Holly Dicker goes deep on the 30-year tradition that's infiltrated modern dance music.
Fixmer/McCarthy, the duo of techno and EBM veteran Terence Fixmer and Nitzer Ebb frontman Douglas McCarthy, played their first-ever gig here 15 years ago. Their names are emblazoned on the lightbox over the club's entrance. They're the reason I'm here tonight.
It's my first time in Razzmatazz and I don't know what to expect. I discover a labyrinth of stairs and concrete, smoking terraces and darkened coves, bars serving mixed drinks by the pint. Tonight there are five separate parties happening simultaneously, and you are free to roam through all of them. They're playing Britpop downstairs in the club's Berghain-like bowels, where clusters of shirted and heeled tourists dance on plinths. On the upper floors, dancehall and commercial pop blast from smaller, trendier rooms.
At 2:45 AM in the Loft, Fixmer stands alone on stage and boots his machines into gear, unleashing a sequence that jabs straight at the guts. That's a cue for McCarthy, who enters from the sidelines in black leather and dark sunglasses—"The Beast," as Fixmer calls him. Their set is a symbiosis of the evilest, most acrid-sounding modern techno and EBM, with McCarthy adding his signature sneering, sloganistic vocals. It's galvanizing, high-intensity dance music and brutal as hell. There's a whiff of poppers in the air as the duo drop "Chemicals," a volcanic techno/EBM hit that landed on Sonic Groove last year.
I head to the smaller side room where Tzusing has been DJing for the last hour. The Malaysian-Chinese artist is in his element, causally chopping between genres and tempos, from moody body music, rap and headsy bass to more exuberant acid techno and rave, as a coy smile widens across his face. A house party vibe has descended upon the place. There's as much socialising as dancing going on, even a few kids pretending to breakdance on the raised floor at the back. Something else entirely is happening in the main room, which has accelerated into industrious techno mode with Phase Fatale at the helm. People are raving with deadly intent. All the casual revellers have fled, leaving Barcelona's diehards to stomp in the dawn.
As we outlined in our 2017 year-end wrap-up, Terence Fixmer, Phase Fatale, Tzusing and others have been instrumental in bringing aggressive, noisy techno out of the shadows and into the main arena. But what appears to be more important at this juncture is the EBM affiliations artists like these and others all share. "EBM will become the throwback genre of the year," Mixmag proclaimed in their 2018 forecasts in January. Two months later, DJ Mag released a feature about the influence of EBM on contemporary acts like Helena Hauff, Phase Fatale and new Dutch talent Job Sifre. "EBM is absolutely the most exciting three letter word at the moment," Blush Response told me over email.
The Razzmatazz night is a good indication of some of the EBM trends happening in dance music today. One of Berghain's new residents, Phase Fatale, real name Hayden Payne, is an artist bringing modernised EBM influences into his techno DJ sets and productions—take his latest EP for Ostgut Ton, Reverse Fall, as a case in point. Payne also runs a label, BITE, which he kicked off earlier this year together with Silent Servant. The label's third release, from Berlin-based Canadian SΛRIN, presents a more purist EBM sound, as heard best on opening track "World Condition." SΛRIN, normally a masked live act, has been DJing recently with sets paying homage to classic EBM and industrial music––like his recent outing as KONKURS with Blush Response at Katharsis in Amsterdam.
For other DJs, EBM forms one part of an eclectic repertoire of music. Check out Job Sifre, Identified Patient and Post Ave's extended back-to-back sessions on Red Light Radio last year, or Sifre's more recent Boiler Room debut. Sets like these tend to place EBM in a wider musical arc that can potentially include anything, like Tzusing's performance in Barcelona.
The Fleish and aufnahme + wiedergabe labels in Berlin are curating some of the most on-point modern body music. Some of their records are pure EBM––like the music of Schwefelgelb, who have released on both labels. Others draw from elements of EBM, or present a club-friendly style of industrial that resembles it. A label like Kess Kill, as we'll come to later, is curating a "sexier" version of body music, while Marsman's taste at Pinkman Records is more primordial and lo-fi.
It's clear that modern EBM music is multifaceted, and that there's a genuine buzz around it at the moment. And yet, EBM might be the most crucially misunderstood term in dance music today, so much so that it caused Adam X, a longtime advocate of the sound, to take to Facebook last year in an uncharacteristic social media rant. "99% of the music entitled [EBM] in techno has nothing to do with EBM," he wrote. Many agreed. So what exactly is EBM? Where did it come from, and what does it actually sound like?
Absolute Body Control
EBM, or "Electronic Body Music," is a sub-genre of industrial music. It emerged in the early '80s during industrial's second wave, circa 1982 to 1990, when industrial music transitioned from isolated pockets of artist-led avant-garde activity into a globally connected scene, recognised and popularised by major labels and media outlets. EBM evolved as a dance floor-orientated derivative of industrial music. On a basic level, it was, and still is, industrial music for the dance floor.
Today the terms "industrial" and "EBM" have become largely interchangeable, not because they necessarily mean the same things, but because they share an entwined 40-year lineage. The term "industrial" most accurately refers to the radical and experimental music of Throbbing Gristle and the artists signed to the group's Industrial Records label during the sound's first wave. It is generally not music for the dance floor, though it has since become a flavour of club music—like industrial techno, for example. More often than not, "industrial" simply refers to harsh, clanking sounds that call to mind factories and machinery.
The etymology of "electronic body music" can be traced back to Kraftwerk and their seminal 1978 album Die Mensch Maschine (The Man-Machine). "We have done something which we call electronic body music," band member Ralf Hütter said in a radio interview promoting The Man-Machine. He spoke abstractly of the band performing music with their bodies in "some special kind of electronic ballet...where we create music through dancing."
Kraftwerk's electronic body music was an extension of their automated pop philosophy, where man and machine were placed on equal stead, working together in "sensitive exchange." And it's this kernel—the relationship between man and machine, or the pivotal role of the body in electronic body music—that Kraftwerk, consciously or not, transmitted to EBM's progenitors: German electro-punks Deutsch Amerikanische Freundschaft (DAF), the Belgian group Front 242, and the British band Nitzer Ebb.
DAF formed in Düsseldorf, the same city as Kraftwerk, in 1978. Unlike Kraftwerk, DAF were punks. Starting out as a five-piece with a guitarist, bassist and drummer, by the release of their 1981 trilogy of albums on Virgin Records they had stripped down to the pithy duo of Gabriel "Gabi" Delgado on vocals and Robert Görl on drums and electronics. It was around this time that DAF also started referring to their music as "körpermusik"—German for "body music."
"We made a track called 'Absolute Körperkontrolle,' and that was the first time we started to use the term electronic body music, but in German," Delgado explains over the phone. "We wanted this mixture between machine and human feeling, that's why we used a real drum and a sequencer—to put the body into body music."
"Renegades against what singer Gabi Delgado called 'Anglo-American pop imperialism,' DAF's early sound was jagged and chaotic, a real electro-punk assault," Simon Reynolds writes in his seminal post-punk compendium Rip It Up And Start Again. DAF's music is strictly body-orientated, Delgado says, in the literal and physical sense. "It's music to move your body and to feel your body and to use your body," he tells me.
DAF never considered themselves part of the EBM scene. They essentially retired the project in '82, before the term EBM existed. But they inspired acts like Nitzer Ebb, who bubbled up in their wake. Formed in Essex by vocalist Douglas McCarthy, drummer Bon Harris, and keyboard player David Gooday, Nitzer Ebb's early shows were reminiscent of DAF, writes musician and scholar S. Alexander Reed in his 2013 book Assimilate: A Critical History Of Industrial Music, "with McCarthy's ultramarine shout and Harris playing hype man over the quarter-note kick-snare alternation of the drum kit." In 1984 the band recorded their first single, "Isn't It Funny How Your Body Works," released on their label Power Of Voice Communications the following year. In '87, Nitzer Ebb signed to Mute to release their landmark debut album, That Total Age, featuring anthems like "Murderous," "Join In The Chant" and "Let Your Body Learn."
Like DAF, Nitzer Ebb's music was body-orientated to the point of near-obsession. The body wasn't just a theme in track titles and lyrics. It came across in McCarthy's pants, grunts and wheezes, as well as his sweaty, strenuous performances. In their music and shows both bands evoked physical exertion—it was a literal workout. Both fetishised the body. On the cover of their first album for Virgin, Alles Ist Gut, Delgado and Görl pose sweaty and bare-chested, staring seductively into the camera. On their follow up, Gold Und Liebe, they're clad in leather with their exposed arms clenched to accentuate their muscles.
Sexually provocative as it was, DAF conveyed a subversive political agenda, too. "DAF's cult of muscularity strayed into that ambiguous zone where fascist-leaning Futurism and communist-leaning Constructivism collide—the aestheticisation of physical perfection and physical force," writes Reynolds in Rip It Up. DAF played with forbidden imagery, from totalitarianism to sex, "because they refused to recognise any taboos." Nitzer Ebb did something similar, borrowing and repurposing extremist imagery like the communist symbols used on That Total Age, or the Futurist design of their debut cassette tape, Basic Pain Procedure. These could be considered acts of rebellion and social critique in the tradition of first wave industrial acts like Throbbing Gristle and Cabaret Voltaire, who used shock tactics, illicit practices and profane imagery in order to wake up society. DAF just did it with more humour than most, as demonstrated best in their satirical club hit "Der Mussolini."
By the late '80s EBM had reached common parlance, with big labels like PIAS and Antler-Subway in Belgium releasing EBM-themed compilations. In Assimilate Reed calls This Is Electronic Body Music, released by PIAS in 1988, a watershed moment for EBM. "This seminal compilation both solidified the style's popularity in the underground and also—perhaps unfortunately—erected walls around what was and was not EBM, possibly delimiting the genre's future musical potential."
Fittingly, it's a 1988 remix of Front 242's "Body To Body" that kicks off the compilation. They're the band largely responsible for turning the concept of "electronic body music" into the EBM genre we refer to today.
Daniel Bressanutti and Dirk Bergen formed Front 242 in 1981 in Aarschot, a city around 50km out from Brussels. Their first single, released that year with the original version of "Body To Body" on the B-side, sounded like post-punk with psychedelic guitar and synths. It wasn't until their second album, No Comment, that they started calling their music EBM. Front 242 were by then a five-piece. Jean-Luc De Meyer and Richard Jonckheere, AKA Richard 23, served as the group's vying frontmen, with Bressanutti engineering the electronic percussion and Patrick Codenys adding "parasite sounds" on synths. (Bergen quit the group in '83.)
Front 242 brought a more obviously violent and volatile dimension to the EBM body politic, as shared by DAF and Nitzer Ebb. In a video for "U Men" we see two youthful Front 242 members play-fighting offstage. But in a 2008 Belgian documentary, De Meyer and Jonckheere admit that they would often break out into real fights onstage. "It could detonate at anytime," Jonckheere explains in the film, "and if the blast occurred during the show it was better, because then it served a purpose."
Front 242's explosive live show was a chance for the band and the audience to "blow off steam," as Codenys put it in an earlier TV documentary from 1986. They took DAF's and Nitzer Ebb's physically exerting live show to another level, incorporating debilitating lights and army-issue smoke grenades, all the while dressed in mock military attire—including homemade body armour. "We work onstage as a commando unit," said De Meyer in the film. "Our objectives are similar: aim right and hit hard."
They may have hit a bit too hard in the beginning. In the first half of the '80s, what Front 242 were projecting into their music and live shows cleaved dangerously close to the bone. It was during the time of the CCC (Cellules Communistes Combattantes) terrorist bombings in Belgium, against the backdrop of the Cold War. Unlike DAF and Nitzer Ebb, who borrowed totalitarian images from the recent past, Front 242's extremism fed directly off current affairs. They even sampled the news.
Front 242 took Kraftwerk's man-machine ideology to extremes. Their approach to songwriting was analytical and research-based, with each record the product of working through new technologies, mapping the interface between man and machine. "There are relations between electronic body music and biomechanics," they said in the 1986 TV documentary, "and in our music we try to assert a compatibility between instinct, sweat, flesh, muscles, fever and electricity, machines, computers and programs." This wasn't an act of "sensitive exchange," as per Kraftwerk, but rather some kind of surgical intervention, an attempt to "get at the guts of the machine," as Codenys said to Reed in Assimilate.
Coinciding with the release of No Comment in 1984, the American indie label WaxTrax! brokered a licensing deal with the band and invited them over to the US for the first time. In September of that year, Front 242 supported Al Jourgensen's industrial rock band Ministry at Chicago's infamous teen club, Medusa's, for their first US show. It was a milestone for the band, for WaxTrax!, and for the evolution of EBM. WaxTrax! and Front 242 would be instrumental in spreading EBM throughout America.
Join In The Chant
EBM is a distinct and highly specific style of electronic dance music, albeit with lots of variations. While it's hard to give a precise genre definition, EBM does have a few signature features, beginning with the all-important bassline.
"In EBM's 1980s configuration, the bassline was generally a two-measure synth pattern, sometimes with chromatic inflections," writes Reed. "These timbres might be muted, emphasising low frequencies, or they might be made up of square and sawtooth waves for a bright, more in your face sound, but as a rule synth parts were undistorted and staccato, making it easy for the ear to distinguish one sound from the other." (For more on waveforms, visit Josh Comeau's interactive visual essay on The Pudding.)
Reed goes on to note that, rhythmically, EBM was driven by an "incessant" quarter-note kick drum. It was militantly four-to-the-floor, quantised dance music, often deploying repeated melody or vocal phrases that gave the impression of a song while ditching traditional rock and pop structures. DAF were not alone in their tirade against "Anglo-American pop imperialism."
Speaking to DJ Mag recently, Phase Fatale (real name Hayden Payne) was particularly outspoken about what makes an EBM track. "One of the most distinctive elements of the genre," he said, is that "it requires a lot more than randomly fucking with your modular. There is a lot of precision and musicianship that goes into it, with carefully selected notes, syncopations and space."
Speaking to me over the phone, Adam X echoed Payne's sentiment. "It's all about the staccato basslines," he said. "There are different ways of doing it—I'll take quarter notes and add delays so they ride over each other—but there's no set way of making them. I find it very hard to do, it's really hard to come up with the perfect EBM bassline." Nitzer Ebb's "Violent Playground" is a classic example of a simplistic rolling EBM bassline. Front Line Assembly's "Iceolate" is a more complex one.
Rhys Fulber, longtime member of Front Line Assembly, defines EBM as "a style of hard electronic dance music, bassline-dominant, energetic, repetitive. It used to always have vocals, but now vocals seem somewhat passé." The (mostly male) vocals—and frontmen, for that matter—have certainly been key in defining the pervasively macho, militant and aggressive energy of EBM, from the Germanic pseudo-totalitarian shouting of DAF's Gabi Delgado and the repetitive brain-washing sloganisms of Douglas McCarthy, to the battle-ready call and response cries of Front 242's Jean-Luc De Meyer and "Richard 23" Jonckheere.
But let's not forget the women vocalists who have brought a more varied range of moods and atmospheres over the years. German producer and label owner Beta Evers has been making gyrating dark electro, body and wave music since the 2000s, often with smouldering spoken-word and sung lyrics. Last year she released a compilation of like-minded synth and wave music, titled Electrified Bodies, through her label Bodyvolt. It featured some of her collaborative projects like Black Pond and Radikale Analog Fraktion alongside other artists from her former Kommando 6 label. Then there's Ant-Zen's Geneviève Pasquier, another German artist and foundational industrial frontwoman, known for her post-punky chanteuse-meets-cabaret-style vocals. Both have been reissued recently on Sonic Groove and Rivet's proto-techno label Kess Kill.
Last year, rising Dutch talent Identified Patient teamed up with vocalist Sophie du Palais, AKA "Vrouwe Fataal," for two sludgy electro-paranoia-tinged EPs on Rotterdam label Pinkman. Weeshuis Der Verloren Zielen and Aborting Your Dreams might not be strictly EBM—it's the polar opposite of a Front 242 assault—but it transmits a primal kind of body music perfectly in synch with the retro-activated dance floors of today.
At the other end of the scale there's Youth Code, LA's hardcore EBM duo, featuring lead woman Sara Taylor screeching over partner Ryan George's caustic and thoroughly EBM-indebted beats. They've been signed to Dais since 2013, and in that time have released two searing albums, while stubbornly bringing their fully synthesised live show to a less than enthusiastic crowd of punk and rock diehards, touring with bands like AFI. That one was particularly gruelling, says Taylor, but they wouldn't have it any other way.
"We are like strangers in a strange land," Taylor explains over Skype. "It would be too easy to just sequester ourselves to performing with industrial, goth and EBM bands, because then your target market is already wrapped up. I am more inclined to do tours where no one knows what the fuck is going on. I want to challenge the audience, I want them to look at electronics as just as much, if not more difficult, to pick up than a guitar."
Nivek Ogre is one of EBM and industrial's most grimly distinct vocalists. As Skinny Puppy's theatrical frontman, he has a spectacularly gruesome, guttural voice. It's worth noting, though, that not everyone considers Skinny Puppy EBM. "I've had arguments with Rhys [Fulber] and Blush Response about it," admits Adam X, "because they don't think Skinny Puppy is EBM, but I do." This rift highlights the kind of musical nuances that have infiltrated and diversified the genre over the decades, which for some is exactly the appeal. "I think the great thing about creating an EBM track is that there are no rules," said Bill Leeb, who contributed to Skinny Puppy's first trio of Nettwerk LPs before leaving to form Front Line Assembly.
Front Line Assembly have a distinct place in the EBM canon. In that same article, Leeb described how his band wrote music: "FLA always likes to use analogue sounds, layered synths, interesting manipulated samples and of course a kick ass bassline is a must. And somewhere underneath all that we always try and have something that resembles a song with a really strong chorus."
This goes against the grain of the DAF school of thought. "DAF is track-orientated music," Gabi Delgado tells me. "Like house and techno, it has no classical song structure, just a sequence going and going and going."
For Terence Fixmer, who grew up on EBM and Belgian new beat before turning to techno in the early '90s, the most important thing about an EBM track is its soul. "To me, it's not about the groove or the rhythmics," he says. "EBM has a unique energy and atmosphere. In every EBM track you should feel a soul, an expression."
To get a sense of what Fixmer means exactly, check out his Aktion Mekanik compilation, which he curated for Belgian techno bastion Man Music Records in 2003. It features classic Belgian acts like The Klinik, The Neon Judgement and Front 242, as well as bands like Liaisons Dangereuses. Daniel Miller's 1978 track "Warm Leatherette" as The Normal is in there, too—Fixmer recently decided to rewrite and release that one on his label Planete Rouge Records. The compilation concludes with Fixmer's "Aktion Mekanik Theme," the blueprint for Fixmer's techno modernisation of EBM, which was picked up by Ostgut Ton a few years ago and released as a remix package featuring Berghain residents Kobosil, Norman Nodge and Marcel Dettmann, all of whom are fans of the original. Fixmer has since been welcomed into the Ostgut Ton booking roster and record label.
"EBM is not club music for dancing," Fixmer continues. "There's a feeling in it which you transmit." Mika Hallbäck, AKA Rivet, shares a similar attitude when curating his proto-techno label Kess Kill. Launched at the start of 2016, Kess Kill is part of Hallbäck's burgeoning Sound+Matter platform, which includes other labels Sores and b-o-d-i-e-s, as well as physical record shops in Copenhagen and his hometown of Malmö. Hallbäck intended for Kess Kill to pick up where bands like Liaisons Dangereuses left off, mining the rich era of experimental pre-dance music between the late '70s and early '80s, when punk, post-punk and Neue Deutsche Welle met synthesizers, "creating something futuristic yet still very raw and primal," he explains over email.
To date Kess Kill has put out a mixture of new music from contemporary acts like Grand Mal X and Celldöd alongside reissues from Geneviève Pasquier and the Austrian musician, journalist and screenwriter Xaõ Seffcheque, who moved to Düsseldorf in the late '70s. Seffcheque released a parody record in 1981, Sehr Gut Kommt Sehr Gut, where he imitated Kraftwerk, DAF and other popular German bands at the time—buffooning the press along with it. Earlier in the year Hallbäck re-licensed the vinyl version of Seffcheque's reissue album, Ja, Nein, Vielleicht Kommt Sehr Gut. Interestingly, Seffcheque is the only artist on the catalogue thus far who was actually making music during the time period Kess Kill is focused on.
Hallbäck has a unique stance on EBM and body music. He says they are two very different strains of music, with separate identities and ideologies, one which he loves and the other not so much. When synthesisers and drum machines started replacing band members, or "when punk left body," as Hallbäck puts it, "EBM came to be." He continues: "EBM is fine, but it doesn't really resonate with me on as deep a level as body does. In my ears, EBM is robotic and macho while body is sweaty and sexy."
I ask him to name some of his quintessential body (not EBM) tracks. Amidst things like Tolouse Low Trax's 2011 release "Local Vers," DAF's punchy "Alle Gegen Alle" and "Living Youths" by Charles Manier (another modern production), there's Front 242's trippy pre-EBM hit "Body 2 Body," written by Daniel Bressanutti and Dirk Bergen before the others joined the band. It was originally released in 1981 as the B-side to Front 242's first EP, Principles. It would take another three years for this "sexy" body sound to harden into the militant EBM blueprint that would become the band's hallmark.
Body To Body
To understand how Front 242's genre-defining version of Electronic Body Music evolved into the varied spectrum of industrial club music we have today, we need to look at one of the first divisions that occurred in the timeline between EBM and new beat. EBM hit the public domain slightly ahead of new beat, though they both blew up around the same time in the mid-to-late '80s.
New beat was the fun and club-friendlier sibling to EBM. It was Belgium's version of acid house, and a precursor to European house and techno. Kept to a lurching 90 to 115 beats per minute, new beat was described in 1991 by musician and journalist Richard Norris as "a sparse, relentless Mogadon groove." New beat's "benzo" affect is articulated further by S. Alexander Reed in Assimilate: "The aesthetic they sought was an emotionless heaviness, a menacing calm. It was an idea that pointed directly toward industrial music's fascination with disciplining the body and silencing the mind…"
Allegedly, new beat was invented by "accident" in the Antwerp nightclub Ancienne Belgique when "Flesh" by the Ghent group A Split Second was played at the wrong speed. DJs like Marc Grouls, Fat Ronnie and others continued to play pitched-down records, which led to a flurry of labels repackaging and reselling existing records at these slower speeds, to try and cash in on the trend. Clubs like Boccaccio in Ghent, Confetti, Ancienne Belgique and Skyline became new beat hotspots, while Maurice Engelen and Roland Beelen's Antler-Subway Records became one of the major champions of this new Belgian club craze.
Speaking to Norris in that same NME piece, Engelen described new beat as taking the "best ingredients" from other dance music styles, including EBM and acid. "New Beat is a reaction to disco," he said, "completely soulless—it's sterile music created to dance to and nothing else." Reed writes that the new beat music Engelen backed on Antler-Subway used EBM's signature heavy quarter-note kick and bassline, but replaced its "blankly undead vocals" with "callisthenic entreaties to dance and have sex."
New beat became extremely popular, souring into a silly parody of itself by the end. EBM acts kept their distance from it. As Patrick Codenys said to Redbull Radio, it was "not really Front 242's scene." Other EBM artists were more outwardly hostile towards new beat. One Belgium-themed music compilation, curated by German label ZYX Records released in 1988, wrote in all-caps on the back of the sleeve: "This record will show you the roots of Belgian electronic music, young musicians who don't want to ride on the new beat wave. They want to do 100% aggrepo for your body mechanic!" (Aggrepo being another name for EBM).
Germany developed a big EBM scene during the second half of the '80s, and a kind of classic EBM scene still thrives there today—one completely independent from the EBM/techno world I experienced in Barcelona at Razzmatazz. This is evident in enduring festivals like the huge goth and industrial meet-up Wave-Gotik-Treffen, which happens annually in Leipzig, and the smaller Familientreffen, which celebrated its 14th edition this summer.
Frankfurt was a hotbed for EBM in its heyday, and Andreas Tomalla, AKA Talla 2XLC, was at the centre of it. He worked at the record store City Music, and from 1984 ran the historic Technoclub—which in its early years was in fact an EBM club. Technoclub was one of the first venues to play purely electronic music. Its music policy diversified when it relocated to the Dorian Gray at Frankfurt airport, where it remained until the club closed in 2000. "Then it was a real techno club," recalls Gabi Delgado, who visited Tomalla whenever he was in Frankfurt. "But downstairs in the Dorian Gray there was Armin Johnert who did Bizarre Club, and that was EBM." In 1989 Nizer Ebb performed at the club's fifth birthday. You can watch the set in full online.
In Berlin, at the dawn of the '90s, techno began flooding into the newly reunified capital, thanks to clubs like UFO, DJs like Tanith and the large scale raves of Tekknozid. A rift emerged pretty much from the off between the budding techno communities in Frankfurt and Berlin, with one city representing the old guard—the industrial roots, EBM—and the other the new, which was taking cues more from Chicago and Detroit. The EBM vs techno debate spilled across the German music fanzine Frontpage, which had offices in both cities. Tanith and Jürgen Laarmann repped the new techno from Berlin, while Armin Johnert defended Frankfurt.
"I would engage Armin Johnert in fights," says Tanith in Der Klang Der Familie, the oral history of techno in Berlin. "Techno was defined differently in Berlin and Frankfurt, even if it did come out of the same primeval mud. Johnert always celebrated macho Front 242 marches or Suck Me Plasma stuff by Talla. I preferred Underground Resistance and R&S records."
Underground Resistance—and to some extent, Final Cut, the band Jeff Mills started with Anthony Srock before fully pursuing techno—appealed to both camps. Mark Ernestus explains in Der Klang Der Familie: "Musically, Underground Resistance worked for both the EBM-orientated Frankfurt idea of techno and the Berlin variety. It was influenced by both soul and industrial. Their sound was exactly in between, and everyone could agree on it."
In Berlin, the hard techno sound of Underground Resistance and other Detroit (and British) artists was beginning to formalise around the club Tresor. In Frankfurt, in the city's flagship Dorian Gray club, another kind of techno was emerging: trance. It was pioneered during the club's Sunday daytime sessions by resident DJ Dag, and picked up later by Sven Väth, who made it the sound of Frankfurt.
Andreas Tomalla would also be instrumental in fostering the trance explosion in the city, pushing it through his matrix of labels under the Music Research umbrella. Purer trance would land on Suck Me Plasma, for example, and trancier EBM would arrive on the industrial-focused Zoth Ommog. The latter was home to acts like Leæther Strip and Bigod 20, Tomalla's popular EBM/industrial band, which he formed in 1988 with Perlon's Markus Nikolai and Zip.
1988 was the year EBM and industrial music exploded onto the public consciousness. Front 242 released their landmark album, Front By Front—its lead single, "Headhunter," was the "most famous EBM track ever recorded," according to Reed. They sold 90,000 copies through WaxTrax!, one of the label's most successful releases. The following year, Trent Reznor released Pretty Hate Machine on TVT Records, his debut album as Nine Inch Nails, which tipped the scales for industrial music. Reed refers to the ensuing period, which lasted until the mid-'90s, as the "major label gold rush," in which labels scrambled to sign industrial bands off the back of NIN's success.
With industrial rock exploding in the US at the dawn of the '90s, something else was starting to bubble up from the underground: techno. "I remember in '92 when I played at Dorian Gray, the EBM sound was not big at this time. Many people were jumping into techno," Adam X recalls.
"I found that the vitality and the spirit and the energy moved away from EBM into the rave culture, and industrial morphed into this rock sub-genre," says Rhys Fulber. He remembers a gig in Baltimore in 1992 when Front Line Assembly played with Adam X—the moment EBM and rave culture briefly intertwined, before "branching off into their separate ways."
At this point the industrial community split down the middle. One side gravitated towards rock and guitars—even Front Line Assembly released a rock-indebted LP, Millennium, which featured guitar riff samples from heavy metal groups Pantera, Metallica and Sepultura. The other embraced club culture and experimental forms of electronic music, fractioning off into sub-genres like futurepop, electro-industrial (also called terror EBM, hellektro, aggrepo and aggrotech) and rhythmic noise.
The rise of techno fundamentally changed the sound of EBM during this period. Reed writes that techno was becoming important for another reason: "To some, there was a nagging feeling that industrial, long assumed to be the self-evident vanguard of pop, had been surpassed not just in popularity but in experimentalism by techno…"
In the last few years we've seen EBM increasingly brought into the techno arena, but this is still a fairly recent development. The sounds were totally separate when Adam X was first turned on to EBM and rhythmic noise at the tail end of the '90s—after many years of DJing and producing techno. "I could barely get gigs playing this stuff," he tells me. "I'd come from an industrial club dressed up in leather, in combat boots, coming into a techno party with people looking at me, like where the fuck are you coming from, what the hell are you listening to, Adam?"
"I would get a lot of shit from techno producers in the scene for pushing what I was doing," he continues. "I lost a lot of bookings over it and then I started going on tour with industrial bands. I'd make nothing. Coming from raves of 3,000 people and making legitimate money back then as a DJ, it was a humbling experience."
It's taken years of hard work for Adam X and his label Sonic Groove to be in the respected positions they are now, straddling both the industrial and techno worlds. Terence Fixmer is in a similar position. Signed to Ostgut Ton and playing regularly at techno clubs and festivals around the world, he has also reactivated Fixmer/McCarthy. Over the last few years he's started making EBM-orientated records again under his own name, most recently The God EP for aufnahme + wiedergabe. But unlike Adam X, Fixmer's route into techno actually began with EBM and new beat.
Growing up in France near the border of Belgium, Fixmer was a regular at Skyline, a mansion-turned nightclub in the village of Aalbeke. "People who went to Skyline were called Skyliners," he tells me. "Everybody dressed the same: all in black, with special trousers, a special haircut. We all knew each other and liked the same music." For Fixmer, techno was a modernisation of EBM and new beat, and when he started producing techno it was with the "soul" of EBM. His track "Electrostatic," released first on Planete Rouge and then licensed to DJ Hell's International Deejay Gigolo Records, served as the gateway to the EBM/techno sound that would define Fixmer's early career. It would later be called Techno Body Music or "TBM" by journalists trying to define Fixmer's sound, most comprehensively delivered on his 2001 debut album, Muscle Machine.
Fixmer was one of the first acts to bring techno and EBM together. "Between '92 and '98 techno was techno," explains Fixmer. "When I did Muscle Machine, I was re-injecting what I love about EBM into a techno context, so people from the EBM scene started to open up to it." When Fixmer started collaborating with Douglas McCarthy from Nitzer Ebb and performing at festivals like Wave-Gotik-Treffen, he started reconnecting with the EBM scene. "I discovered there were still bands doing EBM, and I was the bridge," he tells me. "But the bands from the EBM scene were not playing in the techno scene. Fixmer/McCarthy was the first band to play in both techno and EBM worlds."
Fixmer never came from industrial and doesn't consider any of his music industrial, despite often being labelled as such. He doesn't really consider himself EBM these days, either. "For me, it's not my sound anymore," he says about the Aktion Mekanik Theme reissue on Ostgut Ton. "It's strange this old track has come back and is being played again by people like Kobosil." Has it resulted in a revived interest in Fixmer's back catalogue? "Yes, totally. Right now people play 'Rage' and 'Red Section,' some Fixmer/McCarthy, and I think, should I release them, remaster them?"
Reissues and reissue-focused labels like Dark Entries, Mannequin and Minimal Wave have certainly helped to stoke interest in historic genres like EBM, exhuming long-lost gems and making them playable again. Eclectic digger DJs, niche club nights like Fleisch in Berlin and MVSB's BODY and M II M (mouthiimouth) events in London, a fertile online radio culture and greater access to music in general via the internet have all played their part, too.
On EBM's recent visibilty in techno, journalist, DJ and aufnahme + wiedergabe artist Chloé Lula says: "I think a lot of it has to do, simply, with creative producers—like Silent Servant, Phase Fatale, Alessandro Adriani, etc—reinforcing the connections between modern electronic music and its roots in '80s industrial and post-punk." She also believes there's perhaps a more covert political force at work. "More aggressive music has always tended to be the soundtrack to more tension-fraught times."
For those entrenched in the EBM and industrial scene for many years, like Terence Fixmer and Adam X, or for the more emergent artists who grew up with this music, such as Sara Taylor, the fad of EBM is a growing concern. Taylor tells me there's been a big revitalisation in LA's industrial scene, with people expressing more interest in goth and industrial subculture. "It's wildly out of control in a way," she says. "Sometimes I get sort of resentful at someone using goth as a fashion statement, wherein I don't think any of them got called a weirdo or flipped off for ever being that way when they were in high school."
Adam X dislikes the overuse and mislabeling of EBM in techno, which caused the Facebook post last year. "It's an insult when I see things called EBM when they are not," he says. "Too many times I've watched people in techno get trendy. It becomes a fashion statement and then they're onto the next thing. This is a lifestyle. It's a part of us, for people who are into this sound."
Terence Fixmer has been misrepresented in the past. He doesn't want to be "trapped" by his historic EBM associations and has concerns over EBM's recent trendiness in techno. "People like this EBM sound now but at some point it will be uncool," he says. "I don't want to be imprisoned by this sound. I am an artist, I like to be free, and to express myself. I like darkness, intensity, atmosphere, not labels."
There are more troubling issues lurking in EBM's chronology. In her essay I Will Not "Shut Up And Swallow": Combichrist And Misogyny In Goth Industrial Subculture, published last year in a collection called Under My Thumb, Songs That Hate Women And The Women Who Love Them, Alison L. Fraser calls out Andy LaPlegua and his electro-industrial outfit's harmful attitude towards women. She mentions an incident at 2014's edition of Kinetik festival in Montreal, when Ad·ver·sary and Antigen Shift played this video in the closing minutes of their set. It highlighted the violent, racist and misogynistic content in music by Combichrist and one of the festival's other headliners, Nachtmahr.
The crux of Fraser's argument lies in LaPlegua's lack of critical ownership over the politics of his music. Comparing Combichrist with the radical and politicised origins of Throbbing Gristle, Cabaret Voltaire, et al, she concludes: "He failed to do what his industrial predecessors tried to do [...], which is take our reality and show it to us in all its actual horror. Instead, LaPlegua took something already normal in mainstream society—violence against women—and made it goth."
Fraser's argument isn't new. The author, academic and political activist Anton Shekhovtsov wrote at length on the dangers of industrial music's de-politicisation. He specifically critiqued post-'90s era bands who appropriated fascist imagery without political impetus. He called music of this kind "apoliteic" and warned that, by abstaining from political ownership or meaning, apoliteic music had the effect of normalising, popularising and even promoting the totalitarian values embedded in the aesthetics of such bands.
Extremist ideology infiltrated the EBM scene in the '90s, causing a seismic shift that Rhys Fulber experienced firsthand. "When I started touring with Front Line Assembly, I was exposed to some unsavoury elements of that genre," he tells me. "Front 242 were dogged with that for a while too, and it seemed like people were missing or misinterpreting what they were actually trying to say. Then the genre turned into this macho, cliché-laden thing, and it sort of lost what it was and became something else."
Simon Reynolds laboured the point of industrial dance music's inherent maleness in a piece for the New York Times, published in 1991. Referring to it as "industrial disco," with Front 242 as its poster boys, he wrote: "Industrial disco is generally fascinated with the extremes of human experience, and in particular with the extremes of male psychology," going on to state that it was "supremely masculine" and like "a glimpse into the hellish void at the centre of the male ego." In another piece for Melody Maker, published around the same time but centred solely on Front 242, Reynolds confronted the band directly on their "very male" sound, image and aesthetic. "We are male, but not macho," was Patrick Codenys' response.
They might have been more so in the early to mid-'80s, when the band felt the need to aggressively impose themselves and their music upon the world, as Codenys confesses to Reed in Assimilate. Following critical reception from the music press at the time, Front 242 responded with "masculine overkill," writes Reed, referring to their paramilitary stage antics and martial-style music. Reed concludes that the results "did little [back then] to attract women to the already male-dominated electronic scene," an imbalance that Reed says improved significantly with the arrival of Skinny Puppy's liberal politics and the industrial pop of Nine Inch Nails.
We're In This Together
I'm in London. The sun is beating down on the Southbank where hoards of afterwork drinkers are massing, toasting the start of the weekend with £5 beers in plastic cups. But I'm not with them. I'm inside the Royal Festival Hall, surrounded by middle-aged tattooed goths dressed head to toe in black. I'm about to see Nine Inch Nails perform as part of Meltdown, the UK's longest-running artist-curated music festival. This year—its 25th edition—has been curated by The Cure's Robert Smith.
The Royal Festival Hall is packed and electric with anticipation. We're seated as smoke machines steadily choke the stage. Then, through the fog the band appears, including Alessandro Cortini on guitar and synths. There's a split second where we all consider staying seated before the room unanimously leaps to its feet for the first song, "Somewhat Damaged," from the band's 1999 double LP The Fragile. Balled fists punch the air and voices strain along with Reznor's teen-angsty lyrics about being too fucked up to care and losing faith in everything; we all reconnect with our former selves. Everyone loses their shit during "Terrible Lie"—including Reznor. In a fit of exuberance, he hurls his guitar at the stage hand afterwards. Later, aching reverence grips the hall for the broken-heart piano ballad "Something I Can Never Have."
Towards the end of the show NIN perform music from their new record, Bad Witch. It's fast, rocky and pummeling at first. Then Reznor, drummer Ilan Rubin and lead guitarist Robin Finck step out, leaving Cortini and Atticus Ross, who co-produced Bad Witch with Reznor, alone on stage. Together they whip up an electronic maelstrom of distorted industrial noise and a blitzkrieg of breakcore beats. For me it's the highlight, the moment where NIN prove they're not mainstream industrial rock relics but a plugged in and utterly formidable modern act. Fad Gadget keyboardist Jean-Marc Lederman said that Pretty Hate Machine signalled "the end of historic EBM." And yet, this was not the death knell ringing for EBM, but the cacophonous chiming of its future.
"EBM is being better represented now than it was 15 years ago," says Rhys Fulber, who recently released his debut solo album on Sonic Groove. Like Fixmer, Fulber is a member of EBM's old guard keen to keep pushing the genre forward. "For anything to be important it has to keep moving," he says.
A number of artists and labels are invested in EBM's reinvention. Dais Records, for example, is making interesting connections between traditional industrial music—releases from COUM Transmissions, Genesis P-Orridge, Psychic TV, and spoken word by William S. Burroughs—to contemporary EBM acts like LA's Youth Code and High-Functioning Flesh. Meanwhile, veteran acts like DAF are still regularly performing, with frontman Gabi Delgado delivering as rousing a show as ever. Even Nitzer Ebb are reuniting in 2019, and in October Pylon Records will release a box set of the band's five Geffen/Mute albums.
Regarding the current mood of revivalism and apparent trendiness surrounding EBM, Adam X is particularly outspoken. He seems to be the one shouting the loudest in defence of the genre that has in fact been constantly evolving, in and out of the shadows, for more than 30 years. Some of us might only just be waking up to it. But for others, EBM was an essential gateway to club music. "This is our passion," says Adam X, speaking for the EBM community at large. "This is not a fad for us, this is not a trend."