Some of our younger readers might not be familiar with Chicago’s Wax Trax! Records. Others might remember it primarily as the home of Ministry main man Al Jourgensen’s seemingly endless parade of side projects. For the better part of a decade, though—roughly from the release of Ministry’s “Cold Life” single in 1981 until they filed for bankruptcy and were subsequently bought out by TVT in 1992—they were synonymous with industrial music, releasing records by some of the biggest names in the genre.
In fact, the Wax Trax! catalogue runs so deep that this playlist proved to be more of a challenge than I was anticipating – I wasn’t able to do much more than scratch the surface here. But if you’re of fan of someone like Youth Code and are curious about older industrial music—i.e. the stuff that was called industrial before bands like Fear Factory and Static X came along and co-opted the tag—then I expect you’ll find something to like here in our A Beginner’s Guide To…Wax Trax! Records.
1. My Life With the Thrill Kill Kult – “A Daisy Chain 4 Satan (Acid & Flowerz Mix)” – from the album Confessions of a Knife…
My Life With the Thrill Kill Kult’s 1990 full-length Confessions of a Knife… is easily my favorite album from this period, so why not start this playlist with the first track from that album? TKK’s core duo of Groovie Mann and Buzz McCoy are considered pioneers of the genre, and for the first few years of the band’s existence they created a musical pastiche that drew from house, funk, disco, goth, and several other genres besides. They also wrapped it all up in a playful, quasi-satanic package that ended up being much more fun than it probably had any right to be. “A Daisy Chain 4 Satan” leans a bit more towards the goth side, but also incorporates samples a 1967 radio documentary called A Child, Again of a young hippe named Marcie talking about her drug use. If that sounds strange, well…it actually is pretty fucking strange, but it’s hella awesome as well.
Unfortunately, TKK largely abandoned the style of their first two albums on their follow-up to Confessions, the campy, disco-leaning Sexplosion!, and never really did anything like it again. Both Confessions of a Knife… and its predecessor I See Good Spirits and I See Bad Spirits both hold up really well.
2. Ministry – “Cold Life” – from the “Cold Life” 12-inch single, later included on the Twelve Inch Singles compilation
Ministry wasn’t always the industrial metal band responsible for songs like “Stigmata,” “So What,” and “Jesus Built My Hotrod.” In fact, their first few years saw Al Jourgensen cycle through numerous collaborators and styles in what seemed like something of an extended identity crisis. Some recordings have aged better than others, with only the 1983 synthpop disaster that was their debut album With Sympathy really seeming like a total embarrassment. The early 12-inch singles that came out on Wax Trax! are still pretty enjoyable, though. “(Everyday is) Halloween” may be the best known of those singles, but debut “Cold Life” probably ranks as the best. Built around a funky bass line, stuttering drums, and new-wave sounding guitar, the track has a bit more in common with agro-EBM of the band’s second full-length Twitch than With Sympathy, but it’s mostly an interesting outlier in the band’s catalogue and an interesting snapshot of where Ministry was before Al started eating all that LSD and cranking up the electric guitars.
3. Controlled Bleeding – “The Fodder Song” – from the album Trudge
The history of NY-based Controlled Bleeding is a long and winding one, spanning nearly 40 years and 30+ releases that cover a wide variety of genres ranging from industrial to free jazz to metal, incuding a pair of Swans-influenced albums they released under the name Skin Chamber on Roadracer/Roadrunner records in the early ‘90s. Their brief stint on Wax Trax! coincided with the band’s metal-tinged industrial dance phase, yielding 1989’s Songs from the Grinding Wall EP and the 1990 full-length Trudge. “The Fodder Song,” one of the singles from Trudge, leans heavily on synths and MIDI programming, but some of the more aggressive tempos and harsh vocals certainly have of a metal feel to them.
4. Front 242 – “Headhunter V1.0” – from the album Front By Front
Belgians Front 242 were one of the pioneers of a electronic body music, a term they borrowed from Kraftwerk to describe their sophomore full-length No Comment. After gaining success at home, they signed with Wax Trax!, who reissued No Comment in the US and also released a compilation of the bands early tracks called Back Catalogue and their next two full-lengths. The second of those, Front By Front, is considered one of the landmark albums in the genre and as the biggest selling album in Wax Trax! history, propelled by the success of the single “Headhunter V1.0.” Inspired by frontman/lyricist Jean-Luc De Meyer’s experience working in an insurance company’s HR department, the track is propelled by a danceable, tribal sounding beat and punkish vocals. After the success of the record, Front 242 would sign with Epic Records and eventually end up on the main stage of the 1993 Lollapalooza tour alongside Primus, Alice in Chains, Dinosaur Jr, Tool, and Rage Against the Machine. That tour basically represented the band’s peak, and they’ve only released one full-length since then, 2003’s Pulse.
5. Revolting Cocks – “Attack Ships on Fire” – from the album Big Sexy Land
The first of several Al Jourgensen side projects on this list, Revolting Cocks was originally Jourgensen, Front 242’s Richard 23, and Luc Van Acker, but that lineup only lasted for one album – their 1985 debut Big Sexy Land. Allegedly named after a West German strip club, the album has much more an of EBM feel to it than the group’s later, better known albums like Beers, Steers, and Queers, where Richard 23 had been replaced by what was essentially the same lineup that recorded Ministry’s The Mind is a Terrible Thing to Taste. “Attack Ships on Fire,” which takes its title from a line in the film Blade Runner, still has plenty of the weirdness that later RevCo was known for, even though Jourgensen’s contributions were limited to programming and production and it doesn’t feature any electric guitars.
6. Front Line Assembly – “No Limit” – from the album Gnashed Senses & Crossfire
Austro-Canadian musician Bill Leeb formed Front Line Assembly shortly after leaving now-legendary industrial pioneers Skinny Puppy in 1986. Their early albums had more of an early electronica and EBM feel to them, but by the time they released their third and final full-length for Wax Trax!, 1989’s Gnashed Senses & Crossfire, they’d evolved into something that wasn’t quite either. The dialogue sample-heavy “No Limit,” which was the second single from the album, relies primarily on clattering electronic percussion and deep vocals and sounds a bit more like the industrial dance of Nine Inch Nails’s debut Pretty Hate Machine than the EDM of label mates Front 242.
After leaving Wax Trax! and losing main collaborator Michael Balch to Ministry/RevCo, Leeb added Rhys Fulber to the band for what was arguably their most creatively and commercially successful period, peaking with 1992’s Tactical Neural Implant. They also composed the soundtrack to the 1999 video game Quake III Arena.
7. KMFDM – “Godlike (Chicago Trax Version)” – from the album Naïve
Long-running German industrial outfit KMFDM (whose name, alas, is stands for Kein Mehrheit Für Die Mitleid, which is German for “no pit for the majority,” and not Kill Mother Fucking Depeche Mode), may have had the longest run with Wax Trax!, hooking up with the label in 1988 for the US release of their third album Don’t Blow Your Top and stayed with the label through their eleventh full-length Adios in 1998, after which the group briefly disbanded.
“Godlike” was originally released as a 7-inch single prior to their 1990 album Naïve. Built around an instantly-recognizable sample from Slayer’s “Angel of Death,” the track is one of the high points of their fairly inconsistent early catalogue, retaining some of the thrashiness of the original while adding an industrial edge via heavy percussion. It’s also a damn sight better than some of Slayer’s own experiments with nu-metal/industrial on the eminently forgettable Diabolus in Musica.
8. 1000 Homo DJs – “Supernaut (Trent Vocals)” – originally intended for the Supernaut” 12-inch single, eventually released on the Black Box – Wax Trax! Records: The First 13 Years box set
The unfortunately named 1000 Homo DJs—who allegedly got their moniker after Wax Trax! co-owner Jim Nash heard some early demos and said “No one’s gonna buy this. It’ll take one thousand homo DJs to play this for one person to buy it”—were yet another short-lived Jourgensen side project, releasing only a pair of 12-inch singles, the four tracks from which were later compiled on the “Supernaut” CD single. With a lineup that included Jello Biafra, late Rigor Mortis guitarist Mike Scaccia, frequent collaborator William Reiflin, and former Local H drummer Brian St. Clair, their cover of Black Sabbath’s “Supernaut” is actually more notable for who isn’t on it – namely, Trent Reznor, who originally recorded the lead vocal, but whose label TVT refused to allow it to be released. Jourgensen eventually rerecorded the vocal himself and the track went on to appear on the 1994 tribute album Nativity in Black: Tribute to Black Sabbath. The version with Reznor’s vocals was eventually released on the Black Box retrospective shortly after TVT bought Wax Trax!
9. Pailhead – “Don’t Stand in Line” – from the “Don’t Stand in Line” 7-inch single, later included on the Trait EP
My favorite of Jourgensen’s side projects is sadly also the least well known. Pailhead sees Jourgensen and frequent collaborators Reiflin and Paul Barker team up with former Minor Threat front man Ian MacKaye. The group ended up recording six tracks that were released across three seven-inch singles in 1987-8, before Ministry moved into heavier territory on The Land of Rape and Honey and MacKaye formed Fugazi. The songs sound pretty much exactly like what one would expect – industrial punk, with MacKaye’s unmistakable bellow over the top. It’s a shame they never did anything else, and even more of a shame that no one but me seems to remember them.