Ever since I heard last fall that industrial-metal legend Al Jourgensen would be reforming his iconic band Ministry, I've been counting down the hours before the album's release. After battling addiction and other serious health problems (we're talking "puking up all your damn blood" kinda problems), combined with years of relentless touring, it seemed Uncle Al was ready to hang up the frontman's hat and focus on projects in and around his El Paso-based studio 13th Planet. But after a miraculous recovery, he's done a complete 180 and Ministry is back in action four years later. Al's body of work – under multiple bands and projects over the past three decades – has been a huge influence on my own musical career, and while I'm not expecting his flagship group to try and dig up the carcass of their glory days, there's still an unmistakable sound that I've come to expect as the Ministry signature, and I've been just ridiculously eager to find out if his new lineup can capture that same lightning in the studio. Turn the page and learn what I discovered...
If you know Ministry at all – especially their '90s output – you know that calling their lyrics "mostly political" is like describing the Pacific Ocean as "slightly moist." If anyone thought that the musical venom Al has so often directed at the powers-that-be fizzled out when anyone with the last name "Bush" left office, rest assured they haven't put aside their anti-establishment rage one little bit. But somehow, this time around, that tree-shaking attitude feels forced and grafted onto their trademark pile-driver riffs and crushing, minimalist beats. Instrumentally, the new lineup is choice, and represents a high metal pedigree – including guitarist Mike Scaccia of Rigor Mortis, Prong members Tommy Victor (guitar) and Aaron Rossi (drums), Soulfly bassist Tony Campos, Fear Factory keyboardist John Bechdel and GWAR bassist Casey Orr. But in the absence of original bassist Paul Barker, a major component of that sound is different. That's not to say the music suffers for it, but the vibe has definitely changed.
One of the curious things about Relapse is that many of the tracks were the result of Jourgensen and Scaccia blowing off steam between recording sessions for Jourgensen's alt-country outfit Buck Satan and the 666 Shooters (love that name, by the way). When the guys realized how much the songs sounded like Ministry, they decided to find them a new home. Maybe that sense of creative spontaneity (after all, "happy accidents" have led to some of music's finest moments) is what the band needed for their return to the studio, because Relapse contains some of the heaviest, fastest and most brain-bustingly aggressive tracks this band has ever laid down. If the lyrics were up to the same level of awesome, this would be a supreme kickoff for the band's new phase... but some of the songwriting here comes off like a half-baked parody of the band's earlier gut-punching material.
"I'm not dead yet!" Jourgensen declares in the opening track "Ghouldiggers," which almost sends the album into jokey territory a bit too early ("You never return my calls... What's up with that?") if not for launching into insane thrash, which never lets up for the next five minutes, pissing on the desks of recording industry suits all the way. The ground-pounding electro-metal monster "Double Tap" uses gamer lingo to take a swipe at push-button warfare, before Jourgensen focuses his scrutiny on his own mistakes in "Free Fall," which feels like an explosively cathartic release, faster and heavier than most of the previous decade's output, and serving as a semi-sequel to the classic single "Just One Fix." The dark and creepy "Kleptocracy" is another of Al's familiar rants against fat-cat tyranny, and it's kind of sad that the beast he's fighting not only lives on, but seems to be growing too big to slay.
Next comes a bombastic, skull crushing one-and-a-quarter-cover of hardcore punk legends Stormtroopers of Death, tackling "United Forces" from SOD's debut album Speak English or Die. While it's also very solid instrumentally (featuring brighter than usual guitar tone), the following cut "99 Percenters" suffers from over-simplistic preachiness; regardless of where you stand on the whole "Occupy" movement, this song isn't going to change any minds or even rally people to action, in part because the band has fallen too far behind the news cycle. The title track is one of the most reminiscent of the band's last three records, so it's not particularly striking; but the welcome industrial elements return in "Weekend Warrior," which features some of the album's most ominous riffage, despite the silly booze-and-smoke-fest theme and Al's GWAR-like vocal style. As you can probably guess from the title, "Git Up Get Out 'N Vote" sounds like you're in for another preachy number (shades of MTV's "Rock the Vote" campaign) but it benefits from Al's fiery punk-anthem delivery.
For all the album's many ups and downs, thankfully it ends on an epic note with "Bloodlust," which embodies everything this band has done right over the decades. It's a slow-rolling, doomy, and occasionally bluesy slab of menace that restores many of the atmospheric elements that the band mostly discarded over their last few records, and strangely enough calls waaaaay back to Ministry's early days as a dark electro dance band, especially when it comes to the vocals.
I'd be lying if I said Relapse wasn't something of a disappointment, but then again my expectations were set impossibly high. That's just because Ministry not only set that bar for the genre in their prime, they welded spikes to it and set it on fire, so that no one – even themselves – could get over it again. If you're a fan of the band's "George W. Bush trilogy" (Houses of the Molé, Rio Grande Blood and The Last Sucker), but wondered if they could inject even more furious energy into the formula, then you're in luck... but see how I used the word "formula" there? That's because there's nothing especially new here, despite the turbo-charged modifications, which I will admit are carried off very nicely by the new crew. But maybe a look back to the band's roots wouldn't have hurt... I think the group still holds the potential for songwriting greatness on the level of Psalm 69, but this ain't that album, and word has it they aren't planning on any more. That's too bad, because it's comforting to hear that Uncle Al's still batshit crazy and pissed off at the entire world. Kinda like me, really.