Industrial music and the reflection on contemporary technology

Disclaimer: This text was originally published in TAB UOL, in Portuguese.

The 20th century was marked by a turning point in the way we, human beings, relate to technology. Since the First Industrial Revolution until the advent of personal computers and the internet, we have watched almost one hundred years of technological revolutions that culminated into the creation of color TV, the atom bomb, the modernist vanguards and postmodernism. We have seen Marinetti writing about speed and the man-machine, as well as we have seen DuChamp taking an urinal to the museum and Jimi Hendrix burning his electric guitar on stage — an instrument only created in the 1930s. We have listened to Kraftwerk singing about radioactivity after Chernobyl and also the rise of Tropicália in Brazil. But among all these popular manifestations, we also saw the rise of a new music genre that was actually translating this industrial, chaotic, in-between wars and highly technological scenario of the 1970s: it was the birth of industrial music.

The name couldn’t be more precise to tell what these European artists were doing in countries like Germany and United Kingdom, such as it was the case of the English band Throbbing Gristle, who coined the music genre with the foundation of the Industrial Records. It even had a slogan: “Industrial music for industrial people.” The 1970s were also a time when punk was growing in the UK, but with Industrial Records we were presented to bands such as Cabaret Voltaire, Clock DVA, The Leather Nun, Monte Cazazza, and S.P.K.

According to the researcher John Salvage, industrial music could be described after its organizational autonomy, the access to information, the use of synthesizers and anti-music, as well as extra-musical elements and shock tactics. In other words, industrial music artists were independent and didn’t need big records to join in the chant — as Nitzer Ebb would say.

As written in the founding documents of Industrial Records, the quartet Throbbing Gristle “wanted to investigate to what extent you could mutate and collage sound, present complex non entertaining noises to a popular culture situation and convince and convert. We wanted to re-invest Rock music with content, motivation and risk. Our records were documents of attitudes and experiences and observations by us and other determinedly individual outsiders. Fashion was an enemy, style irrelevant.”

But how could a music genre holding the title of industrial be against the very industrial logic that was being spread worldwide since the 1960s and which influenced other artists and movements such as Andy Warhol and Pop Art? In fact, choosing the word “industrial” here was an irony and a criticism against the pursuit for a supposed authenticity in the 1970s, but the word became so popular that in the 1980s many artists began to entitle themselves as industrial though they weren’t necessarily following the premises of the genre. Since then, new subgenres of industrial music, such as industrial metal, were created, and likewise, many other shocking acts and topics addressed by the first artists were left behind.

On the other hand, Michael Mahan wrote on the article Welcome to the Machine (1994) that industrial music was, in fact, “an artistic reflection of the de-humanization of our people and the inexorable pollution of our planet by our factory-based socio-economic state.” Additionally, the Italian researcher Massimo Canevacci in 2008 argued that bands such as Throbbing Gristle are an artistic and philosophical manifestation about the changes in the modern city, where the traditional style of European cathedrals and squares are discarded in favor of the construction of new scenarios characterized by factories. In his words:

“This is where Throbbing Gristle appears: they are born from the division of the punk movement and direct their performances to the interior of these forgotten places. The abandonment, the detritus, the things with no utility, everything that was put out of the value chain attracted several people, especially artists, who collected and changed the sense of these discarded objects to transform them into something different. Throbbing Gristle makes a much more complex operation: they are the true precursors of post-industrial, the ones who understood that and quickly switched between theory and practice. They were the first to realize that the factory is dead. And that this happy death is followed by the death of an industrial work that oscillates between alienation and identification, through which something completely odd can be born of.”

In 1985, Neubauten recorded the album Halber Mensch, which inspired the homonymous movie directed by Sogo Ishii. One of the most iconic creations of the band, the album brings in its own title the idea of a “half human” or, in fact, a subhuman — a theme also explored by Throbbing Gristle and other contemporary bands that discussed the ideological agenda of World War II. The one-hour film registers the band’s Japanese tour, when they actually played inside an abandoned factory that was about to be demolished. Among pieces of concrete and televisions showing the band’s logo (a human symbol based on a rock painting by the Toltecs), the five-man group is presented through the rough voice of singer Blixa Bargeld and his guitar, as well as the other members who were part of the band at that time: Mark Chung (bass and vocals), Alexander Hacke (guitar and vocals), N.U. Unruh (percussion and vocals) and F.M. Einheit (percussion and vocals).

However, when we speak about percussion in the case of industrial music, and specially in the case of Neubauten, we are not talking about traditional instruments but daily objects such as scraps that are used to make sound and give rhythm to the experimental songs. Right at the beginning of Halber Mensch, we see the percussionists using improvised drumsticks to “play” a supermarket cart and other industrial scraps. We also see Unruh turning an electric saw on to cut a piece of wood, so this sound becomes a new layer to Bargeld’s voice, a sequence of screams with the word Sehnsucht, which means longing in German. Throughout the video, we are presented to new objects such as pipes and screws, industrial machinery, drills, tubes and cylinders that become the central elements of the performance. About that, Canevacci also wrote:

“The factory is altered and discarded. This is the basic principle: the factory is altered in the sense that from its decrepit and almost demolished walls, in acid and dirty decomposition, it is possible to give birth to a new sound flux that transforms that musical instrument into the same working instruments, now forgotten just like these places. A new song begins to resonate between the spaces of the dead factory: the industrial. In this kind of sonority, which futurists had already experimented in a completely different modality, the rumor, besides the silence, is the constitutive part of the song. The tonal and also dodecaphonic structures are dissolved just like the factory and labor themselves. Lacerated squeaks and timbre distortions express the very dissonances of the music and the society that no longer can conciliate a tonal harmony or a dialectic synthesis.”

Right at the beginning of the film, Tom Zé mentions the performance “Música e Músicas” (Music and Songs), from 1978, in which his band used some kind of radio records sampling to compose a multiplied song that is slowly complemented by the sound of a floor polisher, handsaws, battery radio and other daily tools that are combined with acoustic guitars, repetitive vocals and jingles. Dada music, instrumental music, factory music, industrial. This performance caughts the attention right because it is very similar to Neubauten’s Halber Mensch, but the film would only be recorded eight years after Tom Zé’s performance.

It is even possible to make a comparison between the short film with the German artists and the Brazilians performers. While one uses the floor polisher, the other uses a sandpaper; when one uses a handsaw against a metallic surface, the other hits a metal stick against the supermarket cart; when one combines musical instruments with soldering instruments, the other hits the hammer against the metal to replace drumsticks and drums. But in spite of all these more objective similarities, it is obvious that the contexts were different both in the case of Neubauten and Tom Zé. Still, it is impossible to ignore the way both the European and the Brazilian scenes were using hand tools to make music and using media to create Dada collages (and this is the origin of the name of one of the first industrial bands, Cabaret Voltaire, which mentions a nightclub founded by several Dada artists such as Hugo Ball, Tristan Tzara and Marcel Janco).

Comparison between performances of Tom Zé and Einstürzende Neubauten in Halber Mensch.

Since then, we have seen the rise of three Industrial Revolutions. The first two brought steam and electrical technologies, whereas the third brought digital technology and, today, we are at the brink of a fourth industrial revolution that brings the so-called exponential technologies: blockchain, immersive technologies (virtual, mixed, and augmented reality), artificial intelligence, internet of things, big data, nanotechnology, biotechnology, and robotics. It is already a common-place to say that AI will soon be used to produce music, movies and screenplays, paintings and further artwork. No matter if we can say these works are art or not, what I want to stress here is that, very often, the works created by machines are either the product of pattern recognition or an attempt to emulate the logic behind artworks that follow a mass culture recipe — that is, pop culture, Blockbuster movies etc.

Some developers such as Ash Koosher are already trying to use AI for other artistic ends by combining music genres to create something that may not be commercially interesting for artists, but that still would be creatively interesting for fans or even for music in a broader sense. In any case, we already have here the conflict between the need to link artmaking with capital generation as well as the need of the artist to be paid for their work just like in any other job. It is a dilemma that isn’t new, but which stays present throughout the whole history of humanity. Whereas artists were once backed up by government, the Church or a patron, now this source of income may be spread through academia or online platforms, sponsorship or even in partnership with design and advertising, comic books, videogames and so on. But without further ado, the point here is that artists should be using these technologies to rather criticize and reflect on our industrial context.

Among the most popular contemporary bands is the example of 3TEETH, which uses much from an already mainstream aesthetic inspired by Rammstein as well as a sonority already experimented by bands such as Nine Inch Nails or Marilyn Manson. Although some of their videos present political topics that are mostly related to the U.S. context, there is still this confusion between the criticism and the fetishist appropriation of an aesthetic of fascism, violence and sadomasochism, a theme that I explored in my final work for graduation. In the past, bands such as Skinny Puppy also brought this shock aesthetic, but with more clear goals such as animal rights. Today, the intersection between industrial music and hip hop might be the place where we can find actual political activism, such as is the case of the band clipping. and their album Splendor & Misery (2016).

Considered one of the best industrial music albums by Pitchfork, it follows the same premises of bands such as Public Enemy and Bomb Squad, which not only played traditional hip hop, but also added sounds that put them closer to genres such as noise or even industrial. In the case of Splendor & Misery, there is not only a series of noisy songs but also an Afrofuturist approach through which the trio blends experimental sounds with gospel chants to express something that is missing in the contemporary industrial music: a criticism against the system that inflicts our age, from people to the environment, from the mental and physical health of all living beings, and, in this sense, racism is also approached here as it couldn’t be left out.

Similarly, Death Grips combines rap, industrial, noise and rock by adding samples from the Beatles, Serena Williams’ screams during a tennis game, and further elements that may sound random at first, but that make completely sense in albums such as The Money Store, in which the band creates this controversial atmosphere that is known to industrial as they use violent sounds to criticize violence and capitalism. With notable fans including Björk (who already worked with them) and the actor Robert Pattinson, the musicians say they are not talking politics, but their lyrics make clear reference to topics such a s poverty and inequality, besides the fact that they released their songs for free on Torrent a couple of years ago — an incident that made their record furious. Still, in an article published on Noisey, the editor Drew Millard mentions some examples of bands and albums that are similar to the American duo: Run the Jewels, B L A C K I E, Alley Boy, Trouble, Saul Williams — The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of Niggy Tardust!, Kanye West — Yeezus, Public Enemy, N.W.A., T.I.’s Trap Muzik, Young Jeezy — Let’s Get It (Thug Motivation 101), Waka Flocka — Flockaveli, Clipping, OG Maco, The Devil, dead prez, and the solo projects Das Racist/Heems, this Joell Ortiz son and Danny Brown.

More than listing examples here, I wanted to invite you to think about which contemporary industrial music artists are really using emerging technologies, the so-called exponential technologies, to make art and criticize our moment in history. Maybe the instruments are “old,” but the sound is new. Maybe the instruments are new, but the sound is old. In any case, industrial music is much more than guitars and samples, it is first an overview of a reality permeated by technology and ideologies that are not compatible with the world and its inhabitants.

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Brazilian journalist, MA in Semiotics and PhD candidate in Visual Arts. Head of innovation and futurism at UP Lab. Cyberpunk enthusiast and researcher.