Nitzer Ebb weren’t shy about where they were coming from by the time of their full-length debut, with both the sonics and visual aesthetics of D.A.F. providing a guiding point and then some. But Douglas McCarthy’s compelling way around a commanding slogan and Bon Harris’s ear for huge, blunt electronic arrangements, not to mention once and future member David Gooday’s tight, punchy drumming, made That Total Age an underground smash, with songs like “Join In The Chant,” “Let Your Body Learn” and “Murderous” becoming massive club hits.
While the previous two decades had seen a variety of experimental approaches form what would be termed as ‘industrial music,’ not least due to Throbbing Gristle’s naming of their own label with the word, it was the 1980s that eventually solidified the public image of the sound and style as such. No one album or moment was the turning point, as instead a wide variety of performers and musicians worldwide, often with wildly different aesthetics at play, began to slowly be integrated into a general scene that itself had plenty of bleedover into other areas, whether it was avant-garde composition, dancefloor-friendly beats, synthpop and goth’s own concurrent popularity or even heavy metal straight up. But thanks to certain factors in particular — the rise of key labels like Wax Trax!, Mute, Play It Again Sam and Nettwerk, increasing college radio and club night support, and a general sense of electronic-based approaches favoring loud, disruptive arrangements and massive beats — by the end of the decade one could use the term as a handy shorthand, often roping in a variety of fellow travellers along the way such as the roaring electronic rock of Killing Joke or the Young Gods or the exploratory strangeness of bands like the Legendary Pink Dots, Nurse With Wound or Current 93.
The German duo D.A.F. established a blunt, knowingly sly role model early in the decade, and later acts like Nitzer Ebb openly modelled themselves on that act’s combination of imagery and musical approach. Another German act, Einstürzende Neubauten, became infamous for their performances on and involving actual machinery and industrial detritus, in turn inspiring Depeche Mode to shift their own sampling of such source material in their work. Australia proved to be a source of numerous acts fully plunging into various electronic extremities, including the hyperproductive J. G. Thirlwell and his many Foetus projects and the vivid, surreal collages created by Severed Heads. Vancouver, Canada was ground zero for a lot of activity thanks to Skinny Puppy and numerous associated acts, while Belgium’s Front 242, founders of the sub-genre they termed ‘electronic body music’ or EBM, steadily built a reputation on a series of stellar releases. In America, Al Jourgensen proved to be a pivotal figure, transforming his synth-pop approach in Ministry towards louder and darker ends while collaborating with many of his peers on other projects. Meantime, the decade’s end saw the debut release of Trent Reznor as Nine Inch Nails, at once a survey and celebration of the overall sound and the unexpected starting point for where the genre would be seen more widely in the years to come.
Skinny Puppy reached a new level of detailed sonic melodrama and outrage with the release of VIVISectVI, the intertwining of its constituent elements from stop to start creating an unnerving series of songs whose impact was on the level of the Bomb Squad’s contemporaneous work for Public Enemy. The harrowing “Testure” remains the album’s signature song, a seething condemnation of animal testing and abuse, but the brooding punch throughout, dwelling on chemical warfare horrors, the impact of AIDS and much more, was an industrial music triumph.
Front 242 already had notable singles and albums under its belt several times over but with Front by Front the founders of EBM created its ultimate defining document. Without being a concept album as such it retains a rich sense of unity and elaboration on key themes, lyrical and musical, in its portrait of a forbidding electronic landscape of control and threat. Songs like “Im Rhythmus Bleiben” and “First In/First Out” are pitch perfect examples but it’s the stellar “Headhunter,” presented in its ‘V3.0’ mix, which became the group’s signature song overall.
Laibach made the jump to wider Anglophonic attention with 1987’s Opus Dei, released on Mute in the UK and Wax Trax! in the US, wrapping up an astounding multimedia critique and parody of fascism, totalitarianism, arena rock and more into a compellingly listenable album that pulled no punches. In particular, their transformations of Queen’s “One Vision” (as “Geburt Einer Nation”) and Opus’s “Love Is Life” (twice, in both English and German) into grandiose roughly sung party-rally hymns proved to be an anchor approach for much of their work to come.
When Mute released this 1984 compilation featuring selections from the earliest work by Einstürzende Neubauten, the goal was to help introduce the band to a UK audience and beyond to show that there was more going on than just trying to destroy stages and beat on machinery. Which it did — by drawing on a slew of songs from Kollaps, various singles and further live cuts, the band, assisted by J. G. Thirlwell, presented the dramatic intensity and remarkable charisma of their approach very well, at once fragmented, avant-garde and astonishingly memorable.
With the band’s creative core now fully centered on Sascha K and En Esch following Raymond Watts’s departure, KMFDM closed out their 1980s with the strong UAIOE, at once more focused on its shuddering blend of sampling, industrial-strength beats and generally dark atmosphere while able to explore even more styles via guest turns like Morgan Adjei’s deliberate flow on songs like “Murder.” But it’s the sharp sloganeering-party-amid-the-chaos numbers like the knowingly hilarious “More and Faster,” “Thrash Up!” and the title track that hit the biggest.
Trent Reznor’s formal debut as an artist is absolutely a product of its time and place, with Pretty Hate Machine audibly being a sweet spot balanced between Depeche Mode’s synth hook prowess and late 1980s Ministry’s rampaging rock/industrial hybrids. But by adding his own ear for earworm melodies, a gift for haunted ballads and a deft helping of Prince’s groove obsession, Reznor scored an underground smash with songs like “Head Like a Hole” and “Down In It” becoming subcultural standards by the time Nine Inch Nails toured on Lollapalooza in 1991.
Severed Heads achieved that most unexpected of results — a radical, truly experimental aesthetic getting major label funding, at least in Australian terms — by the mid-1980s, with the City Slab Horror album feeling like a transmission from a strange robot world that wasn’t so much inhuman as coolly removed. But greatly interested in humanity’s noise regardless, with both intense and strangely serene songs like “We Have Come To Bless This House” and “Now, An Explosive New Movie” hitting the beats hard while creating a disorienting atmosphere.
Al Jourgensen followed his post-With Sympathy departure from Arista with some Wax Trax! singles, then returned to major label life via Ministry’s second album Twitch, recorded in London with the audible production help of Adrian Sherwood and core On-U Sound players. Often seen as transitional, it’s more like a path not taken, with Jourgensen avoiding the feedback and shouts of soon to come albums in favor of ominous electronic clatter and deep industrial funk grooves, most successfully on “Just Like You” and the standout single “Over The Shoulder.”
With Alan Wilder now firmly part of the Depeche Mode dynamic, the band shifted past the transitional explorations of A Broken Frame to almost literally invent the concept of industrial pop music, taking the artistic innovations of bands like Einsturzende Neubaten in combination with early sampling techniques to create songs with hooks that sounded like nothing else. Dave Gahan’s more assertive singing and Martin Gore’s strong songwriting base did the rest, and songs like “Everything Counts,” “Pipeline” and “Told You So” demonstrated the dividends.
Coil’s sense of disruption, reinterpretation and resistance to a dominant culture was in full effect on Horse Rotorvator, covering everything from snarling contempt and (rather like the previous album) scatology to vivid visions of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s death and a looming apocalypse. With guest appearances by J. G. Thirlwell, Marc Almond and Billy McGee, the music touches many areas in turn, from almost folkish contemplation to twisted cabaret and rumbling noise, a multifaceted journey which John Balance sings and chants as if in a vision.
The fourth album by Front Line Assembly was also the last involving Michael Balch, but it was a fine way to bow out, as the group’s commanding EBM approach reached heights of precision and overwhelming impact, Bill Leeb’s vocal presence less a ghost in the machine than a dark god in the wires. “Digital Tension Dementia,” the single that broke them through to a wider club audience, has deserved pride of place, but other standouts include the moody rumble of “Antisocial,” the slow burn build of “Shutdown” and the brisk clipped punch of “Bloodsport.”
By the time of Alles Ist Gut D.A.F. had figured out a new streamlined approach for their aggressive edge, reducing everything down to mostly percussion, synth bass, vocals both declamatory and murmuring and their own dry yet knowingly leering wit. The result was a stellar breakthrough for not only the Neue Deutsche Welle but for hard-edge dance music worldwide, with the brutal groove of songs like “Der Mussolini” and “Verlier’ nicht den Kopf” resulting in a German hit album and attention from an incipient generation of industrial/dance fans worldwide.
Thanks to both his regular stream of releases and his various guest appearances and collaborations, not to mention the continual renaming of his group-as-such where the only word in common was ‘Foetus,’ J.G. Thirlwell had a discography already needing an overview by 1989. Sink did the business; while various tracks were presented in edited form, the combination of album cuts, singles, unreleased songs and more resulted in a solid summary of his musical and sometimes lyrical fixations, from the strangely fragile to the utterly sleazed out.
It wasn’t the deep satire of Laibach or the subtler wryness of D.A.F., but like those two acts My Life with the Thrill Kill Kult knew that the industrial ‘scene,’ however defined, had room for knowing humor, and on their debut album they went straight for the heart of the overblown and damaging Satanic panic of 1980s America. While some songs are more mood-setting than anything else, the careening party-in-Vegas vibes that would come to define the band are already emerging on “…And This Is What The Devil Does!” and “Do You Fear (For Your Child?).”