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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."

"This record has a looseness to it that was totally unacceptable three years ago," he adds. "It comes from deciding that we didn't want to chase our tails anymore, and we wanted to loosen up and see if we could, in fact, write music, as opposed to just sound montages, so to speak."

It's a swell idea, but songwise, Ministry can't write its way out of a hole in the ground, so to speak. Looseness is cool and everything, but swing will never be Ministry's draw. "Sound montages" are what the band was good at in the first place, and now that they're trying to write "loose songs," they lose what made them stand out: the pulse hammer of mechanized, decorated rhythm. As just a rock band, Ministry is a little boring. There's the occasional intriguing incongruity thrown in here and there -- the harmonica on Filth Pig's title track, a tinkling piano on "The Fall" and an electrified race through Dylan's "Lay Lady Lay" that inexplicably grows on you -- but not much of the balls-out stylistic extremism that seems to have become the province of White Zombie in the four years since Ministry last released a CD.

And if White Zombie wears the crown of noise now, Ministry doesn't have much to offer in extremism's stead. All of Filth Pig rests on riffs -- which a band like the Melvins proves can be more than enough, but only if your riffs are as good as the Melvins' riffs. Only one Filth Pig riff is that memorable -- the one from the title track, and if it seems strangely familiar, that's because it is fundamentally indistinguishable from the riff repeated through the Melvins' "Night Goat."

Ministry has been handed a lot of rope as its chameleonic career has veered from disco to thrash to industrial to rumors of country, and rightly so, since for most of that time, the band could be relied upon to push one envelope or another. Filth Pig, though, sounds like Ministry might be hanging from a creative knot at said rope's end.

Or maybe it's just another With Sympathy-style "abortion" -- a misstep caused not by corporate interference, but by mere homesickness. And maybe now that everyone's back home and comfy in Chicago, Jourgensen and Barker can slip out of the noose they've constructed. Barker, at least, seems to think the album's progression is healthy. "One of my favorite aspects of the record," he says, "is that it's lo-fi and high tech at the same time. I think that's really cool." His favorite tune on the new album, for this very reason, is "Game Show."

"It's really loose and has a real low tech sound to it, yet there's still some really cool stuff going on. It's got some meat to it, and that's what I'm looking for," Barker says. "We're realizing that we can rock without relying on sequencers. That song of all the songs more or less points to a new direction."

Maybe on-stage in Houston Wednesday -- after a few good weeks on the road, and with the inspiring example of America's greatest live rock and roll band, the Jesus Lizard, opening the show for them -- Ministry will start once again to do more than point.

Ministry performs at 8 p.m. Wednesday, May 1, at the International Ballroom, 14035 South Main. Tickets are $25. The Jesus Lizard and Laika and the Cosmonauts open. For info, call 629-3700.

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