Dilution of Evil

Has Ministry, at one time the reigning king of bad, lost its edge?

It would be an overstatement to say that Ministry created the musical form most now call "industrial," but not by much. Ministry kingpins Al Jourgensen (vocals, guitar, keyboards, etc.) and Paul Barker (bass, vocals, programming, etc.) met in Boston way back in 1981; the following year, Jourgensen produced a record by Barker's band Blackouts; and by 1983, Jourgensen and Barker had launched Ministry with the "Cold Life" single on the Chicago-based Wax Trax label, itself quickly emerging as a home for that city's burgeoning noise underground. Disco beats ran headlong into newly emergent electronic noise toys, and Ministry was at the head of the collision.

After a brief flirtation with Arista, on which Ministry released their debut, With Sympathy (an album Jourgensen now calls a corporate-influenced "abortion" of a record), Ministry started to hit its stride with 1984's Halloween and All Day, 1985's Twitch and 1988's breakthrough The Land of Rape and Honey and its follow-up, 1989's A Mind Is a Terrible Thing to Taste.

Yes, there once was a time, not so very long ago, when Ministry was the baddest band in the public eye. Jourgensen and Barker seemed to peak around '92, when the band released Psalm 69, a dark blast of industrial rhythms, choice noise samples and a now-fabled triple-guitar assault. They took the show on the road with Lollapalooza, where they were the last act to play during daylight hours, straddled between the less consequential openers and the after-dark headliners. Ministry's set drew its own storm clouds, and I'm not the only one who saw that show and decided that Ministry had stolen the whole festival.

It's been four years now, and Ministry has just released a new CD, Filth Pig, and one could be excused for harboring high expectations. But everything you're likely to hear about Filth Pig will focus on peripherals, because it's really just an okay release. There's no big change of musical direction, no real furtherance of a musical path already well-mapped, no stand-out singles. It's just another Ministry CD -- a minor retreat, in fact -- with gore graphics and crappy typography and growled vocals and huge guitars.

Not much to write about there. So instead, the promotional articles turn to the hype, bringing readers up to date on the band's years-old move from its longtime home base Chicago to Austin in search of greener pastures and all that. At the time it actually happened, this was titillating news, and one can suppose that everyone who heard it conjured a mental image of Jourgensen -- dreadlocked, 'shroom-eating pot-banger that he is -- frolicking naked in some Austin hollow while new buddy Willie Nelson dangled a cane pole over a stream bed bubbling whiskey, fellow weirdo Gibby Haynes sat in a canoe atop a tree and played bagpipes and oddball eminence Roky Erickson recorded it all on his Fisher-Price four-track. It would be a golden age. Surely something strange and wonderful would come of it all.

Nope. As the story goes, Jourgensen bought a piece of property about 50 miles outside of Austin. There he lived, and there, for a time, Ministry worked. They called it The Compound, and now make it a special point to note that the buildings that make up the place once served as a brothel catering to the oil business. Apparently someone saw a tarantula, too. It must have been spooky.

It was also -- in some technically inexplicable way -- a mess. Equipment broke down; delays ensued. Jourgensen and Barker found themselves playing the leads in their own skronk-rock version of The Money Pit. They recruited a bunch of guys -- Rey Washam and Bill Rieflin on drums, Mike Scaccia and Louis Svitek on guitars, Duane Buford programming samplers -- they bought a bunch of equipment, took it out to the compound, plugged it in and tried to make a CD. They got a lot of stuff down on tape, but something was always wrong. Barker, the cuddlier of the Ministers, describes it this way: "We bought used equipment; we didn't have a technician with us 24 hours [a day] to make sure everything kept running, that's really what it was. Lots of mechanical, electrical breakdowns. Buzzes and things. Anything that can distract you from making music. That's what was happening until the frustrations were paramount and we just couldn't work together, and realized that part of the problem was the fact that the studio was there. Cabin fever set in."

But when life gives Al Jourgensen lemons, Al Jourgensen makes lemonade, sour though it may be. He and Barker abandoned Austin with a no-hard-feelings nod all around -- Barker still maintains a home there -- took their tapes back to Chicago, holed up in their old faithful Trax Studios, mixed everything down as best they could and didn't mess with too much of the sort of sampler-driven experimentation that the band has now established as its M.O. Barker says that the sonic shift was intentional.

"When we started working on Psalm 69, we worked as a band in a live situation to try and come up with material," says Barker. "We tracked a bunch of stuff, and then eventually got bored with it -- kind of fell back into the tried and true. That's something we really wanted to avoid on [Filth Pig]. So, consciously, we wanted to throw out all of our tried-and-true studio gimmicks."

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