Review: Ministry – Amerikkkant
Damning with faint praise is not a critical move I enjoy, but here we go: Amerikkkant is Ministry’s best album in over a decade.
Now, the ups and downs and breakups and resurrections of Al Jourgensen’s seminal Chicago-based industrial metal act can get a bit confusing, so let’s start with a brief rundown of what’s happened with the band in the current century. In 2003, Al and his longtime primary collaborator Paul Barker released Animositisomina, something of a comeback to the industrial metal style after the band had explored a less aggressive, more rock-oriented path in the latter part of the 90s. This album marked the dissolution of the duo that that had been the core of Ministry’s lineup since 1986, including the run of albums that are most universally considered classics by fans: The Land of Rape and Honey, The Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste, and Psalm 69. Nonetheless, Jourgensen soon bounced back by reuniting with guitarist Mike Scaccia, who had previously played with the band from 1989-95. This creative reshuffling and Jourgensen’s deep wells of venomous hatred for George W. Bush fueled a creative renaissance, as the next three albums embraced politically driven, Slayer-inspired thrash.
After the trilogy of Houses of the Molé, Rio Grande Blood, and The Last Sucker closed out the Bush administration, Jourgensen declared he was putting the band to bed. Obviously that didn’t last, and the band released the lackluster (though still thrashy) Relapse in 2012. Scaccia died later that year after a heart attack, and his final Ministry recordings appeared on the meandering, dimwitted, and dull mess of From Beer to Eternity – again billed as the last Ministry album ever. The band continued to play live with a revamped lineup featuring guitarist Sin Quirin, and eventually, inevitably Jourgensen announced his latest comeback album.
As for me, like pretty much any Illinois kid getting into heavy music in the 90s, Ministry was an important part of my diet. I was first exposed to them through the “Just One Fix” video and devoured the early albums, even if I mostly steered clear of more questionable forays like Filth Pig and Dark Side of the Spoon. During the Bush II years, Ministry’s output became a vital source of catharsis, along with records like Lamb of God’s As the Palaces Burn and Ashes of the Wake, Propagandhi’s Today’s Empires, Tomorrow’s Ashes, and NOFX’s The Decline. So, I always hope for Ministry to capture that old spark, even as the passing years make that less likely.
That brings us to Amerikkkant. As the cringe-worthy title and the cover with a face-palming Statue of Liberty imply, Uncle Al is back to focusing his rage on the current occupant of the White House. Questionable aesthetics aside, that’s good news. While Jourgensen may otherwise be an unconventional fellow with his heavily pierced visage, hard-partying past, provocative sense of humor, and tendency to buy into conspiracy theories, his political views are pretty straightforwardly liberal in the vein of many of his baby boomer contemporaries (you know, just like the good-hearted, but not necessarily well-informed, older relatives you see posting on Facebook about the Mueller investigation every day). His aggression thus loses a lot of its bite and focus when there isn’t a right-wing figurehead in place whom he finds unambiguously repugnant. We’re otherwise left with rants against the music industry and threats of a “Punch in the Face,” as on the past couple albums.
Hence, it’s no surprise that the new record gets straight to the point with manipulated samples of Trump’s nationalistic campaign slogan and his famously self-contradictory boast to “have the best words.” Jourgensen, abetted by the scratches of DJ Swamp, sets a properly apocalyptic tone and runs the slowed down samples into the ground before guitars and drums come into play for “Twilight Zone.” The song is one of Ministry’s slower industrial metal workouts, featuring the harmonica that’s been an occasionally prominent part of the band’s sound dating back to Filth Pig and even more record scratches over a heavy, if somewhat by-the-numbers, main riff.
“Victims of a Clown” takes a more dynamic, engaging approach to similar material, progressing from a circus calliope-inspired opening through mid-tempo metal and a thrashy conclusion, all peppered by excerpts from Charlie Chaplin’s closing speech from The Great Dictator. There’s a short interlude to focus on samples illustrating America’s racial and cultural divisions (already a little redundant at this point) before we dive into full-on thrash for “We’re Tired of It,” a mostly very solid entry in the latter-day Ministry style. Unfortunately, those damn record scratches that have been a frequent presence throughout the tracks so far fully cross the line into overuse here, detracting from one of Jourgensen’s liveliest vocal performances in years.
“Wargasm” slows the proceedings back down for an extremely on-the-nose meditation on America’s fraught relationship with violence, featuring vocals from Fear Factory’s Burton C. Bell and a particularly well-placed sample of that time news anchor Brian Williams quoted Leonard Cohen. “Antifa” is built on a catchy musical hook, but its effectiveness is severely diminished by Jourgensen’s apparent belief that his audience will benefit from a whole Wikipedia article on the movement. Moreover, Ministry’s misanthropic style just never meshes well with attempts at a more sincere, anthemic mode – just listen to “99 Percenters” off Relapse or the Chicago Blackhawks theme “Keys of the City” for further proof. Finally, lyrics with lines like “Antifa’s the shit!” and “We’re not snowflakes/We are Antifa!” just do no one any favors.
Things get back on track with “Game Over.” On this song and the closing “Amerikkka,” Ministry are very much in their comfort zone. Jourgensen lays down a powerful industrial groove and includes the requisite noises while also allowing the guitars and drums more room to breathe, with Quirin laying down a couple melodic leads. As long as you don’t think too much about how it was all done better decades ago, you can definitely get into these driving rhythms, over-driven guitars, and mildly unhinged political rants that occasionally give way to frenzied screams. Sampling from Network is pretty cliche, and Jourgensen’s political analysis never gets any more nuanced, but this material definitely scratches a particular itch for me.
Ultimately, that very measured degree of nostalgia-colored appreciation sums up the experience of this album. If you, like me, have a long relationship with Ministry, the record is at least worth a listen. There are many moments that will remind you of why you loved Jourgensen’s everything-but-the-kitchen-sink song construction and caustic worldview in the first place. For those who are so inclined, it’s a significant step up from the last two albums that will get you banging your head, even if it’s all ultimately a little too silly and self-important to be satisfying. The parts that are good don’t really bring anything new to the table, and the parts that are new are not especially good. Anyone who lacks an abiding affection for Uncle Al is probably better off exploring the band’s classic period or Bush-era rebirth. To sum up: This is not going down the great protest music of the Trump presidency, but if you need something to listen to while you scan the headlines about the latest White House scandal, you could do worse.
2.5/5 Flaming Toilets ov Hell