When I was a kid, I had an over zealous aunt who enjoyed telling her nieces and nephews which secular artists were “worshiping the devil”. Of course this wasn’t in our best interest, but a tiny way of controlling the smallest aspect of our lives. Most of the time I ignored her musings and played along to avoid such nonsensical lectures. In her eyes, any artist who didn’t look like El Debarge or Paula Abdul, were obviously demonic entities bent on eating our souls. I can’t even put into words the hilarity that came from one fateful day in the early 90s when she saw Ministry’s “Jesus Built My Hotrod” video on MTV. I for one, thought it was the coolest song I’d ever heard and despite her hour long lecture, I rushed out and bought the album the very next day. So began my love affair with everything Al Jourgensen (or Uncle Al for us Ministry fans).
My nostalgic soft-spot for Ministry doesn’t mean I’m incapable of recognizing questionable releases in their catalog, especially in the the later part of their career, when they traded their abrasive industrial sound for thrash-esque speed metal. To me, they lost a vital part of what made them special and as much as it pains me to say it, I wasn’t exactly crushed when Jourgensen decided to call it a day with the release of their 2013 album From Beer To Eternity. If his heart wasn’t into it, why bother?
Surgical Meth Machine is sort of a clean slate for Jourgensen.
Being the man behind the curtain of Ministry for 35 years, a certain expectation develops. If a record sticks close to what worked for the band in the past, then it’s labeled safe and predictable, but if it strays too far from the formula, it could be deemed a failure on the grounds it doesn’t deliver. Throughout the years, Jourgensen might have talked a big game of devil-may-care attitude when it came to switching styles from synth pop to industrial to speed metal, but in reality, each change was gradual because he legitimately cared. With a new band, those expectations are gone and he can effectively maneuver within any and all forms of experimentation without the fears of unfair judgment.
For the first few tracks of this self-titled debut, there isn’t much in way of experimentation. In fact, it feels like Jourgensen took a much needed step backwards to a time when Ministry was gaining mainstream success in the early 90s. It’s aggressive, and brutally intense just like classic era Minsitry should be. The opening track “I’m Sensitive” is anthem to society’s infatuation with being offended over every single word typed on social media. The commentary is not only painfully spot on, but it sort of acts as a spiritual successor to”TV II” one of stand out tracks on their Grammy nominated Psalm 69 album. Later, tracks like “Smash and Grab” seem to pay homage to the synthetic industrial vibe found on the Twitch and The Mind Is A Terrible Thing To Taste releases.
The second half of the album takes quite a few dramatic turns though. Some actually work, like the tongue-in-cheek Megadeth, Lamb Of God, Nickelback, Ministry diss track “Unlistenable” which sounds more like Jourgensen making fun of how the media sees him as this opinionated grouch. Then there’s the combo of “Gates Of Steel” (an unexpected Devo cover) and “Spudnik” which sounds more like Jourgensen’s take on Andrew WK style dance rock. Not all of them hit the nail on the head though, “Just Keep Going” is a mixed bag of pre-made samples looped into a superficial waste of time, and I’m not entirely sure how I’m supposed to feel about the closing track “I’m Invisible”. It’s a weird hip-hop beat driven chant that’s both repetitive and insipid. Not a really the song I would’ve liked to close the album much less a single paired with such a strange music video.
The biggest complaint I have with the album is the lack of consistency. The first half is loaded with fantastic industrial anthems, but the other half sort of feels like half baked ideas that just couldn’t get out of the demo stage during rehearsals. Even as a complaint, it’s also what makes the album interesting. As hard as I try, I can’t help from playing the expectation game, especially through the first few tracks. It’s so satisfying to hear something of a follow up to my favorite era of the band that it took the 2nd half to remind me that I’m not listening to a Ministry record. It would be difficult to recommend this record to anyone who hasn’t listened to Ministry in the past, but at the same time, the 2nd half would need plenty of explaining for a die hard fan to enjoy, at least a disclaimer of some sort. What I like about it is the same thing I don’t like about it.
Arguably, Jourgensen is at his creative best when he is bashing a president or political party, but here, the only thing he bashes is celebrity worship and how the media perceives him.
In some ways, it’s good to see him poke fun at himself and maybe some of the die-hard fans of his respective genre, but if he was going to take a look at his own life for inspiration, I wish there would’ve been some serious takes. Surgical Meth Machine is an experiment. He set out to make an album with no expectations to hold him back. While the experimental pop tracks are fun to listen to a few times, the most interesting tracks are the ones that sound like his previous band and that sort of contradicts the entire point.
That doesn’t make sense, but I’m not exactly sure if it’s supposed to.
Aaron (or Coop) is a freelance writer, multi-instrumentalist and overall lover of all things music. As an advocate for indie record labels and artists, he is passionate about local scenes and do-it-yourself artistry. If it’s good, it’s good. If it’s bad, he’s not afraid to explain why.