Let’s ruminate on the industrial revolution: Godflesh and Sonic Violence

Metal has a long and proud history of cross-pollination with other subcultures, the oldest, closest, and most important being punk. When post punk exploded in the 1980s it sprouted something of a revolution in alternative music. Artists as diverse as Blondie, Joy Division, The Talking Heads, Swans, and The Fall all made headways in alternative music, some commercially viable, some the very antithesis of this. Throughout the 1980s, on the peripheries of the metal scenes across the world, were those who saw it as a bit naff, a bit camp, a bit over the top, a bit hard to swallow. But they remained largely attached to the subculture as they still saw some value in it, especially the underground movement. In tandem with this, artists like Killing Joke and Swans were producing some pretty dark, heavy music at the time. Combine that with a dash of hardcore punk and the budding grindcore scene and you have the early blossoming of what was to become industrial metal.

Godflesh grew out of the ashes of Fall of Because. Wearing their Killing Joke influence very much on their sleeve, the project was something of a Swans worship forum for one Justin Broadwick, who also contributed drums to the far more palatable Head of David, and guitars to the first side of Napalm Death’s ‘Scum’ in 1987. After a change in cliental and the recruitment of a drum machine, this prolific individual eventually honed in on one project that was to become Godflesh. What characterised a lot of this music was an insistence on crushing the listener’s hope in the most groovy way possible. This may not have been true on the work of Fall of Because and Godflesh’s self-titled debut EP, but it certainly reached fruition on 1989’s ‘Streetcleaner’.

There is something very contemporary about this music. Whilst that may sound like an obvious thing to say, this album is nearly thirty years old and still resonates with the experience of urban life. This music is mechanical and repetitive certainly, but Godflesh were always keen to mess around with rhythms and dynamics more than is usual for industrial metal. You cannot dance to ‘Streetcleaner’. Some of the grooves are infectious certainly, but so bleak is the music, the dissonance, the outrageously aggressive yet despairing vocals, any joy that may have been taken from this music is sapped out of the listener. The drums add to this effect. The snare sounds like a shot gun blast in a large warehouse, but not in exciting way, in an incredibly solitary way. And that is what sets ‘Streetcleaner’ apart from other early industrial metal around this time. It may be music designed to evoke…well, industry, the desensitisation of the individual in the face of macro systems and bureaucracy, but much of this music is too exciting and busy to properly capture this philosophy. ‘Streetcleaner’ on the other hand, is a very lonely album. It perfectly evokes the feel of living in monolithic urban environments surrounded by others and yet feeling totally alone.

Samples are used sparingly, and usually at the start of a track, and again they are always made to sound distant, alien, disconnected from the listener. There is no comfort in this music. It is spine shatteringly heavy, constructed out of simple riffs formed out of powerchrods with the occasional very simple lead, but this is one of those times when the term ‘more than the sum of its parts’ is appropriate. After the first act things get even darker, as rhythm is abandoned for a time, and we given an interlude of droning guitars and screamed slogans on a loop for some ten minutes. Black metal may capture the revelry of solitude in nature and its indifference to the plight of the individual, but ‘Streetcleaner’ manages a similar affect within an urban environment, surrounded by millions of others equally lonely, an atmosphere somehow harder to achieve through music alone.

People will continue to sing the praises of this album for years to come, and one of the reasons is the fine line it walked between metal, industrial, experimental noise, and a host of other influences from post punk to hip hop. Other industrial efforts around the same time leaned too far one way or the other, into dance music territory, into the nu metal territory, or electronica. But there were other artists around the same time walking this line. Although Birmingham and the midlands in general have a proud history of hope crushing music, it is easy to forget other regions of the UK, the home of innovation in extreme music.

Essex’s Sonic Violence approached this music very much from an oi-punk perspective. And this shows in their debut album ‘Jagd’, released in 1991. This album works like a slowed down crust punk album with oodles of atmosphere sowed in. Although a manual drum machine is used this music rarely varies in tempo or rhythm patterns. However, seeing as we are talking about music where repetition is a virtue, we shall let this one slide. The riffs are incredibly simple, with heavily distorted bass following the same patterns beneath simple powerchord riffs, but the plodding, almost ponderous tempo, after track number four or five, becomes almost menacing to the ear.

The dynamics found on ‘Streetcleaner’ are completely missing here, but this works in Sonic Violence’s favour at times, the music just does not let up, and rather than a reflection on the loneliness of modern life, we are given the point of the view of the machine, monstrous, powerful, unstoppable and uncaring, it carries on regardless of our feelings. Vocals, similar to Justin Broadrick, bark simple, repetitive slogans, laced with reverb, although deep and cavernous, one can hear a twinge of an Essex accent beneath it all, which only adds to the aggression of this music somehow. This is certainly a more punk influenced affair than Godflesh, there is less pretence to experimentation, just pounding heavy riffs, tight yet simple drums that simply do not let up, and chants and shouts barked out almost akin to a rallying cry. This is ripped straight from the book of Killing Joke, Amebix, and Crass, just slowed down and filled out, rather than the Swans school of noise experimentation that Godflesh were nodding at at the time.

So what to make of these two albums? Any fan of industrial metal will agree that this is probably not a fair comparison. Godflesh were so far ahead of their contemporaries in every way that any album I compare ‘Streetcleaner’ to will lose. Pitchshifter will have their time in a later entry, but their 1991 ‘Industrial’ just smacked too much of Godflesh worship for there to be any point in comparing the two. Although many cite Ministry as the contender for the industrial metal crown, they’re just too naff to take seriously. The reason Sonic Violence has been chosen is because their take on industrial metal was actually outside of the context of Godflesh influence. Aside from the obvious similarities of mid paced, abrasive, harsh music that sounds like machines, their approach was so much more straight forward and simple but just as effective. ‘Jagd’ is a very good album, one well worth your time. It was punks attempting to develop the components of punk into something more mature, more complex, in one respect this puts Sonic Violence very much on the same ground as other post punk outfits of the previous decade. It is music of aggression and frustration, which through its relentless repetition and lack of dynamics passes this frustration onto the listener, in that respect it achieves what it set out to do, much like ‘Streetcleaner’. There is a lot of bad industrial music out there, that bridges the gaps between metal, goth, punk, and electronica, it is very hard to make this music interesting and good. But when it is good, it’s really fucking good. And the fact that releases like ‘Jagd’ and ‘Streetcleaner’ are so rare makes them even more special. Unfortunately Sonic Violence were to take a bow after their follow up, which incorporated more synth elements failed to make waves. Godflesh were to go on pushing the boundaries of this music, with various degrees of success, but to their credit they never stopped trying. But like so many artists, they burned too brightly at the start of their career, and ‘Streetcleaner’ has never been surpassed in its field by Godflesh nor anyone else.

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