Ministry

When a band shows us the top of the mountain, we treat them the harshest. Every time we see them, we want them to take us to the top of the mountain one more time. If they can’t or won’t do it again, out come the knives.

I was 18, in The Year of our Lord 1990. I heard an incredible noise emanating from an adjacent dorm room. It sounded like evil machines from the future emulating a hardcore metal band. There were drills, and not so much lyrics as threats, shrieked at throat-shredding velocity. I was hooked as instantly as if I’d shot it into my veins somehow.

I hadn’t even seen Full Metal Jacket yet. I had no other context to place R. Lee Ermey’s legendary drill sergeant but the brutal chaos of the song. I didn’t know bands were allowed to make albums like The Mind Is A Terrible Thing To Taste. I never heard anything that sounded like that. It was aural aggression distilled to a perfect toxicity.

The second track is rock-solid proof of that. If it had “hyper-drums”, it would be the absolute quintessential Ministry song. For me, and many others, this set the tone for the 1990s.

This album is from 1989. The same year as Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814 and David Byrne’s Rei Momo. (Also Naked City and Skinny Puppy’s Rabies, though.) The klaxon loop that kicks “Burning Inside” off is from John Carpenter’s The Thing. This is one of the greatest albums ever recorded, of any genre.

“Never Believe” and “Cannibal Song” are both very good, but are also clearly a respite before track 5, which wields the same visceral impact of the opening salvo. Track 5 is possibly even harder. It’s like a musical assault, or cardio-pulmonary resuscitation so intense it cracks the ribcage. BREATHE YOU FUCKER!

Allen “Alien” Jourgensen’s vocals were affected and often difficult to parse, until he got to a key phrase, in which case you understood him exactly. The world is insane. 

Without going off on a tangent, let me just say that The Mind Is A Terrible Thing To Taste was always around when we used to drop acid, in college. One night when my friends and I were tripping, someone put on a videotape of Yellow Submarine, the Beatles cartoon. I immediately whined about having to hearing Beatles music, so we muted it and put TMIATTTT on the stereo. The idea being that we could trip out on the visuals of Yellow Submarine, while hearing music we all liked.

If you’re familiar with the movie, there’s a scene where the Fab Four have to tiptoe quietly through a field of slumbering Blue Meanies. They accidentally set off an alarm, in the form of a terrifying screaming nightmare clown (old cartoons were the best).

It was perfectly synchronized with the first scream of “So What”, and we all tripped our ever-loving balls off. 

This was before I’d ever heard of syncing Dark Side of the Moon with The Wizard of Oz. It blew our fucking minds. I don’t remember if the rest of the movie lined up as well, but that incident 28 years ago stuck with me for good.

“So What” is another one of the greatest songs ever recorded. If you’re curious, the scream is at 1:40 of the following video.

Now, even diamonds have flaws, and so, the following track is the “skipper”. Jourgensen and company were forging new ground with this disc (previous Ministry albums were quite different; more on that in a bit), so I can’t fault them for testing out a real curveball. In fact, the track itself is called “Test”, and it’s more or less rap. It features “The Grand Wizard” and “The Slogan God”, and it really isn’t up to snuff with the rest of the album. I literally cringe at the first line.

Here, tell me I’m off-base:

I’ve never heard of either credited “rapper”, and I know it’s not Jourgensen under yet another pen name, so I think that cut speaks for itself.

It doesn’t matter, because the next song is stellar, and I even have another stupid anecdote to go with it.

You see, in the late 1990s, I worked with a girl at Media Play, named Faith. You won’t believe this, but there was actually a night at a bar in Savannah where I was accompanied by three women, named Hope, Faith, and Charity. I did not make that up.

Anyway, Faith and I had similar tastes in music, and she used to talk about one of the last times she went out dancing at a local club. She fucked up her knee so bad that the kneecap flipped around to the back of her leg, and she hit the floor writhing in incomprehensible agony.

I mentioned the song “Faith Collapsing”, and how it would make terrific accompaniment for a dramatic re-enactment of the injury, with demonic mocking laughter as she fell to the ground in slow-motion. I don’t remember if she thought it was funny or not.

“Dream Song”, the album closer, is effective, and like I say, I was completely hooked on Ministry. I soon acquired The Land of Rape and Honey, Ministry’s release from the previous year, and a cassette of Twitch (1986) with a warped case (for 50 cents). I avoided purchasing 1983’s With Sympathy, because

  1. I heard it sounded like Depeche Mode
  2. There was a rumor that if you brought a copy to Chicago’s Wax Trax studio, Allen Jourgensen himself would smash it for you
  3. Long fingernails like the ones on the cover freak me out

The Land of Rape and Honey doesn’t reach the psychedelic heights of its successor, but it comes damn close. The opening track is the finest.

I would argue that “Stigmata” is the equal of “Burning Inside”. This is considered the first “true Ministry album”. If you’re wondering what the hell that cover is, well:

The album cover is an electronically processed image of a burned corpse in the Leipzig-Thekla subcamp of Buchenwald. Jourgensen took a photograph while watching a Holocaust documentary on television and distorted the image himself. According to Jourgensen, it was originally rejected by the record label but they later changed their mind after Jourgensen presented a head of a roadkilled deer he had found on the road; he cut off the head, put it in his truck, drove from Austin to Los Angeles, went into the Sire Records building, threw the deer on the desk of the head of the art department and said, “Here’s your new fucking [album] cover.”

Samples were taken the hard way; through a microphone in front of a television speaker. This is why Ministry and Skinny Puppy samples sound so much more distinctive than their digital current-day equivalent. They were pulled from VHS audio into an Akai MPC, preserving the sonic shape of the area in which they were played.

Another classic example is Ministry’s hit single “Jesus Built My Hotrod”, with its intro built up from samples of Brad Dourif in John Huston’s Wise Blood (1979).

Dennis Hopper’s immortal creep Frank Booth, from David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, is also sown into the track. Gibby Haynes of Butthole Surfers supplies the maddening half-gibberish vocals. This was the inspired follow-up, leading into 1992’s Psalm 69: The Way To Succeed And The Way To Suck Eggs. Succeed = suck seed, get it? 69? Ahar har. I don’t know why I waited until Dark Side of the Spoon to get rankled about punny Ministry titles, they were pretty much always doing it.

Psalm 69… do I even have to tell you how brilliant that album is? It’s gotta be the best-looking one, too. Everything felt acutely aligned; the intricately scrawled-over package, the battering tone of the music, even the harsh criticism of Bush Sr., whom I swear, it seemed like we all despised unanimously. Songs like “N.W.O.” never crossed the line into preachiness and condescension, like so many “protest” songs do today.

I tell you emphatically though, as I did in the second panel of my middling comic strip, the indisputable gem of Psalm 69 is the eighth track, “Corrosion”. It is very nearly a perfect Ministry song. For hyper-drum addicts like myself, it’s the ultimate fix.

There is nowhere to go from there but down. 

I was too harsh on Filth Pig (1996) in my strip. It’s nowhere near their worst album; in some ways it could be called their best. Not by me, but I was spoiled rotten by Mind six years prior. Keep that in mind.

Filth Pig is a great album to listen to while playing video game shooters. Not just for the obvious reasons, like “Reload”, but because its overall groove is consistent and confident enough to just “hang” without scaring you out of your wits. You can’t pop on Mind or Psalm 69 while playing a first-person shooter and get the same cosmic synchronicity. Filth Pig, however, goes with gaming like a Monster drink.

(Yes, there is a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Lay Lady Lay” on it. We don’t talk about that one.)

“Lava” takes its time, much like its fiery namesake does, and features a sample of John Cusack being mocked by a jock at “Pig Burger”, in the movie Better Off Dead (1985). The distorted clip sounds like the words “be healed”.

Filth Pig‘s best track is its closer, “Brick Windows”. The guitar and vocals hearken back to Jourgensen’s side project 1000 Homo DJs, and “Better Days”. However, if I start going into Ministry offshoots, we’re gonna be here all night.

The title was allegedly derived from a statement made in the British Houses of Parliament, in which the band’s leader Al Jourgensen was described as a filthy pig by MP Teddy Taylor. Despite being the band’s highest-charting album in the US, it was negatively received by reviewers, sharply divided the band’s fanbase, and was a commercial failure. This would be the last Ministry album to be recorded with Mike Scaccia on guitar until the 2004 release of Houses of the Molé. [Wikipedia]

Okay, maybe it is the worst album, and I was right in the first place.

I haven’t devoted the necessary time and energy to Ministry’s latter-day releases, but I do own Dark Side of the Spoon (1999) and Animositisomina (2003). Both have decent tracks but are overall subpar. As with classic Ministry albums, Spoon hits you with its best shot right away.

Many have described Al Jourgensen as a depraved asshole. This behavior has gifted the world a mass of innovative and groundbreaking music, so much that I had to limit how much of it I raved about in this article. The Mind Is A Terrible Thing To Taste sounds every bit as new and savage as it did almost thirty years ago. Al Jourgensen showed us the top of the mountain. And it was good.

That’s why I tend to forgive Al for his endless side projects, redundant remixes, and any other transgressions he makes that cause me to facepalm. 

This was the typical reaction to this album in 2018.

(Oh, and this is what Ministry sounded like in the beginning.)

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