The awful truth about industrial music — the genre, not the sound — is that it’s pretty much dead and gone. Pure industrial music, derived from playing your vacuum cleaner or using the nearest manhole cover as a drumhead, now seems relegated to the extremes of wacky performance art or homogenized family entertainment like Stomp!
The subdivision of electronic body music (EBM) has in effect taken over the neighborhood of industrial, with the synthetic sources of these sounds also serving Euro-pop, rhythmic noise, powernoise, dark ambient, electro and countless other variations on a theme. Even the angriest, most abrasive noises tied into this music today are likely field recordings removed from reality by the hands of Father Time, samples of equipment and dialogue from long ago, or wholly fabricated approximations of the real mechanical deal.
Many artists who survived the old Iron Age of industrial seem content now to settle for amped-up metal (Ministry, KMFDM) or, more often, sequencers with libraries of those aforementioned sounds (Front Line Assembly, Skinny Puppy). The German collective Einstürzende Neubauten is one of the few acts still active from that period that continues to invest effort in building up their metallic noise from scratch.
On the other hand, you’ll find EBM poster children in Meat Beat Manifesto and the band’s leader/cofounder Jack Dangers. To be fair, that outfit wore its industrial label well at Wax Trax! Records early on in a 20-year career. Its biggest successes and lasting reputation nevertheless build upon rhythmic music informed by hip-hop, dub, jazz and noise-rock, most notably the 1992 album Satyricon that was greeted as a landmark of pure electronica.
Two recent DVD releases document Meat Beat Manifesto and Einstürzende Neubauten live performances and share a little common ground, notably the excellent execution of the music on stage in front of crowds who weren’t necessarily homers but were definitely connected geographically to the bands. Yet MBM’s Travelogue Live 05 and EN’s Palast der Republik drive home the differences between their respective residences at opposite ends of the aggro-electro spectrum. They also make a clear distinction between how to make even a halfway decent DVD and how not to.
Meat Beat Manifesto lift most of their footage from a June 2005 show at Cabaret Metro in Chicago, the city once home to the old Wax Trax! label. Handheld and perilously mounted cameras capture the majority of the stage being given over to two large screens showing the results put out by video samplers as Dangers and his band—including recent add-on Lynn Farmer on drums and, in something of a coup, Consolidated refugee Mark Pistel—rock the beats off to either side.
On its face there’s nothing wrong with the song selection on Travelogue (with the exception of “She’s Unreal,” which will always be a clunker in their catalog). Faithful renditions of vocal tracks like “God O.D.” thankfully show off Dangers in decent rap-yell form. “Radio Babylon,” “Helter Skelter” and “Edge of No Control” are particularly bracing and dense, their polyrhythms bumping into snippets and screams from film dialogue, and that dialogue then reconfigured into wailing harmony parts. Dangers and Ben Stokes also test the limits of the video samplers here, using them to trigger, improvise, and subvert these sources (among them World’s Fair footage, President Bush photo ops and cult films from A Clockwork Orange on) more so than ever before in a live setting.
The problem here is that the DVD doesn’t go much beyond this in terms of content. The nine performed songs are pretty much all you get—no Easter eggs, no extras, nothing more than continuity-killing breaks in the concert to show animations and montages just to prove this was a world tour. Even this wouldn’t be so bad if the overall visual experience of the DVD weren’t so tedious. Meat Beat Manifesto’s stage setup means you’re essentially watching fans watching the video screens, with the four band members trapped behind their equipment unable to establish a stage presence. Farmer in particular is a laughable subject, as the relatively calm manner in which he plays his digital drumkit fails to make logical sense with the fast and furious sounds coming from it. The audio of Travelogue would have made a very good live album; as a DVD, it’s shoddy and unfulfilling.
By comparison, Einstürzende Neubauten don’t just play at a different level, they play an entirely different game. Palast der Republik recounts a special November 2004 performance at the Berlin building of the same name, the home of the seat of government in what used to be East Germany. Vacant, damaged, doomed to make way for a more modern structure, the building gets a unique sendoff as EN plays both in it and with it. Singing in German, English and French, punctuating the lyrics with well-placed hisses and screams, frontman Blixa Bargeld leads the six-man stage incarnation of Neubauten on a passionate journey through music mostly pulled from their then-current Perpetuum Mobile album.
Where Meat Beat Manifesto play compact, tight, and purely electronic, EN by the nature of some of their noisemakers have to spread out and play loose. They drum on PVC tubing tuned a la Blue Man Group, drag empty olive oil tins through the audience, create atmosphere with a vibrating metal table covered in foam packing peanuts and blow compressed air over a record player piled high with trash. Percussion and manipulation of existing environment and tools are the band’s bread and butter.
The constructs they use force Neubauten to make actual and serious effort in order to play music. Bargeld fights with the words of his introspective consumerist study “Youme & Meyou” and helps calls up an old EN favorite in “Armenia.” Alex Hacke has no problem setting aside his bass to beat on a large plastic case, while guitarist Jochen Arbeit will gladly trade in his pick for a vibrator. The entire band even takes to a walkway high above the stage and drums on its metal railing during the extended “Grundstueck” suite. These constant shifts in performance and instrumental paradigms can’t help but grab viewers’ interest. It’s nothing short of visceral to watch.
Beyond the 16-song main set, the DVD also includes encores of “Die Befindlichkeit des Landes” and “Redukt” plus a champagne-soaked multilingual commentary track from the band members offering some insights into song selections and performances, tour stories, and lyric translations. The only thing really missing here is subtitling, and that keeps this music and its meaning still somewhat isolated from most audiences outside of Europe. Yet when a choir of 100 fans joins their heroes on “Vox Populi” and “Was Ist Ist,” Palast der Republik damn near resembles a populist manifesto. This is a performance, and Einstürzende Neubauten a band, that works hard to garner respect.