There's a curious arc that I take with some records: loathing, indifference, morbid fascination, paravritti, adoration. Paravritti is a Buddhist term for a kind of deep-seated turning-about of the soul, sometimes used as a synonym for enlightenment, the kind of total change of heart you couldn't ever see yourself having because you've transcended yourself in such a fundamental way. When Filth Pig first came out, I don't think I could have ever imagined a state of affairs where I liked the record, let alone loved it. But here we are, twenty years later, and it's my third-favorite thing of theirs behind The Land of Rape and Honey and Twitch.
Let's face it: Everyone hated Filth Pig in 1996, me included. After the blistering sandpaper-to-the-forehead hellride of 1992's ΚΕΦΑΛΗΞΘ (Psalm 69), Filth Pig sounded like not only a step backwards but sideways into a tarpit. Longtime fans of the band resented Al Jourgensen's ongoing drift into generic heavy metal (in the long run, they would prove to be right); four years we waited, and for this? Critics held their noses and gonged the record off. Everyone else shrugged. My response was a smidgeon of each of those in turn: everything originally interesting about Ministry was disappearing; even on its own terms, the album was a sludgy bore; and I had better things to do with my time. After a couple of perfunctory plays, I threw the album into the back of my collection and tried to forget about it. Four years for this?
But. Every now and then one of its ugly, mud-caked riffs would come lumbering back into mind and stay there. While re-ripping my CD collection, its turn came up, and I temporarily abandoned ripping duties to listen to the album not once but twice in a row with the fascination one normally reserves for discovering an entirely new artist. The group had consciously discarded most of the connections with the previous incarnations of the band — everything from the samplers and synths to the drill-press space of the songs — and all that was left was the seething slag that had always been there underneath. The album didn't just sound like it had been recorded under the influence of the black tar heroin Jourgensen and company had allegedly been pipelining — it sounded like black tar heroin. Small wonder critics had nodded towards the stoner/doom/sludge-rock of the Melvins as a point of reference for this album. Small wonder Jourgensen later admitted he'd been horrifically depressed during the making of the record; people make music like this because they have to, not because they want to.
As for me plugging back into the record after so long — chalk it up to me getting into jazz, I guess. No, seriously, stop your giggling. In the years between me discovering and then re-discovering the album, getting neck-deep into Coltrane, Miles, Albert Ayler, George Russell, and all the rest helped me listen for things in music that I previously ignored. Where before I only cared about gimmicks — do they use a drum machine? a synth? the CMI? — I now cared about things like textures, contrasts, composition and the way conventional instruments could be used to create effects as stirring or shattering as any electronics. In the wake of all that, I was finally able to hear Ministry strip things down to their miasmic basics in Filth Pig — hear it, acknowledge it, groove on it, and not just admit it was there.
Of the ten cuts on the album, my least favorites include one Warner Brothers hustled out the door in search of a single: "Reload", the opener. It's herky-jerky and strident in a way that's more annoying than interesting, although it has the advantage of being mercifully short. But then comes the title cut to properly set the tone for the rest of the record — slow, undulating, roaring, with sneering vocals, with moments where the band just stops everything dead and lets the silence do the talking. The only parallel I could draw from their previous material was with the track "Scarecrow" from Paslm 69, the one aberrantly slow-moving river of molten metal from that disc.
All the best tracks on the record follow in that song's footsteps model, with the tempo only becoming mildly peppy at best; each song finds some little twist to put on the basic approach to further color it. With "Lava" (you could have named the record that, too, come to think of it ), it's the blaring harmonica and the massively slap-echoed snare drum, and the perfectly timed use of a sample of someone cooing "Oh yeah!" on the right channel. With "Crumbs", it's the front-and-center bass guitar, clean and undistorted, that somehow stands apart from the shearing walls of sheet-metal guitar noise around it. With "Dead Guy" and "Gameshow", my two favorite tracks, it's the use of dead silence to make the thunder surrounding them all the more a kick in the gut. With "The Fall" — the other song tagged for a single, and a reworking of a track ("Noreen") salvaged from Welt, a Skinny Puppy side project — it's the piano that appears out of nowhere in the last third or so of the track, expanding the otherwise monochromatic flavor of the song immensely.
I'm not a big fan of the bizarre Bob Dylan cover "Lay Lady Lay", although I give Jourgensen points for chutzpah: if you didn't know the original, you'd assume — both because of the music and words — it was just Ministry at its most tongue-in-cheekily perverse. (The innuendoes inherent in the title should be a tipoff as to how Ministry choose to read the song.) And even the throwaway closer, "Brick Windows", still impressed me in a sly way — it's proof you can play a song in a major key and still be creepy as all get-out.
The worst insult you can deliver about a band these days isn't even that it's untalented, but that it's boring, and the gravest sin Ministry committed in its latter years was being dull. Everything about them that was daring and experimental got smoothed down, shaved off, sanded away. All that remained was off-the-shelf metalhead snarl, not compensated for in any great measure by the band's humor or intelligence — and if you were going to look for examples of those things, why dig around in the jumble-sale mediocrity of the latter records when there was tons of it to spare from earlier on in their career? Filth Pig came from a moment in Ministry's history when it chose to get rid of all the right things for a change.