So your industrial metal band of over 30 years has just broken up, what do you do? Write an album of music even faster and more extreme than your previous output? Or maybe do an experimental album of radio friendly singles, Aphex Twin influenced instrumentals and stoner trip hop anthems?
If you're Al Jourgensen, you do both.
Uncle Al gets weird and experimental with Surgical Meth Machine, even more so than usual. After thirty years of Ministry, ten Revolting Cocks albums and various other projects, Jourgensen still makes the effort to create something fresh and invigorating. He is relatively clean living these days, having brushed with death three times during a twenty year hard drug habit, he now limits his consumption to alcohol and weed.
Every interview and press release mentions “bipolar” and “schizoid” so it is no surprise that it is an album of two halves. The first half is typified by lead single ‘Tragic Alert’. It will appeal to fans of his past work but also sounds different from his metallic peers, young and old, as he continues to create musical landscapes that others wouldn't dream of.
Surgical Meth Machine is more electro than typical Ministry, with spasmodic machine gun beats, down-tuned guitars, lightning fast riffs, helicoptering effects, and layers of vocal samples. It reminds me of when Sepultura’s Max Cavalera and Fudge Tunnel’s Alex Newport combined to form Nailbomb and produced something superior to both their respective bands. I haven’t heard such a fiercely inventive and musically aggressive record since Primal Scream’s XTRMNTR.
The second half is a musical suite beginning with ‘Unlistenable’ which acts as a bridge between the two halves. The ferocity of the beats dissipates into a rant about unlistenable music including Iron Maiden, Lamb Of God, The Cure and Morrissey. “I’m just sick and tired of all these pussy ass bands doing absolute shite.” As for Ministry; “Good fucking riddance”, but not Devo, “Devo fucking rule!”.
Then it happens. Surgical Meth Machine’s cover of Devo’s ‘Gates Of Steel’ is my personal John Peel listening to ‘Teenage Kicks’ moment. It’s so good I have to replay it eight times before listening to the rest of the album. It begins with a high speed finger-tapped riff overlaid with descending new wave chords. A punk pop lyric is delivered in the gang sing-along style of New York hardcore with Beastie Boys hype responses and some Rocky Horror vocal overdubbing.
It’s like Al Jourgensen looked deep into my heart and said “Marky, I’m going to write a song just for you.” Tears burn my eyes and my spirit soars as I press repeat. Just when I thought I had found my new favourite band they ramp it up to another level and brand me forever with their mark. When Uncle Al implores us to “Twist. And. Shout.” I realise I am in love with this record. I may never need to listen to another one again. Following the unrelenting carnage of the first half, this conventional slice of blissful pop rock is the best high energy driving song this side of the Murderdolls.
Jourgensen knows all about comedowns and after that euphoric rush he brings it down easy. The main riff of ‘Gates Of Steel’ continues into ‘Spudnik’. The heavy guitars gradually fade out and disappear completely for the remainder of the album. The vocals too vanish until the closing song and the aggressive drumming is replaced by the kind of skittering off-kilter beats that you would hear in a beardy hipster’s favourite coffee shop on a Saturday afternoon.
Closing out the album is current single, ‘I’m Invisible’, a Portishead-esque song based around electronic piano stabs and a twangy effected Adrian Utley style guitar line, with Jourgensen crooning in a bath of reverb.
Surgical Meth Machine is a Frankenstein assembly of two mini albums. The first, fast, frenetic and heavy, and the second, poppy and experimental. The juxtaposition shouldn't work but it makes for an exciting and emotional journey over the course of the album. It makes you wish other bands would attempt such an expansive and diverse enterprise. Jourgensen is evidently enjoying the freedom of stepping away from Ministry.
It’s not the first time he has said that Ministry are no more and it would not be a great shock if the name is resurrected in a couple of years. But if this album is anything to go by, I really hope Jourgensen devotes his full time and energy into this project. It is possibly the best thing he has ever done.It's the sound of a man using the studio as an expressionist tool, the aural equivalent of Shinya Tsukamoto’s Tetsuo film series. In ‘Gates Of Steel’ and ‘I’m Invisible’, for which he has shot a goofy MTV friendly video, there are two radio friendly singles with which to follow ‘Tragic Alert’.
Surgical Meth Machine is not without its flaws. Some of the humour begins to grate after multiple listens and not even a guest slot from Jello Biafra can save ‘I Don’t Wanna’ but all told, this is the best album I have heard in years.