After making my Top Ten Dark Ambient list in October, I knew I had to make a list for my other longtime favorite genre: post-industrial EBM. I’m choosing to define this genre as electronic music that has the dancefloor as its foundation, bowing at the twin altars of sequenced rhythms and synthetic percussion, with a bleeding sci-fi heart of darkness. Born from the angst of punk and the clinical electronica of pioneering acts like Kraftwerk, the actual identity of this genre is still debated to this day.
What you’ll find here are my favorite albums from my days of clubbing, which imparted a love of this type of music that still endures. I’m an album fan before I’m a fan of singles, so while many of the bands below have done better songs, these are what I consider to be their best complete albums. These aren’t mere remnants of nostalgia, either; each of these albums are finely crafted examples of why I find the genre so compelling.
I’d like to say, too, that I thought long and hard about this list. It wasn’t as easy as I initially thought. There are seven or eight albums I omitted that barely missed the mark, and any of them would slot alongside these ten comfortably….but ultimately, they were left off for distinct reasons.
Without further delay, then:
10. Heimataerde – Gotteskrieger (Infacted Recordings, 2005)
Here’s an example of how my album-based philosophy trumps individual songs. Heimataerde is a hybrid conceptual project, blending modern EBM with traditional medieval instrumentation – most notably bagpipes and flutes – to tell the saga of the immortal Templar Ash, who roams Crusades-era Europe seeking undead soldiers for his own army. Few bands have such a powerful identity and mythology, and the music here creates a unique and powerful aura that’s both modern and historical; this is not just amped-up dark dance music. Listen to “Die Offenbarung” to get a taste of what makes Heimataerde great, but that’s just a small part of the project’s versatility and talent.
9. Massiv in Mensch – Belastendes Material (Wire Productions, 2003)
Before MiM went full-on techno, they released Belastendes Material, one of the most energetic electronic dance albums ever made. Beyond the mind-boggling programming expertise, they infused a healthy dose of light-heartedness, and even humor. There’s a track called “Hans Gruber.” They sample German polka. The vocals are often purposefully overdone (“Strecket”) and move between filters with ease, with many tracks containing untreated female German vocals that are quite beautiful. MiM isn’t afraid to be quirky, but they go about their strict EBM business with panache and confidence that’s nearly unrivaled. This album is built to make you move, daring you to remain stationary. The genre can be faulted for taking itself too seriously, but MiM is one very noted exception. And “Offensivschock” is still one of the best dance tracks ever recorded.
8. Negative Format – Cipher Method (Sector 9 Studios, 2003)
Yeah, so it’s trance-influenced. Big freakin deal. If there’s one thing Alex Matheu knows, it’s how to channel his cyberpunk muse to produce hyperactive EBM that manages to follow an almost chilled-out groove. Cipher Method’s lyrics are culturally cynical and even technologically critical – the project is well-named – and shifts between warm, almost ambient keyboards to delicately dancing sequencing that sparkles like a full-powered circuit-board, all driven by head-nodding beats. “Encryption” is the highlight in this tightly cohesive package, with minimal lyrics wrapped around some of the best sequencing there is. If there’s ever been a relaxing industrial-dance record, this is it.
7. The Retrosic – God of Hell (Tribune Records, 2004)
Evocative in a way similar to Heimataerde , The Retrosic reached strange heights with God of Hell. Oddly organic in its sound design, the album is steampunk heaven, full of crunching energy, snarling vocals, and surprisingly strong songwriting. Shifting from themes of war (“New World Order,” “Total War”) to introspective despair (“Tale of Woe”) to cinematic instrumentals (“Dragonfire,” “Sphere”) to female-voiced chants that recall Dead Can Dance (“Elysium”), the album retains a common thread from its cathartic beginning to its smoking burning conclusion. And then there are “The Storm” and “Maneater,” two of the most visceral anthems to ever come from the post-industrial camp. There’s a lot of so-called “terror EBM” out there, but none of it can hold a candle to this broken retro-future masterpiece.
6. Headscan – Pattern Recognition (Alfa Matrix, 2005)
I’ve heard that Headscan are some of the best electronic music producers in existence, and when listening to their magnum opus, Pattern Recognition, it’s easy to understand why. There’s a ton going on in every track, with reams of effects whizzing and whooshing past classic EBM cores. It’s cold and clinical, but also completely enthralling. Inspired by authors such as Bruce Sterling and William Gibson, Pattern Recognition is a dark ode to the joys of tech. Moving from the downtempo ambiance of “Terra Incognita” to the invigorating “Permafrost” and the empowering “Lolife” with enviable deftness, all voiced by chanted lines of cyberpunk poetry, Pattern Recognition flows from track to track like a computer-generated sonnet. This album, and this band, are both criminally underrated.
5. Mentallo & the Fixer – Where Angels Fear To Tread (Zoth Ommog, 1994)
There was a time when Texas brothers Gary and Dwayne Dassing ruled the American electro underground scene. Their debut, Revelations 23, was a triumph of twisted vocals and brutalized energy, but the follow-up, Where Angels Fear To Tread, is a gothic opera. Exploding with inspired creativity at every turn, the album is one of the few here that isn’t always comfortable on the dancefloor; beyond the staple “Decomposed (Trampled),” you’d be hard-pressed to move to this album in general. M&TF has never bowed to 4×4 convention, but Angels is still one of the best albums the genre has ever birthed. Gary Dassing’s classically distorted vox (“Sacrilege”, “Bring to a Boil”) move out of their comfort zone; tracks like “Coward (Submerged)” and “Afterglow” unveil his snarls and croaks for their true self, while the synths soar, pulse, and shift through often-beautiful chords like a darkly tinted stained-glass window. And the instrumentals – “Virtually Hopeless,” “Battered States of Euphoria” – are soul-stirring works of profound beauty. Revelations 23 has its supporters, and it is a classic in its own right, but the craft and variety of the operatic Where Angels Fear To Tread is light-years beyond.
4. Forma Tadre – Navigator (Off Beat, 1996)
Talk about underrated. Andrea Meyer’s Forma Tadre project is the only one to make both my EBM and dark ambient lists, and with good reason: the guy is a hidden genius. While Automate is majestically sparse dark ambient, Navigator is beautifully wrought EBM with a Lovecraftian soul. Meyer is a musician before a programmer, and Navigator is overflowing with songwriting prowess. The lovely-yet-unnerving opener “Navigator (Part One)” provides not just a glimpse for the ambient direction Meyer would eventually take, but announced Forma Tadre as post-industrial with a classical bent. And you can dance to it. After the awesomely provocative “FX on a Human Subject,” with its brilliant sequencing and plaintive whispers, we’re hit between the eyes by the twin salvos of “Plasmasleep” and “Date Unknown,” which take Meyer’s curious take on the genre straight to the dancefloor with staggering power and grace. On one hand, it’s hard to grasp this is the same guy who would make Automate, but on a subtle level, it couldn’t be anyone else. Add the grandeur of “Gates,” the floating “Mezoic Tree Ferns,” and the club hits “Looking Glass Men” and “Celebrate the Cult,” and you have one of the most enduring and timeless EBM albums on this planet, or any other.
3. Nitzer Ebb – Belief (Mute, 1988)
Nitzer Ebb is a prime example of the single-versus-album criteria I mentioned at the outset. The band has made a handful of undeniable works of EBM classics – “Join in the Chant,” “Warsaw Ghetto,” “Getting Closer,” “Fun to be Had,” and even “Promises” – but their albums don’t match the sum of their parts….except for Belief. It’s short, but consistent; even the slow-paced “T.W.A.” fits the mood established by “Hearts and Minds” and “For Fun.” And it’s got its bits of dancefloor genius itself – the seething “Control I’m Here,” the brash and bellowing “Blood Money,” the chanting anthem “Shame” – among the off-tempo but still excellent “Captivate” and “Drive.” Douglas McCarthy’s punk-inspired growls, barks, yells, and shouts are in fine form, and Bon Harris’ cool and measured programming belies the apparent basic structure. I find Ebb’s career to be a series of peaks and valleys, but years down the road, Belief has seen the most full plays for me, by far.
2. Front 242 – Official Version (RRE/Wax Trax! Records, 1987)
Front 242 electrified dancefloors around the world with its bristling, restless layers, hypnotic vocals, beguiling lyrics, and militaristic sensibility. It was Kraftwerk, minus the quirk and adding aggression. Renowned for classic tracks such as “Headhunter,” “Welcome to Paradise,” and “Tragedy >For You<“, the Belgian outfit forever cemented their place in history by coining the term Electronic Body Music. While their lengthy discography is rife with songs of soaring excellence, it’s the rhythmic experimentation and slick finesse of Official Version that makes this album their masterpiece. From the incredible energy and burgeoning creativity of “W.Y.H.I.W.Y.G.” and “Masterhit” to the deeply strange hymn-like slow-motion “Rerun Time” and “Slaughter,” the album is a testament to what makes 242 one of the most influential bands in the history of electronic music. And the album did spawn a dancefloor hit of its own, “Quite Unusual,” which describes an apocalypse like no other. Official Version is twenty-seven years old at this writing, but it still sounds light-years ahead of the current age. I can’t imagine any further evidence for classic status. Not many bands ever create a genre on their own.
1. Front Line Assembly – Tactical Neural Implant (Third Mind Records, 1992)
It’s really a toss-up between TNI and Official Version for the top spot. The only reason I give FLA’s epic masterpiece the edge was that for me, it came first. Without Tactical Neural Implant, which I bought blind at Music Plus because I liked the cover art and title (I still have the cardboard long box), I would never have discovered or traveled the road of underground electronic music. Did it change my life? In retrospect, I guess it did. I was always drawn to the synthpop of the 80s, but I didn’t know I craved more of an edge until I slotted Bill Leeb and Rhys Fulber’s electronic bible. Two minutes into “The Final Impact,” with its die-hard sci-fi aura, looped bass line, filtered vocals, and slickly produced layers, and I turned my back on mainstream music forever. Thing is, years later, TNI is still as impressive now as it was then. “The Blade” has one of the best bass synths you’ll ever hear. “Mindphaser” is what I play for people who have never heard of industrial music. “Remorse” is dark introspection. “Bio-Mechanic” fits its Giger muse perfectly. “Outcast” is still one of the best anthems FLA has ever made (and they’re still going strong as of this writing). The midway tempo shift of “Gun” gives me the same thrill hundreds of listens later. “Lifeline” is a sparse glittering hymn lost in the distant reaches of the matrix. Fault the band for its shaky lyrics and vocals if you must, but they never fit together better than they did here. Caustic Grip is phenomenal in its own right (so is Gashed Senses and Crossfire), but with Tactical Neural Implant, Front Line Assembly released an album so full of refined excellence and lasting power, most bands don’t come close to such a level over their entire cumulative careers.