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POP MUSIC : It's the Industrial Evolution : Is it the most fundamental change since punk rock? The wail of a doomed generation? Some call it death disco, or just noise music. But after 15 years, it's an overnight success.

April 19, 1992|JONATHAN GOLD and DAVID KENDRICK | Jonathan Gold is a regular contributor to Calendar. David Kendrick, a Los Angeles musician, is a former member of Sparks and Devo. and

When directors of a certain type of hip noir movie want to demonstrate that their protagonists have penetrated the heart of the nightlife underground, a show by "industrial" rock 'n' roll band Nine Inch Nails might be the kind of thing they have in mind.

Nine Inch Nails' slick, alienating spectacle is kind of flashy in spite of itself, and it leavens the usual gloomy thudding with hooks, choruses, melodies and other bourgeois stuff like that. Plus, there's usually moody backlighting enough to make Adrian Lyne look like Preston Sturges.

A lot of people got their first look at "industrial" music halfway through last year's marathon "Lollapalooza" shows, when Nine Inch Nails took the stage, memories of an Ice-T set fading away, the sun riding low in the summer sky.

Nine Inch Nails' auteur Trent Reznor, reed-thin, almost green-complected in the dimming sun, whipped and thrashed, knocked over his band's instruments, howled angrily into the void.

Nobody had ever seen industrial music in the light of day before. Live, most industrial bands' stage shows rely heavily upon glowing billows of fog and pulsating planes of colored light--but it hardly mattered during "Lollapalooza," so intense was the sound.

Monstrous electronic disco beats were so loudly amplified that they seemed almost solid--like something you could put your arms around--and were washed with jungle drums and shrieking feedback guitar. It actually felt a couple of degrees cooler when the music stopped for a bit between songs. Even Reznor's back-up musicians looked terrified. It was as close to the anarchic assault of primo rock 'n' roll as it may be possible for . . . er, disco . . . to get.

Not a lot of people paid much attention to the middle-of-the-road banalities of Siouxsie or Living Colour after that. Not even Jane's Addiction in its chaotic death throes could really compete. Many Nine Inch Nails T-shirts sold that night. And Nine Inch Nails is far from the only industrial band out there.

"If I could predict the future, I'd spend my days at the track, not behind a desk," says New York music lawyer Michael Toorock, who represents almost every industrial musician you can think of. "But I can tell you that industrial music is no fad--it's going to be around for a very long time. These are the smartest group of musicians I've ever worked with."

Call it death disco, call it noise music, call it the danceable wail of a doomed generation. Industrial rock 'n' roll, after 15 years, is suddenly an overnight success, with a young, fanatical audience, a swarm of hits, and a Los Angeles radio station that actually sometimes plays the stuff (MARS-FM).

Industrial rock's ascendance isn't a foregone conclusion. In fact, Reznor himself was reserved about its prospects in a recent Spin magazine interview: "I agree that the buzz of this little subgenre is getting bigger. . . . But I don't think that the genre as a whole is solidified enough;I don't think there're enough good industrial bands right now to start up a big thing."

Record companies see it differently. They've been fighting like cats over this music, much of which was on the Chicago independent label Wax Trax until recently. As of March, industrial bands Skinny Puppy, Ministry, Nitzer Ebb, My Life With the Thrill Kill Kult, Front 242 and the Revolting Cocks have major-label deals.

Some of the juiciest music-industry gossip of the year has revolved around Interscope Records chief Jimmy Iovine's herculean attempts--apparently successful--to sign Nine Inch Nails to his label.

Some people have called industrial disco the most fundamental change in rock 'n' roll since punk rock, though even they aren't really sure why. Other people just call the stuff fascist, perhaps referring to the typical industrial-disco obsessions with power and control, or perhaps to the genre's extreme formal rigor.

Industrial bands differ almost as much from each other as they do from the mainstream, but pretty much have in common the boom-whack drumbeats of disco, full-on pumping double-time bass lines, anguished megaphone-sound vocals and shrieking ejaculations sampled from Churchill speeches, exploding buildings--you name it. It's all played at either insanely fast or agonizingly slow tempos--there is no middle ground. Your parents wouldn't like these records.

The industrial genre may differ from depressed Manchester dance music, house music or certain forms of heavy metal chiefly in its malicious, confrontational intent--it might be based on the same brand of white college-boy alienation, but its lyrics are angry instead of wry, its artists are less Happy Mondays-glib than Black Flag-out-to-kill. They mean it, man.

"There has to be danger," Reznor has said. "Rock 'n' roll deserves that. . . . Wanting to be a rock star (today) is as (safe) as wanting to be a fireman or an astronaut. . . . It's like being a doctor, only you get more girls to take their clothes off for you."

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