Whether you are a die-hard Nine Inch Nails fan or have never heard the term before, industrial music has been a driving force in independent, and mainstream music for generations. But what defines industrial music and what are its most famous bands? We will discuss all that, including the lingo, so you can find a new love and appreciation for this mostly underground genre.
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Definition: What is Industrial Music?
Like most musical genres, it can be difficult to specifically nail down what makes a song or band industrial. While the genre has taken on many different sounds and looks throughout its history, there are a few characteristics that have remained somewhat constant over time.
In general, industrial musicians combine elements of electronic and rock music. Bands in this genre typically use synthesizers and samplers along with traditional rock instruments like drums and guitars.
While the definition of industrial music may lead you to think the music sounds closer to 80s rock bands like Rush or Duran Duran, industrial music has a noticeably darker tone and sound to it.
Industrial music often involves technology taking the center stage rather than the rock elements of the music. This gives the songs a very machine-like quality to them and leads to the trademark sound we have come to call industrial.
Industrial music is a response to the commercialization of music that was seen by artists by the 1970s. In response to seeing music move in a direction with more mainstream appeal and pop hooks, industrial sought to be countercultural to the pop music scene.
Though the genre is not as popular as it once was, it has continued to influence numerous genres and bands. Industrial has bled into the ambient scene, glitch rock, noise rock, and metal.
Industrial Music Characteristics
While it is not always the case, industrial music is usually harsh and abrasive and leaves the listener with a sense of coldness and detachment. This is not a style of music that will leave you feeling warm and fuzzy, as industrial music often feels very hostile and angsty.
As mentioned before, industrial incorporates sounds and imagery that give it a mechanical feel.
The genre often experiments with sounds and noises that are unlike anything seen in traditional rock or pop music. Bands use heavy feedback in their rock instruments along with experimental sounds from their synthesizers. Industrial artists experiment with everything from looped samples to white noise to craft the aesthetic.
Lyrically, industrial music also goes to darker places than many of its contemporary genres.
Bands have written about sensitive subjects in their music, including fascism, suicide, drug addiction, the occult, and sex. These lyrics will not typically pick you up after a hard day, as they often seek to depress the listener or connect with listeners who are having mental health struggles.
7 Examples of Industrial Music
Now that we have defined what industrial is and what you might expect when you see the label, we will take a look at some of the most famous songs and bands in the genre.
Assimilate by Skinny Puppy
While Skinny Puppy was not the band that birthed industrial or gave it its name, they were one of the first bands to run with the label and define what the genre would be in the 1980s. Assimilate, the opener to the band’s second album Bites in 1985, is an excellent barometer for both the band’s output and the sound of industrial music in this period.
This song takes inspiration from other precursors to industrial music, such as the German band Kraftwerk. It features heavy use of synthesizers to create a dark mood, and the heavy drums create a sense of dread.
The lyrics from Nivek Ogre are harsh and almost robotic in their presentation. The band also samples a line from the movie Marathon Man, demonstrating the genre’s far-reaching influences.
Hurt by Nine Inch Nails
With Nine Inch Nails remaining the most famous and listened to practitioner of the genre, it was only natural we include them as an example. While the Johnny Cash cover of Hurt remains more popular, the Nine Inch Nails version is still a landmark song in the genre.
If Skinny Puppy focused more on a maximalist use of synthesizers to create an atmosphere of dread, Nine Inch Nails accomplishes similar feelings with the sparseness of the song.
Wild and dark synthesizers and drums are replaced with a quiet drone and ominous guitars. This does not mean that Hurt is a simple song, as a lot is going on under the hood to create its angsty and depressing mood.
Lyrically, the song deals with the heavy topics often found in industrial songs. Trent Reznor’s descriptions of mental health issues, along with the pained vocal delivery, allow the listener to feel some of the pain through the music.
The Anal Staircase by Coil
With a song title like that, you know you are in for something strange with this song by Coil. From their second album Horse Rotorvator, this song showcases the heavily experimental nature of the genre. The Anal Staircase sounds unlike anything else ever recorded, and you are immediately hit with the sound of synthesizers.
Though this song is quite distorted, creepy, and unapproachable, it also showcases the way that industrial occasionally felt very danceable. While this would not be a song you would typically hear at a dance club, imaginative listeners could see themselves dancing to it all the same.
The Anal Staircase in many ways demonstrates the superb level of potential in industrial music. The genre can take on various forms and even single songs can embody so many elements, some of them contradictory. While Coil was never the most popular band in its genre, it did produce industrial music that is still discussed today.
Headhunter by Front 242
Front 242 is another band that embodied the industrial music image of the 1980s. Headhunter is at once both a complicated song that produces anxiety with its sound, while also being a track that anyone could dance to. This dance beat mixed with a terror-inducing sound demonstrates what made industrial so unique and counterculture at the time.
This would not have sounded out of place at a nightclub in the 1980s and was one of many underground hits for Front 242 over the years.
The Beautiful People by Marilyn Manson
Long the scourge of parents across America. Marilyn Manson was another artist to reach mainstream success while sporting the industrial label. The Beautiful People feels deeply rooted in the 1990s industrial metal scene, with a heavy sound from its guitars and drums and lyrics some people have called obscene.
But despite being steeped in the style of the 1990s, you can still hear the influence of ‘80s industrial bubbling up inside the track. The beat feels like something you can dance to, imitating bands like Front 242 or Coil. And the song uses plenty of synthesizers to create its macabre mood.
Both this song and the band also embraced the counterculture built into the genre. Marilyn Manson became infamous for their onstage antics that frequently flaunted social norms. Perhaps no industrial artist has been as controversial as Marilyn Manson throughout the band’s career.
So What by Ministry
Ministry represents a shift in the sound of industrial music. Before Ministry, industrial music typically emphasized the electronic component of the songs, with many tunes feeling like dance tracks where something was amiss. After Ministry, the genre took on a more metal and rock approach while still using samples and synthesizers to create a mood.
So What feels like a compromise between these two visions, combining the dance beat and sound of earlier songs while also adding in an element of metal music. The band would go on to focus more on the heavy metal aspects of the genre, but this song from 1989 marks the point where old meets new in the genre.
Discipline by Throbbing Gristle
And speaking of the old style of the genre, we have Discipline by Throbbing Gristle, one of the first bands we applied to the industrial label. Discipline is an almost unapproachable song, with its harsh and somewhat incomprehensible lyrics mixed with the anger found in the instrumentals.
The song is also quite formless in many ways, and the band has used it in their live performances as a track they can fit in anywhere. Because of the nature of the track, they can extend it or compress it depending on the mood. The song is a very versatile number and one of the best examples of early industrial music.
5 Top Industrial Musicians
Industrial as a genre and label covers a lot of ground, but we will look at the five bands that best embody the ideas behind the music.
1. Nine Inch Nails
While some purists may scoff at Nine Inch Nails being considered the greatest industrial band of all time, there is no denying they have reached the highest levels of mainstream success and remain the first band most people think of when discussing the genre. Nine Inch Nails broke into the mainstream like no other industrial band ever could.
Aside from becoming a mainstream band and introducing the industrial music genre to new fans globally, Nine Inch Nails also turned its frontman, Trent Reznor, into a household name. Reznor has gone on to score numerous films and is one of Hollywood’s hottest music commodities.
Before Reznor’s film career though, NIN was the standard bearer in industrial metal. The band’s 1994 album The Downward Spiral remains one of the most important albums of the decade and remains a favorite of fans.
2. Skinny Puppy
For those who love the older sound of industrial, Skinny Puppy remains their favorite band in the genre. And for good reason, the band created numerous albums that still stand as some of the best in the genre. The band featured cEvin Key and Nivek Ogre, and many musicians came and went over the years.
Skinny Puppy experimented heavily with electronic instruments, creating dark and dread-inspiring music. All the while, the music still retains the dancy beats that EDM of the time was known for. Few bands embodied the 1980s scene of industrial quite like Skinny Puppy.
3. Front 242
Another band who truly captured the look of 1980s industrial, Front 242 showcased the European roots of the genre. The band created electronic music that was off-putting and scary while being perfect to dance along to. The band even looked the part industrial, with their shaved heads, black-and-white videos, and gigantic sunglasses.
Ministry was another band that managed to break into the mainstream despite the industrial label. They represented a midpoint in the evolution of the genre between the 1980s and 1990s, beginning when electronic sounds were at their peak, and hitting the mainstream in the 1990s with their more metal-influenced sound.
While they never reached the commercial heights of Nine Inch Nails, the band remains a fan favorite today.
A German band, though its members hail from across the globe, KMFDM was one of the first industrial bands to see mainstream success. The band began with a more electronic focus before adding more metal influences to its repertoire. No matter what flavor of industrial you enjoy, KMFDM has you covered; they remain a fan favorite.
The History of Industrial Music
Industrial music emerged from the music scene of the 1970s. Critics originally defined the term as bands signed to the British label Industrial Records. More musicians began to make similar music to those signed by Industrial Records, and critics broadened the term. Some of the earliest industrial acts were bands like Voltaire, Throbbing Gristle, and SPK. Many of these bands took inspiration from techno artists like Kraftwerk.
In the 1980s, several bands bearing the label industrial cropped up, defined by their innovative use of synthesizers and atmospheres of dread. While few of these bands found much mainstream success, they remained the toast of the town in the underground music scene. Bands such as Front 242 and Skinny Puppy defined the genre in this decade.
As the 1980s waned, a new subgenre of industrial was cropping up known as industrial metal. The band Ministry spearheaded the movement and was perhaps the first industrial band to find any mainstream success. Replacing the heavy synthesizers with more rock instrumentation led to a sound that would help define the 1990s musically.
In the 1990s, industrial music found its most commercial success, with bands like Ministry, Nine Inch Nails, and Marilyn Manson becoming artists who saw heavy radio airplay. This style of music that was closer to metal than electronic is now what most music fans think of when they hear the term industrial thrown around.
While industrial music has changed over the years, its place as a counterculture has never waned. Musicians often embody sounds that go against the mainstream, and the songs typically deal with topics often considered taboo in mainstream works.
What is Industrial Music? Final Thoughts
Industrial music is a vague term, which makes it perfect as a moniker for the genre. The style has gone through major shifts in its aesthetic over the years, but it has kept its fans along the way. Though it will never be the most popular genre or the one with the most mainstream success, industrial remains a cherished style for its fans globally.