Ministry – Trax! Rarities

Ministry is a band I’ve been recommended numerous times. I have generally found them too heavy and monotonous for my liking but I’ve never given them a serious go.

“A serious go” is definitely what’s on offer with a recently-released double vinyl called Trax! Rarities. I am actually listening on an electronic copy, but the split into four fairly distinct sections makes this seventeen track compilation of live, unreleased and rare recordings quite easy to dip in and out of.

Given what little I’ve heard of Ministry before, I am really surprised when I hear the first four live tracks, as its worlds apart from their more recent music. It makes me think more of their post-punk contemporaries than it does of industrial epitomists Nine Inch Nails, who are so often mentioned in the same breath as Ministry.

While the gig does sound like it was recorded 35 years ago (because it was), I would have believed you if you told me it was recorded by some up-and-coming shoe-gazing indie band at Deaf Institute last week. The retro synth sounds really bring a lot to the songs – and there’s a great variety in them.

I’m impressed with the work that has been done on the live recording – there is a fair bit of electric trickery to get this sounding as good as it does, but apart from the effects on the vocals, it’s a very dry mix, meaning you really get the vibe of what was being played on stage. This is a nice contrast to the more polished, much more typically 80’s synth-pop sound from the demos on side two.

These tracks are very obviously of their time, and would actually drop well into any 80’s DJ set, with their downbeat vocals and bold, layered synth lines. Musically, it’s reminiscent of Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Depeche Mode and New Order but with a lo-fi charm. Rather than something timeless, it’s something very much of its age – but now that we’re fetishising that era again, it’s quite fun to listen to something that isn’t the same tired old tunes from the same well-known pop bands.

While the first record of this double vinyl box set takes us from synth-driven post-punk into synth pop, it also follows the progression from quite conventional chord sequences to a style much more reminiscent of an angry Paul Hardcastle or even hip-hop backing tracks. This, as well as examples of the fastidious attention to detail and experimentation with sampling technology all mark steps on the road to developing the industrial sound that Ministry became famous for in the late eighties.

Al Jourgensen Photo credit: Brian Shanley

In the second record, we get much more of the early industrial sound, with the vocals becoming much more visceral and angry, the lyrics darker and more introspective, and the music itself becoming much more repetitive and unsettling. This does correspond with a loss of some of the energy of the earlier material, but gives more atmosphere and draws the ear more to the sounds themselves.

Drums Along the Carbide (by the Revolting Cocks, a side project of Ministry main man Al Jourgensen) is a great example of this, with an intense barrage of drum sounds and white noise all blending together in a way that seems to generate new and unintended sounds from the chaotic interactions of the multiple layered tracks.

Bringing another level of variety to Trax! are several other tunes from Al Jourgensen side projects including Pailhead and 1000 Homo DJs – and also PTP‘s Show Me Your Spine (one third of the entire PTP back catalogue). Incidentally, that song plays in a nightclub scene in Robocop, and if you imagine what Paul Verhoeven thought avant garde nightclub music would sound like in a dystopian future… that’s pretty much exactly what it does sound like.

Those expecting an album of the sort of industrial metal that Ministry have become so renowned for may be disappointed, but I was very pleasantly surprised by what’s on offer here, and it’s worth looking up some of the samplers on Bandcamp to surprise yourself.

TRAX! RARITIES is out now on Cleopatra Records

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Chris Oliver

I've been playing bass guitar and guitar for over half my life. I last played bass in in a band called Electromotive and as a singer-songwriter I have written songs about cheese and vajazzles (separate songs!). I started out listening to 60s, 70s and 80s rock as a kid and I was in to grunge and U.S. punk and ska in the 90s. Since then, I've broadened my tastes and I like the best of all styles of music, even country. I've been writing for Silent Radio since it started.