Industrial Culture, Part 3 (Conclusion)

by Kiko Matsing

Goth Punk
Goth & Punk (Sources:,

The goth/industrial music scene after its heyday in the early 1990s with major acts like Nine Inch Nails and Ministry has devolved into a burlesque of Victorian Gothic horror (Edgar Allan Poe, Bram Stoker, Oscar Wilde, Robert Louis Stevenson), BDSM (Marquis de Sade, Leopold von Sacher-Masoch), and post-apocalyptic dystopia (Blade Runner, Mad Max, Akira, Æon Flux, The Matrix). Even as the scene receded from the mainstream (in Gainesville, FL, the entrance to the club is literally a hole in the wall, overlooked by the tailgating crowd), the goth remains a staple archetype of morose, disaffected youth in popular culture. Even Glee has one. I’m sure they are amenable to reestablishing their obscurity as it only heightens the deviance, notoriety, and excitement of the lifestyle. But deviance that is too mannered quickly becomes decadent, seen, for example, in the tired shock-tactics of NINs’ Closer video.

Gothic elements are the most sophomoric aspects of the current industrial music scene. Goth aesthetic invokes the supernatural and occult, which are anachronistic with the notion of the industrial and its underlying cult of science. Industrial connotes technology, machinery, energy. I see it aligned more with punk, which channels male aggression and anarchy, than the lurid theatricality and transvestism of the gothic. There is a reason why Twilight is a chick-flick: the swooning surrender to the vampire was a Romantic image of female ravishment. The vampire is androgynous, nocturnal, brooding; it conserves energy by attacking through seduction or hypnosis. Punk, on the other hand, dissipates energy. It is forceful, muscular, violent, an agonistic response to the stagnation and alienation of mechanized society. It is the noise–the entropy–of industrial culture.

Industrial Culture Handbook Cabaret Voltaire, Zürich, 1935
Industrial Culture Handbook; Hugo Ball’s Cabaret Voltaire, Zürich, 1935

The “Industrial Culture Handbook” is simply a reference guide to the philosophy and interests of a flexible alliance of the following deviant international artists… The impetus in common is rebellion… There is no strict unifying aesthetic, except that all things gross, atrocious, horrific, demented, and unjust are examined with black-humor eyes. Nothing is (or ever again will be) sacred, except a commitment to the realization of the individual imagination. These are not gallery or salon artists struggling to get to where the money is: these are artists in spite of art. There is no standard or value left unchallenged… The values, standards, and content that remain are of a perversely anarchic nature, grounded in a post-holocaust morality… All art has as its source dreams, the unconscious, and the imagination. And in dreams as in the imagination as in art–nothing is forbidden, everything is permitted….

(from the Introduction by V. Vale, Industrial Culture Handbook, RE/Search, 1983)

Goth/industrial clubs have become sad gatherings of grim poseurs in silly Halloween costumes. The scene has become decadent, pure artifice, no different from Lady Gaga’s tawdry drag shows. Like the hippie movement of the 1960s, it has been absorbed, commodified, and neutralized by bourgeois consumer culture. One must now squint to recognize the intellectual roots of industrial music in 20th century modernist and avant-garde movements, which challenged modern (industrial/consumer) society and its bourgeois values, traditional notions of art, and rationalism of the Enlightenment. Its early forms were truly experimental, transgressive, provocative. It was influenced by Dada’s anti-art ideology and embrace of chance and chaos with the use of cacophony, dissonance, and noise that thwart notions of musical harmony; by Surrealism’s invocation of irrationality in dreams; by Futurism’s worship of speed, force, and sheen of technology; by Fluxus (John Cage, Yoko Ono), musique concrète (Pierre Schaeffer), and Krautrock (Kraftwerk); by the trippy texts of beat writer William S. Burroughs (Naked Lunch, Queer, Junkie); by Nietzsche’s ethics/aesthetics (amoral will-to-power, heroic self-realization in art).

The Art of Noises Luigi Russolo
The Art of Noises (L’arte dei Rumori), a Futurist manifesto by Luigi Russolo, urging the use of noise (esp. of machinery) to create music

Early industrial music (Throbbing Gristle, Z’ev, Einstürzende Neubauten) was almost indistinguishable from academic compositional music (Karlheinz Stockhausen, Iannis Xenakis) and performance art (Joseph Beuys). RE/Search’s 1983 Industrial Culture Handbook documents these early artists, and also serves as some sort of manifesto, which further amplifies its ties with the avant-garde movements (esp. Futurism) in the strong sense of conceptualism, the overt appeal to theory, and preponderance of public declarations as part of the artistic production. It was no accident that one of the pioneers of electronic music called themselves Cabaret Voltaire, an homage to Hugo Ball’s nightclub in Zürich where Dada was born out of, yes, a manifesto.

Dada is a new tendency in art. One can tell this from the fact that until now nobody knew anything about it, and tomorrow everyone in Zürich will be talking about it. Dada comes from the dictionary. It is terribly simple. In French it means “hobby horse”. In German it means “good-bye”, “Get off my back”, “Be seeing you sometime”. In Romanian: “Yes, indeed, you are right, that’s it. But of course, yes, definitely, right”. And so forth.

An International word. Just a word, and the word a movement. Very easy to understand. Quite terribly simple. To make of it an artistic tendency must mean that one is anticipating complications. Dada psychology, dada Germany cum indigestion and fog paroxysm, dada literature, dada bourgeoisie, and yourselves, honoured poets, who are always writing with words but never writing the word itself, who are always writing around the actual point. Dada world war without end, dada revolution without beginning, dada, you friends and also-poets, esteemed sirs, manufacturers, and evangelists. Dada Tzara, dada Huelsenbeck, dada m’dada, dada m’dada dada mhm, dada dera dada, dada Hue, dada Tza.

(from Hugo Ball’s manifesto, read at the first public Dada soiree, Zürich, 1916)

The pioneers of industrial music, which includes Monte Cazazza and Cabaret Voltaire, converged around Throbbing Gristle’s own independent label, Industrial Records, with its wry market-positioning slogan “Industrial Music for Industrial People”. Its ad campaigns were ostensibly anti-consumerist, seemingly undermining their own commercial success with limited distribution, tape-and-glued packaging, and objectionable content featuring pornography, S&M, and facist/genocidal themes. In the US, the industrial scene, along with related New Wave and punk movements, converged around Wax Trax! Records, which started as a record shop in Denver that later moved to Chicago. It may well be what the bookstore Shakespeare and Company was in Paris for expats of the Lost Generation (Pound, Joyce, Hemingway) and the Beat Generation (Ginsberg, Corso, Burroughs). Its catalogue includes a who’s who of industrial music in the 1980s, including Front 242, Revolting Cocks, Ministry, My Life with the Thrill Kill Kult, KMFDM, Front Line Assembly, and Coil. Since it closed shop in 1992, Philadelphia-based Metropolis Records became the independent label for post-industrial, electro-industrial, and other goth-related genres (darkwave).

Ghost in a Shell The Matrix
Cyberpunk: “Ghost in a Shell” & “The Matrix”

Industrial music appeared serendipitously in the early 1980s with cyberpunk, an edgy form of science fiction that tackled themes related to emergent information technologies–computerization, network connectivity, mass media, virtual reality. The term was coined to inflict the hooliganism of punk onto cybernetic (or ‘control’) systems. In Bruce Bethke’s short story, where the term was first applied, it described alienated teenagers with portable computers surfing the networks and committing random acts of vandalism (hacking), not unlike the brutishness of droogs in A Clockwork Orange. A common trope in cyberpunk literature is insurgeny against a totalitarian regime embodied in the supervision/surveillance by an invasive computer control system. (The breakdown of control systems is also a common theme in Stanley Kubrick’s films.) This invasiveness is often portrayed in the interfacing of man and machine, especially of the brain function, such that perception is blurred between what is actual vs. simulated (virtual reality), or what is human vs. machine (androids, artificial intelligence). William Gibson’s novel Neuromancer (1984) became the prototypical cyberpunk text, although Philip K. Dick has been exploring these themes since the 1960s, e.g., in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968), which became the proto-cyberpunk movie Blade Runner (1982). Neuromancer, is obviously a pun on necromancer that resonates with goth sensibilities, while substituting ‘neuro’ for ‘necro’ gives it the cybernetic inflection. It was not long before industrial music–especially its electronic aspects (feedback, tape loops, synthesizers)–provided scores for cyberpunk films. Ridley Scott used Vangelis’ electronic ambient music in Blade Runner (some of it reminds me of Nitzer Ebb, eg., see Murderous below), while the visual style of The Matrix is indissoluble with its harsh industrial rock/metal soundtrack.

Steamboy Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow
Steampunk: “Steamboy” & “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow”

Steampunk, a later development, has a more positive, if not ambivalent, relation with industrial technology, compared with cyberpunk’s decidedly hostile relation with information technology. Its style is a nostalgic amplification of the Industrial Revolution and its defining technology, the steam engine. It shares the gothic fetish for Victorian fashion, but with the luster of bronze and a sepia palette. It is closer to the sensibility of Futurism in its glorification of mechanized technology (speed, noise, violence), and with fascism in its use of propaganda imagery (lofty architecture, military formations, fleets of blimps) as in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. A common trope is that of industrial society gone awry, whose extreme trajectory leads to the trench warfare of WWI or the eugenics and concentration camps of WWII. As speculative fiction, it finds inspiration in Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. William Gibson’s The Difference Engine (1990), an alternative history of Charles Babbage’s computing machine, is considered a representative text. The undeservedly panned Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004), combines these elements with film noir stylizations (detectives in trench coats and fedora hats, eccentric camera angles, menacing lighting) and comic book story telling (storyboard framing, montage) to create The Matrix of steampunk (or dieselpunk), where the hero is not a hacker but an aviator in oversized goggles. The steampunk vision of the future might still be dystopic, but certainly less gloomy than cyberpunk paranoia. It projects a certain naïve exuberance about the future (a “gee-whiz vigor” according to Roger Ebert) that is more suitably scored, ironically, not by abrasive sounds of industrial music, but with triumphant orchestrations from good ol’ 1940s superhero TV, like Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, and that shining example of clean-cut virtue, Superman.

Throbbing Gristle
(from Mission of Dead Souls, 1981)

Mission of Dead Souls documents Throbbing Gristle’s last live performance in San Francisco… TG’s studio work was noisy and abstract, but more was left to chance in better gigs like this, with primitive synthesizers and other electronics pitted against a band trying to keep some semblance of control.
     –David Jeffries

Official Throbbing Gristle Website
Other Videos:

Cabaret Voltaire
(from The Original Sound Of Sheffield: The Best Of Cabaret Voltaire ’78/’82, 2002)

Electronic music has come a long way since Cabaret Voltaire began mixing it up with machines in order to evade boredom… [No] one will ever approach the spectral wonder inherent in the group’s early work.
     –Andy Kellman

Unofficial Cabaret Voltaire Website
Other Videos:

Nitzer Ebb
(from That Total Age, 1987)

[A] thrilling, rough-yet-clean combination of dancefloor aggression, industrial noise, and lyrical imagery (and vocal stylings), suggesting a combination of fascist rally and hardcore male-bondage sex club.
     –Ned Raggett

Official Nitzer Ebb Website
Other Videos:

Front 242
(from Front By Front, 1988)

Easily one of the greatest industrial albums ever made… The album’s most deservedly famous track can make an equally good case for being the definite EBM song: “Headhunter.” A portrait of capitalism as mercenary terrorism with a wickedly compelling mock orchestral bass providing lead melody…
     –Ned Raggett

Official Front 242 Website
Other Videos:

My Life with the Thrill Kill Kult
“Kooler Than Jesus”
(from Confessions of a Knife, 1990)

[A] healthy dose of funky and organic instrumentation to create industrial music that’s more extreme disco than house… a fine balance of nihilistic intensity and structural finesse.
     –Vincent Jeffries

Official My Life with the Thrill Kill Kult Website
Other Videos:

Meat Beat Manifesto
“99%, Genocide”
(from 99%, 1990)

Somewhere between the hypnotic drone of acid techno and the grating aggression of industrial metal lies Meat Beat Manifesto.
     –Bradley Torreano

Official Meat Beat Manifesto Website
Other Videos:

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Refencences and Links: