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In a time of crisis, lies, and destruction, alternative music needs to be a voice of discontent.
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For American heavy industrial pioneers Ministry, that voice can never be too loud or outspoken. With their fifteenth studio album Moral Hygiene, Ministry have created an energetic and scathing monument to a unique and troubled age.
“It started when the wildfires came within about a mile of my house,” says Ministry’s iconic vocalist Al Jourgensen on the origin of Moral Hygiene, “two of them converging, and I was very fortunate to come out of that unscathed, but we were in the studio recording Alert Level as a direct response to climate change and how it’s affecting us. Which is what most of my records are, snapshots of what society has become during the period of time that I’m recording, so it’s more like a documentary than an album for me. So, we were recording that, and literally waiting for evacuation orders from the wildfires. So that was a good start to tackling the big problems of the world, when you’re surrounded by wildfires trying to do a record. There’s a lot of stuff going on that I just wanted to take a snapshot of. I’m watching all our shit unravel in society, globally, climate-wise, social interactions, government, kleptocracy, and I just took a picture, and that’s the theme. The theme is what we’ve become, I’m just showing you what we’ve become. That’s all. And asking, ‘are you happy with this?’ Because I’m not. I’m not particularly happy with how things are being handled, on so many levels.”
Jourgensen’s turbulent political rage has, for decades now, incited a range of responses, and this warrior of dissent doesn’t anticipate that changing with Moral Hygiene. “Ohh yeah,” Jourgensen contemplates responses to the album, and smiles knowingly, “we’re so polarised as a society now, so tribal, I’ll get everything thing from ‘I’m a genius’ to death threats. Sometimes within the same tweet! It comes with the territory though… I just do what I do, take my snapshots, just trying to communicate through music what I see, which is dystopian, basically.”
That particular theme of power and control in dystopian worlds is concentrated on the track Disinformation, which features powerful use of the spoken word sample: It’s up to you, building a profoundly anti-authoritarian vibe. As Jourgensen says, “I think the sound has evolved. When you first start using samples many, many years ago, like thirty years ago or whatever, it’s like ‘wow, this sample is cool on this song!” but you start honing it down, and instead of it being just a shock value thing, you start strategically placing bits and pieces that are completely relevant to the song, rather than writing the song around the sample, so now I sing about it and we find samples of media that accentuate the point that I’m trying to make.
“Now, instead of revolving the song around a cool sample, because it was a novelty back then to have samples in a song, now the samples are an embellishment to what I have to say. In that sense its evolved.”
The use of samples to embellish the song’s meaning is particularly powerful on Death Toll, a track about the COVID-19 pandemic.
The use of repetition and building statistics is eerily mesmerising, “And with information going through the whole thing,’ Jourgensen jumps in, describing the track, “with evangelical preachers saying things like ‘it’s over’ and ‘just pray it away’. It becomes hypnotic, to the point of frenetically flipping the TV channels because you can’t get away from the bad news. That’s why there’s TV Song #6 on the album, and on the next album we’ll probably do a ‘TV Song #7’ and keep up the Ministry tradition of flipping through the channels and freaking out about what society has become.”
I learned a major lesson in life…never accept a joint from a stranger!
[ Al Jourgensen ]
Speaking of what society has become, the track Broken System embodies this theme with some innovative instrumentation. “That’s a good song,” Jourgensen says, and continues to elaborate on the strange mix of Middle Eastern sounds and stormy blues. “There’s this public flea market that I go to that’s held every month, in this huge stadium in Los Angeles, there’s probably 100,000 people at this flea market, and I’ve been going there religiously for about six years, and they usually have musicians playing there, buskers, and last album we found this violin player playing at flea market that wound up on Amerikkkant, and this time I found a Pakistani man, who calls himself Flash, I heard him busking and I was like, okay, that has to go on the album. Every album I seem to find some esoteric addition to the line-up. His playing was sublime, so I decided to use him on there, so I built the song around that, and mixed it literally into a delta blues beat and somehow it worked. Then it was like, what do we sing about? And I was like, well the whole thing is a broken system, the climate is a broken system, such as the Gulf Stream is shutting down and we’ll all go into apocalyptic ruin because of it, by 2040 cities such as Palm Springs in California are not going to be not liveable, the governments are broken, society is polarised. It encapsulated everything on the album, crammed into the one song, with these two disparate musical elements…I’m still trying to figure out that song.”
The song many listeners may be wondering about is Ministry’s eerie, intense cover of the Stooges’ Search And Destroy. On how this track made it onto Moral Hygiene, Jourgensen has a cool story. ‘Well, it was purely by accident!” He says, “Long story but Dave Navarro and Billy Morrison… they threw a benefit, called Above Ground benefit, that helps teen suicide victims by setting up hotlines, hospices, counselling, all this stuff. So, it was a benefit, but the thing was it had to be a Bowie or a Stooges song and so Billy and Dave picked out two Stooges songs for me to sing. I went to soundcheck, we tried out the songs, it all sounded fine, everyone was happy, but then we waited around for the show to start. But then I went backstage, and learned a major lesson in life…never accept a joint from a stranger,” Jourgensen laughs.
“I don’t know what this joint was laced with,” he continues, “but anyway I went on stage, and everything was …underwater… it was half-time and I wasn’t sure I was going to make it through! Fortunately, Dave and Billy were on stage and realised something was wrong so they altered the song, put it in a slower tempo so I could sing it, and we made it through. I was thoroughly embarrassed the next day, and I called both Dave and Billy and apologised profusely, saying I’m so sorry I ruined your benefit, and they were like ‘NO! That sounded awesome! We must do this in your studio, exactly how we did it.’ Accidents happen, that’s the beauty of art. Billy had it all mapped out how he wanted to do it, I worked with Iggy thirty-five years ago when we did a single together, called Fire Engine, so I have a long history with Iggy, I sent it to him and he loved it. So, it’s ‘IGGY APPROVED’,” Jourgensen smiles, but adds, “It’s my redemption track from fucking up the benefit gig so badly.”