Now that industrial icon Ministry has released its 14th full-length, AmeriKKKant, we thought it would be a good time to take a spin through the best moments of the band’s career. After all, half the fun of new work from old faves is the deep dive binges through the artist’s back catalog. AmeriKKKant is a definite improvement over the band’s last two records, Relapse and From Beer to Eternity, but it’s fair to say none of its tracks are spoiling for a fight for a place on this list. But before we get to the list, a bit of band and personal history…
My first exposure to Ministry was, probably like many of you old bastards, “Stigmata.” It was 1988 and I was in my local indie record shop (R.I.P.), most likely to pick up some thrash, but when I heard what was pulsing through the stereo I immediately put my meager funds toward The Land of Rape and Honey. I’d never heard anything like it. And I wore that shit out. In time, I found Skinny Puppy, Nine Inch Nails, RevCo and scores more, but Ministry introduced me to industrial music. And as one of the most successful and longstanding bands in the genre, I’ll bet they opened some doors for you, as well, even if much later.
The Land of Rape and Honey would eventually become part of the holy trinity of industrial metal along with The Mind is a Terrible Thing to Taste and Psalm 69. Ministry made their bones on these records plus the oft-misunderstood Filth Pig. Beyond that, the vast catalog of Al Jourgensen and his various cohorts is inconsistent. The very reasons that make it a frustrating challenge to pick just 13 Ministry songs are also extremely descriptive of their legacy. At the peak are the aforementioned albums, but before and after those is a sea of inconsistency; often brilliant but frequently a merely a shadow of a once great band. It was frustrating to cross out the names of seemingly obvious songs from the classics as well as hidden gems from other albums.
So there were some regrets in our omissions, as I’m sure there are regrets in Al Jourgensen’s career moves throughout the decades. Ministry’s humble beginnings as a synthpop band on the much maligned but often completely satisfying With Sympathy are often treated as a footnote, and this isn’t the place to criticize such views of history; you won’t find any songs from the album, or anything that came after the so-called (and very good) Bush Trilogy, regrets shared by only a small portion of the Last Rites gang. But the absence of sophomore Twitch or Animositisomina, an album that Uncle Al himself loathes but is actually pretty decent? Those hurt a little.
Such is the nature of looking at such a weird legacy and catalog of music, which is exactly what Al Jourgensen, long-time bassist Paul Barker, thrash master Mike Scaccia (R.I.P.), and numerous other musicians would form over the decades as Ministry. Regardless of what came before or after, the monster run of The Land of Rape and Honey, The Mind is a Terrible Thing to Taste, Psalm 69, and Filth Pig is a streak few bands, ever, can equal. But as you’ll find below, there are certainly other high points, some of which are covered here, and others that just missed the cut. Speaking of making the cut, let’s get to it.
[The Mind is a Terrible Thing to Taste, 1989]
The Land of Rape and Honey revealed Ministry to have deeper, heavier goals in mind when it came to their industrial music, but compared to what emerged from their amps on The Mind is a Terrible Thing to Taste, it was a transitional collection of dance songs. The band’s fourth album revealed a violent, thrashing form of industrial metal that was now fully formed, and opener “Thieves” was a monstrous mission statement. It sets off with blazingly fast riffs, a throbbing underbelly, hip-hop levels of sampling, and a hitherto unheard of level of rage from Mister Jourgensen. Even before the song hits the gas (complete with the sound of some perfectly placed… dentist drills?), the only momentum Ministry believed in at this point was forward. But once it does hit the gas, it’s all downbeat snares and a delightfully unhinged, slightly belligerent Uncle Al ranting on about (wait for it) political corruption and divided society and the general mess of things. Yes, it’s a field he plowed plenty of times after, but in 1989 the whole package was fresh and scintillating. Ministry was not just content to eviscerate everything in their path; they wanted to reshape the landscape.
For all its many other virtues, one thing that “N.W.O.” cements beyond dispute is that Ministry does not fuck around on their album openers. Without preamble or theatrics, “N.W.O.” kicks off Psalm 69 with that instantly gripping drum roll and guitar chord that tolls like a funeral bell. Al spits his verses with almost casual disdain, because the real focus here is on the relentless rhythmic thrust that carries through the entire song. Released in the year following the apparent victory of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in the first Gulf War, sampling President George H.W. Bush was perhaps a foregone conclusion, but although Ministry’s politics were nowhere near as block-headedly blunt (no matter how laudable their sentiments) as they would become during Bush the Dumber’s presidency, “N.W.O.” is a fiercely apocalyptic rumination released at a time when the possibility of increased American imperial freedom in the aftermath of the Cold War gave neo-conservatives their first real taste of being The Decider. Shorter version: the U.S. government was awfully self-satisfied at giving Saddam Hussein a bloody nose. Ministry’s more ominous read of the situation, of course, is the one that rings truer to life, as we remain, more than 25 years later, mired in conflicts laced with the echoes of that earlier hubris.
[Houses of the Molé, 2004]
With Paul Barker’s departure threatening to derail the band once again (after regaining a bit of their footing on Animositisomnia), Al Jourgensen needed a muse, and boy did he ever find one in President George W. Bush. Social and political themes had existed in Ministry’s world before, but they were front and center on “No W.” Originally part of the punk-centric Rock Against Bush Vol. 1, it kicked off Houses of the Molé and a run of albums that rivaled their early 90s peak. The song reintroduced some of the electronic elements that had long been absent from the band’s sound, bringing back the harsh, chaotic feel of their peak period, which was absolutely essential given the themes.
The rah-rah post-9/11 patriotism had long been waning and all the warts of the Bush/Cheney regime could no longer be concealed behind their cowboy bravado, and Al took aim with both barrels. The lyrics are plenty sharp, but the real key here is the use and manipulation of 43’s own words to knock down his folksy façade and expose a much darker side of a man who was not always working in America’s best interests.
[Filth Pig, 1996]
Coming off Psalm 69, crazy Uncle Al and Brother Paul took their time with Filth Pig, due to drug problems and other issues, and when the follow-up arrived, it was a markedly different affair, doomed down, stripped of samples and a large part of its electronic elements, a harrowing romp through depression and despair, but one that proved that Ministry was more than just movie samples and electro-metal bells and whistles. Jourgensen has said that he hates performing these songs, and Filth Pig was a commercial flop. So maybe it says something about me that I dig it, and it’s never better than on its lumbering title track, all fuzzed-out bass and swinging pace and monumental heaviness. Plodding along at a leisurely trot, “Filth Pig” doles out its destruction through crashing chords and Barker’s roiling bass churn, his tone a perfectly gnarly bite through the song’s open and electro-free atmosphere… and wait, is that a harmonica? Why, yes, it is, and why wouldn’t it be? It’s a simple song structure, just one riff that swings along, leveling whatever’s in its path with casual indifference, and damned if it doesn’t work wonders.
[Dark Side of the Spoon, 1999]
I’m not gonna lie—this may be the only song I’ve ever heard from Dark Side of the Spoon. It’s certainly the only one I remember. At the time of release, I was still smarting from the system shock of Filth Pig, so there wasn’t much motivation to dig into it at all. Somehow though I ended up with a cassette single of “Bad Blood” and was hooked instantly. The way the rolling groove of the verse churned up and down, rolling straight into the chorus of pounding drums that splashed down seamlessly back into the groove was rhythmic and hypnotic. I played the hell out of that thing, refusing the listen to the flip side or any other album tracks for fear it would tarnish what I had come to love. On the one hand you can hear the band doubling down on the Filth Pig vibe; on the other you can hear them tempering it with their more traditional sound. “Bad Blood” was proof that Ministry just might not be done after all.
In terms of individual elements, “Scarecrow” is a pretty simplistic song. It rides one slow, thumping drums/bass pattern through nearly all of it’s eight-plus minutes, with a deliberate, 80s-gothy-in-vibe guitar melody layering over the top, and Jourgensen’s equally slow and deliberate vocals offering only a few lines throughout the entire thing. There are some extra samples and noises tossed in, and the chorus slightly changes the delivery, but in general, that’s the gist of it.
And yet, none of this simple-on-paper description can even begin to describe the absolutely destructive, leveling nature of the song, or the monumental mood it communicates. The space and atmosphere created by the song’s slow tempo allow for every element to be accentuated and amplified. Every drum beat: heavier. That oddly gothic hook: more sorrowful and threatening than it would be at speed. And most importantly, Al’s vocals: as tortured as he’s ever sounded, with his snide delivery of the song’s title the ultimate hit.
The whole thing ends up feeling a bit like Ministry’s version of “Fascination Street” in design (if not the sound, obviously). Like that Cure stunner, “Scarecrow” rides a very simple motif to massive results, placing an extra emphasis on atmosphere, and as a result becoming not just a great standalone track, but an essential part of a classic album.
[The Land of Rape and Honey, 1988]
As the opening track on The Land of Rape and Honey, “Stigmata” is on the very bleeding edge of Ministry’s three-album run of near-untouchable classics (The Land of Rape and Honey/The Mind is a Terrible Thing to Taste/Psalm 69). Beyond that, though, “Stigmata” shows Ministry very clearly perched at an inflection point between industrial and the more overtly metallic direction they would take on the following two albums. The synth and guitar riff that forms the main motif of “Stigmata” is simple enough, but the drum programming punctuates it with intermittently overloaded intensity, and Al’s distorted shouts push it in a much harsher direction than, for example, Nine Inch Nails’s Pretty Hate Machine, which would be released the following year (and clearly with a massive and often under-acknowledged debt to Jourgensen & co.). If not exactly the most intense industrial album of 1988 (that honor surely goes to Skinny Puppy’s ViVisectVi), The Land of Rape and Honey was a tightly focused statement of purpose in its own right while also previewing the even greater strides yet to come.
[Filth Pig, 1996]
Psalm 69 brought unexpected mainstream success to Ministry, so naturally they completely eschewed everything about it on follow-up Filth Pig. The drastic changes were evident immediately on the lead track and single “Reload.” Stripped of electronics and the ambiance they bring, this is Ministry at their most raw and gritty, with the distinction of being the most Ministry-sounding song on the album even though it sounds nothing like anything the band had done in their entire 15 years to that point. There is also an overall ugliness here that could only be delivered with live instruments, a fitting vibe given the miserable state that Al Jourgensen was in at the time (and having that tortured soul in the producer’s chair only intensifies it). But as they say, “one man’s pain is another man’s pleasure,” and “Reload” often feels like a bit of catharsis, a ball of unrefined rage that silences some of those angrier voices inside.
[The Land of Rape and Honey, 1988]
Although the contorting, virulent “Stigmata” signaled a sea change in the band’s approach, it was “The Missing” that showed the first inkling of the metal infusion that would become fully actualized in the years that followed. Here the guitar riff actually takes center stage, offering an organic foil to the robotic percussion and slashing keyboard sample. Jourgenson himself is further into the mix than what we had heard to date and debuting the snarling vocal approach that would become standard. The one/two of “The Missing” and follow up “Deity” were stalwarts in the band’s setlist for years. This track is strong enough to make anyone’s list of Ministry’s finest, but for a metal zine this headbanger is absolutely essential.
[The Mind is a Terrible Thing to Taste, 1989]
Ministry built their legacy on many things — production, beats, riffs, Al’s political lyrics and rage-fueled screams — but one crucial overlying trait is their ability to be relentless. RE-LENT-LESS. And they never penned a song less intent on relenting than Mind’s beastly “Burning Inside.” It eases the listener in with some pulsations and beats before permanently dropping into The Industrial Drum Beat From Heaven and a simple stop-start riff pattern that does only what is necessary: ferociously entangle the listener’s psyche and never let go. The glorious drum beat-riff combo only changes for the chorus, and even then only by adding the necessary elements to temporarily increase the intensity. And the chorus? Nothing but a (relentless) tortured, (relentless) irate, (relentless) maniacal, (relentless) feral Jourgensen repeating the song’s title. By the end of the tune, he seems stuck in a holding pattern, unable to do anything but yell “burning inside!” until his lungs are shredded, while the supporting music only eggs him on. No band quite found a more effective crossroads between pure insanity and irresistible catchiness than Ministry at their best. All elements of “Burning Inside” work in concert to arrive at this intersection.
JUST ONE FIX
Ministry has been plagued with addictions, so if anyone understands the true depths of the opening quote — “Never trust a junkie,” lifted from the film Sid & Nancy — it’s Jourgensen and his buddies. One of the highlights of Psalm 69, “Just One Fix” rides a stomping riff and relentless beat to industrial metal perfection, with Scaccia’s guitars cutting through in a manner so excellent that Rammstein borrowed the whole approach for their hit “Du Hast.” [Editor’s note: Rammstein borrowed it for their whole career.] Beat author William S. Burroughs — never one to shy away from a fix himself, at least in his heyday — crops up in the track and in the video, the latter of which Beavis himself proclaimed to be beyond the limits of good taste. (Watch at your own risk, o ye who cannot stomach vomiting.) Skip heroin, kids, and get into heavy metal instead, and when you do, when you’re jonesing for the next hit of razor riff and pounding drum, well, all you need is Just One Fix.
[The Mind is a Terrible Thing to Taste, 1989]
For my money, The Mind is a Terrible Thing To Taste was Ministry’s finest hour. A high water mark due in part to its eccentricity and collaboration. Hell, half the songs feature lead or prominently dual vocal performances from guests. “So What” is one of a handful of tracks featuring Scotsman Chris Connelly with whom Al would work with in Revolting Cocks, PTP, and Acid Horse, and who you also know from Pigface, the terribly underrated Murder Inc., and about a thousand other projects. This eight minute track is as close as to an epic as anything the band has done. It simmers with extended rhythmic passages and sampling, along with sparse guitar harmonics before colliding into raging, corrosive Jourgenson/Connelly verses. By the time the song reaches its murderous climax you want nothing more than to be among the throng of kids hanging from the cages that surrounded the stage on this tour.