Assimilate: A Critical History of Industrial Music * S. Alexander Reed (2013)

A while ago I was ‘in between books’. I had finished the ones I was reading and the ones I had ordered had not yet arrived. A friend just mentioned a few titles about industrial music and “Assimilate” proved to be available for my ereader. That is buy and start reading, very convenient.

Reed makes interesting remarks about early industrial musicians who were inspired by experimental classical music, free jazz and art movements such as Futurism. Experimental electronic music dates back further than I expected. The style and ethics of early industrial music are pretty much the same as they are today. Shock value in sound and appearance, ambivalent messages, anti-modernism, it was already there around 1975 and beyond. Reed continues describing the early scenes of Northern England, Berlin and San Francisco and the way early artists and labels were in contact: tapetrading.

Slowly industrial, in Reed’s view, would shift more towards pop when the music went from unstructured experimentations to songs with structure and refrains, beats and the like (the upcoming of subgenres like EBM).

Part IV is about industrial politics. Interesting is Reed’s approach to imaginary and (alledged) politics of industrial. All of which is ambivalent on purpose, more to shock the audience and make it think than to portray a clear message. When the author writes about the ‘whiteness’ of the industrial scene (and he comes back to this several times later on), I get the idea that Reed theorises too much. He likes to make references to the hiphop scene, but nowhere does he say that this is primarily a ‘black thing’. Is this because these scenes are afraid of ‘the other’ or simply because (of cultural background?) not many coloured people like industrial and not many caucasians hiphop?

Towards the end of his book, Reed seems to be ‘over-theorising’ more and more. Does music indeed try to change the world? Do industrial musicians, their labels and their audience seek to alter world using this particular form of art? Should industrial music have to update its message and, for example, target current criseses to remain ‘relevant’? Reed suggests several times that making and listening to industrial music could indeed be simply for pleasure (masochistic or not), but he keeps insisting on the message of the music for the world. Does Reed think that blood-and-gore deathmetal bands or anti-christian black metal bands have a ‘larger plan’? What is the message of the rockabilly or the psychobilly scene where the lyrics are often about booze and women? And what about the empty popmusic which only seems to be about hedonism?
To speak for myself, the first reason for listening to music is simply because I like it. Industrial music can make an atmosphere that I enjoy whether this is dark or downright violent. I do prefer bands which (seem to) have something to say over empty lyrics about nothing, but it is not like I am looking for the ‘real’ message of albums or try to unravel the artists’ ideologies. Neither do I mind if an artist (seems to) have ideas opposital to my own.

The biggest downpart about the book is that Reed almost exclusively concentrates on the popular side of industrial music. When the style became known, industrial grew bigger than I ever thought. After this first wave came more accessible styles such as synthpop and EBM and rock-oriented bands like Ministry and Nine Inch Nails. Coming closer to the current, we are reading about Skinny Puppy, Covenant and Apoptygma Berzerk while subgenres like neofolk and martial industrial are only touched upon. What is more, Tesco and Cold Meat Industry are only mentioned in passing and there is nothing about Genocide Organ (first release 1989), Anenzephalia (1991) and the whole scene around Tesco, CMI, Cylic Law, Steinklang, Cold Spring, Malignant and a range of smaller labels that still offer extreme electronic music. It is like Reed missed the complete current underground.

The author has another strange trait, but this one is positive. Sometimes he drops into ‘technical mode’ and starts to analyse the music himself. This goes from simple explanations about why music made with certain machines like it does, to complete analyses of rhythm, melody and song structure. These elements may make the book interesting to people who make electronic music themselves and/or those who are more generally interested in early electronic music.

Not the book that will answer all your questions, certainly not about the current underground. Still a nice read about how it all came to be though.

2013 Oxford University Press, isbn 0199832609

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