By Frank Youngwerth
Ministry's seven albums and handful of singles tell a story rife with contradiction and permutation. Both derided as derivative and hailed as revolutionary, the band have done their best to be a little of both, shifting from frothy synth-pop to heavyweight guitar rock, from sample-heavy, drum-machine prefab to stripped-down, live-to-two-track organic. They're a longtime dance-club favorite, but most of their output is hard to dance to. One record they made for an indie label is so commercial it became a beer commercial; then they arguably became for a time the least radio-friendly band on a major label. Their smoothest, gentlest album (With Sympathy) flopped, while one of their harshest and rowdiest (Psalm 69) went platinum. Not to be outdone by their past, Ministry have now come up with Filth Pig, their most complex, surprise-packed recording yet.
Back in 1983, singer and keyboardist Alain Jourgensen and drummer Stephen George called themselves Ministry and released the album With Sympathy on Arista. It's curious how much this version of the group paralleled the British duo Wham!, who splashed on the scene around the same time with superstar-to-be George Michael. Both bands lopsidedly paired one guy who wrote and sang all the songs with another who mostly just played his instrument and posed for photos. Stylistically, Ministry imitated British new romanticism, while Wham! aped American soul. Each even put out a catchy single about love in relation to labor: Ministry's "Work for Love" and Wham!'s "Everything She Wants." But unlike Wham!, Ministry didn't sell many records. They soon left Arista and disbanded.
Retaining the group name, Jourgensen went on to make a few self-produced singles for the local Wax Trax label, and his "Everyday Is Halloween" was far better than anything on the Arista album. Its throbbing synth bass pattern drives a joyously syncopated groove, offset by submarine bells and a "bop bop bop" vocal hook that stays with you, like it or not. Al sings the part of the persecuted outsider--everywhere he goes people mock the way he's dressed. "Why can't they see they're just like me?" asks the surging, harmony-adorned refrain. "Why should I take the abuse that's served?" He resolves to fight back, taking on a fiercer, more defiant attitude: "I let their teeny minds think that they're dealing with someone who is over the brink / And I dress this way just to keep them at bay."
"Everyday Is Halloween" conveys Jourgensen's wonderfully brooding pop style as well as his seething paranoia and contempt. He combines it all so well that a dozen years later the record still sounds great. But what should've been a sizable hit on a big label like Arista ended up as an underground club anthem on tiny Wax Trax. Around this time Jourgensen must have realized that he'd be taken more seriously as an artist if he'd start making less pleasant music. He signed with Sire and entered an experimental phase, joining forces with bassist Paul Barker to record the 1988 album The Land of Rape and Honey. The new guitar-laden sound was bleak and brutal, at times resembling a machine-gun symphony complemented by field-command vocals. The lyrics were often daffy ("Stronger than reason, stronger than lies / The only truth I know is the look in your eyes!"), though the monstrous guitar riffs made the overall effect anything but comical.
During this period I attended a rather dull Ministry show. Jourgensen charged onstage at the Riviera as a raving, mad ball of energy, but his strength was quickly expended with three-quarters of the show remaining. The music was intense, but the band went through the motions as if they were backing up Neil Diamond. The set's end found the crowd either too dazed or bored to yell for more, yet Ministry returned for an encore.
A few months earlier "Everyday Is Halloween" started popping up in some unexpected places: first on the TV commercial, then on the play lists of some mainstream Chicago radio stations. People who had never heard of Ministry were flocking into record stores asking for "that Halloween song." But the band refused to perform their current hit single! Why would Jourgensen want to remind the audience that his five-year-old synth-pop track was currently being used to sell beer? Still, playing it no doubt would have electrified the crowd like nothing else in his arsenal. Maybe this predicament never crossed Jourgensen's mind, but his omission struck me as the one interesting thing about the entire concert.
Eventually Ministry's revamped "uncompromising" strategy paid off with million-dollar sales and a higher profire, presumably just what Jourgensen aimed for in the first place. But how long could Ministry continue to contentedly churn out those trademark abrasive soundscapes now that their style had become conventional, copied by other bands like Nine Inch Nails and White Zombie? On Filth Pig they plod through a fair bit of rock convention themselves. The unusually short opener, "Reload," cuts up the main guitar riff from Led Zeppelin's "Dancing Days" in a Bo Diddley-esque fashion. The bombast of "The Fall" recalls Pink Floyd's The Wall. "Dead Guy" could be Black Sabbath trying their hand at hip-hop.
Though here is the radical reintroduction of something Jourgensen must have figured he'd repressed long enough: melody. It's often tucked away in places you wouldn't think to look, like the feedback at the end of "Useless," or the happy, galloping bass line that runs throughout "Brick Windows." Things get downright graceful on their cover of Bob Dylan's "Lay Lady Lay," a veritable feast of acoustic guitar textures lovingly strummed, haunting bits of slide, and soaring leads so gorgeous George Harrison could be guesting. A sterling production, it brings to mind Phil Spector's early 70s work with Harrison and John Lennon.
But the biggest surprise on Filth Pig is another remake of an already familiar song, though it's not labeled as such. The monolithic, walloping "Lava," coated with a sonically searing finish, exhumes and reworks Ministry's greatest hit--yep, "Everyday Is Halloween." It's in the same key; the words follow a similar meter right down to substituting "hot lava" for "bop bop bop." Instead of submarine bells there's an eerie harmonica lick, and it all rides atop a basic pulsating pattern and dance-floor-perfect beat.
Acknowledging his watershed song, and reaffirming the melodic and rhythmic values he once embraced and then suppressed, Al Jourgensen now comes full circle. Ministry's Filth Pig succeeds on the various strengths Jourgensen has shown before, though never all in one place. It transcends the baffling metamorphoses that clouded the band's identity until now. Finally Al's taken stock and got his bad-ass act together to deliver his own kind of soul music.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/James Crump.