November 11, 2010

Industrial Complex.

Referring to Nitzer Ebb's new album as a "comeback" can hardly be fair, given the degree to which the band's principal members have been busy making music. Douglas McCarthy developed his project with Terence Fixmer, and lent his distinct voice to recordings by Recoil, Kloq, Motor, and Warren Suicide, while Vaughan "Bon" Harris kept busy with his Maven project, remixed Godhead, Depeche Mode, and Julien-K, produced recordings by 13 Mg. and Billy Corgan, and recorded sessions with the Smashing Pumpkins, Marilyn Manson, Evanesence, and the Lemon Ensemble. Drummer Jason Payne worked with Maven, the Wild Colonials, the Eastside Sinfonietta, Sugar To Poison, Kamaal Malak, and Le Fin Du Monde.

In other words, though they didn't exclusively work together under the Nitzer Ebb moniker, the band's members hardly fell off the face of the Earth. Yet fifteen years is an absence long enough for an entire new generation of listeners to emerge, and the context within which Nitzer Ebb once operated — never mind the industry — to completely change. While older fans may consider the band's previous recordings inimitable classics, younger ears may only regard them a mere curiosity; a fact that represents a major challenge to any pop artists who decide to record new music after a long break. That said, Nitzer Ebb's new album not only recaptures but also enhances the band's particular strengths, enough to amply satisfy old fans and sufficiently impress (or at least startle) contemporary electronic music audiences.

A stark difference the band must've encountered would be the lack of anything remotely reminiscent of the recording industry they'd left behind. Practically the entire nature of recording and disseminating music — whether serious or popular, mainstream or alternative — has irrevocably changed in the past decade. Clearly seeking to adapt, Nitzer Ebb opted for allowing the odd new track trickle out through various new modes of marketing, rather than releasing singles to market their new album in the once established fashion.

Ironically, Once You Say, their first new recording to be aired, premiered in a most traditional fashion on DJ Dave Clarke's White Noise show (part of VPRO's 3voor12 programming on Netherlands' 3FM) in June 2007. With broadcasting as well as reception now largely being digital, copies of the track (in various states of compression, and the 3FM call sign occasionally edited out) quickly spread among fans. Apart from being the first new Nitzer Ebb track in a dozen years, it quickly garnered further buzz for featuring backing vocals by Depeche Mode's principal composer Martin Gore. A collaboration apparently arrived at when the band concluded the track needed a powerful gospel voice to be completed, and Gore was the first person in that category they could think of.

Next, an alternative version of Payroll appeared on the Saw IV soundtrack (and the Advanced Electronics vol. 6 compilation) in the fall of 2008, having been performed — as was Once You Say — during Nitzer Ebb's live performances the previous year. The album opener Promises was included on the first soundtrack of the television series NCIS in February 2009, Never Known appeared on the Saw VI soundtrack, while an alternative version of that track was released on a limited edition USB flash drive — which also included an alternative version of Down On Your Knees. With nearly half of their new recordings acting as product placements after this newfangled fashion, one could be forgiven for regarding Industrial Complex itself as a compilation album. (Which, to further the irony of the relentless changes ripping through the recording industry, is what all long-playing albums once were.)

In keeping with the band's new, "corporate" image — frustrating what few completists remain out there in a most cunning fashion — there are two versions of the album available (not counting digital varieties, and the strictly limited picture disc edition): a red-sleeved single-disc "tour edition" as well as a white-sleeved two-disc edition. Each has additional North American and European permutations, with the contents of the two-disc edition's bonus disc of alternative versions of some of the album's tracks differing depending on whether one procures the "regular" European or the "special" Belgian edition, while the North American two-disc edition is the only one to include the additional new track On the Road. However, the content and running order of the main disc are identical to that available from digital purveyors: the same eleven tracks with Traveling added as a "bonus".

Wrapped in Doug McCarthy's smart, stark design, centering on the graphic symbols of the World's four major reserve currencies (with the "€" and "£" replacing the "$" on the front of the European editions), Nitzer Ebb's new business-like demeanor contrasts with their past athletic, militant style in Emma Cohan's suggestive low light portraits. The commercial surface doesn't immediately betray the emotional content within; the failure, loss, defeat, shame, acceptance, and resurgence lurking beneath. (Curiously, McCarthy also casually employs the "she said" meme — commonly instantly adding a salacious twist to poorly defined sentences or thoughts — to surprisingly dramatic effect on a couple of the album's tracks.)

McCarthy sings far more than bellows, his lyricism developed beyond adolescent sloganeering baiting and provoking with seemingly political themes, concentrating instead on the more personal tropes that began to emerge in earnest on the band's third album, 1990's Showtime. McCarthy doesn't merely lament failed relationships, he assumes responsibility for failure — a quality that's become as scarce in our society as civility, humility, and compassion. In fact, the courage with which Nitzer Ebb dare to present themselves vulnerable (as, for instance, on Going Away) is what raises them head and shoulders above practically every other band in their genre, the brashness coupled with guts to to express sentimentality without succumbing to self-pity.

For every ending, there's a beginning, and for all the insight into middle-aged companionship contained in a track like I Don't Know You — "I've been looking at my scars / You've got yours / Let's make them ours" — it could just as well be interpreted as advice to younger, less experienced ears: "I want to know you / I don't know you / but I want you to think more". Yet, while tracks like Once You Say and Down On Your Knees could also be interpreted as more than mere reflections on the politics of personal choice, it's perhaps with Payroll — the most North American-inflected track on the album — with it's exploration of the "we're all in this together" mentality that the band comes closest to purely political themes.

The time principal composer Bon's spent as a session hand, as well as studying composition, has payed off in a more varied palette, allowing for the melodious elements previously skulking around the band's music to spring forward — as in Hit You Back, an electro blues combining synth pop with hip hop, which takes on a full orchestral flourish towards its dramatic conclusion. Compared to Nitzer Ebb's last album of original recordings, 1995's Big Hit, guitars appear absent, the overall sound stripped back to the basic combination of electronic bass and percussion the band thoroughly exploited early in its career. Yet many of the sounds on this album have been sculpted much like those of conventional pop, rock, and blues recordings, with pretty much the same effects and devices.

The smart shaping of white noise and use of wavetables, seamlessly fused with acoustic percussion, is skillfully combined within a spacious, uncluttered soundscape (though occasionally compressed a tad hard) to create Nitzer Ebb's signature tight grooves from an impressively complex array of sounds. Produced by Bon with commercial composer John O'Herron (with input from the band's long-time collaborator Mark "Flood" Ellis, and former Sabres of Paradise and The Aloof veteran Jagjit Singh Kooner), Industrial Complex advances the broad variety of styles with which Nitzer Ebb have previously imbued their distinct, minimal take on pop music. Their youthful verve may have been tempered by experience, but Nitzer Ebb have lost not one iota of energy — as demonstrated by the furiously driving Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Clearly not afraid to act their (total) age, their music is still very much industrial. Just more complex.

This is a slightly updated version of the article posted on March 12, 2010.

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