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Twenty-Five Years Later: Marilyn Manson – Portrait Of An American Family

God damn your righteous hand!

Selective judgments and good-guy badges don’t mean a fuck to me!

Man oh man do we have ourselves a gem before us! If we’re honest with ourselves, Marilyn Manson is very much a niche band, and it took me years to appreciate their music. They formed around 1989 when vocalist Bryan Warner took the name of the group as his character’s name along with a guitarist who went by Daisy Berkowitz. A trend of combining serial killer names with popular references would last for seven years after formation. This fit very well with the foul music that’s contained in their debut record, Portrait Of An American Family. Lyrics including oral defecation, slitting wrists, burning witches among other eyebrow-raising plots were bound to make some king of stain in the rock timeline. More importantly, that record is now turning twenty-five!

A Young Brain Warner in 1991

Though some may view this as taking an Alice Cooper or KISS model and making it far grosser, it goes way beyond that. The elephant in the room regarding what makes this disc so groundbreaking lies within how controversial it was. Seeing that the year was 1994 and most of the thrash and death metal bands had shocked everyone enough by this point, it seemed kinda wild that there was still more. Marilyn Manson broke a lot of standards, and although much of it comes off as super edgy, that’s where the magic actually lies. I mean come one, “I am the God of fuck” being the first line on the album, from a song called “Cake And Sodomy.” I could end my point here with that alone, but that wouldn’t be any fun, would it? The crude subject matter was anything but new, see Alice’s “I Love The Dead” or “Dead Babies.” But this is where it was blunter, and this is where it hit a much larger scope of people.

But what’s more important than it being a disgusting work of art is how well the music itself fared. “Cake And Sodomy” may be a pretty mindless sounding entity, but I’ll be damned if the chugging and beats don’t strike a fun nerve! “Lunchbox” became a single which features borderline rapped lyrics that lead into a threatening chorus. On the other hand, there are more metal-oriented songs like “Dogma” that focus in on speed, heavy riffs, and simple but strong guitar passages. That’s a great breeding ground for endless hooks, and they snag me every time.

Of course, an industrial rock effort like this is gonna have a lot of songs that lay on the keys and the effects to the max and never do they overdo it on this. “Get Your Gunn” is a personal favorite of mine, aimed at corrupt cops and drenched in anger. The horrific and satirical lyrics over-top of mechanical-sounding keys are pretty fantastic. Moreover, the chorus has such a nice poetic flow with metal riffs behind it.

Actually, these industrial tactics along with the over-the-top stage antics are what initially got the attention of Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor. He would go on to help produce Portrait Of An American Family, and eventually release it off of his label. The production can be a big deal in some of these songs. “Cyclops” bounces back and forth between screamed passages and quieter ones, with breaks that wouldn’t do well with too much noise. This may seem all over the place, but what fastens it together is the overall attitude and satirical push for horrid things. Some of them are very real, and others are a bit more tongue-in-cheek, meant to fit a horror movie agenda. “Dope Hat” certainly achieves the latter with its spooky aura of synths in the background, very fitting for a classic horror film.

Trent Reznor with Manson

This entire genre of music, let alone Marilyn Manson is certainly not going to appeal to everybody. Not just because of the lyrics, but because understanding this form of art takes plenty of repeat listens to grow on you. After Portrait Of An American Family, Manson would go on to create rock operas that take these ideas and apply them to a trilogy of records that follow one concept. Of course, all of the industrial instrumentation is still there, but it’s organized better. But for those interested in trying the band out, this is where I recommend that you start. Almost every song has some level of accessibility without too many extra toppings, save for maybe “My Monkey.” That one’s a lot of machine-like instrumentation blended with clips of a Charles Manson interview. If you can dig it, this is an incredible disc, and it did a lot for heavy music.

Portrait Of An American Family came out on July 19th, 1994 through Nothing Records. It’s available on CD and cassette. There were never vinyl pressings made until years later with re-issues, some of them on green vinyl. All can be found here!


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