2018: Darkness and Despair

It’s tempting to frame 2018’s explosion of dark, industrialized sounds as a reaction to the election of Donald Trump, Brexit’s passing, and the waves of nationalism currently rippling across the West, but ultimately it’s inaccurate. After all, strains of mechanized dystopianism were emerging as early as the beginning of our current decade (perhaps as a response to the global failings of authoritarian neoliberalism, of which Trump himself is but an outgrowth). The early ‘10s were when we saw the first brooding recordings from Noah Anthony’s Profligate project, as well as key technoid murk from Silent Servant and Dominick Fernow’s more rhythmic cuts under his Vatican Shadow alias. Yet there can be little doubt that what started off as isolated pockets of activity has spread across experimental noise, avant-rock and -metal, and techno and coalesced into a full-blown movement. In terms of productivity and sheer inventiveness, this boom can rightly be compared to its predecessor scene of the late ’80s, back when industrial seeped into club music, ambient, folk, rock, and beyond.

Indeed, many of 2018’s most vital underground records come caked in industrial grime. First and foremost, there’s Hiro Kone’s Pure Expenditure. Released on Dais Records, arguably the label most responsible for documenting the modern scene, Kone collapses dark techno and DIY electronics in on themselves, resulting in shattered groove research that’s both intensely complex and unapologetically visceral. Back in March, Dais also dropped Castration Anxiety, the debut full-length from HIDE. Featuring howler Heather Gabel, known for her unpromising stage performances, and Seth Sher, formerly of noise-rockers Coughs, the Chicago duo specialize in a slowly hammering take on rock-oriented industrial that, according to Gabel, transforms the illnesses plaguing modern society into violent catharsis.

Falling somewhere between Kone and HIDE in its balance of brute force with psychic despair is Lana Del Rabies’ Shadow World, released on Deathbomb Arc, a California label that manages to document trajectories in both weirdo noise and outsider hip-hop. It’s an apt album title as the musician’s work seems to be forged inside a shadowy, liminal space that while informed by industrial also draws in elements of electronic music and an echo-drenched angst commonly associated with older styles of alt-rock. In fact, a lot of the artists found on our playlist share this very quality to varying degrees. If their ’80s counterparts pledged allegiance to industrial as though it were a political movement, their 21st-century descendants tend to avoid labelling themselves so vociferously—an anarchist’s devotion to Individual autonomy rather party solidarity, so to speak.

Another big difference between the current industrial/industrial-leaning scene and its forebears in the ’80s is the sheer number of female artists now exploring these sounds. Back then, shit could get absurdly macho. (Strands of industrial rock even devolved into straight misogyny.) This time around, however, the most thrilling music is being made by women. In addition to Kone, Gabel, and Lana Del Rabies, there’s Puce Mary, Boy Harsher’s Jae Matthews, and Anna Schmidt of Milliken Chamber.

Add to them to key cuts and remixes from JK Flesh, The Soft Moon, Imperial Black Unit, Uniform and The Body, and you’re definitely in for one hellishly immersive listening experience– yet liberatory, too. Yes, a lot of this music is despairing, but through its thick, gauzy bleakness you’ll hear fresh, new voices burning with defiance and nonconformity, and that can only be an uplifting thing in the end.