There was a time when the mere fact of an album’s existence seemed dangerous. Lester Bangs made an unnerving personal case for it with Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols, when he reported how it wasn’t just the sheer sneering cynicism of the record itself, but the mood it inspired in people, both at large and up close. He and his friends would put it on and feel such disgust, such negative energy accumulating within themselves thanks to that music that they became genuinely frightened at how there seemed to be nothing to do with that black aura except be roasted alive in it. Even the Pistols themselves couldn’t survive being the source of such a miasma; the whole point of the group had been to create something horrible and unstable. After them it was difficult to imagine a group, or a record, released on a mainstream label, whose very existence implied its imminent destruction: it had to be a publicity stunt, right?
Give any cultural marker ten years, and see what the people raised on it will produce. Ministry was far tamer as a cultural phenomenon than the Pistols — it never reached quite the same level of public awareness as Sid's Kids, and even at his most outré Al Jourgensen and the rest of his buddies could still be packed away as "just another rock band", instead of the most scabrous embodiment of a country's cultural souring.
But even if Ministry didn't work on that level, they still produced what was easily the most non-mainstream "mainstream" record of the same year the Dirty Dancing soundtrack, George Michael's Faith and Guns 'n Roses's Appetite for Destruction were selling about three copies to every person on the planet. Irony, there: G'nR were the least tame of that batch, and today they seem downright timid — both musically and in many other respects — compared to the mayhem Ministry conjured up on stage and on record. I'm no longer big on the idea that the ultimate value of a work of art is how deep a wound it inflicts in the audience, but it's still possible to make discoveries under such a philosophy that have a value entirely apart from it. And so, even if only for a couple of albums, it felt like we had a band that had not only unprecedented fury at its command but a way to connect that fury to a broad audience without diluting it.
Ministry had been signed to Sire as of their previous album Twitch, which moved the group even further away from the mainstream digital funk of both their first album and their Wax Trax!-distributed singles towards the kind of sputtering robotic grind that co-producer Adrian Sherwood would also coax out of the likes of Tackhead. There was much crossover between Sherwood and Jourgensen: an early unreleased Ministry track, "Move", would turn in various incarnations as both a Tackhead track and as a section of Keith Leblanc's Challenger-shuttle-disaster-memorial LP Major Malfunction. It wasn't until the Early Trax compilation that the original 1984 mix of "Move" showed up, along with "Show Me Your Spine", their long-lost RoboCop soundtrack contribution, another gloriously sarcastic bit of Fairlight-fueled industrial dancefloor noise.
With Land, though, the Fairlight sampler and other synthetic instruments were used to harness, amplify, and augment a barbed thrash-metal guitar sound that made the band seem like (as the Trouser Press guide put it) Depeche Mode had morphed into Motorhead. Put on the one album they released for Arista in 1982, With Sympathy, and all you hear is something they had evidently worked hard to run away from. By the time two full studio albums had gone by, every bit of that keyboard-pop sound had been burned away and replaced with — how would we put it today? — sixteen-bit punk.
Sire gave Land a fairly major promotional push, and its single "Stigmata" ended up in some of the least likely places — on MTV, for starters, where its creepy Stan-Brakhage-meets-Kenneth-Anger music video made a fitting complement to the song's alarm-bell, drill-press sound. The sight of masses of skinheads leaping about the stage in over-exposed black and white, the out-of-focus images of dead concentration camp victims on the album's sleeve, and the outré publicity shots of Jourgensen and bandmate/bassist Paul Barker (also seen in the video on motorcycle) all led people to draw plenty of the wrong conclusions about the band. Not that they minded; like any band since Elvis's first wiggle, no publicity could be bad publicity — not even if it meant being stigmatized, pun deeply intended, as everything from neo-Nazis to Satanists.
The image and the attack was one thing; the music was, and remains, another. As crucial as "Stigmata" is to the record's reputation (and the band), it holds up less well for me than the rest of the album — maybe because it became a kind of go-to track to drop in whenever you needed a piece of hate-rock as harsh musical wallpaper. Richard Stanley's Hardware first used the song to good effect, but by the time Rumble in the Bronx came along and the song was used as shorthand to show kids up to no good, we were well into unintended-cliché territory. The song remains the most obvious and popular example of the album's antipathy and violence, but not even the best one. To my ears now, the track sounds childish and petulant, not menacing. It works best in its broiling extended mix, which was originally released on a 12" along with a non-album track, "Tonight We Murder". Why the latter was not included on the LP proper I have no idea (it's available in the Box compilation of singles from the band); it's one of the best things from that entire era, and an even better incarnation than "Stigmata" of the seething menace they could produce when they were at their best.
The rest of the record, though, has tracks that work far better, if only perhaps because they have not been co-opted as vigorously in so many other ways. The back-to-back thrash workouts that follow "Stigmata" — "The Missing" and "Deity" — sound like what the entire album might have been if they had simply been attempting to hitch the early-'80s thrash sound to a drum machine and leave it at that. But "Golden Dawn", the stalking, looming instrumental that follows, hinted at how the band had more than just a one-note, sledgehammer approach. In fact, by the time you get to the title track, the guitars are all but gone, replaced instead by their sampled counterparts or ditched entirely for increasingly vicious synth programming. The few self-identified synth-punks that came before — e.g., The Screamers, Futurisk, or Gary Numan's various incarnations — couldn't have imagined anything this snub-nosed and engorged with rage, even if they had been given access to the same hardware.
Between this record and most of its follow-up, The Mind is a Terrible Thing to Taste (Jourgensen loved to nudge his audience in the ribs just before breaking them), the band defined their sound in a way that they would then let slip through their fingers through the rest of their career. By the time the long-overdue ΚΕΦΑΛΗΞΘ showed up, their mix had become more explicitly metal-oriented, and everything after that forces you to hunt and peck for good moments. They also made the mistake of trading in a more general sense of menace for all-too-specific concerns: sampling George H. W. Bush on ΚΕΦΑΛΗΞΘ wasn't by itself a problem, but the more the band tackled specific targets (the Gulf Wars, both Bushes) instead of being as thematically wide-gauge as possible, the less effective they were. Anyone can write a tract; not everyone can summon a state of mind. Relapse, their most recent release, shows them as having lost everything that made them interesting in the first place. But for a couple of albums at least, you didn't have to look hard to find that.