Before he settled in to his current incarnation as a neck-tatted steampunk junkie purveyor of industrialized speed-metal for dimwitted bros, Al Jourgensen was a genuine innovator in post-punk synthpop and industrial music. The consensus narrative of his main band Ministry’s career trajectory holds that after an early anglophile period that’s as big of a let’s-pretend-it-didn’t-happen embarrassment to most their fans as Pablo Honey is to Radiohead snobs, the band really got started with the industrial dance masterpiece Twitch. From there, three breathtaking and influential albums of increasingly unparalleled aggression appeared, Land of Rape & Honey, Mind Is a Terrible Thing to Taste, and Psalm 69, which brought Ministry to an acutely mid-‘90s alterna-fame, whereupon they proceeded to dive more or less headfirst into metal, and, depending on your particular bent, either totally, fist-pumpingly FUCKIN’ RAWKED BRAH or descended into a spiral of cartoonish self-parody and never released another listenable recording ever again ever.
The consensus narrative has a point about Twitch. It WAS a huge leap over their debut, With Sympathy (listen to the full LP on YouTube here), to the point where it sounds like a totally different band (Ministry was by that point basically Jourgensen’s solo project), and compares extraordinarily well against the touchstones of its genre. Compare its single “Over the Shoulder” with the benchmark dance hit “Sensoria” by industrial founding fathers Cabaret Voltaire.
But largely because of that leap, With Sympathy remains Ministry’s early shame in the eyes of a lot of fans, and its creator, as well. Jourgensen has repeatedly disavowed the album, saying he wanted a harder sound, but that his vision was compromised by label interference and pop production. And every time he says that, eyes roll back in their sockets, and you wish he’d quit pretending he was born a cowboy-hat-and-facial-piercings hardass and just own his early work.
However, listening to live tracks from the band’s first incarnation - Jourgensen, drummer Steven “Stevo” George, and keyboardists Robert Roberts and John Davis - you really have to allow that the man has a point. The live band is sharp where the album is tepid, anxious where the album languishes. Sympathy has always had its defenders, and however fey it may seem in comparison to the work of Jourgensen’s enduring fame, it’s an important document in American post-punk. But good God, it could have been so, SO much better.
Much of the best live material that can be readily found from that era of the band has been uploaded by YouTube user TheRobSquaredShow, who, unsurprisingly, turns out to be early band member Robert Roberts. Roberts has also let slip an eye-opening CDR rarity called The Scam Lies Down On Fraudway, a recording of a 1982 Chicago concert that features KILLER versions of Sympathy tracks “Effigy” and “Revenge,” plus the very early single “I’m Falling” and its 12” flipside “Primental.” Sadly, that recording is nowhere to be found online as of this writing - hell, evidence of its existence doesn’t seem to have found its way to the Internet yet - but what is there on Roberts’ channel is the band’s earliest known live recording. The early band comes off as caustic, headstrong and confident, and far more in line with the thorniness of the post-punk synth a-list than attempted radio singles like “Work For Love” would suggest. Credit drummer Steven George with a lot of that - few enough synth bands harnessed the energy of a live drummer, and it’s to Jourgensen’s credit that Ministry did. (It remains a major demerit that Jourgensen sang in an affected British accent so preposterous that Billie Joe Armstrong can almost be forgiven.)
For a treasure trove of information on Ministry’s earliest years, check out Roberts’ detailed interview on prongs.org. And while you’re devouring that info, enjoy “Same Old Madness,” the video for a terrific early track that, astonishingly, seems to have never had an official release.
Fans of Ministry’s late incarnation may be interested to know - if you already didn’t - that their new album, From Beer To Eternity, was released last month, and due to the death of longtime guitarist Mike Scaccia, it will evidently be the band’s last.