Yesterday’s futurists: Skin Chamber and Scorn

Looking back on the pocket of explicit futurism couched in the landscape of early 1990s extreme metal always brings on a sense of melancholy. One not so much born of the oppressive textural offering of the music itself, but by the fact that a sincere and eminently promising attempt to expand metal’s timbral, percussive, and structural philosophies was cut down by commercially motivated simplification before it could reach fruition. Looking back on the brief flames of early Godlfesh, Sonic Violence, Head of David, Pitchshifter, and even Fear Factory, one sees the glimmers of a subgenre of metal composed of equal parts experimentalism and structuralism, dismantling the musical dogmas of its past whilst simultaneously crafting new futures in their stead.

One of the last metal subgenres to successfully import outside influences, namely from post punk, goth, electronica, dance subgenres, and pure industrial via early Swans, Throbbing Gristle and Killing Joke, it still presents as a lost echo of a path not taken, of extreme metal as an emotive and textural philosophy exporting a loose ideology beyond its borders in a meaningful cultural exchange. The real path taken by this subgenre, either as commodified nu metal, the blunt body beats of melody free EBM, industrial’s answer to Red Hot Chilli Peppers in the form of NIN, or the pop cabaret of that iconoclast turned sex offender, all serve as further insult to this injury.

As predictable as ever, recent attempts to revive industrial metal in its heyday have fallen flatter than equivalent revivalist endeavours in thrash or death metal. A failure most obviously explainable by the explicit futurism at the heart of this project in its germinal phase. Is there a route to salvaging the spirit of this project and applying it in a meaningful way to the contemporary landscape? Let’s pop the hood on a couple of releases from this era in search of some answers.

Boston’s Skin Chamber are most obviously read as the USA’s answer to Godflesh. But despite some obvious aesthetic and thematic similarities, this would be a simplistic reading. Their first album, 1991’s ‘Wound’, takes on a more explicit drone philosophy that sits uncomfortably alongside jaunty punk numbers, cheerless in their reverential nihilism. The first three lengthy tracks are pure Swans worship, perhaps with a more cohesive structure underpinning them. Drums adopt a stuttering, stop-go momentum, building a frustrated tension at the heart of the music, made all the more so by the shot-gun-in-an-aircraft-hangar snare sound.

Guitars pivot away from riff articulation to more ambient aspirations, exploring the limits of letting a chord just hang, gleeful in the extension of singular moments of dissonance. Listening today provides a welcome contrast to the many modern artists insistent on marrying dissonance with density, rather than letting individual chords sit in suspended animation. Vocals borrow directly from hardcore punk, more human and emotive than the fledging death metal style, yet equally aggressive and alienating.   

We are then given a brief period of clustered momentum through the track ‘Skin Me’, a short industrial grind number, followed by ‘Mind Grinder’, which sees Skin Chamber flex their punk muscles in a manner accessible bordering on commercially viable. But as the drone returns on ‘In the Sewer of Dreams’, the entropic process is complete. The gradual, patient, persistent hammering of slow, repeated punches of noise is made all the harder to bear owing to the brief and welcome reprieve offered midway through the album. But it is at this point that the Skin Chamber entity truly gives itself license to shine. Groove numbers in the form of ‘Burning Power’ are serviceable but forgettable when compared to the central philosophy of drone at the heart of ‘Wounds’.

Every element of the music is refashioned into a percussive entity. Drums obviously lead the way with stilted hammer blows of modernist brutality, leaving guitars to furnish this structural indifference with a sense of emotive despair. The residual guitar noise following each chord allows for the instant of violence to be suspended in time, prolonging the horror. The repetition of brutality that gives currency to industrial metal’s social commentary finds a bizarre mutation in ‘Wound’, a subtle element of unpredictability creeps in, a virus within the machine, but far from displaying benevolent intentions, this virus only serves to weave in a tragic unknowability to supplement the cacophonous indifference of megatechnics.

Any historian of the peripheries of the British Earache scene will be well familiar with Birmingham’s Scorn. The brainchild of former Napalm Death Drummer Mick Harris, Scorn began under the additional stewardship of Broadrick and Nick Bullen with the weighty ‘Vae Solis’ released in 1992. But it wasn’t until the following year with the release of ‘Colossus’ that Harris and Bullen would move out of Broadrick’s shadow and begin to craft a distinct character under the loose collection of signifiers that made up industrial metal at this time.

This can best be illustrated by the fact that to even call ‘Colossus’ a metal album is a stretch by any definition. The familiar industrial grind of early Godflesh is intact, with foregrounded sparse drum machines dominating the percussive picture and lavish guitar feedback deployed as a means of textural and dynamic exploration rather than anything remotely harmonic. But everything else has been completely stripped back, allowing the music to trade almost entirely on drum and bass manipulation, bringing the Scorn project in line with what it is best known for: blending the aesthetic and worldview of British industrial metal with dub, the latter of which had also undergone a (albeit whitewashed) renaissance in the UK throughout the 1980s.

The manipulation of samples, of repetitive rhythms, bass sequences, and random static, all create a labyrinth of alienating and contrasting experiences, as if traversing a dank city scape in the small hours of the morning when the intoxication of nocturnal life forms has given way to the possibility of violence. All this means it would not be unreasonable to call projects like Scorn a mirror image of martial ambient and early neofolk, subgenres that arrived at a very similar thematic destination albeit through slightly different means.

The history of dub is long and rich. But by 1993 when ‘Colossus’ was released its connotations in the UK were largely white and largely commercial even if it had retained its barbed political potentials. UB40, The Clash, The Police, the point is that for the average listener in the early 1990s the rhythmic undertones of Scorn would bear remarkable similarity to commercial pop. But in this warped, anomic, jaded setting, Mick Harris manages to create a wonderful juxtaposition between commercial rhythms and abrasive nihilism that still marks it out amongst comparable industrial metal of the day.

We are a long way from fashioning complex narratives via the careful placement of complementary and contrasting riffs, nor do we have any distinctive melodic hooks to grip on to as compensation. All that we are left with is a gradual yet persistent pulse of rhythms, basslines felt rather than perceived, minimalist guitar noise, and a plethora of sample manipulation. What original vocals are present offer the merest shadow of a hook or melodic throughline, functioning as the ghostly visages of song by way of scant compensation.

Industrial of the early 1990s was not just so in the literal sense that it imitated the sonic profile of machinery, but also in its anomic attitude toward the societies that sprouted it, societies that suddenly found themselves in their post industrial phase. If early industrial and electronic pioneers of the 1970s still embodied an element of optimism about the brilliant collective futures that awaited humanity through embracing technology, science, and progress, then the industrial music that took root once Thatcher and Reagan had comprehensively dispensed with collective possibilities in favour of rampant individualism was a very different beast. Machinery that was once pregnant with the promise of humanity’s betterment was now viewed in an adversarial light. An oppressive, ambient threat haunting all aspects of everyday life. Industrial music now implied not only the presence of machinery, but the individual’s ultimate isolation from their peers at the hands of mega-technics.

But ultimately, in reviewing this material from the giddy heights of 2022, a wonderful naivety also becomes apparent. These musicians were alive to what the 1980s meant for any collective endeavour, they were alive to the final triumph of individualism under Thatcher and Reagan, and the degradations that were wrought on the psyche of the Western populace as a result. Their artistic response to this is often praised as being more alive to the facts than much metal of the time, the latter continuing to indulge its preoccupation with naturalist or fantastical themes, despite expressing this through increasingly violent artistic means.

But the realism of industrial metal is demonstrable only insofar as it directly addressed the post 1980s malaise and the liminal sense of dread at what was to come. The process or possibility of constructing an alternative future to neoliberalism could perhaps only be addressed in the context of underground metal via the at first apparently more theatrical and untethered subgenres of death metal, black metal, and their many derivations. The permissiveness of consumer capitalism’s final victory and the speed of its totalitarian success would engender a form of prolonged PTSD, giving rise to a Stockholm syndrome within the populace that the directness of industrial metal was unable to fully articulate.

“Dehumanization, it’s easy to say, but if you’re not a hermit, you know the city’s ok” (The Human League – Blind Youth, 1979).

Aside from the obvious limitations of seeking cultural revival via a lost futurism that was all but snuffed out some four decades ago, the real reason revivalist industrial metal holds little currency today is the simple fact that prima facie the genre is too naïve to properly deal with the neuroses suffered by us residents of the 2020s. Early industrial metal was a project of illumination and demonstration when it came to the real consequences of untrammelled individualism. But this was undertaken in a literal and direct manner, in stark contrast to the distanced, philosophical, and abstract position adopted by extreme metal at large.

Today industrial’s metal’s premise is simply a cultural given, a hidden assumption sitting behind even the most naïve of pop music. The social landscape is now too degraded, jaded, and worn down by the consequences of the political upheavals of the 1980s, meaning that industrial metal as was can offer little more than a superfluous mirror image of reality. But beyond mere reflection, the current moment requires purpose and meaning born of a revamped realism. Whether such a thing is even impossible via a form of music aesthetically approximate to what these artists offered is anyone’s guess.

It occurs that it has been a while since one of these standoffs has been posted, and we must therefore come down in favour of one album or the other. In this instance, both are weighty tomes of music even by today’s standards, both could perhaps do with a trim. But this does not detract from their well earned place within the industrial metal canon. Given that we are assessing this on potentials, we must come down in favour of Scorn for eking out a more compelling pocket of musical play alongside its superficial brutality.

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