Sounds of industrial music at its commercial peak seem to be coming back in style
Throughout the ‘90s, several industrial groups rapidly grew in popularity, securing radio airplay and amassing a new generation of fans thanks to the newfound commercial viability of so-called “alternative” music (a broad, nebulous term), along with earlier breakthroughs by groups like Nine Inch Nails and Ministry. Industrial music finally crossed over, and, in doing so, naturally became more digestible, more familiar and therefore more rock-oriented. Synthesizing industrial music with rock had been done long before, but this took it to a new level—more emphasis on the “rock,” and, much to the chagrin of the genre’s forefathers, divorced from anything even remotely avant-garde. The industrial music that dominated the ‘90s was instead powered by chugging guitar riffs, tight grooves, crisp textures and muscly, tattooed frontmen. This was industrial rock that actually rocked.
30 years later, a younger crop of industrial-tinged bands openly flirt with pop sensibilities and pay homage to the most commercial permutations of industrial music. Think bands like Code Orange, 3TEETH and, of course, Youth Code.
L.A.’s Youth Code, the brainchild of Sara Taylor and Ryan George (both vets of the city’s hardcore scene), has spent nearly a decade churning out a distinct, reliably brutal and delightfully perverse style of music that manages to seamlessly fuse elements of sleek industrial rock with raw, scabrous hardcore. Needless to say, Youth Code is one of the most notable bands to emerge from the underbelly of experimental music in the past ten years.
The duo’s latest album, A Skeleton Key in the Doors of Depression, is a collaborative one, featuring production and vocal work from Portland’s King Yosef, a musician/producer who’s quietly been carving out a name for himself in the scuzzy musical underworld of SoundCloud rap since 2015. With production credits that include tracks by XXXTentacion and Ski Mask the Slump God, Yosef’s role in the development of this divisive genre’s lo-fi assault is a crucial one.
Throughout the record, Yosef evokes his SoundCloud rap background by introducing Youth Codes’ abrasive brand of industrial to skittering hi-hats and thick, blown-out sub-bass. On “Looking Down,” it’s so thunderous that it nearly sounds concrete, like the aural equivalent of a cannonball to the stomach. Still, his contributions never overwhelm those of Youth Code, and vice versa. Everyone brings an equal amount of fury to the table, be it that of trap, hardcore or industrial. The only person who ever steals the show is the album’s lone guest, Matt Pike, whose spastic, freeform guitar solo on “Head Underwater” is a far cry from the plodding stoner metal he’s best known for.
If Yosef’s hip-hop-inspired contributions give this album a modern twist, Youth Code balances it out with their frequent nods to the commercial bombast of ‘90s industrial rock—namely, its tight and propulsive grooves, head-banging choruses and willingness to get melodic, all of which make up the bulk of the album’s entertainment value.
Track after track is laced with its own vocal melody, brooding and anthemic like the best radio-ready industrial rock tunes are. The instantly hummable chorus on “The World Stage” is the best example, while “Looking Down” is a close second. True, these melodies don’t always stick—in fact, they’re pretty hit or miss—but it’s always gratifying to hear them alongside the music’s harsher, more hardcore-based components. Sometimes, the record’s best melodies emerge not from a vocal, but from one of George’s ethereal synth lines, most memorably on the closing track, “Finally Docked.”
And this album isn’t hooked by melodies alone. One of its most addicting details is the endlessly tight groove it achieves over its entire runtime, a ravenous forward momentum that never lets up, like a never-ending horror movie chase scene. It’s achieved by a physicality that’s equal parts hardcore and industrial. Hardcore in the percussion’s mosh-ready stomp and industrial in its demented employment of tension and release—brief moments of silence interrupted by jarring bursts of noise, Trent Reznor-style.
Vocals are provided solely by Taylor and Yosef, and while it’s often difficult to make out exactly what they’re saying, the album is better off for it. With music like this, what you say isn’t nearly as important as how you say it (or at the very least, how what you say sounds—here’s another area where the group’s hardcore roots become apparent).
Taylor and Yosef’s vocals are muddy and largely incomprehensible, barely staying afloat in the album’s waves on waves of fuzzed-out industrial sludge. They know better than to let their vocals ride the instrumentals because their vocals exist to add yet another layer of caustic textural depth to the endless barrage of noise that permeates the album, rather than to stand on their own (choruses remain the only exception, and thus function as brief moments of respite amid the chaos). This effect yields appropriately devastating results, especially on “Burner,” when Yosef’s coarse werewolf bark is practically indistinguishable from the corresponding bursts of downtuned guitar noise.
More than anything, A Skeleton Key in the Doors of Depression gets by on consistency. Conceptually, it doesn’t add up to much, and few of the tracks really “transcend” on their own or take on truly proper structures. But taken all together, a sort of constant rhythm is established over the course of all eight tracks, and the group’s commitment becomes clear: commitment to the melody, commitment to the momentum and commitment to stylistic motifs, both old and new.