Ministry Concert Review: Spreading Anti-Trump Rhetoric with Inflatable Chickens
So far this month: The President of the United States retaliated against the use of chemical weapons in Syria (without consulting Congress) ; he signed a tax bill that provides major cuts to the richest Americans; a mass shooting was perpetrated by a gunman with a semi-automatic assault rifle, this one at a Waffle House outside Nashville; Facebook fell under continued attack for allegedly aiding Russia in their efforts to undermine the infrastructure of America; Trump’s personal attorney faced criminal investigation; and a book by the former director of the FBI was released that makes our democracy look like a circus. In a political climate filled with violence, greed, deceit, sensationalism and poisoned patriotism, who offers a stronger voice for the American people -- Fox News powerhouse Sean Hannity, CNN’s voice of reason Anderson Cooper or cantankerous Ministry frontman Al Jourgensen?
Even if Jourgensen were to lose such a poll, there’s no question that – of the three - he’s the most creative, subversive, musically inspiring and sarcastic force against the tyranny of the Washington and the apathy of most Americans. Onstage, during Ministry’s concert, Saturday night (April 21) at the Wellmont Theater in upscale, liberal Montclair, New Jersey (home of Stephen Colbert), Jourgensen and his bandmates rail against corrupt capitalists, zealous warmongers, racists, and those who strive to keep immigrants out of the country. And he does so without preaching from the pulpit. The political messages come out loud and clear through the lyrics of Ministry’s latest album, Amerikkkant – the best record since his anti-George W. Bush trilogy, which wrapped in 2007 with The Last Sucker – and the poignant video that accompanies the show.
The stage is flanked by two inflatable chickens emblazoned with anti-Nazi symbols on their bellies and Donald Trump hair. Closer examination reveals that the comb (the flappy red part) of the bird looks like a swollen pair of testicles – typical of Jourgensen’s sometimes puerile sense of humor. There are also television props piled up by the band’s amps.
Ministry begin the show with a heavy dose of new material. As Jourgensen takes the stage dressed in black, wearing armbands, gloves, dangling necklaces and a headband, over which ropes of hair dangles as if emerging from a potted plant (with the emphasis on pot), the band launches into the opening cut of AmeriKKKant, “I Know Words.” The atmospheric number is driven by slowed down samples of Trump saying he will “Make America great again” over and over and there's an accompanying video with footage. Augmenting the sound is Beck turntablist DJ Swamp, who provides entrancing color to the more meandering jams. His decks are set up at the back of the right side of the stage, and he’s wearing a suit of green lights and sports shades that illuminate in various colors.
“Twilight Zone,” builds on the opening psychedelic jam with a steady beat and slow, chunky riffs. The song encapsulates Jourgensen’s ire: “Disgusted and depressed, we know the world is just a mess/ Distortion of reality, the truth is under arrest,” he screams with trademark distorted vocals, but no guitar. During the show, he switches between his teardrop-shaped ax and his custom Flying V-style guitar with an extra prong that makes it look like a pitchfork. He plays a lick here and there and helps enhance the crunchy parts. But mostly, Al just looks like a bad-ass when he’s carrying a guitar, even one that’s rounded, white and very un-metal. But it’s guitarist Sin Quirin, who takes the stage wearing an American flag bandana, and second guitarist Cesar Soto, who enters wearing a black hat and sparse kabuki makeup, that provide most of the metallic punch. Meanwhile, ex-Static X bassist Tony Campos, who wears a daunting black hood for most of the show, and drummer Derek Abrams, provide a sturdy bottom end and rhythmic groove.
After briefly addressing the crowd, Jourgensen introduces Fear Factory vocalist Burton C. Bell, who shares lead vocals on “Victims of a Clown,” another mid-paced song, but one that ups the antipathy with a rallying cry to the crowd that’s flashed across the giant screen, “Wake up, take it in, exhale, repeat!/ Fire up, freak out, let it go!” So far, the oppressive, mid-tempo vibe of the show echoes some of the brooding dirges of 1996’s Filth Pig, likely motivated by weed instead of heroin (which Jourgensen kicked 14 years ago). Most of the venom and levity are injected through spoken word samples. The song ends with a thrash ending that foreshadows what’s to come.
As he screams into a megaphone, mouths along with the soundbites and mocks traditional rock frontman poses, Jourgensen seems to be enjoying himself. Unlike some past tours, during which he was an intimidating, but antagonistic presence onstage (plagued by depression, bleeding ulcers and alcoholism), Uncle Al has no intention of waging war with the crowd. The show is far more unifying than divisive and the screenshots include an audience cam that encourages inclusivity. Let’s all be joyously contemptuous together, is the implied message.
After presenting the first three songs from AmeriKKKant in order, Ministry address old haunts, including the rapid-fire “Senor Peligro” which is accompanied by news footage of immigrants, the Grammy-nominated “Lies Lies Lies” and the title track from 2006’s Rio Grande Blood. Ministry also play the storming “Punch in the Face” from 2013’s From Beer to Eternity, which is not so subtly complemented by animated and photoshopped images of Trump being beaten senseless. As cool as such blasts form the past are, Al’s not done with AmeriKKKant.
With “Wargasm,” Bell returns to the stage decorated in Heath Ledger’s Joker makeup, which is displayed to the crowd close up via a video camera attached to Bell’s mic. Jourgensen’s main mic, meanwhile, features a rhinestone goat’s head and imposing metal wings, which, sadly, never unfurl. With Bell on lead vocals, it’s not surprising the chorus of “Wargasm” sounds like Fear Factory, but the most impacting moments come when the singer speaks in the psychotic voice of a soldier with a lust for combat: “Nothing gets me off more than the smell of a good gas fire death/ It smells like judgement’s calling.”
The first single from AmeriKKKant, “Antifa” presents an anti-fascist message and is matched by a jackhammer beat and a searing solo from Quirin. As red and black flags are waved in support of the Antifa, Jourgensen delivers a forceful message that makes some of the NRA-supporting, Hannity watching members in the crowd squirm. “Brown shirt little snowflakes never want to admit/ Terrified of the red and black flag, Antifa’s the shit.”
After shaking up the crowd with what might be the most controversial song from AmeriKKKant, Uncle Al says, “I guess we’ll switch it up a little bit. Instead of doing current political shit, we’ll do old political shit that’s just as current.”
The message strikes a chord, but not as much as the songs old-school Ministry fans have been waiting all night for. “Just One Fix” – while not particularly political – remains one of Jourgensen’s most personal songs and contains one of Ministry’s best riffs. From there, the band launches into the anti-George H.W. Bush song “NWO,” which, like “Just One Fix,” is from Ministry’s most popular album, 1992’s Psalm 69: The Way to Succeed and the Way to Suck Eggs, and illustrates how little the military industrial complex has changed in more than 25 years “We’re not about to make the same mistake twice,” Bush says in one of the more ironic song samples.
DJ Swamp provides extra flair to the thrashy, moshpit-stirring “Thieves,” and then Ministry launch into the set closer, a classic from 1989’s The Mind is a Terrible Thing to Taste, “So What.” The brooding, bass-heavy serial killer cut switches between spacious psycho rock and ripping industrial thash: “Sedatives supplied become laxatives/ My eyes shit out lies/ I only kill to know I'm alive.” Jourgensen augments the lolling bass lines several times by blurting out a demented noise that sounds like a cross between a Native American war cry and a clucking chicken. Speaking of chickens, the singer struts over to the inflated fowl at the left of the stage and plants several solid steel-toe booted kicks on the bird, which wobbles like a Weeble, but doesn’t collapse or deflate. The same could be said for the last 25 years of Ministry.
The band returns for the encore, but fans expecting standards such as “Stigmata” or even “Burning Inside” are left wanting. The godfather of industrial metal opts for “Bad Blood,” a song from 1999’s Dark Side of the Spoon, an album Jourgensen has claimed he has no fondness for, and one he doesn’t remember making since he was so strung out on drugs at the time. Nonetheless, the track appeared on the soundtrack to The Matrix and was nominated for a Best Metal Performance Grammy in 2000. Ministry rip through the tune, Jourgensen on his coffin-shaped custom guitar. The number shudders with the same kind of pulsing, drugged out martial riffage as other songs from that era and would have made a great beginning to a rousing encore – one Jourgensen is unwilling to provide.
Reflecting back on 90 minutes of Ministry’s powerful polemic, we’re left wondering if blasting the band’s music to the public in the streets would be a more effective way to inspire action and initiate change than watching Jake Tapper’s interview ex-FBI director James Comey about how our democracy is crumbling… Maybe not, but it would be a hell of a lot more enjoyable.
Hipster darling Chelsea Wolfe seems like an odd choice for Ministry’s opening act, but whatever her band lacks in heaviness and volume it makes up for in intensity. Don’t write off Wolfe just because the elitists at Pitchfork and Paste applaud her tribal, witchy odes to darkness. She’s a talented performer and writes unconventional songs that blend elements of doom metal and sludge with gothic rock, industrial, post-punk, and loud alt-rock.
As songs like “Vex” and “16 Psyche” from her latest album, Hiss Spun illustrate, Wolfe skillfully amalgamates genres and filters them through a yearning, pained melodic framework of female angst. While PJ Harvey and Siouxsie and the Banshees come to mind as lyrical references, the music reflects a broad palette of tumbling influences: Swans, Russian Circles, Windhand. And the way Wolfe manipulates the rhythmic ebb and flow in the songs creates the tension that makes her vocals soar.
Neither she, nor her bandmates move much during their set, but they don’t need to. Wolfe’s delivery is entrancing, whether she’s strumming a guitar or carrying the mic. And her baggy black dress, barely visible through the sparse lighting and arcane symbols on the drum head and stage backdrop give her presentation an appealing mystical vibe. Watch for more from this denizen of the dark.