Ministry – From Beer to Eternity

image courtesy of the band’s press

Okay, first I have to ask you to excuse both the lackluster album name and album cover. The title is clearly meant to be another in the series of cynical puns Ministry has used for so long. I’ve been a fan of the band since the moment I first heard The Mind is a Terrible Thing to Taste  back in the early 90’s – it’s one of my favorite albums ever – and even I’ll admit that while Uncle Al and crew nail it on some of their albums’ adornments (but never better than on the aforementioned) they also fall flat on some. This is a shame when you take into account that musically almost every Ministry record to date is otherwise brilliant.

The title and cover of From Beer to Eternity belongs in the “flat” category. The music however, does not. From Beer… is a fantastic and original piece of music that will sit nicely right alongside another recent classic by the band, the apocalyptically gorgeous The Last Sucker.

Now, where some folks refuse to move forward with the band, choosing instead to pine away for the days of the industrially throbbing, cage-and-torch Ministry I’ve never been able to turn a blind eye to Uncle Al and friends’ continued output because I believe they are one of the few bands out there that actually evolve. They hardly ever do the same thing twice, and in the few instances where this is a concern it’s usually because their writing/recording sessions end with such a surplus of material that it carries over from one album to another. The perfect example of this is the trifecta that began with Houses of the Molé , continued with Rio Grande Blood and wrapped up in The Last Sucker. These particular albums form a loosely knit, anti-George W. trilogy and as such were recorded and released in such a quick fashion that artistically they are to some degree movements in the same piece of music.

From Beer to Eternity is tied to those albums listed above, but it sounds pretty much nothing like them. Starting with 1995’s Brilliant Filth Pig and very deftly continued on 2003’s Animositisomina, Uncle Al began working in a lot more of the post-punk influences that, while obviously there in spirit in the old days, never quite had the room to come through while he was basically writing the second and third acts of the what became known as Industrial music*. Well, that’s back; there’s expressly more melody and even a wonderfully bent take on dub. Sound disparate? Well, it’s all held together with just the right amount of those awesome FX’d vocals, big, bombastic guitars and hundreds of samples. That’s the glue that allows them to cover a lot of new ground on From Beer…  and it all adds up to the kind of record I’ve been listening intently to on headphones for the better part of a week and know I haven’t heard everything it has to offer yet.

One of the reasons Ministry never ceases to amaze, inspire or entertain me is because a Ministry album is never simply the product of the band laying out a list of songs one, two, three. No, with Ministry there has always been a fastidious element of sound design that makes their take on whatever it is they are doing at that particular moment something more than the sum total of its strictly musical parts. From Beer to Eternity is a perfect example of this, maybe more so than any Ministry album of recent memory. The opening track, Hail To His Majesty (Peasants) is so musically interesting that it defies any expectations it sets merely by being the first song on the new Ministry album. Sampled phrases usher us in (Harry Carry’s famous Holy Cow? Nice) but just about where we’d assume the track would ‘kick in’ it takes a strange fork in the road: a synth bass with a wobbled-envelope meanders in and intentionally works against the momentum the song has set up. This serves to create a brilliant new kind of tension for a Ministry record, and it makes it doubly dramatic when the guitars and screaming vocals do kick us in the forehead and then drag us deeper into the album by the back of our collars.

And of course, the politics is still here. PermaWar is the first single and while probably being the least interesting song on the record that by no means makes it bad. The least interesting Ministry song is not a denomination I use as a  knock – it’s just the smallest giant, so to speak. Of much more incendiary-propulsion is a track like Fairly Unbalanced, which makes intricate use of broadcast samples from the FOX network and calls for “No more hate machine/No more right-wing extreme/No more stupidity/No more Fox TV” (beautiful!). This then leads directly into another track – The Horror – which uses an array of programming and musical manipulation along with a veritable boatload of right-wing samples, specifically pertaining to the abortion/rape debate that was stirred up via former US representative for Missouri’s second Congressional District Todd Akin. Where as on previous releases Uncle Al excels in manipulating speeches/interviews by a number of politicians – most especially W. and sidekick Cheney –  to make their words work against them via a decidedly Burroughsian** cut-up method of sample manipulation, here Al is actually able to back off and let the offender’s words stand as they are. Everybody read what Akin said, but when you hear it, surrounded by a tornado of accentuating samples, you get a real feel for the the insidious nature of the kind of hatred Jourgensen is rallying against. Al and crew take great pleasure stretching and subjugating that landscape of rhetoric inside the skin of their music, once again layering apocalyptic tones and textures over the top of the everyday war we fight to think for ourselves and rise above the machine.

I’m talking a lot about the sampling on this record, and that’s because it’s probably even more important to the overall structure of the music than any record since Psalm 69‘s release. That’s going back to a different era of the scene they helped create and foster in Chicago, and maybe not so coincidentally there’s another old school comparison I feel can be made here. A lot of the sampling occurs in a kind rhythmic punctuation that often sees said samples acting as bridges between songs or song parts. This gives the record just the littlest bit of a feeling I liken to My Life With the Thrill Kill Kult’s Confessions of a Knife. MLWTTKK were once Ministry’s contemporaries, both by virtue of city and label connections (Chicago, Wax Trax) and the fact that before Ministry Al was in Special Affect with Kult founding member Groovie Mann. That obviously didn’t last but both the Kult and Ministry wound up pursuing similar interests and becoming icons within the late 80’s/early 90’s industrial quagmire that both groups moved and operated within. This re-appropriation of an old idea adds a tonal quality for From Beer to Eternity that, while not a dominant thing, is yet another flavor in a thick and nuanced industrial metal broth. A recipe that, at the risk of incurring Uncle Al’s ire, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say also includes a touch of the old, old Ministry.  The track Change of Luck, while standing on it’s own as a strange new twist on Ministry’s sound, complete with sitar-like guitars and Paul Barker-like bass line, does indeed remind me of With Sympathy era Ministry, with its chorus that harkens back to those faraway days when Alain Jourgensen made pretty awesome synth pop.

So there’s a lot of time travel I’m sensing on this record. Does that mean that it feels like a big sum-up, as though it may perhaps be the band’s last? Who can tell. Maybe it’s as simple as Uncle Al seeing the movie Looper, figuring out how to travel back in time and then attempting to gather his former selves, picking and choosing previous MO’s and finally squeezing the elements he actually likes out of his very publicly hated Arista years, splicing it all together with a lot of new ideas and a steady scaffolding of the consistent Ministry sound we’ve come to know over the last four or five records. But Al Jourgensen go back in time? I’m thinking if he had the ability to do that he’d probably set his sights a little further back and introduce George senior to the wonders of birth control.

Lastly I would be remiss if I did not mention the fact that during the recording of From Beer to Eternity long-time Ministry collaborator Mike Scaccia passed away. Now, where some would think this might make for a somber mood, however I would say just the opposite. There are two ways to do a memorial: morose or celebratory. Al definitely chooses the latter route. I’d say there’s a tweak in the mix that highlights some of the guitar solos more than ever before, and one song in particular – Side FX Include Mikey’s Middle Finger – really showcases some of the late guitarist’s work as its run up, down and backwards amidst the Azathothic parameters of another in a series of the mind-bending “TV” songs. Scaccia wasn’t on every Ministry release, but he sure as hell added a lot when he was in the mix, and if there ever are future Ministry records, Scaccia’s presence will definitely be missed.

Ministry’s From Beer to Eternity is available on September 10th via AFM Records.

…………..

* The first chapters of course belong to Throbbing Gristle and the subsequent first wave, bands like SPK, Monte Cazazza and others. It is worth noting here that a great resource for the lineage is Oxford Press’ recently published Assimilate: A Critical History of Industrial Music by S. Alexander Reed, himself a founding member of Cabaret Voltaire, another of those first wave groups.

** And interestingly enough there’s another, much more direct link to William S. Burroughs on From Beer to Eternity:  the Thanx But No Thanx features Jourgensen’s former right-wing friend Sgt. Major (last seen on Rio Grande Blood) reading Burroughs’ Thanksgiving Prayer.

Shawn C Baker

Shawn C Baker

Shawn lives in Los Angeles where he co-hosts Drinking w/ Comics, writes screenplays and fiction and has been known to drink quite a bit of beer. Good beer.

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