I didn't understand the wisdom of the “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image” commandment until seeing Ministry at The Van Buren.
Watching the band open their November 7 set with “Punch In The Face,” I finally understood the Biblical injunction against idolatry and why religions like Judaism and Islam refused to depict the God of Abraham in a visual form. Some things should remain unseen.
As Ministry played the song, a giant screen behind the band projected a montage of footage depicting President Donald Trump. It was playfully altered and digitized. A giant boxing club rhythmically punched The Donald in the face in time to the song's hammering drum beats. It was kind of amusing, but mostly it turned my stomach. Not because I give a shit that they were mocking our not-so-illustrious commander-in-chief. But because I'm sick of seeing his face.
That's why thoughts of idolatry and “graven images” floated through my head as Al Jourgensen yowled into the mic onstage. If some faiths consider representing The Most High in visual form to be verboten, why not do that for The Most Repugnant as well?
I bring all this up because that opening video set the tone for my state of mind for the rest of Ministry's show. To be blunt, I wasn't having it.
I kind of suspected that I wasn't going to come out of this show a true believer when I saw the band's stage setup, which included a pair of giant inflated Trump chickens with anti-swastika logos on their stomachs and a pair of martial banners bearing the Ministry logo. It seemed hilariously tone-deaf to have anti-fascist symbols share a stage with banners that looked like homages to the Third Reich's iron eagle. But let's be real: It wouldn't be an industrial show without a little bit of fascist style-biting.
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Jourgensen stepped onstage, looking like John Travolta from Battlefield Earth after going to a Marilyn Manson concert. His band kicked up a heavy racket, as thick as mud and as blunt as a lead pipe to the face.
Jourgensen's vocals were faint. His voice sounded small and frail, smothered by all the guitar shredding and drumming. Dude's never been a strong singer to begin with; nobody listens to Ministry records for the vox. But I was astonished. I've never been to a show where the frontman gets so completely steamrolled in the mix by his own band.
To be fair to Ministry, they weren't the only ones with sound issues.
When Death Grips opened the show shortly after 8:30, they had similar vocal issues. While the rest of Death Grips let it rip, unleashing a barrage of drumbeats and synth blasts, MC Ride's voice got lost in the noise. It got better as the set wore on, and the rapper/singer exerted himself more and more, his voice straining to push through the ball of sound it was encased in.
I had seen Death Grips twice in the past. They've always been thunderously loud, but Ride normally didn't sound so muted. Considering how quiet Jourgensen sounded during Ministry's set, I have to wonder if the fault lies with the venue's sound and not the bands themselves. Perhaps the sound team just had an off night.
When it comes to bringing the noise, Ministry have decades of experience on Death Grips.
Though Jourgensen's industrial outfit was able to permanently damage people's hearing on songs like “Wargasm,” they just weren't very interesting to watch live. When Ride was performing, he was twisting and contorting himself like the music was some sort of demon possessing him. Jourgensen, by contrast, would sometimes sit on the drum riser and disappear from view throughout the set. There were moments where the rest of Ministry seemed like they were a band rehearsing in a garage and Al was their dad, puttering in and out of the room to make sure everybody still had enough Capri Suns to drink.
The band mixed in some newer songs alongside the hits. Early on in the set, they had a pair of women in black hoodies come onstage and wave anarcho-syndicalist flags around as they played “Antifa.” The lyrics projected behind them, confirming that the song is every bit as cliched and hamfisted as you'd imagine. “We're not snowflakes / We are the antifa!” They should rename the song “Grandpa's First Hashtag” and be done with it.
I know, I know: Ministry aren't a band that's known for their subtlety.
It's part of their schtick, like the dark sorcerer's podium Jourgensen sang from that was covered in horned skulls. But it's just so tired – the aggro posturing, the lunkhead agitprop, the “boo Donald Trump!” Party City decorations – it's all just about a bunch of singing to the choir. Miss me with that bullshit, please.
Compare Ministry to Death Grips' opening set and the contrast is night and day. Using laser-emitting gloves, strobe lights, and purple mists of light, Death Grips were visually stimulating and sonically ferocious. They didn't need to bother with clowning Donald Trump on video because the pummeling assault of songs like “The Fever” and “Lord of the Game” was all the fuck-you they needed.
I didn't care for Ministry's performance. I'm probably alone in that feeling. It seemed the rest of the room was eating it up. I could blame my disconnect with them on the weird sound mix or on Jourgensen's lack of energy onstage, but the truth is that it was all downhill for me after that first video. They could have been stellar. Maybe they were. But seeing that ruptured bag of rancid tanning solution onscreen was enough to make me resent the band for shoving that graven image in my face.
Heed the wisdom of the Good Book, folks: Thou shalt not.
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Last Night: Ministry and Death Grips at The Van Buren in downtown Phoenix.
The Crowd: Industrial High class reunion. A horde of black-clad youths and their elders. Long dreads, fishnets, Odin-esque beards, and Utilikilts were in abundant supply. Who came to see who was divided pretty clearly by generational line: most folks under 30 were amped to see Death Grips, while the folks with a mortgage and a kids' college fund were waiting to see Ministry.
Overheard: “Could you imagine being on acid AND being an epileptic during that set? Bet it'd be fucking sick!" a random dude commented after Death Grips' strobe-heavy, laser-crazy performance. I don't know about you, random dude, but I like to trip balls without spasming out on the floor.
Random Notebook Dump: I think it's time we elevate MC Ride to the Valhalla of Shirtless Rock Gods. Perched on a column next to Saint Danzig and His Holiness Iggy Pop, a trio of mighty musicians who refuse to hide their awesome power beneath the constraining fabric of a T-shirt. Seriously: I've seen Death Grips three times now and not once has the man wore a shirt. I'm pretty sure any band photos where he's wearing a shirt are Photoshopped.