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Nitzer Ebb - Industrial Complex

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Artist: Nitzer Ebb

Album: Industrial Complex

Label: Artists’ Addiction

Review date: Jan. 17, 2011

It could be easily argued that Nitzer Ebb spent a decade watching its hard work slip away. Bon Harris’ unrelenting rhythms and Douglas McCarthy’ snarling, villainous voice helped to christen the dawn of the club-industrial era, where dark, relentless rock stylings from the likes of Killing Joke met machine beats and even darker subtext, as brought about by groups like DAF. The band’s best work had a totalitarian swing to it that focuses more on the action of the swinging rhythm than of the sledgehammer being used to drive it home, a potent combination that led them through the late ‘80s with three unimpeachable full-lengths. Their perennial slot as opening act for Depeche Mode on tour ensured maximum exposure to teenage America, and the band’s blocky, spare iconography, McCarthy’s tailored suits and Elvis-style wraparounds, and Harris’ cueball dome and mesh tank tops supporting the band’s all-or-nothing imagery and powerful music. Not one high school art classroom in America was left unmoved by these acts.

As the ‘90s came along, Nitzer Ebb found itself wanting. By this point, we’d experienced a full scale upheaval of the rock and club climates that the group so easily straddled before. Industrial music was moving away from the poorly-executed hip hop slam of KMFDM and into a layered, intense template spearheaded by Nine Inch Nails and then camped up by Marilyn Manson. The rhythms, Nitzer Ebb’s ace in the hole, were being compromised by GED-level lyrical outpourings of emotion, all-too-easily digested sentiments that were buried amidst a maelstrom of new, abrasive technology. Stalwarts like Ministry found itself pointing away from the jackhammering of the club to a crossover notion to Lollapalooza nation. After making some concessions to the developments at hand, it took Nitzer Ebb four years to recover. By the time 1995’s Big Hit was released, the club-industrial sound had evolved and mixed itself into alt-rock and metal to the point where the group’s early body of work seemed fossilized and uncomplicated. The band responded by adding guitars to compensate. It acted as it this were no time to be a purist, where we all know that for the most part it’s the only thing to do.

Yet purism is all this group ever needed. By the time electroclash made its way into the culture of the early 2000s, the stern, stalwart, instructive pound of Nitzer Ebb’s best efforts would have served as an immediate and necessary corrective to put that era’s careless frivolities in line. Around this time, I started listening to bands like Nitzer Ebb and Godflesh once more, trying to find the solution in a perceived jackboot on Casey Spooner’s throat. I even went as far as to have serious discussions with a colleague at making our own attempt at this sort of music. All we needed was a massive PA, a drum machine and a bass; our frustrations would have fueled the rest of the way. Lyrics were of the furious pronouncements that Nitzer Ebb sloganeered so well (“WE DON’T CARE ABOUT FREEDOM!” was a particularly memorable one, sizing up the hypocrisy of the times). After prototyping subwoofers spring-mounted inside of 55-gallon steel drums and anchored by marine pilings, I was this close to shaving my head and buying some heavyweight chains from the hardware store when my friend backed out of the project. My industrial revolution, partly borne of irony, partly revisionism, and partly solid inspiration from groups like the topic of discussion, was coming to a close before it even began — and with something like this, it’s quite tough to go it alone.

Industrial Complex appears after more than a decade’s absence in which Nitzer Ebb’s stark sounds were indeed on a lonely path leading nowhere, while the heart of the group left to work — Harris as a studio owner, McCarthy on other musical projects. Apart from greatest hits and remix compilations which surfaced in 2006, this record represents the group’s first new music in 15 years. The close-cropped graphics of its earlier efforts is back, here cheapened by computer-aided design. A dollar sign looms on the right of the cover, recognizable only by the top stroke above the S-shape. A series of currency symbols (dollar, pound sterling, yen and euro) displays beneath the CD tray. Well-groomed and well-dressed, the group — McCarthy and Harris, bedecked in sharp mens’ suits, joined by session drummer Jason Payne — seems ready to take over once again, looking no worse for the wear. They’re even assisted by longtime associates Flood, credited with “guidance and consultation” alongside Jagz Kooner, and Alan Wilder, who offers up a remix.

As you might expect, Industrial Complex suffers from all the problems a reunion album can bear. It’s far too long (the retail version adds a bonus track called “On the Road,” that old chestnut about touring, and four unnecessary remixes from the album’s initial release, which was hustled out for the group’s 2010 concert tour), far too obvious (“Payroll” in particular, equates money with power one more time, with the unfortunate chorus of “You wanna suck it / You better sit down”), and too uninspired to build a new fanbase of any importance. McCarthy, in particular, cannot summon the breath to yell as loud as he used to, and perhaps there’s no reason for him to do so, but intensity in one’s craft, even if issued 20-odd years ago, is something that is never able to be played down.

And yet, the sound is mostly still there, bumped down, no doubt, to laptop and ProTools in lieu of fancy studio setups and MIDI controllers of days gone by. The mere fact that these guys could get the gumption to mount a U.S. tour behind a handful of tracks that are as legitimately hard as anything they did before — the phase-shifting menace of “Once You Say,” the boxed-off and immediate wallop of “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” — justifies the presence of Nitzer Ebb today. They may be going on the broken hip tour for 40-something industrialites and their progeny, but there’s still something in the tank.

Nevertheless, it continues to bewilder me that a group like this wouldn’t just strip everything down and go for broke in the style of its ’87 debut That Total Age. It’s a regressive thought, but it’s what the fans would want. If I were to tell you that this record was nothing but the hardest of beats and the simplest of thoughts designed solely to make your body move, would you be more or less excited about it? Or did you want the ballad?

By Doug Mosurock

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