It would be glib and facetious to say Ministry come to life under Republican administrations. And yet…
Frontman Al Jourgensen has created much of his most caustic, aggressive music – supported by various lineups – when conservatives were in the White House. Ministry even evolved from an electronic pop group to a roaring industrial band when Ronald Reagan was the president.
When George Bush was newly elected, Ministry fully built their industrial-thrash aresnal, first with the groundbreaking 1989 album The Mind is a Terrible Thing to Taste and then their more metallic 1992 follow-up, Psalm 69: The Way to Succeed and the Way to Suck Eggs. That was the first Ministry album to feature guitarist Mike Scaccia, who, in the years ahead, evolved into Jourgensen’s heroin homie and the band’s riff architect. Tragically, Scaccia died on December 23, 2012, while performing onstage with his other band Rigor Mortis.
The axiom that Ministry thrives in the red seems further supported by the unfocused, hook-shy Filth Pig, which came out when Bill Clinton was president, as did the experimental, unhinged Dark Side of the Spoon. So far, so good… but that’s where the theory of Republicans = good Ministry; Democrats = bad Ministry starts to fall apart.
2003’s Animositisomina, which Jourgensen has called his least favorite metallic Ministry record, came while George W. Bush was in office and the creative team of Jourgensen and his perceived right-hand man, bassist Paul Barker, parted ways shortly after; some viewed this as a tragic moment for the band, since Barker had been with Ministry since Twitch and the two played in a multitude of side projects. And this perceived debacle happened during the first Bush’s tenure.
The anti-G.W. Bush trilogy, 2004’s Houses of the Molé, 2006’s Rio Grande Blood and 2007’s The Last Sucker followed, and gave Ministry a target at which to aim their crosshairs. The songs were loud and thrashy again, but the music was somewhat derivative and Jourgensen was strongly impaired by addictions to drugs and alcohol.
And if Ministry’s Barack Obama-era output – 2012’s Relapse and 2013’s From Beer to Eternity were flawed — it didn’t have anything to do with Red or Blue. At the time, Jourgensen’s world was a whirlwind of black. During the former, he was suffering from life-threatening ulcers and hepatitis C, and as he worked on the latter — with posthumous guitar tracks from Scaccia — he was drowning in anger, depression and anxiety, having lost one of his best friends. Freed from the grip of narcotics, he coped with copious quantities of wine and weed. Both albums have their moments of intense creativity and are worthy listens. Neither are recommended starting points for the Ministry novice.
Which brings us to Amerikkkant. Created entirely after Trump was elected president, the album is a hostile, aggressive, politically and socially scathing critique of the turmoil of the times. But unlike the anti-Bush trio, Amerikkkant is not strictly an indictment of Trump. Instead, it’s a brutal condemnation of the conditions that had to exist in America before the country would choose such an unpredictable outsider as Trump to be the figurehead of the nation.
Throughout Amerikkkant, Jourgensen delivers countless rants against capitalism, conservatism, elitism, racism, gun owners and the potentially lethal divide in this country that separates neighbors and breaks up friends. Yet, he also calls for the unwashed masses to unite and rise up against their oppressors on songs like “We’re Tired of It.” And he does so with a sense of humor and an innate knack for creativity, slowing down Trump’s voice as he speaks about building a wall in “I Know Words,” excising the president’s speech to the words “Unfit and unqualified” in “Game Over” and ending the song with the sound effect of video game character Pac-Man turning inside-out and bursting.
More poignantly, Jourgensen follows Fear Factory frontman Burton C. Bell’s cybernetic vocals on “Wargasm” with quotes that seem to be from a soldier whose IQ is lower than his gun caliber: “Yeah, I remember that feeling. That was fucking righteous! Violence right in front of my fucking face. I felt it from my gut down to my fucking balls.” Like Trump, the sentiments are so lunkheaded and outrageous, they’d be kinda funny – if they weren’t so scary.
With Amerikkant, Jourgensen has found a sleek vehicle to frame his polemic. Rather than couch his fury in a roiling sea of predictable electronic beats and cutting, thrash beats, as he has sometimes effectively done in the past, he has varied the formula. Sure, the screaming distorted vocals are familiar and there are heavy guitars aplenty, but they’re woven into in musical beds that writhe and squirm like pinned victims trying to evade certain execution. As with any good Ministry album, there are tons of spoken word samples, but there’s more: The album is enhanced by wailing sirens reminiscent of Public Enemy, classical and Middle Eastern sounding strings from Lord of the Cello (especially in “I Know Words” “Twilight Zone” and “Victims of a Clown”) and the all-pro turntablists, N.W.A.’s Arabian Prince and DJ Swamp (Beck), who add to the cacophony on numerous tracks.
In an age when albums have turned into disposable containers for singles, Jourgensen is still fighting for the integrity of the full-length record, and Amerikkkant, while not exactly a concept album, plays out like a complete piece of art. “I Know Words,” while worthwhile as an individual song, lays the foundation for the skirmishes that follow. The eight-minute long “Twilight Zone” is a trudging battle march of echoing beats, sludgy guitars and electric harmonica that addresses the surrealism of today’s political landscape “Victims of a Clown” is equally long, but more haunting, filling space with eerie organs, squalling guitars, a groove-laden bass line and Jourgensen’s cries for (r)evolution. Despite the seeming contrast of styles, the track is held together with quotes from the memorable final speech in Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator.” In retrospect, it’s similar in structure to “So What” from The Mind is a Terrible Thing to Taste, but the message is hopeful instead of nihilistic.
Ministry also revisit other voices from the past on “TV 5-Chan,” returning to the unnerving, static-and-noise filled soundscapes they began with Psalm 69 on “TV II” (remember “Connect the goddamn dots!”) and also addressed on From Beer to Eternity in “Side F/X Include Mikey’s Middle Finger (TV4).” Only in keeping in step with the themes of the album, the rattling percussion sounds like gunshots and the sound bytes reference racism and gun control: “This is Klan territory, so I think that kinda says it all.”
What keeps Amerikkka so direct and intense is Jourgensen’s dedication to and adherence to his subject matter, and his willingness to explore various musical techniques. In the thrash gem “We’re Tired of It” the rapid-fire rhythm is mimicked by some insanely fast turntablism. And the lumbering, foreboding “Game Over” is embellished with whirling keyboard, tumbling beats and echoed chants of “I’m on a mission.”
Throughout Amerikkkant, Ministry let the story of America’s decline — and hopeful resurrection — unravel like a pile of blood-soaked bedsheets tied together and dangling from the window of a shot-up building, and Jourgensen plays the conductor of an apocalyptic symphony, metaphorically shouting “Burn, baby, burn.”
The cinematic title track, which wraps up the album like the rolling screen credits at the end of a movie, contains bleating horns and the “Mad as hell” line from the cult film Network, but it’s Jourgensen’s mid-paced vocal that sums up the spirit of the rebellion and the need for action: “Well, I heard some news today/ I guess we’re going to war/ We don’t know who we’re fighting/ We don’t know what we’re fighting for.”
Over the past 30-plus years, even when Jourgensen has lost his way, he’s remained mad as hell and dedicated to fighting the system. Maybe his messages rang out most clearly when Reagan and the two George Bushes were heading the executive branch, but that wasn’t because there was more to oppose back then, it was because he was too fucked up to create or care when he made music during Obama’s tenure.
The bottom line is, Jourgensen’s been an oppositional force and a source of discord and upheaval since he first picked up a keyboard, and while he’s always been left of center, he’s never trusted any form of government.
When he got clean 15 years ago, Jourgensen became less introspective than he was on Filth Pig and The Dark Side of the Spoon, but he was hardly a modern citizen — and who would want him to be? The world needs its rebels. Even today, when Al says he’s a model citizen who has cut down his drinking and relies mostly on weed for relaxation, there’s still plenty of fight left in the old curmudgeon. Only now, he’s not just railing against what he sees in front of him, he’s creating messages that might steer us towards some sort of solution.
Whether Jourgensen realizes society is spiraling down the drain so quickly the only way to reverse course is to stand up and be counted, or whether he’s doing what he does best and opposing the system just for the hell of it, he’s gotten inspired to subvert the norm in a way that’s both musically satisfying and rebellious as ever. All the weed in the world won’t chill Jourgensen out. Till the political censors shut off the power and pry his guitar and soundboard from his calloused fingers, he’ll remain mad as hell and he just won’t fucking take it — regardless of who’s in the oval office.
JON WIEDERHORN March 8, 2018