Die Sektor – To Be Fed Upon

NoiTekk Records (NTK 023), 2006

For all its psychoses, this is an album of splintered grace and razor-edged lace.  Die Sektor’s debut is electronic aggression scorched by beautiful flames.  With its relentless and frantic energies, wildly distorted vocals, and haunting melodies, To Be Fed Upon conveys dislocation, uncertainty, and power to an unnerving degree.  It’s heady stuff, catharsis that’s powerful to the point of exhaustion; an emotional deluge that is hard to resist.

Let’s get one thing out in the open: musicians and programmers Scott Denman and Alan Smith are ridiculously talented.  For every tortured hymn (“The Beating of Broken Wings”, “When Porcelain Bleeds”), there are moments of almost stunning beauty (“All Turns White”, “Revelation None”, “Through Glass”).  It’s these latter tracks that are the real showcase: they’re slow, delicately spaced instrumentals where the duo’s songwriting prowess is given full focus.  The piano of “All Turns White” is particularly heart-rending, providing much-needed solace from the whirling storm of needles characterizing most of the album.

This is not meant as a condemnation of the vocals.  John Gerteisen’s mangled delivery is something to hear.  Filtered to the edge of misinterpretation in the style of classic Mentallo & the Fixer, the vocals are both a juxtaposition and an enhancement to the music.  They are the bullets fired from the barrel of the music; the smoke rising from the inferno.  Thank goodness for the included lyrics, which might have otherwise been lost behind the veil of distortion.  Most of them fall under the topic of first-person serial-killer poetry; before you groan, here’s a sample from “When Porcelain Bleeds”:  her lips so sweet / every word cuts like knives / i feel the wounds as if self inflicted / broken porcelain beauty / i still long to touch / i prick my finger to paint her lips.  When Gerteisen delivers these mantras, fueled by the driving chord-shifting chaos produced by Denman and Smith, the effect is intoxicating to the point of overwhelming.

Some tracks (“Deathkill”, “To Be Fed Upon”) reduce the tempo to slow-motion intensity without compromising an ounce of the album’s mood.  When all systems are go, however, Die Sektor’s ash-choked wings spread to their fullest.  “Follow the Screams” is a particularly potent example, unfurling in its first few moments with a wonderfully evocative bass sequence that’s soon bordered by a high-pitched techno-inspired melody, crashing percussion, and fractured vocals.  As the track careens forward, elements fall away while others emerge, but the highlight comes around four minutes in:  the beats disappear and we’re left with an echo of the melody, only to have the energy return, one layer at a time, until all is on glorious broken display.  It’s the album’s prime example of what Die Sektor is, and what it’s capable of.

To Be Fed Upon is a draining listen for me.  Cathartic, but exhausting nonetheless.  The effect is like watching Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre:  it’s a film I love, but it makes me feel dirty, in need of something cleansing – a tribute to how well it works.  At eleven tracks, most over five and a half minutes, the album’s a lot to take in during one sitting (I find myself needing a break when watching Texas Chainsaw these days too).  The instrumentals ease the album’s grip, but not quite enough to allow me to catch my breath completely.  (I can only imagine what Die Sektor might be like when seen live.)  I also think the album’s quality drops a bit in the middle, as “Mother Hunger,” “In the Arms of Eternity,” and “Prey to the Razor” aren’t the equals of the rest, but “All Turns White” and the thundering closer “To Be Fed Upon” help bring it back to the rusted heights established by the opening moments.  A bit of lyrical and thematic variety would have helped ease the relentless atmosphere, but that’s my own subjectivity talking:  To Be Fed Upon is a grimly thematic work that just happens to be layered on very, very thickly.

The album’s artwork sums up the awaiting experience nicely: a trio of skulls pierced by spikes rest on a bed of roses, a human heart driven through by rusted nails and a knife, and razor blades and pills resting in the cracked palm of an offering hand.  To Be Fed Upon is an intense and uncompromising electro/EBM experience that surprises with its level of songwriting craft, but its strength really lies in how well it displays its tortured and complex core.  For me, it’s a bit too well.

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The Retrosic – God of Hell

Tribune Records (TRIBUNE_003A), 2004

It’s always been a source of amazement for me that some electronic albums sound decidedly organic.  While many electro bands clearly embrace their synthetic sources – e.g. mind.in.a.box and Headscan – there are others that manage, somehow, to make their music not sound like the product of cybernetic intelligences.

The Retrosic is a prime example.  Yes, I’d still consider their music to be post-industrial electro/EBM, but the sound design is so far removed from others, it’s hard to believe that it’s part of the same genre (I would call it such, but others would surely disagree).  On paper, there’s little difference: the music is beat-driven, enhanced by twisting lines of sequences and chord-laden synths and keys.  You can dance to Headscan just as well as The Retrosic, but the feel is different; one is future-oriented slickness while the other is roughly hewn heaviness.

Not to imply that God of Hell, the third album from The Retrosic, is somehow lesser in execution or design; it is most certainly not, to my ears.  It’s crunchy, stompy, dark, heavy, and full of primal presence; just listen to the pounding beat, hypnotic bass line, snarling vocals, odd melody, and layered bell-like percussion of “Maneater” and try to avoid imagining some majestic creature stalking its prey under a smoking sky.  Like the best dark ambient, it’s incredibly evocative stuff.

God of Hell is overflowing with similar moments.  Despite its largely computerized sourcing, there’s a good deal of clearly acoustic instrumentation to be heard – pipes, wordless female vocals, Middle Eastern-style strings and horns – all of which serve to increase the album’s powerful mutated steampunk aura.  “Elysium” and “Passion (1st Sign)” evoke Dead Can Dance with their lamenting vocals, traditional percussion, and dramatic atmospheres; you don’t normally find creations like this in the realms of post-industrial.

Even tracks with a modern bent (“New World Order,” “Total War,” “Antichrist”) have a warped ancient sense about them, while the ode-like “Tale of Woe” and the bone-crushing instrumental “Dragonfire” could easily have been products of some alternate medieval dimension, a la Heimataerde.  Add the irresistible anthem “The Storm,” with its perfect barrage of bass, delicate pipe-like EBM sequencing, and fantastic vocals, and “Sphere,” a triumph of interlocking-gear vehicles steaming across an alien wasteland (it’s miles ahead of most like-minded cinematic pieces), and the album moves into a world all its own, carrying us along through its unique burnished landscape of rusted machinery, streaked by gouts of flame and boiling smoke, and populated with strange folk equally dangerous and artistic.

The album does fall prey to genre cliches.  Most of the vocal samples are unnecessary and disruptive in an album of such crafted power.  Similarly, some may find the band’s vocals – aggressive chants delivered in a rasping, delicately distorted fashion – to be at odds with the music.  I love the understated rage and menace in the vocals, however; they’re powerful without being overdone, and provides a human and thematic connection for us.  God of Hell contains a good number of songs, after all, and vocals are a vital element.  Without the vocals, ragged and growling as they are, God of Hell would lose something; they add to the primal blood coursing throughout the album.  The lyrics themselves aren’t as effective as the confident throaty delivery, mostly concerned with well-worn themes of apocalypse, war, suffering, and conspiracy, but the genre is home to far worse.  Even the slow-paced dirge “Tale of Woe” manages to avoid being completely embarrassing; in lesser hands, it would have been.  Also, the last two minimal tracks are completely throwaway, adding nothing but unnecessary length; God of Hell is better without them.

God of Hell seems to be the pinnacle for The Retrosic, as prior and following releases haven’t come close to its high level of potent creativity and aesthetic sense.  However, for this album, the band conjured a powerful and versatile vision of dark grandeur that also satisfies the high-octane demands of industrial dancefloors across the globe.  God of Hell is one of the few albums that is also able to move beyond the 4/4 foundation to provide a listening experience that surprises with its depth, variety, cohesion, and strength of songwriting.  Such albums are rare in general, but when you consider its genre, God of Hell becomes elevated to classic status.

[:SITD:] – Rot

Accession Records (A 117), 2009

The definition of “industrial music” has undergone many changes over the years.  Nine Inch Nails was the first exposure for many to the subgenre, but there are many who didn’t consider Trent Reznor’s work to be industrial music at all.  The punk-inspired theatrics of Einsturzende Neubaten and Skinny Puppy, among others, eventually seemed to overwhelm the music itself, and the genre itself proved extremely difficult to peg.  Beyond that, the music itself became increasingly predictable, losing the experimentation that marked the genre in its early days.  Subgenres such as noise, IDM, and synthpop began to influence it as well, as did a level of pretension that bordered on comical, with bands straining to present themes of sci-fi, horror, slasher films, and war that seemed more important than the music.

It would seem – at first, anyway – that the trendily named [:SITD:] typifies this 21st-century post-industrial faux-angst.  The titular acronym stands for “shadows in the dark.”  They hail from Germany and use German language in their lyrics and song titles.  But there’s something going on with their music that separates them from the ranks of pancake makeup- and gas mask-wearing contemporaries.

Francesco D’Angelo, Carsten Jacek, and Thomas Lesczenski are certainly guilty of treading paths already established by others, but they ride the edge of EBM, noise, and synthpop with a sense of reverence.  Describing their 2009 album Rot (German for “red,” not the English word for decay) would seem to do little to set them apart:  it’s a collection of 4/4 electronic dancefloor hymns with aggressive German and English vocals, and is their fourth such release.

However, Rot is an example of what makes post-industrial EBM such a potentially fulfilling style.  The beats are the focus, no doubt, and they’re thick and heavy and pummeling, with little distortion.  Wonderfully straightforward, rarely deviating from the martial power of the 4/4 framework, with a relentless mid-tempo speed that I found particularly effective.  The lower BPM also allows [:SITD:] to include all sorts of subtle details between the beats, from minimal techno-inspired sequencing, visceral EBM bass keys, and ambient chord-shifting keyboards.

The vocals, which are done by alternating band members, are also free of distortion, and are somewhat restrained, chanting in the classic style of Front 242 or DAF, with none of the screaming often present in the genre.  In some cases – “Redemption” and “Destination” – they’re sung with little of the manic self-indulgence of the re-emergent synthpop.

Take “Catharsis,” which is built with a magnetic unwavering beat and a fantastic off-beat bass line, and anthemic German vocals that never overwhelm, but enhance the track’s identity.  It’s aggressive, but not overly so, and doesn’t do too much; it’s not trying to overwhelm or impress.  It’s classic EBM, but isn’t just pumped-up beats for mindless clubbing; there’s a good amount of creative songwriting on display.  “Rot” increases the tempo just a bit, and uses a looped sonar tone to augment the turbo-charged bass-line, techno-ish melody, and driving percussion.  The vocals here remind me so much of Massiv in Mensch it’s almost criminal; in fact, Rot sounds very much like a heavier version of MiM’s early work (minus the tongue-in-cheek weirdness) merged with the goth-influenced sensibilities of Project Pitchfork.

Not that Rot is completely free of pretension.  The lyrics of “Stigmata of Jesus” and “Zodiac” are pretty cringe-worthy, but those wonderfully cathartic beats and precise programming do help take the edge off.  [:SITD:] dabbles with noise on these tracks as well, with very respectable results.  I do think, however, that Rot could jettison the vocals and still be exemplary; the near-instrumental “Pride” is proof, with its carefully merged and dramatic chords and piano, all studded by lovely thudding 4/4 magic.  However, the introspective lyrics of “Redemption” and the anti-drug “MK Ultra” help redeem the band’s lyric-writing a bit; these guys are no Project Pitchfork in the songwriting department, but they’re a level above their contemporaries, for certain.

Rot is nothing new, but it’s darn good at what it does.  It’s the most effective and consistent album in the band’s discography to date, changing things up just enough to keep from becoming repetitive or overwhelming.  [:SITD:] wears its influences proudly on its electronic sleeve, and isn’t ashamed of what it is: post-industrial EBM of particularly effective power.  For a prime example of what the genre is capable of – as limited as that might be – it doesn’t get much better than this.