[: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.

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Negative Format – Cipher Method

Sector 9 Studios (S9S003), 2003

For all its inertia and energy, Cipher Method is remarkably subdued.  The fourth album from Alex Matheu’s Negative Format project, Cipher Method blends traditional EBM with trance and techno elements, but it’s not a breakneck ride through dizzying synthetic landscapes.  Matheu doesn’t overload the listener with an abundance of layered programming, relying on strong songwriting and a keen sense of rhythm to buoy the five-plus-minute compositions.  If you were to combine Massiv in Mensch’s wondrous synthetic rhythms with Individual Totem’s high-powered sequencing, the result might sound something like Cipher Method, but with some key differences.

First is the mood.  Matheu has injected Cipher Method with a relaxed, almost down-tempo feel.  While you can certainly dance to it, and dance well, Cipher Method isn’t brimming with dancefloor killers; this is an album perhaps better suited for home listening, where one is able to absorb and appreciate the sequencing and programming driving the music.  This isn’t a turbo-charged affair, but a cruising one.

The lyrical theme is also atypical for the genre, examining the reliance on technology with a cynical edge; we’ve allowed ourselves to have our decisions made for us, but as it’s our choice, it doesn’t have to be this way.  We’re losing something as our use of technology increases; a bold statement from someone who couldn’t have released this album without technology.  This isn’t a new concept for EBM, but it’s an intriguing paradox.  Matheu doesn’t beat us over the head with dogmatic proclamations, but gives us something to think about while our bodies respond to the rhythms.  His lyrics and warped, filtered delivery are clearly secondary to the music, and are often mixed low as an extra layer of rhythm.  Some tracks, such as “Encryption,” have minimal lyrical content (“block out the filtered information/mix in the daydream that our lives are broken” is the extent) rather than the traditional verse-verse-chorus structure.  It’s a smart decision, as the underplayed vocals don’t impede the momentum of the trance-inspired foundation.

Yes, trance.  It’s considered a dirty word by many fans of EBM, but not to fear; Cipher Method is certainly not a trance album, but an album that takes trance’s theory and applies it to EBM.  The trance manifests itself in the smooth, straightforward beats that never stutter or oscillate, keeping time with a pleasing regularity rather than becoming monotonous.  Matheu wraps the 4/4 beats with glittering sequences and near-soothing keyboards with just enough of a techno-influenced tint to make rivetheads curl their lip a tad, not to mention the warm ambient-style synths contained in tracks such as “Cipher” and “Schema.”  Cipher Method isn’t angry or brooding, but contemplative and it soars and dives through the digital ether.  Matheu breaks up the formula just enough, with the drum-and-bass stylings of “Algorythm,” the anthemic pop of “Static,” and the near-ambient instrumental “Packet Filter,” not to mention paying tribute to classic EBM with the harsher vocals and increased aggression of “Downfall (Atmosphere).”

There are plenty of highlights here – the mid-track shift of “Schema,” the particularly wonderful sequencing of “Vertex,” the tightly focused “Transfer” – but Cipher Method is an album best appreciated as a complete work.  It doesn’t drag or feel repetitive during its long, 65+ minute running time, and despite the similar themes both musically and lyrically, there’s enough variety here to keep one’s interest.  If nothing else, it’s worth marveling at how Matheu blends styles seamlessly and keeps one’s rhythmical expectations guessing and one’s pulse pumping with subtle energy.  Cipher Method is the kind of wonderfully effortless experience that sounds both familiar and completely new.  While the brashness of its extroverted, shock-centered contemporaries have faded with time, Negative Format’s quietly pulsating masterpiece of streamlined technophobia is as relevant and effective as ever.