In Defense of … Ministry’s ‘Filth Pig’
During the late ’80s and early ’90s, Ministry effectively led the vanguard of the American electronics-as-aggression industrial-rock scene. Despite the band’s protests to the contrary, its signature sound – overdriven guitars and percussion mated with samplers and electronics set to “berserk” – permanently tied the group to the industrial genre.
Starting with 1988’s ‘The Land of Rape and Honey,’ Al Jourgensen and Paul Barker (the band’s only two full-time members until Barker’s 2003 departure) upped the sonic experiments as well as the aggression factor. Ministry’s 1989 album, ‘The Mind Is a Terrible Thing to Taste,’ further cemented the band’s sound.
Ministry’s upward trajectory reached its apex with 1992’s ‘Psalm 69,’ and a plum spot on that year’s Lollapalooza tour as well as a reputation for drawing particularly dangerous audiences to their gigs. Then came silence for four long years.
When Ministry returned in 1996 with ‘Filth Pig,’ fans plus the suits from the band’s major-label record company were eagerly anticipating a sonic bombshell that would scare off the timid and send those who stuck around into a frenzy. What they got instead was a dud. Many critics bashed the record upon its release as underwhelming, unfocused and sludgy. Given the jackhammer pace of earlier classics like ‘Stigmata’ and ‘N.W.O.,’ that last point was a particular sore spot.
Granted, those expecting a sequel to ‘Psalm 69′ were bound to be disappointed. If nothing else, Ministry always sought new ways to agitate their audience. As an industrial-rock record, ‘Filth Pig’ fails. But as a straight-up rock ‘n’ roll record, it stands among the best of the era. There’s an underlying feeling throughout the record that we’re all traveling down 40 miles of bad road.
The title track fits this theme – a down-tempo, guitar-heavy dirge featuring Jourgensen’s weighty, muscular vocals. To this day, you’d be hard-pressed to find any other musician who could make the harmonica sound as menacing as the way Jourgensen does here.
The other standout tracks, ‘Lava’ and ‘The Fall,’ showcase the band’s technical prowess and prove that Ministry could still sound dangerous, even when stripped down and at half-speed. And with the benefit of a fuller picture, thanks to the 2011 documentary ‘Fix: The Ministry Movie,’ we now know that ‘Filth Pig’ is among Jourgensen’s most personal albums.
The title track is about someone cracking under the pressures of impossible expectations and whose paranoia is taking over. ‘Dead Guy’ and ‘Crumbs’ further flesh out Jourgensen’s state of mind at this time. The only out-of-place moment comes in the misguided cover of Bob Dylan‘s ‘Lay Lady Lay,’ which is completely left-field and staid, given the band’s reputation.
At their heart, Ministry have always been about creating music on their own terms, conventional wisdom be damned. Were serious, self-inflicted injuries accumulated with this release? Probably. Allowing four years to pass between records while contemporaries like Nine Inch Nails penetrated the mainstream didn’t help matters. ‘Filth Pig’ may have signaled a step back for Ministry, but the record stands as an uncompromising work. Just don’t expect it to sound too much like Ministry.