Back in the alt-rock ‘90s, there was a bit of a cold war. It seemed that the grunge faction (with all of their guitars, big amps and distortion pedals) looked down on the industrial-rock scene. Who had the same gear they did and a lot of synthesizers and samplers. But really, if you were just into the noise, you didn’t care what was making it. Whether it was Kurt Cobain falling into Dave Grohl’s drum kit while feeding back or Nine Inch Nails approximating a flash-grenade raid in a war zone. Not surprisingly, there were a lot of industrial-rock classics being made in the ’90s.
This list of industrial-rock classics that defined the ‘90s falls on the popular side. These were the bands who turned dance floors into mosh pits. By nature, industrial rock is a cage match between man and machine. Pummeling beats, juddering noise and a decidedly pessimistic worldview made for some of the most caustic and enduring music of a generation. You have to remember not everyone was listening to Pearl Jam back then…
Nine Inch Nails — “Closer”
Everything surrounding Nine Inch Nails’ majestic 1994 release, The Downward Spiral, was seemingly stamped “zero commercial potential.” And then it sold 4 million records in America alone and became an industrial-rock classic. Here Trent Reznor knocked down the wall of guitars and created a stack of vintage-synth grooves that ended up in high rotation at gentlemen’s clubs and commercial radio. And Reznor’s vision for the track didn’t stop at the songwriting. “Closer” may very well be the most beautiful and disturbing video ever made. This is what perfection sounds and looks like.
Ministry — “Just One Fix”
Let’s face it: Everybody on this list owes something to Ministry’s Al Jourgensen. The multi-instrumentalist/producer practically invented the genre, destroying guitars, studio monitors and minds in the process. 1992’s Psalm 69 is loaded with tracks that will turn any hipster dance club into an abattoir. On this high-powered riff-fest with a lesson (“Never trust a junkie”), Ministry were joined by the late writer William S. Burroughs, who brought an unnerving croak and his shotgun to the proceedings. The result ended in the band’s only platinum record. Anybody hear post-everything supergroup Head Wound City’s version?
Skinny Puppy — “Spasmolytic”
The unit helmed by charismatic frontman Nivek Ogre and synthetic genius cEVIN Key weren’t big on high BPMs. Most of the time, Skinny Puppy were always seeking a slow-motion apocalypse. But this frantic track from 1990’s Too Dark Park felt more like amphetamine jitters than the kind of doom that was their stock in trade. Like Ministry, Skinny Puppy have been massively influential to musicians in and out of their realm. What’s also admirable is their desire to keep up within the continuum of the electronics-based rock realm. (They had coed industrial duo Youth Code open their last American tour.) While major sales accolades have eluded them, the measure of Skinny Puppy’s influence will be eternal. Guaranteed.
Front Line Assembly —“Mindphaser”
Front Line Assembly’s sixth album, 1992’s Tactical Neural Implant, has received praise from the oddest quarters. This writer once heard it blasting out of Godflesh’s touring rental van. Much weirder, though, is the time a label rep reached out to programmer Rhys Fulber to create tracks for Britney Spears. (He passed on it and decided to do mixes for Mötley Crüe instead.) It’s truly an industrial-rock classic. In the early ’90s, you couldn’t walk into an alt-rock/goth club without hearing the urgency of “Mindphaser” booming at you. FLA are still bringing the fear with frontman Bill Leeb and Fulber at the controls.
Revolting Cocks — “(Let’s Get) Physical”
The legendary Ministry-adjacent supergroup banged out a murderous version of Olivia Newton-John’s 1981 hit. Well, the publishers of the song weren’t pleased. A version with different lyrics made it onto the band’s 1990 platter, Beers, Steers And Queers. But there were some white-label 12-inch pressings that got out into the world. Decades later, the original RevCo version made it onto a comprehensive 2018 box set collecting all of Ministry’s side projects and demos. It’s also much better than their take on Rod Stewart’s “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?” from Linger Ficken’ Good.
My Life With The Thrill Kill Kult — “Sex On Wheelz (Cool World Mix)”
Led by the brain trust of frontman Groovie Mann (Frank Nardiello) and synth-op Buzz McCoy (Marston Daley), My Life With The Thrill Kill Kult never met a taboo they didn’t want to smash. Sex, drugs and industrial rock ’n’ roll was their stock in trade. This sleazy track (from their 1994 release Sexplosion!) ended up on the soundtrack to the adult animated film Cool World. We’re pretty sure we’ve heard the screeching car sound effects from classic cartoons. And they may have asked the animators to render them in the movie just to see what it would be like to…oh forget it…
KMFDM — “Juke Joint Jezebel”
In 1990, Hamburg, Germany’s KMFDM got on the greater i-rock radar with the single “Godlike,” which sampled Slayer’s “Angel Of Death.” But “Juke Joint Jezebel” is a sonic pinnacle for the outfit founded by multi-instrumentalist Sascha Konietzko. It’s the First Church Of Rivethead Culture: The alternating vocals of Jennifer Ginsberg and Raymond “Pig” Watts are front and center with gospel choir vibes in the refrain. Add some sinister percolating synths,and it’s an amazing juxtaposition for the ages. The album it’s from, Nihil, belongs in the pantheon of industrial-rock classics.
Machines Of Loving Grace — “Butterfly Wings”
While we were waiting for Reznor to get that second full-length out, a couple of bands came in to fill in the void. Admittedly, most of them were uninspired. Not Machines Of Loving Grace. Tucson, Arizona’s entry in the industrial-rock sweepstakes had some great songs and an aesthetic that was accessible. That was considered anathema in a genre that constantly had to be full-tilt to the extreme. But “Butterfly Wings,” from their 1993 release Concentration is, for all intents and purposes, menace you can hum to.
White Zombie — “More Human Than Human”
Industrial-rock purists may bristle at the inclusion of this 1995 White Zombie mega-hit. But this one still grooves harder than the entire nü-metal scene that soon followed. Rob Zombie growls the motto of the replicant factory from the movie Blade Runner as the synths and slide guitar drive the track. The legend goes that once Zombie and producer Terry Date finished the final version of the track, some other band members weren’t impressed. One member allegedly commented that it was a great song until they “put that wimpy Depeche Mode crap on top of it.” The album this track is on, Astro-Creep: 2000, would be the band’s last.
Front 242 — “Rhythm Of Time”
This acclaimed Belgian unit were another cornerstone act on the legendary Wax Trax! label. While bands with guitars brought the “rock” suffix to industrial, Front 242 doubled down on the synths and vocal samples instead. “Rhythm Of Time” comes from their 1991 major-label debut, Tyranny (For You), and it still brings the fear without any strings attached. But even after getting this track placed in the psychotic-roommate movie Single White Female and a stint on Lollapalooza, Front never got the major consciousness that their colleagues did. Fortunately, they have a number of industrial-rock classics in their body of work.