The Dark Dionysian: The Cathartic Pleasures of Live Industrial Music

by Joan Harvey

Christian Death.  Peter Ketels photo

In the dark times
Will there be singing?
There will be singing.
Of the dark times.
(Bertolt Brecht)

I like the idea of Industrial music as a kind of corrupted psychedelia – the same derangement of the senses, but the childhood innocence has gone. (Comment on YouTube of Throbbing Gristle’s Discipline)

I respond this way again and again, always a split second after each fricative machine growl. Half dreaming now and forced into pure response, I regress. The animal brain writhes sensuously in its own mere selfness. I am at the edge of a pleasure rarely visited. The possibility of ecstasy—being out of myself—is nearly always either novel enough to marvel at (a strictly front-of-brain act) or strange enough to scare me back into my body. (Alexander S. Reed, Assimilate 304) [i]

Most people I know not only don’t care for this music, but probably dislike it intensely.

I can’t really imagine people who don’t already enjoy this sort of music walking into one of these events and actually having a good time.

Therefore proselytizing should probably not be my aim.

We want to share our pleasures and convince others, but sometimes from the beginning it’s a lost cause.

Still, its a part of my existence most people don’t see. And in a way it’s somewhat surprising to me.

Oddly, I began going to industrial shows rather late in life.

They’re more in the line of a thing a teen goth would discover.

When we’re lucky we continually discover new pleasures.

And with luck, many of them.

My listening trajectory has been through classical music and, on another stream, through Motown, funk, blues, experimental jazz, techno, old school rap and hip-hop. And of course rock and roll.

Arriving at this mostly white, mostly male, very loud, very aggressive form. Though industrial music is a pleasure added to my others, rather than replacing them.

Like all western popular music it owes much to African-American music, to blues rhythms and experimental jazz. And has links to dub and Afrofuturism.

But, even so, my trajectory is the reverse of the direction one is supposed to take. Of course, plenty of us are uninterested in eventually taking up golf or knitting. Therefore, why not some brain fuck dissolve.

I live in a pleasantly bucolic setting surrounded by mountain dwellers who go hear bluegrass, jam band stuff, and Americana at the local inn.

Which has never interested me much.

Quite often people come up to the mountains where I live to kill themselves.

Which has nothing to do with industrial music, but is just to say bucolic can be an illusion at times.

One man’s father living up here in a remote cabin died and wasn’t found for weeks and by then had been eaten by his chickens.

One day after a hike we passed a man sitting in his car by the trail. He scowled at us and immediately after we left he set himself on fire.

Usually however the people up here gather in friendly groups, drink a lot, and play acoustic instruments together.

Whereas, my partner and I, schizophrenic half-urbanites, dress in black and sneak off further afield.

To have our heads cleaned.

Let me burn you… let me burn you…

Let me burn you down…

Let me burn you… let me burn you…

Let me burn you down…

Burn you down…

(Front 242, “Religion”)

The writer Inger Christensen writes of her flight from the country to the city. Because, she said, so many people. Because, she said, her consciousness has become like a city.

If I lived among actual industries I might seek out streams and meadows. Often I still do.

But some of us need extremes. Some of us are extreme. Some of us just flirt with extremity.

I may not be the oldest person at these concerts—sometimes the musicians are older than me—but I’m probably often the oldest female.

Still I feel immediately at home in these dark spaces with black-clothed, heavily tattooed outsiders.

No one cares that I’m there. An atmosphere I find welcoming and relaxed.

No doubt it helps that I’m with a big German man.

There are always some women and rarely many women. This is true also of people of races other than white.

A few bands do, however, have deep female fandom. Especially those whose shows are less militaristic and more fluid and have hot guys who dress androgynously like Ogre of Skinny Puppy.

Or, as a woman said of the ex-Combichrist drummer, Joe Letz, “The only man to look better in a dress than me.”

We all have innate violent and aggressive tendencies, though, like our sex drive, in varying degrees.

I assume some people need no form of release, while some discharge their violence in passive aggressive ways.

Or in nasty tweets.

Of course one can find catharsis in working out or sex or skiing or deranging the senses with drugs.

Going to hear industrial music does not preclude these forms of release.

But it is accessible, legal, inexpensive catharsis.


Freedom, dumb fuckers 

Let the time machine detoxify! 

(ohGr, “Pissage”)

Of course the main pleasure is in the skill of the musicians.

I’m talking about industrial music today, not the ritualized and very real destruction elemental to the early industrial bands.

Today for the most part there are no jackhammers, no blood, no broken glass.

Also less pure noise. Less throbbing gristle.

Still, it remains theater outside of a theater. Often with masks, and acting out of violence.

A violence usually to expose violence. Ogre is a huge supporter of animal rights, but on stage his slicing open of a model dog was so graphic and upsetting that the band was actually arrested for animal abuse. He no longer does this.

Much of this music is political. A violence in the music to both reveal and interrupt the violence of the system. Whether or not this is effective is another question. But it is part of the draw.

Reenacting the monstrous in us all to expose it. The question of how to resist authoritarianism without being coopted and appropriated.

Sometimes moderation is useless.

In the war of famine, nowhere arid food growing now.

Warming trends the place, passive cows to feed the weak.

Product waste! Give back. Oil coming in.

Make a million living things suffer, hidden, black garbage body bags.

What of that change that could save everything?

(Skinny Puppy, “Hexonxonx” )

Industrial music shows are usually cheap.

Usually the clubs are small.

It’s available even in small cities.

In front of the band your whole body vibrates, possessed by the music.

Your mind, personality, ego, all subsumed in the music. You become an animal, a thing, you are not you, though you are in motion, one among many, yourself and not.

Body music to break the Cartesian mind-body split. Erase the inner and outer, erase the ego, erase language, hierarchy, erase the system.

They wanna own you

And their screams are like thunder

(Combichrist, “They”)

I’ve never gone to church, but these shows feel shamanic. I’m not “spiritual” (a new-age friend once asked my partner if a trip to Africa was good for my spirit and he answered “Joan doesn’t have a spirit”) but they offer me ecstasy (without the drug). I always come out feeling high, even if I’ve only had one beer.

Sometimes people who like to think they’re “rational” need the irrational. Sometimes us quiet bookish folks need loud noise.

I find something healing and whole-making about this celebration of the dark Dionysian, as in other realms where one loses one’s self to an ecstatic state, such as meditation or drugs. But industrial music offers a loud, physical, communal state rather than a quiet or individualized one.

There’s a sense of humor and camaraderie, and an acknowledgment that the darker, less conformist, more aggressive side of life also needs recognition.

Shows can be playful, transgressive. Or darkly political.

I feel like burning this town

His fear is bringing me down

I feel like breaking this town

This fear is burning me now

(You wanna come get some?)

How can you live with this shit going on?

(Pigface, “Chikasaw”)

Usually the mosh pit starts usually fairly early in the show.

Moshers, like particles jostled around in a musical solution, bang into each other, combining and recombining, losing all sense of ego and decorum.

A performance of aggression without violence, but rather joy. Not exactly homo-erotic but human-erotic.

Of course if I went in the mosh pit I’d be matchsticks in no time. Many of the most active moshers weigh several hundred pounds and look like they work out every day.

Still, it’s easy to appreciate the great pleasure in being able to connect physically and forcefully with other men not in anger, only a kind of explosive love.

Ritualized, contained, and kind chaos.

Punk too can have an aggressive, political catharsis, but the quality of musicianship is often higher at industrial shows.

I’ve found there are many incredible musicians playing this music.

In a war against authority that is also about pleasure.

As it should be.

The irrational as a political path. Though admittedly I’m the type of liberal who stands in front of Safeway with a clipboard trying to register people to vote.

And granted, I’m not a typical fan. No tattoos. At home I’m more likely to be listening to Nina Simone. Or Schubert. Or classical music from Iran.

I don’t actually pay too much attention to the lyrics at these shows. But some are like dadaist poetry, a poetry I also like.

A hundred thousand vagabond insects

All making a meal out of stainless steel

You should kick away the watchword

And throw caution to the wind.

(Revolting Cocks, “Stainless Steel Providers”)

Actually there is a line through my listening history that would lead me to enjoy this music.

Early on discovering and liking music from Shostakovich to Ornette Coleman, from Can to Sun Ra.

It’s just that the people who also like these forms of music don’t necessarily drive miles to hear Pigface.

It has to be mentioned that while most of the bands are some form of anarcho-leftist, there are a few with fascist and neo-nazi tendencies, which has colored the whole outside view of industrial music. Some of the leftist bands mean to confuse wannabe fascists. Sometimes this works, sometimes it just inspires them.

Some of the bands have been labeled racist or nationalist, but there are probably far less of these than in, say, country music. Some bands are overtly political, like Ministry.

It’s like the Nazis back in ’39

Like the Romans on the verge of decline

Like the Russians back in ’68

How is this supposed to make America great?

(Ministry, “AmeriKKKa”)

Industrial music has had a big effect on other contemporary genres, such as dubstep, and the more trancey glitch and electronic music that my son likes.

But this isn’t meant to be about history, but about discovery.

How a translation of inner violence, systemic violence, can be transformed into a few hours of dance, community, ecstasy.

To abandon one’s self oddly leads to a feeling of more presence.

There is a renewal that comes from a loss of control. A sensuous surrender to intimacy with the anonymous crowd.

Or, as an ecstatic poet who would probably hate industrial music wrote:

Dance, when you’re broken open.

Dance, if you’ve torn the bandage off.

Dance in the middle of the fighting.

Dance in your blood.

Dance, when you’re perfectly free.

(Rumi, “Dance when you’re broken open”)

After a show, late, elate, satiate, we drive home from the freeway into the pines, the rocks, the stars, the deer and bears and mountain lions.

To our mountains where two different women in their 60s, both of whom I know, have been beaten up in incidents involving drugs and sex. Where they sent a SWAT team after the lit-up miner Jim who smashed into my car and ran off into the woods, because, the sheriff told me, when he goes off his meds he’s dangerous and has access to dynamite.

Another night we’ll drive up the dirt road to the mountain inn built in the mining days, elevation 8,300 feet, where we’ll join people of all ages wearing plaid shirts and down vests, and we’ll listen and dance to some standard Zydeco. To be honest I’ll be a little bored, though I know I’m lucky to have many worlds and many pleasures.

I don’t want learning now, or dignity, or respectability

I want this music.

(Rumi, “1823”)





[i] I recommend Assimilate: A Critical History of Industrial Music (2013) by Alexander S. Reed for a good, very well written history of industrial music.