Friday, August 4, 2017

The Long Hundred 005/100: Ministry - Filth Pig which a band with an appetite for self-destruction delivered one of the darkest, most self-loathing albums of the Nineties.

[This is part of a series of posts dedicated to 100 albums I feel lucky to have heard. The full list and a more detailed explanation of the series can be found here.]

Success is creativity's cyanide. It seems that whenever artists find themselves on the doorstep of mainstream acceptance, their creative impulses are immediately neutered. I've always wished that a band on the cusp of bigger things would turn around and deliver a heavier/more experimental/less predictable album; that, instead of succumbing to financial pressures, they would instead deliver a work that confounds fans, labels and critics alike. But you can't pay a mortgage with credibility, and no one who slogged for years to get their big break would be stupid enough to jeopardize their future by recording the musical equivalent of a middle finger.

Well, almost no one.

Ministry were standouts at the first Lollapalooza where, sandwiched between Ice Cube and The Red Hot Chili Peppers, they were very much a part of the Nineties' zeitgeist. Having slithered their way into Gen X's consciousness (and CD collections) with three seminal releases, the natural thing would have been to follow their breakout album Psalm 69 with more of the same. An album built on the same mix of thrashing guitars, dance-friendly beats, and memorable samples would have all but guaranteed another platinum album.

Instead, Ministry delivered Filth Pig, an hour-long dirge that was ideal for neither festivals nor commercial rock radio. MTV turned up its nose while fans were left scratching their heads. The album was panned, dismissed, and all but forgotten.

But as a hesher who had just discovered Godflesh, I was right on Ministry's wavelength. [Godflesh even served as the band's opening act in 1996, leading me to wonder how much influence Ministry took from the equally dark and claustrophobic Selfless.] The album fit right in with my growing interest in slow, sludgy metal, as well as my growing distaste for anything too commercial or easily digestible. Despite Filth Pig's critical and commercial failure, it's the most consistent album in Ministry's discography, and possibly the darkest music Al Jourgensen ever recorded.

In the 90's, the industrial genre Ministry had usurped had in turn been wrenched from them and delivered to the mainstream on an arena-sized platter. The success of Nine Inch Nails (and their subsequent appearance at Woodstock) confirmed that industrial was no longer the provenance of sample-happy gender-benders, and its unlikely success attracted the dregs of the 80's glam burn out, who saw it as an opportunity to reinvent themselves in order to take one more stab at rock stardom. Maybe because of this, Ministry found cause for self-flagellation; after all, they themselves were an unsuccessful 80's pop act who found new life and success through industrial, the lofty ideas of Genesis P-orridge be damned. Filth Pig returned industrial music to its early weirdness, stepping back from the "hard rock with drum machines" formula that Ministry themselves had helped popularize. At a time when bands like Garbage and Republica were making industrial rock even more pop-friendly, Ministry tried dragging it back to its scuzzy roots.

In his autobiography, Jourgensen says of the album's creation: "I was pissed. I was depressed. And I was tired of using samples. There would be no Psalm 70. [...] The music I was making for Filth Pig was slower, heavier, grimier, more self-loathing. It was mean; it was ugly. It was music to kill yourself to because that’s what I was trying to do. And it definitely reflected what I was feeling. It was probably the most personal, vicious, savage stuff I’ve ever written."

Jourgensen's spiraling drug addiction is usually cited as a factor in Filth Pig's direction (and subsequent failure). I'm not entirely convinced that substance abuse alone contributed to the album's sound, since drugs were very much a presence in the creation of the Ministry's earlier, more popular albums; but they undoubtedly had some effect. While I have no first hand knowledge of the effects of heroin, I imagine it makes you feel a lot like Filth Pig sounds: Turgid, anti-social, numb.

The band's change in attitude may also have been rooted in the changing political climate in the US at the time. As drug addicted degenerates, Ministry embodied everything the conservative right feared and loathed, and they gleefully played the role of antagonists - Psalm 69 famously opened with "N.W.O.", a screed that interspersed Jourgensen's invective with snippets taken from George Bush's speeches. But between the release of that album and Filth Pig, the Republicans' hold on the executive branch was broken for the first time since Ministry had formed. I don't think it's I'm off-base by conjecturing that without an easy target in high office, Ministry turned on themselves instead. Filth Pig is the album where Ministry went searching for themselves and despised what they found; it's the sound of looking into the abyss and being consumed by it.

This materialized in the band's dynamics as well; Jourgensen's relationship with long-time collaborator Paul Barker, already contentious, turned acrimonious as their fortunes turned for the worse. The follow up, Dark Side of the Spoon, was an unconvincing return to their earlier sound that proved to be even less popular than Filth Pig. Barker left the band in 2003; Ministry seemed to be all but done.

But a new decade brought both a second George Bush and a second Gulf War - the band's most fruitful subject matter. A new generation of disaffected young people were looking to vent their frustrations at Republicans, the political process, and the media; as a result, Ministry gained a relevance and cachet they hadn't experienced in over a decade. Starting with Houses of the Molé, Jourgensen doubled down on the thrash influence of hits like "Just One Fix" and never looked back.

In the 20 years since Filth Pig was released, public opinion may have come around on the album. Far removed from the "alternative" era, the album is increasingly seen as the hidden gem in Ministry's discography. In their entertaining column "Justify Your Shitty Taste" (a spiritual cousin to this series), Decibel mounted a backhanded defense, calling it "an aggressively unlikeable 10-track face-fuck". For me, it's a stellar example of an artist who - due to either hubris or heroin - ignored common sense and delivered the album that was in his heart, sales figures and concert attendance be damned.

If I learned one lesson from Filth Pig it's this: You can be true to your art and yourself, or you can be popular. But it's unlikely you'll be both.