible Thing To Taste” album took things to their next logical extreme with Ministry finally committing to a fully integrated industrial metal sound.
My first experiences with Ministry came through the singles that were taken from “The Mind Is A Terrible Thing To Taste” with both “Burning Inside” & “So What” getting regular plays on late-night metal radio during the early 1990’s. I liked what I heard too. It all sounded so fresh & exciting although I have to admit that I was absolutely enraptured with the extreme metal scene at the time so I don’t think I ever sought out the full album until my brother Ben picked it & “The Land Of Rape & Honey” up shortly after becoming obsessed with Ministry’s 1992 album “Psalm 69”. Both of these records were very strong & important releases that played a huge part in the creation of a steadily growing US industrial metal scene that saw the likes of New Jersey’s Old & Boston’s Skin Chamber competing head to head with English industrialists Godflesh & Pitch Shifter.
So this brings us to the before-mentioned “Psalm 69: The Way To Succeed & The Way To Suck Eggs” album; a release that would see Ministry taking further steps into the commercial stratosphere & one that is generally regarded as Jourgenson’s finest hour. It would also be Ministry’s last full-length with Sire Records as its subsequent success would see them being promoted by Warner Brothers with their next couple of albums receiving major label backing. “Psalm 69” would be produced by Al Jourgensen in conjunction with full-time collaborator & bass player Paul Barker with recordings taking place in both Chicago & Lake Geneva over more than a year from March 1991 to May 1992. The album was originally intended to be titled “The Tapes Of Wrath” however this would change over time with Al eventually opting to go with a title derived from the 69th chapter of Aleister Crowley’s 1913 text “The Book Of Lies” which is essentially a reference to the 69 sexual position.
The cover artwork for “Psalm 69” was created by photographer Paul Elledge who had hit it off with Jourgensen after being employed to shoot the band on their tour for “The Mind Is A Terrible Thing To Taste”. The two men had stayed up all night partying & this eventually led to a long-term business arrangement that saw Elledge providing the artwork for several Ministry releases over the coming years. Jourgensen gave Elledge a copy of the album recordings & Crowley’s book as reference points & the piece that eventually made the front cover was a triple exposure that Elledge felt best represented the imagery he’d uncovered in Ministry’s music & concept. It’s quite a striking image & I’m not sure it really suits the sound of the album as a whole but it certainly suits the dark majesty of some of the more easy-paced tracks like “Scare Crow” & particularly the title track. The image of the alien-esque angel has an uncomfortable quality to it that I find to be quite similar to David Lynch’s seminal “Eraserhead” film. It’s interesting that Godflesh mastermind Justin Broadrick has been quoted as saying that his classic 1989 industrial metal album “Streetcleaner” was the result of late-night “Eraserhead” viewing sessions whilst under the influence of LSD so the film seems to be in some way linked to the development of the industrial metal subgenre. It was a huge film for me personally too so perhaps that’s why I feel such an attraction to this sort of record given that the more industrial material almost mimics the tension & uneasiness of the film, although admittedly not as closely as Broadrick’s vision would. The front cover wouldn’t feature any reference to the band name or album title & I have to admit that I always question the sense in this practice as it seems to me to be a little self-indulgent.
As with all good industrial metal, the production job that Al & Paul achieved for “Psalm 69” is almost as important as the music itself & is a magnificent example of its type. Warner Brothers had given Ministry a huge budget to work with as they’d been anticipating a major breakthrough hit following the underground buzz around the band’s previous album. Jourgensen, his wife Patty & guitarist Mike Scaccia apparently proceeded to blow most of the budget by purchasing around $1,000 worth of drugs a day but it doesn’t seem to have had a negative effect on the result. The guitar tone they achieved is absolutely superb & it gives songs like “Just One Fix”, “Jesus Built My Hotrod” & the title track an electricity & power that is impossible to ignore. It really does announce the band in no uncertain terms & then proceeds to grab your head & stuff it down your neck. Paul’s bass tone only accentuates this effect as it possesses fantastic weight & ties in beautifully with the album’s industrial themes. Bill Rieflin’s drum kit sounds suitably mechanical but if there’s one weakness to this overall production I’d suggest that it’s Bill’s snare sound which stands out in the mix very obviously. I’d describe it as a tinny slap &, although this sound would be repeated on dozens of industrial releases over the years, I can’t help but feel that Ministry might have been better served to go with something a little more bottom heavy. But fear not… the wealth of professionally layered & processed samples are nothing short of astonishing & the use of doubled & heavily effected vocals is also a major selling point that adds substantially to the unhinged & drug-addled atmosphere of “Psalm 69”. The overall package is a huge feather in Jourgensen & Barker’s caps & it shows the advantages of having a diverse array of experience to draw upon across several disparate genres. I’m honestly not sure that the album would have been quite as successful had it not been presented in such a professional & cutting-edge manner. On a side note, I'm not sure if it's just the Spotify version of the album I've been revisiting this week or not but there's a noticeable difference in volume between the various tracks & this isn't something I remember from the CD copy I'd grown up with so perhaps it's just a quirk in the streamed rip.
Musically, this was definitely the fastest & most exciting sounding Ministry record to date with the metal component having been turned up to ten on the majority of the tracklisting. In many ways it represents the most perfect union of Jourgensen’s industrial & metal influences with both components playing an equal role in the success of the record. The drum tracks have been tailor made to provide a consistent (& at times hypnotic) pulse that gives the simple yet extremely high-quality metal riffs plenty of room to inflict maximum damage. I can only imagine that the increased involvement of Scaccia in the recording process has had an impact on the riff-heavy style of many of these tracks because there’s been a noticeable step up in this department, particularly in the repeated references to thrash metal in some of the tremolo-picked bottom-string chug riffs on songs like “Just One Fix” & “Jesus Built My Hotrod”. A couple of the slower & more lumbering riff sections strangely remind me very much of early 90’s Bathory which can only be a compliment & the level of variety that’s been achieved without ever feeling like they’ve sacrificed on focus is a real highlight.
Jourgensen & Barker were masters of tension & release & you can easily see that in their layering of the lead guitar parts which are used more as a textural tool than a melodic one most of the time. I can pick up more than the odd nod towards dance music in the band’s command of the dancefloor whilst never losing sight of their underground metal appeal. The transitions are a brilliant example of this with well-timed single-bar adjustments being used to introduce a switch back to the main theme in a similar way to that employed by techno producers. In fact, several of the big hits from “Psalm 69” would go on to become dancefloor anthems at goth & alternative clubs for decades to come given their strong beats & danceable tempos. The samples showcase a very well-defined theme with the whole record having a dark & ominous atmosphere but also dripping with a drug-crazed insanity that reminds me of a Rob Zombie horror flick. This would be an element that would be borrowed by not only Zombie himself but also by hundreds of industrial metal wannabes over the years. The slower material like the epic doom monster “Scare Crow” very effectively draws me back to my drug-fueled nights spent in Sydney goth clubs during the mid-90’s with Jourgensen seemingly tapping into the cerebral power of that sort of environment. He really is the clear ring-leader of this psychotic circus & there’s a unquestionable genius in his madness.
It’s interesting that the album gets more industrial as it goes on & culminates with the last couple of tracks being completely industrial-focused & offering very little in the way of metal. In fact, “Corrosion” is very similar to the intense & noisy industrial techno I used to play whilst DJIng in dark underground clubs during the 2000’s. Both of these tracks were produced by Paul Barker in isolation amidst stories of a significant divide between Jourgensen & Scaccia & the rest of the band with Al claiming that the two groups recorded their parts completely separately & that he & Scaccia erased 80% of the material the other three members had recorded. Given this information, you’d have to think that it was a minor miracle that anything of value was achieved, let alone a genre-defining classic like this one. Perhaps it was simply through weight of numbers given the lengthy duration of the recording sessions & the fact that we only end up with nine of the thirty tracks that would eventuate.
Personally, I find “Psalm 69” to be a very consistent & extremely high-quality metal record that doesn’t require flashy musicianship or an over-the-top image to make its point. There is a slight lull after the first couple of mind-blowing tracks with the short & gimmicky blast-beat driven “TV II” & the simple & thrash speed metal tune “Hero” both representing some mildly enjoyable filler, however the rest of the album is as classy, adventurous & breath-taking as you’ll find in this form of metal. For this reason, I feel that “Psalm 69” is worthy of its elite status amongst not only the industrial metal crowd but for metal music in general. It’s easily Ministry’s finest work with only Godflesh’s classic “Streetcleaner” album standing in front of it for the genre overall.
For fans of: White Zombie, Nailbomb, Strapping Young Lad
A lot of really good ideas and unique aspects to this album that were groundbreaking at the time. Probably most later Industrial Metal bands used this thing as a blueprint. The speedy, riff-focused parts of this are great, like Tv 2 and Hero, which rip along at chainsaw shredding speed. Al usually sounds good, which a very gruff yet nasally yell that is no doubt processed with some distortion.
What really ruins this album for me is the insane repetitiveness, especially in the annoying samples. Most of the songs here have parts where some vocal sample is repeated about 16 times, and it’s abundant with random shout or spoken samples that are thrown in at the rate of a snare drum. On the same note, even when the guitar riffs and rhythm section are good, it quickly goes stale after the same measure has been repeated about 32 times. There’s very little variety to each track, making each one more or less based around one repetitive section.
The title track is an example that almost uses samples well, specifically the choir vocals that add an epic touch to it, but then the rest of the track falls into the same habit of throwing in voices and what not so much that it just becomes annoying. Despite the abundance of interesting and unique ideas here, it’s something I have no desire to revisit because of how annoying it can be.