As with many of the genres we've so far spotlighted for our long-running “Don't Know Shit” series, were we sub-genre snobs and ever so slightly insane, we could take “industrial” music and chop it up into “proto-industrial,” “industrial-metal,” “electronic body music” and so many more largely unnecessary tags.
Sure, within the confines of the industrial label, there are many different sounds. The music explicitly incorporates elements of rock and electronic music, and there are naturally projects that veer closer to one side than the other (though all distinguished by a fondness for dark themes and noisy experimentation).
We've gone for 10 albums that we feel cover most of those bases, and that helped shape the genre as we know it today. Remember, we included only 10. We know about the impact of Die Krupps, Meat Beat Manifesto, My Life With the Thrill Kill Kult, Pigface, The Young Gods, Velvet Acid Christ, Revolting Cocks, Cabaret Voltaire and Nitzer Ebb, as well as more recent heroes like Rammstein and Marilyn Manson (whose latest album, Heaven Upside Down, comes out tomorrow, and who is said to be recovering from a recent onstage injury). We know that Gary Numan (Pure) and even David Bowie (Outside) dabbled in the genre. But these 10 are meant to serve as introduction to a genre — some would say a whole constellation of genres — that contains multitudes.
10. Throbbing Gristle, The Second Annual Report (1977)
Besides maybe the Sex Pistols, few bands had such a massive impact in such a short lifespan as Hull, England’s Throbbing Gristle. Between 1976 and ’81, they essentially invented industrial music as we know it today. Sure, influences arrived from elsewhere (Suicide and Kraftwerk, to name just two), but it was the experimental, captivating and dark-to-the-point-of-disturbing approach of Throbbing Gristle that would encourage artists in cities as far-flung as Chicago, Berlin and Birmingham (England) to tear up music’s rulebook regarding structure, melody and production. The Second Annual Report (the first being a bootleg album) is a perfect illustration of what makes them special. Frankly, it’s terrifying, and way ahead of its time. The band re-formed in 2004 for another stab, but they never rose to these heights again.
9. Skinny Puppy, VIVIsectVI (1988)
Formed in Canada in 1982, Skinny Puppy were certainly among those paying attention to Throbbing Gristle. Where TG were sparse, though, Skinny Puppy were intent on filling out the sound a little more. In Ogre, the band had a phenomenal frontman capable of both charming and terrifying crowds, years before Marilyn Manson played the same cards. The early Puppy albums are fantastic and important, but by the fourth, 1988’s VIVIsectVI, the group had really hit their stride. Sinister and threatening, the production is genre-defining in that the drum effects truly sound like they were recorded on an assembly line. There are also several tremendously effective uses of samples from movies, including The Evil Dead II and The Tenant.
8. Ministry, The Mind Is a Terrible Thing to Taste (1989)
There can be no list of industrial albums, songs or bands without including Ministry. Not only were Al Jourgensen and Paul Barker involved with the seminal Wax Trax! label in their native Chicago, but Ministry were heavily influential in taking industrial music to metal audiences (for better or worse) along with Nine Inch Nails, leading to the likes of Fear Factory, Spineshank, Static-X, White Zombie and more down the line. There’s no doubting Ministry’s impact. But then the problem is, which Ministry album to choose? Psalm 69: The Way to Succeed and the Way to Suck Eggs was the commercial hit, including surprise singles like “Jesus Built My Hotrod,” but the pure aggression on the preceding The Mind, balanced with some beautiful melodies on songs such as “Thieves,” makes it vital.
7. Nine Inch Nails, Pretty Hate Machine (1989)
If you're thinking, “Hold on a minute — surely The Downward Spiral is the NIN masterpiece,” then we happen to agree. But the impact that Pretty Hate Machine had upon its release mustn't be ignored. Suddenly, this formerly underground industrial band was touring stadiums around the world with a Use Your Illusion–era Guns N’ Roses. The standout “Head Like a Hole” could be heard pumping at metal clubs alongside Metallica and Mötley Crüe, and things were changed. Even after reaching mega-stardom, Trent Reznor remained rooted in the industrial world, and his influence stretched to him producing Marilyn Manson's breakthrough album. Though purists sometimes scoff at NIN, there's no denying they had a lot to do with how industrial music is perceived today.
6. Sheep on Drugs, Greatest Hits (1993)
There are those industrial-influenced metal bands and, on the opposite end of the spectrum, there are those bands coming from a purely electronic place. British duo Sheep on Drugs are among the latter. They were initially considered a part of the early-’90s rave scene, but there was just enough sleazy rock and twisted punk in their hard techno to attract industrial fans as that scene began to blossom in the U.K. The Greatest Hits album is actually their debut studio effort.
5. Godflesh, Streetcleaner (1989)
Arguably the heaviest band on this list, Godflesh (another British band) were formed in Birmingham in the late ’80s by Justin Broadrick, who had previously been a member of Brummie grindcore heroes Napalm Death. True to Broadrick’s form, he took what was happening with electronic music in the U.K. at the time and melded it with his own brutal sensibilities. The results, particularly on debut album Streetcleaner, were mind-melting. Streetcleaner remains beloved by metal and industrial fans alike: In 2000, Kerrang! placed it at No. 5 on a list of the best industrial albums while, in 2017, Rolling Stone placed it at No. 64 on “The 100 Greatest Metal Albums of All Time.”
4. KMFDM, Naive (1990)
Originally formed in Hamburg, Germany, in 1984 as a performance-art project for Sascha Konietzko, KMFDM now have 20 albums in their discography, and not one of them is terrible. Any of the early albums could have made this list, as they worked with Wax Trax! in Chicago to help forge a scene in this country. But Naive is a gem. There's a pop and R&B swing to the title track that, when placed alongside a project like Godflesh, illustrates just how far-reaching this genre can be. KMFDM always used female vocals alongside Konietzko's croak beautifully, and they continue to do so. Take a listen to this year’s Hell Yeah album, too. Bonus: They’ll be in L.A. later this month, co-headlining the new Cloak & Dagger Festival in downtown L.A.
3. Front Line Assembly, Tactical Neural Implant (1992)
Vancouver, unlike Chicago and Berlin, doesn't always get the props it deserves when discussing the roots of industrial music. Front Line Assembly formed in 1986 when Bill Leeb left fellow Vancouver band Skinny Puppy to start his own group, and these guys have gone on to a stellar career. 1992's Tactical Neural Implant is inarguably their most complete album — by this time, the group had found their sound and the record features some of FLA's best songs. It's also their most accessible, which might annoy longtime fans. But there's nothing lightweight about the record; its dark, techno-inspired beats pulse, filled with scattered samples, while Leeb purrs his way through it.
2. Front 242, Official Version (1987)
The second of the “great industrial Fronts,” Front 242 are the sole Belgian representatives on the list. Like Sheep on Drugs, Front 242 were born on the electronic side of the industrial spectrum, albeit much earlier, in 1981. Founders Daniel Bressanutti and Dirk Bergen wanted to create music and graphic design using emerging technologies. The beats are hard but not quite as frantic as other genre projects, while the vocals are far more chill. As a result, the vibe is less sinister than most other albums on this list but no less exciting — all of which is illustrated perfectly with 1987's Official Version, their third album.
1. Einstürzende Neubauten, Halber Mensch (1985)
What people often consider the “German industrial sound” is in fact the “Berlin industrial sound.” Listen to Einstürzende Neubauten and then Hamburg's KMFDM and there's little to place them together outside of the broad genre definition. But listen to Halber Mensch and then anything by fellow Berlin band Rammstein and it'll all make sense. These guys formed in 1980 and set about creating instruments out of scrap metal and whatever they could find lying around (making them perhaps the most truly “industrial” band on this list), creating music that was bleak but beautiful and uncompromisingly dark. Halter Mensch is a masterpiece beginning to end. The opening title track is almost choral, but with a military vibe, resulting in something quite disconcerting. It only gets creepier from there. The fact that the lyrics are in German does nothing to ease the music's glorious discomfort.