Assimilate: A Critical History Of Industrial Music – S. Alexander Reed (Oxford University Press)

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Assimilate

To date, there haven’t been many books that have tried to take on industrial music as an entire genre. Sure, there’ve been some excellent books devoted to covering specialist avenues and specific artists such as ‘England’s Hidden Reverse’, Simon Ford’s Throbbing Gristle examination ‘The Wreckers Of Civilisation’ and Alexi Monroe’s analysis of Laibach ‘Interrogation Machine’, but perhaps nothing quite as sweeping as what S. Alexander Reed attempts here with this 360 page book. Charting a history of industrial music is also something of a perilous task because of the loaded nature of the i-word – ‘industrial’ simply carries so many different meanings and significances for different people. Thankfully, Reed choses to focus on ‘industrial’ as a genre tag that’s more culturally constructed than it is a product of essential sonic elements, meaning that ‘Assimilate’ covers everything from early Zoviet France and Industrial Records noise collaging, through to the mid 1990s mainstream crossover of industrial rock like NIN and Ministry and the latter-day merging of EBM with trance and futurepop elements practiced by the likes of VNV Nation and Covenant.

As a critical history of the genre it manages to be both detailed and comprehensive, even if a lot of the terrain and names covered are likely pretty to be pretty familiar reference points for readers by now. There’s the expected links to Situationism and Dadaist art, the looming influences of Marinetti and Guy Debord, Luigi Russolo’s intonarumori, and William S. Burroughs’ deployment of the cut-up aesthetic. While some of the more dense critical analysis occasionally calls to mind an academic thesis more than anything else, it’s refreshingly balanced out by verbal recollections from some of the scene’s pivotal players and an immediacy that reflects Reed’s first-hand perspective as both fan and listener. Indeed, the detailed and revealing back histories of the likes of COUM Transmissions / Throbbing Gristle, Wax Trax!, Skinny Puppy and Clock DVA provide arguably even more context to the sounds these groups spawned than any academic analysis could. Rather than assuming any sort of purist stance about the changing nature of industrial music over the years, Reed manages to make some intriguing points about the contents being shaped by their container, an example being the shift from early tape duplication to seven and twelve inch vinyl that in many ways pushed artists away from sprawling side-long noise collages towards more concise three to six minute ‘tracks.’

The predominance of dance rhythms that came to characterise much of the genre from the mid-eighties onwards is also covered with a similarly non-judgemental stance, and Reed in particular points to the ways in which the limitations of early drum machines and sequencers acted to steer many practitioners of the industrial scene down certain paths. It’s a pity through that while there’s a fair bit of examination of the ways in which the industrial and dance music scenes have frequently merged, there isn’t much of a proper examination of industrial’s influence on hiphop (or indeed a lot of black urban music), apart from the usual cursory (and almost cliched by now) reference to The Bomb Squad’s noisy production for Public Enemy.

For a book that examines notions of identity, body and gender in industrial music, it’s also surprising that there aren’t more contributions from female artists here, in fact the chapter titled ‘Feminine Gothic’ focuses predominantly on Skinny Puppy’s appeal to a female demographic more than anything else. It would have been fascinating to hear more about the likes of Meg Lee Chin, Sow, Atari Teenage Riot’s Hanin Elias, Diamanda Galas and Gudrun Gut, all of whom have had close associations with the groups covered here. Still, these small gripes aside, ‘Assimilate’ is more notable for what it does manage to cover with its ambitious reach, rather than what it omits.
Regardless of whether your personal definition of ‘industrial’ happens to be SPK or Stabbing Westward, you should enjoy this book.

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A dastardly man with too much music and too little time on his hands

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