When Throbbing Gristle started a British independent label in 1976 called Industrial Music as a way to distribute its recordings and that of a few like-minded peers, it put its thumbprint on an unclassifiable genre that would conflate electronic music, rock and the avant-garde.
The word “industrial” suggested not just a sound but a process. Rather than making music in a garage with guitars and drums as nascent rock bands had a decade earlier, this was music that sounded like it was concocted in a factory — a hybrid of machines, tape loops, random noise and studio-as-instrument experimentation. The “songs,” such as they were, embraced transgressive subjects and explicit language. Sample lyric: “You’re like a virus in my garden/Subhuman! Subhuman!”
Not for nothing did Throbbing Gristle subtitle one of its albums “Entertainment Through Pain.” Yet the music evolved and expanded in the ‘80s to include a wider range of influences, and re-engage with rock instrumentation, a re-set kickstarted by Chicago-based Wax Trax Records. Its abrasiveness occasionally tempered by hooks and humor, the ever-morphing genre took on many incarnations — industrial disco, dancecore, aggro, Euro-body — and spit out its own company of rock stars, including Ministry’s Al Jourgensen, Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor and Marilyn Manson.
Here’s a quick introduction to a sound that defined the cutting edge in the ‘80s and infiltrated the rock mainstream by the early ‘90s:
“Mass Production” by Iggy Pop (1977):
Collaborating with producer David Bowie in Berlin, the punk pioneer reimagines rock as if it were created on an assembly line.
“Still Walking” by Throbbing Gristle (1979):
The British avant-garde group’s third studio album, “20 Jazz Funk Greats,” is Ground Zero for industrial music. More than 40 years later, it still sounds menacingly futuristic. Key members Genesis P-Orridge, Cosey Fanni Tutti, Chris Carter and Peter Christopherson would all go on to enjoy increasingly fruitful and influential careers in experimental music.
“You’ve Been Duplicated” by Chrome (1979):
Prolific if short-lived San Francisco-based duo (guitarist Creed and drummer Edge) who mixed factory noise with rock.
“Requiem” by Killing Joke (1980):
It’s difficult to overestimate the impact that Killing Joke’s self-titled debut album had on a host of underground genres, including goth, post-punk, thrash metal and, most certainly, industrial.
“Sly Doubt” by Cabaret Voltaire (1981):
These sonic adventurers from the factory town of Sheffield, England, create sonic dungeons with synths, tape loops and a dada-esque sense of the absurd.
“The Tumultuous Upsurge (of Lasting Hatred)” by Nurse With Wound (1982):
The disturbing coda to Steven Stapleton’s epic haunted-house collage of recorded sounds. Enter if you dare.
“Yü-Gung (Fütter Mein Ego)” by Einstürzende Neubauten (1985):
The German collective emerged from the dank punk basement and fused its anyone-can-play aesthetic with a fondness for junk-yard “instruments.” Their penchant for cacophony didn’t stop them from arranging music that actually sounded weirdly catchy, never more so than on their third album, “Halber Mensch.”
“Descent into the Inferno” by Foetus (1985):
JG Thirlwell invites the listener to listen to his mind unravel in this sprawling soundscape of operatic terror and twisted humor.
“Time Is Money (Bastard)” by Swans (1986):
New York terror-core outfit led by Michael Gira scored an underground hit with this percussive monster, with drummer Richard Gonzalez hammering alongside pitiless drum machines. Mood-setting lyrics: “You should be violated.”
“Attack Ships on Fire” by Revolting Cocks (1986):
The most commercially successful of numerous spinoffs from the Al Jourgensen/Ministry crew, the Cocks’ international assortment of machine-punk rabble-rousers got rolling with this relatively coherent whip-cracking groove.
“Dig It” by Skinny Puppy (1986):
Vancouver combo drapes a dense sample-heavy collage over electro-shock guitar in this breakthrough song.
“Ostia (The Death of Pasolini)” by Coil (1987):
The English duo’s pedigree — former members of Psychic TV and Throbbing Gristle — promised innovation, and Coil delivers on its second album, “Horse Rotorvator.” It includes an homage to the late Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini, with a choir of crickets and classical instrumentation.
“Join in the Chant” by Nitzer Ebb (1987):
“Fire! Fire! Fire!” Synth-based arrangements conveyed with an insane, punky intensity by singer-ranter Douglas McCarthy.
“Headhunter” by Front 242 (1988):
Cynicism meets your unfriendly “Human Resources” department at corporate headquarters — the unlikely formula for the keynote track on Wax Trax’s best-selling album, “Front by Front.”
“Stigmata” by Ministry (1988):
Al Jourgensen and Paul Barker transformed Ministry from synth-pop lightweights into a juggernaut of violent, metallic aggression on the landmark album, “Land of Rape and Honey.” Plus, you could slam-dance to it.
“No Limit” by Front Line Assembly (1989):
The artistic breakthrough for the Canadian duo of Bill Leeb and Michael Balch (plus Rhys Fulber) merges uncompromising soundscapes with song-based accessibility.
“Head Like a Hole” by Nine Inch Nails (1989):
NIN’s debut album broke through in a big way, by reshaping the transgressive innovations of predecessors such as Ministry and Skinny Puppy into songs that MTV could play.
“Just One Fix” by Ministry (1992):
Jourgensen and Barker spent more than a year working on the band’s 1992 album, “Psalm 69,” and it became a mainstream success without compromising the band’s merciless attack.