Ministry (band) – album survey

13 October, 2009

As a radical change from classical music (an area which I begin to think I have just about mined out), I have been reinvestigating the band Ministry, who I last investigated about 15 years ago. I had Psalm 69 (of course), and then picked up Land of Rape and Honey, and The Mind is a Terrible Thing to Taste. Neither of these was as good as Psalm 69 – you could see the songwriters getting better and more confident as they approached the tech-metal of their most successful album to date.

The best song on Land… is (1) Stigmata, and a few others are okay too: (2) The Missing, (3) Deity (which Al Jourgensen mispronounces as “dee-ety), (7) the title track, and (8) You Know What You Are. The rest is fairly standard 1980s industrial, with the repetitive beats and bassline, and anaemic synth percussion favoured by that genre. Al’s partner Paul Barker voices the track I Prefer.

The Mind is a Terrible Thing to Taste is half-good: (1) Thieves, (2) Burning Inside, and (6) So What are good (though I’ve gotten sick of So What, due to overexposure). (5) Breathe has potential, but the constant percussion and Paul Barker’s drony backing vocals are a drawback. The rest of the album features guest vocalists, and is pretty weak post-punk stuff.

Psalm 69 has a good proportion of good tracks. Obvious highlights are (1) NWO, (2) Just One Fix, (4) Hero and (5) Jesus Built my Hotrod (vocal by Gibby Haynes). (3) TV II is also good, but wears less well. (6) Scarecrow and (7) Psalm 69 are more difficult to assess, as they seem like a letdown in comparison to the fast tempo earlier tracks. In fact, they fit very well with the sludgier metal of Filth Pig, the followup album to Psalm 69. You can judge this by listening to the live Sphinctour album.

The final two tracks are apocalyptic soundscapes that don’t need to be listened to more than once.

Next came Filth Pig, generally regarded as a real let-down after Psalm 69. I think part of the problem is the sound: it’s much too bright at the top end, and at the same time the low bass is exaggerated, and there is also some random low bass noise during various tracks. The best tracks are (1) Reload, (2) the title track, (3) Lava, (4) Crumbs, and (8) The Fall. Other tracks are less inspired in groove and melody. Barker sings on (5) Useless. Arguably, better versions of the five best tracks are available on the live Sphinctour album.

Dark Side of the Spoon has a reputation as the worst Ministry album. I really wanted to be the guy who says, “Wait, you just have to open your mind – this is really good!” But sadly, it’s not. Opening track (1) Supermanic Soul is an exciting Ministry-style rocker. (2) Whip and Chain is decent, though it sounds like Al is dueting with Jim Morrison. (3) Bad Blood is a dull, generic rocker (from the Matrix soundtrack). (4) Eureka Pile and (5) Step are insultingly bad, tossed-off jokes. (6) Nursing Home has potential, relating to the sludgy groove of Filth Pig, but never gets it together enough to be worthy of repeat listening. Some banjo and awful saxophone provide aural variety here. The rest of the album is a flashback to 80s dark wave synth pop, but without the melodic hooks that occasionally made that genre worth hearing. Paul sings on these songs. I think Al sings on only three or four tracks over the whole album (tracks 2-4 have guest vocalists credited).

The follow-up album was Animositisomina. It doesn’t reach the depths of the worst tracks on Spoon, but on the other hand it never quite reaches the quality or excitement level of Supermanic Soul. I find the sound a little too bright, and the bass also slightly unwieldy, but not as bad as on Filth Pig. Al and Paul split the album fairly evenly, divided by the cover of The Light Shines Out of Me. Al’s half is very much organic metal (even more so than Filth Pig IMO) with a bit of punk thrown in (particularly on (4) Lockbox). Paul’s contributions are in his usual 1980s dark wave style, with sub-Beatnik lyrics and gothic vocals. You can definitely tell which songs they worked on together, and which separately. Animositisomina doesn’t reach the depths of the worst tracks on Spoon, but on the other hand it never quite reaches the quality or excitement level of Supermanic Soul. I’d say you really don’t need this record at all, except for the sake of completing your collection.

Next is Houses of the Molé. I was disappointed first time I heard this, but it’s grown on me. As with Filth Pig, the mix is a problem. The sound is too bright (but not as bright as Filth Pig), and lacks warmth and detail. You’d almost think you were listening to an MP3.

The first four tracks are also on their live CD Adios…Puta Madres. Which is odd, because some of these tracks could’ve been replaced by better songs from later in the album. (1) No W starts with a sample of O Fortuna (which is by now an industrial music cliche) and then goes into a song which rips off the verse from Motorhead’s Ace of Spades (apparently later editions omit the Orff sample, possibly for copyright reasons). (2) Waiting is a decent rocker that seems to rip off their old Thieves song for the chorus. (3) Worthless – I don’t remember how this goes at all, which probably indicates its quality. These first tracks deliberately recall Psalm 69 in chord progressions, samples and political intent (mirroring the second Bush incursion into the Middle East). (4) Wrong has a whining chorus which makes me think they’re trying to do something different with the formula – the result is pretty good in this case. (5) Warp City is an unambitious but pretty enjoyable thrasher. (6) W TV is a continuation of TV II from Psalm 69 – a bunch of weird samples off the TV, interspersed with riffing. It’s not bad. (7) World is proper verse/anthemic chorus type of song, and pretty damn good – this should’ve been on the live CD. (8) WKYJ, like Wrong, is the Ministry formula tweaked for variety (this time with a cool guitar part) – it’s good, and probably should’ve been on the live CD too. (9) Worm is a bit like World in its anthemic nature, but not quite as good – maybe not best choice for a closing track. So no real duds and several standout tracks – I guess that’s why some called it the best Ministry album so far.

Rio Grande Blood is the weakest of the so-called Bush trilogy, as most of the album is generic thrash metal. Tracks 1, 2, 5 and 10 are on the live Adios album. Unfortunately that album omits (3) Gangreen, the most enjoyable track. It features a drill sargent suspiciously similar to the one from the movie Full Metal Jacket. (7) Yellow Cake is also pretty good, but not as memorable. (5) LiesLiesLies unfortunately suggest Al has bought into the “CIA blew up the WTC” conspiracy theory – I’d thought he was smarter than that. (9) Ass Clown features Jello Biafra at his most annoying. Closing track (10) Khyber Pass sounds better on the live album, where the female backing vocal is less up front and has a more processed sound.

The Last Sucker is a return to form, but not as good as Houses. Adios includes the first five tracks – I wish they had swapped the dull (2) Watch Yourself for (7) Death and Destruction, a fun rocker. Best song is undoubtedly (4) The Dick Song, named for Dick Cheney. I can imagine the refrain being a popular sing-along in concert (“Dick Cheney / Son of Satan / He is the chosen one!”). The cover of The Doors’ Roadhouse Blues (8) actually works well in context, thanks to the opening spoken part. It’s followed by (9) Die in a Crash, which sounds suspiciously like an early 1980s hardcore punk song – I wonder if Al had it lying around in the archives? The final song End of Days, in two parts (10 and 11), is musically slight, most notable for the extended sample from Eisenhower’s famous “military-industrial complex” speech. Overall, this album is not a bad goodbye to Ministry (it’s allegedly their last album), but not as strong musically as I would have liked.

Summary

So what do you need to own the best of Ministry? The first live album, In Case You Didn’t Feel Like Showing Up, collects the best six tracks from Land of Rape and Honey and The Mind is a Terrible Thing to Taste, but, while the energy of the live performances is a good thing, the mix and, occasionally, the playing quality, are not up to the standards of the studio records, so you’ll need to buy those – which will gain you additional good tracks Land of Rape and Honey, You Know What You Are, and Breathe.

Psalm 69 is good in its entirety, so you’ll need the whole thing. If you really need to economise, or you don’t like the song Jesus Built My Hotrod, you could just get the live album Sphinctour, which you will need to get anyway. This contains all the good tracks from Filth Pig in better performances and sound than the studio album. It also contains the best tracks from Psalm 69, except the above-mentioned Jesus… .

Dark Side of the Spoon has one essential track, (1) Supermanic Soul. You could buy the album (it’s pretty cheap) and think of it as a single with a lot of B-sides, or else get the one track from alternate sources.

There is no musical reason to buy Animositisomina.

The live album Adios… Puta Madres collects tracks from the last three Ministry albums, in good performance and sound, but includes too many inferior-quality songs at the expense of some essential tracks, so you’ll need one or two of the studio albums.

Houses of the Molé is the best of the last three albums, and up to the standards of the best Ministry albums, so you’ll need the whole thing (with possible exceptions of tracks 2 and 3). Rio Grande Blood is a decent generic thrash album, but the only real standout track is (3) Gangreen, so it’s up to you whether you get that one track or the whole album. The Last Sucker is a good experience as a total album, with the exception of (2) Watch Yourself, the only really weak track. If you don’t want the whole thing, the only track you’ll really need is (4) The Dick Song, but I’d say it’s worth getting the album.

I also picked up Beers, Steers & Queers, by Ministry side project Revolting Cocks. The title track holds some amusement, with its Spaghetti Western sounds undermined by the queer references (the remix with Deliverance samples is even better), but musically there’s not much to it. These tracks are generally characterised by generic, uninflected industrial-dance beats, ranting lyrics, and dropped-in samples without much musicality. Something Wonderful has more semblance to a Ministry song. My impression is that it’s an album of B-sides, the dopiest grab for fan money since Sonic Youth’s Whitey Album. Is Linger Fickin’ Good any better, I wonder?

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