A Review of MINISTRY: ‘TRAX! RARITIES’ (Cleopatra Records/2016/Limited Edition Double LP)
By Gregory Purvis for THE RECORD STACHE
Ministry, with over thirty years in studios and onstage, has constantly redefined their sound and the visual style which has become as much a trademark as the notoriety of live performances. From their early 80’s post-punk synthpop roots to the harsh distortion and heavy metal that characterize their later work, Ministry has consistently evolved while retaining certain tones and textures that have influenced numerous bands and spawned a number of side projects.
The band’s front man is the fierce and fearless Al Jourgensen, who has captained the band through numerous personnel changes, personal tragedies and storms of various sorts since 1981. Jourgensen has always been an innovator, and under his leadership Ministry matured and morphed again and again, riding the new wave into a noisy industrial juggernaut that inspired groups like Nine Inch Nails and Marilyn Manson.
I was introduced to the band during a critical period of change, missing the Wax Trax! Era and hearing The Land of Rape and Honey a year after its explosive birth in 1988. The alchemy of horror movie samples, tightly compressed drum machine rhythms, distorted vocals, guitar riffs and synthesizers were a change from the synth-heavy sounds of the band’s earlier work to what would become the grinding guitar-heavy Psalm 69 period a few years later. When the band played the Lollapalooza festival, I saw them live for the first time and interviewed Jourgensen and long-time bass player and co-producer Paul Barker.
“The sound of a [Ministry] album is not only something [we] work out in the studio, but it is influenced by all the energy of our live shows,” Jourgensen told me in 1993. The band’s live performances were loud, full of carefully layered sounds, bombastic drums –memorably delivered by the dual talents of Martin Atkins and Bill Rieflin, mixed with synthetic drum loops—and featured a number of guests like Chris Connelly, Jello Biafra and Nivek Ogre. Many of the live guest performers would go on to play with Jourgensen side projects like Lard, Revolting Cocks and Pailhead.
After Ministry began to morph once again following the success of Psalm 69 (becoming heavier and harder, while losing much of the synthesizer underpinning of earlier albums), I became interested in the earlier new wave Wax Trax! Era music. While decidedly different from Ministry’s later efforts, careful listening of their early material reveals many of the textures that characterized the protean industrial sounds of Land of… and the follow-up The Mind is a Terrible Thing to Taste.
The latest Ministry album, Trax! Rarities, is an incredible trip backwards through the old synth-heavy Wax Trax! days, and features a number of Jourgensen’s side projects, namely Revolting Cocks, PTP, Pailhead and 1000 Homo DJ’s. The double LP contains a number of early Ministry songs straddling a period in Jourgensen’s stylistic development that offers Ministry fans a window into a transitory period. A casual critical review of the first album in the set might see only saccharine new wave pop, but a closer listen reveals the stress fractures that begin to break open the industrial music Ministry became known for in the late 1980’s. The first album in the set contains a number of early songs such as Love Change, What Is The Reason, and America. While the former two songs are both synth-heavy pop songs with Jourgensen’s surprisingly clear, melodic vocal range, they contain modulated keyboards, heavy drum sounds and bass synth—all of which are used to carry the pace of the songs and deliver a surprising punch for keyboard-heavy songs. America has the rhythmic structure and political bitterness that would eventually inform later albums, along with fuzzy synth textures under the more polished lead keyboard sound. The first album also features a number of demos that are clearly old-school Ministry, such as Same Old Madness and Game Is Over. These demos are from 1982-83 and feature Wax Trax! Era synth-goth sounds. The former features bright, spooky synth leads with effects-treated vocals and guitars; the latter is reminiscent of 80’s guitar/keyboard bands like The Fixx, with interesting use of instrumentation and Jorgensen’s great facility with rhythm and synth programming.
The second album is my favorite, beginning with two Ministry songs (leading with I See Red and followed by Self Annoyed) featuring drum programming, bass sounds and vocals effects that sound straight off ‘Land of..’ and finished with two RevCo songs, including the “banned version” of (Let’s Get) Physical in all its distortion-saturated rough sex glory. The second side of the second album (Side D) contains four great tracks, including the awesome PTP song Show Me Your Spine, the RevCo rarity Drums Along The Carbide and the 1000 Homo DJ’s fuzzy, wah-wah guitar-inflected cover of the Black Sabbath song, Supernaut. This “Dub version” is as guitar-heavy as Sabbath’s classic, but filled with delayed and distorted screaming, throbbing drums and samples that give this a psychedelic feel coupled with abrasive textures.
All in all, Trax! Rarities is a great listen. The album is well-produced and expertly arranged, allowing long-time fans interested in Jourgensen’s career in all its stormy, amazing glory and fans of synthpop and industrial music something to love. The most interesting element to my ears is the sonic family tree that connects the early Wax Trax! music with the harder, harsher work Jourgensen produced in the late 80’s and early 90’s. The roots of Ministry side projects are defined in the early music as well, with a careful listen; the genesis of three decades of great music can be found on this album, under Jourgensen’s careful production.
Though Ministry fans often have their favorite album (mine is The Land of Rape and Honey, which I’ve heard is Jourgensen’s favorite as well), the stresses that broke open the early post-punk synthesizer music and created the industrial/metal hybridization most fans associate with Ministry can be heard simmering below the 80’s keyboard sounds on this double album. No matter what album you like best, the origins spring from the songs on this set like Athena from the forehead of Zeus.