Monday, June 22, 2015

Book Review: Assimilate: A Critical History of Industrial Music

S. Alexander Reed, Assimilate: A Critical History of Industrial Music, New York: Oxford University Press, 2013. A reader drew my attention to this book via facebook, about which, more later. Corvus had already heard of it. Picked it up from the library and observed from the cover that the author, S. Alexander Reed, is an academic musicologist/professor who is also responsible for ThouShaltNot. From the cover blurb, the scope of the project piqued my interest, for it notes that bands subsumed under Industrial range from Einstürzende Neubauten, Throbbing Gristle, Skinny Puppy and VNV Nation, despite the fact that they don't sonically share much in common. Thus, "The stylistic breadth and subcultural longevity of industrial music suggests that the common ground here might not be any one particular sound, but instead a network of ideologies." Whereupon I'm like, tell me more.

Indeed, there would be more Žižek before the book’s end.

Disclaimers. 1. I have rarely and not recently been the type to learn anything about the people making the music I listen to. 2. I truly regret my hideous in-text page number citations. Asterisks denote endnotes.


The book features a precious foreword from Stephen Mallinder of Cabaret Voltaire, who begins by admitting he tends to "bristle" at the term industrial. As the book progressed I would learn that many musicians associated with the genre outright reject the term, presumably because they feel too special for it. *1*

Early on the author attempts to establish the intellectual, artistic, and political backdrop for industrial music, an effort I appreciate greatly cuz I’m a history geek and I’m into context. Reed first takes us through modernist thought, his version of which presents a laminated "get out of responsibility free" card to whiteness/western hegemony and devolves into individualist quandaries, for if "no single nation or economic class was to blame for western culture's biggest troubles and identity crises," then "the central problem lay in the act of cultural programming itself, revealing the mind as a new battlefield." (7) Thx bro. Thus he sets the stage for his political discussion, about which, more later.

At every mention of theory and art movements, the author takes pains to point out that he's not arbitrarily imposing these frameworks and histories on artists, as any number of artists themselves, listed and cited, acknowledge and affirm these very lineages. "The genre itself is at least on occasion consciously engaged in literary discourse," Reed asserts. (26) And apparently Laibach and Žižek have collaborated, which, what, why >_<
The Italian Futurist art movement, dedicated to "the aesthetics of the machine," undeniably pervades the industrial aesthetic as we know it, and Reed quotes Brian Williams of Lustmord remarking in 1996, "It is appropriate to attribute the actual origin of modern sonic experimentation to the writing of the Futurist manifesto 'The Art of Noises' by Luigi Russolo." (23) The accounts of Futurist sonic experiments scarcely register as dated, for Luigi Russolo and Ugo Piatti built an ensemble of Intonarumori, hand-cranked noise machines which “hissed, cracked, and clattered for dubiously receptive audiences." A 1913 performance they gave in Rome incited a riot. *2* Poignantly, the Einstürzende Neubauten vid for Blume is set among replicas of the Intonarumori, whereupon I clutch my bosom and murmur something about continuity. *3* Speaking of continuity, presciently, "the movement's admiration of war and brutality, tied in with its peculiar Italian nationalism, led many of its adherents ultimately to Fascism." (21) About which, more later.

While Reed concedes that, "Tracing industrial music's aesthetic, ethical, and social inheritance isn't a simple case of attributing working-class grit to Northern England or nihilistic aggression to Berlin,” (121) we return to the theme hinted at by Mallinder in the foreword about the physical and economic environs of iconic early industrial music which were, fittingly, industrial, “closest to the real signs of industrialization, authoritarian control, and their negative effects.” (61) We take an instructive tour of the Rust Belt of Northern England (tho I don’t think they call it that there), Berlin, and to a lesser extent San Francisco, where we variously see decaying steel mills, bombed out buildings alongside clumsy new developments, high unemployment, squats, and, of course, drugs.

I took particular interest in the description of German youth: “Growing up in a state that mandated a social remorse for the war and the Holocaust induced both shame for the previous generation's complicit cowardice and more generally suspicion toward traditional values and aesthetics.” (85) As someone who studied German from 7th grade through college and still makes assorted forays into German proficiency maintenance, in my youth I was excited to first encounter Einstürzende Neubauten, whose singing in German was novel, even for a German band; Reed notes that German musicians singing in English has been the norm since the 1960s. (88-89) The accompanying discussion is not easily summarizable, saddles the German language with a lot of abstract baggage about tragedy and technology, and gets weirder with Reed’s list of non-German industrial bands who make use of the German language stretching from Italy to Japan. The low point is a toss up between a quote from Australian SPK's Graeme Revell *4* : "I'm shouting quite a lot in German because I like the language- it's a little fetish of mine," (90) and Reed's musicologist chart breakdown using college lit words like trochee and ictus to convince us that German is an aggressive language. Cool story, bro :-/

Page 120, Reed first acknowledges women: "The prevailing attitude hinted that women actively hindered the scene." Laibach dude says "girls are afraid of us." *5* A guy who ran a cassette shop out of a squat in Amsterdam in the early 80s says his shop attracted "pale male types. If there was a woman, she was someone's girlfriend, and they were like, 'Are you ready yet? Is this going to take long?' We considered making a special corner for them in the shop because they cost us because they were complaining." These comments were occasioned by Reed’s exploration of cassette culture, wherein the availability and affordability of cassette technology led to an explosion of interconnected DIY audio artists.

Reed uses the example of Foetus' Today I Started Slogging Again as politically appropriating pop to assert social commentary. Not a Foetus song with which I was familiar, I pulled it up on the youtube and got a kick out of Jim's opening address to his imaginary band, notably "Shut up! Shut up guitar!" (I seldom find guitar noises palatable myself). I pick up the book again and find Reed's throwaway remark about how this Foetus song, which goes on to invoke the Marquis de Sade (lyrics here), "exposes pop music's hidden prohibition against truly radical sexuality and politics." (130, emphasis mine) Marquis de Sade was an aristocratic kidnapper, rapist, murderer, and pedophile, which is why Leftist men will love him forever. *6* This marks the moment when I switch from itchy irritation to seething hatred at the author. Also the rapping on the Foetus track sounds like that time George Michael rapped about receiving public assistance.

News to me: Skinny Puppy broke ground in attracting female audiences to industrial. Reed concedes that women’s involvement in industrial music predates Skinny Puppy, but on women as creators of industrial, “they played an ultraconfrontational role that took their power from the fear they inspired in male audiences with their sexual assertiveness. To participate in early industrial music, women were expected to be formidable and ultimately inaccessible,” giving as examples Cosey Fanni Tutti’s sexually explicit performances, her work in pr0nography and stripping (recent-ish interview with her about same), also Jill Westwood and Diana Rogerson’s act Fistfuck, at whose live shows could be found “a female dominatrix ritually humiliating men, pissing on them and tying them to chairs, all to a soundtrack of extreme noise and sound collage.” (175) I couldn’t figure out what the hell Reed was getting at until I remembered this guy doesn’t know what gender/sexual power dynamics are. Put another way: women could only participate in industrial on sexual terms so men could beat their meat to the performance of women’s “sexual assertiveness.” How these performances “confronted” anything, or how sexualized presentation rendered female performers “inaccessible” (except in the sense that they prolly aren’t gonna bang men in the audience) or “formidable” in any meaningful sense remains unclear. Unless women on stage were doing or being sex, they weren’t allowed on. This largely remains true and it’s a pressure facing women in probably every musical genre, including soloists on the classical circuit- sexy violins and sexy trumpets bring you sexy Gubaidulina and sexy Bach. The women who get on stage largely know this and often go with it, and I’m not downing them for it, because this is a fucked up world we live in which leaves us few viable options for survival, let alone success. My takeaway point remains: it’s intellectually dishonest, however reassuring, to assert that power lies in being exactly what the dominant group expects and demands you to be.

Anyway, Reed produces a list of bands named after peens and quotes SPK's Graeme Revell’s admission in a 1991 interview, “I was always concerned that there was something kind of macho and therefore pathetic, about what we were doing because we couldn't quite access it to females.” (175) This has been self-awareness with Graeme thank you and good night. Indeed, it is an indication of the pathetic when men use “female” as a noun.

POLITICS. Reed provides a much-needed overview of the genre’s unclear political messaging, which issues vague excoriations and proffers no directions or suggestions for action. True, artists are on thin ice when they recommend political action, and it’s probably more true that subculture kids are like don’t fucking tell me what to do, but even artists firmly aligned with the left have found audiences confused by their messages- Ministry tracks piped into planes on bombing raids on Baghdad, Skinny Puppy tracks blasted to torture inmates at Guantanamo, VNV greeted with a Nazi salute at a 2001 show. Given an interpretive range, audiences can and will find the message they want, and industrial musicians are perhaps more likely to produce content legible from a right-wing, racist lens.

Reed's first foray into race occurs on page 147, addressing themes of “social Darwinism and fascist-derived politics” and how “Some of these acts have claimed this was all done in irony.” He quotes someone from Ramleh at length, who disavows any genuine right wing or racist affiliation, claiming their objectionable material arose in the spirit of audience-baiting, concluding, “we made an error in judgment in testing out the bounds of offensiveness.” Here and elsewhere, performers who spout right-wing, fascist, and otherwise oppressive shit, purportedly without sincerity, report getting freaked out when their fans take them literally. When your material can be perceived and enjoyed in the spirit of extant toxic political frameworks, any claims of irony are deluded.

Overall I found Reed’s discussion of fascism uninspiring, and his chapter on race similarly so. His willingness to pass value judgments vacillates throughout the book, and he frequently casts himself as “detached scholar” at inopportune times, like when it matters. The IAO reader who asked if I’d read this book asked in the same breath, “what did you think of the author's treatment of race?” specifically irritated by the opening remarks in the chapter on race where Reed declares that the whiteness of the scene is largely due to non-white people having Their Own music (206). My correspondent seethes, “of course he says this without referring to the opinions or experiences of any non-white person who may be in or attracted to the industrial scene ... the author does argue there are shit things racially in Industrial music but kind of half exonerates it/half condemns it and moves on.” My correspondent, having emigrated from a country destabilized by Western military powers (that narrows it down!), further avers that a more salient factor in the scene’s whiteness than non-white people having Their Own music can be found among “the kind of things that get fetishised in the Industrial scene,” which “are decontextualised by white people who are able to decontextualise them because of their own disassociation from their real meanings. For example the whole pseudo militaristic style, uniforms, boots, posing with guns, right down to the actual glorification of military culture ... I can tell you someone from any country that has been on the receiving end of military aggression in the past half a century is NOT going to get a kick out of that sort of thing. It’s not that we don't get it. We do get it.”

My correspondent further submits that, “this whole mindset only really makes sense if you see your audience as being EXCLUSIVELY white to begin with,” a point that Reed reaches and backs away from at every opportunity. Earlier he made the cogent observation that "Bodily pain thematically pervades this music as a suggestion that its listeners are anaesthetized, but beyond the near universal cry of ‘wake up!’ there is relatively little industrial music that directly rallies the newly awakened to action.” (135) In the context of race, Reed discerns that the exhortation to wake up is only effective on “those lulled into slumber to begin with- a condition predicated on certain privileges,” and that for people to whom such comfort is denied, “it's self-evident that the system is rigged,” (206-7) concluding that industrial “passively presumes whiteness, as evidenced by its cavalier use of caricature and exotica, both of which declare racial otherness to be a playground.” (223) *7*

Reed unleashes a parade of racist and exotifying imagery used by industrial acts and some of their questionable musical choices, guaranteed to alienate, disgust, and infuriate people from exotified and otherized cultural backgrounds. Less abysmally, he produces a list of POC involved in the making of industrial music (221), which doesn’t share tremendous overlap with Dana’s list and brings to my attention the all-Black industrial group Code Industry, circa 1990. Listening to Code Industry reinforces the technological matter that Reed raises, viz. that when a finite number of noise-making machines are commercially available, everyone using machines to make their music is going to have sonic similarities, which includes an astounding array of genres I won’t hurt myself trying to list. *8*

Despite Reed’s opening thesis of the chapter, that POC are mostly disinterested in industrial, he cites Front 242 attracting “massive audiences of African Americans” on their first US tour, attributing their appearance to the sonic similarities between Front 242 and the Black-created music these show-goers were in the habit of listening to. (218) Still later, Reed talks to someone who, in the late 80s in Detroit, organized mixed nights, techno and industrial, with techno audiences being (at least in this time and place) largely Black and industrial crowds being (as they so frequently are) mostly white. I wasn’t there- I was in a different bioregion learning not to eat my fists- but the existence of such a scene indicates possibility for harmonious (lol) coexistence and maybe even hope? Jk, there is no hope, for structural obstacles are real: "It's a very segregated city so it didn't last very long. The club owner got threatened that maybe something was going to happen [...] certain club owners, certain clubs didn't like it. They canceled a lot of nights. They didn't like the fact that black guys were walking out of the club with white women, and vice versa." (246) It’s as interesting as it is pointless to speculate about missed opportunities for racial understanding and healing, and painful to consider that interference from authority is credited with striking the fatal blow. Still, these are things that Reed himself presents, and he continues to maintain that POC disinterest keeps them out of the scene. Here’s another gem: “by the late 1980s leftist white musicians shared an understanding that however benevolent the intention, their overt critiques of racial power dynamics contributed little to what was an already exceedingly rich discourse [...] and in fact many felt that by speaking they risked silencing other voices in this dialogue.” (222) Many, eh? Citation please?

Similarly to how he dealt with race, Reed left a trail of crumbs and throwaway remarks indicating that gay shit has historically been more important to the industrial scene than he’s willing to textually give it credit for. Instead of grumping at Reed some more, I would like to elevate Natalie Reed’s exquisitely validating and resonant essay, Homophobia, White-Supremacism, and “Disco Sucks!” which addresses the perceived (and real!) gayness and racial politics of electronic dance music.

Winding toward his conclusion, Reed struggles to articulate a purpose for his work beyond chronicling and analysis (which are worthy goals in and of themselves, but try telling a thesis adviser or a publisher that). Is industrial dead? People have been saying yes since the early 80s. What became of the subversive politics? “Industrial music has come to signify transgression instead of actually transgressing.” (307) No disagreement here, as that’s basically a fancier wording of this blog’s purpose. Re: clubs, "it's hard to ponder a confrontational ideology when you're dancing and drunk" (244). Cf. how I left the scene when I developed a political consciousness and exiled myself among punks whose music I loathe, but who in many cases were introduced to liberatory modes of thought through it. Reed aptly submits, “it's laughable to suppose that a band from the modern industrial scene could ignite the kind of public fury that Throbbing Gristle or Laibach once did, or that critics from across culture would lionize them as they had Einstürzende Neubauten, or that they might outsell Nine Inch Nails' The Downward Spiral. ... one is compelled to ask if the legacy of industrial music's past is all it can offer to the future.” (305) Reed says he offers a reinvigoration rather than a eulogy, offering suggestions about how industrial can move forward, which, whatever.


There is much of value in this book in terms of tracing the social, historical and theoretical backdrops of this scene and its artists that I seem to insist on giving a fuck about. I found Reed’s overview of art history instructive, I appreciate the lineage he traced between industrial and the weird 20th century concert music I’ve been known to enjoy, and he told me things about bands I’ve been listening to for ages without knowing shit about them, as well as clueing me in on some figures and moments in industrial with which I was previously unfamiliar. I was amped to see his coverage of the 2012 Jairus Khan PSA, (204) which appropriately cites I Die:You Die. *9* I like his use of zines as sources and, because the bar is so low, I appreciate that he even broached the subjects of race and gender. I’m glad this book exists.

DISLIKES: I don’t like Reed’s assumptions (so many! So dumb!) and I don’t like his taste in social theorists. Considering the subtle oblivion which couches them, I’m suspicious of the smart things he says, because he probably heard someone else say them and isn’t giving them credit for it. He seems quite pleased with himself for broaching the topics of gender and race, however unsatisfactorily to people for whom these topics are of more than academic interest. Dude uses the term heteronormativity (7), a big word for the guy whose acknowledgments "owe special thanks to my wife [...] whose love, patience, proofreading, academic camaraderie, and smart conversation make writing, thinking, and music better every day." Thx bro. In the spirit of Adrienne Rich’s politics of location he writes, "It's doubtless that the authorial biases of leftism, of having grown up in the United States, and of having come to love industrial music early in the 1990s have indubitably colored perceptions of what's historically important.” (13) That's all he has to say on his biases. Not his manliness, not his whiteness, not his, ahem, heteronormativity, and certainly not his institutional support to pursue this project.

*1* I'm not sympathetic to people who "don't like labels."
*2* book says riots at their debut performance in April 1914, wikipedia says riots at their 2nd performance in March 1913. I believe wikipedia, which has a precious page I've consulted on other occasions for classical/western concert music riots.
*3* "Tradition cannot be contrived or learned. In its absence one has, at the best, not history but progress– the mechanical movement of a clock hand, not the sacred succession of interlinked events." -Osip Mandelstam. Got this quote from the memoirs of Japanese American ballet dancer Sono Osato, b. 1919.
*4* Reed misspells Graeme Revell’s name as Graham throughout the book, including in the index.
*5* I am aware of a lady folk punk band having covered Laibach's Whistleblowers.
*6* cf. Andrea Dworkin's Pornography: Men Possessing Women, which has a whole frickin chapter on the life and deeds of the Marquis and the Leftist men who love his raping aristocratic ways.
*7* I first heard this point advanced by punks of color here a few years ago, who also have to deal with oblivious white jerks in a white-dominated scene. In response to white punk performers’ defense of oppressive crap as being edgy or shocking, the punks of color hit back basically with, “how sheltered do you have to be from the real atrocities happening everywhere around you to feel the need to do shit for shock value?” The poor dears are now navigating someone’s recent bullshit blackface performance :-/
*8* I wish I still had access to academic databases, cuz this article Reed cites by Robert Fink sounds delectable: The Story of Orch5, or, the Classical Ghost in the Hip-Hop Machine.
*9* ID:UD has interviewed Reed about this book, but with audio, for which I lack the requisite technology and time.


  1. Many, many thanks for your really thoughtful review. You've clarified a variety of areas that could indeed stand to be improved—some of which I was somewhat aware of and a few that, as you suspect, I was (and probably mostly still am) blind to. Certainly, yours is the most engaging, thoughtful, informed, and useful critique of the book I've seen; I'm prepping a second edition, and I'd love to communicate with you a bit more, if you're interested.

    s.alexander.reed at gmail dot com.

  2. I want to say I am going to read this article better again after I am more recovered from surgery but a few things before that:

    1. Love that you analyzed this so well and in depth. I like that you talk about things you like while also being critical.

    2. Thou Shalt Not is either from my city or played here a lot when they first got started and so I've seen them from their tiny baby days. Not bad. And I also remember their gender expressionness being on the non-macho side which is good. Also, they would have experienced me when I was a teenager still on drugs and without radical analysis, which makes me think we've both changed a lot.

    3. S. Alexander Reed commenting here with humility and thanking for the critique brought a smile to my face for the possibility of learning new things and better future for this scene.

    4. Anarchiteutis (I probably spelled wrong) you are a gem in the world of feminist and radical thought I am so proud to share this blog with you.

    1. PS quote in footnote #7 is the quote I've been waiting for forever and is basically how I feel when I think about how we navigate the importance of expression vs when that expression is useless exploitation for the sake of histrionic attention.

  3. I haven't read this book but loved your review. Hope I will get a chance to read it sometime and form my own opinion. On the topic of women, POC, and LGBT in industrial these folks spring to my mind and I hope their roles in the genre were discussed with attention to their marginalized identities:
    - Sinan Leong Revell
    - Shikhee D'iordna
    - Genesis P-Orridge
    - Lydia Lunch

    In addition to the artists I think it's very important also to acknowledge and discuss people involved in writing about the genre who play a vital and crucial role in the development of the genre:
    - V. Vale who founded RE/Search magazine
    - Nadya & Mer of Coilhouse magazine
    - You! :)

    Thanks again for the article!