Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Album Review - Surgical Meth Machine - "Surgical Meth Machine"

What to make of Surgical Meth Machine, the new project of longtime Ministry frontman Al Jourgensen, which he describes as both ‘free of the legacy of Ministry’ and ‘the most Ministry of all.’  We’ve been talking about solo projects a lot lately, and Surgical Meth Machine doesn’t change that narrative, though as one might expect, Journgensen’s enlistment in the trend comes with his particular brand of musical and thematic flair.

To begin with, the self-titled album is fast.  The first half of the album blisters by at a screaming pace, displaying beats-per-minute well into the hundreds, dancing precariously on the line between intelligible and single-tone mess.  It is a testament to Journgensen’s understanding of his own music that he effectively keeps Surgical Meth Machine on the right side of that balance, even with his radical experimentation further down the rabbit hole of industrial.

The tone of the record is pretty easy to detect off the jump.  There’s an awful lot of S.O.D-style sensibility here, a general veneer of ‘fast as possible, offend everyone, fuck the universe,’ that lends the record a certain...humor?  Seems hard to believe, but it’s true.  Jourgensen’s tongue is planted firmly in his cheek, but there’s also a consistent condemnation of cheap, empty criticism and musical elitism, so there is some substance amongst the joyful noise.

It takes two listens to really be able to parse out and dissect the record, but it’s worth taking the time.  For better or worse, the first experience will be a blur, as the first four or six songs all windup into ludicrous speed.  Listening to the album’s opener “I’m Sensitive” is a lot like watching a helicopter rotor start up – the blades start out as individual entities, but eventually reach a rotation that makes them indistinguishable from each other.  Surgical Meth Machine crams a lot into a small space, becoming essentially the next evolutionary step in industrial, taking on the question of just how many beats can be heard and how acute can the production really be?

It’s on the second pass that listeners will start to hear elements that stand out.  “I Want More,” comes across like a category five hurricane of broken glass, the kind of song that thrash junkies will put on repeat until they determine the best possible way to break their neck trying to keep up.  The not-Slayer intro portends what’s to come in the song, although it throws frequent curve balls with every day lexicon in the lyrics, big gang sing-alongs and a surprisingly melodic guitar solo.  Really, the guitar work for “I Want More” is the most incredible takeaway, as it seems a Herculean feat to be both that clean and that fast for the duration of the piece.

The pattern repeats for “I Don’t Wanna,” though the song is double overlaid with the usual industrial distortion and blurring that makes for a crunchier experience.  Pleasant surprise, there’re capable and fitting guest vocals from Jello Biafra, who resonates with his perfectly nasal righteous bitchiness, which I mean as a complement.

Further down is another track of critical of music critiques and elites, as we travel into “Unlistenable,” which mostly descends into non-musical madness, but is notable because I’m pretty sure Jourgensen samples the dialog from the swearing in of Curly during The Three Stooges’ “Disorder in the Court.”

Anyway, following this is when the album shines brightest, though it comes at the expense of the heavy industrial motif and gives way instead to a speed-injected homage to pop metal and Judas Priest.  “Gates of Steel” is a genuinely good time and surprisingly easy listen despite its speed, featuring more of the laser-precise guitar work that we heard so gleefully on “I Want More.”  The song transitions seamlessly into “Spudnik,” which is pretty much the same song just with a different title and different lyrics, like a play in two acts.  This is where the variety of Jourgensen shows through the most, as these two songs sound almost like classic rock or old speed metal songs, but attentive listeners will hear a hint of Gabber in the framework, making up the beat.  It’s a clever mix and an unusual pairing, but works very well here.

From there the record tries a few EDM tricks and ends with an off-kilter piece where Jourgensen croons his lines to a willing audience, but to listen to the whole record in one sitting can be physically tiring, so this part might be best saved for later.

The sensory overload of Surgical Meth Machine is total, which means listeners must exhibit some patience in trying out the album.  It works best as a sort of cosine wave, beginning with the ferocity of pure industrial at the limits of perception, but gradually giving way to cleaner sounds and some esoteric electronic experimentation.  Jourgensen pulls no punches here and tries whatever seems to suit his fancy, while still staying within his experience.  This is by no means a perfect album and it’s unlikely that any individual will love all that it contains.  That’s hardly the point though, and in the meantime, I feel safe saying that anyone who is inclined to give it a spin will find at least a couple things they do like.

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